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Posts Tagged ‘Walter Koenig’s hair’

Starting in on B5 season 5, I was rather scathing about the wisdom of the whole undertaking – something along the lines of ‘if the story’s already finished, why churn out another 22 episodes?’ and ascribing rather ungenerous motives to Joe Straczynski for doing so. And yet, and yet – while I’m absolutely not saying that season 5 represents the show at anything like its peak performance, I’m still finding it much more watchable than mid or late season 4. The choreography of the two main elements of the plot is adroitly handled and it seems to me that there’s a valid thematic link between them – namely, the terrible problems arising when one attempts to exert political power in an ethical context.

As we reach In The Kingdom Of The Blind, the main plot of the first half of the season is building to a (very slightly abrupt) climax – the DVD ordering of the episodes is clearly bobbins, as this is self-evidently taking place right after Secrets of the Soul – with the telepath cult now intent upon applying to the Alliance for their own homeworld. The tactics they choose to employ to leverage their position are a bit too confrontational and antagonising to really be credible, though, and one is forced to wonder just how messed up Byron really is if he thinks blackmailing every major power is going to work out for them – and how messed up the rest of the teeps are, for them to be so blindly obedient to him. Perhaps this is the Kingdom of the Blind to which the title alludes, a reference which is otherwise somewhat obscure.

This is all really an exercise in thickening the ongoing plot and raising the stakes, which the episode does competently enough in both the telepath plot and the Centauri-Drakh plot (which is only just getting started). The Londo-G’Kar matey double-act is a tiny bit grating, but they’re never not actually interesting to watch and the set-up on Centauri Prime is obviously interesting given the things to which we, as long-term viewers, are privy. I mentioned a while back that the Centauri Court stuff felt like JMS’s attempt at writing I Claudius, and it’s somewhat satisfying when an actor from the real version shows up (albeit briefly). Ian Ogilvy does as well under a Centauri barnet as anyone – obviously Derek Jacobi’s phone was engaged when they rang. (The image of Brian Blessed as a Narn has now lodged itself immovably in my brain – what a chance was lost there.)

It’s pretty much more of the same in A Tragedy of Telepaths, although this is marked out by the first of two back-to-back appearances by Walter Koenig and his hair, as Bester turns up to deal with the crisis of the rogue (and increasingly terrorist) telepaths, and also by a brief and somewhat baffling return by Julie Caitlin Brown as Na’Toth. The stuff with Na’Toth really just feels like attention-grabbing filler material, it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t set anything up – and the character has been so radically, if understandably, transformed in the three and a half years since Brown last played her that it’s not really recognisably her in the role. Hey ho.

The telepath stuff continues to be rather impressively gripping, with good intentions on both sides plausibly leading all concerned into a horribly tense and volatile situation. It’s just a shame that Byron is not, and has never been, someone you could actually warm to and genuinely care about. Is this the performance? Is it the scripting? (There’s a degree of JMS-bibble involved.) Is it the hairstyle? It’s a shame, whatever the cause.

How long every morning with the tongs and curlers, I wonder?

How long every morning with the tongs and curlers, I wonder?

It all gets resolved in Phoenix Rising, along with some new stuff – mainly concerned with Michael Garibaldi’s adventures in alcoholism – being initiated. For the most part, it plays and flows pacily and convincingly, although the hard edge hinted at in one early scene (one of Bester’s psi-cops turns up nailed to a wall – this never made it into the initial UK broadcast) doesn’t quite materialise. In the end the mass of hairspray Byron applies every morning spontaneously combusts and the tragedy is complete. I’ve been nice about the political sensibility and hard head of this particular plot arc, but Byron’s noble sacrifice doesn’t quite feel like it fits or rings true, quite – if you consider that Byron is clearly meant to be a visionary leader along the lines of Martin Luther King or Gandhi, and then remember what happened to both of them, you can see what I mean when I say that the sort of heroic self-immolation JMS cooks up is almost too nice a resolution – for Byron to reach a compromise with Sheridan and Lochley, but then be killed by his own supporters for selling them out, would have been the conclusion I’d have gone for. But then I’ve never even watched Murder She Wrote.

The Ragged Edge sends us off into the Drakh-Centauri plot full-bloodedly, with the back-on-the-booze stuff figuring quite prominently too. There’s a visit to the Drazi homeworld, which is interestingly written and directed in terms of the associations it’s designed to strike, even if the plot involved is a tiny bit corny. There’s an interesting B-story about G’Kar coming to terms with his new status as a religious leader – anything giving Andreas Katsulas a chance to do some proper acting is obviously a bonus. The Drazi homeworld stuff probably raises this one slightly above average, given some of the plot is a bit dubious – the top bods at the Alliance are suspicious enough of space debris to have it analysed to see if it really did come off attacking ships, but when someone finds a particular style of button at the scene of a crime they instantly conclude that this is absolute proof of who the criminals are. Exigences of plot, I expect, and moderately excusable. Season 5 continues to stand up pretty well regardless.

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Wandering Loonies, that is – well, sort of. Have I said before how much season 5 of Babylon 5 reminds me, in a funny way, of season 1? Probably due to the sense of something starting from scratch, although season 5’s ambitions are necessarily different. Certainly the most recent quartet has done nothing to dispel this impression, partly because the episodes are less about people in rooms arguing about political philosophy and more about oddballs visiting the station and bringing the plot with them.

However, it would be stretching a point to suggest that these are the startling wandering loonies of old – the days of Jack the Ripper or King Arthur turning up on the station are gone, alas. In Learning Curve the visitors are a bunch of senior Rangers and their trainees, who turn up to have a bit of a natter with Delenn about nothing terribly important. However, their presence does enable a story to get going where one of the trainees gets on the wrong side of one of the station’s gangsters: he is, of course, a Gaw-Blimey-Cockernee gangster of the kind JMS seems oddly fond and yet incapable of writing credibly.

It all ends up with a lot of moderately oblique Minbari philosophy and people hitting each other with pipes. This is not especially interesting as a story, except for the way in which the Rangers adopt a rule-through-terror philosophy against their enemies, overruling the local authorities as they do so. Once again, this seems very authoritarian and undemocratic – the Rangers come across as not far removed from a secret police force operating without any real checks, but there’s no sense that this is ambiguity is in any way intended by JMS, any more than earlier when the Alliance was promulgated.

Threaded through this story is a plotline about tension and distrust between Garibaldi and Lochley, which becomes more central in Strange Relations, the episode immediately following. However, this story is more about the plight of glossy-barneted Byron and his fellow telepaths as they are pursued by the very-possibly-synthetically-coiffured Bester and his fascist colleagues. Bester actually isn’t in the episode very much, and the confrontation between him and Garibaldi is bumped to a future point. There are some striking confrontations in this episode, but I do get the sense that this episode is more about setting up future plot developments than concentrating on this particular plot – the season arc starts to take on a bit more shape from this point on.

Secrets of the Soul comes next and would normally be considered a bit of an oddity, given that – of all the characters featuring in the title sequence – only three actually appear in the story, and minor ones at that. I would suspect the show of a little surreptitious double-banking if I didn’t know better. Anyway, Dr Franklin gets involved in a sort-of Trek-ish story about an alien race with a terrible secret, which works as well as it does only because Richard Biggs is as solid as ever as the doc. The main event is more stuff with Byron and his fellow telepaths being harassed by more British ruffians, and Lyta’s efforts to help him. This would work better if Byron was a slightly less irritating character, and there’s more apparently-unconscious ambiguity – irritating or not, Byron comes across as a cult leader and Lyta as someone deeply troubled getting in over her head.

It concludes with some telepathic whoa-ho-ho and a flashback sequence which I didn’t recall in the slightest, but then the only previous time I saw this episode  was on its original Sunday lunchtime broadcast in  the UK, when it was probably savagely cut for the sex and violence. Not content with getting his leg over, Byron goes all allegorical-Zionist and declares he wants the telepaths to have their own homeworld, something which is obviously going to have ominous consequences.

Only not just yet. Next, in the DVD set if not in broadcast or recommended chronological order, comes a genuine oddity, Day of the Dead, notable for being the only mid- or late-period Babylon 5 episode not written by JMS – instead the writer responsible is one Neil Gaiman, of thingy fame.

After nearly three years of JMS, a new narrative voice is very noticeable – and the story itself is very much the antithesis of Straczynski’s style. Where JMS tends to tell hard-headed SF action thrillers or character pieces, but do so using wildly eccentric plot structures and experimental techniques, Gaiman opts for a full-on fantasy story, but told in a very conventional manner. There’s a very rare alien religious festival about to happen and as part of the preparations for this, the aliens temporarily buy a large chunk of the station. G’Kar issues various grave warnings of strange events in the offing, but as usual no-one listens to him (you’d have thought, by this point…).

When the festival gets underway, the purchased area and everyone inside it is cut off, and instruments suggest it is in some way physically now on the alien homeworld. As if this wasn’t strange enough, everyone inside the affected zone is visited by the embodiment of someone they knew who has died. Londo’s old girlfriend from the start of season 1 comes back, along with someone Garibaldi nearly got it on with in season 2. Lochley is visited by a friend who died of an OD before she joined up, while – most promisingly – Lennier has an encounter with Morden, who appears to have changed his hairstyle since he died, but is still the same warm loveable human being. Rather curiously, no-one seems very interested in actually talking to their visitor, except Lochley, and this is because her subplot is just there to fill in her background a bit. It’s an interesting, if rather weird premise, but not very much comes from it.

'...and, then as a punishment, they did this to my hair.'

‘…and, then as a punishment, they did this to my hair.’

Meanwhile, in a B-plot, Penn and Teller guest-star as a legendary comedy team visiting the station. I like Penn and Teller very much, but they are almost supernaturally unfunny as the comedians here, and the forced fake laughter of every other actor in the scenes where they are supposedly being hilarious is deeply grating. Once again, this thread doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and the episode as a whole doesn’t really live up to Gaiman’s reputation – it didn’t really at the time, and it certainly doesn’t now. Nevertheless the break from JMS is rather welcome, and makes one wish he’d given someone else the reins more often.

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The underlying story of Babylon 5‘s fourth season is that of one man daring to take on the universe virtually single-handed, mocked and derided by his opponents, but still consumed by an iron self-belief. He has an army of devoted followers, but some people once close to him are beginning to wonder if his prior achievements haven’t gone to his head, and he is showing signs of poor judgement, even megalomania. The big question underlying this is, of course, whether the name of the man in question is Sheridan or Straczynski – or, to put it another way, how much of what’s actually up on screen inadvertantly reflects what was going on behind the camera.

Five episodes this time round, and a proper mixed bag they are too. We open with Rumors, Bargains and Lies, in which the storyline about the Minbari civil war limps on while Sheridan contemplates a way of getting the minor planets to allow him to police their borders. The main problem with this episode is that almost no-one in it acts in a remotely credible manner – a group of Minbari clerics (one of them is Lieutenant Gruber from Allo Allo!) are alarmed by gossip that one of them thinks he’s overheard and instantly decide upon a mass murder-suicide pact. Sheridan comes up with a scheme to get what he wants, but not only is the plan so ludicrously convoluted that the Mission Impossible team would reject it as impractical, but he doesn’t bother telling anyone what it is. This is solely for purposes of dramatic tension, the requirements of the script overriding the truth of the story. At least the two plots complement each other on that level.

Moments of Transition at least sees the conclusion of the Minbari civil war, a plotline which never felt like more than a piece of mid-season padding. It is resolved through the use of an ancient Minbari tanning salon and a frankly improbable sacrifice by a recurring character that borders on a deus ex machina escape for Delenn. More interesting is a rather downbeat story about Lyta struggling to make a living as a rogue telepath, with events conspiring to put her in the power of Bester and his enigmatic hair. (This is the one where Walter Koenig gets to deliver an expository monologue to a deep freeze – the joys of B5.) It’s not terribly memorable, either, but at least the episode concludes with signs of the series sparking back into life.

No Surrender, No Retreat is by some way the best episode of this bunch, as Sheridan decides to start the liberation of Earth territory by force. Watching this again now what’s striking is that this seems like a unilateral decision on his part, and one is forced to wonder why he gets as much military support as he does – given that the Rangers and the White Star fleet were both expressly assembled to fight the Shadows, how come no-one’s been agitating for them to be demobbed? Here’s where we again get the impression of Sheridan as some kind of cult leader.

Anyway, the climactic battle is decent if a bit garish and the episode’s examination of the ethics of warfare is not the sort of thing you often see in this kind of story. I have to say that one of the highlights of the episode for me, though, is a scene in which Londo desperately tries to establish some kind of relationship with G’ Kar, despite all the history between them and their races. Again, it seems to me that one of the real problems with later Babylon 5 is that it constantly struggles to find meaningful things for these two characters to do: the main story is happening elsewhere now.

The religious overtones are so all-pervading that Sheridan's spaceship even has its own stained glass window.

The religious overtones are so all-pervading that Sheridan’s spaceship even has its own stained glass window.

The Exercise of Vital Powers takes us back to the story of Garibaldi and his new employer, who finally turns up on screen, and also features Franklin and Lyta trying to defrost the telepaths they found in some Shadow fridges during season 3. It’s a fairly telepath-centric episode, but also a Garibaldi-led one, and – again I repeat myself – Jerry Doyle is operating at the outer limits of his acting ability. It’s funny, I watched this episode only two or three days ago and I can only remember a few details from it, which may tell you something.

The Face of the Enemy is an episode which JMS really likes but I can’t find much genuine enthusiasm for. There are some nicely put together sequences, as Garibaldi lures Sheridan to Mars and turns him over to his enemies in the government of Earth, which gives a real sense of this being a turning point in the series, but my main problem is not just the quantity of the exposition at the climax of the episode – Bester’s hair turns up at the climax and delivers what feels like a five-minute info dump – but what we’re required to believe, both in terms of how convoluted the various relationships of dubious parties on Mars really were – A is in league with B, who is in league with C – C hates A, and B isn’t wild about them either, but they need A so they’re working with them anyway without telling A of their dealings with C, and so on – but also the level of coincidence involved in the story.

Oh well, only a few more episodes to go and with the Minbari civil war and the Garibaldi conspiracy storylines sorted out hopefully things will get a bit more straightforward and pacy for the climax. Then again, season 5 is lurking round the corner…

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For the first time since I started this rewatch of the entirety of Babylon 5, I’m finding it a slightly uncomfortable experience: not because the first third of season 4 is painfully bad to watch, but because I haven’t seen most of it since its first UK transmission in late Summer of 1997. At that point my life was in the process of vanishing down one of the black holes which have featured intermittently in my life since leaving university, and I can’t help but remember the time in some detail. And so these episodes have uncomfortable associations for me.

This is a shame, because they’re not that bad: The Long Night and Into The Fire conclude the opening movement of the season and wrap up all the major plotlines involved. The big event of Long Night is a spot of regime change in the Centauri Republic, which is competently written and presented. Unfortunately, very nearly as memorable for quite different reasons is a big scene where Sheridan has to send someone off on a suicide mission – the similarity to the Beyond the Fringe sketch with ‘Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen – take a shufti, don’t come back’ is striking. It feels rather corny, in other words.

Oh well. Into the Fire resolves the Shadow War plot, and does it… well, look, there’s a lot of theatrical Straczynski-waffle, Sheridan shouts ‘Get the Hell out of our Galaxy!’ with a straight face, lots of things blow up and – you know, I’m sure the version I first saw had a bit where the Vorlons decide to leave and the Shadows rather quaveringly ask ‘Can we come too?’, but possibly my memory is playing tricks on me. In any case the striking thing about the episode is not how it resolves the war, but that it does so only about a quarter of the way into the season.

(It also features Ed Wasser’s final ‘proper’ appearance as Morden. The day after I saw the episode I found my way to Wasser’s personal website, with half a mind to leave him a complimentary note for his performance. The website’s most prominent feature was an article from Ed Wasser enthusiastically endorsing the benefits of getting your colon regularly irrigated. Needless to say his acting went uncomplimented.)

You would expect, after a massive plot shift like the end of the war, for there to be a much quieter catch-your-breath character piece to follow it – but JMS, still operating under the assumption that this is the final season of the show, has another major plotline to develop and then resolve and only sixteen episodes left to do it. And so, with a mighty narrative krrnnnk of gears not quite meshing, we’re plunged straight into the B5-vs-President Clark storyline again.

Looking on the bright side, Epiphanies features Walter Koenig and his enigmatic hair as Psi-Cop Bester (whose hair is, I suppose, equally enigmatic). The problem is that not very much happens in terms of plot in the A-story: everyone gets on the White Star to go somewhere, but they don’t actually get there and come straight back. The A-plot of the episode is just helping to lay in elements of the arc story rather than functioning on its own terms. Still, there are a few nice character bits.

The news reveals the identity of the person who's been sneaking horsemeat into burgers.

The news reveals the identity of the person who’s been sneaking horsemeat into burgers.

The Illusion of Truth is a companion piece to And Now For A Word from season 2, but somewhat different in structure – the earlier story was partly about bias, whereas this one is about deliberate misrepresentation and outright propaganda, which requires the first two thirds of the episode to be a conventional drama so the audience can see just how the news crew involved in the story are deliberately distorting the facts. It’s not as good as And Now For A Word, but it does stand up as an individual episode in its own right: which is a good sign, given that the series now seems to be reverting back to this particular style of storytelling.

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Y’know, this time through watching B5 – and it may just be a quirk of the way the episodes are split across the discs – I’m much more aware of it as a series comprised of two main strands, which perhaps – and that’s a cautious perhaps, folks – aren’t quite as well integrated as they might be.

It’s certainly looking that way in early-to-mid season 2, which is where I’m up to at moment. Disc 2 of the current amaray is fairly biased in favour of the ‘dark forces moving in Earth politics’ storyline over the ‘ancient evil resurgent’ one. Normally I pick out an individual episode off each disc to look at in a little more detail but there’s so much in common across most of this quartet that it’s very difficult to look at them in isolation.

Anyway, the disc opens with the odd-one-out of the four, The Long Dark – a heavily Dracula-influenced piece of cod horror as a lost ship appears out of the empty wastes of space. The ship predates hyperspace technology, so the two crew are in freezers – but one of them has been horribly and inexplicably killed, seemingly while the other was frosty. So – who or what did it? And where did they go? Did they go anywhere…?

This is serviceable stuff, a bit Trek-inflected. Dwight Schultz plays Renfield, the VFX guys have a go at knocking off the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet but don’t quite get there, Dr Franklin gets another shot at romance, and G’Kar gets some good lines in what’s a pretty low-key appearance for him.

The other three episodes all concern, to some degree or other, dodgy machinations at the heart of the Psi-Corps – whose presence in the show’s world has been established with all the subtlety and nuance for which JMS’s writing has been universally acclaimed (yes, I’m probably being harsh again). Apart from the kid in Legacies, every human telepath on the show has been presented as being either messed-up, or evil, or both – clearly it’s okay to ‘type teeps in a way you couldn’t real-world minorities.

Many years ago in the Dark Times, DWM ran an article comparing Doctor Who to other SF shows and trying to identify the most similar episodes. I can’t remember most of the details but I do remember that Frontier in Space was declared the most B5-ish piece of Doctor Who (at the same time, hmmm and yet difficult to really take issue with) and the most Who-ish piece of B5 was Spider in the Web, mainly – as I recall – because the bad guy is a bit like a Cyberman. Again, hmmm. An in-joke related to John Carter of Mars now feels rather intrusive but the episode is okay, the main problem being that who and what the bad guy of the week is, is considerably more interesting than what he does, and once the mystery of his identity is resolved the climax is a bit so-what.

Possibly also notable for a rare example of the series setting up a mystery and then instantly abandoning it, never to be seen again – in this case, the supposedly-dead Psi-Cop running the cyborg assassination agency thingy. Then again, arguably another piece of foreshadowing, though perhaps an unintended one.

More Psi-Corps doings in the B-story to Soul Mates, in which the series goes for broke with an all-out comedy extravaganza – it goes for its laughs so full-bloodedly the absence of ka-boom-tishes and canned laughter on the soundtrack is actually a bit jarring. The main story is about Londo attempting to divorce all but one of his three awful wives. I found this all a bit more wearisome than I recalled it being, with more than a few unresolved loose ends – then again I don’t watch Babylon 5 for a no-holds-barred yuk-fest.

There’s some fairly saucy stuff tucked away in here, and adult material of a darker tone is in the aforementioned B-story about Talia’s ex turning up and trying to rekindle her affections (with the aid of his newfound empathic powers). If I say that I’d completely forgotten about this subplot, then perhaps that in itself tells you something, although Keith Szarabajka is decent as the bad guy.

Another subplot going for yuk-yuks concerns Delenn havng more trouble adapting to being half-human. Can the dignity and integrity of this character survive her being seen with her hair in curlers and complaining of PMS? With Mira Furlan you wouldn’t rule it out, but even so…

Things conclude, for this disc at least, with A Race Through Dark Places, possibly the best of the four – someone is operating an ‘underground railroad’ (I guess this must just be one of those ex-Colonial cultural references) for rogue telepaths through the station, and when implacable Psi-Cop and recurring bad guy Bester (Walter Koenig) gets wind of it, it spells trouble for everyone…

I must confess that watching this episode I was rather preoccupied by Walter Koenig’s hair. Recent photos of Koenig have revealed to me that he is proverbially coot-like, and yet his barnet here is positively luxuriant. It was much the same when I met him in 2003 (he is, needless to say, an extremely decent and hugely likeable guy in real life). So – was he wearing a toupee when he made this episode? I found it hard not to look for the join, I’m afraid.

psicorps

Is it? Isn’t it? It’s so hard to tell; if only he’d go somewhere windy one episode…

Anyway, when not trying to spot Bester’s wig, I found that this was another pretty strong episode (though I was missing the Shadows and Kosh, neither of whom really show up on this disc). The A-plot about Bester and the rogue telepaths is pretty serious stuff, but offset by a couple of lighter sub-stories – one, which initially seems inconsequential, has Delenn asking Sheridan out for dinner. Viewed with hindsight, how casual is this really? Was it her plan all along to become half-human, initiate a romantic entanglement with whoever was in charge in the area, then get herself impregnated? Hmmm. Maybe Sheridan is not as sharp a character as his reputation suggests.

Further evidence of this is presented in a further story, where the government and Sheridan fall out over the rent for senior staff quarters (epic stuff this) – the really odd thing being that it’s Ivanova who informs him of the initial problem, rather than vice versa. There’s something weird going on here with the chain of command, surely, compounded by Garibaldi later getting orders to change the locks on the quarters from someone (off-station) above Sheridan’s head. All to serve the story, I suppose, and I suppose you could argue it foreshadows the chain-of-command stuff in mid-season 3.

Finally, it turns out that a senior staff member and friend of the captain has been running a major illegal operation since the previous season. Yes, it’s Doctor Franklin, who in addition to being a research scientist, arch-rationalist, dreamboat loverman, brilliant physician, and philanthropist, is now also a counter-authoritarian mastermind. The poor man must get exhausted; no wonder he ends up with a drug habit.

Nothing actually bad on this disc, then, but nothing completely spectacular, either – and the Psi-Corps stuff always looks a bit darker and less colourful and spectacular than the Shadow War episodes, anyway. Luckily, one of the biggest of the lot is imminent…

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