“A Day In The Strife” (season three, episode three; originally aired 11/20/1995)
The third season of Babylon 5 is the show’s best season. This is not a controversial statement; I suspect most fans see the middle season as the all-around best. At this point the show is still young enough to be dynamic and surprising, but it’s been on long enough to have found its voice as well as possessing a baseline competence. That competence is perhaps the most relevant consideration for “A Day In The Strife.” The third episode of any season is unlikely to be any good, and this one has very little in the way of long-term ramifications. But it’s still quite entertaining.
There are four different storylines working their way through “Strife.” First, a representative of the interim Narn government arrives to remove G’Kar from power. An alien probe appears, threatening to blow up the station unless it receives the correct answer to a science test. Londo is concerned about Vir cramping his (evil) style. And Franklin’s use of stims has become enough of a problem that Garibaldi’s taken notice.
G’Kar’s conflict with his fellow Narn is the thematic core of the episode. We’ve seen a few episodes recently where he has to maintain the loyalty of the apparently fickle Narn on Babylon 5, first defeating a competitor with power and violence, then maintaining that prestige via his alliances with other races. Here, we see the fruits of those conflicts: When he’s called away, the other Narn, including Sheridan’s friend Ta’Lon, stand in his way to prevent him from leaving the station. It’s a small bit of serialization, and not necessary for understanding this early-season episode that establishes who G’Kar is, who the Narn are, and their goals are.
Beyond the usefulness in world-building, it’s also a fascinating, ethical-discussion-triggering story. G’Kar’s would-be replacement, Na’Far, is not portrayed as a villain. The arguments he makes about the Narn just needing food, about how they need to regain their strength, and how “The time for action will come later” are compelling. How ethical can it possibly be to run a resistance when your people have just been whipped so thoroughly by a superior power? There is no good answer here. Na’Far should discover this early, when he has to submit to Londo’s despicable queries about the current state of the Narn home world: “The executions… continue.” “Progress! Is a beautiful thing to behold.”
But G’Kar doesn’t get away from it either. Na’Far’s arguments about how the family members of the free Narn on the station are going to be harassed affect him, and then seeing his people attempt to murder Na’Far changes his mind. He’s about to leave the station, likely to be tried and executed, before his people stop him. The debate thus becomes personal—what will and should G’Kar do, especially to lead his people on the station?—which ends up punted to a later time. There are no good answers to how a resistance should be conducted, which comes through very well in “A Day In The Strife.”
Londo’s story combines with G’Kar’s to allow this episode to serve as a sort of sequel to “Acts Of Sacrifice.” Just as G’Kar’s struggle to maintain power over his fellows is paid off here, so too is Londo’s struggle to maintain his soul a critical part of the episode. In “Acts Of Sacrifice” he maintained it, and so kept at least a tenuous connection to Garibaldi. But the continued villainy required to support the imperial designs of the Centauri Republic makes that impossible. He tries to reconnect with Delenn, who rejects him quite thoroughly. Vir calls him out on his cruelty to Na’Far, so he has Vir sent away. It seems like every other episode Londo goes through a change—in “Matters Of Honor” he tried to break away from Mr. Morden’s influence, but here, he seems to buy into the cruelty required of his role.
The probe storyline is a little bit silly, but the important thing is that it owns that silliness. Sheridan and Ivanova manage to consistently build humor out of a case of the week that doesn’t have many other stakes. As soon as Corwin announces that the probe will either give cures to all known diseases or nuke the station, it becomes clear that neither of those things will happen. So it’s more a matter of how the crew deals with it. Exasperated banter seems the best possible response, as that’s what we get, and it’s a lot of fun. “Always finding the good in everything, eh captain?” says Ivanova. “Absolutely. If I didn’t I’d end up like you” responds Sheridan, moving away as that grenade detonates. It’s nothing special, but because it’s nothing special, it works. Much like the episode as a whole, it’s effective at a point in the season when being effective is a pleasant surprise.
- Londo networks for Vir to get a new job. “He is friendly, he keeps to himself. He wouldn’t even spy on your government. He would consider it rude.”
- “They would say ‘here is a man will live to be 150’” says Ta’Lon, as Sheridan expresses skepticism that having a Narn bodyguard would be well-received by his superiors.
- “Women may even come to find you attractive… in time.”
- “I don’t wanna get killed because of a typo. That would be embarrassing.”
“Passing Through Gethsemane” (season three, episode four; originally aired 11/27/1995)
As far as standalone episodes go, I’m not sure that there’s a more Babylon 5-y episode of the show than “Passing Through Gethsemane.” It’s as much of a construction as it is a story. Ever since the idea of “death of personality” was introduced in season one, it’s been almost inevitable that the show would do a story about one of those criminals remembering their past. But because that introduction was a season and a half prior, Babylon 5 has to painstakingly re-introduce the concept, as well as give some time to the focus character, Brother Edward, as played by veteran character actor Brad Dourif. Thus half the episode is spent simply getting the pieces into place, which makes the rest of it lack some power.
(Part of the reason that there was such a gap between “The Quality Of Mercy” and “Passing Through Gethsemane” is that an eager fan suggested to J. Michael Straczynski that the show do an episode of that sort, which caused JMS to delay the story while he covered his ass legally. Some commenters have suggested that JMS was overreacting in this case, which may be true, but due to “the Marion Zimmer Bradley fanfic incident,”which was quite recent at that point, his overreaction is entirely understandable.)
Another typically B5 trait: an extremely positive view of certain aspects of religion. Brother Edward is a member of Brother Theo’s order, introduced a few weeks ago, and their ideas of faith are treated as unmitigated good. In the introduction, Theo is playing Sheridan in chess, and manages, via “faith” or at least an argument against Sheridan’s dabbling in various beliefs to pull out a victory in the face of apparent defeat. As with so much of “Passing Through Gethsemane” it’s not just a scene to set the stage, it’s deliberate foreshadowing—the best people in the episode are buoyed by faith.
The most blatant of those scenes comes a little bit later, when Edward is interviewing Delenn about Minbari faith. She turns the questioning on him, asking what the emotional core of his religion is. He responds by telling the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, waiting for the guards to come, arrest him, and crucify him shortly after. Edward derives great power from this idea of faith granting the courage to face evil and sacrifice one’s self.
In theory, the episode justifies that by having Edward face his personal Gethsemane, when the relatives of the women he killed seek him out. When he realizes that’s what’s happening, he stays and prays, until they arrive and very nearly crucify him.
But watching the episode this time around, I didn’t find that critical junction emotionally affecting. Edward’s choice seems less like a choice and more like a narrative inevitability. Because death of personality was mentioned early on, it has to be a plot point for the episode. Because he mentions how important Jesus’ decision was to his personal faith and his struggles in believing that he could go through with it himself, he has to have that moment. And because the episode is a positive one about religion, specifically Christianity, it has to have a thematic moment of the best of Christianity. “I believe you were saying that forgiveness was a hard thing, something ever to be striven for.”
Across the multiple times that I’ve rewatched Babylon 5, I’ve been surprised by how consistent my tastes have stayed from when I was a teenager to before I was a critic to now. One of those consistencies is that I’m not sure how to deal with “Passing Through Gethsemane.” Sometimes I think it’s the very best of Babylon 5’s standalones. At other times I find it contrived and lacking the power its symbolism needs in order to work. This time was closer to the latter than the former, unfortunately.
- “You wanna tell me where you learned that little move?” Dammit, JMS, that’s not how chess works, unless both Sheridan and Theo are really, really, really bad and have heard of openings and patterns without ever understanding what they are.
- “So you support a system that would leave everyone blind and toothless?”
- Speaking of parts of the episode introduced only so that they can pay off later: “I would very much like to hear about Valen sometime.”
- “How can I confess my sins to God if I don’t even know what they are?”