Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Fairy Wings On A Cement Truck: Babylon 5, ''Eyes'' (season 1, episode 16)

Tonight, on an all-new episode: an Earthforce Internal Investigations (II, "eye eye," "eyes") arrives onboard the station with an axe to grind and a Psi Corps agent to help him do it. 
(season 1, episode 16)
airdate:  July 13, 1994
written by:  Lawrence G. DiTillio
directed by:  Jim Johnston
The axe the "eyes" agent has to grind: he believes Sinclair and his command staff to be disloyal to Earth.  He's obtained the permission of the joint chiefs of staff to conduct an investigation determined to prove it, up to and including using not-entirely-legal telepathic mindscans.  He'll be questioning many of the decisions Sinclair has made during the season to date: the resolution of the Ragesh 3 incident, the Deathwalker affair (and especially Sinclair's failure to press the Vorlons* for an explanation), and most especially the reallocation of military funds during the events of "By Any Means Necessary."
It's basically a continuity explosion, and while none of this seems exceptional from a 2019 standpoint, it's important, I think, to remember that you didn't see such things all that often on television in 1994.  It was by no means unheard-of; but it certainly caught one's attention.

* -- By the way, it's Ben Zayn's reproachful questioning of the Vorlon/Deathwalker thing that provided me with this post's title.  Ben Zayn is asking Garibaldi to explain Sinclair's non-action.  Why didn't he at least formally protest their actions?  "Protests are as much use with the Vorlons as fairy wings on a cement truck," replies Garibaldi, with an implied fuck-you.  (He has a lot of those this episode, and Jerry Doyle does well with them.  After this moment, Ben Zayn -- who has him burning the midnight oil -- cuts him free for the night.  "If I knew who God was, I'd thank her," he deadpans.)
All of this results in a better episode than I remembered; not one which is going to knock the socks off most viewers, I'd imagine, but solid.  With caveats, yes; but solid.

Let's briefly discuss some behind-the-scenes info that helps to put the episode in context.  It was written from scratch in five days when the production suddenly had the need for there to be a bottle episode.  Apparently, an unnamed freelance writer fell through on delivering a script in time, leaving a gap in the schedule.  Straczynski was at home with the flu working on the two-part episode "A Voice in the Wilderness," and so DiTillio was tasked with coming up with something new on the fly.
So says Jane Killick in her season-one-overview book Signs and Portents, at least.
Add to that this: the two-part episode "A Voice in the Wilderness" ended up costing more money than expected, so there was a need to save money elsewhere.  (This is a slight fudge of the truth on my part; in actuality, Warner Bros. had suggested that "A Voice in the Wilderness" be turned into a two-parter so as to save money on set construction.  That money was expected by the production to be available to move over to other episodes; this ended up not happening.  So it seems to me based on Killick's book, at least.  Alternatively, it might be true that the episodes ran over, and ate up the expected overruns.) 
This resulted in "Eyes," which is essentially a series of scenes of people in rooms talking to one another.
Including these people:
The guy on the right is Colonel Ari Ben Zayn, the II officer.  He's played by Gregory Paul Martin, who is evidently the son of George Martin, the Beatles producer.  What I'll say about Gregory Paul Martin is this: he's no Abbey Road.  He's no With The Beatles, even.  What he is is hammy, in a manner not dissimilar to the guy who played Orin Zento in "By Any Means Necessary."  
I'm not sure it hurts this particular episode all that much, though.  Ben Zayn as a character is supposed to be a despicable, confrontational prick, and Martin executes that.  He's playing to the back row, and I think he lacks only a black hat and a mustache to complete his ensemble; but you can kind of imagine him having been a successful wartime military officer.  Orin Zento, you can't imagine as having been anything but a guy hazing nerds at a college fraternity.  You get that from Ben Zayn, as well, but in just enough a more believable manner to make it work.
Your mileage may vary, of course.  If you hear a single sentence come out of this guy's mouth and decide to bail out of the episode, that wouldn't surprise me overmuch.
The other guy?  That's Harriman Gray, the Psi Corps agent who has been assigned to Ben Zayn -- by our old friend Bester, as it turns out -- for the investigation.  And yes, that is indeed Jeffrey Combs playing the part.  He's great here.  Duh.  Sadly, he never comes back for another episode; not that this one creates that expectation, necessarily.  He would go on to do 33 episode of Deep Space Nine (and, later, eleven of Enterprise); so in the great DS9-versus-B5 war, DS9 won the battle for Jeffrey Combs.  B5's loss, for sure!

Gray's status as a Psi Corps agent is a pivotal part of the episode.  From the get-go, he's shown to be a much more sympathetic and caring individual than Ben Zayn; he's clearly not fully onboard with what the Colonel is doing, and just as clearly wants to make friends with Sinclair, Garibaldi, and (especially) Ivanova.
Since he's got access to her Psi Corps file and is going to presumably be questioning her, Gray has done his homework on Ivanova.  Not in the creepy way, either.  There'd be a way to play this episode in which his interest in her was leering or even romantic (he could have, in theory, developed a crush on her like the one Tatiana Romanova was alleged to have developed on James Bond).  Instead, he's merely sympathetic toward what happened to her and her mother; this sympathy opens him up to Ivanova, and he confesses to her his disappointment with Psi Corps having pulled him out of his own intended life.  He'd gone into Earthforce because of a lifelong love for the military; when his psi abilities presented, he was pulled out of that service and into another.  So in his own way, he kind of understands what's happened to the Ivanov family.
Ivanova herself will have none of this, of course.  She is intent on refusing to permit Gray to scan her, and expresses almost nothing but disdain for him.

All of this is fairly good.  Claudia Christian and Jeffrey Combs both do well with the material; Combs is probably a bit better than Christian, true, but you can sense Christian upping her game a bit to keep pace, and I think it works.
Much of the episode consists of a sort of chess game between Sinclair and Ben Zayn.  The Colonel orders Sinclair to submit to a "loyalty test" in the form of being mindscanned during questioning; Sinclair refuses, citing specific military laws which protect him.  Ben Zayn brings specific charges, which open Sinclair up to having to submit; and in the interim, Ben Zayn assumes command of the station.


He has a few ropey moments, but I think Michael O'Hare is generally quite good in this episode.  Sinclair's indignation and anger come through pretty clearly.  But you also cheer him every time Sinclair gets the upper hand, which he finally does in a somewhat James T. Kirkian fashion: by finding the weakness in the room and exploiting it for all it's worth.
Specifically, he uses intel Garibaldi provides him with: that Ben Zayn (A) is miffed from having been passed over for command of Babylon 5, (B) is miffed by Sinclair's mysterious relationship with the Minbari, and (C) is a good friend of Bester, who has encouraged and enabled this gambit so as to help both of them get some retribution.  Sinclair puts this together with the seemingly benign attitude of Harriman Gray, and makes a simple suggestion: are you sure you're mindscanning the right people?
It works; and it works immediately.

As soon as Ben Zayn begins questioning Sinclair, Sinclair questions him right back, divulging the Colonel's having been passed over for command of B5.  Gray didn't know this.

Sinclair goads Ben Zayn into anger; doesn't take much effort, either.

Gray feels the hatred coming off the Colonel, and accuses him of lying.  From there, the charade doesn't stand much of a chance.
Nothing Earth-shattering here; but Ben Zayn is so despicable that it's aggravating fun to watch Sinclair suffer for a bit before finally taking him down.  And Jeffrey Combs does a lot with his role, not merely for this episode, but arguably for the entire series.  Spoiler alert: telepaths become an even bigger deal on Babylon 5 than they already are by this point.  I wouldn't care to say whether this is purely from an antagonistic standpoint; but I will say that there's certainly a lot of reasons for the presence of obviously "good guy" telepaths like Harriman Gray to be a positive influence on the trajectory of the overall series.
In a better world, he might have come back and spared us from Byron.  (We'll get there, eventually.)
Elsewhere in the episode: a subplot in which, I shit you not, Lennier helps Garibaldi build a vintage Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle.
Garibaldi isn't getting far on this pet project.

Lennier does some research, which falls in line with his history-buff nature.  (I don't think this has been mentioned before now.  I'm not sure it's mentioned after this, either.)  This seems to involve watching a lot of videos on whatever the future equivalent of YouTube is.

Lennier gets quite excited over the notion that a motorcycle is considered to be a symbol of masculinity and sexual prowess.  This is ridiculous stuff, but I'll say this: the weird line drawn under the notion of sexual prowess might be said to make a certain development toward the end of the series slightly more palatable.  Not by much, though, if at all.

Lennier chants over the motorcycle as he works on it.  "Za ba ga bee," he chants.  It's awful, man.  Just awful.  I've never much cared for Lennier; I'm finding him well-night intolerable on this rewatch.  Anyways, evidently Zabagabee was the title of the great hits album issued by Mumy's band, Barnes & Barnes.  So ... yeah.

Lennier completes the work on the motorcycle while Garibaldi is enmeshed in the Ben Zayn investigation...

...much to the security chief's chagrin.  HE wanted to build it!

He gets over it fast, though, seemingly so as to avoid hurting Lennier's feelings, as much as anything else.

Does the episode end with the two of them zipping through the corridors of the station, wildman-fashion?

It sure does.  (Up to an including a HORRIBLE CGI shot of them peeling off into the distance using the Minbari power cell Lennier installed in place of an actual fuel-injection system.)

It's a pretty terrible subplot, but it's also kind of harmless.  There are many, many worse things in season one of Babylon 5 than this.
A few stray notes I failed to fit into the meat of the post:
  • The motorcycle subplot opens the episode, and it's kicked off by Lennier visiting Garibaldi to relay a request from Delenn (who is absent from this episode): Shaal Mayan, the Minbari poet who was attacked by Home Guard, is back on the station for another visit.  She does not appear, but it's a nice touch for her to be mentioned here.
  • There is a subplot involving rumors of gunrunning to the Free Mars movement.  Mars will be an even more significant subplot in later season-one episodes, and during the remainder of the series.  In fact, let me engage in a bit of conspiracy-theory-type headcanon.  At one point, Ivanova calls Sinclair while he's with Ben Zayn to tell him that a potential gunrunning case they've been investigating is now seemingly developing.  Ben Zayn kind of shuts the whole thing down by refusing to allow Sinclair to go be a part of the investigation; and it's during this scene that he assumed command.  So what if the entire charade of removing Sinclair had been designed to help facilitate the arms deal?  After all, a major insurgency will occur on Mars a mere two episodes from now.  What if all of this was a combined Earthforce/Psi Corps plot to destabilize Mars?  I'm not sure that case can actually be made; but I'm equally sure the episode does nothing to disprove it.
  • The reveal that Mr. Gray is a member of Psi Corps is handled nicely.  He prepares to let Garibaldi into his quarters while he is meditating, and as he stands he pulls on the Corps' signature black gloves.
  • There's a relatively effective dream sequence in which Ivanova "sees" her mother caught between Psi Corps agents wearing Comedy and Tragedy masks.  I probably should have screencapped some of that, but I didn't, and now I'm too lazy to go back for it.  Anyways, there's a cool aspect to the scene that is not by any means evident.  One of the Psi Corps agents is played by the same actor we've seen in other episode playing Jack, Garibaldi's second in command in security.  We don't see his face here, nor does Jack appear in the episode.  BUT, this is a foreshadowing of at least two future plot points, which is pretty cool.  Also, there's a seemingly throwaway line in which Ben Zayn tells Sinclair that while Garibaldi is assigned to him for investigative purposes, Garibaldi's second in command can handle things.  If I might put my tin-foil hat back on, I could speculate that this might have also been part of the reason for the entire investigation: to put Jack in a position to do ... whatever he would need to be in temporary command of B5 security to do.
  • I kind of wish the episode had a moment in which Ivanova directly acknowledged Mr. Gray's help so that he knew she appreciated what he'd done.  It's valid from a storytelling standpoint that she doesn't; but it would have made for a satisfying moment, even if it was only a single shot.  Their subplot feels a bit unresolved, even though Ivanova does acknowledge to Sinclair that he was helpful.
  • This was actually the final episode of season one to be filmed, by the way.
And, finally, a few screencaps I didn't use:

Ivanova is so determined not to be mindscanned that she tries to resign.

This scene -- in which Ivanova has walked away from her post in protest over Ben Zayn assuming command -- pays off a scene from earlier in the season in which Garibaldi offered to buy her a drink.  Not in the romantic sense, but in the you-could-use-someone-to-talk-to sense.  Here, she really, really needs someone to talk to.  Unfortunately, Garibaldi gets tied up and isn't able to meet her in the casino bar for a while, and Ivanova gets in a bar fight.

She destroys about half a dozen dudes.

Just lays 'em out cold, man.  It's pretty great.
So, yeah.  Not a bad episode at all.
Bryant's rating:  *** / *****

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