Babylon 5 #29: Spider in the Web

"These are volatile times: practicality is more important than principles."
IN THIS ONE... A Free Mars terrorist is killing people on the station, but Talia Winters uncovers a deeper conspiracy.

REVIEW: While the war with the Shadows is brewing, on the home front, the Earth Alliance is intent on keeping Mars from seceding. That's at least as interesting a plot line, and I'm glad to see it spring off the headlines and into the show proper. If Mars is to emerge as a separate power, then Babylon 5's neutrality makes it a useful catalyst for its peaceful independence. Except it's not that simple. It never is. There's a conspiracy there too, by something called Bureau 13 that may be connected to PsiCorps and THAT whole thing. Likely, it's what's behind Santiago's assassination and possibly even Sinclair's kidnapping and VR torture. It cyborgs and brainwashes a former Martian terrorist to have him assassinate people who would help Mars, framing an extremist group for their actions. Even official channels are screwy, and it seems Earth Alliance's policies are at odds with Babylon 5's mission, which puts Sheridan in an awkward position.

The episode is very much about giving Talia Winters a reason to be featured more. Not just because she uncovers the conspiracy and can remain connected to it, but by having characters in the main cast warm to her (or her to them), she'll be in a better position to earn character-building scenes with them. Her previous relationships were founded on antagonism - Ivanova hates telepaths (Sheridan hilariously rolls his eyes at that particular quirk), G'Kar has a gross fixation with breeding with one, and she couldn't stand Garibaldi's lascivious thoughts - which kept her away from simple social interaction (and it doesn't help that she's not part of the B5 staff per se). So here, Ivanova gives her a recommendation and at least trusts her, the relationship with Garibaldi warms up significantly, and Sheridan shows empathy for her kind. So in story that brings her closer to the rest of the group, we also have her lying about what she saw in Abel Horn's mind. Is she more loyal to PsiCorps than to justice after all? Or rather, will she try to solve this mystery on her own, an internal matter, as it were?

Otherwise, some strong guest-stars this time around, including Adrienne Barbeau as the Martian leader and Jessica Walter (better known now than then) as an Earth senator. We also get to see the San Diego Wasteland, which is a shocking sight that puts Bureau 13 in the proper context. Some Earth factions may well have reason to mistrust aliens, the Minbari especially, and anyone who would wage war against the Alliance, even from within (i.e. Mars). San Diego stands (barely) as a monument to that idea. Other eye candy I want to mention: We're getting more and more (and better) shots of the city built inside Babylon 5's cylinder as vistas you can look at through office windows. Unusual, and not always clear from on-set evidence, but definitely an interesting visual. The show continues to rely a bit too heavily on characters recounting back story, which can be a clunky way of building the world. Here, I'm not even sure Sheridan's first contact story is all that relevant to anything. And the scene with Sheridan and Garibaldi pushing buttons to scan for energy sources makes me realize the show doesn't have a "techy" character in its cast, which is a major difference from every version of Trek ever. Obviously, some tech in C&C should be doing this, not the station's captain. Hey, if it helps B5 remain mostly technobabble-free, I'm not complaining.

Bureau 13 outpaced Section 31 by about four years.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Adds an important plot thread and amps up the paranoia, while also strengthening a much-ignored character in the cast.


Anonymous said...

By now in the series, it's absolutely clear (at least in my mind) that we're better off with Sheridan. He's warm, he moves the story along, he is the sort of commander who should have been in place from day one.

I don't think JMS necessarily understood from the outset that you need that relatable main character for a show to work. JMS was probably thinking that it's going to be a novel for TV, and in a novel you can more successfully spread it out so that each character is a semi-equal part of the story, and it's the story that holds the reader's attention. Not so with television and dull viewers like ol' Anonymous here: if I don't see someone on the screen who makes me say "oh yeah, I want to see what happens to him or her next", I'll probably change the channel.

Ryan Lohner said...

The television medium may provide better opportunities than any other for telling big, epic, long term stories, but paradoxically there's also an aspect to it that can seriously compromise such a story: once an episode airs, it's out of your control. People have seen it, and it's irreversibly part of your show's canon, even if difficulties arise that prevent you from making proper use of it. Such is the case with Bureau 13, a name Larry DiTillio came up with on his own, not knowing it was also being used in a popular role playing game at the time who promptly accused B5 of ripping them off. Besides the name there was nothing similar between the two Bureau 13s, but as often happens, the mere threat of a lawsuit made JMS back down and the setup here was left as a simple aberration in a mostly sensical story. Though he did eventually fold a lot of what was planned for them into the Psi-Corps story, and the Mars storyline will continue to develop from this point, so it wasn't a total loss.

Michael Beck never got the career he deserved. His work here, and in his most famous role in Walter Hill's cult classic The Warriors, definitely show he had the chops to make it big, but for whatever reason he was consigned to cheesy action movies for most of his career and is now barely remembered. Thankfully that wasn't the case for Jessica Walter, then best known for Play Misty for Me but now beloved as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development.

Siskoid said...

Bureau 13 is more or less abandoned after this? How disappointing.

LiamKav said...

JMS did say that Bureau 13 was probably responsible for the kidnapping of Sinclair back in "The Sky Full Of Stars". And he also points out that super secret organisations probably change their name fairly often. So Bureau 13 isn't said by name again, but the organisation (or what was behind the organisation) does continue to play a part in the story.

Also, on that, I get the feeling this is your second viewing and you rememeber some bits more than others. I get the feeling people are trying to be careful with spoilers in that "and, of course, in 10 episodes time Londo grows wings and eats Vir, which is set up in this episode by him liking chicken", but there are some things where we do skirt a bit close to the bone ("Mind War" was possibly an example). So if you want us to tone it back, please shout at us. It's very easy for nerds/fans to gush about "ooh, the forshadowing", but we do need to be told.

Siskoid said...

I've seen most of the series once, on a daily schedule in the late 90s. That's it.

But I haven't read any comments that have ruined it for me.

LiamKav said...

I think this is the first instance of the old season 1 standby of "Earth senator give JS grief in the style of a Star Trek Admiral".

Personal fact: I watched B5 before I ever saw Grease, so my first thought when I saw it was "Wow, Zack can move!" The point where I realised that I could hear Zack every time the Grease Lightning played in my student union blew my mind. I have no idea if JMS intended him for a bigger role, but he does get a bit "Jeff Conway AS Zack Allen" credit, and since he doesn't do much I have to assume they were planning on using him again. Maybe the actor playing Lou Welch was already asking for more money...

Thi story of Mars Independence has extra resonance at the moment, with the Scottish independence vote next month. We should probably be thankful that there isn't a Mars equivalent of Alex Salmond, or I'd have thrown my shoe at the TV.


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