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Monday, 11 July 2016

Babylon 5 1-05: Parliament of Dreams

Episode:5|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:23-Feb-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I've made it 22.7% of the way through season one of Babylon 5!

The season hasn't been all that great so far, but I'm more hopeful about Parliament of Dreams. This was the first episode to be scripted after filming on the series began, so writer JMS had much better idea of how the actors were performing his characters, and could shape his words to fit their mouths.

Wait, why does this screencap look so familiar to me? Oh right, Born to the Purple used the same establishing shot to put its title over a couple of episodes ago... except it was a bit less pink back then. I'm surprised this doesn't happen more often to be honest. CGI's cheaper than filming models, but time spent rendering new stock shots is time they could better spend producing effects for the story.

This review is going to be a bit SPOILERY, as I'm going to reveal basically everything that happens in the episode, and maybe even a few things about what came before it, but I won't spoil a thing about what comes after it.



The episode begins with Security Chief Garibaldi, the man in charge of running security for this entire five mile long space station, down in the customs area personally searching people as they come in from their transports.

Or maybe he was just called over when this guy made a fuss about not being allowed to bring his ceremonial dagger on board. Garibaldi basically tells him that he’s going to put it out on the hull and if his god lets him get it without a space suit he can keep it. He’s not in a good mood.

Turns out that the station is busier than usual due to a religious event inflicted upon them by Earth Central. Garibaldi explains the reasoning to a colleague suffering along with him: “Say, we’ve got an idea, how about an entire week where every alien species on Babylon 5 is encouraged to demonstrate their dominant religious belief. It’ll advance the cause of interplanetary peace and understanding.”

But then he catches a glimpse of a woman he knows walking in off a ship, and suddenly he's got more urgent things to do. He lets his friend take over here, even leaves him the knife to play with.

Cut to Ambassador G’Kar in his quarters, cooking a pig’s head while singing.
“I'm thinking of thinking of sending her flowers right after Bonnie gets back. So many fishies left in the sea. So many fishies but no-one for me.“
Must be an classic song from the Narn homeworld. He picks up the head from his plate, but before he can take a bite he's interrupted by the doorbell.

One of the things that's been irritating me about the series is how everyone immediately yells something like "Enter!" when they hear someone at the door without even checking who it is! And the door then unlocks for them. In the Soul Hunter episode there was a literally a serial killer at the door and they came this close to losing an ambassador, so you’d think they’d have more sense now.

This time though it's just a courier bringing him an important recorded message on a data crystal, Babylon 5's cunningly timeless storage medium. Holographic crystals will never seem archaic like disks and tapes do, because they've been turning up all over sci-fi for half a century, they've been shown to be awesome in real life, and yet we still can't buy them!

G’Kar tries to get back to enjoying his meal (after dragging the live crayfish back to his plate), but curiosity gets the better of him and he puts the video on. Turns out it's from an old enemy of his, who just wanted to let him know that by the time he watches this he'll be dead... and G'Kar will be joining him soon.


ACT ONE.


After the opening titles we’re back in G’Kar’s quarters where his old nemesis explains the situation further.

He reveals that he has left orders that his considerable assets are to be liquidated upon his death to give G’Kar the best assassination money can buy and promises that he will be dead within 48 hours of receiving the message.
“Already my agent is close to you. You will not know who, or how, or where until it is too late.”
Suddenly the doorbell goes and G’Kar immediately invites them in. C’mon Ambassador, would it be that hard to just look out your damn window… okay he doesn’t have a window. But he could check a security monitor or something!

His visitor claims to be Na’Toth, his new diplomatic attache. Wow, Ko D'Ath didn’t last long did she? In fact I think I think she only made the one appearance, back in Born to the Purple.

Meanwhile Sinclair's getting into dress uniform for a Centauri religious ceremony, while Garibaldi's awkwardly trying to tell him that "Catherine's on board." Presumably she's the woman he spotted in the teaser.

Sinclair’s a bit shaken by this. Seems that Sinclair and Catherine have a history and Garibaldi wanted to give him a heads-up before he bumped into her accidentally. Sinclair doesn’t much want to bump into her deliberately either, though he does he does ask if she was with anyone.

Later, at Ambassador Mollari’s demonstration of his people’s dominant religion, Sinclair and Garibaldi discover that when the Centauri have a ceremony, it tends to involve drinking, dancers and lutes. Seriously, there’s a whole medieval band playing behind them.

Vir explains that the ceremony started back when his people fought for survival against another sentient race on their world called the Xon. Every year they'd count up how many people hadn't died and celebrate their good fortune. “Do you know what the last Xon said, just before he died?” asks Londo. Then he clutches his heart and yells “Agghhhh!”

The humans at the table force a grin but it’s clear that they’re suffering. Maybe not as much as Ambassador Delenn, but she has to suffer in silence as she still hasn’t got an aide of her own to share her misery with. Wow, it's been a while since Londo, G'Kar and Delenn were all in an episode together like this. No sign of telepath Talia Winters though.

Now Londo’s trying to get everyone to raise their glasses and shout “Valtoo!” with him. Sinclair gives it a half-hearted effort, and gets a bit of food thrown at him for his lack of enthusiasm. Which means Londo's thrown something in every episode he's been in so far!

Sinclair takes his role as a diplomat very seriously, but seeing Catherine again is starting to seem a lot more appealing by comparison, so he sneaks out and leaves Garibaldi and Ivanova to struggle on without him.

Wait, what is this? What is happening here, what even is this? Ivanova has her hair down and she’s smiling? What?

Ivanova seems to be genuinely enjoying herself for once, and she asks Londo what the deal with all the statues is. This was a mistake, as the ambassador climbs up onto the table and starts explaining them all. Loudly.

Oh and now he’s calling the Minbari ambassador cute, this is all working out great for diplomatic relations. To be fair he also calls Garibaldi cute so it’s not like he’s singling her out. Meanwhile a miserable Garibaldi is diligently removing the food from Londo's path and resting the glasses on their side. The cheerful wisecracking security chief who watches Looney Tunes with ambassadors is surprisingly not so fun at parties.

Cut from an awkward party to an even more awkward conversation, as Sinclair tracks down Catherine Sakai. Funny how she has the same initials as Sinclair's girlfriend in the pilot movie, Carolyn Sykes.

Usually the way things work for Sinclair is that whenever he gets five minutes of free time Ivanova calls him with a problem. But this time he had the bright idea of taking his link off and putting it in his pocket so he wouldn't be interrupted. Which gets a bit embarrassing when Catherine points out that his pants are talking to him.

Turns out that the two of them have known each other forever, going through the same routine every three years or so of accidentally running into each other, dating and then screwing everything up. They’re wiser now though, they understand how this always plays out and they know it’s best to just avoid each other. So Sinclair invites her to dinner and she says yes.

Meanwhile G'Kar has skipped the Centauri party due to his all-consuming hatred for him, and also because he wanted to get to know his new aide Na'Toth... by process of an angry interrogation. Seems that her predecessor Ko D'Ath wasn't just written out due to the actress's problems with the make-up, she was accidentally blasted out of an airlock! Only he's not so sure it was an accident now.

By the way, Caitlin Brown as Na’Toth is a perfect pair for Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar as they have a similar level of smug self-assuredness and attitude, being larger than life without turning scenes into pure camp. Plus she doesn’t just hiss and throw people into tables like Ko D'Ath did. Poor Butz...

Na'Toth points out the Narn assassin's guild has a tradition of leaving a black flower for the victim to find, so he'd know if someone was really trying to kill him. He hasn't found a flower, so maybe his nemesis was just lying to make him paranoid! Now I'm wondering if G'Kar has figured out yet that Sinclair pulled a similar trick on him with a non-existent tracking device back in The Gathering.

Cut to G’Kar waking up to find a black flower on his pillow and screaming.

Okay back when I wrote about Born to the Purple I mentioned that comedy music doesn’t belong anywhere near Babylon 5, and I have to admit that I was wrong. I mean 99% of the time it's terrible, but this scene is only enhanced by the creepy lullaby version of G’Kar’s ‘fishy’ song playing right now. “I’m thinking of thinking of sending her flowers” turned out to be foreshadowing! Kind of.


ACT TWO.


The next morning G’Kar is waving an knife around, ranting about flowers, leading to a great exchange with Na'Toth:
G'Kar: “And you have no idea how that got into my bed?”
Na'Toth: “Ambassador it is not my place to speculate on how anything gets into your bed.”
G'Kar explains that he can't go to Sinclair for help, because... uh… sorry, I’m getting distracted by the amazing alien make up on these two. We’re getting a lot of G’Kar this week and most of that is chin. He can't ask Sinclair for help because he'd have to reveal things he did while on the council, which may compromise planetary security! No really; he hasn't exactly been the most sympathetic or honourable character so far, but the guy cares about his people.

Wait, G'Kar was/is on his world's ruling council? Seems like he and Delenn have more in common than they know. Anyway, he eventually decides to send Na'Toth to find that courier from the teaser, while he goes to arrange for some protection.

Speaking of Delenn, she's finally gotten her own lackey: a wide-eyed innocent called Lennier who won’t even look up at his boss without considerable encouragement.

Perhaps Delenn can get a bit more screen time now that she has a character to confide in. They can talk about how she’s secretly Satai Delenn of the Grey Council for instance, though she makes it absolutely clear that he MUST TELL NO ONE. We’re still holding onto that mystery for a while.

That means all the major ambassadors finally have an attaché! Well except for Kosh, but he's never around anyway. The cryptic conversations he could get up to with another Vorlon on board would be incredible though. 

Meanwhile, in the yellow part of the station, a frog biker with a massive head is having a smoke break. Oh, this must be one of the praying mantis kingpin's guards!

* Reminder: Babylon 5 is one of the most respected speculative fiction series to ever air on television. *

G'Kar's come down here to hire a bodyguard. Not just any bodyguard mind you, he’s getting the mute rhino man who tried to drag Londo and Sinclair out of a nightclub a few episodes back!

I had no idea these minor characters were going to keep showing up like this, and I'd be happier if they didn't. Sure I smile when N'Grath appears, he's a dopey looking mantis puppet, but I want Babylon 5 to be better than this! Farscape totally could've pulled him off though.

While G’Kar is down in the foggy alien sector, Sinclair and Catherine are up in a classy restaurant enjoying this matte painting. I've played a lot of 'Mass Effect' since I last saw this and now it seems wrong to me that there's no hover cars rushing by overhead.

The actors were certainly up to delivering their dialogue in the manner it was intended, but when the mellow synths showed up on the soundtrack this all got a bit too cheesy for me.

Next up is the Minbari religious ceremony, which involves very little drink or dancing, but a lot of bells. Hey, I recognise this from the opening titles! The Centauri ceremony was featured there too now that I think about it. It’s been a very ‘opening credits’ kind of episode.

Delenn’s monologue here is about death couched in the promise of new life, and renewal disguised as defeat (and so on) and poor G’Kar is looking uncomfortable throughout. He could be assassinated at any moment, his bodyguard hasn’t shown up, and Delenn keeps saying ‘death’, so the man is less than enthusiastic when offered a fruit to eat as part of the ceremony. This leads to a joke so subtle I didn’t even notice until it was pointed out to me:

I've frozen everything but the hand to make it easier to see (and keep the filesize down).

And after stealing Ivanova's fruit he still doesn’t dare eat it.

One nice touch I noticed is that Ambassador Londo eats his fruit without hesitation, then nods to Vir that he should eat his too. Garibaldi on the other hand just puts his back down; the guy really isn't getting into the spirit of these ceremonies at all.

G’Kar races back home from the Minbari ceremony and finds his rhino man bodyguard just sitting in his bedroom! He’s more than a little pissed off, but his mood soon changes when he realises that he’s yelling at a corpse. R.I.P. goofy Rhino man, you shall be forgotten.


ACT THREE.


Soon Garibaldi’s in there investigating the death, which is something G’Kar doesn’t need. Especially when his keen investigative eye draws him to some pink underwear behind a chair cushion. A momentary grin comes across the ambassador's face before his brain catches up.

He explains to Garibaldi that he was brought here as a courtesy, gesturing wildly with the panties as he rants. His diplomatic quarters are considered foreign soil so he doesn’t have to answer any of his questions or put up with his harassment! Garibaldi knows that he’s right, so he apologises. “And just let me say ambassador from the bottom of my heart, hot pink is definitely your colour."

Funny how it took someone to die for Garibaldi to cheer up a bit. Also G'Kar showed hints of being able to pull off a comedy plotline back in Born to the Purple, but he's killing it in this episode.

Meanwhile, in a meeting room somewhere else on the station, this guy on the right just won’t quit hovering over his friend’s shoulder. It looks so creepy when we see them from Catherine’s point of view. Especially when the gentleman on the left kind of whispers “You’ve hit the big time!”

Oh right, this scene’s about us learning that Catherine works as a planetary surveyor, and her learning that her last find has earned her a considerable amount of cash. She’s got no one to celebrate with though…

… so she invites herself into Sinclair’s quarters. Well he invited her really, by saying ‘come’ instead of checking who was at the door, but… okay wow this just got really grainy all of a sudden. Is there CGI composited in somewhere I’m not seeing?

Now we’re back to the romance plot, which is more of a ‘should we give in and let ourselves slip back into a relationship that never ever works’ plot. I don’t want to criticise the dialogue in this scene, as it might sound a bit forced and unnatural but it was apparently based on the writer’s (painful) true experiences. Also Catherine quotes Tennyson at one point and poetry just bounces right off me, so I'm aware I'm down at the shallow end when it comes to critical analysis.

Wait, I've figured out what's wrong with this scene!

There, that's much better. B5 can seem dated at times, but this is like a script from the 40s that was filmed in the 80s. Catherine even says "Don't touch me unless you mean it," before they kiss.

Oh and of course Sinclair gets interrupted by someone calling him on his link again.

Meanwhile G’Kar’s finally gotten hold of that courier who gave him the data crystal at the start of the episode and during their conversation he figures out that Na’Toth is the assassin sent to kill him!


ACT FOUR.


But nope it was actually the courier.

G’Kar wakes up in one of the dirtier parts of the station to discover he's wearing some new wrist and neckwear. They’re called paingivers, though they’ll also double as deathgivers if G’Kar comes within five feet of the counterfeit courier, so strangling him is off the table.

Back in G’Kar’s quarters, Na’Toth walks in to find the place deserted. See, people can just walk into people’s quarters uninvited with no key! No wonder 40% of the major ambassadors have been kidnapped from the own homes by murderers in the last five episodes.

The assassin’s still happily electrocuting G’Kar to death by the time Na’Toth figures out where they are, though he’s less cheerful when she strolls in behind him. But she assures him that she’s not here to stop him, she’s here to make sure he gets the job done right. She’s his backup!

Na'Toth notices the paingivers and isn’t impressed, saying that they’re crude and unimaginative, and begins to demonstrate her own alternative method of prolonged torture: kicking the ambassador until he's unconscious. G'Kar's been having a bit of a crappy week.

The assassin’s still on the fence about whether to believe she really is his backup though and unfortunately for Na’Toth any doubt is too much doubt in his line of work, so now he’s going to kill her too.

SURPRISE! G’Kar’s not actually unconscious, and he charges over to pick the assassin up like he’s a ragdoll. Actually I think that really is a ragdoll he’s holding above his head there. Either way he's getting launched into a wall hard enough for him to bounce.

Na’Toth’s beating was more surgical than it appeared, as she was kicking him in a way that damaged the paingivers. Still hurt like a bastard though... and she still enjoyed it.

There’s no need in killing or torturing the assassin though; they just drug him until his deadline has ran out and then take him to his ship. In fact G’Kar even deposits a considerable sum of cash into his account for all his trouble. Of course it’ll look to the assassin’s guild that he took a bribe and let his target live, so they’ll be hunting him for the rest of his short life to restore their honour.

Finally an episode where G’Kar gets to be the wily hero! Kind of.


ACT FIVE.


And then the episode drops the ball in the last two minutes, as the ambassadors are waiting in the corridor for Sinclair to demonstrate Earth's dominant belief system.
Na’Toth: "I don’t hear any drums."
Vir: "Or bells!"

* Long pause as the camera pans over the entire cast. *

Lennier: "Or chants! Are you sure that we've come to the right place?"
I’m cringing so bad right now.

And it turns out that Earth’s dominant belief in 2258 is…

All of them, apparently.

The episode ends with Sinclair leading the ambassadors into shaking hands with a representative from each in turn, introducing them by their name and religion as the screen fades to black.

Personally I'm not a fan of this ending, as greeting a couple of hundred people in a row doesn’t help anyone understand them better, it only shows that you have an amazing memory (and by the producer’s account actor Michael O’Hare actually did, as he only needed to be told the names twice to remember them all). Londo and Delenn showed legitimate religious ceremonies that gave us insight into their cultures, while this is just some bullshit Sinclair came up with at the last second. Plus it’s boring as fuck for everyone involved!

And how’d he find all these people in the middle of deep space anyway? Were they already on the station in their full religious attire or did he ship them all in from Earth? Okay okay they’ve got a major religious event going on this week, so I suppose it’s possible or even likely that they were already here for that (like knife pilgrim at the start) and he just rounded them up. Plus to be fair, writer JMS explained later that the point of the scene wasn’t intended to be ‘check out how many religions we’ve got, you monocultured aliens!’ it’s ‘check out how much respect we have for our many religions’. Basically humanity's dominant belief is that all beliefs are respected. B5's universe is far from a utopia, but we've come that far at least.


CONCLUSION

Parliament of Dreams, more like ‘G’Kar’s Wacky Assassination Mystery’. I’m surprised to see a G’Kar focused comedy/romance episode so soon after a Londo focused comedy/romance episode, but I’m not complaining as this is a lot better. The first genuinely enjoyable episode for me since the season opener in fact. Even the small moments worked for me this time, like Garibaldi rescuing the glasses during Londo’s table crawl, Sinclair’s pants talking to him, G’Kar’s panties being on display and the surreptitious fruit swap.

The episode was basically broken into two plotlines which weaved between the religious ceremonies, and personally I didn't find Sinclair’s awkward conversations with Catherine to be a welcome break from the comedy. But whenever G'Kar came back on screen I suddenly gave a damn again, especially if he was sharing it with his new sidekick Na'Toth. G'Kar's been the closest thing the series has had to an antagonist so far, considering how every time he turns up he's involved in an attempted assassination or military occupation (plus there was that line he had about exterminating the Centauri and turning their bones into flutes), but here he finally gets an A-plot of his own and he owns it. Trying to save his own life doesn't exactly put him on the side of the angels, but it's nice to see him straying from the role of the villain.

Though for an episode based around religious ceremonies (to the point where the title basically means organization of religion) this has surprisingly little to say about religion. We learn that the Centauri have a lot of gods and use religion as an excuse to pour drinks and get the lutes out, we learn that the Minbari are deeply spiritual and like triangles, and we learn that Earth has apparently got a lot better at religious tolerance in the last two centuries. But the shocking twist is that Earth Central turned out to be right this time, and the ceremonies really did help them understand each other better, instead of triggering a holy war across the station. So that's nice!

I kind of want to put Parliament of Dreams above Midnight on the Firing Line and say it's my favourite episode so far, but Midnight introduced the Starfuries and kicked off major story arcs, while this keeps veering off into Sinclair and Catherine's cheesy romance, so I can't. But it's a step up from the last three for sure.


Babylon 5 will return with Mind War. But coming up next on Sci-Fi Adventures is Deep Space Nine's Q-Less.

Your welcome to leave a comment in the box below if you like! I know its existence kind of implies that, but I'm making it explicit.

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