RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Midnight on the Firing Line” (Season 1, Episode 1)

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Babylon 5 was intended to go into production immediately after the pilot wrapped in 1993, but financing fell apart, and the whole thing lingered in limboland until January of ‘94 when the series itself was launched. As with any series, there are a lot of obvious changes between the pilot and the series proper, but here we have more than most. Not only was there the long delay, but much of the cast was fired, and the entire production was moved to a new studio across town, with many sets being redesigned, abandoned, or trashed in the process. Costumes were reworked, prosthetic makeup was reconceived.

For all intents and purposes, this episode was a second pilot. Not only did it function as a pilot for all the people who hadn’t seen the movie, but it also had the thankless task of explaining away the changes made between then and now, *AND* it had to tell a compelling story in the process.

It’s no surprise they didn’t quite pull it off, but it was a heroic try, and they came pretty close

PLAY BY PLAY

Rather than do a big long synopsis, I’m just going to summarize the important bits, and you can watch the episode to put them in order yourself.

* The Narn attack Ragesh III, a Centauri agricultural colony world. It’s an unprovoked attack, but the Narn say that prior to their conquest by the Centauri, that planet had been one of theirs. The Centauri government elects to do nothing about it, but Londo attempts to bluster his way into a solution. This goes not at all well, so he tries to murder G’kar, but this goes not at all well either.

* Back on earth, the 2258 presidential elections are taking place. Incumbent Luis Santiago is running for an unprecedented third term, and is in a very close race against Marie Crane. Crane is expected to win. Ivonova: “I believe I will vote for Marie Crane. I believe a leader should have a strong chin. Santiago has no chin. And his vice president has several. This to me is not a good combination.” Just the same, Santiago manages to eek out a narrow victory. We’ll learn more about the details behind this later in the series.

* Talia Winters, a slinky new telepath, attempts to check in and register with the second-in-command of the station, as per regulations. Ivonova has been blowing her off for weeks, and Winters keeps trying to make some kind of personal connection, which just makes things worse. When Winters proves herself not-entirely-useless in a crisis, Ivonova apologizes for her actions and we find that the Psi Corps (Which regulates and trains all human telepaths) give people three actions when it’s discovered they have mental powers 1) Join the Corps, 2) Go to Jail, 3) Take “Sleepers,” drugs that suppress psychic ability. Susan’s mom was 35 when she was diagnosed, and she chose the sleepers. They were debilitating and psychologically destabilizing. After ten years, she killed herself. Because of that, Ivonova hates the Psicorps, and distrusts all telepaths.

* Garibaldi shows Delenn his second-favorite thing in the universe: Daffy Duck cartoons. Delenn totally doesn’t get this, but desperately tries to figure it out, and there’s some cute shots of her utterly bewildered by popcorn, and not quite wanting to put it in her mouth.

* Raiders are attacking shipping in the same general area as B5, but whenever fighters get there, the raiders are gone. Garibaldi figures this out, and Sinclair manages to save a transport (With bonus refugees!) and tracks them back to a Narn command-and-control ship which was coordinating the attacks for the raiders. Sinclair gives G’kar the option of having Narn forces pull out of Ragesh III or he’ll disclose the information. G’kar reluctantly agrees.

* Londo tells us that Centauri are born knowing the circumstances of their death. As long as he can remember, Londo has had visions of himself twenty years into the future (Circa 2268) being strangled by a Narn while he - Londo - breaks the attacker’s neck. When he first saw G’kar he said “That’s the guy!” Londo attempts to change the future, but this goes not at all well.

OBSERVATIONS

This episode is clunky and stiff; the editing is sloppy in places, and the CGI animation - so amazingly cool in the day - is looking unmistakably dowdy and slow seventeen years later. This is not what anyone would call a compelling episode. The “A” plot with the Narn invasion is a very obvious make-work story who’s only purpose is to provide a framework for the various subplots to weave in and out of, but still there’s much to like here.

For starters, let’s consider the spirit of the times: This episode gave us more world building in one hour than Star Trek: The Next Generation generally did in a season. And it did it in a non-info-dumpy kind of way. It didn’t feel as expositional as it was, and it drove home the idea that this was a cohesive, well-thought-out world, and not something slapped together on the fly. It also set up the characters and their interactions well, reinforcing what we’d seen and introducing new people and stuff.

I don’t mean that to Trek-bash, I’m not one of those reflexive “I hate Trek” people, but Trek was never much interested in establishing a believable playground. That show was more about get in there, condescend to the alien of the week, demonstrate your moral superiority, and then move on to next week’s didactic conflict. It’s dramatic, but the reason it’s on a ship in the first place is so they don’t get bogged down in non-adventurous stuff like politics, money, religion, and the implications of all the crap the Enterprise did *Last* week. Such coherence as there is in the Trekiverse is basically by coincidence. Such information as we *do* get is generally trivial (Betazed women used to have elaborate and large hairstyles that contained cages with live animals in them). B5 was something of a revelation in that regard, and at the time - 1994 - it was pretty amazing. “You mean there’s another format for SF shows? You mean the future isn’t a Maoist wonderland? You mean characters don’t all have to like each other? You mean differing views are allowed! Wow!”

Ok, that *sounds* like I’m Trek Bashing. I’m really not. But come on, you’ve seen Next Generation, right? You must be aware of how boring it is, especially compared to shows like the RDM Galactica and Lost and Firefly, right? Well, when this episode aired, TNG had been on for SIX years! SIX years of that stuff! This show came as a long-overdue breath of fresh air. (And by the way, there’s a restaurant on B5 called “Fresh Aire”)

Anyway, the bottom line here - and the fundamental difference between B5 and Trek - is that Trek is about going outside the civilized world to find excitement and occasional meaning, and B5 is about finding meaning and excitement *within* a real world. And in a larger sense, Trek is about artificial, external drama caused by others, while B5 is about the human heart at war with itself in myriad forms.

Exactly how much time took place between the pilot and this episode is a subject of much debate, but the general consensus is that it was between seven and ten months.

Lt. Commander Laurel Takishima is gone from the station. We never find out what became of her, but the bottom line is that the guys who ran Warner Brothers didn’t like her, so she got the boot.

Telepath Lyta Alexander is gone from the station as well. The Warners guys didn’t like her either, so she got the boot as well, but unlike poor Laurel, we’ll find out a great deal about Lyta in days to come.

Carolyn Sykes, the Commander’s Girlfriend from the pilot, is gone as well, though all we ever find out about her is “It didn’t work out.” Again, Warners didn’t like her.

Doctor Ben Kyle from the pilot is gone as well. As with Lyta, we’ll eventually find out the circumstances regarding his (And her) departure, and what happened to ‘em after the fact, but never in so much detail as with Lyta. We never actually see him again.

There was a lot of backstory and planned plot for these people. Some of it was shifted to other characters, other stuff was dumped entirely. I know most of what was supposed to happen, and all of what did happen, but those are discussions for another day. Suffice to say that only two of the six human characters in the pilot survived into the series.

G’kar and Delenn have substantially different appearances now. Their makeup has been reworked. It’s basically just a somewhat more refined thing with G’kar, but Delenn has been massively re-designed. In all cases this is an improvement.

The uniforms are all different. Actually, they’re the same uniforms from the pilot, but they’ve had that goofy leather panel added to the front, and the epaulets are leather now. The rank insignia are different. In the council scenes, however, Ivonova and Sinclair wear the same dress uniforms from the "The Gathering." I don’t really like the revised uniforms as much as the originals, but again it was kind of a watershed to have people wearing something that looked like an actual uniform, and not your typical fascist space pajamas. The sidearms have been redesigned as well, and now look like guns rather than vacuum attachments. Their communication devices are different, too, though it takes a sharp eye to spot ‘em in this one.

As new major characters go, we’re introduced to the station’s new executive officer, the Russian Susan Ivonova; as well as Vir Cotto, Londo’s new attaché (Londo was apparently expecting a larger staff) and Talia Winters. Garibaldi’s got an instant case of lust for Talia, she seems not to reciprocate. In real life, the actors who portrayed them met on the set, and instantly fell in love. They had a whirlwind romance, got married, had a kid, and then a whirlwind divorce. When they made their first attempt at filming the elevator scene in this episode, the doors opened and...there was Jerry Doyle naked from the waist down, evidently to impress Andrea Thompson. Once everyone got done laughing, they reset the scene and shot it again, obviously.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises for anyone, but it’ll eventually emerge that Vir is the most interesting of any of these new folks. He’s basically comedy relief here, but he’ll eventually become vastly more important. It’s always the quiet ones…

We also meet Senator Quantrell, or possibly Cantrell, the guy back home who’s in charge of the B5 oversight committee. Unlike all those random and interchangeable guest-starring admirals and commodores Kirk and Picard had to joust with, Sinclair always answers to fairly consistently-used superiors. Some of the pilots become minor recurring characters, such as Delta 7, whom we meet tonight.

In terms of new cool stuff, the Starfury fighters are introduced in this episode, as are the really super-cool “Cobra Bays” they’re launched from. The station spins for artificial gravity, right? So the fighters are simply dropped through a hole in the floor of the station and “fall” away from it at 32 FPS. Note in the battle sequence that all the fighters obey the laws of physics: they move like spaceships and not planes. That said, the explosions look pretty cheesy, and they actually looked pretty cheesy in ‘94 as well.

The huge Narn battleships we see tonight never make another appearance, and are replaced by a newer, more iconic design hereafter. There’s a line of dialog in a later episode on saying that the ships in this episode were older ones being phased out of service to account for the change.

If the term of president is six years, and if Santiago just won his third term, then that means he was elected in 2245, right? Actually there’s some contention about this as we’ll see later. For now, suffice to say he’s in charge and he’s been in charge for quite a while.

Ivonova is new to the station, but not so new that Garibaldi hasn’t gotten used to her being around (“Oh, that’s right, you’re new here” he says). Assume she’s been on hand for a month or two. She clearly doesn’t know much about Sinclair, either his personal routine, or his past given the candor of their conversation. She’s surprised that he respects the Minbari, for instance.

Curiously, in the scene in the Zocalo bar where Ivonova and Talia are not getting along, there’s a song playing in the background. Background music not directly related to the plot is very rare, and I never noticed this one before. I can’t make out the words, but it’s clearly in English, and it sounds very ‘80s. Anyone know anything about this? Oh, and this is the first appearance of the “5” shaped bar on the Zocalo, I forgot about that.

Sinclair’s daddy was a fighter pilot, and the Sinclair family have been fighter pilots all the way back to the Battle of Britain. That’s three hundred and seventeen years! Heck of a lineage!

We’re told that San Diego was destroyed by a terrorist nuclear attack. The original Mars Colony was likewise destroyed by a terrorist attack, presumably also Nuclear. We’ll learn more about Mars later.

Garibaldi mentions a “Refugee Export Service” corporation. Exactly how much of an industry is that? I mean, is there a steady enough flow of refugees that you can make a profit at it?

“Transfer Points” are mentioned here and elsewhere, and it’s always a little unclear what they mean by that, but I think it means that ships without Jump Engines use the jumpgates to get from point A to B, but then they have to travel through space to get to the next Jumpgate that takes them from C to D, or whatever.

The annoying spotlights from the pilot make a return appearance here in the zocalo. I was surprised. I thought it had been dropped entirely by this point.

The Narn sold weapons to Earth during the Earth/Minbari war which ended a decade earlier. This detail will come up again in bitterly ironic fashion.

Seriously badass dialog: “It is true I would like to see the universe cleansed of the Centauri, their bones carved into little flutes for our children.”

Londo refers to his government as “A collection of genetic defectives.” We'll get a payoff for this in season four.

The first human contact with aliens was the Centauri around 2150-ish. They showed up in our solar system, claiming to be the dominant power in the galaxy, but were lying: their empire had been in decline since about 2050 or so. (in “The Gathering” Londo mentions that the Centauri Republic now consists of “A dozen worlds and a million monuments to past glory”) They also claimed that humans were a long-lost colony, but they were lying about that: their appearance is a case of convergent evolution, and there is no genetic similarity to us. And yes, their hair really does grow like that naturally. They tend to lie a lot. And they don’t have major arteries in their wrists. More aspects of Centauri biology - which really is quite alien - will turn up as the show goes on.

The dates are less clear on the whole “Centauri/Narn” thing, but it appears the Narn were invaded, conquered, and enslaved by the Centauri around 2120 or so, and regained their independence perhaps a generation before the show starts. Pretty clearly the Centauri decline simply meant they no longer had the ability to hold on to their slaves. The occupation was pretty vicious, and there are a lot of very well justified ill feelings on the Narn’s part.

Ok, so here’s how the whole “Counsel” thing works: Babylon 5 is owned by earth, but is regarded as a neutral free trade port. It is operated by the Earth military, but contains scads of civilians, including aliens. Matters beyond the scope of day-to-day operations, ones which affect political things, are handled by the Babylon 5 Advisory council, which consists of delegates from Earth (Sinclair), Minbar (Delenn), Narn (G‘kar), Centauri Prime (Londo), and the never-named Vorlon Homeworld (Kosh). Each has one vote. The earth delegate chairs the meetings.

In matters that are beyond the scope of this, or which directly affect the minor alien species, the League of Nonaligned Worlds is convenes, and this includes delegates from a whole bunch of worlds. In this episode, for instance, we have some Drazi, some Pak’ma’ra, some big-headed aliens with slantey eyes, and a couple guys wearing cloaks. In joint session, they vote on stuff along with the big boys. It’s unclear how much power they have, though: are all nonaligned member votes equal for the Big Five, or is the entire league together equal to ONE of the big five? (My theory) Can the League convene on its own, without the council around? Again, never made clear. Curiously, Vir sits in with the League delegates, as does another Narn. This seems odd, since both of them are very clearly…uhm…aligned?

In short, not an amazing episode, but it was better than I remembered, even if it was more than passingly stiff. But it did a lot of stuff, and I forgive it its failings.

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