Babylon 5 #13: By Any Means Necessary

"You should never hand someone a gun unless you're sure where they'll point it."
IN THIS ONE... Dock workers strike. G'Kar needs a holy plant from Londo.

REVIEW: Guys, I'm liking Sinclair a lot more than I thought I would. He really thrives in more political episodes, which also happens to be the ones I like best. And though they kind of overdo it with his fatigue in this one - I find it doubtful he would conduct station business unshaven and his uniform undone no matter how tired he was - he still manages to friggin' loophole away problems not once, not twice, but three times. I know loophole isn't a verb, but it really should be. First he loopholes the illegal strike by turning "any means necessary" into a way to give his abused dock workers what they want instead of strong-arming them into going back to work. Brilliant. Then he loopholes G'Kar's holy plant out of Londo's hands invoking laws against controlled substances (and wouldn't you know it, the Centauri have been using to get high). And then, for his encore, he loopholes the light from the Narn sun to give G'Kar another shot at his precious ceremony! He should start every sentence with "Technically..." and all the universe's woes would be over. Big smiles right through the final act over here.

The episode captures the chaos that reigns in an enormous installation like Babylon 5, and deepens the world by showing us how the military is actually dependent on civilian contractors. This isn't some slick world where everyone's part of Earth Force, a well-oiled machine motivated by duty and self-improvement. Instead, Sinclair has to deal with union complaints and budget cuts. As it happens, making B5 work is a lot harder than keeping an eye on four ambassadors. He's been asked to do the impossible and keep this thing running with less than optimal support (i.e. funds) from Earth. Does his homeworld even believe in the project? Likely, Earth doesn't really understand Babylon 5's realities and there must be pressure from certain parts not to send the planet's resources off-world like that. The dock scenes are loud, noisy and full of extras, and you realize it's all a lot more complicated and hands-on that countless shows' "bridge-only" approaches would have us think. Ivanova is directing traffic up top, but real people are doing a heck of a lot of work down below to make it happen.

And remember in "The Parliament of Dreams" when the Narn religion wasn't showcased? Well, G'Kar finally gets his turn. From what we can glean here, the Narn worship their sun (which Londo describes as barbaric paganism, despite the fact he's from a polytheistic culture - it's all a matter of perspective), but can be "followers" of different prophets/wise men/heroes. With Na'Toth essentially describing herself as an atheist, this all brings the Narn closer to humanity. Mostly monotheistic, but with a variety akin to Earth's. Whether G'Kar really believes or is, as Londo cynically puts it, only trying to save face is besides the point. The tradition must be observed and he too feels he needs to use any means necessary (in his case, theft and extortion; though Sinclair doesn't all that to be the resolution) to get what he needs. Londo plays the cruel and callous former overseer in this story, but he's also motivated by revenge for the Ragesh III incident from Midnight on the Firing Lines. These characters have long memories, and slights are not easily forgiven.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Sinclair as clever political operator and cowboy diplomat will always be something I find watchable. It's closer to what the show should be doing instead of Trek stock plots.


Anonymous said...

I must differ. The solutions to Sinclair's problems -- the dock strike and the Narn sun thing -- were both pretty obvious (at least to me), and JMS stretched the problems out for an entire episode just so Sinclair could be the one guy smart enough to sort them out.

The Narn sun thing in particular. How long have the Narns been involved in interstellar travel? Has this issue never occurred to them before? Seriously? There's only one interstellar race that will ever show less common sense, and that's a certain race that greets strangers by pointing guns at them. (Oh, how I will gripe when that episode rolls around.)

This is one of the first episodes that made me feel B5 was going to be a lost cause. (I later recanted.)

Siskoid said...

Sometimes, you're too close to the problem to see the solution. If the Narns traditionally celebrate on the date, they might not think of the light-year solution. And just because some Narn somewhere might have done this at one desperate point (remember, it wouldn't have been a problem if they'd had their incense delivered) doesn't mean G'Kar would know about it.

Nor is the strike solution telegraphed as well as you suggest it was. There is no way that solution was open to Sinclair at the start of the episode. The "stretching", as you call it, is the time it takes for the situation to get so out of control, emergency measures are invoked, and only then does Sinclair have the power (once he checks "exact wording") to do what he wants to do. At best, the audience member can reasonably "guess" the outcome only a few minutes before it happens, and being just ahead of the characters is actually a pleasant, satisfying thing. Guessing something from the outset based on how you might resolve a dilemma is simply cheating. (I have a friend, for example, who hates hates hates The Usual Suspects because he claims he "guessed" the identity of Kaiser Sozse in the first few minutes. I find this attitude ridiculous, as if outcome was the only reason to watch something - it isn't or we would never watch something twice - and because he got lucky; he had no available evidence to support that guess when he made it).

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes, you're too close to the problem to see the solution. If the Narns traditionally celebrate on the date, they might not think of the light-year solution."

But for any space-faring race, the concept of "the date" is complicated as all hell. Relativity makes it so. Interstellar distances make it so. Alternate, relativistic conceptions of "the date" must exist in Narn culture and religion.

"and only then does Sinclair have the power (once he checks 'exact wording') to do what he wants to do"

"Exact wording" that was likewise introduced just to stretch things out. But exact wording or no, nobody asked early on "can't we pay them out of petty cash?" when that's the first thing I would have asked.

We're probably not going to see eye to eye on this episode, so let me just say that JMS does floor me later with clever plot twists -- including sending mf-in' Heisenberg after the Shadows (!!!) -- and even Babe Ruth can be forgiven for striking out on occasion.

Siskoid said...

I'm not sure how relativity works in a universe with instantaneous travel and communications through jump gates.

Petty cash would not have fixed anything (it's petty), and it's clear Sinclair couldn't reallocate military spending on dock workers' salaries, which are, after all, the purview of a government contract and not specifically under his control. Sinclair needed broader powers of negotiation to make any of this happen, as he is not their employer, nor could he easily spend Earth Force money that way. It's all pretty realistic, actually. Truer to the real world than to TV logic.

And it's not about defending JMS, as I've been rather vocal in hating his comics work and spotting his weaknesses even on this, his opus. He's not even the credited writer for this episode.

You are, of course, entitled to your opinion even if it's wrong ;-). Kidding aside, I can only come at these from my particular perspective ad you from yours. My perspective is from someone who only ever saw the episodes once back in the 90s, and definitely not all of them, especially Season 1, and more germane to this episode, someone who, in real life, must navigate similar internal politics daily at work.

Ryan Lohner said...

How did this episode's writer Kathryn Drennan become involved with the show? By being married to its creator. But this wasn't just nepotism, as she's a very skilled writer who had a healthy career of her own before this.

Mrs. JMS had become a bit frustrated at how little focus Sinclair got in episodes her husband hadn't written, so developing him more was one of her major goals here. Another was to shed more light on Narn religion after we missed seeing it in The Parliament of Dreams, and besides what's already mentioned, I like the subtle indications that religion is a very private thing for Narns: G'Kar has to ask Na'Toth what her beliefs are, and he only goes to Sinclair with his problem as a desperate last resort.

And of course there was her desire to shed some light on the nuts and bolts of what would really make a project like Babylon 5 work day to day. The strike was largely inspired by her outrage back in 1981 when more than 10,000 air traffic controllers went on strike only to find themselves all summarily fired by President Reagan, so she wanted to give a similar story a happy ending.

I also have to say how impressed I am by how well the A and B stories are woven together. That's not something you see a lot even today.

Madeley said...

Call me a wretched pinko Communist looking to obstruct the work of blessed capital, but a sympathetic view of industrial action and workers' rights in an American SF show still blows my mind a bit to this day.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure how relativity works in a universe with instantaneous travel and communications through jump gates."

It still works along the lines we understand it to today. That was the point, wasn't it? Light from the Narn sun took its sweet time getting to B5 at 186,000 miles per second. I just can't see how this would be a point lost on interstellar travelers. Either pretend it's not an issue at all or acknowledge it as a basic reality of space travel, don't trot it out like it's a big revelation.

John Trumbull said...

I liked this episode largely because it was a story that Star Trek would never do. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think we've seen a blue collar POV of the Trek universe even today.

Neat bit of trivia: The "Rush Act" mentioned in this episode was named after Rush Limbaugh.

Siskoid said...

Ryan: True. The subplots are often thematically linked, but in this case it came out of the same initial incident. And as usual, thanks for the history lesson! Always interesting points.

Madeley: Would you be shocked if I told you I was super-leftist and yet anti-union? The unions are just another damn system lawyers have gotten their claws into. Of course, the situation on B5 is more akin to early unions than later one. I'm pro workers (and, indivisibly, human) rights, but unions are just as corruptible as the employers they are meant to balance against.

Anon: That's not a relativistic effect, mere a statement of "the date is relative". A relativistic effect would be where ships went close to or beyond light speed and their chronometers differed from their home chronometer to the point where your age didn't match your birth place's calendar. People in Babylon 5 can still keep to the same calendar, and thus have simultaneous holidays.

Siskoid said...

John: Haha, hilarious dig at a blowhard conservative voice!

As for blue collar Trek, there's very little of it because only Enterprise can be said to occur before the no-money utopia. There's some stuff with Merriweather's cargo hauler culture, but it's slim. I suppose the dilithium miners in TOS are blue collar guys. They exist, it's just not the focus of the shows. So I completely agree that this is something B5 could do, Trek couldn't.

londonkds said...

I enjoyed this episode when I first saw it, but it appears somewhat hypocritical given that B5 was shot on a non-union set because union-approved pay and conditions were considered uneconomic.

Madeley said...

Siskoid: I've got a lot of sympathy for your point of view re. unions. Despite my political leanings I wasn't a member of a union for a long time because while I'm whole-heartedly in favour of the principle, in practice I wasn't comfortable with a number of things.

The main issue for me over here is the interlink of the unions with the Labour party, despite its historical importance in giving all the people a political voice. Put simply, and without going into tedious detail, I am pro-union but I don't vote Labour and never have- yet the unions fund and support the Labour party unequivically. A union should support all workers, not just those who align with a specific political party.

All that aside, I'd rather have unions than not have them, however corruptible, and feel hugely indebted to the unions of old for their part in winning essential human rights we take for granted.

Timothy Brannan said...

I am rather enjoying these. This is also one of the very few episodes I ever saw.

I think JMS is a good writer, I just don't think Michael OHare (Sinclair, IIRC) was good enough of an actor to pull it off. Granted the actor had issues, but I am going with what I see on the screen.

Siskoid said...

Madeley: Not getting an argument from me there. A necessary evil, because the other side can be even worse. My experience with unions isn't political alignment per se, but rather their internal politics. Specifically, the majority within the union tends to burn the minority. I've been in unions where the older majority (essentially, the Boomers) had given away all advantages and protection for workers who were hired after a certain point (which was 15 years before I was) to get what they wanted. I've seen big unions absorb small ones, then proceed to force (say) teachers' assistants (who deal with kids that have learning disabilities, behavioral problems, autism, etc.) to go on strike when the majority (nurses) were unhappy, but completely ignore the challenges the small group was facing. I have several more examples of how the system is often broken. Needless to say, I'm extremely wary of any large union.

Tim: Glad you're still aboard! (And look at all this awesome discussion going on in the comments; I almost feel like Colin Smith over at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics!)

LiamKav said...

I find it interesting that in season 1 we have an episode that states basically that the little people are important, that this universe isn't JUST about the bridge/ops/whatever crew and all that. By the time we get to season 4 and 5 those attitudes have pretty heavily swapped around to Star Trek like "the command crew are the MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE and everytihng they do is for the good of the little people who can only hope to catch a glimpse of their holy awesomeness."

Siskoid said...

The television format will do that, so it's good they imbedded this here, so we know what the real cost is.

Madeley said...

To be fair, though, wasn't there an episode towards the end of the series that was specifically shot from the perspective of a couple of maintenance workers?

Also, re-reading Ryan's comment above re. Kathryn Drennan, she also wrote a tie-in novel filling in the gaps in Sinclair's timeline. She was best placed to do it because she felt so strongly about the character, and because as JMS's wife she knew so much about B5's backstory. To my knowledge it's the only tie-in novel considered by JMS to be 100% canon.

I know a few others were seen by JMS as being, for the most part, canonical, though most weren't. Maybe it's worth including those in these reviews? Certainly Drennan's novel is of equal significance to, for example, the TV movies, or Crusade.

Siskoid said...

Sadly, there's no way I'll be able to read Babylon 5 novels (even if I could find them) on my schedule. The plan for now is to do every that was shot and released, but none of the spin-offery.

I was in a much better position to do this kind of thing with Doctor Who and didn't (basically to preserve my sanity).

LiamKav said...

"To be fair, though, wasn't there an episode towards the end of the series that was specifically shot from the perspective of a couple of maintenance workers?

That's actually the one I was obliquely referring to. That season 5 episode is about two working class grunts who basically walk around saying "we just do the grunt work, but thank god there are awesome people like those shown in the title sequence who are awesome who do awesome things that mean that us poor slobs don't have to think about anything important because we're not clever enough to understand it, especially compared to those other guys who are awesome."

It's like "Lower Decks", but without decent characterisation, plot, acting, or charm.

But I'll rant more when we get there in a few months. (I'm pretty sure season 5 is going to show a lot of rants. Or lots of indifference.)

Cradok said...

In a lot of ways, I preferred Sinclair to Sheridan. Sheridan was the charismatic cowboy, and Boxleitner plays that very well, but I always find myself liking O'Hare's reserved, conflicted statesman, a man in over his head in a lot of ways, but with the skills and wit to keep up.

Siskoid said...

Sinclair is proving to be a revelation. I quite like the character.

Madeley said...

I never disliked the character, but I definitely appreciate Sinclair more now than when I first watched the show. I particularly like the way it took the Star Trek model of a commanding officer getting in the thick of the action, and suggesting that would only happen if your commander was suffering from trauma and had a bit of a death wish.

Liam: Yeah, that was the episode. To be honest, as much as I love B5 there aren't many episodes from the fifth season I've ever revisited (excepting of course Sleeping in Light, which is basically the best finale to a show ever made). It'll be interesting to read the analysis here.

I wish I had the time to watch along with these reviews, I'm really getting the urge for a B5 fix now.


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