Babylon 5 #2: Midnight on the Firing Line

"Only one thing matters, blood calls out for blood."
IN THIS ONE... A Centauri outpost is attacked by the Narn. Garibaldi investigates pirate raids. First appearances of Susan Ivanova, Vir and Talia Winters.

REVIEW: Though Richard Compton directed the pilot and this episode, Midnight in the Firing Line lacks the gorgeous lighting and atmospherics of The Gathering. It's all very flat and (pun not intended) unflattering. I can only imagine it was a question of time and money, the usual difference between what is essentially a movie, and the weekly grind of a TV series. At less than half the length, however, this reintroduction to Babylon 5 is far pacier, and a few clunky expositional pieces delivered by Garibaldi notwithstanding, a universe presented through action and character. Production issues aside, I'm much more a fan of this episode than I am the previous effort. And as far as the serialized format of the show is concerned, I quite like the way the seasons themselves have been given titles. Season 1 is Signs and Portents.

Three new characters are introduced, two of them replacing lost cast members (we'll have to wait a further episode to meet the new doctor, as well as some of the credited but non-appearing aliens, Lennier and Na'Toth). Susan Ivanova is a much improved version of Takahashi. Though Claudia Christian plays the same basic character - a second in command who is coldly authoritarian at work, but has a more vulnerable and relaxed personality underneath - she's a much better fit for the role. She may seem stiff and uncompromising, but she also has the flexibility Sinclair requires from her, as per the "plausible deniability" scene. The other replacement is Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters, the PsiCorps operative instead of Lyta Alexander. She seems to have a softer touch than Lyta, but then she's been personalized by matching her to Ivanova. She tries to check in with XO several times, but Ivanova keeps avoiding her. When cornered off-duty, the second-in-command tells the story of her mother, an unregistered telepath who took her own life when forced to take inhibiting drugs, and confesses the intense but mixed feelings she has about PsiCorps, and thus, Talia. It's that moment of real vulnerability we were missing from Takahashi, with loads more gravitas for the other half of the character. Vir is a totally new addition, an assistant for Londo (I keep wanting to type Lando, aren't I? Who knew I had some Star Wars love in me?), makes them a natural comic double act, though it did strike me as odd that he didn't have the same accent. Humans have many languages and accents, of course, but I did find it intriguing that both Londo and Delenn were characterized by strong accents no other members of their species seem to have!

Speaking of Delenn, she's hardly in this, but her make-over is notable. She's now clearly female, with no explanation (yet?), but the same wise and curious alien we met in the pilot. In a sense, she's playing the Spock/Data/Odo character, the alien intrigued/confounded by humanity. Here she gets to watch Duck Dodgers and eat popcorn with Garibaldi and find it all very strange (spoiler: the Martian connection!). At the center of the story is, once again, politics, and in particular the genocidal feelings shared by Londo and G'Kar. The Narns have retaken an old world since colonized by Centauri, and in a sense, they're in the right. It was theirs 100 years ago, and reparations should be made. But Babylon 5 is there to find diplomatic solutions, not military ones. As news filters in from Ragesh 3, the situation seems to change. Is it an invasion? A colony willingly splintering off? And what do those pirate raids have to do with anything? As with the pilot, the Narns are shown to be Machiavellian plotters, and Sinclair must resort to some badass cowboy diplomacy to force the situation into balance. But on the journey to the climax, the episode manages to flesh out Londo quite a bit. His prophetic dream that he dies 20 years hence, his hands around G'Kar's throat seems like something that should happen before it's all over, and his powerlessness when his government appears to care less about the invasion than he does almost drives him to desperate acts. This is mirrored in Sinclair also disobeying orders from Earth, a planet that wants to keep its hands clean until at least after its worldwide elections (spoiler: the incumbent wins). In both cases, they wanted justice, but isn't that what the Narns also wanted? Sinclair and Garibaldi succeed where G'Kar and Londo do not. Babylon 5 is definitely a morally gray universe, but does it nevertheless have an ethical bias? More to come, I'm sure.

The opening sequence has an engineer in an evac suit welding a piece of the station, prefiguring DS9's improved opening sequence a couple of years later.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A deep political story, character-driven, but with enough action to keep things moving. It got to this point a lot faster than its Paramount cousin did, and I'm glad for it. Ivanova efficiently becomes a favorite character as well.


Madeley said…
Back in the mists of time, when I was a kid and cared about that kind of thing, I was hugely into computers and technology, and was a Commodore fanboy- at that time, an Amiga 1200. One of the Amiga magazines had a small corner of the news page mentioning a new American series, Babylon 5, that used Amigas to generate special effects, and I was intrigued. Mostly because I was a fanboy, but also because even the name sounded strange, exotic, and new, and not typical of the SF I was used to.

Back in the stone age, there were only 5 free-to-air channels in the UK, and in Wales the fourth was S4C, the Welsh language channel. It occupied the place Channel 4 did in England, but didn't show Welsh programmes 24/7; Channel 4 shows in English slotted in around the Welsh shows.

Of course, B5 was on Channel 4, at a time that Welsh shows were broadcast, so it wasn't shown here. Except our TV antenna had broken off in a storm and happened to be pointing towards the Bristol transmitter. Which meant we could get Channel 4 as well as S4C, although it was of variable quality. It's a mark of how much I ended up loving B5 that I would watch it even at the times when the picture was breaking up and almost unwatchable.

The SFX are hugely outdated now, and not helped at all by the DVD transfer, but my God at the time it was mind-blowing. After years on watching the same handful of Enterprise model shots over and over, with maybe one space battle a season, having SOME kind of brand new space-battle action in EVERY episode was absolutely thrilling.

Everything about B5 was utterly up my street. There was no reset button. Actions had consequences. The politics weren't of TNG's more clinical, metaphorical variety; they were grubby, pragmatic, often bloody, and there was obviously something in the air at that time because this was exactly the route Trek ended up going down simultaneously with DS9.

And this isn't to knock Trek. I love Trek. I'm never going to get into a ridiculous yelling match over B5 vs Trek. But it was so very different to what I was used to that it opened my eyes and ended up becoming very important to me.
THE 'let's pop an engineer on the outside of the ship in our intro sequence' sequence:
Siskoid said…
Haha thanks for that, Jay! I simply have not seen enough Red Dwarf in my life (or much at all).

Madeley: Lovely story! As for the obsession some fans have with rivalries - whether that's DS9/B5, Trek/Wars, Marvel/DC, or Matrix/Harsh Realm (no? no one?) - I reject the notion that it always has to be one or other. We can compare and contrast similar franchises, even prefer one to the other, but why can't we like both or all? We can, and the truth is, we usually do. There's just this vocal element inside fandom that feels it must take down one show to build up another.

On the specific question of the DS9/B5 similarity, I think it's very interesting how, when Ron Moore got the chance to do DS9 unhindered by Trek's moral bias, trappings, etc., he wound up making the brilliant Battlestar Galactica, which I think you might agree, has even MORE of an affinity with Babylon 5.

That would make an interesting comparative study: JMS as the master planner, Moore as the improvising genius.
LiamKav said…
As someone else said in the previous thread, JMS's ability to adapt to real world situations was pretty amazing. The Lyta/Talia storylines probably end up working better the way it all ended up than any plan he could have had, for example.

That said, I'm also impressed with stuff like Londo's "me and G'Kar kill each other in twenty years, our hands around each others throats". He says that in the first episode, and it's a hugely important part of both their character arcs. I have no idea what would have happened if something had happened to either of the actors, unless they recast, because I can't see how you can transfer any of that stuff to Vir or N'NotAppearingMuchInThisShow.
Ryan Lohner said…
If we're talking rivalries, the current big one on TV seems to be Agents of SHIELD vs. Arrow, putting me in a fun position as I became a fan of both before learning that you're only allowed to like one.

As frustrating as the circumstances of losing Tamlyn Tomita were, Ivanova is a fantastic character in her own right, with the stuff about her mother providing a lot of meat to her that Takashima couldn't have had. Though I do regret one MAJOR plot point that was altered because of it, which I'll discuss at the proper time to avoid spoilers.

Patricia Tallman, who played Lyta Alexander, had a more mundane explanation for her recast: her agent accidentally double-booked her. Of such little mistakes are big changes made.

Regarding the accents: Mira Furlan, who is from the former Yugoslavia, used her own accent for Delenn. If you don't know her best for this role, it's probably because you know her best as Danielle Rousseau from Lost, where she again used her own accent for a French character, because who could expect us poor dumb Americans to tell them apart? As for Londo, Peter Jurrasik put on what he described as an "Eastern European" accent just for the hell of it, and JMS liked it enough to keep it.
Siskoid said…
Thanks for keeping the spoilers to a minimum, guys. (The Gathering comments weren't so kind.)

Ryan: Fun behind the scenes insights, and no, I didn't know she was in Lost because I never watched it.
Ryan Lohner said…
One other thing about Furlan's time on Lost: she eventually left the show because she got fed up with how the writing staff clearly had no idea where they were going with any of the random weirdness they kept throwing in. Apparently her time on B5 spoiled her for that kind of thing.
I was never a fan of B5 but I'm glad that I'm learning a *lot* from these comment threads.
Siskoid said…
It really is these guys' passion for it that convinced me to do these reviews.
AndNowInStereo said…
I liked B5 back in the day but I didn't watch it from the start first time round. A few years back a good friend of mine bought all the DVDs and got me to watch it from the beginning - man, I love this episode, it got me hooked! On a more recent rewatch, some of the ropier acting sort of mars it a bit and its budget does show compared to say, Star Trek TNG, but as a first episode it's excellent. It introduces everything it needs to ad starts the show's major conflicts with a bang, I don't event bother recommending the pilot to most people because it's better to start here in my opinion. I think most TV shows could learn from this, I see way too many shows go for slow burns when it's usually better to just get on with it.
Der Müde 'Tude said…
About Delenn and that new makeup... no, the show never gave an explanation.

As you know, the original plan was to have Delenn as a male character, with a deeper voice. (More than that I can't say, because SPOILERS.) The makeup (as you noted in the review of the pilot) was deliberately mannish, but the plan to change Mira Furlong's voice electronically never satisfied anyone on the production team. So they dropped the voice treatment for the pilot. softened the makeup for regular production, and just figured (reasonably) that not enough viewers would have seen the pilot to make it much of an issue.
Der Müde 'Tude said…
DId I say Mira FURLONG?!? Smeggin 'ell. Furlan, Furlan, Furlan. That kid in TERMINATOR 2 casts a long shadow, I guess...
Alex Osias said…
I really love how much this ep sets up the season, and the rest of the series.
Chuck Lavazzi said…
Regarding Londo's accent: as the series progresses, you will discover that it's an accent specific to his class/clan; other members of the Centauri nobility sound the same way. Vir's lack of it sets him apart deliberately.