Thursday, 6 July 2017

Babylon 5 Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 1-2

Season 1: Signs & Portents

“It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last, best hope for peace.

“This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.” 
- Earthforce Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

Regular Cast
Commander Jeffrey Sinclair                          Michael O’Hare
Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova                     Claudia Christian
Security Chief Michael Garibaldi                  Jerry Doyle
Ambassador Delenn                                       Mira Furlan
Dr. Stephen Franklin                                      Richard Biggs
Talia Winters                                                  Andrea Thompson
Vir Cotto                                                        Stephen Furst
Lennier                                                           Bill Mumy
Na’Toth                                                          Caitlin Brown
Ambassador G’Kar                                        Andreas Katsulas
Ambassador Londo Mollari                           Peter Jurasik

Creator                                                            J. Michael Straczynski
Producer                                                         John Copeland
Executive Producers                                      J. Michael Straczynski & Douglas Netter
Co-producer (episodes A1-A5, A7-A8, A10, A15)  Richard Compton
Script Editor                                                   Lawrence G. DiTillio
Conceptual Consultant                                   Harlan Ellison
Production Designer                                       John Iacovelli
Costume Designer                                          Anne Bruice
Visual Effects Designer                                  Ron Thornton
Visual Effects Producers                                Foundation Imaging
Makeup Supervisor                                        John Vulich
Makeup Producers                                         Optic Nerve Studios
Music Composer                                            Christopher Franke
Music Performers                          Christopher Franke & the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra

Pre-Season Changes
A number of large changes were made between production of the pilot and the first season proper, as is usually the case in American television.

The biggest changes were in the regular cast. Tamlyn Tomita, Johnny Sekka, Patricia Tallman and Blaire Baron did not return in their roles as Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima, Dr. Benjamin Kyle, telepath Lyta Alexander and free trader Carolyn Sykes, respectively.

Early reports suggested that Tomita and Sekka did not have the right “energy levels” to continue in the series, although this was later contradicted: Tomita did not want to commit as a regular on a long-running television series and was concerned about her image as a military officer. She instead picked up several roles in film, most notably The Joy Luck Club, and has continued acting to this day. This sabotaged Straczynski’s plan to set up Takashima as a traitor, working under outside influence to sabotage Babylon 5. Elements of this storyline were transferred instead to two other characters, as evidenced in A22, B2 and B6, before coming to fruition in B19.

Johnny Sekka chose not to return after long-standing health issues became more noticeable and prevented him from enduring a rigorous filming schedule. He passed away in 2006 from lung cancer, at the age of 72. The Gathering was actually his last screen acting role, the final act in a career that had begun in 1959 and blazed a trail for British actors of colour. The original plan for Dr. Kyle was that he would have been a wiser old head to the (mostly) younger rest of the crew and would have become something of a mentor to the other characters, particularly Sinclair.

Patricia Tallman was keener on returning in the series proper, but her agent got into a disagreement with the production company and advised her against returning. Straczynski was irritated by this, feeling it was both unnecessary and also sabotaged some of his plans for the series. He was able to convince Tallman (having then taken alternate representation) to return to the series for episodes B19, C4 and C18 before becoming a regular for the final two seasons.

Blaire Baron’s decision not to return seems to have come from her desire to continue in film roles and also develop a new career behind the camera as a director. She later became a successful playwright. Straczynski had planned for Sykes to come into conflict with Interplanetary Expeditions and possibly end up in a role similar to Anna Sheridan and/or Catherine Sakai, her effective replacement on the show.

For their replacements, Sinclair decided to develop both very different characters – Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova and Dr. Stephen Franklin – and very similar ones – Talia Winters and Catherine Saki.

During discussions of the pilot episode on CompuServe, JMS was asked if the ambassadors had diplomatic staffs, such as aides or attachés. Realising they should, JMS created the characters of Na’Toth, Vir Cotto and Lennier to serve as diplomatic aides – and narrative sounding boards – to G’Kar, Londo Mollari and Delenn, respectively.

Foundation Imaging, the company who produced Babylon 5’s CGI (computer-generated imagery) effects, upgraded their computers between the pilot and Season 1, giving the effects a better polish. For the pilot episode the effects were exclusively generated on Commodore Amiga 2000s with Video Toasters. Season 1 continued to use Amigas, but higher-end graphics PCs were also brought in (noticeable on some of the more challenging issues, particularly the highly complex Babylon 4 model). By Season 2 they were using PCs exclusively.

Stewart Copeland chose not to return to produce the score for the series. He had been offered a new touring opportunity and chose to take that instead. Ex-Tangerine Dream member Christopher Franke was brought in to score a more traditional orchestral theme. The soundtrack for the series went on to win a number of awards and resulted in several successful albums of the music being released. Franke mostly created the music himself, but for several key themes employed the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra, on several occasions remotely conducting them from a studio in Los Angeles.

A “conceptual consultant” was hired for all five seasons to help work out ideas and concepts for the series. Harlan Ellison is one of the most famous SF short story writers in the world and has worked on scripts for TV and movies. His most famous work is inarguably the classic Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, probably the best-known individual episode of the franchise in its entire history. Among his other jobs on the series was approving story concepts, creating characters such as the Ombuds and generally acting as JMS’ sounding board for ideas (it was Ellison who fine-tuned the opening narration for the first two seasons). Contrary to popular belief, it’s not Ellison who voices the “Produced by Babylon Productions Inc.” spiel at the end of every episode, but co-producer George Johnson (before he is replaced by a burst of music from Season 2 onwards).

Several ideas for scripts were discussed for the series but never commissioned. Two story ideas by David Gerrold – Metaphors and Body-Counts and Target Unknown - were outlined but not commissioned. Creative consultant Harlan Ellison also had plans for two episodes, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral and Demon on the Run, but nothing materialised. Demon on the Run, would have actually been a sequel to his 1964 Outer Limits episode about time travel, Demon with a Glass Hand (the plot of which bears a passing resemblance to the 1984 film The Terminator, to the point where Ellison actually sued the film company). The title “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral” was reused by Ellison for an issue of his Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor comic.

The opening narration was switched from Londo (in the pilot) to Sinclair for Season 1. Straczynski's original plan was for Ivanova to voice Season 2's narration, Garibaldi for Season 3, G'Kar for Season 4 and Delenn for Season 5. This plan did not long survive contact with the reality of cast changes.

Season 1 was shot almost entirely out of order, due to actor availability, the need to construct sets or conduct complex CGI shots. The results of this are confusing: Walter Koenig, scheduled to play Knight One in episode A8, had a heart attack and was unable to appear for several months, resulting in him getting the replacement role of Bester in A6, which aired before his planned role in A8. Another confusing moment is that Ed Wasser shot his first appearance as Morden (in A13) only after filming his second appearance in A22 (which, to totally confuse people, was shot twelfth in the season). Luckily, the remaining seasons were shot almost entirely in order.

An Earth Alliance Starfury one-man space superiority fighter. The frontline combat fighter of the Earth Alliance, noted for its powerful offensive cannons, rugged armour and ability to spin on a dime.


A1: Midnight on the Firing Line
Airdates: 26 January 1994 (US), 16 May 1994 (UK)
Working Title: Blood and Thunder
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Richard Compton
Cast: Senator (Paul Hampton), Carn Mollari (Peter Trencher), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Narn Captain (Mark Hendrickson), Delta 7 Pilot (Douglas E. McCoy), ISN Reporter (Maggie Egan), Station One (Marianne Robertson)
Date: Early 2258.

Plot:    An alien fleet attacks the Centauri agricultural colony on Ragesh III, enraging Ambassador Londo Mollari on Babylon 5. His nephew Carn is on the colony and his fat is unknown. The Narn Regime soon claims responsibility for the attack, citing it as a justified re-taking of one of their colonies stolen by the Centauri during their invasion of Narn space a century and a half ago. Londo is outraged and threatens war against the Narn, but is forced to back down by his government, who wish to avert a conflict by ceding the colony to the Narn.

Londo plans to trick the Babylon 5 Advisory Council into voting for sanctions against the Narn, but G’Kar knows that the Centauri are bluffing and plays a vid tape from Ragesh III, showing Carn Mollari peacefully agreeing that the colony should join the Narn Regime. Londo believes that Carn is being coerced, but cannot prove it.

Meanwhile, a pirate group known as the Raiders has begun operating in space near Babylon 5, hitting transports bound to and from the station with heavy weapons. Babylon 5’s fighter wings are unable to effectively patrol such a huge area and cannot respond quickly enough to an attack to stop it. Garibaldi does some checks and learns that several recent attacks were all made on ships attached to the same charter company. He realises their data banks have been hacked and is able to predict the next target. Sinclair takes out the fighter wing and succeeds in destroying the Raider force before it can hit a refugee transport carrying 500 civilians. He also manages to capture the Raider command ship.

Back on the station, newly-arrived resident telepath Talia Winters is having difficulty registering her arrival with executive officer Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova (herself a newcomer to the station), who seems to have an aversion to telepaths. Mr. Garibaldi, on the other hand, gives her a warmer welcome. Talia bumps into Londo and discovers he is planning to kill G’Kar and warns Garibaldi, who stops Londo before he can commit murder. Londo fumes in his quarters, whilst G’Kar is summoned to a meeting with Sinclair. A Narn operative was found on the Raider command ship, a representative overseeing the sale of Narn military-grade weapons to the pirates. Sinclair suggests that if the Narn government withdraws its troops from Ragesh III then the evidence of Narn collusion in piracy may disappear. G’Kar reluctantly agrees and the colony is freed.

Talia finally forces Ivanova to reveal the reasons for her dislike of telepaths. Ivanova’s mother was a telepath, but she didn’t want to join Psi Corps. Since all telepaths have to be registered or controlled, drugs were given to her to suppress her telepathic abilities, but they also eroded her will to live. When Ivanova was ten her mother killed herself out of depression. Ivanova holds Psi Corps personally responsible and wants nothing to do with them.

The Earth Alliance holds its Presidential Elections and incumbent President Luis Santiago wins a third five-year term in office, based mainly on a promise to cut the budget and keep Earth out of alien wars. Sinclair voted for Santiago, but Ivanova voted for challenger Marie Crane. Ivanova believes that a leader should have a strong chin, and is unhappy that Santiago has no chin and his vice president has several. She fears this will not be a good combination.

Dating the Episode: According to Straczynski, it’s between six and nine months after the events of the pilot episode. However, episode B19’s precise dating of the pilot (to 3 January 2257) and the fact this episode takes place in 2258 (as per the opening narration) suggests it’s more like a year, or just over. Most likely, this episode takes place in January 2258.

The Arc: The Narn attack on Ragesh III proves to be a turning point in the previously cordial relations between G’Kar and Londo (the odd bit of blackmail aside). Events in this episode colour many of their future entanglements together (episodes A12, A22 and B9 in particular).

Londo has a dream that he will die in twenty years’ time with G’Kar’s hands around his throat. We get to see the dream itself in episode B9 and the reality in episode C17 and book NOV15. The dream and Londo’s destiny are also referenced in episodes B3 and C9. The chain of events which leads to this future begins in episodes A13 and A22.

Kosh is out of his encounter suit in this episode, but all we see is a glowing light behind a screen. Apparently, Sinclair caught a glimpse of Kosh’s real appearance out of the corner of his eye as he turned around (as claimed in book NOV9), but thought he was imagining things. Kosh’s observations about the Narns and Centauri (“They are a dying people, we should let them pass,”) are borne out in numerous future episodes, most notably C6 and D5.

Ivanova distrusts the Psi Corps because of the death of her mother. We learn more about this in episodes A16, B19 and D5. Talia hopes that she and Ivanova can be friends but Ivanova doubts it. Their relationship does improve with time, over the course of episodes A6, A17, B7 and, most noticeably, B19.

Ivanova claims that she distrusts Santiago because of his multiple chins and his vice-president because he has no chin. We meet Vice-President William Morgan Clark in episodes A22, B2 and D20 and discover that he indeed has several chins.

The city of San Diego in California, North America, on Earth was destroyed by a terrorist nuclear device some decades ago. We get to see the ruins (and a possible reason why they haven’t been resettled yet) in episode B6.

The Raiders lose their heavy weapons supplier in this episode but they still remain a menace, turning up again in episodes A9, A13 and TVM2.

Part of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council.

Background: Ragesh III used to be a Narn colony before the Centauri invasion. There are 5,000 Centauri living there. The colony is now protected by an orbital station and an extensive minefield (although both are destroyed in the Narn assault). Ragesh III is probably the smallest and least-influential of the eleven Centauri colony worlds.

The Centauri, despite their practical natures, have a spiritual side as well. They apparently all see how and when they will die. The knowledge comes to them in a dream. The Centauri do not possess major arteries in their wrists, apparently “because they are not stupid”. They do, however, possess DNA.

The Centauri were the first alien race encountered by humanity (we later learn approximately 100 years prior to the time-frame of the series). They claimed to rule a vast empire when they first met humans but that hadn’t been strictly true for 100 years beforehand (i.e. 200 years before the series takes place).

The Centauri designation for Earth is Beta XII (although they initially thought it was Beta IX).

The Centauri ruled Narn in a one hundred year “reign of terror”. Later canon establishes that the Centauri occupation lasted from 2109 to approximately the 2220s.

The Earth Alliance President serves five-year terms of offices, meaning that Luis Santiago has been President since 2248 (just after the Earth-Minbari War, although this further feeds into the dating uncertainties about the Battle of the Line). The Earth Alliance is made up of “states” including America, Russia and China.

The first Mars colony was destroyed under circumstances unknown, save that terrorists were responsible.

The Earthforce one-man starfighter of choice is called a Starfury and remains the primary fighter until episode C10, when a new breed of fighters called Thunderbolts are introduced. There appear to be nine fighters in a typical Starfury squadron. Babylon 5 has two squadrons – Alpha and Delta Wings – assigned at this time (some sources suggest the presence of a Beta Squadron, but this is never confirmed on the show itself), and a third, Zeta Squadron, arrives in episode A11.

The Starfuries launch from the Cobra Bays. Located on the four arms linking the carousel to the forward docking sphere, the Starfuries are thrown clear of the station by centrifugal force before switching their engines on, gaining a tremendous launch boost. For safety reasons, the pilots have to wait until the station’s rotation means they won’t slam into the zero-gravity cargo bays on launch.

Babylon 5’s observation dome (C&C) shuts down during long periods when no ships are due to dock. Commander Sinclair turns off his link for ten minutes a day during such times so he can just sit back and relax.

Sinclair is descended from a long line of fighter pilots dating all the way back to the Battle of Britain (320 years earlier).

Data and information is stored in crystal lattices known as data crystals. Their three-dimensional structure allows the storage of vast amounts of data. We find out in later episodes that this is Minbari technology and one of the few examples of their technology which is widely shared with other races.

Spoo is a Narn delicacy, detested by many other races including the Centauri. JMS has actually written a lengthy description about spoo which can be found in Andy Lane’s The Babylon File.

Psi Corps is the only organisation in the Earth Alliance which regulates and controls telepaths. Many telepaths are given into the Corps’ safekeeping as children. Low-level telepaths can mask their abilities from all but a direct scan. Unlicensed telepaths must either join the Corps, go to prison or take psi-inhibitors (“blockers”) to deaden their telepathic skills. However, the inhibitors are also powerful depressants.

Garibaldi’s second-favourite thing in the whole universe is his extensive collection of Warner Brothers cartoons.

Sinclair and G'Kar meet in B5's Garden area.

References: The title is a misquote – it’s unclear if it’s deliberate or not – from Harry Chapin’s Living Room Suite: “And if our future lies on the firing line, are we brave enough to see the signals and the signs.” The correct wording is “our future lies on the final line”.

The elaborate launch sequences for the Starfuries were designed as a tribute from Ron Thornton to the Gerry Anderson series Thunderbirds, where each vehicle had a slightly impractical but highly impressive launch sequence.

The Senator’s angry proclamation “The Earth Alliance can’t go around being the galaxy’s policemen!” is based on contemporary (1994) American foreign policy concerns that, especially after the Gulf War, the US was being drawn into being the world’s police force.

Unanswered Questions: How willing were the Narn ready to go on Ragesh III? If the Centauri had really sent a full battle group of heavy warships, would the Narn have fought or backed down. It’s hinted that the latter is more likely, but never confirmed.

Why does Kosh risk being seen in his natural form by Sinclair?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: At one point Sinclair says, “The Minbari would never launch a sneak attack. They are too honourable.” TVM1, In the Beginning, shows the Minbari launching sneak attacks by opening jump points in the middle of Earthforce battle groups without warning, the very definition of a sneak attack. The Minbari also habitually use stealth technology to attack before the enemy knows they are there. This may be less of a mistake, however, than Sinclair simply over-extolling the virtues of an “honoured enemy” (or, more sinisterly, the Minbari perhaps exerting some kind of subliminal influence over him).

When Londo decides to kill G’Kar, he leaves his quarters in Green Sector, passes through the Zocalo (in Red Sector) where he meets Talia and then bumps into Garibaldi in Blue Sector. Given that G’Kar’s quarters are just a couple of levels across Green Sector, Londo chooses a highly circuitous route to take to get to his target.

The CG in this episode (as for the next several) is a mixture of new scene shot for the series and the re-use of footage from the pilot. This leads to odd moments when the Cobra Bays on the arms linking Babylon 5's carousel to the docking sphere (introduced only in this episode to launch the Starfuries) abruptly disappear and then reappear.

Many fans questioned Sinclair's readiness to jump in a Starfury directly, feeling it was unusual for the station commander to be put in direct harm's way (aside from dramatic/narrative convenience). This is partially related to character (and is raised in episode A4) but is also related to Earthforce's pay structure: officers are still eligible for flight pay, but have to log a certain number of hours per year in space to qualify. This explains why Sinclair and Ivanova are both keen to get space under their feet from time to time. This is more relevant to Sinclair because he is only a Commander, a relatively low rank for his position (A13 confirms that Generals and Admirals were in line for the role before they were vetoed), so he needs the pay more urgently than the alternatives would have. The issue of flight pay is raised more explicitly in episode B11.

Behind the Scenes: This was the third episode of the first season to be produced (after Infection, transmitted fourth, and Soul Hunter, transmitted second). Straczynski wanted to introduce the show with a bang, so dropped the first episode back to third in production to allow for more sets to be completed and ready for shooting.

As the first episode after the pilot, Midnight on the Firing Line was designed to reintroduce the basic premise of the series and the main characters, as well as introduce several new characters (including Ivanova, Talia Winters and Londo’s aide, Vir Cotto) and several recurring technological elements, such as the Starfuries. Straczynski chose not to frontload the entire episode with all of the new castmembers, instead spreading out their introduction over five episodes (he was possibly influenced in this by one of his favourite British SF shows, Blake’s 7, which assembled its regular cast gradually over four episodes).

The Starfuries were one of the first new ships designed at Foundation Imaging, the CGI company set up by Ron Thornton after the pilot to handle the workload for the series itself. Steve Burg designed the fighter, with input from Thornton, taking a lot of inspiration from the Gunstar in the movie The Last Starfighter, which was also designed for actual Newtonian movement and had lots of thrusters pointing outwards so it could spin on a dime. The opposing Raider fighters are designed for action in both space and in an atmosphere, and are both considerably more fragile and less capable in space combat compared to the Starfuries.

Michael O'Hare's brother was a pilot in the VF-124 "Gunfighters" squadron of the US Air Force, running weapons on an F-14 Tomcat until the squadron was disbanded in 1994. Straczynski briefly considered having him cameo on the show.

This episode also marks the first appearance of Narn spacecraft (since the “Narn cargo ship” in the pilot is actually an Earthforce shuttle). Most notable are the massive T’Loth-class assault cruisers, designed by Ron Thornton and consisting of two primitive Star Destroyer-like ships he’d already designed for NewTek’s Lightwave 3D programme “kludged” together. He was extremely unhappy with the result and was happy to retire the ship at the end of Season 1 in favour of the G’Quan-class heavy cruiser which debuts in episode B2. The altogether more successful Frazi-class heavy fighter also debuts in this episode.

During the scene between Andrea Thompson and Claudia Christian in C&C, Thompson accidentally introduced herself as “Talia Winters, licensed commercial psychopath,” to the amusement of the crew.

Christian and Thompson became great friends and would often celebrate the end of a day’s shoot with a glass of champagne. They decided early on to play an element of attraction or sexual tension in their characters’ exchanges, initially for their own amusement. Straczynski (as well as the fans) picked up on this relationship and decided to expand on it, particularly in episodes A17, parts of Season 2 and, most dramatically, episode B19.

During the scene in Garibaldi’s quarters, Mira Furlan improvised Delenn’s completely nonplussed reaction to popcorn, which caused Jerry Doyle to start laughing harder. This was kept in the final take. The decision to make Garibaldi a fan of Daffy Duck cartoons felt a bit random for Doyle, but Warner Brothers apparently appreciated the implication that their back-catalogue of entertainment would still be appreciated in the mid-23rd Century, and had the bonus that no royalty payment was required. Straczynski was a major fan of the Loony Tunes and had most of their cartoons on VHS or laserdisc.

Anne Bruice, the show’s new costume designer, appears in a photograph as Marie Carane, Luis Santiago’s challenger for the Presidency of the Earth Alliance.

Straczynski wanted a very alien quality to Kosh’s voice, and asked Christopher Franke to help come up with the strange audio sounds surrounding his speech.

Familiar Faces: The character of Susan Ivanova was developed as a replacement for Lt. Commander Takashima. According to Straczynski, his original plan was that Takashima would have had a subordinate officer, a lieutenant, working for her who would have had a gradually rising presence in the show and would then have taken over as first officer in the second season, after Takashima’s duplicity had been exposed. That would have either been Ivanova directly, or a similar character.

The studio considered hiring a higher-profile (and more expensive) actress for the role and apparently recommended the supermodel-turned-actress Iman (the late David Bowie’s wife), especially after her high-profile role in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Straczynski was wary of stunt casting (especially expensive casting) and decided to go in a different direction, eventually hiring Claudia Christian as Russian executive officer Ivanova. Christian apparently blew away everyone with her audition, winning the role just three hours after sitting down with the producers.

Straczynski’s decision to make Ivanova Russian may have been influenced by his appreciation for the character of Chekov on the original Star Trek, and for the actor who played him, Walter Koenig, who himself was cast on Babylon 5 in episode A6, Mind War.

Andrea Thompson was cast in the role of new telepath Talia Winters. She’d previously appeared in the soap opera Falcon Crest, as well has guest shots in shows such as Quantum Leap. On her first day on set the crew played a practical joke on her when Jerry Doyle appeared in a lift without his trousers, causing her to burst out laughing. Doyle and Thompson married in 1995, later divorcing in 1997.

Stephen Furst was cast in the role of Vir Cotto, Londo’s new diplomatic aide. He was best-known for playing the role of Flounder in the classic comedy movie National Lampoon’s Animal House, as well as Dr. Axelrod for five years on St. Elsewhere. He was suffering from Type 2 diabetes and associated health complications whilst filming the first three seasons of Babylon 5, something he largely kept from his cast and crewmates. Of the cast Furst was closest to Peter Jurasik as Londo, their natural banter and repartee inspiring Straczynski to write better material for them. Furst tragically died in 2017 from complications related to his diabetes, aged just 63.

Marianne Robertson played a hostage in The Gathering (only visible in the Special Edition), but returned for the first episode of Season 1 in the role of “Station One” in the C&C dome. Her character is never named. She appears in twenty episodes of the first season – more than anyone apart from O’Hare, Doyle and Christian – but abruptly disappears between seasons after the actress declined to return for the second season.

Maggie Egan makes her first appearance as an ISN Reporter. She goes on to appear in many episodes of the series until C9, when we finally learn her name is Jane. She vanishes from the series for over a year (for in-universe, explained reasons) before returning in D21. She goes on to appear in Season 5 and Crusade. Straczynski often uses her character and her news reports to deliver expositions and commentary about the B5 universe and what’s going on back on Earth.

Review: I can’t help but feel some affection for Midnight on the Firing Line, as it was the first episode of Babylon 5 I ever watched. Even at that time it was clearly a very rough episode, some fine effects work and some bracing pacing making up for deficiencies in characterisation and dialogue. That remains the case now: the acting is all over the place with some fine work by Peter Jurasik, Mira Furlan and, especially in her final scene, Claudia Christian, undercut by Michael O’Hare doing some very cheesy macho posturing (particularly his weird threats to G’Kar in the Garden), a slightly manic Stephen Furst (who fortunately settles down quite quickly) and an uncharacteristically off-form Andrea Katsulas.

That said, the episode’s “second pilot on acid” pacing is actually quite effective. The weaker scenes are over so fast you barely notice them and the feeling you get is that there is a ton of stuff going on at any moment on Babylon 5. The CGI is, sadly, low-res by modern standards but clearly already a big improvement over the pilot. The Starfury design is an instant classic, one of the very best starfighter designs ever created for science fiction, and it’s always a joy to see it in action.

The result is an episode that will have you wincing (quite a bit) but which also rolls over its problems at such speed that it will have you (mostly) appreciate the good moments, of which there are quite a few. ***

G’Kar (to Londo): “The wheel turns, does it not, Ambassador?”

Londo Mollari: “We are a race of lunatics and cowards!”

The Senator: “The Earth Alliance can’t go around being the galaxy’s policemen!”

Ambassador Kosh: “They are alone. They are a dying people. We should let them pass.”
Commander Sinclair: “Who, the Narn or the Centauri?”
Ambassador Kosh: “Yes.”

The true mark of a great actor is how well they handle playing against floating Christmas baubles which aren't really there.

A2: Soul Hunter
Airdates: 2 February 1994 (US), 23 May 1994 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Jim Johnston
Cast: Soul Hunter (W. Morgan Sheppard), Soul Hunter 2 (John Snyder), Medtech (Toni Attell), Guard 1 (David D. Darling), Guard 2 (Ted W. Henning), Man (Jim Bentley), Station One (Marianne Robertson), Station Two (Mark Conley)

Plot:    Dr. Stephen Franklin arrives on board Babylon 5 to take over as Chief of Staff for Medlab. He is the replacement for Dr. Kyle, who has been recalled to Earth to serve on the President’s medical staff as an expert in alien lifeforms. It isn’t long before Franklin has his first patient: a damaged alien ship of unknown origin comes through the jump gate, adrift and on a collision course with Babylon 5. Sinclair successfully salvages the ship and takes it into the docking bay. The pilot is treated in Medlab, but when Minbari Ambassador Delenn lays eyes on the creature she immediately tries to kill it. She tells Sinclair it is a shak’toth or ‘Soul Hunter’. Soul Hunters steal peoples’ souls at the moment of death, imprisoning them so their knowledge and wisdom may not be lost. Sinclair is dubious about the story, but when word gets out that there is a Soul Hunter on board alien vessels start leaving the station in droves. The Hunter recovers, confirms Delenn’s account of its race, and simply appears to want to leave when his ship is repaired. The Hunter also tells Sinclair that the Hunters have a poor relationship with the Minbari because his race tried to take the soul of their leader, Dukhat, killed as a result of the war with Earth. The Minbari threw up a wall of bodies to stop them, leaving the Hunters deprived of the most highly evolved soul the Minbari ever spawned.

Delenn confronts the Soul Hunter, demanding to know where its soul collection is. She wants to shatter the soul spheres, freeing the trapped spirits within, but the Hunter refuses to help her. He suddenly recognises her from when the Hunters tried to take Dukhat’s soul and demands to know why a satai is ‘playing ambassador’ on Babylon 5. Shaken, Delenn leaves. The Soul Hunter breaks out of Medlab, recovers its soul collection from its ship, and takes Delenn prisoner, telling her she will be a useful addition to its collection.

A second Soul Hunter ship, this time fully functional, comes through the jumpgate and docks at Babylon 5. The pilot tells Sinclair that the first Soul Hunter is mad. Many years ago it failed to collect an important soul at the moment of death and since then has failed many times in its assignments. Now the Hunter kills its victims to forcibly extract their souls, interfering in the natural order of things. Sinclair uses the second Soul Hunter’s sense of death to locate Delenn and goes after the mad Hunter.

The first Hunter begins draining Delenn’s lifeforce. As she begins to expire he sees some of the things she is planning. The Hunter is shocked, but then distracted when Sinclair appears. They battle one another and the Hunter overcomes Sinclair, wondering why he fights for someone who is satai and using him. Sinclair manages to turn the soul-draining machine on the Hunter, capturing its soul and killing its body. With Franklin’s help, Delenn recovers in Medlab. In her semi-delirious state she tells Sinclair that they were ‘right about him’ before passing out. The second Soul Hunter departs Babylon 5, agreeing that its order should not interfere in the smooth operation of the station.

Later, back in his quarters, Sinclair queries the Minbari language database and learns that satai is an honorific given only to members of the Grey Council, the shadowy group which runs the Minbari government. Sinclair ponders why one of the ruling members of the entire Minbari Federation would be assigned to Babylon 5 as ambassador, but decides the question can wait...for now.

The Arc: The Soul Hunters were present at the death of the last Minbari leader, Dukhat, where the first Soul Hunter met Delenn. The Minbari threw up a wall of bodies to stop them from reaching Dukhat before he died. This was the failure that sparked off the Soul Hunter’s descent into madness. We learn more about Dukhat and his death in episodes A17 and B1, and get to see it first-hand in episodes D9 and TVM1. The Soul Hunter confirms that Dukhat’s death was the humans’ fault, but the implication from this episode is that he was a casualty of the war rather than being the cause of it.

Delenn seems distressed by the idea of Minbari souls vanishing from their race, although the numbers the Soul Hunters have taken are miniscule. We learn the exact reasons for her concern in episode B1, although both of these episodes are hinting at a story arc that Straczynski was planning but later abandoned (the notion that Minbari souls are disappearing over time).

The Grey Council rules the Minbari Federation but little is known about them. We discover more about the Council (and Delenn’s role in it) in episodes A20, B11, C10, D9 and TVM1. We see the entire Council in these episodes. We also see individual members of the Council in episodes A8, B1, C17 and D13-D14.

Delenn and the Minbari are planning something audacious. We see what this is in episodes A22 and B1-B2. Additional episodes shedding light on the Minbari and their secretive plans include B9, B17, B20 and C1. Episodes A8, A13, B1, C16-C17 and TVM1 fully reveal their interest in Sinclair.

When Delenn says, “I knew you would come,” to Sinclair, she is referring to an event from her childhood. We find out what she meant in episode B18.

Aside from a brief glimpse of Soul Hunter ships in episode D9 we have to wait until TVM3 to see them in the flesh again. We also find out a lot of background information about the Soul Hunters in this episode.

The Soul Hunter enlists the help of Babylon 5’s most powerful crime lord, n’Grath. We learn in NOV4 that he is a Trakallan, a native of a moon orbiting a gas giant in the Beta Lyrae system. Although we only see n’Grath three times more in the series itself (in A3, A5 and A11), he remains on the station until at least the end of Season 2 (when we see him in NOV4, although note that this one of the books of doubtful canonicity). By C6 he has been replaced by a human, Akshi, but by E5 a new human crime lord, Trace, runs B5’s underground.

The Earth Alliance starliner Asimov reappears in episodes A10 and C13, indicating that it is a regular visitor to the station. It plays a major role in episode A10.

Sinclair decides to take on the Soul Hunter single-handed, despite having backup to hand. He has a knack for getting himself into inappropriately dangerous situations for the commander of the station, as episode A4 expands on.

The Soul Hunter meets the logical resolution of the "Chekov's Giant Soul-Draining Machine" literary device.

Background: Members of the Minbari Grey Council are given the honorific satai.

The Minbari religion believes that their souls are personifications of the universe itself. At the moment of death their souls rejoin the universe’s consciousness, ready to be reborn into the next generation of Minbari. The Soul Hunters call this belief a ‘quaint lie’. The Soul Hunters believe that souls will just fade into oblivion unless preserved.

Minbari have major arteries in their ankles. Their blood is a thin, translucent red and they can survive the loss of substantially more of it than a human.

Soul Hunters are immortal, although this may just be part of the Minbari fairy stories about them. Soul Hunters can sense the moment of death in sentient beings. We see this faculty in action during this episode.

The Soul Hunter in this episode has been to Earth and knows English.

The second Soul Hunter refers to his ‘order’, indicating the Soul Hunters are part of a larger civilisation rather than a race unto themselves.

Sinclair has known Delenn for two years, meaning they met almost a year before the events of PM. Episode A4 confirms this by saying that Babylon 5 has been operational for roughly two years before this point, although NOV7 confirms that the station wasn’t officially inaugurated until just two days before the events of PM. This suggests that Babylon 5 was completed in 2256 and gradually came on-line over the course of months as sections of the station were completed (the plausibility of such a massive space station being built from scratch in a matter of months after B4’s disappearance in mid-to-late 2254 is another question, of course).

By 2258 a typical, average human lifespan is 100 years (although modern scientists believe it will be more than this by as soon as 2050), but see below.

Babylon 5 maintains several ‘translation teams’ whose job it is to either translate for known alien races or work out the languages of newly-encountered alien species.

Earthforce Starfuries have grabbing arms which can attach to other ships to tow them around. Babylon 5 itself has a large weapons array for close-quarters defence.

B5’s jump gate is pointed straight at the station itself and is only a few minutes’ flight time from the station, which though convenient seems a bit hazardous (as exemplified in this episode).

The starliner Asimov, like Babylon 5 itself, has a rotating section to generate centrifugal force to provide the illusion of gravity. This confirms that the Earth Alliance does not yet know how to create artificial gravity generators.

Most security-restricted areas on Babylon 5, such as the ambassadorial wing in Green Sector, are coded Level 5 or above, open only to Earthforce personnel.

Babylon 5 has a run-down, industrial area called "Downbelow". This is located in Brown Sector and people of a less salubrious nature live in that area. It's also where homeless people - people who bought passage to B5 but ran out of money and can't move on anywhere else - live on the station. It's where the bulk of the station's criminal activity takes place.

According to J. Michael Straczynski the average lifespan for humans in 2258 is 100 years (with an actual age range of roughly 80 to 120, a bit more than now where the average is about 80 with a range of 60 to 100). G’Kar is about 70 but that for Narns is equal to a human in his early 40s (presumably meaning that Narns live for about 140-200 years). Delenn is between 30 and 40 by Minbari terms but in human years would be rather older as Minbari are a long-lived race (but he doesn’t specify a range). The Centauri live longer than the Narns, not as long as Minbari. The Vorlons “just...are.”

Sinclair holds the Soul Hunter in Medlab against his will. Other episodes will confirm that although Babylon 5 is ostensibly a free port, it is also an Earth Alliance military outpost with Sinclair as both its commanding officer and military governor, allowing him to remove people from the station and detain them if he deems them a threat to the station or its residents.

References: The starliner Asimov is, of course, named after the science fiction author Isaac Asimov, who died about two years before this episode aired. Babylon 5’s creative consultant, Harlan Ellison, was a close friend of Isaac Asimov’s and Straczynski wanted to honour their friendship as well.

The Grey Council is one of a very large number of tips of the hat to The Lord of the Rings (in that case, to the White Council).

Unanswered Questions: Are souls real (in the B5 universe, anyway)?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: The Soul Hunter somehow moves his colossally gargantuan soul-collecting machine from the docking bay to Green Sector without being seen by anyone, which seems…unlikely.

The second Soul Hunter points at a graphic of B5 to show where his comrade is. Unfortunately, the area his finger encompasses is about one-third of the entire Green Sector, and also fails to account for the station’s rotation. Somehow that’s enough for Sinclair to be able to track the other Soul Hunter down to a very small area.

During the scene where Delenn’s blood is being replenished in Medlab at the end of the episode, the film has been reversed for a better edit match, meaning her blood briefly appears to be draining back out from her body.

TVM1 shows Soul Hunter ships approaching when Dukhat is killed, but the Soul Hunters did not board the Minbari cruiser and no “wall of bodies” was thrown up to stop them. It is possible that the Soul Hunter was speaking metaphorically, with the Minbari and humans exchanging fire and killing one another, creating a warzone which the Soul Hunters could not penetrate safely.

Every other race on B5 has heard of or encountered the Soul Hunters, but the humans have apparently never heard of them before, despite having been members of the interstellar community for 102 years by this point and having had close, excellent relations with the League worlds for a quarter of a century. In one of his online commentaries, Straczynski did say that humans may have heard of them as a distant legend, but never thought to query it further.

During the stabbing scene in Downbelow, blue wall markings are briefly visible suggesting the area is in Blue Sector when it is actually in Brown Sector. Given the camera angles, it’s likely the wall strip was not intended to be in shot, so it wasn’t changed (and it’s only really visible on the widescreen version of the episode).

n'Grath, Babylon 5's resident crime lord. He appears several times in Season 1 but disappears after that point, the prosthetic puppet being a little too cumbersome and awkward to use.

Behind the Scenes: This was the second episode of the first season to be produced, after Infection but before Midnight on the Firing Line. Richard Biggs had already played a big episode for Franklin in Infection when he filmed his “introduction” in this episode, but he later appreciated this because he was able to play Franklin a little more confident and relaxed.

This episode fed into the ongoing (if largely illusory) “rivalry” with Deep Space Nine. The Minbari leader was named “Dukhat”, which some viewers found confusing with the DS9 recurring villain “Dukat”. In addition, the writers of Deep Space Nine had planned to name the Cardassian intelligence division as “The Grey Order” but a crewmember who watched B5 pointed out the name “Grey Council” had been coined in The Gathering, so that was changed to “The Obsidian Order”.

The first draft of Soul Hunter was, in the words of Straczynski, “crap”, so he ordered it recalled and wrote a memo apologising for the initial version.

Mira Furlan enjoyed working with Morgan Sheppard, and they swapped “war stories” of appearing on the stage in Britain and Yugoslavia during breaks between takes. Sheppard, as a hands-on actor who liked to get involved with all aspects of his character, worked with director Joe Johnston to create an eerie, gliding walk for the Soul Hunter.

Furlan felt the episode was important to establishing the character of Delenn, showing she had a soft and spiritual side as well as a harder-edged, more ruthless side. Furlan and Johnston worked hard to sell the scene where she breaks the soul globes at the end of the episode, with Ron Thornton adding the CG elements afterwards.

Babylon 5 had an ongoing issue over lighting levels in its early episodes: The Gathering had actually been artificially lightened by several broadcasters who felt the default levels were set too far down and viewers wouldn’t be able to see what was going on. For Midnight on the Firing Line the levels were brought up again, and for this episode Johnston was allowed to reduce them again.

Straczynski was frustrated by an overreliance on humanoid aliens in SF, although also acknowledging that the realities of creating a show on a very tight budget would prevent them from having any of the regular cast being non-bipedal humanoids. He created n’Grath as an elaborate creature that would really look unusual and alien, but would only be used sparingly.

Familiar Faces: Actor Richard Biggs had played the role of Dr. Marcus Hunter for seven years on the soap opera The Days of Our Lives. Upon quitting that show he was glad to give up having to spout medical jargon. As a result, Biggs was reluctant to take up another medical role when offered the role of Dr. Stephen Franklin, but was promised that his character would develop over the course of the show and would have more character depth, something he believed they delivered on almost immediately with episode A10, which featured a complex medical moral dilemma and did not shy away from hard answers. Impressed by the quality of the writing and the fact that Straczynski kept giving him more interesting things to do outside the medical lab, he became a very vocal champion of the show and frequently attended conventions. His death in 2004, at the age of just 44, completely shocked both fans and his fellow castmembers alike.

The Soul Hunter is played by noted genre actor W. Morgan Sheppard, who began his career in the UK before later moving to the United States. He has numerous genre credits, including four roles on Star Trek (one each on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager, as well as the movies Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and the 2009 reboot) and playing Bank Reg on Max Headroom. He also did voiceovers on the Medal of Honor video game series and starred in cult British fantasy movie Hawk the Slayer. His most recent major genre credit was playing Canton Everett Delaware III in the episode The Impossible Astronaut, an older version of the recurring character normally played by Mark Sheppard. Mark is W. Morgan’s son with substantial genre credits of his own (including playing Badger in Firefly, Crowley in Supernatural and Romo Lampkin in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica), although he sadly never appeared on Babylon 5 or any of its spin-offs.

W. Morgan Sheppard will reappear on Babylon 5 in Season 2, playing G’Kar’s uncle in episode B20.

John Snyder, who plays the second Soul Hunter, likewise shows up again in the series in a different role, playing labour negotiator Orin Zento in episode A12.

This is the first episode in which Babylon 5's computer gets a lot of vocal lines. The voice of the computer is provided by Haley McLane, the show's script supervisor. She voices the computer for the duration of the series, even after departing as script supervisor in Season 3.

Review: Babylon 5 goes spiritual, but does so in a completely different way to how Star Trek handled these kinds of ideas previously. The result is an interesting episode which tells its own story whilst layering in elements of the main story arc and setting up foreshadowing for later on. W. Morgan Sheppard turns in a great performance and the insectoid n’Grath is still (surprisingly) an effective prosthetic character. Only some rather ripe dialogue prevents the episode from achieving true greatness. ***½

Franklin: “It’s all so brief isn’t it? Typical human lifespan is almost a hundred years, but it’s barely a second to what’s out there. Wouldn’t be so bad if life didn’t take so long to figure out. Seems you just start to get it right and then it’s over.”
Ivanova: “Doesn’t matter. If we lived two hundred years we’d still be human, we’d still make the same mistakes.”
Franklin: “You’re a pessimist.”
Ivanova: “I’m Russian, Doctor. We understand these things.”

Soul Hunter (to Delenn): “What is one of the great leaders of the Minbari doing here, playing Ambassador?”

Soul Hunter (to Sinclair): “She is satai, she is satai. I have seen her soul. They’re using you. They’re using you!”

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1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

W Morgan Sheppard was also the voice of the Civiopedia entries when you got a new tech, in Civilization V :)