Babylon 5 #64: Grey 17 Is Missing

"I am a Ranger. We walk in the dark places no others may enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We live for the One! We DIE for the ONE!"
IN THIS ONE... Garibaldi investigates a missing person in the mysterious Grey Sector; Robert Englund guest stars. Delenn becomes the leader of the Rangers; Neroon objects.

REVIEW: Though it narrowly avoids becoming one of those "monster" episodes, by almost surprisingly NOT casting Robert Englund as the blade-fingered killer, I'm rather ambivalent about Grey 17 Is Missing, not the least because the title gives away a major plot point. With the Grey Council broken and a power vacuum needing to be filled, the title could have combined some of those words into a better umbrella for the competing plot threads. In any case, while I'm no longer against Garibaldi-centric plots (go back to Season 1 for a different attitude), it's the Delenn/Rangers material that best succeeds. 'Porting over the previous episode's mirroring theme, Neroon sees himself when he looks at Delenn, and believes her breaking of the Council (didn't realize that was permanent) and ascension to a leadership position in the Rangers (if she's now the One, I expect Sheridan will need to take up those reigns one day) is some sort of plan to become supreme ruler of Minbar. As so often happens when people project attitudes and intent on others, they're really saying "in their place, I would do such a thing" instead of the more useful, more empathetic "if I were them...". He's wrong about her just as he's wrong about humanity, and it takes a human to teach him, in the only language he understands: Warrior's honor. Obviously, that's going to be Marcus, who only just walks away from a brutal (but atmospheric) fight. If Lennier could have wiped the floor with him, a great general in the warrior caste is going to do a lot of damage, and does. That they share a laugh together at the end is proof enough that they now have something in common.

Garibaldi's story is rather more annoying. I like the bits where he's puzzling out where the missing floor is, nicely procedural as these things go, but again, the title gives it away. That missing floor is like Sebastian's workshop in Blade Runner, and a surreal alien Howdy Doody dummy shoots him up with a drug, just so he can listen to Englund's psychotic soliloquy. It's nothing we haven't heard before because it's Franklin's foundationalism turned into a cult that believes they should return to the stardust from which they came via the perfect predator. So from monster poop to stardust, presumably. JMS tends to lose me with his psychotic villains and their scripted rants. Garibaldi takes it, cracks wise and eventually unleashes his inner gun nut to shoot the monster down. It's all reduced to a joke by the time he gets to Sheridan's office, deflecting the actual serious matter of yet another security failure aboard the station, almost resulting in Delenn's assassination. Yeah, yeah, you love a good mystery. Guys, nobody leave an Agatha Christie novel lying around while he's on duty, ok?

While I think the stories are either a bit predictable, rather disposable and/or actively irritating, I will give the episode props for exploring a theme in an usual way. That theme: Where we come from, and what our roots mean to us. It connects to the show's greater themes by showing us how those roots can create common ground, IF we choose to see it. Neroon refuses to, at first, but he must eventually accept the shared heritage Valen created between his people and humanity, and how that heritage is a clear inheritance from Sinclair/Valen to Delenn. Garibaldi's roots are represented by the old-fashioned pistol that used to belong to his Boston P.D. grandma (a nice detail), and it saves the day. He's not acting alone, his own family antecedents give him the help he needs. Think of this as an intimate version of the past-present-future scheme of the the One. The lurker cult takes the idea the other way, citing the Big Bang as our common root, but they pervert it into a suicidal breed of nihilism. They see the terrain d'entente, but don't know what to do with it. In a small way, even the subplots link back to this theme, and invoking Doc Franklin's underground railroad as a source of Shadow-sapping telepaths is mining the show's more recent past the same way Garibaldi is mining is his family's, and so on.

Grey 17 proves you can't replace story with theme, because while the latter works, a good deal of the plot is clunky at best.


Madeley said...

Agree with all of this. Not the best episode at all, but I never found it to be as bad as its reputation as Worst B5 Ep Ever seems to suggest.

LiamKav said...

It might just be the general raised baseline quality... a subpar season 3 episode will usually be better than a subpar season 1 episode.

Ryan Lohner said...

This episode is notorious among fans and generally held up as the worst in the whole show. Which really says a lot about how bad the title plot is, as everything else in it is pretty great. Which is why I hold that Exogenesis is the true worst episode: that's a story with no redeeming elements at all, while here only half the story really drags things down.

JMS particularly beats himself up over the clumsy setup of the literal Chekhov's Gun, showing even a trope as textbook as this can be handled improperly. He notes that having Garibaldi says he doesn't really know why he got the gun out is pure laziness, and he might as well have just said "I got it out because the writer needs it to be established for act four." I should also add that the pipe trick would never work, and it would just blow up in his hands.

Jeremiah (and at least there's some amusement to be had in JMS later making a whole show with that name) shows his tendencies for portentous speeches at his absolute worst, though bless Robert Englund for shamelessly hamming it up and delivering these lines the only way they could possibly work. And to even get to that point, Garibaldi has to make the mental leap of the station having an entire secret level absurdly quickly. It probably could have been built to more naturally if the Neroon story didn't take up so much space, but that's definitely a tradeoff I'm happy with.

And then there's the one thing that can't really be laid at his feet, at least not entirely: the Zarg. The script specifies several times that it should be kept in shadows as much as possible, thanks to JMS learning from the likes of Infection that they couldn't possibly make a good rubber monster outfit on their budget. The costume designer was even told it didn't have to look very good because of this. So it's anyone's guess why the director (the show's regular DP John Flinn III, making his directing debut) chose to light the scene as brightly as humanly possible, especially since he was usually all about underlighting.

One final bit of note: by this time the cast were regularly playing pranks on each other, and this was when Bill Mumy took it too far by convincing Jason Carter that Marcus was going to be killed off, and let him stew about it for an entire day. Carter even broke into the script editor's office, where the latest script she'd received just happened to be a partial version of this episode that ended with Marcus daring Neroon to kill him. Poor Jason naturally didn't take it well, and there was a moratorium declared on pranks from then on.

Anonymous said...

"It might just be the general raised baseline quality... a subpar season 3 episode will usually be better than a subpar season 1 episode."

Every single episode of season 1 was under par for season 1. That's mathematically impossible until you remember how impossibly bad season 1 was. (At least that's my opinion; I'm elated that B5 hung on long enough to turn itself around, because I never imagined it would get as good as it quickly does come season 2.)

LiamKav said...

I'm quite amused by the fact that Sheridan has no idea who Neroon is. He wonders if his appearence is "part of the ceremony", and later tells Garibaldi that "someone" got in to the ceremony. Too many shows have the main cast sharing all their knowledge of people, whereas B5 is generally much better at keping some things secret or just not know to some people.

LiamKav said...

Hmm. The Lurker's Guide for this episode says (in a tangent) that the Brits uniformly hated the Peter David scripts. That is news to me, and the other Brits I knew who quite liked those episodes. (He also once said that the British fans kept spreading a rumour that Boxleitner was ashamed about his time on the show, when he wasn't. I'm beginning to feel paranoid.)

LondonKdS said...

Some people I knew at the time regularly denounced Marcus as a Gary Stu, which I really don't agree with. This episode is, I think, the only one where something he does has a major impact on the overarching plot of the series, and it really is something that he, as a Ranger who could convince Neroon that Delenn deserved her followers, was the only person qualified to do.

LiamKav said...

I wonder if some of the reason for the hatred thrown at this episode is that it is the last "standalone" episode we get for a considerable amount of time. By this point the fans would have been "arc, arc, arc!" and so a side story about a missing level on the station is probably not what they wanted.

Siskoid said...

It's not the worst episode, but it may, in context, be the most disappointing.


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