Tuesday, January 8, 2019

More Trouble Than a Toilet Full of Snakes: Babylon 5, "Survivors" (season 1, episode 11)

Tonight, on an all-new episode: Garibaldi is accused of sabotaging a docking bay in what may prove to be an assassination attempt on the life of Earth's President.
(season 1, episode 11)
airdate:  May 4, 1994
written by:  Marc Scott Zicree
directed by:  Jim Johnston
This episode is a standalone tale on the face of things, involving Garibaldi's efforts to clear his name in a wrong-man scenario resulting from an explosion in one of the Cobra launch bays.  This happens several days before a visit from Earth's President, which means the equivalent of the Secret Service gets involved in the investigation.  One problem with that: the head of the President's security force is a young woman with whom Garibaldi shares a dark past.  She's predisposed to think the worst of him, and think the worst of him she does.
This leads to some good stuff, and to some bad stuff, but (as with "Believers" last week) I think the balance is more toward the good than the bad and the end result is one of the best episodes yet.

Let's start with the good.  This is a character piece in which Garibaldi is front and center.  He's been a consistent presence throughout the season, sometimes as comic relief and sometimes as a reminder of the show's values, and sometimes as a bit of both at once.  We've heard a bit about the fact that he has a troubled past, and about how Sinclair appointing him chief of security was not a popular decision politically.  Some of that pays off now, as we find out about an incident from Garibaldi's past involving a friend who died as the result of enemies made during Michael's drinking days.  Garibaldi has been struggling with alcoholism ever since; he's been out of the bottle for some time now, and has been successful in his job on Babylon 5, but this new crisis drives him to drink again.
I would argue that the episode's best scene in the one in which Garibaldi, on the run from Lianna's security guards, ducks into a bar tucked away in some corner of the station where, clearly, only the refuse go.
He sidles up to a table where a seedy-looking alien is sitting, and the scene turns into a gag in which Garibaldi buys the man's hat off of him so as to better hide from the security guard who is hot on his heels.
Throughout the episode, Garibaldi has been in the presence of people who are drinking.  Even before the scene in which he tells Sinclair his history with the bottle, he's got it on his mind.  "Man, I need a drink," he says early on after an upsetting runin with a thief in the Zocalo.  He proceeds then to order a "water, straight-up," in what I assume is a rueful little joke to himself.
We've actually seen Garibaldi around drinks a few times during previous episodes, going as far back as "The Gathering."  We've been building to this subplot.
So it's not automatically alarming to see the bottle sitting in front of Garibaldi and the alien in the screencap above.  Drink has been part of the background for Garibaldi pretty consistently; I'm guessing most viewers won't take it as much more than that now.  But then, after Michael returns the alien's hat, the alien pushes the subplot forward.  He's surprised to be given back the hat, for which he has already been paid, so he does what he likely thinks of as a generous thing: he tells Garibaldi to take the bottle instead, and staggers his way off ("I go casino," he says amusingly).
Jerry Doyle is really good in these moments.  You can see Garibaldi's focus shift to the bottle, but in a way that suggests to me that it was partially on that bottle all along.  This is not a surprise, nor is it a new element in the scene for Garibaldi; this is an inevitable thing finally occurring.
Christopher Franke's score complements Doyle's performance nicely; the music is subdued but insistent, and is basically a single, consistent piece with a singular throughline during the entire scene.  It mirrors what must be going on in Garibaldi's mind, and is an excellent example of a musical score furthering the story.  I'd love to know if Franke was directly inspired by Doyle's performance, or if they were instead coincidentally on the same page.  Or, perhaps, something in the screenplay (or the direction) steered them toward the same result.
Either way, it's probably the episode's highpoint for me.
Another highpoint comes in the scenes between Garibaldi and Londo.  Being, as he is, a man on the run with very few people to turn to, Garibaldi seeks out Londo for both help and information, both of which the ambassador is happy to provide.  He's a bit untrustworthy, Londo is; but he does genuinely have an affection for Garibaldi, and tells him why.
"We are alike, you and I," he explains.  "We are both, as you say, the odd man out.  I have been in your place.  I can feel how you are pinned.  And it would give me some small pleasure to know that things can work out.  Even for us."
Meaning, of course, "even for me."  Peter Jurasik is good in this scene, a thing I've not been able to say very often thus far in this series of posts.  but here, he's very good, and it put me in mind of something that I should probably defer to a spoiler section later on.  But I won't, because it's not that huge a spoiler; and anyways, I'm not going to be specific.
But it struck me, hearing Londo vocally hope for things to work out, that here is a character who is only two episodes away ("Signs and Portents" looms) from a moment that will more or less end forever the possibility of things working out well.  In fact, he may already have passed that point.  The plotline with Adira in "Born to the Purple" can be seen as the last gasp of happiness for this sad man; I wish that were a better episode, so I could look back on it with fondness as precisely that type of a turn in the storytelling.  I guess it still kind of works, and heck, if you want to you can probably say to yourself that Londo's point of no return happened at some point prior to the series even beginning.  What we've been seeing is a man trying -- loudly, garishly, annoyingly -- to convince himself that Things Might Still Turn Out Just Fine.
What we will see for the rest of the series is a man who is first beginning to know that this is not the case, and then knowing it for a fact, and then fighting it, and finally accepting it.  Londo is a fascinating figure, and this seemingly incidental moment with Garibaldi might be the moment in which the show truly begins to put that to proper use.

Lest I wax this episode's hood too much, I should mention that there's also some stuff that doesn't work.  Let's get into the remainder of my screencaps, which I think will allow me to get into some of those criticisms, as well as some of my other compliments.
Here's Maggie Egan, playing the same ISN anchor we saw in the background of "Midnight on the Firing Line."  We'll see her again this season, and sprinkled throughout the rest of the series.

Boy, does this scene look awful on the DVDs.  It's got a funny line in it, though.  "Nothing the government does surprises me," grouses Garibaldi, who's in a foul mood due to the extra work the upcoming arrival of a new fighter wing for the station is going to prompt.  "That's a very Russian attitude," says Ivanova, sounding impressed.  "I commend you."

This is Elaine Thomas playing Lianna Kemmer.  She's okay; seems a bit young and pretty for the role, but I'm pretty sure that's mild misogyny on my part to say that, so apologies to you who are easily upset by such things.  But I think thinking that may make tyhis a better episode, because my guess is that Kemmer is very defensive against people who (within the story -- I'm hypothetically posing their existence there for her) feel that way about the character and think she is unsuited for her job.  She's overreacting by going into tough-as-nails mode.

Kemmer's aide, Cutter, turns out to be part of the sabotage effort.  With a name like cutter, how could he not be?  He's a bit on the cartoonish-villain side of things, but, again, I'm not sure this doesn't work in the episode's advantage.  Because we take him as that from the first second we see him (during the scene in which he's preventing Franklin from helping a patient), but not necessarily because we think he's been part of the bombing plot; we just think he's a guy who's throwing around weight and making things difficult for our characters.  He turns out to be both in the end; and that serves as bit of a foreshadowing to how the group that is behind the plot IS going to eventually make things very difficult indeed for our characters.

I like Sinclair's relationship with Garibaldi.  He's stuck his neck out for his security chief because he believes in him, and because we trust Garibaldi, we trust Sinclair's faith in him.  This makes me think of how, at the end of "Believers," I felt as if Sinclair really ought to have shitcanned Franklin.  Sinclair is a guy who will put his trust in people whom some find highly untrustworthy.  Such a man might inspire a great deal of loyalty.

Alright, that screencap above, I took it because I wanted to point out two things.

First: those are actually pretty good effects.  It's kind of a silly Star Wars ripoff/homage, but focusing on the effects themselves, those really do look like tiny men who are on that table.  It isn't that; it's a video feed of some sort in holographic form; but it's very convincing, in my opinion.

Second: for some reason, the aspect ratio here has gone crazy.  Babylon 5 was broadcast in 4:3, but was filmed in 16:9, and DVD and streaming versions use the 16:9 versions.  THIS scene, however, is 4:3 that has been stood upon by someone heavy enough to (metaphorically) squish it down into a 16:9 shape.  Thanks to the magic of VLC Media Player, here's what the same shot looks like in 4:3 a few moments later:

Can you tell the difference?  I'm not assuming you can; a lot of people can't.  My parents, for example, have zero ability to tell the difference.  I have nearly zero ability to comprehend how that can be, but there you have it.  And I've talked to many, many people over the years who just cant tell.  I don't mean in relation to this episode of Babylon 5, I mean in relation to being in public and seeing a television that has its settings screwed up; stuff like that.

The short Garibaldi wears when he goes on the run -- it's stolen, he says -- is a true eyesore.  but I swear to you, I think I had that shirt back in the nineties.  There's a little tag on the back between the shoulder blades that makes me almost positive it was this shirt or one close to it.  The nineties were dreadful; I know we're only about ten minutes away from that decade receiving the sort of full-blown nostalgia treatment the eighties has been getting, and it bums me out.

G'Kar offers Garibaldi a drink.

"The universe is run by the complex interweaving of three elements," opines G'Kar; "energy, matter, and enlightened self-interest."  Good line.  This was written not by credited screenwriter Marc Scott Zicree, but by JMS himself. (So says The Lurker's Guide, at least.)
EarthForce One, carrying President Santiago.  Santiago is never actually seen, which is kind of a problem.  Santiago was shown briefly in "Midnight on the Firing Line," where he was played by a photo of producer Douglas Netter.  I guess they didn't want to have Netter actually perform the role, but also didn't want to render the photo problematic.  I think they should have just recast.  Not that Santiago's presence was a must; the episode kind of gets by without it.  Kind of.

Doyle and Thomas are both good in this scene, during which new evidence comes to light showing that Nolan, the guard who implicated Garibaldi, was actually a member of Home Guard. 

Kemmer is holding some Home Guard pamphlets found in Nolan's quarters.  "Let's purify the universe," one of them apparently says.  Yikes.  I don't want to give the back of that pamphlet too much weight, because its slogan is barely seen -- I had to find just the right frame to have it be legible at all -- and is not referenced in the episode verbally.  But IF that's purposeful and not just a production quirk, then it seems Home Guard may have more ambitious and terrible goals than simply sending Earth into an isolationist phase.  Going out and "purifying" the universe is something altogether different.  That's the thing about hate groups, though.  Give 'em what they say they want and they're just going to turn right around and want something new and more awful.  Today it's a wall.  What is it tomorrow?

"You're more trouble than a toilet full of snakes, but I couldn't run the station without you," says Sinclair to Garibaldi after the security chief has been exonerated.

Garibaldi smiles at this, but he's otherwise quite down on himself for his drinking relapse

Kemmer lets her hair down at the end.  Have I mentioned how glad I am that the episode doesn't graft an icky romantic subplot between her and Garibaldi onto the story?  A different version of this episode could have done just that, kind of like a more contentious Indy-and-Marion thing.
A few more notes, some with spoilers:
  • "You are going to resist, I hope...?" says Ivanova when Kemmer shows a reluctance to be led off the control deck.  Claudia Christian always makes a meal of moments like that.
  • The scene in which Garibaldi is set upon by the tattooed guy and the Drazi is weak, but ambitious.  I don't think much, if any, of that is a stuntman; I'm pretty sure it's all Jerry Doyle.  It looks like what it is -- a cheap television fistfight -- but hey, it's cheap television.  And it does make Garibaldi seem awfully vulnerable, so it works as a story point.  Sort of.  Sinclair showing up in the nick of time is just tacky.
  • In case we thought all that Home Guard jazz from earlier in the season was fluff, we now find out that they have enacted a plot to assassinate the new President while he is visiting Babylon 5.  It would likely have been a success, too, if not for the malfunction that killed Nolan.  And then they are able to immediately pivot and put a Plan B into action, which fails only because of how slippery and tenacious Garibaldi is.  So in other words, this organization is very competent, apparently very large (or at least widespread), and very determined.  This is bad, bad news.
  • Santiago apparently uses his address as a means to speak to the notion of Earth working more closely with alien governments.  This, of course, is the very type of thing which has put him at odds with the isolationist movement.  It will end up getting him killed, and the ramifications of that assassination are one side of the two-sided coin that is the primary ongoing plot of this series.  (The second side of which is on the way soon in the aforementioned "Signs and Portents.")  I'm not sure if it's ever quite called out AS such, but the station's mission in the long run after that will prove to be the enacting of Santiago's goals.  As you might imagine, this will cause problems for the station, its crew, and those who live there.  We'll get there in due course.
Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****

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