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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Babylon 5 1-14: TKO

Episode:14|Writer:Larry DiTillio|Air Date:25-May-1994

They've finally chosen something more interesting than a stock space station shot to show the title over!

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm watching TKO, which is either the 14th or the 20th episode of Babylon 5's first season, depending on whether you're going off the US airing/DVD order or the Master List order found on the Lurker's Guide website.

Or you could follow the original UK airing order I suppose. TKO was considered to be too violent for Channel 4's usual 6pm slot, so it was delayed until 10.30pm... three months after the season finale. It aired so late that it was basically leading into season 2, as a trial to make sure only the truly faithful would stick around to witness B5's ascent to greatness.

Personally I've been following the Master List, which jumbles up the episode numbers like so:
20 - Babylon Squared
21 - The Quality of Mercy
14 - TKO
17 - Legacies
22 - Chrysalis
You might be wondering why you should care, considering that you can read my posts in any order you feel like. Well, when I recap and review an episode I don't just spoil the hell out of it, I also throw in SPOILERS for the episodes that came before it. If an episode gets pushed forward that means there's more behind it to potentially get spoiled.



The episode begins with two guest stars arriving on the liner White Star together and parting ways with a handshake. Occasionally during the series there's clues that producer JMS didn't have everything planned out from the very start, and the name of that ship's one of them.

The Russian rabbi on the left is played by Theodore Bikel, who has appeared in a ridiculous amount of television, but science fiction fans would likely know him best as Worf's dad on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was Russian in that too now that I think about it.

Meanwhile Garibaldi has spotted some criminals trading pamphlets for a pouch of coins right in the middle of the shopping mall. Actually you can blink and miss it, but the writing on the thing he's holding says "Synthetic L-Dermotropini Analgesic Preparation" so I think it's a pack of transdermal painkiller patches. Though it's the future, so Garibaldi calls them "slappers".

They try to make a run for it, so Garibaldi throws one through the flower stall behind them and then punches the other one out.

You'd expect this to be the part where the person who needed to sell those flowers to make rent comes over to say 'What the hell, man?' but they're still off screen somewhere. They don't even warn Garibaldi that he's about to get stabbed in the back, so either they ran away or they're after bloody retribution.

Fortunately for Jerry Doyle's continued employment, Garibaldi's saved by a surprise punch from the guy we saw down in the customs area earlier. Not the rabbi, the other one.
"One of these days Garibaldi you're going to learn to watch your back."


ACT ONE.


Turns out that this is boxer Walker Smith, an old friend of Garibaldi's. Old enough to be surprised that he's only drinking water these days, but not old enough to be boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson (his real name was Walker Smith Jr.)

By the way, there's a prominent 'Zima' sign stuck between them in the background, but it's not actually product placement. Apparently it just amused producer JMS to think that the drink would still be around in 200 years.

Elsewhere in the station, Ivanova's listening to soft jazz and relaxing with legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison's hilarious autobiography... which doesn't exist yet.

I read somewhere that Ellison borrowed the prop afterwards and carried it around with him to make his fans think there was a book they'd missed. He announced in 2008 that he'd signed with a publisher to produce Working Without a Net for real, but it doesn't seem like that book's materialized yet.

Suddenly the doorbell rings... it's the rabbi at the door and these two are old friends too! Usually when a character's old friend turns up on the station they come close to destroying the place, so two at once may well get the job done this time.

This is Rabbi Koslov's first time in space but he had to make this epic trip to speak to Ivanova about her father, who died back in... episode 3, Born to the Purple I think. She's Jewish but she hasn't sat shiva yet, despite it being months since his death. She explains that she can't because of her duties and he understands, but he'll be sticking around for a while anyway.

Meanwhile Walker explains why he's here on B5. He was a contender for "the title", but Sportcorp had invested in his rival and he was told to take a dive. He declined their generous offer and before he knew it he was publicly disgraced. They doctored his blood test to make it look like he was taking drugs and he hasn't been able to get a legitimate fight in the last two years.

So he's come to Babylon 5 to earn his reputation back, by being the first human to fight in the Mutai! Garibaldi points out that Mutai is more like a meat grinder than a prize fight, with no rounds, no rules and no gloves, but Walker's not even slightly concerned. Plus he calls the aliens 'snakeheads' which I'm sure has to be offensive. The episode is definitely setting him up for a big fall.

He also mentions that one of his fights was called 'World War IV' so like Star Trek, B5 takes place after World War III. Seems like even the more optimistic sci-fi series agree that we can't go to the stars until we've nuked ourselves first.

Meanwhile Rabbi Koslov has gone straight to Ivanova's boss to spill all her secrets to him, like the fact that her father died several months ago and she never said anything about it. Ivanova and her father didn't get on, especially after the death of her mother, and when she joined Earthforce after her brother's death in the Earth-Minbari War that made the rift between them even worse.

Koslov wants Sinclair to give her some time off to sit shiva, and he's got absolutely no problem with that. She would've had it earlier if she'd just asked for it.

Oh by the way, shiva is a Jewish tradition where family, friends and members of the Jewish community gather at the home of the bereaved and offer comfort. The rabbi just explained it to me, so now I'm passing the info on to you. Koslov was ostensibly describing the tradition to Sinclair, but of course he's already familiar with it (Parliament of Dreams revealed that he's got a photographic memory when it comes to religion).

That night in the swanky expensive open-aid restaurant, Ivanova and Rabbi Koslev have dinner and discuss whether Centauri fish is kosher. Then the subject turns to her father again and he admits that he spoke to her commander and knows that she can have all the time off she needs. This sends her running away in tears, leaving him to deal with the fact that he may have made a bad move.

The actor playing Koslev is so damn likeable that I can't help but sympathize with him here, even though I'm not exactly captivated by the drama. I mean this is the scene they chose to lead into the ad break? They thought this would be enough to get people to stay tuned through the commercials?


ACT TWO.


After a slow pan across some choreographed kicks, the camera finds Garibaldi and Walker coming to speak with the Muta-Do who presides over the Mutai so that he may join the Mutari and fight. Ineresting how all these alien words sound kind of Asian to me (say it out loud and Mutai's basically Muay Thai). Also that's a Korean-American actor called Soon-Tek Oh under all that make up as the Muta-Do and he's definitely playing him like a wise old martial arts master, complete with accent.

"This place is only for Mutari. Go," the man states.

"Relax E.T. I'm looking for the Muta-Do," replies Walker, like he somehow hasn't realised he's in a room full of the most dangerous and violent aliens on the station, and the old looking guy is probably the boss.

The Muta-Do simply tells him that humans aren't allowed and he should go back to Earth, then turns and walks back to his favourite corner of the room. Walker doesn't have time for this shit, so he grabs him by the shoulder...

...and humanity's greatest boxer gets his ass handed back to him in two moves.

"Damn snakehead caught me by surprise," complains Walker in some other bar or restaurant somewhere. The third we've seen this episode in fact.

Garibaldi explains that the Mutai means something to these people and he's not treating it with respect but Walker tells him to "Stroke off" and then storms out. Man, Larry DiTillio episodes really do have the best/worst sci-fi slang in them.

Though one of the Mutari is lurking in the shadows outside, waiting for him. He explains that he is Caliban and he has another way for Walker to fight in the Mutai. But he has to do it properly and not act like an ignorant jackass this time.

Hey, they've finally revealed who makes all the signage for the station!

Sinclair offers Ivanova the time off she needs but she's still not interested. So that plotline's continuing on its slow steady course. The acting's still fine though, no one's really screwing anything up here, I can just see the road ahead so clearly that it's hard for me to care so much about the part I'm currently at.

Meanwhile in restaurant #4, Garibaldi and Walker are chatting about the Mutai again. Actually I'm seeing a lot of uniforms so I'm thinking this is likely the mess hall for station personnel.

Walker claims that he's given up on his dreams of taking part in the Mutai, honest, but he's gotten himself two tickets for the fight tonight if Garibaldi's interested.

Fluorescent lights huh? I should've seen it coming. Now that I think about the worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation also had a fighting arena surrounded by strip lights, so if you're ever making a sci-fi series yourself it's probably best not to do that.

Anyway it turns out Walker and Caliban have secretly come up with a plan. After a winner is named in the Mutai someone from the audience can challenge him, so Walker's going to get his fight this way instead. One possible downside to the scheme is that it'll put him against the current champion, Gyor, but he's not even slightly worried about beginning at the highest level. And this time he's determined not to accidentally call any of them snakeheads.

"The challenge is accepted. In three cycles, the Mutai will take place," declares the Muta-do.

Hang on, what? Three cycles? Last time I heard the word 'cycles' they were a year long, and in Grail they implied that 300 of them was a few hours. I don't remember cycles being mentioned all that much in the series after this so I think they quietly were swept under the rug in favour of less vague units of time like 'hours' and 'days'.

Doesn't seem like these guys are too keen on a human getting in the ring though.
"You intrude upon our worlds, make mockery of our customs, meddle in matters you do not understand. But humans have no place in the Mutai. It is ours and we will not let you dishonour it. Not now, not ever."
Wow, some specifically anti-human sentiment from a group of different aliens, that's kind of new. Human groups like Homeguard have been hating on the other races for intruding on our world but I don't remember humans being singled out and excluded like this before. Everyone's an alien on Babylon 5.


ACT THREE.


Ivanova and Rabbi Koslov are on better terms the next morning, as he brings over her family's samovar, which is apparently a kind of kettle. This particular kettle has been in her family for hundreds of years and she's very happy to see it.

She's still not going to sit shiva though, because she's still pissed off at her dad. She needed him but he wasn't there. This makes the rabbi even more concerned about her, as "Without forgiveness you cannot mourn and without mourning you can never let go of the pain."

Garibaldi wants to know why Caliban is helping Walker (he's not the most likeable person). Turns out that he challenged the champion Gyor during his final Mutai and lost, so I suppose he's after another shot at him through a proxy.

I'm not sure why he believes that some human he's never heard of is the guy who can take down the best Mutai warrior, but then he never said that this is the first time he's led some naive hopeful into the meat grinder like this.

Over in he customs area, Ivanova catches up to Rabbi Koslov just before he departs on the White Star so that she can say goodbye.

But then she has a flashback to her last call to her father (back in Born to the Purple), where he begged her to forgive him. So she decides to forgive him and sit shiva after all! Which means poor Koslov doesn't get to escape the episode just yet.

Later, back in bar #1, Walker's upcoming fight is all over the news, just as he wanted. Garibaldi's still worried he's going to get destroyed, but Walker explains that's the point. To be the best you have to face the best and this fight against Gyor is going to show him where his heart is. It'll be on the floor next to all his other organs.

And then he even gives a thumbs up on the way out! Could've just been a throw away gesture but he's got the music backing him up all the way. All the way back up to the 80s.


ACT FOUR.


In C&C Ivanova requests leave to sit shiva. It's granted, and Sinclair's going to join her.

She sits shiva.

What the hell Caliban? You don't get to join in with the hand grab! You're making a mockery of our customs, you meddle in matters you don't understand and we will not let you dishonour... oh fine, go on then.

They're just saying their generic pre-fight lines here before Walker goes out and wins the respect of the aliens while also demonstrating that he now respects them. I'm thinking the fight's probably going to end in a draw, but I kind of hope that Gyor just picks up him and tears him in half with his alien super strength as a visceral demonstration of why humans aren't allowed in the Mutai.

Man that's a lot of extras in make up. Actually, now that I'm looking closely I think most of the people at this alien fight that humans have no place in are human.

Ivanova tells the group a touching story of how her father once backed her up when a writer she idolised mocked her, and then the Mutai begins. I mean she's still sitting shiva in her quarters, she didn't come down to the neon arena to tell the whole crowd. It's cutting back and forth from shiva to Mutai now.

Immediately after the match starts, Gyor starts breaking out the spin kicks and punches and poor Walker's soon struggling to get back on his feet. I'd say he was against the ropes, but if they actually went anywhere near those fluorescent barriers they'd probably shatter them.

That alien from before is getting really pissed off now that a human is daring to occasionally punch the champion in the face, so he pulls out his tiny little gun and tries to assassinate him.

Fortunately Caliban notices and sends Garibaldi over to elbow him in the face. So that non-plot's over with now.

Well Caliban just gave a thumbs up.

Meanwhile Ivanova's reading a prayer for her dead father and she bursts into tears at the end. Which I suppose is a good thing. It means she's finally gotten over all that happiness she had when she was reading the Harlan Ellison book and listening to jazz in her quarters at the beginning.

I have a feeling her quiet emotional scene is supposed to contrast with the violent Mutai fight, but I'm not sure why.

After a few minutes of mutual pummelling the two fighters are equally wrecked and barely able to move, so the Muta-do calls the match. Final result: a draw.

Demonstrating the character growth he gained during his first conversation with Caliban back in act two, Walker resists the urge to throw out some space racist term like 'snakehead' or 'E.T.' at his opponent and instead shows respect with the correct hand gesture.


ACT FIVE.


Later in the customs area, Walker demonstrates the character growth he still has by showing respect with the correct hand gesture again. The Muta-do states that now all humans are allowed to entire the Mutai, possibly because they've arrested the one person in all of space who actually had a problem with it and confiscated his tiny gun.

Then... you get the idea.

"Watch your back," he reminds Garibaldi on the way out to his ship.


CONCLUSION

A rabbi and a boxer walk into a space station; it sounds like it's a set up for a joke, but TKO is no laughing matter. It's a serious examination of what happens when you make a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie in space without a whole lot of money, self-awareness or Jean-Claude Van Damme, and have it constantly interrupted by a tale of a rabbi trying to make a woman grieve over her dead father.

A lot of Babylon 5 episodes so far have had two plots, with the B plot often serving to pad out the run time. Personally I didn't have much interest in watching Londo dealing with Vir's cousin trying to run away in The War Prayer or Sinclair reconnecting with Catherine Sakai in Parliament of Dreams, but they were bearable as an occasional break in the A plot. This on the other hand is all B plot all the time and there's no escape from it.

Ivanova's B plot works fine I suppose if you want to see someone struggling to forgive her dead father and come to terms with her loss without a hint of sci-fi metaphor involved. It seems cruel to say anything bad about it because of how solid the acting is from everyone involved, but personally that wasn't enough to keep my attention. Part of the problem is that Ivanova was hiding her pain all this time, there's been no sign of it, so this story seems to come out of nowhere as pay off to nothing. In fact the episode was aired earlier than planned due to a miscommunication, so for most viewers she went right back to hiding her pain after this and no one noticed.

Garibaldi's B plot on the other hand is entirely driven by the guest star, with the character we care about basically just hanging around with him while he resolves his story. Walker Smith starts off as a stubborn confident fighter who wants to get into the Mutai to resurrect his career, he ends as a stubborn confident fighter who used the Mutai to resurrect his career and there's virtually nothing between those two points. As soon as Caliban explains what he needs to do Walker's tiny growth as a character is over, as he does what he's told, shows a suitable amount of respect, and quits calling everyone a snakehead. And the fight wasn't even that savage in the end!

What they should've done here is swap the boxer and the rabbi around. Rabbi Koslov struggles to get into a brutal alien martial arts championship with Garibaldi's help, while disgraced boxer Walker Smith tries to help an angry Ivanova through her grief... way more interesting.

I'm not sure I'd call TKO the worst episode of Babylon 5, as episodes like Born to the Purple, Infection and Grail suffered from things like bad acting, endless exposition and obnoxious comedy music that actively irritated me. This on the other hand is just dull. It reveals nothing, it does nothing interesting, it has no impact on anything in the long run. It's the definition of skippable.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with Legacies. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm watching DS9's Duet. It's my reward for sitting through all of season 1.

Comments are welcome and encouraged.

2 comments:

  1. I know I always say that I have almost no memory of these episodes but I remember nothing about "TKO" other than it getting rescheduled. I'm pretty sure that I watched it, because I was hooked on B5 at the time, but it's left no impression at all.

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  2. I can see why the Master List puts this near the end of the season, so you don't forget what Walker keeps telling Garibaldi. I'd feel insulted if I weren't sure I'd have forgotten "TKO" long before the season finale if run in the original US order. In fact, I'll probably forget it again by the time you recap "Chrysalis". Oh, well. Nice try, Master List.

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