“Born To The Purple” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 2/9/1994)
One of Babylon 5’s greatest strengths is that its most important episodes are its best. This was part of my whole you-can-skip-the-worst episodestheory. If the necessary episodes are good, then you don’t need the bad ones, and the anxiety caused by B5’s reputably tight serialization is lessened. Right? Well, “Born To The Purple” makes a liar out of me, I’m afraid. Its events are directly referenced later, and they're important to a major character’s dramatic arc, but the episode itself is pretty middling. Fortunately the importance is easy to summarize:
Londo falls in love with an exotic dancer.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the episode’s importance also corresponds to the simplicity of its narrative. “Londo falls in love with an exotic dancer” also leads toward one of the more clichéd plots around in drama. Is the dancer everything she appears? No! Adira is actually the slave of another man, Trakis. Are her intentions pure? No! She’s being forced to manipulate Londo and steal his most valuable files. Does she actually care for Londo anyway? But of course! And is she essentially helpless for most of the episode, bullied and kidnapped by the villain, saved by the masculine heroes in the end? Naturally. That is, after all, how these stories work. And, when the time comes, will the relationship between the cast member and the guest star he’s been protecting come to an end? This is the case, as Adira hops on a shuttle to go home and heal after achieving her freedom.
Simple morality plays like this can work, of course, if the writing and acting is effective enough. Peter Jurasik as Londo is as game as ever, of course. Fabiana Udenio is charming, pretty, and enthusiastic enough, but neither the actress nor the writing give Adira enough depth to make Londo’s swooning make sense beyond a crush. The biggest issue is Trakis. Clive Revill plays him as a subdued threat, someone who, theoretically, is quietly dangerous, speaking softly and carrying a big stick. As it is, though, underneath all the alien makeup and in this particular setting, Trakis mostly fades into the background. Without a strong villain, the melodrama can’t hold together.
Casting and directing the guest stars well is one of the components of Babylon 5 that clearly improve over time. The aliens in particular are well-served by over-the-top, Shakespearean-style stage acting—compare W. Morgan Sheppard’s scenery-chewing Soul Hunter last week with Trakis here. There are still odd moments. Sinclair goes big when he puts on a bit of a disguise and cons his way past a sleazy bar owner, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Is Sinclair the character portraying an artificial character effectively, or is Michael O’Hare hamming it up and not quite succeeding? Probably both. Were it in a more effective story, it would work, but if the episode were a little less competent, it would be intolerable.
A subplot involves Ivanova using a restricted channel to talk to her dying father on Earth, as Garibaldi tries to track her down. The main plot of the episode exists primarily to give Londo more personal pathos, and the subplot does the same for Ivanova. She has described her familial pain in her first episode, and now we get a demonstration of more of it. Her brusqueness makes more sense, and we learn she’s someone who’s willing to cut corners in emergencies.
Christopher Franke’s music is also a little bit too on-display in “Born To The Purple.” Some of the score was featured on the first Babylon 5 soundtrack CD (oh you better believe I owned it), and it sounds good there. As music, it works, but as background music, it overwhelms the episode at times. The worst example: the zany comedy music playing when Londo reveals that G’Kar’s been used to help the Centauri save face. The balance between the music and the on-screen action is yet another one of those things that Babylon 5 doesn’t have working yet.
Overall Importance: As mentioned above, Londo’s romantic grasping towards Adira is the only really important part of “Born To The Purple.” And even it gets depicted in flashbacks in the important episodes.
The Great Spoiler Machine: Even when Adira “comes back” to the station, her role as an object to move the plot forward is accelerated to the point that she doesn’t even show up in the episode. Ugh.
“Infection” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 2/18/1994)
“Not working yet” is the kindest thing I can say about “Infection,” a strong contender for the title of worst Babylon 5 episode ever, with even J. Michael Straczynski hopping on that bandwagon (“TKO” and “Secrets Of The Soul” are its biggest competitors in my mind). This was the first episode filmed, and it shows. The acting, directing, editing, and writing are all quite awkward.
The worst scene occurs early in the episode, as Dr. Franklin discusses long-term plans with a former teacher, Dr. Vance Hendricks. Hendricks has uncovered some “organic technology,” which he notes is a high priority for research and economics on earth. Franklin is unhappy about Hendricks’ methods, which doesn’t make much sense—there’s good archaeology that he’s not doing, but bad corporate-funded archaeology is “grave robbing.” Hendricks defends himself by… adapting Rutger Hauer’s speech from Blade Runner?
And then the space Nazis show up. Well, they’re not literal space Nazis. But when the characters start to discuss the fanatical alien race whose organic technology is rampaging across the station as using Nazi-esque ideology, you know that you’re probably getting into ham-handed territory. “Infection” happily obliges on those terms, as Commander Sinclair goes to the violent Nazi organic tech, gets it mad, and then talks it into submission using rationality, science, logic, classical liberal ideas, science, rationality and evidence.
Talking rampaging alien Nazis into exploding is a great way to demonstrate that your protagonist is a true hero in classic, American-television style, but there’s no ambiguity here. And oh lord, some of the dialogue. Does the alien literally collapse to its knees, shouting “I-KARRR-AAA!” after discovering that its homeworld is dead? Yes, yes it does, and we’re not better for having seen that.
Despite the poor main plot, “Infection” manages to salvage itself in three different ways by the end of the episode. It reminds me of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “I Robot, You Jane” in a way—a few character moments at the end of a monumentally weak episode mean that there’s still something worth watching, even at the absolute nadir or the show. Chief among them: Garibaldi confronting Sinclair about his over-willingness to put his life on the line: “I think they’re looking for something worth dying for because it’s easier than finding something worth living for.” It’s not just an examination of the protagonist’s motivations, it’s also a reminder of just how bad The Battle Of The Line was, and how little we know about it.
There’s also a scene where Franklin and Ivanova worry about rising xenophobic sentiment on Earth, followed by apparent confirmation of their fears as EarthForce security confiscates the organic weaponry. Even though “Infection” is a Star Trek-like episode, with a patriarchal captain solving a violent situation through diplomacy and application of logic, there’s still a moment where Babylon 5 builds its darker, more serialized universe a tiny bit.
Overall Importance: Hey, did you get the idea that Babylon 5 is a universe where organic technology is important? That’s the biggest component of the show introduced by “Infection.” Interplanetary Expeditions (IPX) is a corporate front for weapons companies seeking such technology, and that name will show up a few more times.
The Great Spoiler Machine: Sinclair’s speech at the end of the episode, describing how the sun will blow up at some point in the future, is a nice statement of intent. The fact that the show makes it a literal depicted event in “The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars” removes the metaphorical component, which I’m not fond of.
- “Of all things in the universe, are females not the greatest?” Londo and G’Kar demonstrating a bit of respect for one another is, like much of “Born To The Purple,” tinged with objectification. Still, after the overt rivalry of “The Gathering” and “Midnight On The Firing Line,” this bit of complication to their relationship is interesting.
- “What do you want, you moon-faced assassin of joy?” That line’s just fun.
- Trakis’ introduction marks, I think, the first appearance of a Brakiri, the aliens that will eventually become the most important of the non-Council races. It’s hard to say for certain, since he’s stockier and has longer hair than later Brakiri.
- “We’re all aliens to one another!” Yeah, “Infection,” that might be a little much.
Next Week: Two good episodes! “Parliament Of Dreams” isn’t very important in the grand scheme of things, but it does a lot of world-building, and is all-around better technically than these first four episodes. “Mind War” is more important, and introduces Babylon 5’slongest-lasting (and perhaps most interesting) antagonist. It’s all uphill from here, people, though there are a few hidden valleys on the way.