Babylon 5 #7: Mind War

"No one here is exactly as he appears."
IN THIS ONE... Psi Cops follow rogue telepath and telekinetic to the station (includes first appearance of Bester). Meanwhile, Catherine gets her and our first glimpse of the First Ones.

REVIEW: Now here's a plot very much out of Star Trek - its roots are, in fact, in Trek's second pilot - about a man who expands his mind to the point where he becomes a giant New Age CG effect. Sure, the theme of the series is, in a sense, this episode's, i.e. "becoming", but what salvages the too-familiar plot is the introduction of certain villains and the deepening of the Babylon 5 universe they represent. The obvious one is Bester (named after a certain SF author? we learn later he's called Alfred just like The Stars My Destination's writer) played by Walter Koenig as a cold and slimy Psi Cop. This is a big name guest star (for the genre anyway) who makes enough of an impression that you're glad he survived the encounter. We do have a vested interest in seeing more Psi Corps action because Talia is in the cast, of course, but also because Ivanova has a bitter past with the organization. I'm also curious as to whether they'll keep up the Prisoner references ("be seeing you" with the eyeful salute) or of it was a one-off wink to fans of paranoid thrillers.

We learn a lot about telepaths, some of it through massive amounts of exposition, some through character moments. That there are levels of ability. That some very few also have telekinetic ability (and what does this gift mean for Talia's future?). What it feels like to hear thoughts around you all the time. What love between telepaths means. And through Ironheart's rapture, perhaps we discover what awaits mankind in the Fourth Age, I don't know. There's certainly something portentous to his farewell to Sinclair: "See you in a million years." This is all quite informative and/or intriguing, so it's unfortunate the plot reminds one so much of Infection which, only a couple episodes back, also put one of the cast in a difficult situation with a mentor and someone turning into something not human that puts the entire station in danger (and which Earth Forces would like to have in their arsenal).

The subplot involves Sinclair's girlfriend Catherine taking a job G'Kar thinks is ill-advised, to a remote sector where ships tend not to come back. While she's out there, she encounters what fans of the show know as the First Ones, an ancient power with creepy, creepy ships that will become important to the program. Just a fleeting glimpse, but a promise as well. G'Kar says we are ants compared to these mysterious and unknowable aliens. And he makes another promise to the viewer: That no one on this show is what he or she seems. That goes with the theme of becoming, certainly, but also hints at something darker. How many of these characters are lying to us? Or perhaps the question should be, how much is JMS lying to us? He is playing with our expectations, certainly, and a reptilian alien like G'Kar should, by convention, be the villain of the piece. He isn't, though he might have saved Catherine simply to advance his own agenda with Sinclair. We already know other characters have secrets, could his be... virtue?

Without a doubt the most high-profile Trek actor to ever appear on Babylon 5, Walter Koenig effectively made a whole generation forget all about Chekov for a few years.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - While the episode introduces a couple of key villains, I don't think it says all that much about them we won't get in future appearances. The shadow of Star Trek's stock plots still looms large.


Anonymous said...

More evidence of JMS having to shuffle things around to keep his story on track. His story will eventually call for a supremely powerful telepath on the station (is that a spoiler? feels too vague to count as one), and Ironheart giving Talia a boost in her abilities is the mechanism by which such a telepath is created. Presumably the original plan was for Lyta Alexander to be that telepath, but as we know she is gone and will never ever be seen again, so they have to do it to Talia instead. (They wouldn't bother do it to Talia if they believed Lyta would return some day, but as we've already stated with complete certainly, that will never ever happen.)

Talia and Garibaldi were married in real life; I don't know if they met on B5. But sorting this out would involve Googling some stuff and who has time for that?

Of late, Jerry Doyle has been an American conservative radio blowhard, and the less said about that, the better.

LiamKav said...

Apparently there were a fair few conservatives in the cast. Tracy Scoggins was also one I believe, as well as Bruce Boxleitner (*sob*!). Which I think is an interesting rarely mentioned comparison with the Trek cast, who I believe are largely Deomcrats.

JMS was (is?) an out and out Democrat.

Anonymous said...

A lot of conservatives complain that they can't get ahead in Hollywood because of bias against them, but the reality is, they'll be hired for a role if they're right for it no matter what their politics are. Alec Baldwin gets better roles than Stephen and it ain't because of politics.

If they don't like being in a place where their views put them in the minority, well, welcome to my world, and a lot of other people's worlds as well. On the other hand, seeing as many conservatives use "Hollywood" as shorthand for "everything that is wrong with America", and seeing as conservatives were behind all that "blacklisting" unpleasantness in the 1950s, perhaps some resentment against conservatives would be in order. Not that I think it has any impact on their actually finding work; Hollywood is first and foremost a business. Janine Turner can't find work these days because her pixie-ish good looks left her long ago, not because she voted for Romney or whatever.

Siskoid said...

Anon: Googled it! They were married from 1995 to 1997, so yes, during the show, and it didn't last beyond it. That's another DS9 connection, in a way, as Nana Visitor and Alexander Siddig also fell for each other on their show and got married.

There is a strong conservative streak in Babylon 5 because of the military aspect, but it's all in-story, so I don't see it as JMS rubber-stamping one side of the political divide or another.

I find it kind of funny when readers of this blog let fly their political flag because it's not a very politicized space. But it does make me wonder if I have more lefties reading than righties, seeing as I'm a filthy socialist myself. I do know I have conservative readers, and I have no problem with that (I think FOX News and other conservative media outlets has done a hell of a lot to demonize that side by giving a voice to extremists, including many public figures and politicians), but is B5 going to promote more political debate in these pages? It might.

Ryan Lohner said...

JMS himself has described Boxleitner and Doyle's political views as "slightly to the right of Atilla the Hun," yet he still is quite friendly with both of them.

As Anonymous noted, this story provides the writing patch needed to slot Talia into the place intended for Lyta, who was going to have strange new abilities unlocked through her communion with Kosh. It would be rather silly for Talia's new powers to come the same way, so Ironheart's gift provides a pretty good alternate method.

Bester is indeed named after science fiction author Alfred Bester, first winner of the Hugo Award and creator of the Green Lantern oath. Much if not all of his books are sadly out of print now, and given his fondness for using the novel structure itself to add to his stories with concrete poems and the like, this really is a case where an ebook simply won't give you the same experience. I count myself very lucky to have gotten my hands on several of them before it happened. Also, he was going to just be named Bester, with JMS considering using the full name to be a bit twee, plus it made him seem more mysterious and threatening to not know his first name, but then the Psi-Corps tie-in novels used it (while revealing he was also named after the author in-universe) so he relented.

This is also not the only classic sci-fi series to name a character after Bester; Firefly used it for Serenity's original mechanic who was replaced by Kaylee.

Sinclair's telling Bester to get out of his head is another of those unfortunate moments that are now very uncomfortable in light of Michael O'Hare's battle with mental illness. A true stand-up guy who deserved much more out of life than he got.

Anonymous said...

I'll warn you right now, I'm going to bitch up a storm over the episode where it's time for the Drazi to pick a new leader, and they do so by randomly picking colors and going to war with each other. Because both sides are exactly the same, amirite? God damn it I hate that episode so much.

I'm probably a socialist myself, but I'm also pragmatic enough to be more interested in results than ideology. That need for results puts me directly in opposition to pretty much all of American conservatism*, and to a big chunk of the Left too. Let's take Obamacare (oh boy now I've done it): conservatives demonize it because it is a big government overreach, the far Left demonizes it because it's a big handout to insurance companies. Myself, I love Obamacare because it allows people to see the damn doctor when they need to, which I could have sworn was the entire point. (Yeah I'd prefer a public option, but full credit to the Democrats for trying; it's not their fault there weren't enough Democrats in the Senate to make it happen.)

*: There was a time I assumed that reasonable conservatives existed in America, and I tried to differentiate between them and the weirdos in the Republican Party and Fox News. But you can't be reasonable and also be what passes for "conservative" these days. If you're reasonable you left that mess long ago, probably before the 2004 election.

Siskoid said...

I'm a results guy myself. It's pretty clear that pure ideology isn't where reasonableness lives. Ideological lefties aren't much better than the righties. If the political can't be made personal, it becomes empty diatribe.

David said...

I don't think it was the Shadows in this episode. Wasn't it some of the First Ones?

Siskoid said...

Unnamed and the CG blurry, but it looked like those spiky ships to me. I'll probably eat my words eventually, this really isn't like when I was doing Trek or Who and knew the entire continuity by heart.

jdh417 said...

You have at least one conservative reading your blog. In terms of the difference between elected democrats and republicans in Washington DC, the Drazi episode completely nails it. And furthermore, liberal opinion isn't the majority viewpoint in this country, it is simply the loudest.

Never mind the politics. Siskoid, I've been meaning to congratulate you on this series. I was a big Babylon 5 fan and frequented the Lurker's Guide all the time, and here I am, learning all sorts of new things about the show. Thank you.

Siskoid said...

I can't take all the credit. It's all these amazing and insightful comments!

Anonymous said...

jdh417 - what you posted answered some questions for me. Thanks!

LiamKav said...

"In terms of the difference between elected democrats and republicans in Washington DC, the Drazi episode completely nails it. "

I hate the Drazi episode. I think it vears too close to saying "all politians are the same", a phrase that's always trotted out when people are saying they don't vote. Really? They're all the same? The elected politician who thinks that if a woman got pregnant from a rape then it wasn't a "real rape" is the same as the person who doesn't think that? The politician who wants to take money from Education and use it to build an aircraft carrier is the same as one who doesn't? The politician who thinks that gay people should be allowed to marry is the same as one who thinks that they shouldn't?

The Drazi episode takes away personal responsibility. "Oh, all elected officials are the same and the whole thing is silly so what's the point". I will have much ranting to do when we get to it.

(One thing to chart over the course of the series is JMS's political opinion. For a proclaimed left-winger who's also an atheist, the show sure does pick up a lot of messiah figures and episodes where "the ends justify the means". But that's a couple of seasons away.)

Siskoid said...

I guess we'll get to that in due course.

I can't speak to the U.S. obviously, but in Canada, the major parties are often much the same ideologically. Politicians can differ, parties (or the results they get) are near identical.

Anonymous said...

LiamKav - "all politicians are the same" is a brilliant move, psychologically, in that it allows a person to not take responsibility for corrupt politicians while simultaneously denouncing them.

I could go on and on about how not-similar the two major American parties are, but in deference to Siskoid, I will keep my comments short and limited to one small huge topic. For 20 years now, Republicans haven't done a thing about health care, and it took the Democrats finally having barely enough members in the House, Senate, and Oval Office to pass something with exactly ZERO Republican help. And it's even a market-based system, just like Republicans have been claiming to want. Eventually, one is forced to conclude that one party is trying to solve our nation's problems, and the other is trying to make them worse.

jdh417 said...

The Liberal is also quite a territorial animal. They shut out and erase dissenting thought on venues they control and shout them down on ones they don't with random socialist mad-libs. The "bait and scream" is their favored tactic.

David said...

To get away from all these frivolous politics and back to important matters: it apparently really was some First Ones. The "Walkers of Sigma-957", with whom Ivanova later goes to have a talk because G'kar remembers this incident and points her their way.

LiamKav said...

"I can't speak to the U.S. obviously, but in Canada, the major parties are often much the same ideologically. Politicians can differ, parties (or the results they get) are near identical."

To a degree, although since the Conservative party rose to dominance in Canada they've done things like try and withdraw or at least water down the Kyoto Protocol. You can always find some things that a political party has done that other's don't. (It's also why lots of people in the UK are confused that it was a Conservative government that legalised same-sex marriage. It's probably lost them a fair few votes amoungst right-wingers.)

"The Liberal is also quite a territorial animal. They shut out and erase dissenting thought on venues they control and shout them down on ones they don't with random socialist mad-libs. The "bait and scream" is their favored tactic."
Well, that's a bit of an ad-hominem comment (and I'd also say that those comments quite nicely apply to the Fox News anchors saying that same-sex marriage will lead to the fall of society, polygomy and people marrying their dogs). I also don't think this is the most appropriate place to go into stuff like that, seeing as it's largely a comment section for an episode where Chekov has mind-control powers.

Now, when we get to "The Geometry of Shadows"...

Siskoid said...

David: I checked after your first comment and you were right, and so changed it in the text itself.

As for the politics, might as well exorcise 'em while you got 'em because I likely won't be entertaining these arguments again in the future. I frequently scratch my head in confusion when people fall to name-calling and blind anger over politics, and then I remember every time I've had a certain argument with Quebec sovereignists. We all have things that get us hot under the collar. If they're not related to science fiction, I propose we leave them off the blog and agree to disagree ;-).

jdh417 said...

Thank you again, Siskoid.

But please lift the restriction temporarily when the Drazi episode comes up. Politics will be relevant there.

Siskoid said...

Hahaha. Obviously, when it's relevant to the discussion...

I don't mind ON-TOPIC political discussion, let's say that. And I obviously won't stand for politics to be used as an excuse for sexism, racism, religionism, homophobia, whatever. Not that anyone ever has, or ever will. I like to think I have a more sensible average reader. But if we're talking parameters.

Chuck Lavazzi said...

G'Kar's quote at the end of this episode is one of my favorites. It illustrates the absurdity of any human claiming to know the mind of God.

Ironheart's farewell won't fully make sense until the very end of season 4.

Bester will turn out to be a much more complex character than he appears here. No one on B5 is entirely what they seem, including him.

The alien ship (or whatever it is) at Sigma 957 is unique and not connected to the shadows in any way. It, too, will reappear much later in the series.


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