Babylon 5 #40: Knives

"How fitting you should die with a song on your lips!"
IN THIS ONE... Sheridan is possessed by a hallucinatory life-form. Londo must duel an old friend who has fallen out of favor.

REVIEW: The last episode written by someone other than JMS (Larry DiTillio) until Season 5, Knives is, like other "guest scripts", something you could remove from the canon fairly easily. There are several references to continuity (Franklin's father, the Babylon 4 time anomaly), as if to tell us it's all one big story, but the use of these elements doesn't meaningfully change those elements. The one exception is Refa's appearance, since it creates the potential for Londo to once again fall out of favor now that he's given disreputable men all the power. His intention to keep a closer eye on the political arena will surely bring him in conflict with his untrustworthy ally again.

Of the two story threads, the Centauri plot is the most worthy, having, like the best of B5, irony and political maneuvering. As soon as Londo's friend Urza plays the assassin and mock-threatens his life, we know he's to die by London's hand somehow. That's just how this universe works. (And what a bad joke to play on a VIP during war time. Dude.) And sure enough, Londo is put into a position where he must betray his friend or risk his new position of influence. Surprisingly - I'll share Vir's pride about this - Londo chooses the latter. It's perhaps not a strong dramatically as if he'd eventually acquiesced to Refa's threats - he's a fool, not a rat - but it's an interesting twist. His shame is thus not about betraying Urza (whom actor Carmen Argenziano pushes right to the limit in the scenery-chewing department), but about killing him. Urza asks for this, leaving himself open to the blade at a crucial moment. Apparently, the victor must adopt the loser's family into his own, which saves them from the dishonor awaiting him at the conspirators' hands. It wouldn't really have gone any differently had he known Londo was one of those conspirators to begin with, but Londo still must face his guilt.

Sheridan's thread is very much weaker, like something pulled from a stock, and not very interesting, Star Trek episode. An incorporeal creature jumps from a dead alien to the captain and makes him hallucinate. Sheridan avoids the alien's fate - committing suicide after the visions drive him mad - by working out the emotional puzzle it is trying to transmit. I don't buy it one bit, and I'm not even sure the episode is playing fair with its audience. If Sheridan really worked it out (and there are too few clues for this to be convincing), why does he take off in a Starfury without consulting anyone? Because he has to appear erratic so we don't know he's solved this week's problem. It's a damn Superman Silver Age story, with the explanations all at the end. I'm also not keen on the idea that the creature is from Sector 14's time anomaly, which just feels like JMS plugging the Babylon 4 element so we won't forget it (and to make sure Sheridan's been told about it). It's lame and does nothing with it. That could have been any glowy part of space. Immensely forgettable.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: What is it with science-fiction writers and their silly obsession with baseball? You'd think the fact Sisko has this quirk would have kept Sinclair and now Sheridan from sharing it. It's kind of fun to see a whole baseball field inside Babylon 5's inner circumference, but it's a waste if they only use it as a fancy batter's cage. You want to keep this up, JMS, we better start hearing about a B5 league.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Another non-JMS episode that could be largely jettisoned without our losing much of anything. Is the problem that other writers don't get it, or that he wouldn't let them do anything of substance with his toy box? Either way, the Londo thread kind of saves it, but not by much.


Ryan Lohner said...

The original ending to the Sheridan story was that he would meet with Delenn, and have another episode right in front of her, this time about his destroying the Black Star, with his second-in-command played by Mira Furlan out of her makeup, while the Black Star's captain was played by Boxleitner in Minbari makeup. Once it ended, Delenn would reveal the Minbari had encountered something like this alien before and tell him how to deal with it. It was a neat idea, but reality had to step in with the fact that it would require two completely new sets that would likely never be used again, so DiTillio and JMS worked together to make it something they could actually do.

The baseball scenes were inspired by batting practice actually being something Boxleitner loved to do to relax. The first idea was to have a minimalist computer program, but everyone was naturally uneasy with its resemblance to Star Trek's holodeck, so instead the station actually has a full baseball field on it. DiTillio struggled for a while with the logic of why so much space would be set aside for it, and came up with the idea that it provided for a view of human culture for any interested aliens.

The heavy CGI required for the episode meant that it had to be bumped one spot ahead in the airing order, which is a pity because Sheridan's vision of the Icarus makes little sense now that he knows what really happened to it, and in the correct order it's clear that this is what motivated him to look through Anna's things.

DiTillio's contract wasn't picked up after this season, as JMS had already made the decision that he would need to write the rest of the show all by himself, but he did get a nice consolation prize when the great, the incomparable Neil Gaiman was brought on to do one last guest script three years later, and made use of two characters he had created. But that is another story and will be told another time.


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