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Posts Tagged ‘Kathryn Drennan’

I think it’s past time I stopped waffling in vague and general terms about Babylon 5 episodes and had a proper look at one of them in something approaching detail. But, before that, some more vague and general waffle about the other episodes on the latest disc.

The received wisdom has always seemed to me to be that Babylon 5 is best in the middle (possibly the early-middle) but tails off quite dramatically towards either end. Bearing that in mind I’ve been rather surprised and quite impressed by how well the stories in Season One bear up, bearing in mind this is a show nearly 20 years old. This latest quartet are no exception. None of them are really what I’d call an example of the show at its best, but even the weakest of them (Survivors) is a fairly acceptable thriller-yarn, troubled somewhat by the variable performances of the lead actors. (Even many of the regulars struggle to consistently strike a credible tone across the whole series.)

That said, this disc does highlight what a consistently solid job the late Richard Biggs does as the station doctor – it’s a tough call but I’d say at this point he’s probably the most convincing of the human characters. He gets lots of good material in Believers, a vaguely Trek-ish moral dilemma story made memorable by a surprising ending and a refusal to offer easy answers. The other story in this quartet, Deathwalker, is a bit frayed around the edges (promising dramatic scenes are set up and then never get mentioned again, and the main guest character dresses like a hotel doorman) but it still plays to the series’ strengths.

Which brings us to our featured episode, By Any Means Necessary, written by Kathryn Drennan. This is not an essential episode of the show, contributing little or nothing to the ongoing story beyond a few character insights (G’Kar’s initially little-seen spiritual side and Londo’s potential for viciousness), but it is uniquely Babylon 5-ish in other ways.

The episode opens on another busy day on the station with the docking bays working flat out. However, it turns out the station has been built on the cheap and a hardware failure results in an accident involving a Narn freighter, resulting in damage to the dock area and the death of a docker (the special effects depicting this are rather dodgy by modern standards but get the job done).

All the dockers are, understandably, outraged by this and insist on the bay equipment being upgraded, more labour being taken on, pay raises, and so on. As you can see, we are quite a long way from Trek territory here, and this is only reinforced by various scenes where the Commander discusses the details of the station’s budget with colleagues and superiors. The dockers are technically government employees and so denied industrial action – but nevertheless an illegal strike gets underway and it’s up to Sinclair to resolve the situation before the authorities back on Earth insist on him sending in the troops to break the strike…

Just to lighten up the A-plot a bit, there’s a related B-plot involving the alien ambassadors: it’s an important holy period for the Narn sect to which G’Kar belongs, for which he requires a certain rare plant, the G’Quan Eth, to carry out particular rituals. Unfortunately the one he ordered was destroyed in the accident and he now has to procure another at very short notice – and the only one available is in the possession of his arch-enemy Londo Mollari.

I know, yet another G’Kar picture: but it was that or a guy with a spanner in a boilersuit.

One does sometimes get the impression that early B5 episodes were conceived by someone taking two completely random plot ideas and mashing them together in an SF context (for example, McCarthyism and motorcycle maintenance, or Jewish tradition and bare-knuckle boxing), and this tale of industrial relations and religious observance is no exception. The A-story perhaps doesn’t have quite enough variety going on in it to really satisfy – there are endless scenes of complaining men in overalls waving spanners and union reps getting bolshy with Sinclair – but in the context of this kind of series the concept is novel enough to stay interesting. The fact that the B-story focuses on the series’ two star turns is a considerable help too.

You could argue that this is quite a simplistic story, not just in the plotting but also some of the acting and its basic conception – the dockers are presented throughout as oppressed, decent, regular working guys, while the government official opposing them is a charmless yuppy slimeball. That so I can’t remember if a greater level of sophistication was present in mainstream US TV in the early 90s – I certainly don’t remember it being there in any genre show except The X Files, which was getting underway at about the same time as B5.

The mixture of gritty realism (or certainly an attempt at it) and a sincere handling of spirituality is certainly a very B5 mix, as, to some extent, is the slightly unwieldy way in which both are handled. This is not a great episode, but it is one which is distinctively of this series and no other – and equally distinctive shows which really are great are, one senses, not far in the future.

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