Thursday, February 20, 2014

Babylon 5: Midnight on the Firing Line

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: A Narn sneak attack on the small Centauri agricultural colony of Ragesh 3 touches off a round of serious diplomatic tension aboard Babylon 5. The Narn ambassador, G'Kar, initially feigns ignorance, which infuriates Centauri ambassado Londo once he learns the true identity of the attacking force. The issue is personal for Londo, as he'd pulled strings to get his nephew, Carn, assigned to a prestigious research position on the colony. Also, Londo dreams of the days before the Centauri empire was in decline, and once he receives word from his superiors on Centauri Prime that Ragesh 3 is too small and remote to bother defending, Londo attempts to bluff the Advisory Council and League of Non-Aligned Worlds into taking action where the Centauri Republic would not. G'Kar calls his bluff, informs the council that Ragesh 3 was originally a Narn colony seized by the Centauri during their brutal occupation of Narn, and finally share a transmission of Londo's obviously tortured nephew stating that the colonists invited the Narn to annex them because the Centauri Republic had essentially abandoned the colony and cut off support.

Whilst all this is going on, Security Chief Garibaldi is tracking down the source of some troubling pirate raids on cargo ships destined for Babylon 5. The raiders have displayed weapons far more powerful of late than they have in the past, escalating the threat they pose. He figures out how they are planning their attacks, and Commander Sinclair leads a squadron of Star Furies out to ambush the raiders. This leads to the capture of the raiders' mother ship, which just so happens to have a Narn advisor on board as the raiders have been using new, more powerful weapons purchased from the Narn. The advisor also just happens to have recordings of the transmissions between the Narn fleet and homeworld that exposes the entire invasion of Ragesh 3 as an unprovoked attack. When confronted with the evidence, G'Kar is furious, but Narn backs down and recalls its forces from Ragesh 3.

In the B plot of the episode, newly-arrived Lt. Commander Ivanova spends the episode avoiding newly-arrived telepath Talia Winters. When Winters finally corners Ivanova, Ivanova explains she hates the Psi Corps because her mother was a latent telepath who was forced by the corps to take drugs to suppress her abilities. The drugs caused severe depression, leading to her mother's suicide. Talia is sympathetic, but Ivanova rejects any possibility of friendship.

What Calista Says: In this episode I really liked the replacement 2nd-in-command, Ivanova, and the back story about her mother. The special effects were way better than they were in the pilot. I liked the makeup on Delenn in the pilot more than how it was in this episode. In the pilot it was more dramatic.

What Jayme Says: This is a good, solid episode--a far, far better introduction to Babylon 5 than the clunky pilot. There's a lot going on here, but JMS' writing and Richard Compton's directing keep everything coherent and clear. The Narn/Centauri conflict is front and center here, not soft-pedaled as it was in the pilot. The raiders are kinda throwaway enemies, but they serve their purpose. Ivanova's handful of scenes with Talia pack quite an emotional punch and are the most gripping of anything yet seen on B5. The fact that there is so much tension and conflict going on amongst the regular characters signals that this is a sharp break from the Star Trek mold, where everyone invariably goes in for the group hug before taking on whatever challenge awaits.

That said, "Midnight on the Firing Line" feels very much like a Star Trek episode once the credits roll. Why? Because the main plot--war between Narn and Centauri--is neatly tied up by the end of the episode. Reset to status quo: Nothing really changes from week to week. If I put my mind to it, "Midnight on the Firing Line" is somewhat analogous to Trek's "Errand of Mercy." The Narn are the aggressive Klingon stand-ins, the Centauri are the peaceful Federation types, and Sinclair/Babylon 5 serve as the peacemaking Organians. Granted, it's a loose comparison at best, but consider the fact that when this episode aired, the Star Trek episodic model was pretty much all that existed for televised space opera. Part of Babylon 5's success came from playing off these assumptions of the audience and gradually (and sometimes abruptly) subverting them (something Farscape did effectively as well a few years later), but early on it made the series look like Deep Space 9 with various cosmetic changes.

Still, there are hints of what is to come. Londo's prescient dream of his own death comes off in the episode as a throwaway bit of Shakespearean melodrama. Vorlon Ambassador Kosch's reaction to the Narn/Centauri conflict is downright chilling. Kosh: "They are a dying people. We should let them pass." Sinclair: "Who, the Narn or the Centauri?" Kosh: "Yes." There a whole lot of Checkovian guns hung up on the walls of the station in this episode, but it is to JMS' credit that they are so subtle as to go unnoticed until significantly later in the series.

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