“TKO” (season 1, episode 14; originally aired 5/25/1994) & “Grail” (season 1, episode 15; originally aired 7/6/1994)
This is not a good week for Babylon 5. Both “TKO” and “Grail” are usually considered among the show’s weakest, with “TKO” a common choice for Worst Episode Ever. I’m not about to call fans wrong either, although neither sink to the levels of “Infection.” These are deservedly panned episodes.
Both episodes demonstrate how science fiction can go bad, in quite different ways. The biggest problem with “TKO” is that it uses science fiction to mask its total lack of creativity; it’s a variation on countless stories that find an American going to another culture, learning to respect it, and then coming to dominate it. Here, we have a human boxer named Walker Smith who comes to Babylon 5 to fight in the alien competition called the Mutai. He goes in cocky, gets rejected, then finds another way that involves him giving respect to get respect. While theoretically about respect and tolerance for other cultures, most of these stories also serve the purpose of showing how awesome the white man/American/human can be even in other cultures.
It really doesn’t help that the the Muta-Do, voice of the Mutai, is played by a Korean actor using a conventional kung fu movie accent.
There’s a brief moment of self-criticism in the episode, when a random alien yells at Walker and Garibaldi that Earthers are already colonizing their worlds and taking over their economies—now they want to join in this well-respected tradition? We’ve never seen any evidence of Earth’s economic power over smaller alien races, and this random complainer isn’t treated with any sympathy. He only shows up once more—with a weapon and without any lines—and is quickly dispatched by Garibaldi.
The B-plot of “TKO” is initially more appealing—Ivanova’s rabbi comes to visit to help her work through her father’s death. With development of a major character, and a sympathetic look at religion and its use in ritual, it has the makings of an interesting storyline. But it’s predictable from the beginning and just as cliché as the martial-arts story. Ivanova doesn’t want to admit her feelings, her friends convince her otherwise, then she does and she feels better. By the end, Claudia Christian tells a story about her father and builds some emotion out of the situation. But other than one monologue, there’s not much special here.
The sad thing about “TKO” is that, given the paint-by-numbers nature of its plot, it’s probably as good as it could be. That’s not the case with “Grail,” an episode that had the potential to be a solid horror story set within the Babylon 5 universe.
In addition to creating metaphorical stories like “TKO” and its traveler tale, science fiction is also regularly (and lazily) used for monster movies. Why not create creepy aliens and use them to stress humanoid characters out? One of my favorite standalone episodes, “The Long Dark,” does this well early in the second season. “Grail”… does not.
The biggest issue is that the story centers around the journey of a character, Jinxo, who is some combination of poorly conceived, poorly acted, poorly directed, or poorly written. Whenever Jinxo gets excited, he sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of a 10-year-old boy. “I saw the Vorlon dad and there was a monster on the Vorlon and he ate brains and the brains were tasty and with the brains they made a baby and I saw the baby and it looked at me!”
When Jinxo isn’t the focus, the episode is pleasantly ridiculous as mid-1990s science fiction can be. William Sanderson and David Warner, as the villain and the mentor, respectively, are quite entertaining if entirely two-dimensional. Delenn and Lennier’s awe at meeting what we would consider an insane Grail seeker is amusing and a little thought-provoking, while Londo freaking at the thought of a Na’ka’leen is broaldy humorous, but it has its moments. The Feeder itself is probably the best special effect of the show so far, with the exception of the remastered Minbari cruisers. I even quite like the idea of Kosh’s suit being used to mask such danger.
But Jinxo just holds it back. Without him to frame the episode, everything seems that much worse. Aldous’ quest for the grail? It’s the ramblings of an insane man, desperate to pass his silly quest off to a weaker personality. The Babylon curse? A convenient way to deliver exposition. The Feeder? Well, it wants minds. Mature minds. And it declares so in a squeaky, high-pitched voice.
Babylon 5’s first season suffers from having detached episodes which don’t play to its strengths. We’ll see better examinations of alien culture in the future. We’ll also see better horror-movie tropes in the B5 universe. In the end, it doesn’t entirely matter that they’re not good and couldn’t have been better, like “TKO,” or could have been and failed, like “Grail.” What matters is that the show survived them, and these reviews can move on past, knowing that it’s unlikely that we’ll see their like again. Thank the Great Maker.
Grade: C-, C-
The Great Spoiler Machine: Hey, do you think Garibaldi should watch his back? I think he needs to watch his back. There’s some back-watching required. Watch your damn back, G-man. WATCH IT. “One of these days, Garibaldi, you’re gonna learn to watch your back.”
“Grail” serves the purpose of reminding us that the Babylon stations have an odd history. The idea of Babylon 4 simply disappearing as someone looked out the window is downright creepy. And it pays off quite nicely. Also, the Minbari are described as only having two castes. Oops.
- “Stroke off!” says Walker Smith when Garibaldi pushes him a little hard. As future slang goes, I’m surprised this didn’t catch on like “frak.”
- “As your friend, it does no good to bottle up your feelings.” Ouch. Just ouch.
- “Boom. Sooner or later. BOOM!” On the bright side, we get classic Ivanova in another example of a line that looks idiotic on the page, but that Claudia Christian makes work as well as can possibly be done.
- From J. Michael Straczynski at the Lurker’s Guide: “After ‘Grail,’ we had a discussion with Chris about funny music. We do not anticipate further discussions.” This is a very good thing.
- “Grail” was written by Christy Marx, who also wrote Conquests Of Camelot, an adventure game that drove Young Rowan crazy in so very very different ways. Text parser issues? Dehydration death in the desert? Constant strings of “puzzles” that were effectively just copy protection?
Next week: We deal with “Eyes,” an odd episode that happens to be both highly serialized and largely unimportant overall. “Legacies” is an average episode, but one of the most important early episodes for Delenn. It also introduces the third of the four major recurring antagonists. Happily, following these two, the show gets a hell of a lot more interesting.