“GROPOS” (season two, episode 10; originally aired 2/8/1995)
“GROPOS” exists for one primary reason: to explain that war is bad. Sheridan says it straight-up: “There’s only one truth about war: People die.” The episode accomplishes this by introducing an entirely new conflict (the Sh’lassen Triumvirate) along with several guest stars, and then proceeds to kill most of them in battle. It’s a confrontational cold glass of water in the face after last week’s declaration of war, as if it’s telling the fans: “So, you like space battles? Excited about this whole war business? Well, war’s actually terrible, and you should feel bad for getting excited!”
That’s a reductive argument. “The Coming Of Shadows” is great not because it has a cool space battle and promises more, but because it raises the dramatic stakes via fascinating natural progression of conflicting character interests. And we can admire the technology and design of the space battles without actually believing that it would be a good thing for starships filled with hundreds of sentient humanoids to get blown up. Attacking Babylon 5 for a lack of subtlety is a bit redundant at this point, but even still, “GROPOS” is the least subtle episode of the show’s run since the last least subtle episode of the show’s run.
Given its over-the-top, slightly antagonistic theme it’s impressive that “GROPOS” works at all. It is by no means one of the show’s best episodes, but it holds its own. This is mostly due to two of the one-off characters and their relationships with two of the main cast: Dodger with Garibaldi and and General Franklin with Dr. Franklin. Dr. Franklin’s relationship with his father provides the dramatic core of the episode. It’s not an uncommon story: two men who love each other but cannot express that love. They fight, they get advice from other characters, and with that, they achieve a truce in their constant war. This is the dramatic arc of the episode, and the main way that it achieves resolution and meaning, instead of simply being a series of events leading to a pile of corpses. Veteran actor Paul Winfield plays the elder Franklin, and while it’s a less defining role than the one he played in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s smartest episode, he manages to play General Franklin with both prickliness and sympathy.
Garibaldi and Dodger work almost as a mirror to the Franklins. Where the doctor and his father are attempting to repair an old relationship, and have to talk about it to clear it up, Dodger and Garibaldi are engaging in a new fling. (“So, what’d you like to see first?” “Good restaurant. Then your quarters.”) Garibaldi ruins it, though, by bringing up his baggage with other women, and everything else he happens to think is bad about his life. It’s not exactly smooth, and he gets punished for it. Yet, as with the Franklin storyline, he manages to apologize and provide a conventional story structure and resolution to the this part of the episode.
“GROPOS,” along with the next episode, “All Alone In The Night,” signifies a shift in the theme of second season. The first several episodes indicated a growing threat approaching the statement. Since the Narn-Centauri War started, however, the threat has clearly arrived. Now the station isn’t waiting for events—it’s a staging area for those events. The Marines travel outside the station into danger, just as Sheridan does in the next episode. The events of “The Coming Of Shadows” haven’t yet made every Babylon 5 episode great, but they have changed the stakes and the focus of the show.
“All Alone In The Night” (season two, episode 11; originally aired 2/15/95)
Over the course of Babylon 5’s run, you’ve probably noticed that most of the characters shown in the credits don’t appear in every episode. It can be somewhat jarring to see, say, Lennier in those credits without having seen him on the show in weeks, but I think that once you get used to it, it can work as a strength for the show. It means that characters don’t have to be shoehorned into episodes, and when they do appear, it’s usually meaningful.
Lennier is one of the characters highlighted by “All Alone In The Night.” Delenn is called to the Grey Council for a reckoning after she undergoes the chrysalis process and became half-human. She’s prepared to go it alone, but Lennier supports her every step of the way. He travels with her with good humor to the point of apparent naïveté, but both of the Minbari recognize that there’s more to it than that, with Delenn giving him praise like “If it is your choice to come with me, then I could not wish for a better, or braver, companion.” Bill Mumy remains one of the cast’s better members, letting his boyish smirk mask a clear depth of feeling.
It’s not as positive an episode for Delenn. Not does she get fired from the Grey Council—she also discovers she’s been replaced by a rival member of the Warrior Caste, Neroon, whose appointment threatens the balance of power in the Minbari government. As Neroon, John Vickery berates and sneers at her, forcing her to go crawling back to Babylon 5. He’s always one of my favorite scenery-chewing actors on the show, managing to instill a bad guy monologue with enough attitude to make it fun. But there’s also some truth to his accusations. When he declares to Delenn “your belief that you are satisfying prophecy is presumption, of the highest order,” she doesn’t have a response. Her righteousness is her core character quality—and it’s been shaken, harshly but deservedly.
On the other hand, there’s Sheridan’s plot, which is less interesting. After having very little to do in “GROPOS,” Bruce Boxleitner’s the star again, when he gets captured by an unknown alien ship and forced to fight against other random aliens. This is a generic sci-fi premise, and Babylon 5 doesn’t rise above it. He accidentally kills a Drazi, then he manages to free a Narn from a device causing him to become violent. Then they escape, just in time to avoid the ship’s destruction. That’s mostly it.
“All Alone In The Night” suffers from a similar flaw as “GROPOS,” in that both episodes rely on totally new alien threats. Babylon 5 both as a show and a space station are constructed around the idea that the universe, generally, is known, and its denizens either travel to Babylon 5 or don’t. A few races, like the Shadows of course, operate externally to that, but they’re slowly introduced. In two straight episodes, local powers are introduced just long enough to drive the plot, but not so much that they matter in the future. It’s unpleasantly jarring, and something the series is forced to deal with throughout its run and even beyond into the spinoff attempts.
There’s at least one structurally intriguing aspect to “All Alone In The Night.” Sheridan’s main political contact, General Hague, shows up and, at the end of the episode, he recruits the captain to more specifically join an anti-Clarke, anti-Psi Corps conspiracy. In this respect, Babylon 5 foreshadows what has become a common model of serialized drama, where a long-term plot is slowly built up during a scene or two at the end of more procedural episodes. Along with the The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (respectively in their second and third seasons in the winter of 1995), Babylon 5’s second season is an example of series television’s then-blossoming interest in season-long arcs combining mythology and standalone episodes. (Its fourth season would be one of the earliest all-serialization, all-the-time seasons, which has become common for HBO shows.) It’s interesting, and it makes the “All Alone In The Night” important for viewers generally, but it doesn’t gloss over the fact that the episode is about a ship that kidnaps aliens and forces them to fight each other.
- “Babylon 5 will have enough firepower to take on a warship!” I sure hope that’s never necessary!
- “The galaxy’s changing, Captain, and Babylon 5 must change with it.”
- “Just give me a minute to find a ladder and we’ll hash it out face-to-face.” Keffer gets a side plot with a few of the grunts in “GROPOS,” and demonstrates half a personality.
- Ivanova references the wonderful Ms. Connolly from “By Any Means Necessary,” though she’s sadly not shown.
- “You know that’s the first time you’ve ever apologized—” “I’m not finished!”
- “What could go wrong, hmm?” A little television humor for you there.
- A dorky part of me enjoys the debate about the Mars baseball team winning via gravity, as when I watched this episode, I lived in Colorado and the Rockies were the subjects of similar debates.
- Sheridan gets an apparently prophetic dream during his time on the alien ship. “Why am I here?” “You have always been here.”
- “Clark would appoint some hard-nosed jarhead to run this place. Well, we both know you’re not that. But you look like that.” I really like General Hague, actually. Had forgotten how me manages to convey force despite seeming quite mild.
- “You have an uncommon failing for someone in your position, Captain. You’re a patriot.”