Saturday, January 16, 2010

B5 Season 1

Unlike Star Trek, Babylon 5 was never a series that I followed. I mean, you can't watch them all, right? Heck, I never saw a single episode of Star Trek: Enterprise after the first season. I still haven't seen the new Battlestar Galactica. Of course, the fact that I only use my TV as a video player has a lot to do with that. B5 aired during my college years, during the same period of time when I was watching every episode of whatever Star Trek series happened to be on the air - and for several of those years, there were two Treks running simultaneously.

I just didn't have time to follow two richly plotted space operas. Babylon 5 was strikingly similar in concept to Deep Space Nine, my favorite Trek series. I had to choose one of them; I went with the brand name I trusted. (B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski maintains that Paramount stole much of DS9's original concept from a story treatment he had unsuccessfully tried to sell them. On the other hand, you can see foreshadowings of DS9 running through several seasons of TNG as the spinoff series was planned.)

Anyway, I've decided to make up my deficiency in space opera lore. I picked up a used DVD set of Season 1 of Babylon 5. Its 22 episodes first aired between January and October of 1994 on the short-lived PTEN network. Straczynski, hereafter JMS, had the whole five-year plot arc planned in great detail. As show-runner he maintained direct control over the entire run of the show, personally writing 92 out of 110 episodes. He penned a record-setting stretch of 59 consecutive episodes, including all 44 episodes of Seasons 3 and 4. He was an extremely disciplined writer, penning episodes six weeks in advance, forbidding last-minute rewrites, and building a "trap-door" into each major character in the event - which in several instances became reality - of a cast member's early departure from the show.

JMS's creation is an interesting phenomenon. It is an original sci-fi series that presents a not-particularly-rosy picture of mankind's future. It stayed under budget in spite of featuring lots of weird-looking aliens (known to actors as "Chinese latex torture"), as well as TV's first regular use of the 16x9 aspect ratio and CGI special effects. Inspired by the works of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, and Tolkien, it tells a mature story, full of complex characters, intelligent dialogue, and an intoxicating blend of mirror-to-the-world didacticism with pure, escapist fantasy. I do not exaggerate when I say that one episode in Season 1 made me weep ("Believers"), and another ("The Quality of Mercy") made me laugh until I was short of breath.

Because I never understood the series until now - and I'm only just beginning to get it, after watching Season 1 straight through - I'm going to help those of you who are in the same boat by mapping the general layout before I go on to a quick review of each episode.

First: What is Babylon 5? It's a huge space station spinning in orbit around a lifeless world (Epsilon 3) in a relatively neutral sector of the galaxy. In the year 2258 in which Season 1 is set, it has been there a couple of years, following a series of freak accidents (?) that destroyed the previous 4 Babylon stations. It serves in part as a military outpost for Earthforce, and in part as a melting pot of alien races who come together to transact business, do a little diplomacy, dabble in crime and corruption (heck, some of them swim in it), and basically try to find a way to live together in peace. The opening voice-over, accompanying a montage of images from this season, indicates that as such, Babylon 5 is the galaxy's last, best hope for peace. It's an important hope, too, since only 10 years prior the Minbari (see below) came within a hair-trigger of exterminating the human race.

Second: Who is in charge of this place? The captain of the station, for the first year only, is Earthforce Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, played by the (let's face it) wooden Michael O'Hare. From the very first episode, not counting the pilot (which wasn't in this set), I could tell why JMS sprang his trap-door and replaced him with Bruce Boxleitner in season 2. In a way, though, it's a crying shame. Sinclair's character seems to have an important destiny, perhaps more important than what turned up in his handful of guest appearances later on. For example, he was spared at the "Battle of the Line" when Earth played its last, losing hand against the Minbari war fleet. As the season progresses, he begins to remember what happened during the lost day when he blacked out and his ship went off the screens. Apparently, after interrogating him and perhaps doing some kind of freaky tests on him, the Minbari decided to surrender and let the human race live to fight another day. Then they vetoed a long list of candidates to command B5 until his name finally came up. It's very suspicious, and a lot of complicated stuff lies behind the Minbari decision to end the war, but it pretty much becomes moot when Sinclair goes down and Sheridan comes up -- a story for another day.

Serving with Sinclair (and later Sheridan) are two senior officers. Second-in-command and in charge of station operations is Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, whose last name is so atrociously mispronounced that it makes me twitch every time someone speaks it, played (through Season 4) by the very effective Claudia Christian. And radio shock-jock Jerry Doyle, something of a ringer for Bruce Willis, plays Security Chief and recovering alcoholic Michael Garibaldi. As the first season opens up their background, we learn that Ivanova is a Russian Jew whose mother committed suicide after a 10-year regime of heavy sedatives to suppress her telepathic talents. So she doesn't hold much love for the PsiCorps, a government agency that polices the use of telepathy by humans - resulting in, among other things, her strained relationship with the station's resident Commercial Telepath, Talia Winters (played for Seasons 1 and 2 by Jerry Doyle's then-wife Andrea Thompson). Meanwhile, of Garibaldi, we learn that he still carries a torch for a girl he left behind on the Martian Colony.

Apart from the chief physician at the station's Medlab, Dr. Stephen Franklin (played by Richard Biggs), the rest of the principal cast wore prosthetics, flamboyant wigs, and alien costumes. Which leads to the third question: What kind of people are these aliens? The four main races, apart from humans, are the Centauri, the Minbari, the Vorlons, and the Narn.

The Centauri are the ones who dress like 19th-century courtiers; the women are bald or, at most, wear a pony tail, while the men have receding hairlines and a flaring hairstyle reminiscent of a peacock's tail, its size varying in direct proportion to the wearer's social rank. Their basic character trait is regret, as they look back on the glories of a fading empire. Their ambassador on B5 is a flamboyant libertine named Londo Mollari, masterfully played by Peter Jurasik with an unexplained accent -- sort of like Deanna Troi's, it bears no relation either to the actor's background or to other characters belonging to that race, yet it's impossible to imagine Londo without it -- the irrepressibly funny, fast-living, melancholy, sometimes cynical, yet somehow basically decent Londo, whose every clever utterance and shaded nuance of expression is a pleasure to see and hear. His aide is the portly, bumbling, adorably insecure Vir Cotto, played by Stephen Furst (best known for his roles in Animal House and TV's "St. Elsewhere"). The relationship between these two sharply contrasted characters is one of the few that ran throughout the length of the series. Already in Season 1, they're a very enjoyable pair.

The Minbari are the ones with pasty-white skin and bald heads decorated by a mantle of bony ridges. Their race is divided between the Warrior Caste and the Religious Caste, who seldom agree on anything -- but when they do, look out! It's a holy war! The latest holy war almost wiped out the human race, if that gives you an idea. Now the Minbari seem mysteriously motivated to work toward galactic peace. Leading this effort is Ambassador Delenn, who appears in her original, bald-topped, Version 1.0 in this season only. Played by Croatian actress Mira Furlan (late of "Lost"), whose foreign accent is at least understandable though not shared by her fellow Minbari characters, Delenn is a character surrounded by spooky mystery. Her wide-eyed, innocent assistant Lennier is played by the same Bill Mumy who played Will Robinson in the original "Lost in Space" teleseries.

The Narn are the vaguely devilish-looking aliens with red eyes, lantern jaws, and big smooth heads covered with dark spots. Until 100 years ago, they were slaves of the Centauri Empire, which stripped their world of its natural resources. Now they are a major military power in their own right, and one must be ambivalent as to whether they're good guys or bad guys. The Narn ambassador is G'Kar (with a soft G, like "dzhe-KAR"), played by Andreas Katsulas, whom I mentioned in my review of TNG Season 4. His aide, pretty much for this season only, is Na'Toth, a tough Narn female played by Caitlin Brown. The actress left the series at the end of the season, returning only for a single fifth-season episode; meanwhile, her character was briefly recast before being written off the show. Evidently all that latex was a killer. Nevertheless, both Brown and Katsulas seemed to do a great job playing interesting characters in spite of their heavy makeup.

The Vorlons are the ones you never really see. No one is supposed to see them. They live in an unbreathable atmosphere and wear a really bizarre costume, called an "encounter suit," when interacting with other aliens - which they do as little as possible. So Vorlon Ambassador Kosh is not represented by a regular cast member; his character is the result of a combination of puppetry and the voice talents of one Ardwright Chamberlain, plus some distorting sound effects. Kosh is sort of the Yoda of Babylon 5, holding himself to few words and enigmatic ones at that. I gather that a few people are allowed to see him outside his encounter suit. References are made to the station's ex-doctor and ex-telepath, both of whom left the series after the pilot episode (the telepath character, Lyta Alexander, eventually returned after Talia Winters was written off). And in the Season 1 finale, Kosh exposes himself to Delenn just before she goes into chrysalis... Hmmm. I wonder if there's a connection there?

And so the series begins to unfold, its episodes like chapters in a delicately-planned TV novel. Each season as a whole has a title, like a major section of a book. The title of Season 1 is "Signs and Portents."

Chapter 1: "Midnight on the Firing Line." A diplomatic crisis threatens to divide the station's ruling council when the Narn Regime attacks the Centauri agricultural colony of Ragesh 3. This episode does a fine job of introducing most of the main characters. Londo and G'Kar almost come to physical blows; at one point Garibaldi has to threaten to shoot Londo to prevent the latter from killing G'Kar. While Sinclair struggles to find a way to defuse the situation, Talia finds out what Ivanova has against telepaths and Garibaldi reveals what his "second favorite thing in the universe" is.

Chapter 2: "Soul Hunter." W. Morgan Sheppard, on whom I have previously remarked, begins a parade of sometime Star Trek guests crossing over to B5. Here he plays the title role of a spooky alien who harvests the souls of dying people, preserving them in a form that enables him to speak to them and learn from them. Understandably, his arrival on the station freaks out a lot of aliens, especially the Minbari, who would go to heroic lengths to prevent one of their leaders from falling into a Soul Hunter's hands. This particular S.H. turns out to have a screw loose (more so, that is, than your ordinary Soul Hunter), culminating in a suspenseful scene in which Sinclair barely saves Delenn from being harvested before her time.

Chapter 3: "Born to the Purple." A Centauri exotic dancer seduces Londo, who willingly falls for her. It turns out she is being used by an alien blackmailer played by sometime Trek guest Clive Revill, who was also the original voice of the Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back. Even though it's been only a few days since I saw this episode, I actually don't remember much of it apart from the bare outline. Maybe I'll have to watch it again, or maybe it's just a sign that it wasn't a particularly stimulating hour.

Chapter 4: "Infection," actually the first regular B5 episode to be filmed. Dr. Franklin gets a visit from his old mentor, Dr. Vance Hendricks (played by David McCallum). The two work together identifying the purpose of some strange alien artifacts that seem to combine organic material with high-level technology. These gizmos turn out to be a doomsday weapon, which takes over Hendricks's assistant and turns him into an unstoppable killing machine. Franklin is disgusted to find out that Henrdicks was planning to sell the artifact, which was why he had wanted to check it out quietly. A bigger concern is that the machine wiped out the race that created it because it was programmed to weed out imperfection. Sinclair eventually pulls a page out of the Captain Kirk playbook when he talks this walking doomsday weapon into self-destructing.

Chapter 5: "The Parliament of Dreams." This Emmy-winning episode introduces sometime Trek guest Julia Nickson as Sinclair's recurring love interest, Catherine Sakai. It also introduces Na'Toth and Lennier. During a celebration of the religious practices of all the races on B5, G'Kar finds out that someone back on Homeworld has taken out a contract on his life. The assassin turns out to be played by Thomas Kopache, who also (repeatedly) guested on Trek. It's a great episode for showing the comic potential of the Narn characters.

Chapter 6: "Mind War." This is the episode that introduces the recurring character of Alfred Bester, a Psi Corps villain played by Star Trek's own Walter Koenig. In his first appearance, Bester comes to B5 on the trail of Talia's mentor, Jason Ironheart, who has attained to a higher level of telepathic power and become a threat to national security. Meanwhile, Catherine Sakai brushes off G'Kar's warnings about scouting out a planet in a sector historically controlled by the Narn. In the end, the Narn have to rescue her when her ship gets "stepped on" by a higher intelligence to whom humans are as ants to us. It's a pretty eerie incident.

Chapter 7: "The War Prayer." A group of "earth-first" agitators wages a war of terror on B5, stabbing and branding aliens including a notable Minbari poet. What begins as a subplot of romantic comic relief, with a pair of young Centauri lovers trying to escape their arranged marriages, gets tangled up in the main plotline when the swain gets stabbed within an inch of his life. Watch out, in later episodes, for further mentions of the Homeguard. And by the way, if you've been watching TV's "The Closer," you may recognize Michael Paul Chan in his guest appearance here.

Chapter 8: "And the Sky Full of Stars." Again filled with references back to the pilot film, which I still haven't seen, this episode explores the lost day at the climax of the Earth-Minbari war when Sinclair was missing, twenty-four hours of which he has no memory. I gather that his flashback to an alien telling him, "You have a hole in your mind," comes from the same pilot that I missed. Here Sinclair begins to figure out what really happened, and among the scattered bits of memory that he recovers is the fact that Delenn was there when the Minbari interrogated him. This episode guest-stars Christopher Neame - the only known actor to have appeared in Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 - and Judson Scott, another notable Trek alum.

Chapter 9: "Deathwalker." Na'Toth has to be forcibly prevented from killing a female visitor to B5 who, she claims, was a war criminal responsible for cruel and usually fatal experiments on living people. This alien, Jha'dur, turns out to be the last known member of the Dilgar race whose attempt to conquer the "nonaligned worlds" blew up in their face a generation ago. Now, with many of those nonaligned races represented on the station, Sinclair is besieged with demands for Jha'dur's head - including some threatening warship maneuvers. Jha'dur eventually offers a diabolical temptation: a formula for immortality that requires, for its manufacture, the deaths of countless people. Observing that even her critics would condone mass murder for a chance at immortality, Jha'dur sneers: "You will become us." Vorlon Ambassador Kosh gets the final word, however, when he blows up Jha'dur's shuttle to Earth, saying: "You are not ready for immortality."

Chapter 10: "Believers." This heartbreaking episode features Trek alums Tricia O'Neil and Stephen Lee as the parents of an alien boy whose life Dr. Franklin can easily save - if only they will let him do surgery. But the parents, like all of their people, believe that cutting into his flesh will result in their child's soul being lost, a fate worse than death. Though there is a (fairly lame) subplot about space raiders ganging up on a civilian transport, this ethical dilemma drives most of the episode and has the proven power to bring a grown man to tears. Trust me on this.

Chapter 11: "Survivors." An explosion in one of the fighter-ship launch bays triggers an intense investigation, especially because the President of the Earth Alliance is due to visit B5 in a few days. So when the head of the President's advance security team finds evidence that Garibaldi sabotaged the fighter bay, she's fully prepared to take him down. Partly, however, this is because of some personal history between them, from when her father died in a sabotage attack targeting Garibaldi, back on Mars when he was a heavy-drinking friend of their family. Garibaldi goes to ground while trying to clear his name AND foil the Homeguard's upcoming attempt on the President's life.

Chapter 12: "By Any Means Necessary." Sinclair struggles to keep a labor dispute from spiraling out of control. The dock workers are overworked, underpaid, and saddled with decrepit and unsafe equipment. When one of their own is killed in a senseless accident, they decide they've had enough and go on strike. The trouble is, by the terms of their contract they aren't allowed to strike. A hard-nosed negotiator comes to the station to straighten things out, but he seems determined to force Sinclair to call in troops to settle the strike. Meanwhile, G'Kar needs a certain flower to carry out a religious ritual that he must complete by a certain deadline, but the only specimen to be had is clenched in Londo's vengeful, uncompromising fist. This is really a very entertaining episode, making compelling use of guest actors (and Trek alums) Katy Boyer and John Snyder.

Chapter 13: "Signs and Portents." This episode introduces perhaps the most important recurring villain in the entire series: Morden, first name unknown, a good-looking and oily manipulator (played by Ed Wasser), who spends most of this episode flashing his dazzling smile and asking various aliens the dread question: "What do you want?" Morden also sics his invisible buddies on Kosh, scares the daylights out of Delenn, and rescues a priceless symbol of the Centauri Empire from a crew of raiders who have stolen it from Londo. For it is - fatefully, I believe - Londo who gives Morden the answer he's been looking for, when he confesses that what he wants is a return of his Republic's olden glory. The guest cast includes two-time Trek guest Gerrit Graham as Londo's duplicitous friend Lord Kiro, and Whip Hubley, whom you may recall as Hollywood in Top Gun, here playing the leader of the raiders.

Chapter 14: "TKO." Into every season of explosive sci-fi teledrama, alas, a dud must come. This is B5's first-season dud: an episode that, in my opinion, takes the series nowhere. Sure, it establishes that Ivanova's father is a dead Russian Jew, embittered by his wife's suicide and his son's combat death. Sure, it guest stars the great Theodore Bikel (who also happens to have guested on TNG) as the rabbi who travels light years to deliver Ivanova's inheritance (a samovar) and help her sit shiva. Sure, it features an alien extreme-fighting event called the Mutai, and the disgraced boxer whose ambition is to be the first human to fight in it. But apart from a surprisingly uninteresting look at alien martial arts and some deep character development for Ivanova, it doesn't move the plot ahead very much.

Chapter 15: "Grail." B5's latest visitor is the last remaining "true seeker" in search of the Holy Grail. Though he doesn't find the grail on the station, he does redeem a lost soul and anoint him as his successor. The soul in question is Jinxo, a petty thief who believes there is a curse on him, so that if he leaves Babylon 5 it will be destroyed. Jinxo is on the run from a criminal creep named Deuce, who is aiding and abetting an alien known as a Na'ka'leen Feeder, a creature who uses its squidlike tentacles to suck the minds out of living people. The end result is three parts tragic, two parts uplifting, with a touch of humor coming (reliably) from the Centauri sector of B5. Guest stars include the awesome David Warner as Aldous Gajic, and Jim Norton (who played several characters on B5) as the Ombudsman; both of them also guested on Star Trek.

Chapter 16: "Eyes." An Earthforce internal affairs colonel comes to Bablyon 5, aiming to get to the bottom of everything - including stuff Sinclair still doesn't remember about his lost day. He brings with him a relatively nice Psi Corps telepath (played by frequent Trek guest Jeffrey Combs), who is supposed to probe everybody's mind. Both Sinclair and Ivanova express strong objections to this plan, so Col. ben Zayn maneuvers around them with diabolical cleverness. Forcing unwilling associates to do his work, the Colonel finally proves to be so unstable that his own telepath is forced to take him down. It is a rare treat to see Combs playing a non-alien, non-freak, non-evil character. It makes up for the atrocious acting of his costar Gregory Martin.

Chapter 17: "Legacies." A young girl is caught supporting herself in "the Downbelow" by means of petty thievery. Her arrest turns into a head-butting session between Talia and Ivanova when the girl manifests telepathic talent. Meanwhile, the body of a Minbari war leader is brought on board the station for public display, a move by his planet's warrior caste whose aggressive posturing embarrasses even Ambassador Delenn. When the body disappears, embarrassment gives way to anger in an incident that could trigger interplanetary war. John Vickery (who also guested on Trek, wouldn't you know) makes his first appearance as the recurring Minbari character Neroon. And the word "chrysalis" first pops up in this episode, a foreshadowing of things to come.

Chapters 18-19: "A Voice in the Wilderness." This two-part episode weaves together several drama-intenstive storylines. First, the Martian Colony revolts against the Earth-based Provisinal Government. Caught in the crossfire is Lise Hampton, the girl Garibaldi left behind, and he is frantic to find out whether she's OK. Second, Delenn's old mentor Draal drops in to say goodbye; he's on his way "to the stars" to see if he can't do some good in the universe, after doing all that he can at home. Third, seismic activity on the adjacent planet (Epislon 3) leads to the discovery of a mind-blowingly huge machine inside the planet, which was supposedly uninhabited. The machine must be connected to a living mind to run properly, and the old guy in charge is dying. If he kicks it before a successor can be found, the planet will blow up and take B5 with it. Fourth, Earthforce sends a war cruiser to take control of the machine - but then, so does whatever mysterious force stands behind the Raiders who have been an increasing nuisance all year long. This two-parter boasts one of the great space battles of the series so far. Plus, it introduces the recurring character of Draal (though Louis Turenne plays him only in this one episode), and features Trek alum Ron Canada as the cruiser captain who horns in on Sinclair's authority.

Chapter 20: "Babylon Squared." In this episode, the folks from B5 come in contact with Babylon 4, the space station that mysteriously vanished five years earlier. It is a mind-bending episode involving time travel, a mysterious cult figure known as "the One" who needs to take B4 back in time to play a role in the battle between the Light and the Dark, and a whimsical creature (or race of creatures) known as Zathras, played by Tim Choate in this and several subsequent episodes. Meanwhile, Delenn travels to meet with the Minbari "Gray Council," who have voted her to be their leader. When she declines this honor, insisting that her heart calls her to stay on B5, they give her a mysterious device known as a triluminary (which, I believe, appeared ealier in one of Sinclair's flashbacks to his lost day). What is she doing to do with it? You won't have to wait long to find out.

Chapter 21: "The Quality of Mercy." The serious part of this episode involves a cold-blooded killer played by Mark Rolston (he of the icy stare, and yes, a TNG guest actor), who has been convicted and sentenced to have his mind wiped. This puts Talia Winters in the uncomfortable position of having to probe this psycho's mind. Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin is on the trail of a medical quack, played by June Lockhart (late of "Lost in Space"), who actually seems to be helping underinsured patients in the Downbelow, aided by a mysterious alien device. Her daughter is played by another Trek alum, Kate McNeil. But in spite of all this heavy stuff, I will remember this episode for the immensely welcome comic relief provided when Londo takes Lennier under his wing and shows him around B5's dens of iniquity. I could quote their hysterically funny dialogue at great length, but the image I'll leave you with shows Londo using one of his six male appendages (which grow out of the sides of his body) to cheat at cards. Someone sets a pitcher of icewater on it and he shudderingly says, "Is it me, or is it getting cold in here?"

Chapter 22: "Chrysalis." This is the episode in which Delenn goes into her coccoon, from which she emerges (in Season 2) transformed into a Minbari-human hybrid. Sinclair successfully proposes marriage to Catherine Sakai. Garibaldi less successfully tries to stop a plot to assassinate the President of the Earth Alliance, ending up comatose in Medlab while the guy who stabbed him is left free to run station security. The nefarious Morden saves Londo's diplomatic career by sending the Shadows - those creepy, invisible, insectoid things he works for - to blast a contentious Narn outpost out of existence. A new president is sworn in after probably being part of a conspiracy against his predecessor, hinting at dark days to come. Mollari wrestles with his conscience, knowing that 10,000 people have been killed just to help his career. Kosh tells Sinclair: "And so it begins." And the page turns to B5 Season 2, titled "The Coming of Shadows."

IMAGES from top: Season 1 DVD; B5; Sinclair; Ivanova; Londo; Delenn; G'Kar; Kosh; Garibaldi; Catherine Sakai; Bester; Vir; Dr. Franklin; Morden; Talia Winters; Neroon; Na'Toth; Lennier.

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