Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My Mind Had Been A Seed: Babylon 5, "Mind War" (season 1, episode 6) day I woke up and I could see everything.  It was as if my mind had been a seed for all of those years and then suddenly it blossomed.

Previously on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an all-new episode: a fugitive from Psi Corps shows up on the station, with pursuers in hot pursuit!

(season 1, episode 6)
airdate:  March 2, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Bruce Seth Green
A peek behind the scenes into the inner workings of Where No Blog Has Gone Before.  I've mentioned this before: I'm rewatching Babylon 5 in tandem with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Specifically, I'm rewatching DS9 along with the podcast Mission Log, which is covering an episode of that show per week.  I made myself a list of when the episodes of both shows aired, and am going in that order.
Mostly, this means one episode of Babylon 5 per week.  However, there were times when either it or Deep Space Nine would go on hiatus, and the other would continue to air episodes.  But Mission Log, naturally, is not taking weeks-long breaks just because DS9 did way back in the day; that'd be dumb.  
I mention it because every so often, along'll come a week like this one, where I'm dealing with three episodes of Babylon 5 that aired during the off weeks between two episodes of Deep Space Nine.  At this point, I've either got to:
(A)  Put on my game face, send my two-minute offense out onto the field, and just get it the fuck done;
(B)  abandon the entire concept; or
(C)  bend the concept and risk getting myself unspeakably behind.  You know, like I am on Star Trek TOS.  (We'll be getting back to that in January, though; believe THAT shit.)
I'm going for option A.  And if the year-end crush at work doesn't thwart me, I might actually be able to get all three done in timely fashion

This episode is about a powerful -- boy, there's an understatement -- telepath who has escaped from the Psi Corps and is being hunted by Psi Cops.  He's come to Babylon 5 because a former lover/student of his is there; this, of course, is Talia.  The Psi Cops -- especially the smarmy Bester (played by Trek veteran Walter Koenig) -- run afoul of Sinclair immediately, and the rogue telepath's burgeoning powers threaten to rip apart the entire station.  Think Gary Mitchell if Mitchell was sympathetic but not in control of his powers.
Meanwhile, in the b-plot, Catherine Sakai accepts a commission to conduct a mining survey of a planet in Narn territory.  Ambassador G'Kar refuses to give her permission, claiming it is a dangerous area and that it is for her own good.  She goes over his head, makes the trip, and promptly gets in very, very hot water.
I'm going to resort to bulletpoints to say the bulk of what I want to say.  (Hurry-up offense, remember.)
  • We've seen the Psi Corps before, in the form of both Lyta Alexander and Talia Winters.  Both of them are commercial telepaths; Bester and Kelsey, the Psi Cops (yes, it's a lame name), are another thing entirely.  The also-lamely-named Jason Ironheart tells Sinclair that back home, the Psi Corps is beginning to exert undue influence over Earth's government.  They're not satisfied hanging back and seeing how things turn out; he implies that they've turned themselves into a would-be shadow government (heh [winks at those familiar with show]), one which intends to begin shaping the course of the planet's political development.  In other words, Bester and Kelsey read a bit like space Nazis; and that's a scary idea if you attach advanced telepathic powers to the people in jackboots.
  • A word about Walter Koenig's performance.  It works for me.  At times, I even love it.  His talents are limited, but I think in this episode, the innate good-will toward him most (many? [some?]) fans of sci-fi television would bring to the table is upended in a compelling manner.  And if you never liked the guy, perhaps it's even more effective.  Whatever the case, Bester -- named for sci-fi novelist Alfred Bester (whose classic The Demolished Man is one of the all-time-great books about telepaths) -- feels absolutely nothing like Chekov.
  • I'm not terribly interested in Jason Ironheart.  He's played relatively well by William Allen Young, but that's the best I can say for the performance.  Young is kind of a bore; his wardrobe looks like it came from JC Penney; and while the "becoming" the character is going through is kind of interesting, it's arguably too big a concept to have been dealt with in a mere episode.  This is a guy who, at the end of his appearance, literally becomes one with the universe in an explosion of psychic energy; dude transmogrifies into an unconvincing nineties-television-CGI version of the Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Maybe you don't blow through that in forty-five minutes.  But this was the era of episodic television, so maybe that was always what was going to happen.  And anyways, the argument could be made that it's everything else about the telepath plotline that is actually of prime importance.
  • One could also argue that it's more important for us to learn what we learn via the Catherine Sakai subplot (which has resonance when bounced off the Ironheart plotline).  We're going to come back to that in screencap form a bit later, so what I'll say for now is that I love this subplot.  It all works for me.
  • In general, actually, the whole episode works for me.  The telepath stuff works at a lower level than the Sakai stuff; but still, despite some production deficiencies (which is de rigeur for this series even in its final season), I personally find this episode to be a solid step above the foregoing ... well, at least the four that preceded it, and maybe it's even the best episode since the pilot.  I like what Michael O'Hare does here (mostly); I like what Claudia Christian does; I like Jerry Doyle (mostly).  I like Julia Nickson a lot as Catherine.  Andrea Thompson is kind of great as Talia; Andreas Katsulas is...
  • Actually, let's hold off on Andreas Katsulas until the spoiler section.
  • Christopher Franke's score is shite in a few moments (the incredibly bogus-sounding "plaintive" notes he hits to underscore the despair of Catherine's deteriorating orbit are awful), but it's mostly very effective.  The music he uses to underscore the Talia/Ironheart relationship is a first-season highlight.
  • Say, where were Londo and Delenn during all this?  For that matter, shouldn't Franklin have had some involvement?  And has Kosh been entirely absent since "Midnight on the Firing Line"?!?  I think so.  The series doesn't always juggle its large cast of characters as nimbly as it might.  But I suppose we can rationalize the absence of whomever by speculating that they were on some off-station assignment.

Alright, screencap time.

I dig the bit where Sinclair responds to Bester "asking" if now is a bad time without at first knowing that the Psi Cop has communicated telepathically.

Sinclair figures it out real quick, though; and he responds rather negatively.

Spoiler alert: this won't be the final time we see Bester.  He's set up here as a significant antagonist for the Earth Force personnel, all of whom hate his frickin' guts.

Felicity Waterman plays Kelsey.  She's not great; not terrible, either.

I can't decide whether I like the scene in which the Psi Cops scan Talia to find out if she's had contact with Ironheart, or if it's awful.  Maybe both?

I noticed an interesting thing during this viewing.  After the mindscan ends, Talia walks back over to Sinclair's desk and kind of slumps against it.  Pay attention to how concerned Ivanova seems for Talia.  You might remember their discussion in "Midnight on the Firing Line" about the sad death of Susan's mother as a result of her "treatment" by the Corps.  She indicated to Talia at the time that she "very much" doubted the two of them could be friends.

Notice also that in this moment, Talia is locking eyes not with Sinclair but with Ivanova, as she accepts the glass of water from her.  It's almost as if something has changed between these two suddenly.

"No one here is exactly what he appears," advises G'Kar.  Not Mollari, not Delenn, not G'Kar himself; heck, not even Sinclair.  (Not stated, or even implied: Garibaldi is kind of exactly what he appears.  [Or is he?])

Love this bit where Bester reads Garibaldi's mind.  We don't know what the security chief has thought at the Psi Cop, but Bester's response is, "Anatomically impossible, Mr. Garibaldi!"

Say, have I mentioned how incredibly beautiful I find Julia Nickson to be on this show?

Andrea Thompson is strong in this scene.
My random-pause method of screencapping occasionally turns up a gem.  This isn't quite a gem, thanks to the video compression or whatever (interlacing? is that a thing?); but still, I like this.

It wouldn't screencap well, but Kelsey's death is kind of cool.  Ironheart, in the midst of his most intense mindquake yet...

...basically pulls a Thanos on her, turning her into a literal column of dust in mere moments.

I always liked this moment in which Bester fires on Ironheart.  He's a snake, but doggone it, I kinda like the guy.

Alright, it's spoilery (by which I mean spoilery for the whole series) time.
Let's consider a few things.
I dig all the Sigma Nine-Five-Seven stuff.  Did I mention that?  Well, I do.

I expect that this comes as something of a surprise to anyone watching the show for the first time.  What happens here, basically, is a UFO sighting in outer space!  It happens suddenly, cripples Catherine's ship, and ends just as suddenly as it began.

Just a big, weird-looking ship of some kind.  Assuming it IS a ship.  Not sure what else it'd be, but with stuff this weird, rule nothing out.

This is our first glimpse of one of the elder races which are collectively known as the "First Ones."  At least, I assume that's what's going on here.  (And I think I remember us seeing this ship again much later on.  If I'm not mistaken -- and I might be -- we see it again in stunningly cool fashion.)
Now, a couple of screencaps from the resolution of Ironheart's "becoming."

Cheesy, but kind of cool in a tacky-van-art kind of way.

Before he leaves, Ironheart gives Talia a "gift."

We discover that she now possesses some degree of telekinetic power.  She told us earlier that while she'd tried during her training to move a penny with her mind, it never worked.

Until now.

Upon her return, Sakai thanks G'Kar, whom she'd accused earlier of impeding her for his own personal gain.  She tells him that she saw something out there and asks if he knows what it was.

"There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races," he replies.  "They are vast; timeless.  And if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants ... and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us.  We know: we've tried.  And we've learned that we can either stay out from underfoot or be stepped on."  Catherine is unimpressed by this cryptic reply, and asks if that's all he knows.

"Yes," he answers.  "They are a mystery; and I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe ... that we have not yet explained everything.

"Whatever they are, Miss Sakai, they walk near Sigma Nine-Five-Seven; and they must walk there alone."

I'm a sucker for any stories of super-advanced aliens strolling through the universe blithely unaware of our puny human asses.  And I find it kind of compelling that this subplot resonates with the idea that Jason Ironheart may just have become the first human to evolve into precisely that state of advancement (if not further).  
Needless to say, some of these ideas will pop up again.  We never see or hear from Ironheart again, but we will certainly deal with super-advanced alien races.  And while we mostly cannot communicate with them, the series may eventually begin exploring a different idea: what if one of them begins communicating with us?
Unrelated to that: it's worth pondering what Ironheart meant when he addressed Sinclair directly and said he'd see him again "in a million years."  Figure of speech?  Literal prognostication?  Impossible to be sure, but I suspect it was intended to be the latter; however, Sinclair's/O'Hare's departure from the series may well have made whatever was intended impossible.
Similarly, I wonder if Talia's telekinetic powers were intended to develop.  Because hey, spoiler alert, Andrea Thompson eventually leaves the series as well.
Finally, I wanted to talk about G'Kar for a bit.
Up to this point, the series has depicted G'Kar as sort of a stock villain; I'd be unsurprised to find out most viewers assumed he was going to be the primary villain.
If you've seen the series, though, you know he ends up being decidedly unvillainous in the end.  Quite the opposite; by the end of the series, I'd say he's overwhelmingly one of the most sympathetic characters on the show.  And golly gee is Andreas Katsulas good at playing that side of G'Kar; when he's in full-bluster mode in the early episodes, he's effective at times, but he's just as frequently awful.
The difference between the G'Kar of "The Parliament of Dreams" and the G'Kar of "Mind War" is night and day.  Katsulas is great in this one.  He's still presented initially as an antagonist: when he strolls up to the meeting and looms over Catherine, clearly relishing his power over her, we (and she) assume the worst.  When he refuses to give her clearance to visit that sector of Narn territory, she (and we) assume he's got personal gain in mind.  when he calls his military and asks them to send a well-armed Narn cruiser to the area she is visiting, we assume it must be part of some plot, probably to put Sinclair at a disadvantage.
But instead, we find out that he's been entirely on the level the whole time.  Sure, he figures it might help him at some point to keep Sakai alive and Sinclair undistressed; but he also says it just seemed like a good idea.  And by this point, I think we believe him.
In other words, this episode marks the moment in which G'Kar's character arc begins to swing toward another direction.  And I think we sense immediately that this is the correct direction; Katsulas is just so good in these moments, it feels almost as if we're finally being allowed to see the real G'Kar.
From a character standpoint, what accounts for the change?  Is he simply happy to have survived last week's assassination attempt ("The Parliament of Dreams")?  Did the death of his competitor mentioned in that episode cause some significant shifts in his fortunes?  Whatever it is, it's happened at least partially offscreen; and I suppose you could call bullshit on it on those grounds.

(It's also possible that some of this was due to "Mind War" having been moved up in the broadcast schedule.  JMS has been quoted as saying that the episode was originally intended to air somewhere around the tenth-of-the-season spot, but that everyone liked the episode so much that they pushed it forward significantly.  JMS says continuity is unaffected by this, but I'm not sure I agree.  We'll have to wait until revisiting the next episode -- "The War Prayer" -- to say for sure, but I think I remember something happening between Sinclair and G'Kar that could well explain some of the Narn ambassador's seeming softening in "Mind War."  [EDIT:  Actually, the moment I'm thinking of is in episode 12, "By Any Means Necessary."])
It might be bullshit for some, but for me, it works quite nicely.  It's definitely a signpost for what lies ahead.
As, I would argue, is the relatively improved quality of this episode.
We're getting there!  Slowly, but surely.
Bryant's rating:  *** / *****

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