Tuesday, 11 July 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 7-8

It takes a special kind of confidence - or lunacy - for any man to try to chat up Ivanova in that jumper.

A7: The War Prayer
Airdates: 9 March 1994 (US), 27 June 1994 (UK)
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by Richard Compton
Cast: Malcolm Biggs (Tristan Rogers), Shaal Mayan (Nancy Lee Grahn), Roberts (Michael Paul Chan), Kiron Maray (Rodney Eastman), Aria Tensus (Danica McKellar), Mila Shar (Diane Adair), Alvares (Richard Chaves), Thegras (Mark Hendrickson), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Security Officer (Chuck Botto), Alien (Mike Gunther), Station One (Marianne Robertson)

Plot:    The Homeguard - a racist, anti-alien group operating on Earth - has sent a group undercover to cause problems on Babylon 5. Sinclair’s attempts to track down the group come to nothing and the alien races begin to get restless after a respected Minbari poet, Shaal Mayan, and two Centauri teenagers, Aria Tensus and Kiron Maray (Vir Cotto’s cousin), are attacked.

Sinclair warns Ambassador Kosh about the problem and is surprised to see the Vorlon studying images of Earth. Afterwards Sinclair recalls how Lyta Alexander and Dr. Kyle were recalled to Earth after seeing what the Vorlon looked like when he was injured, and ponders how Kosh was poisoned through his encounter suit (PM).

Ivanova discovers that an old flame who has turned up on the station, Malcolm Biggs, is the leader of Homeguard forces on Babylon 5 and she and Sinclair set him up. The Homeguard operatives are captured and sent back to Earth for trial.

Meanwhile, the two Centauri teenagers, Aria and Kiron, are on the run from their families who have arranged marriages for them both to other, older nobles when they are in love with one another. Vir asks for Londo’s help in letting them marry one another, but Londo believes in the traditions of his race. However, recalling his own unhappy marriage and his three wives (‘Famine, Pestilence and Death’) waiting for him on the homeworld, Londo decides to give the youngsters a better hope for the future and arranges for them to join House Mollari. The prestige their families gain from this connection allows them to marry without fear of loss of face.


The Arc: We meet Londo’s three wives in episode B8.

Ambassador Kosh is studying images of Earth history for reasons unknown. We learn in episode B21 that the Vorlons have visited Earth in secret (although not if Kosh himself has been there). Many of Sinclair’s questions about the Vorlons are answered in episodes B17, B22 and D4.

Sinclair mentions the events of PM, most notably that Dr. Kyle and Lyta Alexander were both recalled to Earth after seeing Kosh’s true appearance. This is further explored in episode B19.

The Abbai send a new ambassador to the station, Mila Shar. When they next appear in episode A9 they have a different representative on the station.

Background: Many people on Earth are unhappy with the number of aliens actually living on the human homeworld, buying up real estate that should be for humans only.

The Homeguard have links with Earthforce, since they use black ops camouflage suits, state-of-the-art technology.

The Centauri nobles arrange marriages for their sons and daughters. Some believe this is outrageous and cruel, others think of it as noble and traditional.

Centauri Prime is located 75 light-years from Babylon 5.

Abbai IV is the Abbai homeworld. The Abbai are an aquatic species who are one of the leading powers in the League of Non-aligned Worlds.

Ivanova grows illegal coffee plants in hydroponics, something Garibaldi is well aware of.

During riots and confrontations with aliens, B5 Security will often deploy wearing breather masks in case people try to flee into the Alien Sector with its alternate atmosphere.

References: Slightly randomly, Straczynski was asked on the Usenet B5 forum if the naming of the Homeguard operative as “Malcolm Biggs” was a nod to Malcolm X and making a point about extremist groups. Straczynski pointed out that all they shared was a first name.

In an example of life imitating art, in 2016 a member of the British political party UKIP named “Malcolm Biggs” was criticised and forced to stand down when it was revealed he’d been a former member of a nationalist, pro-apartheid party called the New Britain Party.

The War Prayer is the name of a short story by Mark Twain, in which the citizens of a small town pray in church for victory in a war, but a stranger stands up and makes it clear the horror and death that they are wishing for.

Londo names his wives as "Pestilence", "Famine" and "Death" as a nod to the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That means that Londo himself is, of course, War.

Unanswered Questions: Why is Kosh studying images of Earth?

How did the Homeguard attackers gain access to the highly secure and well-guarded Green Sector?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: Sinclair says that Dr. Benjamin Kyle was recalled to Earth to work alongside the President after seeing Kosh’s true appearance, and Lyta Alexander was recalled to Psi Corps HQ a week later. However, later episodes reveal that Lyta left B5 a few weeks after the incident whilst A2 confirmed that Dr. Kyle had left only a few days earlier (he bumped into Dr. Franklin, his replacement, at Io), almost a year later.

In Ivanova’s quarters, her door opens by itself before Malcolm starts moving towards it. Oddly, the same thing happens in the following episode, between Sinclair and Delenn. It’s possible that the B5 station’s computers are good enough to pick up on “awkward moments” and automatically open the doors as a subtle hint to get the offending party to leave.

In PM Delenn didn’t know what poetry was, but in this episode we meet a Minbari poet. According to Straczynski, the Minbari definition of poetry (tee’la, a poem-song) is somewhat different and Delenn had never learned the English word, but the concept always existed among the Minbari.

Behind the Scenes: Straczynski wrote the outline for the episode, which he then gave to D.C. Fontana to flesh out. Fontana was also given the completed scripts and a recording of the pilot episode to work from when plotting the episode, but struggled since one of the requirements of the script was to incorporate Ivanova’s old flame. Fontana tried to make it work but noted that it was a “stock situation”.

Claudia Christian didn’t buy Ivanova’s relationship with Malcolm, noting that character was a “jerk” from the off.

Fontana introduced the relationship between the young Centauri nobles. Straczynski was sceptical until she explained how their presence affected Londo, and allowed his romantic, nostalgic side (previously seen in A3) to come out again. Straczynski was inspired by this idea, and added the “My shoes are too tight and I’ve forgotten how to dance,” speech. Peter Jurasik felt the speech was well-written but he didn’t bring his best game to the material and struggled to sell it emotionally.

D.C. Fontana’s experience writing the episode saw her take a different tack when Straczynski invited her back later in the season: she came up with her own idea which so impressed Straczynski that he dropped his own planned outline in its favour. This script, filmed as Legacies (A17) is notable for completely transforming Babylon 5’s planned five-year story arc, but more on that when we get there.

Ivanova growing coffee plants in hydroponics against regulations was a character trait inherited from Laurel Takashima in PM. The PM special edition restores Takashima’s discussion of the coffee plants, suggesting that Ivanova may have taken over their growing and maintenance from Takashima when she arrived on the station.

Straczynski was dismayed to turn on Deep Space Nine and see the episode The Homecoming, which depicts Quark being branded by anti-alien Bajoran extremists, the same thing that happens to Shaal Mayan in this episode. He considered cutting the scene or digitally removing the brand (which would have been expensive), but decided to leave it in after fans on GENIE convinced him it would be fine.

Familiar Faces: Writer Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana is best-known for her extensive and well-regarded work on the original Star Trek series, where she served as script editor for the first two seasons. She frequently rewrote episodes to incorporate Gene Roddenberry’s story notes. She later worked on Star Trek: The Animated Series, Logan’s Run, The Six Million Dollar Man and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She returned to work on Star Trek: The Next Generation as an associate producer, but left during the first season after falling out with Gene Roddenberry.

Review: This is an episode which feels like it should land a lot more squarely than it does, confronting as it does racism, nationalism and racial tensions and also featuring a strong turn by Peter Jurasik and especially Stephen Furst, who finally gets to stand up to Londo, not to mention the second appearance by Kosh since the pilot. However, much of the dialogue is inspid, the villain Biggs lacks charm or charisma and ultimately everything is resolved a bit too neatly. Also, Malcolm Biggs’ jumper is a crime against humanity. ***

Kosh: “We take no interest in the affairs of others.” (yeah, right)

Londo: “Love? What does love have to do with marriage?”

Londo: “Here are my three wives: Pestilence, Famine and Death. Do you think I married them for their personalities? Their personalities could shatter entire planets! Arranged marriages, every one. But they worked out, they inspired me! Knowing that they are waiting at home for me is what keeps me here, seventy-five light-years away!”

The iconic Minbari warcruiser first debuts in And the Sky Full of Stars.

A8: And the Sky Full of Stars
Airdates: 16 March 1994 (US), 4 July 1994 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Janet Greek
Cast: Knight One (Judson Scott), Knight Two (Christopher Neame), Benson (Jim Youngs), Mitchell (Justin Williams), Guard 1 (Joe Banks), Guard 2 (Fumi Shishino), Strongarm (Gary Cervantes), Security Aide (Macaulay Bruton), Grey Council Member (Mark Hendrickson), Station One (Marianne Robertson)

Date: 11 April 2258.

Plot:    Sinclair and Garibaldi are forced to discipline a security guard, Benson, after he runs up gambling debts in the Casino. To help pay off his debt, Benson agrees to smuggle some equipment on board for two secretive men, known only as “Knights”. The Knights set up a complex machine in their quarters and then, in the dead of night, take Sinclair prisoner and drug him.

Sinclair awakens on board a deserted, empty Babylon 5. The second Knight appears and tells him he is being held in a virtual reality cybernet. Sinclair demands to know what is going on and the Knight tells him that many people on Earth want to know why the Minbari surrendered at the Battle of the Line ten years ago. Sinclair was there and must know. Sinclair tells him he blacked out during the battle and thus can’t remember what happened, but the Knight thinks that’s too convenient an answer. Sinclair begins to suffer flashbacks to the battle, which the cybernet visualises. After over three years of war, the Minbari fleet had launched its assault on Earth itself. Dozens of warcruisers advanced on the defensive line being maintained around Earth by Earthforce’s remaining warships. Sinclair was a fighter pilot, commanding Alpha Squadron. Initially they were supposed to maintain the line, but when another pilot (Lt. Mitchell) broke ranks to fire on a Minbari ship, the line fragmented and Alpha Squadron was wiped out. Sinclair’s ship was heavily damaged and he decided to ram the Minbari flagship. The malfunction apparently damaged the gravitational compensators and the g-forces caused Sinclair to black out. When he woke up some 24 hours had passed and the war was over. The Minbari had surrendered.  The Knight angrily accuses Sinclair of lying, wondering if Sinclair was perhaps taken on board the Minbari cruiser and brainwashed into becoming a Minbari agent to poison Earth from within. That way the Minbari could conquer Earth without suffering the colossal losses an invasion would cost them. Sinclair denies this, but suddenly has a flash of cowled, grey figures surrounding him. Sinclair begins to wonder if the Minbari really did do something to him.

Ambassador Delenn reports Sinclair’s failure to turn up to a diplomatic meeting to Garibaldi. Garibaldi discovers that Benson’s debts have been paid off and goes looking for him. Scared, Benson asks the Knights for help, but they shoot him and dump his body out of an airlock.

Sinclair begins to suffer strong flashbacks to events he cannot remember, especially after he recalls what the Minbari assassin said to him last year (“There is a hole in your mind,” PM). Sinclair at last remembers that he didn’t black out, but was instead captured by the Minbari. They tortured and interrogated him before presiding him before the Minbari Grey Council. The Grey Council scanned him with a triangular device. The last thing he remembers is pulling open the cowl of a Minbari. The shock of the released memory overloads the cybernet, allowing Sinclair to escape. The other Knight pursues him but Sinclair manages to kill him. Sinclair is tracked to the Zocalo, where Delenn finds him. He passes out. As he recovers the other Knight - his interrogator - is revealed to have suffered severe memory loss as a result of the cybernet overload. He goes back to Earth empty-handed, whilst Sinclair records his new memories in his log, along with an interesting fact: the Minbari whose face he exposed was Delenn. Delenn receives a visit from another member of the Grey Council, who commands her to kill Sinclair should he recall the truth.

Dating the Episode: Sinclair was born on 3 May 2218 but is still 39 years old in this episode. More succinctly, Garibaldi’s copy of Universe Today is dated 11 April 2258.

Dating the Line: This episode nods to one of the biggest questions in the show: when did the Battle of the Line take place? By almost all internal evidence, the battle takes place in mid-to-late 2247. The evidence is thus:

  • Episode PM, taking place on 3 January 2257, says that the war was “almost” ten years ago.
  • This episode (taking place before May 2258) and the opening narration for the season say that the war was “ten years ago”.
  • Episode A13 (taking place in August 2258) says that the war was “eleven years ago”.
  • Episode B1 and its companion comic DC1 (both taking place in January 2259) say that the war ended “twelve years ago”.
  • Episode C13 (taking place in July 2260) says that the war began exactly “fifteen years ago”.
  • Numerous episodes, but most notably TVM1, say that that the war lasted for about two years (although B1 does suggest it was closer to three).
However, the official dating sources, including the DVD special features and the Babylon 5 Encyclopaedia, all date the Battle of the Line to late 2248, despite the fact that the TV references clearly favour a date of 2247.

The Arc: Contrary to what he always believed, Sinclair did not black out at the Battle of the Line. He was captured by the Minbari, tortured, interrogated and then scanned by the Grey Council themselves. Presumably the Minbari wiped his memory of the event and then set him adrift in space. What this has to do with the Minbari surrender remains unknown, although we find out more clues in episodes A13, A16, A17, A19 and A20 before all is revealed in episode B1. We see the Minbari side of these events in episode TVM1. The belief that the Minbari want to subvert Earth from within is reiterated much more strongly in episodes C5, C6, C8-C10, D8 and D17-D19.

The Minbari use a strange triangular device to scan Sinclair. We learn more about this device in episode A20 and its capabilities in episode A22.

Dr. Franklin asks Delenn what she got up to during the Earth-Minbari War. Delenn replies that is a topic for discussion at another time. We find out what she was doing in episodes D9 and TVM1, though this episode and episode B1 shine some light on this as well.

We learn that during the war Franklin was asked to hand over his medical notes on the Minbari to Earthforce so they could create a genetic weapon to use against them. He refused and burned his notes. We see this in episode TVM1. It is referred to again in episode B10.

At one point in the episode Garibaldi is seen reading a newspaper, Universe Today. Some of the headlines refer to events in the story arc:

  • Psi Corps in Election Tangle” is a reference to Psi Corps illegally recommending to their members which vice-presidential candidate to vote for in the elections held in episode A1. This is referred to in episode B2.
  • “Narns Settle Raghesh (sic) III Controversy” is a reference to the events of episode A1.
  • “Homeguard Leader Convicted” is a reference to episode A7, although this specifically references Homeguard’s Earthside leader, Jacob Lester, who was arrested after attacking the Minbari embassy on Earth.
  • “San Diego Still Considered Too Radioactive for Occupancy” refers to revelations made in episode A1 (that San Diego has been destroyed by a terrorist nuclear attack), but may be a cover for the events of episode B6.
  • “Is There Something Living in Hyperspace?” is referred to in episode B4.
  • Minbari Poet Accorded Honours” is presumably a reference to Shaal Mayan (from A7) who was on her way to Earth (although a misprint renders it ‘Minbari Pirate Accorded Honours’!).
Although nothing is ever confirmed on-screen, according to Larry DiTillio the Knights are actually members of the covert organisation Bureau 13, which is referenced in episode B6.

The Minbari Grey Council member who visits Delenn has a triangular object on his forehead. This is an implant which all Grey Council members possess, but simple cloaking fields render them invisible until such time as it is needed. It can detect the presence of other cloaked beings. We see Delenn’s implant in episode A13.

Sinclair’s angry demand of “What do you want?” echoes around the Minbari Grey Council chamber. We learn its significance, and why the Minbari are not keen on that question, in episode A13.

When Sinclair’s Starfury attacks the Minbari warcruiser, the display reads out “NEGATIVE LOCK”. This is a reference to the Minbari warcruiser having stealth technology that makes it hard for Earth sensors to lock onto them. This is explored further in episode B1.

Background: There are some on Earth who believe that the Minbari surrender is actually a sinister cover for a more insidious plan to subvert Earth from within at a far lower cost in Minbari lives. However, Sinclair notes that the Minbari fleet was completely unbeatable by human weapons and could have laid waste to Earth with no real trouble.

Earthforce personnel can gamble, but only to the tune of 50 credits a week. They cannot get in debt as it may compromise station security.

Garibaldi (and presumably any other security officer) can override the locks of any door on the station to gain access.

The B5 edition of Universe Today costs 50 millicredits. “Millicredit” is probably the cent to ‘credit’s’ dollar, meaning there is a pretty straightforward way of working out the value of items in the 23rd Century (1 credit = 1 dollar).

Babylon 5 is a useful place for embassies from different races to be established close together, but many of the worlds also have bilateral relations: there are Centauri and Minbari embassies on Earth, for example (and, as we later learn, a Centauri diplomatic mission on Minbar, which is expanded into a full embassy in Season 3).

Jeffrey David Sinclair was born on 3 May 2218, on Mars. He joined Earthforce in 2237 (aged 19), completing his fighter pilot training in 2240 (age 21) and was made squad leader in 2241 (age 22). By the Battle of the Line he was commander of Alpha Squadron, defending Earth in the Battle of the Line at the end of the Earth-Minbari War. This took place in 2247 or 2248 (age 28-29). Sinclair is 39 years old in this episode.

This episode marks the first appearance of the Minbari Sharlin-class warcruiser (although it won’t be named that for many years). Designed by Ron Thornton, the Sharlin was designed to be unusual-looking with a vertical orientation and was designed to look elegant and deadly in equal measures.

Also debuting in this episode is the Niall-class Minbari fighter, the most powerful and manoeuvrable starfighter of the younger races with powerful beam weapons.

The second-most-senior medical doctor on Babylon 5 is Dr. Henandez, who is referenced in this episode and appears in A10.

Virtual reality cybernets beam three-dimensional images directly into the human brain. Their use is considered dangerous and use a significant amount of energy.

There is an Earthforce military base in the Tigris sector.

During battle, a damaged Starfury can eject its entire cockpit as a lifeboat. We see this in greater details in episodes B11 and C10.

References: This episode is very consciously a homage to the bizarre 1960s British SF show The Prisoner, in which a British spy – played by Patrick McGoohan – is held captive and a battery of strange techniques are used to get him to give up his secrets. The Prisoner is one of Straczynski’s favourite shows.

The title is a reference to a line in the pilot episode: “The sky was full of stars and every star was an exploding ship, one of ours.” Some sources say this is a line cut from the original edit an restored in the Special Edition, but is erroneous; the line was always in the episode.

Some fans questioned why the same Starfury design was still in use a decade after the war. However, this is not unusual in military design: the current American front-line fighter remains the F-15 Eagle, which entered service in the late 1970s and will not be retired until close to its 50th birthday. If a design is strong, the internal electronics and outboard weapon systems can be upgraded whilst the external main airframe remains the same.

Unanswered Questions: Who, exactly, are the Knights working for?

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: Universe Today’s proof-readers were clearly having a day off. “Ragesh III” is misspelt “Raghesh”, Psi Corps is incorrectly rendered as Psi-Corps and a “Minbari Poet” becomes a “Minbari Pirate”.

In this episode “the Line” appears to be a patchwork of warship flotillas and fighter squadrons strung around the entire Earth-Moon system (the moon is shown to be eclipsing Earth in one shot). In B1 the Minbari warcruisers are shown much closer to Earth during the same battle. In TVM1 the Line is shown to consist of an (implausibly massive) number of fighters and warships in low Earth orbit with fighting taking place quite close to the atmosphere.

Mitchell breaks off to attack a Minbari fighter and is heard in dialogue to still be engaging the fighter, but the CG shows him firing at a Minbari warcruiser instead.

The Minbari Grey Council member orders Delenn to kill Sinclair if necessary: this seems to flatly contradict Minbari standing orders and morality in episode B1, which the Grey Council is well aware of.

On the widescreen presentations of the series, the CGI is often cropped and zoomed (a result of Warner Brothers not stumping up the cash to properly do the CG in widescreen when the series was first made). On this episode this means losing the “NEGATIVE LOCK” on Sinclair’s Starfury display screen, setting up later events in episode B1.

Behind the Scenes: Director Janet Greek worked hard with Director of Photography John Flinn to create a unique new look for this episode, simply by turning off most of the set lights and created spotlights surrounded by void for the flashbacks.

This was Michael O’Hare’s favourite episode of the series, both for the focus on his character, the taut direction and his scenes with Christopher Neame, an actor he rated highly.

According to O’Hare, he did not have to dig very deep to find Sinclair’s pain in this episode due to ongoing events in his private life. “I understood what the experience was of losing everything, having everything taken away from me.” In retrospect, and knowing he would soon quit the show due to mental health issues, these lines take on a different meaning.

O’Hare wanted to pay tribute to the military spirit in this episode, as both his brothers served in the US armed forces. It was his idea in the cockpit scene to turn in different directions and each time see a Starfury exploding.

Walter Koenig was originally cast as Knight Two, but suffered a heart attack some months earlier and was still recovering when this episode was filmed. Patrick McGoohan was then cast, but had to leave the country during shooting (possibly to shoot his scenes for the movie Braveheart). The producers cast British character actor Christopher Neame instead, who ended up doing a great job, and Koenig was recast as Bester in episode A6 (which was shot after A8 but aired earlier). Koenig notes this worked out in the long run, as Bester became a recurring character.

This episode is the second to reference the fact the San Diego has been irradiated with a dirty bomb and rendered completely uninhabitable. Straczynski noted that he lived in San Diego from 1974 to 1981 and was subjected to a brutal mugging there. His decision to nuke the city was down to that, although he also noted he had some fun memories of the city as well.

The original plan for the flashback scenes was to “step-print” the footage (removing intervening frames to give a slightly uncomfortable, slow-motion feeling). The CGI was created with this in mind. However, it was decided that the live-action footage did not look scan well in this mode and it was returned to normal. This left a disconnect between the dream-like CGI and the normal live-action footage which Ron Thornton felt was jarring.

At one point the Ikarran war machine from A4 was going to show up to haunt Sinclair’s hallucination, but Straczynski was already suspecting that that episode was not going to go down well and cut the scene.

Familiar Faces: Judson Scott should be familiar to genre fans from his appearance on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as Khan’s henchman Joachim. He also played a drug addict in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Symbiosis, and a few years after this episode would appear as a Romulan commander in the well-regarded Voyager episode Message in a Bottle.

Christopher Neame has a long-standing history of stage and screen roles in the UK. In 1975 he played Kaiser Wilhelm II in the drama series Edward the Seventh, and also had recurring roles on Colditz and Secret Army. He played the Time Lord villain Skagra in the Doctor Who story Shada, but the episode was never finished (due to a production strike) and his role ended up on the cutting room floor (at least until the complete portions of the episode were released on video, many years later). In the 1980s he moved to Hollywood and appeared in numerous movies, including Licence to Kill, Ghostbusters II, Suburban Commando, Hellbound, Ground Zero and The Prestige. His US TV credits are extremely lengthy as well.

Director Janet Greek had previously worked on St. Elsewhere, Max Headroom, L.A. Law, Northern Exposure and Melrose Place. She impressed Straczynski with her work on this episode and became his “go-to” director for all of the major arc episodes of the series. She took a break during the third and fourth seasons to work on other projects (including Xena: Warrior Princess) but would return for the fifth season and one of the TV movies.

Review: One of the strongest episodes of the first season, successful in its taut, claustrophobic direction and its direct going-for-the-jugular approach of furthering the main story arc. The episode, like many of the early ones in the series, is let down by its production values but overall this is a winner. ****½

Sinclair: "When I looked at those ships I didn't just see my death, I saw the death of the whole damned human race."

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1 comment:

Kevin S. said...

Unless you're only concerned with people with genre experience, you missed Danica McKellar in A7. She played Winnie on the American TV series "The Wonder Years" for several years.