Babylon 5 #27: A Distant Star

"If the primates that we came from had known that some day, politicians would come out of the gene pool, they'd have stayed up in the trees and written evolution off as a bad idea!"
IN THIS ONE... The Explorer-class ship Cortez gets lost in hyperspace. The crew is put on a diet--sorry, food plan.

REVIEW: It's hard to believe Babylon 5 characters. Some of them are masters of deception, others hiding what they really are, and then there are those played way over the top by not-so-great actors. Case in point, Captain Maynard played by Russ Tamblyn. He seems entirely out of his depth as Sheridan's mentor and one of the best starship captains in Earthforce. As a raconteur, he approaches acceptability, so we can take his over-done expressions and self-conscious delivery as those of a man telling a story he's told many times before. Except he keeps doing this even in private or spontaneous moments. So fake. And it somehow conditions the audience, because when Garibaldi talks about his poor old dad to get Dr. Franklin to agree to let him eat a fattening birthday meal, it sounds like emotional blackmail. Jerry Doyle ALSO comes off as an over-rehearsed raconteur, see. Except, no, it seems legitimate. Either that or Franklin is pretty naive. Does the acting sink the episode, though?

The story doesn't advance the Shadow plot so much as it reinforces what was already there. Maynard confirms G'Kar's contention that there are strange things on the Rim, and here the Shadows are seen flying through hyperspace with impunity, oblivious to the dangerous "drift" that can make you lose your ship out there. Sheridan has a good, low-tech, evocative plan to help the Cortez when that happens to it, but it's all rather muddled otherwise. The Cortex is inexplicably damaged, and the Shadows don't seem to converge on the ship, so it can't be them. Just a random fault? The Starfuries don't really look like they're making a chain as ordered by Sheridan, and that chain is surprisingly short anyway (5 ships). You'd also think Keffer following the Shadow's trajectory to get out of hyperspace would have wound up on the wrong side, which would have opened things up to his adventures in enemy space, perhaps captured or surviving on his wits, collecting information. But no, he returns, safe and sound, with a glib explanation I don't quite understand. Hey, maybe he's now a Shadow mole. I wouldn't mind that because Keffer is a thoroughly annoying character. I still can't figure what he's doing hanging out with the command staff (even as a squadron leader, this episode's promotion).

Let's talk subplots, though I'm afraid I'm not going to be that much more positive about them. I do like that Garibaldi and Ivanova are still recovering from injuries sustained in past episodes (for Ivanova, at least, it's to cover the actress' real-life injury), and there's some amusement to be had from Franklin putting the command crew on a diet. Some, but not a lot. It's basically three takes on the same same, all three acting irritated at the idea, and no real consequences for Garibaldi cheating on his. I would also question the use of the name "Orwell" for a black marketeer; if it's going to call attention to itself, it might as well be thematically relevant. Meanwhile, seeing the Cortez has made Sheridan doubt his role on Babylon 5 (didn't we just go through this with Garibaldi?), feeling like an adventurer turned into a bureaucrat. Maynard's promise that the adventure will come to him might as well be a threat, because we know it will. These feelings are perfectly legitimate, though the show probably forces the issue by having paperwork piling up on Sheridan's desk (a one-time thing? it's all gone by the next office scene). I also don't really buy what gets him out of that funk. Delenn - going through just as difficult a transition, her people threatening to stop following her now that's she's half-human - quotes Carl Sagan at him and it restores his faith in his own destiny? Maybe if they'd borrowed from a less recognizable source, but it makes me question Delenn's wisdom that her words would so obviously not be her own.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: The Bajoran Wormhole is also home to strange unknowable alien entities.

- The acting doesn't sink the whole thing, but it does blow a hole in the hull. The water coming in is what does it, as it's full of missed opportunities and clumsy moments.


Ryan Lohner said...

Since he's now been given a larger role, I'll start this by talking about Warren Keffer. Going into season 2, JMS knew there would be a greater emphasis on Starfury combat and wanted to make a character who would give us a viewpoint on that side of the story. And because he loves shaking up character archetypes and giving representation to minority actors in equal measure, his idea was for a Japanese man who was deeply interested in his country's history, yet also just as much a party animal as anyone from Top Gun. And of course, the PTEN brass took one look at the intriguing idea and shot it down, instead insisting the pilot character be "the Babylon 5 Han Solo." This irritated JMS no end, as such a comparison implies the person knows nothing about sci-fi outside of Star Wars and has no business making these kinds of decisions. He notes in the script volumes that despite being played by the same actor as Solo, he'd have had far more respect for a request for the Babylon 5 Rick Deckard. And so he took his revenge by making Keffer a deliberately annoying and superfluous presence, while also planning to give him a painful death someday. But one thing he didn't count on was Keffer's actor, Robert Russler, being a terrific guy who everyone loved working with, and exactly the kind of person who himself would have made that Rick Deckard request.

As for this episode itself: it's the third and last script from the great DC Fontana, and features a lot of very personal stuff for her. Rick Maynard was the name of her childhood best friend's father, a rancher who would recount old stories to them the same way this Maynard does, and is also the reason he wears cowboy boots. And thankfully, the real Maynard was still alive at the time to see this tribute. She was also on a difficult "food plan" of her own at the time, so that subplot came quite naturally, and being partly of Italian descent, bagna cauda was a big part of her childhood just like for Garibaldi. She even stepped in when JMS misunderstood what it actually was and featured a "plate" of it in one of his rewrites.

I should also talk about Delenn's new look as I missed it in Revelations: the original idea was that Delenn would start the show as a male character, though still played by a woman, and the chrysalis would also change his gender. Unfortunately, the era's voice altering programs could never make Mira Furlan's voice sound naturally masculine, and as Furlan herself wasn't privy to the show's future plans, she was naturally a bit upset that she would be heavily made up AND have her voice changed, asking why she was even hired in the first place if they wanted such a different acting type. So her masculine makeup job in The Gathering is the only remnant of this idea.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, that JMS. I get that there are things he wants to do, and I get that nobody likes network meddling; but once in a while, networks have a good idea. I'm not sure they did this time, but JMS's tantrum makes me have even less faith in his instincts.

Ryan Lohner said...

Well, keep in mind these are the same people who demanded Tamlyn Tomita rerecord her lines to sound more feminine and then fired her for being too feminine, refused to let Michael York play Sheridan like he wanted because it would mean all people in charge in the future were British, and arbitrarily cut off the last four episodes of each season to air as the beginning of the next to supposedly get people more excited. I'd definitely have no respect for any of their suggestions at this point.

LiamKav said...

True, but... my bosses at work does stupid things. Some I work around, some I ignore, but some I have to suck up and do, because they are the people giving me money. Good producers can work with restrictions.

Look at the 90s Batman cartoon. When they told Robin's origin story, They weren't allowed to show Dick's parents dropping to their death. So they used implication, music, reactions, and got a much better sequence than they might have otherwise got. Likewise, when they wanted to get something a bit borderline onto an episode, they'd put something else worse elsewhere in the episode to try and hide it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But it seems that these were all tricks that JMS never learnt.

Regarding this episode, for the original airing (and theU UK DVD releases), we're finally treated to the final version of the season 2 title sequence. JMS got BB to re-record his openingspeech with the benefit of being able to see the visuals, and it flows much better - in retrospect, the original sounds extrememly disinterested. Ivanova's rank also changed to full commander, a touch that nerdy fans appreciate, showing that these characters can change at points other than the beginning and end of a season. This change however doesn't show up on any DVD sets, not even the UK ones. Tsk.

Anonymous said...

Like I say, I'm not sure PTEN had a good idea this time, so I do not mean to imply that they must know what they're doing.

I found Tamlyn Tomita's character very ... problematic. I realize JMS wanted realistically flawed characters for his show, but Takashima was out of control in a way that no senior officer should be. And that's on JMS, not PTEN. I don't know whether PTEN was reacting at all to an actress doing her best with material or direction that wasn't yet fine-tuned, but I'd much rather have Ivanova than Takashima as she was presented.

jdh417 said...

'Likewise, when they wanted to get something a bit borderline onto an episode, they'd put something else worse elsewhere in the episode to try and hide it."

You mean like in that same "Robin's Reckoning" story where Bettie Page shows up?

LiamKav said...

Ooh, I need to double-check that. Not that I need an excuse to watch "Robin's Reckoning" again, as it's excellent...

This episode does show how well the Earthforce humans are now bouncing off of each other. It's slight, but I do like the scene of them all swapping food. Also, "Now I am the expanding Russian frontier" "But with very nice borders" (although I'm really not buying theargument that Ivanova doesn't have "an ounce of fat on her". She's regular weight, not Hollywood-skinny weight. Thank god.)

It's a small thing, but I like the conversation between the other Minbari and Delenn. In that conversation, as well as when she lies to Sheridan later, it seems like she went into the Crysalis assuming that the Minbari would be behind her. She's thrown by the fact that they're not, which leads to her opening up - ever so slightly - to Sheridan.


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