Sunday, December 30, 2018

You Will Fall Upon One Another Like Wolves: Babylon 5, ''Deathwalker'' (season 1, episode 9)

Previously, on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an all-new episode: an alien wanted for war crimes makes Earth an offer it can't refuse, and Sinclair has to figure out how to keep the alien ambassadors from tearing the station apart.

(season 1, episode 9)
airdate:  April 20, 1994
written by:  Larry DiTillio
directed by:  Bruce Seth Green

It's a fairly typical mid-first-season episode in that it has some quality scenes and ideas sandwiched between occasional moments of gracelessness in the production.  But I'd argue that this episode, despite its flaws, lurches capably in the right direction.

Here's what it's about, more or less: a greatly wanted war criminal named Jha'dur -- known colloquially as "Deathwalker" for no evident reason -- comes aboard the station.  She is recognized, attacked, and brutally beaten.  After she recovers, Sinclair learns that there's a reason why she is still seemingly in her prime despite having been in hiding for thirty years: she has invented a "universal anti-agapic" serum.  That is, she has found an immortality drug.  She's planning to give it to Earth, and Sinclair has orders to send her right on her way to there, but when the ambassadors who represent the League of Nonaligned Worlds -- many of whose people were ravaged by Deathwalker and her race -- find out about it, they demand that she be tried there on the station for "crimes against sentience."  However, the B5 advisory council -- composed of Eath, the Vorlons, the Centauri, the Narn, and the Minbari -- collectively vote against it, which raises tensions to a fever pitch.

Meanwhile, Talia is hired by Kosh to help with some bizarre negotiations.

Let's talk about the problematic aspects of the episode.  As is often the case, they mostly consist of iffy production/direction/performance decisions.  Such as these:

  • It is Na'Toth (G'Kar's ambassadorial aide) who recognizes Jha'dur.  Pretty convenient that they just happen to cross paths, but hey, convenient things do happen, especially on television.  I can live with that.  But Julie Caitlin Brown (whom I normally like as a performer) is embarrassingly awful when she begins hollering "Deathwalker!" upon seeing the war criminal.  She just begins bellowing it like she's a tuba or something; and she doesn't even quite enunciate it, saying "deathwokker!" or "deathwocker!" moreso than "Deathwalker!"  (I kept mentally flashing on Lex Luthor calling "Miss Tessmacher!" in the first Superman movie.)  It would have been greatly more impactful for Na'Toth to simply see Jha'dur, react to her wordlessly, and then calmly approach her and begin beating fuck from her.  There was no need for all the screaming and shouting; it would have been more effective by far for Na'Toth to be silent as the grave the entire time.  Ah, well.
  • Jha'dur's race is known as the Dilgar.  No alien race should ever be named anything beginning with "dil."  You do that, you leave me no choice but to mentally joke about the Planet Of The Dillholes or the League Of Nonaligned Dillweeds or something like that.  "Ah yes," I might imagine Londo saying, "we Centauri once conquered the Dillburgers; we fell on them from the skies like meteors."  Alien races on teevee shows tend, by definition, to be a bit silly; you probably want to avoid that in the naming of them as much as you can.
  • Oh, and then there's the Kosh/Talia subplot.  Some of it is fine; some of it is better than fine.  But then there's the "vicker" who is the third member of their merry little negotiations.  Abbut the vicker is ... well ... he's this:

Folks, if you ever find yourself in a position to work on a science fiction television series and in a position within the production to influence the decision of whether or not to have a character dress garishly, always go with the "do not do that" option.  If you absolutely have to dress this character garishly, please please please do not compound that mistake by then having the character be a ethnic type who speaks in an accent and talks about pastrami.  I'd like to think I don't need to give you that advice, but I feel playing it safe benefits us all, and so the advice has been given.

If only someone had given it to JMS.

Although actually, things might have been even worse.  The role was written for -- actually written FOR -- and offered to Gilbert Gottfried, who expressed interest but was unable to take it on due to scheduling conflicts.  So in a way, we dodged a bullet there; we took a throwing star to the cheek instead, but hey.

JMS has actually said that he felt this subplot of the episode went too far, and that screenwriter Larry DiTillio took it places he'd prefer not to have gone.  I'm skeptical; this feels like JMS throwing a guy under the bus after the fact to me.  Abbut's wardrobe and demeanor strike me as the sort of thing that plausibly might have come from the same mind which signed off on the design and performance style for Londo and the Centauri.

Abbut's subplot is even worse because it involves Kosh in a series of scenes that are played partially for laughs, complete with semi-comedic flourishes from Christopher Franke in the musical score.  That's not a good use of Kosh.

Here's an edit that is not a good use of editing:

Kosh asks Talia a question, seemingly triggering some sort of mental/psychic distress.  Cut to:

No.  No, no, nonono, no.  Bad!

This stuff is unforgivably galling.  Everything about Abbut is tacky, and yes, I get that it's on purpose.  If you smear spoiled sour cream on my chair and I accidentally sit down in it, I'm not going to congratulate you on it just because you did it on purpose; you still smeared rancid dairy on my chair, and you must suffer the consequences for having done so.  This is how these things work, you see.
The Abbut subplot is composed of such a poor set of creative decisions that I empathize with anyone who gets to that stuff and just says "nope" and pulls the ripcord.  The first season of this series is, lamentably, filled with such moments.  I sometimes fall asleep at night dreaming about somebody putting me in charge of staffing a writers' room for a remake, so these miscalculations and errors in judgment could be pruned out in favor of emphasizing the many things that do work.

And this episode has those moments, too.  In fact, if you can power past Abbut and past Na'Toth's inept bellowing, I'd say this is mostly a strong episode.  Michael O'Hare has his customary weak moments, too, I guess, but the central conflict of the episode is a compelling one.

Jha'dur's invention (the anti-agapic) is one which brings many of the tensions which underpin the series to the fore.  Let's take a look at how the various races respond:

  • The human government immediately orders Sinclair to put her on a transport bound for Earth, where she -- a literal Space Hitler -- will be given a red-carpet walk to the biggest science lab that can be found.  This doesn't seem like an ethical way to behave, but if we know anything about politics on Earth recently, we know that ethics are taking a back seat to isolationism and other such goals.
  • Londo and the Centauri don't seem entirely to take it seriously, but they also seem to be primarily concerned with making sure the Centauri role in aiding the Dilgar decades ago stays more or less unknown.
  • G'Kar and the Narn are deeply passionate about obtaining the anti-agapic for themselves, in the hopes of using it to help them in their long-term goal of bringing the Centauri low.  They will pay as much as they need to pay for it, but G'Kar balks when Jha'dur asks him to throw Na'Toth's head into the bargain.  He doesn't even speak another word to her, such a nonstarter of an idea is that one.  There are also implications that the Narn were involved somehow with the Dilgar during their ravages; and, like the Centauri, they prefer to keep that secret.
  • The Vorlons seem utterly unconcerned by all of this, so much so that -- in his usual manner -- Kosh abstains by refusing even to show up at the council session wherein Jha'dur's fate is decided.  The Vorlons are above all of this petty squabbling.  Seemingly.
  • The Minbari role in all of this is complex.  We find out that Jha'dur has been spending the last few decades in hiding among the Wind Swords, the most militant of the Minbari warrior castes.  It is they who tried to kill Kosh and discredit Sinclair in "The Gathering," and apparently they've been given all sorts of biological weapons by Deathwalker herself.  Which seems like trouble.  And though the Minbari are mostly an honorable people (a fact Sinclair banks on only to lose in this episode), they're not above trying to sweep their own shame and scandal under the rug.
  • And then there's everyone else, the various races who are not individually powerful enough to determine their own fates as it relates to the bigger powers like the ones mentioned above.  They have suffered mightily at the hands of Deathwalker and her people, and they apparently cannot count on the aligned powers to do right by them, which spells even more trouble to come.  

There's another important indicator in how all of this works out.  Sinclair, though he is initially determined to follow his orders and send Jha'dur to Earth, quickly finds himself in sympathy with the Abbai ambassador and her compatriots.  He knows that allowing them to put Jha'dur on trial is the only good way out of this, and he's determined to find a way to give them what they need without flat-out defying his orders.

Consider, though: we never see Sinclair consulting Earth's government on his decisions.  It feels to me like he simply did all the things he did and then planned to let his superior know about it later on.  Which seems like the sort of thing that could get a fellow in hot water.  And, of course, is entirely consistent with where the series ends up going further down the road; we don't see any of that actually play out here, but it feels to me as if it is simmering beneath the surface, and that makes it interesting to me.

The episode finds its keenest points of interest in the climax.  We find out via Deathwalker that her anti-agapic is a two-edged sword.  It works; it unquestionably works.  However, the vital component of its chemistry is something that can only be taken from another living being.  The screenplay is vague as to what that is, but it's very specific as to the ramifications: in order for one person to live forever, another must die by supplying whatever this chemical is.

"You will fall upon one another like wolves," enthuses Jha'dur.  "It'll make what we did pale by comparison.  The billions who live forever will be a testimony to my work; and the billions who are murdered to buy that immortality will be the continuance of my work."

Sinclair is utterly disgusted by finding this out, but he's powerless to do anything about it.  He's sending her back to Earth, and he's promised that the League of Nonaligned Worlds can send a team of scientists to monitor her and then take her into custody once she's turned over her knowledge.  Not spoken, but implied: Earth would still want her even knowing what the cost would be.  So, one imagines, would the Narn or the Centauri.

In other words, Jha'dur is correct: she has just painted her masterpiece, and the wonder and terror of it will spill bloodily down the rest of time.

However, she's failed to reckon with one possibility: that there might be a race out there powerful enough to stand up to her.

And so, as the sad and defeated group of ambassadors and dignitaries left aboard the station gather and (implausibly) watch her ship headed for Earth, this happens:

I get why you'd do this from a television-production standpoint, but it really does not pass the smell test for all these folks to be standing there watching the ship leaving.  But I'll buy it; it's what I do.

Enter Kosh, unexpectedly.

Garibaldi, no fool, senses that something is up.

Jha'dur, unfortunately for her, does not.

Na'Toth's mood is one of both satisfaction (her blood oath against Jha'dur has been fulfilled) and disappointment (it's been fulfilled by someone other than her).

"You are not ready for immortality," says Kosh simply, turning and departing as suddenly as he has come.

It's a powerful moment.  The Vorlons have -- with the exception of being understandably angry over the near-assassination of their ambassador in the pilot episode -- been mostly window-dressing up to this point.  Kosh has been used sparingly; impactfully, for the most part (I'm thinking of him saying that the Narn and Centauri are dying races that should be allowed to pass), but also as a bit of an afterthought.  Heck, in this episode Kosh seems as though he's there for comic relief as much as anything else.

However, this resolution changes one's perception somewhat.  Are the Vorlons distant and unengaged?  Well, they seemed like it up until now, but this expedient development -- the swift execution of a brand of justice entirely unencumbered by the need for negotiation or political consideration -- belies their detachment.  They obviously will step in ... but only if they feel they need to, and perhaps only on a very large scale indeed.

This likely begs a question: how do the Vorlons see their role in the galaxy?  After all, they do not have an ambassador on Babylon 5 accidentally.  They made that decision consciously; and it seems it was not, in fact, a mere afterthought.

This might also cause one to reconsider some of what one has seen earlier in the episode involving Talia Winters.  In case you're unfamiliar with the episode, the endgame of Kosh's "negotiations" with Abbut were not to actually negotiate anything, but to use the vicker to record thoughts and feelings from Talia's mind.  Kosh -- or Abbut, perhaps -- prompts her to remember a mindscan in which she entered the deranged psyche of a serial killer.  The experience terrified her, and Kosh has now recorded that experience to some degree; "for the future," he tells Talia in way of explanation.  Well, holy shit, now, what does that mean?!?  Coming from a guy whose people just enacted frontier justice and deprived at least one race of potential immortality, that's ... kind of ominous, I'd say.

And if I were in an extremely generous mood, I might consider trying to make the claim that the wretched tackiness of Abbut is a rope-a-dope move on the show's part, designed to make one look in one direction with a disapproving smirk on one's face, while a heavy fist is descending upon one from another direction.  Is that possible?  Does the silliness that is Abbut actually make the Vorlon resolution to the Jha'dur problem more impactful?

It's not impossible, I guess.  I can't quite go there; but if you can, I'd not try to stop you.

How about some leftover screencaps before we zap outta this one?  Some of them might have mild long-range spoilers; fair warning.

I think she's awful in her "Deathwalker!!!" scene, but otherwise I like Na'Toth in this episode.  Here, she's playing the silent game with Sinclair and Garibaldi, as though she refuses to accept the notion that her actions are up for their discussion.  Which makes sense; it's a blood oath, so she's unlikely to grant any outsider that type of power over her actions.

I like Andreas Katsulas a lot in this episode.  He's playing G'Kar in a way reminiscent of how he played him in "Mind War" in that this is the G'Kar who has seemingly taken a few steps toward being friendly with Sinclair.  He apologizes for Na'Toth's behavior, and Katsulas's performance causes the apology to feel genuine; this isn't a man who is smarmily trying to get his aide out of trouble, this is a man who is arguing for what he thinks is right, and who is counting on Sinclair to understand where he is coming from even if he doesn't come to the same conclusions.  G'Kar's prowess as a negotiator is on the rise; he's still a somewhat shady figure, but that's by no means ALL he is.

I'm not quite able to buy the notion that Kosh would be willing to hold these "negotiations" right out in public.  I'm maybe willing to buy the notion that Kosh would have obscure reasons of his own for wanting people to see him out and about, taking part in negotiations.  It doesn't really work for me, but ... maybe there's something there.

Talia gets to roll her eyes a lot during this episode.

Jha'dur is played -- quite well -- by Sarah Douglas, whose previous credits include Ursa in Superman II and the evil queen in Conan the Destroyer.

I really love this scene between G'Kar and Na'Toth.  He gives her the bad news: the greater good for the Narn people demand that she put aside her blood oath and let Jha'dur go.  For now.  She agrees to postpone it, but says she will not do so forever.  "You wouldn't be Narn if you did," replies G'Kar, who expresses pride in her.  We're still arguably in the Narns-are-villains stage of the show, but it's getting more nuanced by the episode.

The Abbai ambassador tells Sinclair he will have to kill her entire group to get Jha'dur past them and off the station without a trial.  She is played by Robin Curtis, who is better here than she ever was as the second Saavik in the Star Trek movies.

That's a Drazi ship.  I like the Drazi.

This weird-looking ship is from the Ixesha, and yes, in fact I did have to look that up to know it.  Cool ship, though.

This guy...

They're called "vickers" because it's a play on the VCR; a recording device.  Get it?  Ugh.

These ships are from the Vree.  I love the Vree.  They hardly ever show up, but I love 'em all the same.

The hints of Earth's association with the fight against the Dilgar is intriguing.  It doesn't seem like much a stretch to hypothesize that in helping to protect the non-aligned worlds from this menace, Earth became a major galactic player.  What role might this have then played in bringing Earth into conflict with the Minbari?

"The Wind Swords are right to fear you," Jha'dur says to Sinclair.  "They speak of you often, Sinclair; they say you have a hole in your mind."

"You think it'll always be like this, Michael?  Little powers at the mercy of bigger powers; politics before morality; expediency before justice..."

Bryant's rating:  *** / *****


  1. Why can't that vicker pastrami guy have been played by Steve Van Zandt?

    1. I believe this would have been at about the time Bruce put the Band back together, so I'm sure that's the only real reason.

      It certainly couldn't have hurt!

  2. Might want to check these sort of things out.

    1. Those HD renders look so good it makes me a little sad.

      As great as the effects look, though, what I'd really love to see is a cleaned-up HD scene of the actors. Just to know what that'd be like.

      Maybe someday!

  3. If you want to know how the Dilgar War played out, there is an Excellent fanfic by Lightning Count. It's long, detailed, fits with canon and (in my opinion) should be adopted as the official version and sold in stores.

    1. That sounds intriguing -- thanks for the recommendation!