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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Babylon 5 1-03: Born to the Purple

Episode:3|Writer:Lawrence G. DeTillio|Air Date:09-Feb-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm writing about Babylon 5 again! It's only a season one episode though so don't get too excited.

Born to the Purple is the first episode of the series to be written by someone other than series creator J. Michael Straczynski, as executive story editor Larry DiTillio stepped in to give the boss's smoking word processor a chance to cool down. JMS was insanely prolific on B5, writing 92 of the 110 episodes himself, leaving DiTillio in distant second with 7. But that doesn't mean that DiTillio's episodes are bad! Or maybe it does, I dunno, it's been ages since I've seen them. I've got positive feelings about this one at least.

Please be aware that there'll be SPOILERS for everything up to and including this episode. I won't be ruining anything that comes after it for you though.



After the mandatory establishing shot of Babylon 5 station, the episode cuts to a nightclub where Ambassador Londo Mollari is enjoying a much needed break from getting drunk and harassing Mr. Garibaldi, by getting drunk and watching some dancers instead.

Well he was, before Commander Sinclair and Ambassador G’Kar decided to come down and stand in the way.

Londo quite sensibly points out that this isn’t really the right time or the place to talk business, but Sinclair’s been trying to get the guy to turn up for formal treaty negotiations for a week and is determined that tomorrow will be the day that he actually turns up and does his job.

I remembered Londo as being someone who generally took his duty very seriously, but nope! In these last few episodes he's either turned up to appointments with a hangover, or not at all.

Before the confrontation can develop into a conversation, the next dancer comes out and Londo makes them both sit down with him to watch.

Last time Londo appeared in an episode he assembled a gun and tried to assassinate G’Kar, now he’s sharing a drink with the guy and grinning like an idiot. Well Londo has a drink, G’Kar’s swigging the stuff straight from the bottle. Seems that the one thing they've got in common is their appreciation for sexy bald women.

She's not human by the way, she's a Centauri like Londo. The males of his race have their hair sticking up like peacock feathers and the females apparently all shave their heads.

Suddenly G'Kar's new aide shows up at the club and makes him do a spit take in shock. He wasn't expecting her to arrive for several year... days, but Ko D'Ath explains that she booked an early transport because she was eager to get to work.

The scene's played like G'Kar's wife just arrived to end his laid back bachelor lifestyle, with him half embarrassed that she caught him here watching Centauri dancers and drinking with the ambassador and half horrified that she's going to catch him everywhere. It seems really out of character though, as the G'Kar I'm familiar with wouldn't actually care.

Suddenly this drunk idiot walks right between them as they’re talking and tries to hit on her! Butz I think he’s called, though it’s hard to read his name tag on my fuzzy DVD.

"Hey Hotspot, how about you and me blow this joint and go play a little scan the sector?" is the line he went with, and to be honest I’m not surprised she responded by hissing in his face and slamming him through a table. I’m a little surprised that the military governor of the station is just sitting there, watching this play out, but I guess Sinclair’s got enough crap to worry about.

Apparently poor unfortunate Butz here is played by an actor called Mike Norris, who's starred in a dozen films I've never heard of. I've definitely heard of his dad Chuck though.

Londo eventually stumbles back to his back to his quarters so find the dancer waiting for him on his bed, and the teaser is finally over!

An episode teaser is supposed to end with a hook that grabs the viewer's attention and keeps them around through whatever comes between it and the first act, but the writer seems to have gotten confused and written a hook for Londo instead. You can bet he'll be sticking around to see where this is going.


ACT ONE.


Oh hang on, looks like something interesting is happening in Security Chief Garibaldi’s office. He’s just monitored an unauthorised transmission to Earth on Gold Channel! Which I guess is bad?

I think this is the first time we see Garibaldi's security office in the series and it's not quite fully formed yet. In fact I'm pretty sure it's just Sinclair's office with the desk swapped and some computer consoles pushed up against the walls.

Meanwhile, in a room that may or may not be the same set with a wall propped up to disguise it, Sinclair is struggling to get that Euphrates Treaty negotiation started. The main problem he’s having is that Londo still hasn’t shown up and everyone’s getting a little stressed out waiting for him.

Everyone but Londo’s aide Vir that is, as he's happy playing his 23rd century Game Boy in the corner.

Sinclair’s patience finally gives out and he snatches the device, no doubt infuriated by the unrealistic noises coming out of the thing. "No video game ever has or ever will sound like that!" he yells at him. Or maybe that was me. He implores Vir to go and bring his boss up here, then tosses the handheld onto the table with enough disdain to make the prop master wince.

Earth has no real interest in the treaty, but getting this resolved is important to Sinclair because it’ll help show that Babylon 5 can actually help resolve differences peacefully. It's not just here to make it more convenient for people plotting to assassinate ambassadors.

You know, I think Londo's the only major ambassador to have escaped unthreatened so far, as Kosh was poisoned in The Gathering, Delenn was nearly bled to death by a serial killer in Soul Hunter, and Londo himself was ready to gun down G'Kar in Midnight on the Firing Line. And I'm only up to episode 3!

Londo's fine by the way, he's just shirking his duty and lying in with Adira, the dancer from before. So we finally get an answer about what he does with all that hair when he's in bed (answer: he puts up with it.)

Adira sings a few wordless notes along with the episode soundtrack and then they chat about their relationship. Turns out they’ve been doing this for a while now, and she seems to be genuinely into him as a person instead of a renewable source of money. Of course the fact that he’s a powerful ambassador doesn’t hurt. The Centauri are all about status we're learning here.

But Vir interrupts his moment of happiness to relay Sinclair's frustration, giving Londo an excuse to call him a "Moon-faced assassin of joy". Way to use up the best line in the first 8 minutes!

Also there's nothing wrong with Vir's face! Except I think the actor takes out the false fangs later on in the series so that he can talk properly. This character could've been really annoying, considering that he's the goofy comedy sidekick to a character that's been mostly played for laughs, but he's also his straight man and he's comes across as really genuine and likeable.

By the way, Vir's got shorter hair than Londo because it reflects his lower social status. And Adira has no hair, besides a pony tail, so that seems like a clue to what the Centauri think of women. They're not the most progressive society.

Meanwhile Garibaldi’s still trying to solve this Gold Channel message mystery. Gold Channels are priority access, usable only by express permission of Commander Sinclair. "No one outside the ambassadors and senior officers even know they exist," he yells across C&C so that all the technicians can hear.

This could be a massive security problem, but Ivanova really doesn’t give a damn and would rather he’d go away and monitor the problem on his own. I guess she’s more interested in the Londo plotline.

Cut back to the treaty negotiation, where G’Kar has stolen Vir’s handheld, and Londo’s still nowhere to be found.

But then Londo turns up and they begin their discussions. So... I guess that’s resolved then! Can we end the episode now? Vir’s Game and Watch subplot has been the only part I’ve really cared about so far and I have a feeling that’s reached its natural conclusion.

Elsewhere on the station Adira returns home, unaware that the personification of evil is sitting on her chair. Wait, that’s not David Warner, that’s… someone else who looks a lot like him under all that makeup (it's Clive Revill, the original voice of the Emperor from Empire Strikes Back). The mysterious intruder is called Trakis and he’s Adira’s slave owner. Turns out that she has been instructed to steal certain files from Londo which could do a lot of damage in the wrong hands.

The noble houses of the Centauri Republic have been collecting dirt on each other for years in their struggles for power and prestige, and Londo’s family is no different. The information in his Purple Files could bring down any house in the Republic and Trakis wants to get his hands on the files so he can sell them to the Narn.


ACT TWO.


After a romantic dinner in the finest restaurant on Babylon 5, Adira ends the night by drugging Londo's drink and getting the codes out of him with a blinky piece of tech she balances on his head. Honestly, I was expecting it to take most of the episode for her to get her hands on the most important confidential files he has, but nope she got them before the halfway point. She feels really bad about it though.

The next morning Londo wakes up with a hangover and no memory of Adira’s betrayal. In fact the first thing he tries to do is call her, but she’s not picking up and Vir’s adamant that he should head out and get today’s treaty negotiations started.

Whatever else you can say about Londo Mollari, he is absolutely committed to the Centauri Republic and would do anything to make his people stronger… except when duplicitous dancers are distracting him. He gives Vir the authority to take over the negotiations and abandons his duty entirely to go search for Adira.

Though before storming out he makes sure Vir understands that he’s NOT to give away the homeworld.

Adira’s waiting in the Zocalo market at this point for Trakis to turn up so she can pass the Purple Files on to him, but then she catches sight of… wait, is that BUTZ? Seeing Butz holding flowers reminds her of Londo, so she changes her mind and run from Trakis with the files. I did not see that coming and I’ve watched this before.

In fact Butz even steps in front of Trakis when he chases her and calls him “Quark face”… I think. Trakis responds by shoving an electrified glove in his face and slamming him into a pile of soft cushions.

And that's the last we'll ever see of Butz. I guess life on B5 just wasn't working out the way he hoped.

Also Garibaldi's still investigating the Gold Channel mystery.

By the way, the newspapers in Babylon 5 sometimes contain clues to future plotlines, and this one's got the headline "HOMEGUARD LEADER CONVICTED". That's all I can make out though unfortunately. Maybe someday we'll get a 4K remastered release so I can zoom right in to see that the rest is all absolute gibberish.


ACT THREE.


With Adira missing, Trakis decides to take a different approach. He runs into Londo outside Adira's quarters and explains to Londo that she is his slave and has betrayed them both (skipping the part where he put her up to it). He lies and says she was a Narn agent who used him to get his Purple Files, to give him just a little more motivation to find her and get his files back.

Londo's a bit unhappy about all this and tells him to piss off, but Trakis manages to plant a bug on his shoulder before walking out...

 … which just happens to look just like an actual bug, until it vanishes from sight.

So hang on, they've got invisibility technology in this universe now? I don't remember this at all. I can't say for sure that this tech doesn't come back again at some point, but I'm thinking that's it's going to get buried in the same hole that JMS hid the shapeshifting suit and Delenn's magic rings.

And Londo lobs the flowers he bought her across her room. I wonder if it was in Peter Jurasik's contract that he got to throw a prop at the wall at least once per episode.

G’Kar’s also finding opportunities to throw stuff around, as when Vir walks in and proudly announces that he'll be negotiating for the Centauri today, he slaps the notes right out of his hand. This is an insult too far for G’Kar, who announces he won’t be back until Londo is, and until then Ko D’Ath will be negotiating for the Narn!

Though before storming out he makes sure Ko D'Ath understands that she’s NOT to give away the homeworld. Hey, that's what Londo said to Vir! A subtle hint that the two arch-enemy ambassadors aren't so different at their core maybe, or just a joke I'm reading too much into?

Commander Sinclair's had enough at this point and he comes after Londo like the Terminator.

So the ambassador has to admit that he's screwed up and needs his help. It seems strange that he'd trust a representative of another government with this, but I guess he doesn't have many options, and as station commander Sinclair has the security access, manpower and resources to find Adira and keep it quiet.

So Londo gets him to put on a cloak and come with him back to the nightclub, so they can chat with the dancers there to see if they know where Adira is. I can see how the entire plan would fall apart without the station commander in "disguise" standing next to him. Londo's disguise is pretty amazing though, as his hair seems to have disappeared into a pocket dimension inside the hood.

This guy on the right is the club owner and he seems to have wandered in from Buffy the Vampire Slayer from mistake. He’s got full alien face make up on but he dresses and acts like a sleezy human caricature. Also he calls Londo “Numbo” as he decides to send the bouncer to kick them both out.

Half an hour ago he was performing his duties as military governor of this space colony, now he's getting thrown out of a club by a rhino while cosplaying Sherlock Holmes. Sinclair seemed kind of on edge during the treaty negotiations, and this is enough to make him snap and burst into hysterical laughter.

But this strange acting choice is actually part of a clever ruse. He drops a name he read in Garibaldi's security files and claims he's here to hire dancers for a private show. The owner's satisfied that he's as bad an actor as he is and calls the dancers out.

Now it's Londo's time to shine, as he convinces the dancers to sell out their friend.

I honestly can't tell which of these are aliens and which are just in makeup or weird hats. Babylon 5 loves its hats. But I'm going to say that the women on either side with the gigantic rubber skull caps are aliens, and the dancer in silver body paint really is just wearing body paint.

So now they know where to find Adira. But Trakis was listening in with the bug he placed earlier and he knows where she is too!

It's that scene from the opening credits! So now I know that I'm looking at a guy called Trakis paying a giant praying mantis puppet to have his goons delay Londo and Sinclair. Or kill them if it comes to that.

You know what that means? All four major ambassadors have now been marked for death at one point! It also means don't go to Babylon 5, everyone's trying to kill each other there.

So Londo and Sinclair head to Downbelow and are intercepted by a pair of 90s cyberhitman in trenchcoats. But either they're just trying to scare our heroes, or the wall next to them owes them money, because the hitmen have a clear shot and hit nothing but... whatever the corridors are made of. Plywood I'd guess, by the way a wall was wobbling in an earlier scene.

This is Sinclair’s chance to be the badass action hero for this episode… but he and Londo go hide behind a box instead.


ACT FOUR.


Uncredited Chuck Norris cameo? Nope, but it would've been nice.

The gunmen would’ve likely won this fight, but they’re called away when Trakis finds Adira and the Purple Files. These were my new favourite part of the episode and now they’re gone forever, written out like Vir’s Game Boy.

Meanwhile Ivanova tells Garibaldi there’s been a report of heavy weapon fire in Downbelow and she wants him to check it out. But Garibaldi has become obsessed with finding out who’s using this Gold Channel to send messages to Earth and stays at his computer instead. He does send a security team though, he’s not completely negligent. He’s just pretty sure it’s Ivanova breaking into the communication system at this point and needs to be around to catch her doing it.

Turns out that Ivanova really was the one who has been using Gold Channel without authorisation, because she wanted to have one final conversation with her sick father in the moments before he died. Talk about mood whiplash. Also her brother died in the Earth-Minbari War and her mother killed herself due to the side effects of Psi Corps telepathy suppressant drugs, meaning she's pretty much alone now.

So now we've got some more backstory to help define who Susan Ivanova is as a person, outside of her job, and it's not hard to see why she's a grumpy pessimist with a short fuse. It's not clear why she didn't just ask Sinclair for permission though.

After that devastatingly depressing scene the episode jumps back to Londo and Sinclair’s cunning scheme to get the Purple Files back.

They know that Trakis is trying to sell the files to the Narn, so Sinclair points G'Kar his way in exchange for concessions on the treaty. He nearly blows it by playing up his insincerity for the camera, but G'Kar falls for it. Sinclair even convinces him to allow resident telepath Talia Winters to sit in on the deal to scan Trakis' mind and make sure the merchandise is legit.

Talia explains to Trakis that she can only read strong surface thoughts, so it is very important that he doesn’t think about where Adira Tyree is right now. Trakis’s brain immediately betrays him, and Londo steps out from behind a wall and KO's him with one punch. He takes an unmarked data crystal out of Trakis' pocket, confident that it's the Purple Files, and I guess everyone's going to just assume he was too dumb to make a copy.

Londo gleefully thanks G’Kar for saving his career, comedy music plays and the Narn runs off yelling “Ohhhhh!” as the others laugh. All that’s missing is a freeze frame and maybe a “I’ll get you next time Londo Mollari! Next time!”

Also Garibaldi tells Ivanova that the Gold Channel thing was a glitch that won't happen again and offers to buy her a drink, and Londo forgives Adira, frees her from slavery, and asks her to stay with him forever. She says no. The end.


CONCLUSION

Born to the Purple is an important episode for the series as it establishes that Babylon 5 should never have comedy music (plus it could use less cheesy 80s synth as well). Overall though I think the humour was more hit than miss, especially the scenes with Vir in them. Maybe exclusively the scenes with Vir in now that I think about it; the guy’s a star player. Plus it was nice to see Ivanova actually taking a bit of pleasure in running rings around Garibaldi, until he figured her out and the subplot went for the gut punch. I think both characters came out of this well, and a little more three dimensional.

Sinclair on the other hand proved that he's a terrible actor and should never wear a disguise again. Some would even say that Michael O'Hare was a terrible actor, but I think he really nails the role of a heroic station commander driven to frustration by an unreliable ambassador. I like him as the hero, but Londo and Sinclair’s goofy undercover adventure was just weird from start to finish, with no real tension or reality to it, and his performance wasn't helping.

But the core of the episode is Londo's relationship with Adira, and the two actors did a great job on selling me on it. Trouble is the scenes also did a good job of sending me to sleep because romance isn't really what I watch these shows for and they were just so slow. Plus did I mention they were saturated in suffocating 80s synth? It took me a few passes to watch the episode in its entirety because my focus kept drifting and I stopped paying attention.

The episode does help flesh out the Centauri though. The Centauri Republic is ruled by rival noble houses who vie for power and prestige, using blackmail and whatever else they can get away with to get ahead. Londo may not have his ideal job, but he's in a position of power because of the family he was born into and the dirt he's got on others. Vir on the other hand seems to come from a decent family, but doesn't play the game (he'd rather play Game Boy) so his career hasn't exactly taken off. And at the bottom there's Adira, who has no noble family and had no hope of bettering herself until Londo freed her from slavery. It goes a long way to explain why Londo’s become so cynical, manipulative and hedonistic, in addition to all those other reasons he keeps expositing to Garibaldi.

I'm three episodes into the series now and for me this was the third best so far. The season's on a downwards slope and somehow I don’t expect that to change soon, seeing as the next episode is the infamous Infection.

Babylon 5 will return with Infection (like I just said). But next on Sci-Fi Adventures is Deep Space Nine episode 4: Babel.

2 comments:

  1. Larry DiTillio is a well-known name to me. He wrote a lot of great adventures for role-playing games back in the early days of the hobby, including the amazing Masks of Nyarlathotep for Call of Cthulhu. He also wrote the episode of The Real Ghostbusters in which the Ghostbusters fight Cthulhu.

    I think JMS also wrote for that series, so that may be where they met.

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    1. I have to admit, I know next to nothing about Larry DiTillio, except that he hosted a radio show with Straczynski around the same time as Real Ghostbusters (succeeding Harlan Ellison!)

      But I was curious so I looked it up, and it seems they met while working as staff writers on He-Man a few years earlier. I'm honestly surprised I found a definitive answer to that.

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