RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Infection” (Season 1, Episode 4)

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Frack! My first review evaporated in a computer crash.

Ok, starting again:

Series creator Joseph Michael “Joe” Straczynski once said (I think it was in Science Fiction Universe, but I’m too lazy to look it up) that if there was one episode from the first season he wished would fall into the sea, with every copy lost and never to be seen again, it would be this one. “Just a month into our show, and we’re already doing a rubber-suit monster.” (Probably I’m paraphrasing that quote. As I said, I’m too lazy to look it up.) Was he being too critical of his own work? Read on and find out!

PLAY BY PLAY

A doctor Vance Hendricks and his evil-yet-handsome assistant Nelson visit B5 with some alien artifacts that they got through customs via nefarious means. While it isn’t mentioned in dialog, Nelson has no latex allergies. That’s not strictly-speaking relevant to this episode, but it is relevant to the actor’s career, but more on that later.

The artifacts turn out to be ancient alien Biotech, deactivated and sealed up on the dead planet of Icara for a thousand years (“A Thousand Years” being a very significant number on this series, excepting in this one case when, bizarrely, it isn’t. See below). The artifacts posses Nelson, turning him into a Rubbersuit Monster who wanders around randomly killing people to death until Sinclair talks him into killing himself.

Afterwards, Franklin has Vance arrested for his collusion in the various murders and higgledy piggaldy in this episode. (Good luck making that one stick)

Garibaldi confronts Commander “Deathwish” Sinclair, accusing him of having Survivor’s Guilt from the war, and saying he’s known a lot of people who are “Looking for something to die for because it’s too hard to find something to live for.” Sinclair says, “I don’t have an answer for you, Michael, but I feel like I should. Thank you.”

Some security guys show up to take the alien artifacts back to earth for impound. This is presented as a bad thing.

MEANWHILE, a reporter chick has been trying to get an interview with Sinclair for several days, but he keeps ducking her. When asked why, he says his last interview resulted in his being “Transferred to an outpost so remote you couldn’t find it with a hunting dog and a Ouija board.” Eventually, he relents, and in the episode’s coda she asks him if it’s worth all the effort to remain in space, or if we shouldn’t just pack it up and go home like so many people on earth are apparently saying.

“No. We have to say here. And there’s a simple reason why: Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing that every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a billion years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us, it’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes. All of this…all of this was for nothing, unless we go to the stars.”

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

“Vance Hendricks” was played by David McCallum, who’s best known as Illia Nikovich Kuryakin on the Spy-Fi show “The Man From Uncle,” though for most of the last decade he’s played the part of Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS. He also starred in “The Sixth Finger,” one of the more prominent Outer Limits episodes.

“Marshall Teague,” Who plays Nelson, apparently has no physical or psychological problems working in heavy latex prosthetics, and runs around this whole episode in some pretty cumbersome looking stuff that must have been awful. They liked working with him, however, and he was later written into the series as “Ta’lon,” an important recurring Narn character.

Hendricks was one of Franklin’s instructors in college, and apparently they were pretty tight, though the acting in this episode doesn’t really pull that off. He’s working for “Interplanetary Expeditions,” or “IPX,” a company that finances archeological digs on dead alien worlds (Of which there are apparently quite a lot), hoping to find alien technology that can be studied, reverse-engineered, and used to advance life on Earth. And for weapons. Franklin says he couldn’t find any mention of IPX in the database, and Hendricks later admits that the organization is a front for a bioweapons firm. Realizing this find was a biggie, Hendricks decided to hold the objects for ransom until IPX paid for it, rather than simply turn it in for his normal finder’s fee. This begs the question: why have a front organization if it’s completely covert and no one outside of the employees have ever heard of it?

We’re told that Earth has had no luck cracking organic technology. The Vorlon ships are alive, some people say that the Minbari ships are as well, but the human race has nothing comparable. Franklin picks a completely illogical argument when Vance says he intends to use the artifacts to “Apply for a secondary patent based on alien research.” He says it wouldn’t be Vance’s own work, merely a shortcut, and he really should be out there inventing stuff on his own. This is a naïve and basically illogical argument. Firstly, almost all inventions are based on previous work by others, and secondly: are we supposed to think that Asians shouldn’t use cars because they didn’t invent them? Europeans shouldn’t build planes because that’s just a shortcut since Americans invented them? None of us should use wheels because that was a Mesopotamian thing? “You can’t use that pirate treasure, because you just found it, you didn’t mine it and smelt it and establish a gold-based economy yourself.“ It makes no sense, and the whole argument rings false and is time consuming.

Added to which, what is Vance’s specialty anyway? It’s never clear. He’s not a medical doctor. He’s an archeologist now, but evidently he was something else when Stephen knew him. A history teacher, perhaps? Lit professor? The guy who lines up the nude models for the sketching classes? Seriously: we’re given no indication that the guy *could* invent biotech if he even wanted to.

The Icaran warriors - the rubber suit monsters - were built to defend the planet against alien invasion, which apparently they did around the 12th century AD. Unfortunately after all that, they turned on their own and wiped out anyone who wasn’t ideologically or genetically pure. If the allusion isn’t obvious enough, the rubber suit monster has something like a Nazi WWII army helmet as a skull.

I don’t want to let too many cats out of the bag ahead of time, but suffice to say that “A thousand years ago” something very big and very bad was taking place in the galaxy, and whatever happened on Icara was undoubtedly part of it. Also, the biotech used here would seem to tie in with a revelation in the Crusade script for “The End of the Line.” This involves a group we’ve yet to meet called the “Technomages,” but there’s no spoiler in saying their names here.

I asked Joe Straczynski about this when I interviewed him a year ago, and he said that the Rubbersuit Monster was not in any way related to the Technomages. ( http://www.republibot.com/content/interview-joe-straczynski?page=0,1 ) Ah well.

The “Transfer station on Proxima III” gets a name check. That would be Proxima Centauri, just over four light years from earth. As we’ll see repeatedly through the series, the Proxima system has been heavily settled by earth, which kinda’ makes no real sense, but I’m not gonna’ go into that here as I’m already running long and have written this review twice.

The French Chick appears in this episode.

Ivonova finally gets a good line! When the reporter chick attempts to bluster past her to get an interview, she steps in front of the woman and says “Don’t. You are too young to experience such pain.” Later in the ep, she seems friendly with Franklin, or at least friendlier than we’ve seen her with anyone else on the show. Two episodes back she said she’d been following his career, so maybe that’s got something to do with it.

We’re told this episode marks the second anniversary of “Babylon 5 going online,” evidently some time in early 2256. The station *appeared* to be going online in “The Gathering” set in 2257, and some have complained about this apparent continuity error, but I don’t think it’s the case. The station was *already* heavily inhabited when we first saw it. Maybe the ‘56 date merely meant when it was functional and habitable, but hadn’t been fully built out yet. In any event, following the destruction of the previous four Babylon Station, we’re told public opinion polls showed 75% of those surveyed felt the station “Wouldn’t last a day,” and that Lloyds of London placed the odds of survival at 500:1 against.

“Floorwax” and “Aphrodisiac” are the same word in at least one alien language.

Station facts: They have different bathrooms for different species with different biologies. Toilets for methane-breathers are marked with blue on the door. The alien sector, as a whole, has methane as an atmosphere, which is why humans have to wear breathing masks when they go to visit someone in there.

This episode makes it very clear that they have multiple medical facilities (“Medlabs”) in different areas of the station. This makes sense given the size and population. All the medlab scenes we’ve looked at so far take place in “Medlab 1.” There are also a lot of other doctors, working for Franklin.

By the way, if Franklin looks too young for his role, he is. The actor was 34 when he got the job, but the character of Franklin has to be at least 48 (Based on reminiscences of things he says he’s done in later episodes), which makes him considerably older than rapidly-graying Commander Sinclair. (Sinclair is 39). Why? Well, I think it’s an accident, frankly. Remember, the doctor was originally supposed to be Dr. Kyle, who was in his fifties or sixties. I think some of Kyle’s backstory accidentally got shoehorned into Franklin’s life without regard for continuity. Even still, Franklin *could* be older than Sinclair. We’re told human lifespans are about a century, and he’s just made a point of moisturizing since he was a kid.

The flack jackets in this episode are not the ones we saw in “The Gathering.”

This is as good a point to explain the weapons in the show as any: They don’t use lasers or ray guns or pistols, they use “PPGs” or “Phased Plasma Guns.” These fire a dozen or so shots of superheated plasma, which quickly cools off, so range is limited, but it does a lot of damage to a body without really having much effect on metal or other construction materials. Why? Because it’s a bad idea to go throwing bullets around on a space station. They can puncture the hull.

I really like the scene where Sinclair walks into a security detail and just says “Weapon” and without explanation or question someone hands him a PPG Rifle. That’s just so cool and military, and - again - something you’d never see in Trek of this era.

“Great Maker” gets its first overt usage here. It’s a common alien expression for God. It’s also - as a running joke - a reference to producer/writer/creator Straczynski, used in much the same way as “Great Bird of the galaxy” was used for Roddenberry. How trashy!

The spotlights return in this ep, with red filters on them.

Once again we get a bar scene on the Zocalo, and once again there’s a song playing in the background, but it’s way too faint to make it out. I’d completely forgotten about this, but I like the effect. Does anyone know anything about it? Or why they stopped doing it?

We get a little backstory on Garibaldi: He’s been fired from his five previous security jobs, and B5 is quite literally his last chance. Also, we here the tail end of this story, “…we walked fifty miles and made our way out of the desert, and that was our first meeting. When Sinclair asked me to be head of security, I said ‘yeah!’” We get some more detail on this in the Babylon 5 comic book “Survival the Hard Way,” which details how they met, and got lost in the desert. Straczynski says this story is totally 100% canonical, and indeed several aspects of it turn up verbatim in later episodes.

I’m up in the air as to whether I should stick these comics into the reviews. Anyone got any votes on that?

The directing is much better this time out.

Remember how last week I said that the episode felt kinda’ like something from TNG? Well, this one feels like an Outer Limits episode (not the good one, but one of the revivals) or maybe one of those new ‘80s Twilight Zones. Straczynski was the story editor for the Zone for a while, I wouldn’t be too surprised if it turned out this script had its genesis in one of his unsold ones for that show. Empty speculation on my part, though.

So in the end, this is unquestionably a sub-par episode, but it’s not nearly so bad as Joe seemed to think it was. Granted, it was derivative, and kind of dumb, but at least it wasn’t boring like “Born to the Purple” was.

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