Babylon 5: “Exogenesis”/“Messages From Earth”

Babylon 5: “Exogenesis”/“Messages From Earth”

Exogenesis” (season three, episode seven; originally aired 2/12/1996)

At a time when Babylon 5 is effectively ramping up its core storylines, this little standalone descent into body horror sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve said a few times that “from here on, it’s all smooth sailing” for people worried about Babylon 5’s quality, but there are a handful of exceptions to that rule. This episode is one of the biggest, arguably the worst hour of season three. Fortunately, the third season being generally good means that the worst episode doesn’t come anywhere near the dregs of the first season, so “Exogenesis” isn’t terrible. It’s just a distraction.

The main story is this: Marcus discovers that many of his contacts in Downbelow are going missing or changing their behavior. He recruits Franklin, who’s discovered that it involves an alien parasite. When Marcus and Franklin go to investigate, they’re captured by the parasites’ hosts, and discover what the parasites are: a race that creates living memories using the willing, hopeless members of a society. Franklin and Marcus are eventually persuaded to help, and that’s that.

Taken separately, a lot of the components of the episode work. My favorite is that the show can finally use Marcus to make Downbelow seem less like a jungle of the downtrodden and more like a real place with real people. Like many science-fiction series, Babylon 5 focuses on the characters who have big important titles, so seeing normal people who aren’t fighting about the fate of the galaxy (in a reasonably sympathetic context) can be refreshing.

I was also fairly impressed with the special effects, both CGI and puppet, used to create the parasites. This would have been laughable in season one, but whatever budgetary and technological advances occurred over those two years make the end result quite effective. However, the body horror of the parasites is largely negated by the end of the episode, when they’re revealed to be beneficial and the merging process voluntary. And that is accomplished via a series of monologues and lines about the things the parasites and their hosts have seen that seems to be a deliberate homage to Blade Runner’s most famous scene. Again, not the worst idea in the world given J. Michael Straczynski’s predilection for flowery writing, but not one that fits well with either the horror or the romantic comedy sections of the episode. Perhaps the most obviously disjointed part of the episode is a scene in which Ivanova notices that Franklin is separated from his link and calls Garibaldi to go investigate, but Garibaldi ends up irrelevant to the resolution of the episode.

“Exogenesis” remains generally watchable, but it’s a trifle. The most memorable part of it is the side plot involving Ivanova testing Lt. Corwin to see if he can join the conspiracy. Corwin’s been a minor character for two years now, always in C&C with a look of handsome confusion, and it’s nice to see him get a turn in the spotlight. But this episode is really just a placeholder before the main event.

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

  • If you’re one of those Marcus-haters, however, this episode must be intolerable. Happily, I’m not, so I laughed at this: “You said you couldn’t go in. I don’t have that problem.”
  • And this: “Oh, for the record, if they kill me, this was not a good idea on my part.”
  • And definitely this: “Keep ’em!” “Thank you! I will.”
  • But where did the tennis ball come from?

Messages From Earth” (season three, episode eight; originally aired 2/19/1996)

This is it. This is the point at which the heroes of Babylon 5 switch from reacting to acting. This may make “Messages From Earth” the most important episode of Babylon 5 in a structural and thematic sense. Before “Messages From Earth,” the story of the show is one of introduction and preparation. After “Messages From Earth,” the story is one of action and consequence. I really like this about Babylon 5—its heroes have to prepare and take charge of the situation. They’re not merely chasing, or surviving, or trying to stop wars or assassinations they just found out about.  They’re starting to lead, to try to take control of events. That often seems rare in epic stories, where the villains tend to control events and the heroes can only work to find out what’s actually happening.

Although I’m still not sure how to feel about "Messages From Earth." That’s partially because it’s one of the most important episodes in my personal viewing history of Babylon 5. It’s almost certainly the one I’ve seen the most, it was the most intense of the batch of episodes that aired when I’d really immersed myself in the online Babylon 5 community, and oh man did I love that track on the soundtrack CD. For the better part of a decade it was my favorite or second-favorite episode.

Yet when I saw it again on my rewatch a few years ago, it was probably the episode that saw my opinion of it decline the most. Much like “Exogenesis,” it’s a combination of several disparate parts that don’t entirely cohere. The biggest culprit is the music I love so much. The events of the episode—the revelation that Earth is chasing (and close to) developing Shadow technology, and that Sheridan is willing to risk his command to stop that—deserve the overwhelming musical flourishes. But the music in the episode ramps up before those events, with religious-sounding choir music and, most egregiously, the military-sounding drumrolls as Dr. Kirkish prepares to give her speech.

So “Messages From Earth” seems a little too aware of its own importance, and this combines with Babylon 5’s occasional problem where its plot-critical episodes move too fast. You could see that happening here, with the characters tuning in to ISN in order to re-familiarize themselves with the relevant bits of serialization (although mentioning the doctor from “Hunter, Prey” is a nice touch). Unlike many of those other major episodes, “Messages From Earth” doesn’t quite pull everything together—but it does offer one transcendent scene.

That’s the awakening of the Shadow ship on Ganymede, just as the White Star jumps in to stop it. The scene starts with just audio from the moon, as the music, this time appropriately, increases the drama. The Shadow ship is activated by a person, apparently swallowed up, essentially killed in the process. This is still audio, which is best, because Babylon 5’s CGI probably isn’t up for showing that theoretically horrible event properly. But once that’s finished, and the ship begins to move, the video kicks in, and it’s awesome. And then Sheridan and Delenn fight it off, trick it, and destroy it, which is very nearly as awesome.

I don’t know why this wasn’t Sheridan’s and Delenn’s first encounter with a Shadow vessel. Part of the reason that “Matters Of Honor” annoys me so much is that it steals that moment from “Messages From Earth.” Here, there’s tension and buildup, actual stakes beyond “let’s take the new ship out for a quick spin.” And the resolution, beyond simply destroying the Battlecrab, involves major character development: Sheridan can’t bring himself to fire on his old ship, and it’s Delenn who comes up with the tactically surprising plan to save the day. (I’m also quite fond of Sheridan’s monologue to Delenn about his father “making it rain,” a-ha. John’s relationship with his father is much more effectively done than most son-father relationship on TV. I think that’s because it’s more loving than competitive.)

The White Star’s encroachment on Earth space gives Babylon 5 the opportunity to tie its two main plot threads together. In heading off to fight the Shadows and prevent President Clark from accessing their technology, Sheridan and company hasten Clark’s plan to tilt Earth toward fascism, by giving him an excuse to declare martial law.

This is matched by yet another escalation of Nightwatch activities on the station. Their liaison on the station, a fellow security guard, tries to tighten the screws on Zack Allan. The Nightwatch guy is one of the bigger problems with the episode. He’s supposed to be powerful, but we’ve never seen him before. In the dozen or so episodes since the Nightwatch was introduced, three different leaders have spoken to the assorted station personnel about the organization, yet a long-term human representative of the true believer side of the Nightwatch wasn’t ever planted in order to sprout when that storyline needed a villain.

“Messages From Earth” may not be the hall of fame-level episode I’d considered it to be when I was a teenager, but my more recent disappointment with it was perhaps a bit of an overreaction as well. It has probably the show’s best use of special effects for storytelling, and serves as a good introduction for one of Babylon 5’s best trilogies of episodes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to humming that soundtrack.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • We see G’Kar in his cell for a short scene. “Sometimes I even sing!” “I know. We got a petition.” “For or against?” is a delightful bit of interplay.
  • “They don’t want it so we can fight these things. They want them so we can be more like them.”
  • “I guess it’s time we got down to business.”
  • Even More Marcus: “It’s a nuisance, but what can you expect from reptiles?” and “Left, right, in a box by the door?”
  • “We’ll be dead either way, now stand by!” I like it when TV characters realize that certain suicidal actions are less suicidal than doing nothing in circumstances like this.
  • Lennier can’t decide if he’s in an action movie or a relationship drama: “If I were holding anything back, I’d tell you.”
  • “With all you due respect for your...innovative plan...”
  • “Well you better start deciding which is more important to you, Zack: friendship or your job. Which is to protect Earth!” That’s not a job! That’s an ideology!
  • “Why are you doing this?” “Did I make you laugh?”
  • I praise Babylon 5 for having active, leading heroes, but this helps lead to some of its later flaws. I’m sure we’ll discuss this more often in season four and especially season five.
  • The episodes that improved the most in my estimation on rewatch, by the way, are "Interludes And Examinations" and "No Surrender, No Retreat."
  • NEXT WEEK: You know, if I could have figured out a way to get “Severed Dreams” on its own, I would have. Instead, we’ll have a pretty high-quality two-parter.

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