Posts Tagged ‘Grail’

Well past time for some more Babylon 5, I think (apologies to any Mail on Sunday readers who may still be wandering past, to whom this will no doubt be a matter of total disinterest). Disc 4 of the first season is a slightly curious beast: following a run of strong episodes, this is a definite mixed bag, possibly due to only one being from the pen of JMS (two of the others are from the story editor Larry DiTillio, while the last is by freelancer Christy Marx).

A common criticism of the non-arc related episodes of B5 used to be that they tend to rely on a plot structure known informally as the ‘Wandering Looney’ – basically, someone rather eccentric turns up on the station bringing the best part of the plot with them. I’m not sure this is entirely fair – for one thing, the series is based on a space station, so the stories have to come to them, while for another you could quite easily argue that many well-regarded arc episodes are essentially Wandering Looney stories.

This is arguably true of Signs and Portents, one of the two or three standout episodes of the first season – on first viewing, this looks like a story about the hubris of a Centauri nobleman and the resolution of the plot-thread about space pirates running through the first half of the season. Seen in context, of course, the most significant character in the story is Morden, whose presence isn’t even flagged up in the guest star credits – and if Morden isn’t a wandering looney, I don’t know who is.

More Wandering Lunacy par excellence in the bizarre TKO, a peculiar fusion of character-based religious drama and inter-species cage-fighting action, after a disgraced prize-fighter and an orthodox Rabbi arrive on the same transport. This is an episode I have a sneaking fondness for despite its deep strangeness and some obvious flaws – for one thing, it handles all the aliens in it as a homogenous mass of people in prosthetics, rather than as individual species with complex inter-relationships separate from those with humans. This is a small thing, but it’s normally one of the angles that B5 covers exceptionally well.

Rounding off the quartet is Eyes, a rather disappointing tale of a nutty Captain Bligh-ish martinet arriving to supposedly investigate Commander Sinclair but actually just to recap the plot of the season so far for late-arriving viewers. The bad guy is not well played, none of the ambassadors appears, and it’s all a bit histrionic. This was one of the episodes I missed on the initial run of the show; I was annoyed at the time but now I realise it could have been much worse.

Tucked in the middle of these is Grail, an episode JMS has openly admitted to not caring much for. I can probably guess why, but at the same time this is a very B5-ish story – visually ambitious, doing small and clever things with respect to the wider world and its story, and with a story largely concerned with religious belief.

We open with the plight of Jinxo, one of the station’s large population of homeless people (why they let people on without money or an onward ticket is a bit of a mystery, but hey ho). Jinxo helped to build Babylon 5 (along with Babylons 1-4), and his knowledge of the construction of the place puts him in the sights of vicious gangster Deuce, who appears to have a special relationship with Ambassador Kosh, to whom he enjoys feeding people.

At the same time, the Minbari are excited that one of the greatest living Earthmen is about to visit. Sinclair and Garibaldi have no idea who it is and are slightly annoyed to learn it is the eccentric figure of Aldous Gajic, a softly-spoken warrior-mystic who’s searching the cosmos for the Holy Grail. The human characters dismiss Gajic as a crank, and he gets varying responses from the different ambassadors (he doesn’t speak to G’Kar, for some reason – maybe Andreas Katsulas was off doing a movie). Needless to say Gajic and Jinxo cross paths, with the result that the quest for the Grail gets put on hold while a voracious alien predator and some gangsters are dealt with…

I’m not entirely sure why JMS is less than enamoured of Grail, but I’m prepared to make a few guesses. There are a few minor continuity issues compared to other episodes of the series, mainly concerned with how timekeeping is organised on the station, but the most obvious thing about the episode is that it falls into the time-honoured trap common to much episodic TV, where a freelancer comes in and delivers an episode which focusses much more on the guest characters than the regular cast.

‘I’m a mystic, and to prove it here is my stick. Ka boom tish.’

Grail is really a story about Aldous and Jinxo and their relationship, with the human staff characters floating about in the background – although the ambassadors get some quite good bits (Londo is a bit OTT even by his standards). To some extent this is not a problem, as Aldous Gajic is played by David Warner, a brilliant actor who approaches genre film and TV with the same commitment as doing Shakespeare in the theatre (and for once that’s an informed opinion). Warner is far and away the best thing in the episode. Tom Booker, playing Jinxo, can’t even begin to keep up, and his performance when he has to portray extremes of excitation or fear is actually pretty excruciating to watch – but you can’t have everything I suppose.

The other really memorable thing about the episode is the monster, which remains pretty striking today (the CGI is not ageing brilliantly) but was genuinely startling back in 1994. I think this was probably the first attempt at using CGI to depict a completely non-humanoid alien on TV, and it’s not half bad. The subplot about everyone assuming the Feeder to be a Vorlon doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, until you get to the little scene with Sinclair and Kosh discussing the situation – which more or less justifies it, I think.

You could skip Grail and probably not lose anything in the wider scheme of B5 things – well, there’s some stuff about the first four Babylons which is setting up an episode a few weeks off – and I don’t think anyone would argue this is one of the episodes you’d show a friend to make them want to watch the show regularly. But, like I say, it isn’t really like anything else on TV, and that kind of uniqueness will always be up my street.

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