Babylon 5 #5: Infection

"No. We have to stay here and there's a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you'll get ten different answers, but there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu and Einstein and Morobuto and Buddy Holly and Aristophanes... and all of this... all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars."
IN THIS ONE... Ancient living tech turns a guy into a living weapon.

REVIEW: Dr. Franklin really is the most "Starfleet" of all the characters, isn't he? His secular humanism, previously seen as outspoken atheism, after the initial elation of discovery, here manifests as anti-corporate outrage that humanity would poach ideas and technology from other species instead of making the advances ourselves. He firmly believes in our capacity for growth, and can't stand that his old mentor would take shortcuts. That he would even have a mentor in the field of archaeology when he's a physician makes him the kind of Renaissance Man who would feel at home on a Starfleet ship. His rejection of racial purity (and is there irony in telling Sinclair this re: the Minbari mystery?) and embracing of differences smacks of Trek's IDIC philosophy, and is feels especially truthful coming from a deaf actor (not that you could tell). If there's a theme to this episode, it's an attempt to answer the question of why humanity should take part in the great interstellar adventure. There are selfish reasons (the guest stars') and there are noble reasons (Franklin's), but it's Sinclair's answer to the INN reporter (quoted above), pragmatic though it is in a cosmic kind of way, that's articulated the best.

Unfortunately, the plot is far less interesting. While the living tech angle is potable, especially given it's technology normally kept out of reach by the Minbari and Vorlons, it quickly devolves into an alien possession trope I've seen countless times before and since. Unscrupulous guy mishandles tech, gets turned into monster on a rampage... Look, I've just been through 50 years of Doctor Who in 2½ years. This is old hat. I suppose I could give JMS points for resolving the conflict in a non-violent way - after much violence, which the show does fairly well - but the whole bit about convincing a creature that is the last of its kind to give up because its world is dead has also fallen into cliché.

JMS does seem to know this kind of thing isn't what Babylon 5 is about, however. How else to explain the action climax happens with 8 minutes to spare? Determined to turn the focus back on characters and ideas, the episode feels completely unbalanced by no less than four introspective scenes in the epilogue. Franklin confronts his mentor. Garibaldi confronts Sinclair about his apparent death wish. Franklin and Ivanova are disappoint Earth would take the artifacts and potentially misuse them. And Sinclair has his interview with INN. It's an odd complaint, I know. I like each of these scenes and they feel entirely necessary, but the pace and structure are just so off... I guess I'd get rid of the action-driven middle, but it would be a short episode.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: While the plot is Trekkish, you know it's not Star Trek, because there are bathrooms aboard the station, and you really shouldn't use the stall reserved for methane breathers, if you know what I mean.

- My first disappointment. Nothing we haven't seen before and throwing four epilogues at us when we're already kind of bored isn't the best episode structure.


Anonymous said...

JMS is trying a whole new thing at this point, and I can't fault him that it's not firing on all cylinders; the point of this episode is the epilogues, not the "raaarh! monster hunt" part. I chalk it up to his experience as a writer of novels, where you can make chapters of any length and structure them as you see fit; in a book this would have been a short chapter that was mostly the epilogues, but in a TV show you're obligated to fill up the whole hour.

I'm going to say it's a recurring weakness of the series, primarily in the first season, that JMS is thinking "novel on TV" and not "TV series with a long-range arc". As a result he's focusing on the end goal to the occasional exclusion of enjoyable episodes. This is also part of the problem with Sinclair: I think JMS felt that you should take your time letting the lead grow on the audience, but that's exactly the wrong strategy.

And cloaks. Good god, everyone wearing cloaks. This isn't your D&D campaign, JMS. But I digress.

In some ways I see "Farscape" as "Babylon 5" done right. Not that B5 is "wrong", but there are many things it aspired to and didn't quite achieve. "Farscape" managed to give us the flawed characters who were engaging right out of the gate, who grew, and who followed a series-long arc. Watch the pilot of "Farscape" and take a look at how much is revealed through actions, and how subtle (by TV standards) much of it is. I always think of how Aeryn Sun is too honest to declare Crichton a threat despite how much her boss wants her to, and when he accuses her of having been corrupted, Crichton twigs to what's going on and tries to deflect it because he doesn't want anyone to suffer for him. We immediately see that these are smart, principled people without a tertiary character having to say, "my goodness, the two of you are certainly smart and principled".

Ryan Lohner said...

Watch enough television, and you'll learn the unfortunate fact that even the best shows can have off-days, and give us episodes that are a decidedly inferior product. The only show of a comparable length to B5 that I've encountered where this never happened is Breaking Bad (and if you know anything about the similar numerous production problems that show faced, it's a goddamn miracle it turned out so well).

There's definitely good stuff here, like there is in all but one of the show's subpar episodes (and boy, will I have things to say about that one). The development for Franklin, Garibaldi calling Sinclair on his death wish, and Sinclair's beautiful final monologue are all very well written, and wrapped up in some nice foreshadowing for the show's major arc which is invisible on first viewing.

So it's just too bad that it's all in the service of your utterly stock "guy in a rubber suit wanders around killing people" that could have come straight out of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And a message that's equally standard, and laid on so thick that we've gotten the point long before the show is done lecturing us about it. JMS' time writing kids' shows probably has something to do with that.

And ditto on the Farscape recommendation.

Ryan Lohner said...

Oh, and one more thing: Hendricks is played by David McCallum, who was a major sex symbol in the '60s as Soviet agent Ilya Kuryakin in The Man from UNCLE. He's now on NCIS, which I've never seen so I can't speak to what his role is like.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have to mention: Sinclair's death wish is a major clue that his life isn't on track, which is to say, he hasn't started the road to his destiny yet. At this point, the show is about Sinclair's destiny. Sinclair's, not someone else's who happens to share JMS's first and last initials. More evidence of JMS's initial intentions.

Anonymous said...


Ugh, we're going to see that JMS has an unhealthy love of lecturing. Even in situations where there is no way the other person(s) would allow themselves to be lectured to, they remain silent in service to the script.

My favorite lecture is Mollari's "quick, you need to get out of here this very second, now sit perfectly still and listen while I showcase Peter Jurasik's talent for drunken rambling" lecture. You know the one.

Siskoid said...

In the one commentary track I've listened to (the pilot's), JMS self-deprecatingly laughs at his propensity for over-writing.

LiamKav said...

Which is all well and good, but laughing at your own mistakes doesn't mean you aren't making them.

I love clever words as much as the next man, but while he doesn't quite get into full blown Dawson's Creek "Why use two works when 50 will do" writing-levels, there are a couple of moments where the characters do stand around lecturing at each other. When they are good lectures, he can (usually) pull it off. Othertime... not so much,

Chuck Lavazzi said...

Note that this is the first appearance of Interplanetary Expeditions, a corporation which will figure prominently in future episodes, and not in a good way. Even episodes which are not up to the usual B5 standards often contain important plot seeds and recurring themes.


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