Babylon 5 #16: Grail

"No 'boom' today, 'boom' tomorrow. There is always a 'boom' tomorrow. What? Someone need to keep some perspective around here. Sooner or Later... Boom!"
IN THIS ONE... A holy man comes to Babylon 5 asking about the Holy Grail and protects the station's resident jinx from a loan shark and his pet memory-sucking monster.

REVIEW: While getting David Warner is always a good thing (though I don't think he's ever said no to a genre TV show), you really have to pair him up with a member of the regular cast for it to mean something. Instead, the other half of his holy man character's double act is Tom Booker's ne'er-do-well Jinxo, and I'm sorry, but I just don't care about one-off characters and their quests or bids at redemption. It's like we're watching a completely different show taking place in the margins of the same universe. Maybe if it these events had more impact on the Babylon 5 world, but they really don't. Aldous Gajic's quest for the Holy Grail is an odd anachronism, unrelated as far as I know to the greater story arc. And Jinxo's contention that he has the Babylon 5 "curse" and caused the destruction/disappearance of the first four stations (highlighting how budgetarily dubious the last decade has been) fails to drum up any real tension at episode's end.

Through them, very little is revealed about the other characters, with the possible exception of the Minbari. We find out they have two ruling castes, warrior and religious, which hardly ever agree on anything (and it's terrible when they do). That they respect "true seekers" like Gajic, and that Delenn considers Sinclair one such person. He looks down on Gajic's hopeless quest, but is it that far from his own? Is universal peace just another Holy Grail? We also get to see how the station's justice system works, but the idea that goons can just grab a judge (or Ombuds) outside his chambers is patently ridiculous and shows Garibaldi to be completely incompetent. Protection racketeer Deuce (and his other brother Deuce) can't be that powerful, can he? After all, the brain-wiping cephalopod Na'ka'leen has only been helping out for 6 months. That action plot must've been brain-wiped itself because it's really badly put together. The idea of impersonating Kosh was a good one, and the creature, especially when it's just a tentacle, is satisfyingly terrifying, but then it all devolves into a shoot-out where Aldous gets one in the arm and dies, after showing some unexplained power over the creature, and Jinxo suddenly turning hero after a lifetime of cowardice... Ugh.

In the (fruitful) comments on one of these reviews, there's been some talk of JMS' comedic skills, or rather, of his contention that his sense of humor is so developed, whatever he finds funny, others would find dangerously hilarious. Though the script is by Christie "Jem" Marx, JMS has taken credit for a couple of comedy bits in this episode, so let's see. The first is the court scene where a human seeks damages from a Gray alien whose grandfather may or may not have abducted HIS grandfather. Amusing and clever, bordering on silly world-breaking, but dangerously hilarious? Then there's Jinxo shrugging off his curse only to board a ship called the Marie Celeste. My sides are literally splitting. Not. Twisted irony that unfortunately makes you ask questions like "who would name their ship after a naval tragedy?". So even if he's not directly responsible for the "cute" end scene with Garibaldi, Londo and Vir with the comedy music, etc., well, it doesn't exactly clash with the rest of the hilarity on show. I don't even see a reason to pretend Babylon 5 can be funny.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - With its focus on all the wrong things and stories that are largely irrelevant to anything we might care about, Grail is a waste of its principal guest actor and of the viewer's time.

10 comments:

Madeley said...

I've always loved the alien abductee court case, but it's amusing rather than hilarious. JMS has many skills as a writer but humour isn't one of them, and as self-delusions go the idea he thinks he's amazing at it takes the cake.

Waste of David Warner, and a waste of an episode, but I've always been curious about the use of Arthurian motifs in the show. B5 owes a lot to fantasy fiction tropes, as will become more obvious when we start to meet even more varieties of warrior monk than the ones we've seen already. I'll avoid spoilers, but specific references to Arthuriana will continue to be made, if sporadically, so it's worth keeping an eye out for.

I suspect the legend of King Arthur, and the metaphor of Babylon 5 as a version of Camelot, is as much an influence on B5 as the more obvious things (Lord of the Rings, Forbidden Planet, etc.) But we'll probably have a more fruitful discussion about this further on down the line.

Siskoid said...

I dare so most of space opera has some fantasy parallel, but B5 as Camelot is a very interesting notion. Kind of wish I was up on my Arthuriana right now.

LiamKav said...

There's a point in the series where the in-universe Babylon 5 logo changes. At this point it's a number 5 with an olive branch on it. Later on it becomes the number 5 with a sword through it. That's pretty Camelot.

This episode highlights an interesting point JMS makes about freelancers. He says that they are always interested in the guest stars, whereas he himself (and presumably on shows that have them, the general writing teams) are usually much more interested in the regulars.

Siskoid said...

Obviously that would make sense in the first season of a show because scripts are written without the possibility of seeing the show on TV. Marx likely had the pilot and the show's bible to work from.

Ryan Lohner said...

In his introduction in the script volumes, Christie Marx reveals that he, and presumably the other guest writers, received no indication at all about the full plan for the show. Instead JMS just let them all do their own thing off a basic plot outline, and changed anything that didn't fit the five-year plan. This certainly goes a long way to explaining episodes like this, though I do suspect Deuce was meant to be a recurring character given how he just disappears down a vent at the end (though presumably with his days numbered now that an ombudsman can personally give eyewitness testimony). Ultimately he only made one more appearance in the movie The River of Souls.

Marx also puts some blame on the director, who had learned he was going to be fired after finishing the episode and spent most of the shoot just sitting in a chair grumbling to himself, leaving the rest of the crew to fumble around without any kind of guiding voice.

The special effects guys had been asking for a while to have a completely CGI alien, and were thrilled with the concept of the Na'Ka'Leen Feeder. And it is an interesting design, but unfortunately the technology of the time and the show's low budget means the ambition far outstrips the execution, and it's made worse by the physical tentacle prop that doesn't mesh with the full creature at all.

It's been suggested that the show's occasional nods to the King Arthur mythos were going to lead to more of a payoff if the full plan had taken less detours, or even if Crusade had gotten a full run. That probably would have given this episode a better place in the show's history. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and we're left with a forgettable storytelling aberration.

LiamKav said...

Christy Marx is a "she". Two female writers in season 1. Pretty sure that beats TNG by a good margin.

abc said...

Always enjoy a good Newhart reference...

Madeley said...

Crusade is more explicit in having Arthurian themes in its DNA, from the name of the show and the ship to the fact that even Captain Gideon's name is evocative of a Judeo-Christian knight on a literal healing quest.

Avoiding spoilers, some things that are coming up that always struck me as playing on Arthurian legend: there's about half a dozen characters that could count as Merlin, the conflation of the name Morden with Mordred, a wise, old, injured character who brings to mind the Fisher King, betrayal by close allies and spouses, heroic trials to indicate worth, a preoccupation with questions in the same way that Percival was required to ask the necessary question, the Minbari as capricious Fair Folk of a kind, who share a similar fascination with threes as the Celts have. And that's without getting into several voyages through underworlds and Otherworlds, or the interpretation of a certain key character's final fate being, essentially, passage to Afallon.

I'm not saying all (or any) of these things was intended, but I've always felt the parallels were there.

Siskoid said...

And parallels to certain key myths are perhaps inevitable in Western cultural artifacts.

Anonymous said...

On the other side of the wormhole would surely be The Sword of Kahless. I am a big fan of both B5 and DS9 but there seems like an interesting thematic counterpoint in the impossible, incomplete, but still continuing quest in Grail and the finished but inconsequential quest in Kahless. If only Grail had teamed up the guest star with one of the regulars....

 

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