Tuesday, December 4, 2018

We're All Aliens to One Another: Babylon 5, "Infection" (season 1, episode 4)

Tonight, on an all new episode: a deadly relic from a dead alien world threatens to tear the station apart, and only Sinclair can stop it!
You know, the Ikaarans fought against invaders just like we fought against the Minbari.  They became obsessed with it.  Back home, there's a growing pro-Earth movement, rumors of hate groups targeting aliens; and on all sides, the fanatics who think that society has to be protected against anyone who's different.  I'm starting to wonder if what we just saw is a preview of things to come. 

"Infection" is routinely listed as being either THE worst episode of Babylon 5 or a shortlist entry for consideration.  In a technical sense, I guess I kind of agree with that; at best, it's problematic, and at worst, it's sloppy and poorly produced.  This is not the episode to use to ever try to convince someone to become a Babylon 5 fan.

But that's true of most -- if not all -- of these early episodes, and in the end I don't think "Infection" is notably worse than either "Soul Hunter" or "Born to the Purple."

(season 1, episode 4)
airdate:  February 16, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Richard Compton

The story: a former teacher of Dr. Franklin's comes onboard the station with an opportunity for his former pupil -- to assist in the study of recently-discovered artifacts from Ikarra 7, a dead world once home to a thriving and advanced civilization.  These turn out to be pieces of biomechanical weaponry; the very weaponry which was responsible for the extinction of the Ikarran people.  An assistant of Franklin's teacher is taken over by the weaponry, which alters his DNA and sets him on a course to destroy the station if he cannot be stopped first.

I don't have too too much to say about this one, so let's run through my screencaps and notes in relatively short order.

This alien design continues to crack me up.  It's stunningly awful, but kind of charming.  Apparently there's an entire world filled with po'-faced people, and that amuses me.

There's a subplot involving an ISN reporter who is on the station to cover its second anniversary of being operational.  She's supposed to interview Sinclair, but the commander keeps ducking her, and she's pissed about it.  The actress playing her is offputtingly weird.  However, she does get to ask Garibaldi where she can find a bathroom, which is funny.  Most space-based sci-fi shows pretend that there's no such thing as human excretory functions.

David McCallum (from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Sapphire & Steel, and NCIS) plays Vance Hendricks, Franklin's former teacher.  McCallum has a few good moments, but he's also quite awful in several scenes.

Ditto Richard Biggs as Franklin.  The entire production feels rushed and ill-considered; this is another episode from director Richard Compton, but since all the episodes thus far NOT directed by him also feel rushed and ill-considered, I don't necessarily want to blame him.  But I also kind of do want to blame him.

"Savor the mystery, Steven," says Vance (not actually in this moment).

"We don't get nearly enough of them."

In this scene, Vance has a brief speech that is clearly modeled on Roy Batty's infamous rooftop soliloquy from Blade Runner.  It's not bad.  "In the last five years, I've seen things offworld you can't even imagine," Vance tells Franklin.  "I've stood in the Abendi Desert and watched all seven moons go into eclipse; I've walked in vaults that've been sealed longer than there's been a human race, breathing air that's five million years old."  Nice images, but they go nowhere and do nothing.

The transformation of Nelson from human to Ikarran war machine is ambitious and not particularly successful.  He ends up looking looking like an evolved cockroach with a laser cannon for an arm.

He's always saying "PROTECT!"  Would a walking biomechanical weapon actually need to verbalize its programmed agenda, or is this merely television-screenwriting bullshit?  I think we all know the answer to that question.

The Ikarran arm cannon thingy can turn people into ashes and burn their silhouettes onto a wall.  Except when fired upon the show's lead actor, of course; at that point, a flak jacket is sufficient protection.

"You're too young to experience that much pain," says Ivanova to the reporter when she's trying to get at Sinclair.  Not one of Ivanova's better lines, especially considering that the reporter looks fifteen years older than her.

It does admittedly kind of suck, but this design doesn't bother me all that much.  It reminds more than anything of something you'd see on the original run of Doctor Who: an overambitious idea which finds fruition via whatever means necessary and doesn't actually work but somehow ends up charming nevertheless.

The Ikarran weapon, being biomechanical, contains an expository repository so that we, the audience, can know what's going on.  Franklin finds it, watches it (off screen), and tells Sinclair all about it.  The Ikarrans were being invaded, and to combat the invasion they engineered a line of weapons designed to kill anything that wasn't pure Ikarran.

"So who set the parameters of what it meant to be a pure Ikaaran?" asks Sinclair, not unreasonably.

Franklin answers, "A coalition of religious fanatics and military extremists that ran the government.  They programmed the weapons with a level of standards based on ideology, not science."

Uh-oh.  That won't lead anywhere good.

"We'll just have to find a way around the logic of the programming," concludes Sinclair.  This calls for James T. Kirk!  And Michael O'Hare gives it all he's got.  He's kind of awful in these scenes, in which he talks the Ikarran warrior into killing itself; but being the Star Trek fan that I am, I kind of approve of everyone just shrugging and deciding to go full Kirk for a little while on this show that mostly runs as far in the opposite direction of Star Trek as it possibly can.  But all that runnin'll get you only so far, and eventually there you are, trying to talk a machine into destroying itself.

Sinclair's strategy is to point out to the Ikarran that there's no such thing as purity.  "But we're all aliens to one another!" he says.  Prior to this, he's had other zingers such as: "You forgot the first rule of the fanatic: when you become obsessed with the enemy, you become the enemy."  (Lookin' at you, current millennium.)

"Great Maker, forgive this madness!" pleads the Ikarran with the universe once he's found out that he and his fellow weapons laid waste to the world they were designed to (ahem) protect.

After the action has concluded, Garibaldi confronts Sinclair in his quarters in a scene which proves that even in a mediocre-to-awful episode like this one, Babylon 5 can and does distinguish itself from other sci-fi shows.  Garibaldi confronts Sinclair over his willingness to put himself in the line of danger.  Hell, it's not just a willingness; Sinclair seems to go out of his way to do so.

Garibaldi says he knew guys who'd been in the war and come out changed.  "They keep looking for ways to go out in a blaze of glory," he says, smartly not directing this right at his friend and commander but instead generalizing it.  "I think they're looking for something worth dying for because its easier than finding something worth living for."

And in the second of a trio of wrapup scenes that make me like this episode even though it's mostly shabby, Ivanova spots Franklin looking troubled and asks what's up.   

"You know, the Ikarran[s] fought against invaders just like we ought against the Minbari," says Franklin.  "They became obsessed with it."  Then he begins talking about something which calls back to a subplot from earlier in the season.

"Back home, there's a growing pro-Earth movement ... rumors of hate groups targeting aliens ... and on all sides, the fanatics, who think that society has to be protected against anyone who's different.  I'm starting to wonder if what we just saw is a preview of things to come."

"Ahh," dismisses Ivanova, "I can't believe we'd be that foolish."

The episode concludes with the ISN reporter finally getting her interview with Sinclair and asking him if all this crazy shit is worth it.

"I have to ask you the same question a lot of people back on Earth are asking about space these days," the reporter says.  "Is it worth it?  Should we just pull back, forget the whole thing as a bad idea and take care of our own problems at home?"

"No," answers Sinclair resolutely.  "We have to stay here.  And there's a simple reason why.  Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics ... and you'll get ten different answers.  But there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on:  whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our sun will grow cold and go out.

"When that happens, it won't just take us.  It'll take Marilyn Monroe ... and Lao Tzu and Einstein and Morobuto and Buddy Holly and Aristophanes ... all of this.  All of this was for nothing ... unless we go to the stars."
Nice sentiment.  Not sure Michael O'Hare was the right guy to deliver it, but I think it works relatively well, and it brings the episode into focus: this entire thing has been an argument against isolationism.  You will perhaps note that this arguably puts the station and its commander at odds with popular sentiment on Earth.  (You will also perhaps note that this arguably puts Babylon 5 at odds with popular current real-world sentiment, in some ways.)  Not the last you're going to hear of that.
If only for these final three scenes, I think "Infection" gets a somewhat bum rap.  Is it a bad episode?  Yeah, it is.  But it's got thematic relevance to the overall series, and a (somewhat rare for this series) Roddenberrian philosophy and approach that charms me.
A couple more things I wanted to mention:

  • The biomechanics subplot is intriguing.  Vance points out that there is reason to believe that the Minbari possess biomechanical weapons; the Vorlons definitely do.  This speaks to a desire on the part of Interplanetary Expeditions -- and the bioweapons firm backing them -- to bring humankind on par with those races; and in a manner that speaks more to aggression (or defense against the perception of aggression from others) than to the spirit of exploration and achievement.  Say what you will about the actual quality of this episode, but these are matters which deeply inform the backbone of the series and its overall story; so it's got that, if nothing else.
  • Speaking of which, there are also good character beats which play differently when one knows the entire sweep of the series.  This is certainly true of Sinclair, but also of Franklin.  "I'm the doctor, I know what I'm doing," says Franklin, who is literally staggering around after having been blasted by the Ikarran weapon.  Franklin isn't not drunk, but Biggs (coincidentally or not) plays the scene almost as if he is, which makes this a (perhaps inadvertent) foreshadowing of a plotline of his which won't happen for seasons.
  • Here's an episode in which the shortcomings of the budget are truly a major problem.  The idea is that the Ikarran warrior can't be found easily because the station is simply too large.  But the station doesn't feel large.  It feels as if the entire thing is about the size of a smallish grocery store.  So the "hunt" aspect falls as flat as flat can be.  In order to engage with the material at all, one has to apply a mental filter in which one is watching the big-budget reboot in one's mind.

Bryant's rating:  **/ *****

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