“Survivors” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 5/4/1994)
“Survivors” exists for one primary purpose: to flesh out Security Chief Garibaldi’s backstory. We’ve heard that he’s had trouble with prior jobs, and we’ve seen that even the media finds his appointment controversial. Why? Integrity and alcoholism, according to the stories he tells in “Survivors,” and the latter has overwhelmed the former to many people in his past. In theory, this is a good way to add depth to a character who is too easily defined by his job, instead of having a history and personality of his own. In practice, in this episode, it’s a generic bad action movie, starring Bruce Willis lookalike Jerry Doyle as Michael Garibaldi.
You can even put together the trailer:
Michael Garibaldi thought he’d put his life back together.
[Commander Sinclair: “You’re best security chief we could hope for, Michael.]
But it all went wrong, when she showed up.
[Lianna on screen, looking at Garibaldi sternly, with sterness.]
The mysterious stranger from his past is the only one that can help save Earth Alliance
[“They’re trying to kill the president, Jeff!”]
But will she work with Garibaldi, or against him?
[“You just ran away, like you aways did.”]
A non-stop thrill ride of action…
[Garibaldi fighting off three aliens]
[Garibaldi drunkenly cavorting in the bar]
[The general on the viewscreen looks really sceevy.]
It’s a conventional plot, without any real surprises. In that sense, it’s comforting. This is television, acting like television. Unfortunately, if it’s an action movie about Michael Garibaldi, it’s not a terribly good action movie. There are three crucial scenes that don’t work. Garibaldi getting into a fight with one alien, then three, is ridiculous. I think it’s just that Babylon 5 isn’t that kind of show. Christopher Franke’s music isn’t built for bare-knuckle boxing, it’s built for developing space battles or political intrigue, but there it is, literally trumpeting Garibaldi’s prowess in violence. The fight choreography isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t add much either. It’s just a bit awkward.
The second scene that “Survivors” doesn’t get right is Garibaldi’s drunken farewell speech to the bar. It’s unclear why this scene even exists—his drunkenness has been well-established already by his difficulty standing and his interaction with other characters. I suspect it was supposed to be comic, but it’s not funny.
Finally, the big reveal: Lianna’s second, Cutter, is actually the potential saboteur. It just happens far too quickly. In the comments, we’ve discussed how Babylon 5 seems to end its episodes’ main stories far earlier than expected, but that isn’t the case here, where the climactic moment of Garibaldi realizing the Cutter is the most likely suspect, and Lianna realizing he can be trusted, happen almost instantly and without comment. There’s a core of something that works here, but “Survivors” doesn’t pull it off. Just like the episode as a whole.
“By Any Means Necessary” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 5/11/1994)
This was a pleasant surprise. I have failed to include this episode in my list of season one episodes to watch for the past few years, largely due to my memories of it being inessential to the overall plot (which is true). But my memories of its quality—or rather, my lack of memory that it is high-quality—made that a big mistake. This is easily my favorite episode of the season so far.
This renders my “the best episodes are the most important” theory a little bit less valid, but I’m perfectly happy with that, given that it’s a net improvement for the show and thus more pleasant for the viewers. In terms of the overall arc of the serialized story, at best, “By Any Means Necessary” is yet another episode in the pile that indicates that something is seriously wrong on Earth. But while the previous episodes have done so via implications of conspiracy or racism, “By Any Means Necessary” is smarter than that. It implies that Earth’s political problems are consequences of political changes and structures.
The villain here isn’t some shadowy figure, nor some hate-spewing anti-alien figure. It’s a budget committee in EarthGov’s Senate, whose different priorities include funding an improvement in the station’s military capabilities but not its dock workers’ wages or equipment. An accident at the start of the episode brings simmering tension from the dock workers to a boil, triggering a labor conflict that brings in the Senate and its political orientations, with Sinclair and the Babylon 5 administration caught in the middle. “It’s a recession!” says EarthGov’s representative in the negotiations, as an excuse for the lack of followthrough on promises to improve the station’s working conditions and pay. It’s a recession which also includes the traditional rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. In this case, that means anti-alien sentiment, which also applies to Babylon 5, and its budget.
Another reason the episode works well is that its primary guest star, union representative Neeoma Connoly, makes for a marvelous one-off character. In reality, that role—a person who is supposed to represent blue-collar workers within the white-collar world—is a difficult one, and finding an actress who can do that, especially within the constrains of a show that struggles with over-formality, can be difficult. And yet I felt that Connoly, portrayed by journeywoman Katy Boyer, pulled it off about as well as she possibly could. I liked her, and was sad upon remembering that she wasn’t an important recurring character.
I also liked that she seemed to bring out the best in both Michael O’Hare and Jerry Doyle. This was probably O’Hare’s best episode yet, and the best for the chemistry between O’Hare and Doyle. There’s a moment, when talking to Senator Hiroshi, where Sinclair and Garibaldi exchange a tiny knowing look about the politics of the situation, knowing full well that the shit will roll downhill onto them. And Sinclair’s speech at the end, subverting the anti-strike law in order to make life better for his people, is perhaps the best moment of the show so far—I even got a few goosebumps, watching the commander defend the workers and think his way out of a situation that seemed to be totally out of control.
Focusing on the humanization of the political process is what allows the other components of the episode to work together. “By Any Means Necessary” is about the inherent compromises of working within the political system (although set theoretically in the future, there’s very little here that would be out of place if it had been set in the United States circa 1994). Both Sinclair and Garibaldi clearly identify with the struggle of the dock workers more than the politicians of EarthGov.
Yet, as representatives of EarthGov, they are compelled to defend the interests of the powerful. Everything leading toward the climax indicates that this is going to be a mess, but Sinclair and Garibaldi are going to have to be good soldiers, against their will. After all, working against those powerful interests is dangerous. Hiroshi makes this clear with an understated line at the end, where he says that Sinclair’s pro-worker resolution to the conflict survived the Senate’s scrutiny not because they agreed, but because the polls indicated that the people agreed. “You are not the most popular person in government circles right now.” In other words, the Senate was not acting as a representative body for the masses, but rather, that at present it existed to serve the interests of the powerful.
A subplot involving Londo wielding power over G’Kar as the latter attempts to complete a religious ceremony isn’t quite so successful. In one sense, it’s a continuation of “The Parliament Of Dreams,” finally showing the Narn religious ceremony that went missing, thanks to the assassination plot against G’Kar. At its best, it’s an interesting and amusing role reversal, where Londo lords over G’Kar as revenge for the attack on Ragesh III back in the season première. At worst, it’s a farce that fails to distract from the tension of the main plot, as well as negatively subverting Londo’s prophecy of the two killing one another.
But that only really damages one scene, when the two ambassadors, plus a reporter, accost Sinclair in Command & Control. The rest of the episode is tight, smart, and morally ambiguous in a way that makes Babylon 5 feel distinct. Don’t skip this one.
- In both episodes, Sinclair asks Ivanova to clear C&C of unwelcome elements. “Survivors” beats “By Any Means Necessary” here and only here, with: “You are going to resist, I hope.”
- “The universe is run by the complex interaction of three elements: energy, matter, and enlightened self-interest.” An all-time classic G’Kar line.
- “Are you telling me this is about a flower?” asks a stubbly, incredulous Sinclair.
- “Two days without sleep makes me a very cranky man.” “Yes, we know. Have you considered meditation?”
- You may have noticed that the “Thematic Importance” and “Great Spoiler Machine” sections are missing this week. I think I’m going to eliminate the former, as most of what needs to be said with it can be done in the main review. In the latter’s case, well, neither of these episodes demand it, but it’ll be back. Some of you requested a different placement for it, and I’ll try to do that.
Next week: “Signs And Portents” is the first episode to receive a week to itself, because it’s one of the most important episodes of the first season. Except… it might not be. I’ll be using it to examine the difficulties of discussing experimental serialized television in hindsight.