“The War Prayer” (season one, episode seven; originally aired 3/9/94)
“The War Prayer” is a platonic example of an inessential season-one Babylon 5 episode. There’s nothing terribly bad about it—some of the acting is awkward, the theme is over-the-top, and the twist is predictable, sure, but these are fairly normal complaints for science fiction. There’s nothing especially good about it—yes, the theme is worthwhile, and we get a bit of character development for Londo and Delenn, but there’s nothing that the show hasn’t done already, let alone what it’ll do in the future. It’s almost refreshing just how average the episode is. Not everything needs to be a model for the best, or the worst, of Babylon 5.
There are a few aspects of “The War Prayer” worth noting, though. First, it continues developing the idea that human culture isn’t entirely pleasant in 2258. This isn’t a necessary revelation after “Infection” and “Mind War,” but it’s not meant to be a revelation—it’s a premise. The Narn and Centauri hate each other because the latter brutally colonized the former. The Centauri have a declining empire. We don’t know why the Earth-Minbari War ended. The Psi Corps has a totalitarian internal structure. All of these things are part of the background history of the show’s universe, and build its episodes.
In this case, there’s a pro-human organization, the Home Guard, attacking prominent aliens on the station. They attack a poet friend of Delenn’s as well as some Centauri youngsters Londo and Vir are dealing with, and their leader on the station turns out to be an old flame of Ivanova’s. Sinclair uses the Ivanova connection in order to infiltrate the terrorist group, then he and Ivanova take them down. The human xenophobia is reminiscent of any number of similar situations in Earth history. Currently, it reminds me of the worst anti-immigrant rhetoric around, but it’s broad almost to the point of meaninglessness. Yes, racism is bad! (The reason for the anti-alien sentiment isn’t entirely clear here, but “And The Sky Full Of Stars” explains it in much more detail.)
There’s also a theme of regret woven through the episode. Ivanova has regrets, though she claims not to, about leaving Malcolm eight years prior. Delenn has a conversation with her friend, where she’s asked “Do you regret the choices that you’ve made?” “Sometimes,” responds Delenn, but she makes it clear that those don’t define her. Londo, on the other hand, lets his regrets define him. “My shoes are too tight. But it does not matter, for I have forgotten how to dance,” he tells Vir, as a metaphor for him forgetting himself in favor of tradition, of propriety, and of power. Ivanova doesn’t understand her emotions, but can suppress them. Delenn does, but pushes forward anyway. Londo, though, allows them to control him.
Not much, as I’ve indicated. But if you really want to meet Londo’s wives, you’ll have your chance. Still not sure if it’s a good thing when it happens, though.
“And The Sky Full Of Stars” (season one, episode eight; originally aired 3/16/1994)
For the first time, we have a demonstration that Babylon 5 is a heavily serialized TV show. Although there have been moments which have indicated that probability, to go back to 1994, where such things were rare, it would have been easy to read B5 as a Star Trek-like show, ambitious thematically, perhaps with some callbacks and two-parters, but still easy to understand as a set of individual episodes.
But there’s no way to understand “And The Sky Full Of Stars” as an episode that exists on its own. It relies on the past: the mystery of the end of the Earth-Minbari War that has been at the core of the series so far. But it also relies on the future: there’s no resolution to the mystery of why the Minbari surrendered. The episode resolves the question of what happened to Sinclair at the Line with a much bigger question: Why did the Minbari, including Delenn, capture him? We now know that two of our main characters were involved, but precisely what they were involved in is a mystery.
In that sense, “And The Sky Full Of Stars” is a disappointment on an individual level. It started to move toward giving us a resolution as its main point, but it didn’t give us that. Yet I still find “And The Sky Full Of Stars” to be compelling on its own. In part that’s because I know there will be some payoff, but on its own, I find the simple structure resonant. Two men show up on the station, kidnap Sinclair, and start to interrogate him. The station staff attempts to rescue him. In the end, we get more information, but full answers are lost due to the failure of the questioning and the incapacitation of the interrogators.
The key component of this is that the chief interrogator, played by Christopher Neale, fits the role. He tears into his role as “Knight Two,” investing the character with a true believer’s fervor, but a human’s weaknesses (I particularly liked his over-salivating gasps, as if he was literally too excited to contain his bodily functions). There’s also a certain confused sympathy for Sinclair: “We’re both patriots, in our own way.” Knight Two also represents the anxiety a society feels about having had a war with an ambiguous resolution. At the time this was written, Vietnam was most relevant. Now, it can be applied to Iraq and the War On Terror. How can what happened be explained? Don’t scapegoats make it all so much easier?
Michael O’Hare also balances Neale well; I find O’Hare’s unhinged acting to be him at his best, possibly also due to his own theatrical background. Put two characters in a room where they have to try to acquire information from, and power over, each other, and you have a compelling setup for any kind of storytelling.
“And The Sky Full Of Stars” is also structurally interesting in that there isn’t a B-plot. The entire focus is on Sinclair’s kidnapping and retrieval. Despite this, the episode moves entertainingly quickly. There’s a level of slickness here that wasn’t present just a few episodes ago. Babylon 5, at this point, is starting to gain the technical competence to match its ambition.
The mystery of the Earth-Minbari War is the driving question for much of the first season, which I think is a slight misstep for Babylon 5. It’s interesting, yes, but because it’s so bound in the past instead of the present, it can’t sustain much momentum. Babylon 5 has to be put in its context, of course, shows like this weren’t done, so taking it slow may have seemed like a good idea to both J. Michael Straczynski and the executives he worked with. Likewise, if B5 were a novel, spending the opening fifth on background wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Still, I can’t help but feel that adding another major recurring plot thread through the season would have helped arguably the show’s weakest season immensely.
The Great Spoiler Machine:
At an intellectual level, the payoff for the mystery of the Earth-Minbari War works well. Yet the departure of Sinclair ends up dramatically lessening its emotional impact. Other things are more important at that time, but it’s perhaps the only major arc of the series that doesn’t get a fantastic climax. Just Lennier on a couch, dropping exposition.
- “LOVE?!? What does love have to do with marriage?” It’s obviously a laugh line, but man, Peter Jurasik sells the hell out of it.
- “Everyone lies, Michael. The innocent lie because they don’t want to be blamed for something they didn’t do. The guilty lie because they don’t have any other choice.” It’s an odd situation when Sinclair is more cynical than Garibaldi.
- Psi Corps In Election Tangle, says the newspaper headline, reinforcing Ironheart’s claim from last week that they’re overstepping their bounds.
- If the special effects looked much better in “And The Sky Full Of Stars,” I suspect it’s because they were touched up for the “In The Beginning” TV movie, and added to the DVD. The cropping is still a major issue, but I understand that gets better in later seasons’ DVDs.
- Hey, I told you that the “There is a hole in your mind” line from the pilot would come back! Now you can forget the whole thing.
- Both of these episodes involve Garibaldi and security rushing to save Sinclair, who’s already saved himself.
“Deathwalker” is one of my favorites of the season, perhaps the best of the inessential-but-helpful “procedural worldbuilding” episodes. “Believers” is a more straightforward examination of the characters’ ethics. If you’re at all interested in the standalones, watch them, but if you just want to skip to the serialization, you can do so.