|Episode:||1|||||Writer:||J. Michael Straczynski|||||Air Date:||26-Jan-1994|
Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm spoiling the hell out of the first proper episode of sci-fi epic Babylon 5, Midnight on the Firing Line! I wrote about the feature length pilot The Gathering last week, but season 1 starts here.
The thing about Babylon 5 is that it doesn't get a massive amount of respect, so DVDs are still probably the best/only way to watch the series right now/forever. It doesn't seem like anyone wants to stream it any more and they definitely don't want to give us a HD remaster on Blu-Ray, and that's a bit of a shame really considering how historically important the series is. It pioneered the use of CGI on a live action television show! It helped popularise the use of serialisation outside of soap operas! Plus it proved that US sci-fi series didn't need to have Star Trek in the title to succeed (which is something that Enterprise probably shouldn't have taken to heart).
Looking back it seems that Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs practically had a monopoly on TV space opera for most of the 90s. But there were more sci-fi shows back then than you'd think; they just didn't last more than a season (because they were crap). Babylon 5 on the other hand had a complete five year run and told its entire planned story arc, with a proper ending and everything! It even had a bunch of spin-off sci-fi series of its own... they just didn't last more than a season (because they were crap).
The way this is going to work is I'm going to do a full recap with screencaps, sharing my opinions and observations along the way. So this is going to going to have as many SPOILERS as I can pack into it, but only for this episode and The Gathering. I won't be mentioning future events, I won't be hinting at what prophecies pan out, and I definitely won't be pointing at all the subtle foreshadowing and going "look at this, it's subtle foreshadowing, pay attention to it!"
(Click the screencaps to view them at 1024x576 res.)
Hmm, there's a cameo from Deep Space Nine's wormhole in the background and I'm not sure what the flaming moon is about, but it doesn't spoil anything and it all looks fairly...
One of these two (I'll let you guess which) is new character Susan Ivanova, who is introduced this episode to replace Laurel Takashima as second in command/air traffic controller on Babylon 5 station. Main cast changes aren't always for the best, but Babylon 5 usually comes out stronger because of them and this is definitely not the exception.
Alright, I'm pressing 'Play'.
I respect the groundbreaking visual effects work that Foundation Imaging produced for the series, but I have to say that the CGI looks kind of ass. In fact I think it looks worse than it did in The Gathering, because of the way the DVDs were produced. All the live action footage was shot in widescreen on Super 35 film to future proof it, then cropped down to 4:3 for the original broadcast. But the CGI was only rendered in 4:3 NTSC resolution, so what they did for the DVDs was upscale the visual effects shots, then crop the top and bottom off. Badly.
This doesn't just affect the space shots though. Every single live action scene with something composited into it has been turned into a fuzzy mess! Sad thing is, the series would've been a lot more consistent if it hadn't had a widescreen release.
These two with the medieval clothing, punk hairstyles and sci-fi eyebrows are in charge of monitoring for incoming ships around the colony. To make the scene a little more exciting, the guy on the left has only just come in to relieve the other from his post, but he only gets to be watch commander for about half a second before they detect “a jump point forming at sector 3”.
I half expected them to throw in a ‘sector 7-G’ reference there, seeing as he looks like the Centauri Homer Simpson sitting behind that console, but nope.
The watch commander tries activating mines and when that apparently does nothing he starts yelling at his silent friend with the inferior hairstyle to send out a distress call.
“Notify Centauri Prime. Tell them we’re under attack. Tell them it’s the…” is as far as he gets before the space station blows up killing them both. Now we'll never know who attacked them!
Cut to the opening titles.
Foundation Imaging's CGI sequences were famously produced by a render farm of networked Amiga computers running Lightwave, so I'm amazed this looks as good as it does. You had a hundred times more processing power and RAM in the last phone you threw out. It didn't help that the station is basically a tube with a ball on the end, as all those curves meant the model ended up being a ridiculous 250,000 polygons in size. For comparison, Dr. Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: Spirits Within is around 400,000 polygons, and she was rendered on 960 Pentium IIIs.
By season 3 Foundation had upgraded to a render farm of networked PCs running Lightwave, which seems kind of boring by comparison, and TV series have been following their example ever since.
Straight away I can spot a number of changes since the pilot movie. They've cleaned up most of the smoke in the air, the uniforms have leather strips down the front, Laurel Takashima's been replaced with Ivanova, the guns don't look terrible any more, and the station crew now have their communicators glued to the back of their hands instead of on their wrists. There’s a lot of talking into hands in this series.
I say ‘conversation’, but it’s really more like ‘exposition’ as Garibaldi reveals the relationship between the humans and Centauri. Turns out that the guys with the spiky hair have no relation to humans whatsoever, despite them initially trying to convince us we were a lost Centauri tribe. “A clerical error,” Londo explains cheerfully. “We thought your world was Beta 9, it was actually Beta 12.”
He’s less cheerful when his new aide Vir comes in to reveal the news: Ragesh 3 is under attack. There was no provocation, no warning, and no clue who’s doing it.
Cue the opening titles.
"It was the dawn of the Third Age of mankind, 10 Years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. It’s goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully.Hmm, I don't think I like that "the name of the place" line. The rest sounds good though, I'm hyped.
It's a port of call, home away from home, for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs and wanderers.
Humans and aliens wrapped in 2,500,000 tonnes of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last, best hope for peace.
This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258, the name of the place is Babylon 5."
The station is headquarters for the Babylon 5 Advisory Council, which is basically the space United Nations on a television budget. When the council's in session, ambassadors from the five most powerful governments get to sit on the tall chairs behind the big semi-circle table, while everyone else gets squeezed into rows just off screen on the right.
Speaking of the mise-en-scène, one thing that's really obvious when you know to look for it is that all the characters are standing within an invisible 4:3 frame, to make it safe for broadcast. Why they thought it was a good idea to spread them out in pairs like that though, I don't know.
They both claim to have only just heard about the attack and G’Kar offers his sincere condolences. Commander Sinclair suggests that they contact their governments, find out what they know, and the meet later in a proper session of the council.
And then the scene's over in less than a minute. I was expecting them to hang around and give the complete history of Advisory Council or something, but I guess the exposition's over for now.
Suddenly a woman appears at the door and announces that she’s Talia Winters, licensed commercial telepath, assigned to Babylon 5 a few weeks ago (to replace Lyta Alexander). Ivanova radiates enough frustration and disinterest with this interruption that even I could sense it, but Talia puts on a smile and continues undaunted. Seems that Psi Corps regulations require her to log in with the second in command, and that’s Ivanova. “Excuse me but I’m in the middle of 15 things all of them annoying. Thank you for coming by,” Ivanova replies, before wishing her away with all of her heart.
C&C looks a bit cheap now I've rewatched Deep Space Nine's pilot, but there's definitely no shortage of strip lights and computer screens in here. Plus I like the set’s little Star Destroyer bridge pit, though I’m not sure the Empire would approve of all those safety railings.
The pilot didn't go out of its way to show off this jumpgate, and we're getting even less explanation here. It's a mechanical frame floating near to the station that generates an orange swirly vortex and the fighters fly into it to end up somewhere else. I guess that's all we really need to know. Later on they'll reveal that Babylon 5's hyperspace is actually very different to Star Wars' hyperspace, but right now it might as well be the same thing.
They didn't show any Starfuries in the pilot at all, so it's nice to see them make an appearance here. These things are one of the most stylish starfighters in sci-fi, developed from a Terminator 2 concept by Steve Burg, and they totally don't look like X-Wings. At all.
It might seem a bit strange that the station's chief of security is flying a space fighter, but it's better than having someone we don't know or care about do it. The Starfuries are the closest thing he's got to a patrol car so it makes sense that he knows how to fly them.
While he's out Ivanova drops by Sinclair's office to see if Earth Central's figured out who attacked Ragesh 3 yet, but he's heard nothing. He's pretty sure they can at least rule out the Minbari though, as he fought them in the Earth-Minbari War and knows they're too honourable to pull a sneak attack. I guess he's already forgotten that time in The Gathering where one of them sneakily poisoned Ambassador Kosh and framed him for the murder (Kosh survived by the way).
They've got a couple of minutes spare so they take a quick break from the plot to discuss the election going on right now on Earth. I was expecting an infodump about the candidates and the political situation back home, but all we really learn is that Ivanova chooses her leaders based on the grandeur of their chin. Also she's so military and Russian at this point in the season that when she's not yelling at friendly telepaths she talks like a robot.
Meanwhile back on the station, Londo is watching the security footage from the Ragesh 3 attack trying to figure out who it was who attacked them. Then he remember that this is the future, yells ‘enhance’ at the computer screen, and suddenly the perpetrator becomes clear.
It was the Narn who invaded the colony! In retrospect it is kind of obvious, as they are mortal enemies.
Two seconds later and the ambassadors are being pulled apart by security, their hands around each other’s throats.
He's a bit calmer now, enough to apologise to Sinclair, but explains that he will kill G’Kar someday. Centauri have precognitive dreams of their own death and in his dream he dies with his hands firmly wrapped around a Narn’s throat... G'Kar's. Must have been weird when he came on board B5 and realised that the Narn ambassador was his own personal Freddy Krueger. They both look 20 years older in the dream though so there’ll be no murdering yet, just practice runs.
Londo has great made up alien accent by the way, like he's from a particularly decadent European empire. He sounds nothing like the other Centauri we saw at Ragesh 3 earlier, but then Londo's an ambassador from a wealthy family and they worked in a broom closet, so that's not all that implausible.
Sinclair decides to put together a coalition against the Narn attack, so he goes to visit the only senior ambassador who hasn’t shown his
Actually Kosh is hovering around behind some translucent glass next to his empty encounter suit being all cryptic and mysterious. He spent most of the The Gathering unconscious, so this is the first time we've really met the guy and it turns out he's a man of few words. But he does at least confirm that he’ll attend the emergency council meeting. Sinclair goes to leave, but Kosh leaps back into his suit the moment he turns his head, and gives him a bit of advice.
Man, don’t you hate it when people reply to questions like that with ‘yes’? Though if anyone told Kosh he was being annoying he’d simply say "good" and then shuffle away. Kosh is a representative of the oldest and most powerful of all the races, and as such he’s a bit of a dick.
Londo has finally received word from his glorious leaders, the "convention of genetic defectives" back home, and his response to their response is to get absolutely drunk (again). He's so frustrated about everything that he nearly breaks poor Vir's arm when he pulls him up from the couch.
It turns out that the great Centauri Republic, the lion of the galaxy, will do… nothing! Not only is Ragesh 3 considered too unimportant, but they feel that everyone would be dead by the time they got there anyway. Londo spent most of the The Gathering getting drunk and finding ways to ignore the fact that his people had lost their nerve, but now he's absolutely furious about it.
There's no point in the other races forming a coalition to support the Centauri now, as the Centauri aren't going to bother doing anything that can be supported. But Londo is a pissed off drunk schemer so he decides he'll pretend that everything's going as planned, and then when the others give their support, the Centauri government will be shamed into doing their part! Maybe. He just has to hope no one catches him in his lie.
By pure coincidence G'Kar has also chosen this moment to spend some time with nature, but it does give him a chance to remind the commander that the Centauri royally screwed over the Narn homeworld during their long occupation decades ago. Plus the Narns sure sold Earth a lot of serious firepower during the Earth-Minbari War, so really when you think about it Sinclair owes him.
This gives Sinclair an opportunity to demonstrate his diplomatic side and show why he’s the sensible rational lead heroic character of the series. But instead Sinclair yells some shame into the Narn ambassador, then tells him if he wants to settle this in a fair fight he knows where to find him. Damn, man!
To be fair G’Kar did let slip that he does “look forward to the day when we have cleansed the universe of the Centauri and carved their bones into little flutes for Narn children,” and things like that make it kind of hard to root for the guy. G'Kar really does try to play the role of the sympathetic victim, righteously striking back at his former oppressor in the name of justice, but he sucks at it.
The hatred between the Narn and the Centauri is all weirdly familiar to me having just watched the pilot to Deep Space Nine, but that begins right after an occupation ends, so the formerly oppressed Bajorans are the sympathetic aliens, and the Cardassians are the ones scheming to get back what they lost. The two series often hit the same notes, but they're always part of a different tune.
Turns out in all his own righteous fury, our hero forgot that he’s a just representative of the Earth Alliance and the Senate are the ones who tell him when Earth's willing to give military support to alien causes. Sinclair argues that if they don’t stop the Narn aggression now they’ll just keep coming, but the senator argues that they don’t give a fuck. The Earth Alliance can't be the galaxy's policeman! There’s going to be a presidential election in less than 24 hours and Earth won’t be promising a damn thing until it’s over, so Sinclair is ordered to abstain from the council vote.
Just then Ivanova turns up to tell him that they're ready to go hunt those Raider pirates, as Garibaldi's done some sleuthing and managed to figure out what ship they'll hit next. Suddenly a lightbulb figuratively appears above Sinclair’s head as he's figured out how to win the episode! He’ll be leading the attack on the Raiders personally in his own Starfury and Ivanova will vote on the council in his place. It's plausible enough that she wouldn't know he was ordered to abstain (the senator couldn't see her from his monitor screen), so she can get away with voting for sanctions.
By the way, I didn’t notice this until someone pointed it out to me, but Sinclair’s office sure does look familiar doesn’t it? That semi-circular table, the elaborate design on the floor, those wooden slates circling the room at head-height… it’s the council chamber in disguise!
The Starfuries themselves are pretty logical as well, with thrusters pointing everywhere to let them pivot on the spot. They may well be the only ship in sci-fi with proper front-facing engines to slow them down again. Well except for the Normandy from 'Mass Effect'. And the Gunstar from The Last Starfighter that helped inspire the Starfuries to begin with. Okay there’s actually lots of spaceships with engines at the front now that I think about it.
So Sinclair is the station commander, the Earth representative on the council and a fighter pilot? Well that's one way to put him at the centre of every plotline.
Producer JMS did give a perfectly sensible explanation for the base commander flying combat missions though: in the US Air Force you have to fly combat missions to earn your promotions and log a certain amount of flying time per month to receive flight pay, and the Earthforce they work for has similar rules. Also the name kind of sounds the same if you say it out loud.
Oh, also he’s got a live broadcast from Londo Mollari’s own nephew on Ragesh 3 stating that the colonists invited the Narn to take over to save them from "chaos and anarchy". Sure the guy looked a bit… terrified for his life, but people get nervous on camera sometimes!
Londo responds with the 'uh, they've obviously put a gun to his head' card, so G’Kar counters by revealing that the Centauri aren’t coming to Ragesh 3’s rescue, and Londo knows this. He’s been asking the other races to help save a colony that his own people aren’t even interested in saving! That’s check and mate pretty much.
So it turns out that Sinclair's cunning 'I'm going out for a bit, you vote in my place' scheme was all for nothing.
One of Babylon 5's unique selling points was the way it used physics and three dimensional movement in its space combat scenes, so the fighters dogfight more like spaceships than WW2 planes. They're not all locked to the same imaginary horizon and when they cut their engines there's no friction to slow them down. Not that this fight's any good, it's actually fairly terrible, but they had to start somewhere.
The remaining Raiders turn and make a run for it, so Sinclair pulls a few Starfuries from freighter defence to join his hunting party. He doesn’t chase the fleeing triangle fighters though, instead goes the exact opposite direction and comes across the thing they were keen to lure him away from: the Raiders’ command ship.
The effect is kinda ruined though when the final piece he retrieves is basically what you're seeing above: a sci-fi gun without a case. When you're hiding a gun in pieces, the individual components are supposed to look innocuous!
Actually Londo bumped into friendly telepath Talia Winters along the way and this scene of him gunning down G’Kar is what was going through his head at the moment they touched. Telepaths in Babylon 5 have strict rules about poking around in other people's heads, but the closer they get and the louder the thought, the harder it is to block out. And Londo's pretty damn loud.
Commander Sinclair has returned from his visit to the Raider command ship and he's brought back a Narn he found on board. Remember what G’Kar told Sinclair in the garden about how the Narn sold heavy weapons to the humans in the Earth-Minbari War? Turns out they’ve been selling them to the Raiders too, and this guy is the advisor sent to keep an eye on the guns.
He’s also been monitoring Narn communications from the fleet at Ragesh 3 for whatever reason, so now the Babylon 5 staff have proof that the Narns’ attack was unprovoked and they can use it to blackmail G’Kar into getting the fleet to withdraw. Makes no damn sense, but let’s roll with it.
So the Ragesh 3 crisis has been ended without pissing off the Earth senators, assassinating G’Kar, or inspiring anyone on the council do anything! All the plot lines have been resolved and there’s a happy ending for everyone…
So Ivanova reveals her dark backstory. Her mother was a telepath like Talia, except she didn’t want to join with the Psi Corps, and the law left her with only two other options: go to jail or take telepathy inhibiting drugs for the rest of her life. So she took the treatment to stay with her family, and it slowly turned her into a shell of a human being until the point where she took her own life.
The thing is, Ivanova doesn’t even really hate Talia, as she recognises she’s a victim like her mother was even if she doesn’t realise it herself. But she's not looking to make friends with anyone wearing that Psi Corps badge.
So it's a good job really she wasn't on board during The Gathering, as there's no way she would've suggested using telepath Lyta Alexander to read Kosh's mind to discover how he was poisoned, and the guy would've died. Ivanova's a replacement for Takashima but JMS didn't just do a find/replace on her name in the scripts, and the same's true of Talia.
At least Garibaldi's ending the day on a happy note, relaxing on the couch and enjoying some popcorn with the Minbari ambassador, while she stares with delight and utter confusion at his 'second favourite thing in the universe'…
But it's still not done yet, as there's another scene with Sinclair watching President Santiago win the election on ISN news! Apparently he's going to create a closer relationship with the Mars Colony which is nice. Sinclair soon heads to bed, but Ivanova calls him with a new crisis as soon as he turns the lights off. The end.
After all the movies and double length pilots I've been writing about so far, it's a relief to finally reach a nice regular sized episode! Or at least it would've been, but I'd forgotten that Babylon 5 episodes are typically bigger on the inside.
The thing about Babylon 5, is that any problem it hit along the way only seemed to make it stronger in the long run (season 5 excepted). So when the studio delayed season 1 by almost a year to wait and see if anyone had watched The Gathering, this gave the production team a chance to get feedback and make improvements to the makeup, props, sets and costumes etc. And when half the cast left for whatever reason, this gave them a chance to bring in better characters like Vir and Ivanova (sorry, I'm not a huge Talia fan).
So Midnight on the Firing Line basically became a replacement introduction, to get new and old viewers up to speed with Babylon 5.1, though it's far more focused on its own plot this time than on setting up an entire series. There's still moments of exposition to establish things like that the Centauri are aliens and the Narn really don't like them, but overall it's got a healthier pace than the feature length episode that preceded it and is more representative of what's to come. The universe isn't contained inside a 5 mile long blue can any more, the series is stretching its legs and expanding its scope. So instead of hearing characters talk about the Narns invading worlds, this time we get to see them do it and how everyone reacts to it.
B5 was built after the disastrous Earth-Minbari War to help prevent a sequel, but it's made clear here that its hardest task as a diplomatic station will be pulling the Narns and Centauri out of their 100 year cycle of hate. Babylon 5's not an overly pessimistic vision of the future, but Londo's vision of the future is his hands around G'Kar's throat and right now we don't know enough about his people to know if their prophetic dreams are real or superstition. Telepaths are fact, fortune reading... is hazy right now.
I'm not sure I'd recommend MotFL as an ideal starting point for new viewers though, and not just because it's followed by some of the worst episodes in the whole run. I'm not usually the kind of person who pays attention to an episode's direction, but even I can tell there's something wrong here. A few times I was kicked right out of the story because the characters on the space station were suddenly replaced with actors delivering their lines in a converted warehouse. But on the other hand it takes sustained exposure to the acting and sets before the theatricality of the series isn't so off-putting any more, so I guess this is as good a place to start as any.
This was a cheap looking production back in the day compared to the Star Treks of the time and 20 years later it hasn't gotten any prettier, so there's a lot you have to forgive before you can get into it. But as a fan it doesn't matter so much to me now that the galactic council chamber is just a redecorated office when Andras Katsulas is in there giving smug speeches and swirling his cape around. And it doesn’t matter if the bedroom set looks like it’s been borrowed from a sitcom when Peter Jurasik is inside with a fake nose and his hair standing on end, ranting about the Narns. He doesn’t eat the scenery, he smashes a bottle against it, then literally takes it apart and assembles a gun out of it. And I don't care what everyone else says, Sinclair's not wooden! He's just... pensive is all.
Overall Midnight's a watchable episode and a solid platform for the series to build on, but it'll get a lot better than this when they get the hang of what they're doing and the story kicks in.
Babylon 5 will return with, ugh, Soul Hunter. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm going to start watching the 2015 series of Doctor Who with The Magician's Apprentice.
Please consider putting some of your opinions and feedback into the message box below. There's always room for more words.