Sunday, February 10, 2019

See Yourself For What You Are: Babylon 5, "Grail" (season 1, episode 15)

Previously, on Babylon 5...

Tonight, on an underwhelming new episode: a holy man from Earth arrives on the station for a series of meetings with the ambassadors.  His goal: to find the Holy Grail.  I shit you not.

(season 1, episode 15)
airdate:  July 6, 1994
wirtten by:  Christy Marx
directed by:  Richard Compton

Two dud episodes in a row, and when I say "dud" I mean shite.

We're under time constraints, so this is going to be a relatively brief post, much as was the case with "TKO" last time.  We'll use screencaps to get some conversation going.  Maybe.  Let's find out!

Sinclair has just settled down with a plate of food.

Delenn shows up and chastises him for his seeming lack of plans to greet a new arrival onto the station: a holy man of some sort.

Sinclair seems confused by this; he's got no clue what Delenn is talking about.  But he never quite says so, and Delenn never indicates whether she is under the impression that Sinclair did know.  So this scene is a weird miscommunication OF a seeming miscommunication.  This is what happens when a weak screenplay, poor direction, and a low budget get together, y'all.

Elsewhere, a hapless sad-sack is accosted by...

...William Sanderson!  He's playing "Deuce," a crime boss of some sort, and sad-sack guy (who is called "Jinxo") owes him some money.

Deuce feeds a woman to "the Vorlon."

"The Vorlon" is a tentacled alien inside an encounter suit that looks like the one worn by Ambassador Kosh.  I didn't screencap it, because it just kind of looks like a bunk Kosh.
This episode introduces the notion of Downbelow and Lurkers.  (At least I think it does; if they've been referred to by those names prior to this, I missed it.)  Let's discuss that, I guess.

"Downbelow," essentially, is a section of the station that isn't in use; the idea, I guess, is that it's undeveloped (or semi-developed) space that could eventually be used for businesses, or guest quarters, or new diplomatic wings, etc.  So like an office building with an untenanted floor.  Does this make sense in a space-station context?  Sure, I guess so.  As much sense as aliens speaking English all the time, at least; meaning: I can live with it.

"Lurkers" are people who arrived on the station for one reason or another but then could not afford the fare to leave again.  So basically, homeless people.  I'm not sure the show ever persuades me that this sort of thing is likely.  I mean, sure, I can imagine it being a problem in theory.  But as soon as it became a problem, wouldn't it become a top priority and get solved?  The idea is that B5 is like a city in space, so a parallel is being drawn between the homelessness of, say, Los Angeles and this science-fictional homelessness.  But it's comparatively quite cheap to get to Los Angeles, so the parallel breaks down immediately.  In theory, it would be very possible to restrict entrance to Babylon 5; less so for any modern city.  Couldn't somebody begin requiring anyone arriving at Babylon 5 to have pre-booked some sort of return passage?  Alternatively, wouldn't there be some sort of diplomatic procedures for each world?  If it were citizens of Earth, for example, wouldn't there be some sort of legal repercussions for what amounts to large-scale loitering?
Maybe all of those questions have answers I'm simply not thinking of.  In any case, it's a sci-fi show; as I say frequently, I can more or less live with it.

Part of the episode involves Deuce having to appear before the ombudsman.  The woman he fed to the alien earlier was scheduled to testify against him.  You can care about that if you want to , but you'll do it without me.  However, I'm thoroughly amused by a silly sidebar we get in which the guy with the mustache above (played by the series cinematographer John C. Flinn III) is seeking legal damages for his grandfather having been allegedly abducted by an alien.

Specifically, by the grandfather of THIS alien!  It's doofus humor, but it seriously cracks me up.  (By the way, these aliens are called the "Vree," and they are sort of similar to another race of aliens we see later called the "Streib."  Named, naturally, for Communion author Whitley Streiber.  The Streib are a lot more dangerous than the Vree.)

The ombudsman, who is somewhat put out by all of this, asks the Vree how he pleads.  The answer:

Cue laughter from the home office of Where No Blog Has Gone Before.

This is the sort of dumb-ass humor that is common enough today, especially on smarty-pants cartoons like Rick and Morty or whatever.  It was less common in 1994, when it was basically just this show and the various Star Treks doing televised space opera.  You'd never get a joke like this on Star Trek: The Next Generation; a very funny show at times, that, but not in this sort of earthy way.  And yet, you just know that if we as a people do ever move out into exploring the galaxy, and if then we find out that alien abductions actually WERE a thing ... some dude with a mustache is most definitely going to find a way to sue somebody over it.  Count on that.

The seeker of the Grail is named Aldous Gajic (pronounced "GYE-itch") and is played by David Warner.  Warner is very good, given the limitations of the screenplay.

The episode has played it close to the chest until this scene as to what Gajic is there for.  When he reveals he's looking for the Holy Grail, it prompts a massive eye-roll from Garibaldi.  Also, perhaps, from any number of viewers.  I think it's kind of a cool idea, personally; not so much as this episode presents it but in theory.

Sinclair is there, too, and he's not AS visibly dismissive of Gajic; but it's close.  He immediately pawns the seeker off on Garibaldi and goes about his business.  He's chased down by Delenn, who seems very disappointed in him.

"On Earth," says Sinclair by way of explaining his dismissive attitude, "the Grail is nothing but a myth; it's a nice story to tell your kids.  For someone to spend his whole life looking for it is ... well, it's not often taken very seriously."

"How sad," Delenn bluntly replies.  "He is a holy man; a true seeker.  Among my people, a true seeker is treated with the utmost reverence and respect.  It doesn't matter that his Grail may or may not exist.  What matters is that he strives for the perfection of his soul and the salvation of his race; that he has never wavered or lost faith."

Sinclair is somewhat chastened by this.  "I wish him luck," he says.  "He's probably the only true seeker we have."

"Then perhaps you do not know yourself as well as you think," replies Delenn, almost seductively.


I like this scene.  "Grail" is a terrible episode, but it has a few decent moments here and there.  The first-season relationship between Sinclair and Delenn has been played almost as a courtship, with only one half of the people involved aware it is even taking place.  I'm a big fan of that storyline, and it gets enough play here that I find myself unable to write the episode all the way off.

Jinxo gets arrested for pickpocketing Gajic.

Garibaldi hauls him off to appear before the ombudsman, where...

...Gajic ends up asking him to be remanded into his custody.  The ombudsman had initially planned to kick Jinxo off the station for his various crimes, but this works for him, too.  Not terribly plausible, but hey, whatever.

Gajic asks why he's called "Jinxo," and he explains that he's the reason the first four Babylon stations were lost.  He was on the construction crew, see, and the first three got sabotaged while he was on leave.  The fourth, he never left until construction was complete; but then, as he was leaving once it went online, it simply vanished.  He saw it happen: it just shimmered and twisted and was gone.  Gajic says, not unreasonably, that maybe his nickname should be "Lucky" instead.

Gajic sees potential in Jinxo (actual name: Thomas).  Jinxo refuses to leave Babylon 5 because he sees it as his duty to stay and prevent it from being destroyed or from vanishing or whatever; to Gajic, this fact in and of itself reveals Thomas to be "a man of infinite promise and goodness."  They are not dissimilar; they both seek things others deride as being ridiculous.  "You are a fine, good man, Thomas," he says; "see yourself for what you are, not what others try to make you."

David Warner delivers all of this impeccably.  The actor -- and I use the word "actor" in the broadest possible sense -- playing Jinxo is awful.  Just awful.  I do not entirely blame him for this.  Director Richard Compton has presided over a number of terrible performances in his episodes, many of them from actors of known quality.
You may have noticed that when Gajic tells Thomas to see himself for what he is, this is not at all dissimilar to what Delenn has suggested Sinclair do.  There are potentially compelling connections between these two pairs of characters; the screenplay doesn't necessarily find them, alas.  But it's kind of a nice mantra to bear in mind for the series as a whole.

A whole bunch of plot bullshit happens.  Deuce enacts his plot to kidnap both Jinxo and the ombudsman and feed them to the alien:

which is not a Vorlon at all, but a "Na'Ka'Leen feeder," a horrible species from the Centauri sector.  Sinclair gets some information about them from Londo, who panics and hides in his quarters.  This prompts some allegedly comedic music from Christopher Franke, who should be ashamed of himself to this day.  JMS should be ashamed for permitting it.
Anyways, Garibaldi saves the day by showing up and scragging the feeder.  In a sign of my feelings about this section of the episode, I literally can't remember -- despite watching it twice -- what happens to Deuce.  Does he get away?  Maybe.  Does he get killed or arrested?  Possible.

I do know that Aldous Gajic is mortally wounded, and in his last testament he declares Thomas to be his rightful heir, passing along the quest for the Grail to a new seeker.  Oof.  Sure, why not?

Delenn gives Thomas a thingamabob to sprinkle over Gajic's grave; it will glow at night for a span of a hundred years, marking the grave as the resting place of an honored person.  "It is out way with all true seekers," she says, and in a remarkably unsubtle moment she glances directly at Sinclair, so as to drive the point home.  Mira Furlan plays this nicely; but it's a genuinely awful moment, directorially-speaking.

The episode ends with Sinclair, Ivanova, and Garibaldi watching Thomas's ship depart through the jumpgate; they wonder if there's anything to the "Babylon curse."  Sinclair notes that there's no boom, so all must be well.

"No boom today," clarifies Ivanova.  "Boom tomorrow.  There's always a boom tomorrow."

We might at this moment reflect on the prophecy of Lady Ladira in "Signs and Portents," in which she had a vision -- several of them, actually -- of the station exploding in an enormous ball of fire.  I'd like to point out, however, that "Grail" was actually aired grossly out of order; it was the ninth episode to be produced, but the fifteenth to be broadcast.  So in actuality, this moment kind of ought to play as a mild foreshadowing of "Signs and Portents" (and of the actual event to which "Signs and Portents" itself is a foreshadowing).  One of my goals for this watchthrough is to construct a recommended viewing order; it's mostly very straightforward to do so (chronological by airdate), but I do think there are some places where deviations from the broadcast order make a lot of sense.
This is one, not only because of the foreshadowing I just mentioned, but also because the Londo we see here is palpably NOT the same man who has been through the events of "Signs and Portents."  His character arc from that to "Grail" doesn't work; and there's a reason for that, since it was made earlier.
Alternatively, one could very well just opt to skip this episode altogether.  I like the Sinclair and Delenn stuff enough that I advise against doing so; but it's close.
Bryant's rating:  * / *****

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