Monday, January 14, 2019

As Serious as a Rip in a Spacesuit: Babylon 5, "By Any Means Necessary" (season 1, episode 12)

Previously on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an all-new episode: when a mechanical failure in a cargo bay turns deadly for one of the workers, Sinclair finds himself having to deal with an illegal labor strike.

(season 1, episode 12)
airdate:  May 11, 1994
written by:  Kathryn M. Drennan
directed by:  Jim Johnston

I remembered this as being a tedious episode, to the extent I remembered it at all.  All of the specifics of it had floated right out of my brain, and what was left in their place was an image of me making a disapproving face.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ended up enjoying the episode quite a bit!

Don't misunderstand me, though.  This is a problematic episode in many, many ways.  And I'm sure we'll talk about that.  But this is one of the first episodes where most of the problematic elements really don't bother me: the fact is that I just plain like this episode, despite its deficiencies.

One of its problems is also perhaps one of its virtues: an ambitious plotline involving the overworked spacedock crew, a team of government contractees who are saddled with shoddy equipment, overlong hours, inadequate pay, and a shrinking budget.  In no way is the production capacity of Babylon 5 well suited for something this big.  Scratch "well suited," actually; it's not even suited.  So what we get are scenes of a couple of dozen extras pretending to be spacedock-workers, standing around on one corner of a redressed hallway set hollering a lot.  It doesn't wash; their union delegate looks like a Barbie doll who's never touched a piece of equipment -- no jokes, please -- in her life.  The government "negotiator" -- obviously a union-busting fascist -- who comes in to deal with them is so cartoonish he may as well have been played by Yosemite Sam.

And yet...

If one puts oneself in a 1994 frame of mind, one is perhaps more likely to admit that you never saw some shit like this on Star Trek.  Hints of it, perhaps, in some of the episodes that dealt with uncouth and/or dissatisfied miners, colonists, and other blue-collar types.  But did the janitorial crew of the NCC-1701D ever go on strike because they were tired of vacuuming all that carpet?  They did not.  Did Picard ever have to ride into a Starbase and put down a workers' revolt?  No; you sense that Kirk might have been itching to do so if the opportunity ever arose, but Picard?  Never.

As always, I want to be clear where I stand on this sort of thing: that's fine.  I neither need nor want my Star Trek to be gritty and realistic.  That's literally the opposite of why I watch these shows.  (And guys, by the way...?  I'm only doing my season-by-season Deep Space Nine reviews as sinle posts, so my season two watchthrough hasn't appeared yet, but it IS happening right alongside this Babylon 5 watchthrough.  And brother, has it been a slog.  The series gets better, as I recall, but it never turns into MY idea of what Star Trek should be.  This is not true of Voyager, which I am also watching, but not blogging about [unless leaving comments at Dog Star Omnibus counts], which is very much my idea of Trek.  Just thought I'd mention it, so you know where I'm coming from.)

But if somebody -- let's call him "JMS" for short -- decided they wanted to do a different sort of sci-fi series and (consciously or otherwise) do some of the things Kirk and Picard never got to do, well, that's fine by me.  I love Star Trek, but I neither need nor want all my science-fiction television shows set in outer space to be of Roddenberry's utopian/idealistic bent.

This particular episode of Babylon 5 is very much not that, and though I'm less than convinced by the quality of the episode itself, I can't help but approve mightily of the effort.  Sure, the dockworkers are extras; and sure, the sure do seem to only exist in one room of the entire station.  But if I forget those production realities and allow my imagination to take over -- a thing that frequently happens with Babylon 5 -- then all of a sudden I kind of find myself able to imagine what an actual space station of this nature might be like.  This is literally a small city in space, and therefore prone to all the many issues that might strike any small city at any time; not to mention the issues that would come along with housing such an incredibly diverse melting-pot of cultures.  It's such an enormous concept that no television series could ever hope to do it justice, but by golly, in 1994 a group of lunatics decided to give it a shot anyways.

Personally, I'm quite glad they did.  I can absolutely see the influence of this series -- and maybe even of this specific episode -- on the Ronald D. Moore version of Battlestar Galactica, which occasionally took a break from Cylon shenanigans and tried to show what things might be like for overworked people on a spaceship.  That series didn't always integrate those plotlines terribly well, but occasionally it worked.  And certainly, the political threads of the plot -- which almost always worked like a charm -- seemed also to have descended from Babylon 5.  It's likely they actually descended from Moore's own work on the politically-minded Deep Space Nine, but I personally see more of B5 than of DS9 in BSG.

I can see all of that bubbling beneath the exterior of The Expanse, which is heavily dosed with speculative politics.  There are also jaw-dropping visual effects that make me long for a remake of Babylon 5.  There is, for example, an enormous generation ship -- funded by Mormons for a decades-long flight to a neighboring star system -- that is so beautiful it makes me think of the Babylon 5 station that exists in my brain.  Oh, if only!  AND, on top of that, the series is impeccably well-acted; it's nearly Galactica's equal in that regard.

This was certainly not true of Babylon 5.  I actually think the regular cast comes off quite well in "By Any Means Necessary," but there are four major roles for guest stars, and the most charitable assessment of how they fare is to say that they are variable in quality.

Let's check 'em out one by one.

The gentleman on the right is Jose Rey, playing Eduardo Delvientos, the foreman of the dock workers.  His brother is killed in an accident thanks to faulty equipment, so he's kind of fired up about all of this.  The performance is not particularly great, but it's okay.  Rey successfully channels both Jersey and Los Angeles at different times, which might seem like a contradiction, but isn't.

This is Katy Boyer, who plays the weirdly-named Neeoma Connally.  She's the union delegate who I earlier referred to as a bit of a Barbie doll.  What she actually seems like is a millennial who just got out of graduate school and doesn't have a job but is all into social justice.  And hey, go for it.  My politics lean in that direction even if my energies don't, so don't feel as if I'm being overly critical.

I don't think the casting works terribly well, though, I can't deny it.  But in saying so, am I actually perpetuating stereotypes?  Why can't a blonde girl who's never held a wrench in her life lead a labor revolt?  This is 2019, aren't we past all that?  Certainly we will be by 2257, right?

Sure, but this still feels like nineties-era television casting of the get-me-the-hottest-actress-we-can-afford variety.

Boyer's actual performance is okay, I guess.  The screenplay by Kathryn M. Drennan gives her some decent dialogue, and she's adequately fiery.  It's acting that feels like acting, though; I don't really believe her in the role for one second.  There I go making restrictive judgments again, I guess.

Senator Hidoshi -- who also appeared in "Deathwalker" and will show up once more later this season -- is played by Aki Aleong.  I thought he was terrible in "Deathwalker" (and, if I recall correctly, studiously avoided mentioning him for that reason), but I like him quite a bit here.  Hidoshi is antagonistic toward Sinclair, but in a sort of brotherly I'm-trying-to-help-your-punk-ass-out-fella kind of way.  You can tell that while he wants Sinclair not to make his own life a mess, he approves of both the method and the outcome the Commander employs.  And in the end, he levels with Sinclair and tells him that he's made new enemies and had better watch his back.  Played incorrectly, this would have come off as a threat; instead, it comes off as a friendly and somewhat regretful warning.

This is Orrin Zento, the labor-negotiations specialist Earth's Senate brings in.  He's played by John Snyder, who is so stunningly awful that it almost feels as if it must be on purpose.  He's so over-the-top that he may as well be wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling someone.  It genuinely feels as if he was attempting to be the apotheosis of the eighties-movie fraternity and/or big-business douchebag cliche.  Like he saw Die Hard and thought Ellis was cool but was only a good starting place.

It's with this role that the episode falls apart.  And yeah, I still like it, but the rational side of my brain has to admit that as soon as Zento walks onto the screen, "By Any Means Necessary" stops working.  THIS guy is supposed to be a specialist in labor negotiations?!?  He'd have been beaten within an inch of life -- or maybe an inch or two past it -- as soon as he opened his smarmy mouth.  No dockworkers' union gonna stand there and listen to this two-legged cornhole; they'd be flinging wrenches at him like they was tomatoes.


...if I really wanted to, I could make this make sense.  Zento was sent there by the Senate, and the implication of the hints Hidoshi gives Sinclair is that some of those Senators are enacting their own agenda.  Is there any reason not to assume that this probably has some involvement from Home Guard and/or PsiCorps?  Nope, I think involvement from one or the other of these groups -- both of which we already know to be exerting heavy political influence that runs contrary to the aims of the recently-elected President -- is a near-certainty.  That being the case, my tinfoil hat is speculating that perhaps there is a Senatorial agenda to send Zento in to ensure that the "negotiations" fail, leading to instability on Babylon 5 and perhaps even putting Home Guard members onto the station in prominent places among the dockworkers who would end up being sent in to replace those arrested after illegally striking.

As an explanation, I think it works; but saying that this is why Snyder's performance is so hideous would be a bridge too far, I think.  The explanation works despite Snyder; nothing works because of him.

The episode has a big subplot involving G'Kar and Londo, and it's this aspect of "By Any Means Necessary" that I probably like the most.

We didn't get any sort of a glimpse at Narn religion in "The Parliament of Dreams" (which seemed a little odd at the time), but that lack is rectified here with a look at G'Kar's worship of G'Quan.  We don't find all that much out about the specifics of the religion, but G'Kar takes it very seriously and is desperate to obtain a "G'Quan Eth" plant which is a necessary component of the upcoming ritual.  Followers of G'Quan are expected to burn the plant as incense as they bask in the sunlight that dawns on a specific mountain each year; if they are offworld, they must observe the ceremony at the same time as their brethren back home.  Without the plant, no ritual; and since they are apparently very difficult to transport -- not an especially convincing plot thread, but we've heard the same thing about coffee and steak, so I can live with it -- they are not terribly easy to get for a dude on a space station.  The one G'Kar was importing was destroyed in the same accident that killed the dockworker, so he's now bereft.  As the religious leader of the G'Quan worshippers aboard Babylon 5, it is his responsibility to provide this much-needed spiritual ceremony.

All that is pretty solid, if you ask me.  G'Kar began his run on the show as a cartoonishly evil bad guy, but we've been charting his progress from that to a more nuanced man who can be an antagonist at times, but is also capable of both wisdom and humor.  We've also come to slowly realize that the Narn people may well have good reason for being dead-set on revenging themselves upon the Centauri.

In this episode, we find out that there actually IS a single G'Quan Eth already aboard the station: in the possession of Londo, who is growing it so that it can, when ready, be used as a hallucinogen in one of Londo's many drinks.  Londo takes great pleasure in torturing G'Kar by refusing to sell the plant to him; he states that this is in retribution for the Narn invasion of Ragesh 3 (all the way back in "Midnight on the Firing Line"), but as an explanation, it doesn't quite work.  He's obviously had the plant for some time, and would have had no way of knowing G'Kar was going to develop a sudden need for one.  So he's taking advantage of the situation to torture G'Kar, sure; but that's not why he has the plant.

G'Kar is aghast to find out that Londo plans to use the plant as a hallucinogen.  He tells Sinclair that this is emblematic of the Centauri invasion of Narn: a pillaging in which holy relics are stolen to serve as Centauri playthings.  And dude kind of has a point about that, doesn't he?  Here's this plant which is a vital and not-terribly-plentiful part of a crucial religious ceremony, and Centauri drunkards are snatching them up left and right so they can drink them and trip balls?  Yeah, I'd probably be mad about that, too.

For one of the first times, Londo in this episode seems malicious and dangerous.  We see aspects of the loudmouthed carouser who has been aggravating us all season; but he no longer seems harmless.  He seems like someone whose decisions could well have very deleterious consequences for whole populations of people.  Can we imagine him taking part in a genocide?  Well, that might be a bit of a stretch.  But this is indeed a man who makes you think of children pulling the wings off of flies just to observe and delight in the manner of their squirming.

The episode ends with Sinclair bringing the labor crisis AND the G'Quan Eth crisis to separate resolutions.  In a shittier version of the episode, those two plots would converged in some unexpected and trite manner.  Happily, this doesn't happen here.  Sinclair's outside-the-box thinking is all that links the plots.  He uses a "by any means necessary" line in the language of the Senate's anti-labor "Rush Act" to reallocate funds from the military budget to the upkeep of the docking bays and payment of the workers.  He even manages, in a Kirk-like flourish, to get Zento to implicitly back him up prior to doing it.  It's a product of determined screenwriting moreso than of reality, but it's a satisfying moment nonetheless.

With the G'Kar subplot, he's even more inspired.  After threatening Londo by declaring the plant to be a controlled -- and therefore illegal -- substance, he gets the Centauri to agree to give the plant to G'Kar.  Londo agrees because it doesn't matter; the moment of the sunlight dawning on the mountain on Narn has passed anyways, so the matter is settled.  Sinclair points out that the sunlight from the ceremony of some previous year is still traveling toward the station, however, meaning that the Narn worshippers can use it instead; not quite the letter of the ritual, but close enough.  This attention to detail touches G'Kar, who declares (in a lovely bit of foreshadowing) Sinclair to be a more spiritual man than he'd realized.

Good stuff, if you ask me.

Let's check out some more screencaps:

I dig the visual representation of Narn culture we get inside G'Kar's quarters.  That's the "Book of G'Quan" on the table.  There's a great moment later on when G'Kar, in a fit of rage prompted by Londo, slaps a bowl off the table and shatters it against the wall.  His looks around for something else to hit, and briefly raises his hand to the Book of G'Quan, but immediately realizes what he's about to do and simmers down.  This is a lovely representation of the power his faith has to calm him in moments of need.

Some of the comedic stylings of Peter Jurasik as Londo don't quite land for me in this episode, but they are, at least, consistent with what we've seen of him up to this point in the series.

Jerry Doyle is pretty good throughout; Garibaldi is on the front lines of having to make any arrests which will be mandated by invocation of the Rush Act, and you can see in his eyes that he knows this will result in spilled blood.

"We're as serious as a rip in a spacesuit," says Neeoma of the workers' intentions, "and we want the Senate and Commander Sinclair to know it."  She also refers to Ivanova as "career military."  It's kind of interesting to see an outsider's viewpoint of our lead characters.

Peter Jurasik is great in this scene, in which he catches G'Kar sitting inside his quarters.  The Narn has broke in to steal the G'Quan Eth, but the plant is nowhere to be found.

I think this is Michael O'Hare's best all-around performance as Sinclair to date.  He's good at showing Sinclair to be a man who is being pulled in all directions simultaneously, and who is determined to find a way to keep himself intact.

Na'Toth has a good scene in which G'Kar asks her what she believes in and she was raised a follower of G'Lan, but now mainly just believes in herself.  Na'Toth will only appear in two more episodes this entire season, and her character then just disappears from the series.  Too bad; she was promising.

I really like this scene between Sinclair and G'Kar.  Sinclair has just found out the workers are formally declaring a strike (which is illegal), and has been read the riot act by Zento.  they've got a meeting with Connally in about an hour, and Sinclair -- desperately in need of sleep but unable to get any -- has nothing else to do, so he meets with G'Kar about the plant problem.  O'Hare does a great job of showing how weary G'Kar's problem makes him; and then Andreas Katsulas does a great job of selling how very serious the ambassador is.  Importantly, Katsulas plays the scene without any bluster whatsoever; this is G'Kar leveling with Sinclair because he is more or less his last hope.  Once he understands, Sinclair's attitude changes; O'Hare plays the scene just right.  This is followed by:

Sinclair visiting Londo to ask him to give G'Kar the plant.  Londo refuses, and while he's friendly toward Sinclair, he's also resolved.  We get a different side of him in this scene than in the ones in which he's tormenting G'Kar.  Here, Londo is deadly serious; he seems to feel he is confiding in Sinclair and that Sinclair will be on his side once he explains that the Narns are "savages," "pagans" who still worship their sun.  Londo is giving his honest opinions here, and they are ugly.  they imply viciousness and a complete lack of remorse.  This merry, drunken man we've been laughing at all season is kind of a bastard.

Here's a dreadful scene, in which the reporter previously seen in "Infection" makes her way into the CNC to question Sinclair about the strike.  She is followed by G'Kar and Londo, who are sniping at each other.  All of this is played for comedic value, and none of it -- except Sinclair's furious response and Ivanova's execution of his orders to clear them off -- works.  Scenes like this are so tonally incongruous that I completely get why they'd turn someone off of the series.

That security guy beside Garibaldi is the same one we saw way back in "Mind War."  I kind like that guy; glad to see him pop up again.

"You should never hand someone a gun unless you're sure where they'll point it," Sinclair says to Zento after he's solved the labor crisis in his own way.  (That's not this scene, but I couldn't think of what else to say here.)

Katsulas is great in this episode, and he's especially good at the religious vocalizations he is asked to perform.  They are vaguely Arabic, or vaguely Muslim, or whatever I mean.  The episode doesn't lean super far in that direction, but enough to ground what we are seeing/hearing in a recognizable form.
Bryant's rating:  *** / *****

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