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Thursday, 1 June 2017

Babylon 5 2-04: A Distant Star

Episode:26|Writer:D.C. Fontana|Air Date:23-Nov-1994

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm continuing my descent into season 2 of Babylon 5 with the fourth episode: A Distant Star.

This is the first episode this season written by someone other than creator J. Michael Straczynski and the last B5 script from OG Star Trek veteran D.C. Fontana. There'll be a lot of 'last script's coming up over the next few months, as the series became too serialised for outside writers to produce standalone stories any more. That seems like a strange situation seeing as modern serialised TV series are written by multiple writers just fine, but I guess most of them haven't got an elaborate five year arc planned out in advance.

Okay what I'll be doing here is taking a few screencaps from the episode and then writing my commentary underneath, so this will include SPOILERS for the entire episode. I'll also be talking about the episodes leading up to it, so there'll be spoilers for them too. But as far as I'm concerned it's November 1994 right now so I can't say anything about what's coming next.



The episode begins with a heroic theme playing as we see a close up of… uh… a solar panel maybe? Whatever it is, the modeller's gone all-out sticking greebles on it.

Oh it's a piece of a hyperspace jump gate! There's little space tugs pulling the sections together, so we're getting to see how the FTL gates are constructed here.

A lot of the gate network is ancient, but it turns out that humanity isn't in a Mass Effect or Stargate situation exactly, as we're perfectly capable of repairing the things and building more of them. It just requires a big-ass ship, like the EAS Cortez commanded by Captain Jack Maynard (pictured below).

The motion blur and whatever they did to get the footage onto these DVDs has left the ship looking like a fuzzy mess, but the heroic music is back and it's stating very clearly that this is the Starship Awesome. Looks more like a cross between a Chris Foss painting and some scaffolding to me though. That thing is like 90% empty space, so who knows where they've been pulling all their jump gate panels from.

I suppose it's possible that they've just used all their parts up, as the ship is currently heading to Babylon 5 for a resupply after it's Five Year Mission exploring deep space. There's no replicators in the B5 universe so the toilet paper situation must be getting pretty desperate right now as well.

Over in B5's C&C Captain Sheridan is pretty hyped to see the Cortez arrive. He's old friends with the captain and the ship is basically the B5 equivalent of the USS Enterprise so this visit is making his whole week.

In fact he loves the ship so much that he gets everyone’s attention just so that he can tell them how awesome it is. He explains that if they're very lucky they might see two of these explorer ships in their entire lifetime. I suppose that's one way of breaking it to his crew that there's no chance any of them will ever be assigned to one.

By the way, Ivanova’s still limping with a cane after her incident last episode with the Drazi. That’s not just good continuity, that’s the actress coming into work with a broken leg.

You can tell this is the future as they've moved beyond using paper. Now they print onto clear acetate sheets instead; far more practical.

Wait, that's it? That's all we get for the teaser? An Earthforce ship has arrived and for once its captain isn't a dick, cut to titles?

We do have a new voice over for the opening credits though. The words are the same, but Bruce Boxleitner had the footage in front of him this time around so he was able to give a narration that better matched the visuals. Now he sounds more proud about the station being "a shining beacon in space" and more regretful about this being "the year the great war came upon us all".

But Ivanova's credit hasn't been upgraded to 'Commander'! In fact it doesn't seem like her new rank is going to be acknowledged by the opening titles until season three.


ACT ONE.


After another blast of the Cortez hero theme, the legendary Captain Jack Maynard himself arrives on board to brag to Sheridan about all the sectors he's scanned lately (not to be confused with Captain Jack Harkness or Captain Jack Sparrow).

The two of them follow the camera around the winding corridor sets for 30 seconds in one take until they run into Ambassador Delenn who wants to convene a meeting of the council later to discuss blah blah blah blah blah and etc. Sheridan seems happy to rearrange his calendar to accommodate her, but then he always has a smile on his face when he sees Delenn. I'm sure that on the inside he's thinking that Captain Kirk never had to deal with any of this bullshit.

Maynard's pretty amazed to meet the galaxy's only half-human Minbari and if he's holding any grudge against her race after the war he's polite enough not to show it. Plus he’s probably secretly trying to figure out if she has two separate sections of hair, or if it’s threaded underneath the bone (it’s apparently the latter).

Sheridan tries to convince himself (and Maynard) that he can make a difference running Babylon 5, but his friend knows that he's always wanted an explorer ship of his own. He didn't train to manage a city, he's got no interest in politics, he's a space adventurer that's been tied down to a desk.

Down in Medlab, Dr. Franklin is still keeping an eye on Security Chief Garibaldi's recovery after he was shot in the back a month or so ago, and he's not happy with how he's eating. He's putting him on a restricted diet, which restricts him from eating pretty much everything.

Oh this is the food plan episode! I remember this one. This is the episode that made me hate Dr. Franklin for a while.

This isn't great timing for Garibaldi as he was planning to make bagna càuda for his birthday. I don't actually know what that is, but it involves a pint of olive oil, a quarter pound of butter, lots of garlic and anchovies. Franklin won't even let him have bread.

Hang on, that sheet he's holding looks like regular paper more or less. But the paper in the teaser was transparent plastic! Am I supposed to believe that the station staff use two vastly different types of paper in their printers? They're stretching my suspension of disbelief to breaking point here.

Later, Garibaldi's briefing Sheridan on the latest petty shoplifting wave going on down in the Zocalo, but Sheridan's not in the mood. Turns out that all the fresh oranges and hot showers on the station aren't quite enough to offset the petty bullshit he has to deal with here day in, day out, and now it's starting to show. Cheerful smiley Sheridan has been replaced with grumpy Sheridan and he's taking his frustration out on his co-workers. I nearly typed 'friends' then, but then I remembered that these two haven't actually known each other all that long.

But then he’s back to cheerful Sheridan in the very next scene! Either he's faking it or he's just happier when he's hanging around with his old friends like Captain Maynard, Ivanova, pilot #2 and that other guy who's in the opening credits every week. Uh... Lt. Keffer.

Sheridan is a textbook example of how to introduce a new regular into a TV show, but Keffer on the other hand is the exact opposite. The plot has never given him a reason to interact with the crew so he only shows up for drinks. And yet everyone's friends with him, apparently.

It's funny because characters like Lou Welch, Corwin, and Franklin's doctor friend in Believers showed up and fit right in like they'd always been there, standing just out of shot this whole time. With Keffer on the other hand I keep waiting for the twist where they reveal he's an alien who edits himself into people's memories to infiltrate their lives or something.


ACT TWO.


Hey it's taken a couple of episodes but we're finally getting a scene of Delenn dealing with her metamorphosis in some way.

The other Minbari on the station have chosen this guy to come and have a word with her about it. Seems that they liked her better when she looked exactly like them and now they don't know what to think. They need more information so they can understand what's going on with her.

She explains that understanding isn't required, only obedience, but that's not going to fly any more. In fact they're going to send a representative to the Grey Council to discover if she is still one of them; still Minbari. I get the feeling Delenn has been taking their trust and loyalty for granted up until now and never even considered her people would doubt her.

Back in Medlab, Franklin's checking up on Ivanova now and he's not happy with her diet either. She's apparently not eating enough and his plan (printed on regular paper) will help her get more of the vitamins and minerals she needs. And she'll also put on weight.

"Figures. All my life I've fought against imperialism. Now suddenly I am the expanding Russian frontier" she grumbles, hobbling away. "But with very nice borders" adds Franklin.

Somehow I'm thinking that joke was added in the JMS's rewrite. Then again D.C. Fontana wrote for the original Star Trek, so she's got plenty of experience with characters constantly referencing Russia.

Speaking of things that JMS might have added, Sheridan drops by and gets put on a food plan as well, as Franklin thinks he could lose weight. Funny how his sister said the same thing a few episodes back.

Holy shit what happened to Sheridan’s desk? I get that they’re trying to show how busy he is and how his enthusiasm has drained away, but the only way it could get that bad is if he was deliberately piling stuff onto it to make a point

Also we’re back to the transparent paper again! Sorry, I don’t know why that’s the thing I’ve latched onto this episode.

Ivanova's here to bring him more problems to deal with, but she also offers him an opportunity to vent about what's on his mind. He explains that the Cortez has left and gone off exploring at the Rim again, while he's stuck here drowning with trivia and petty problems. He's become a bureaucrat and he doesn't know if he can handle it any more.

Meanwhile the Cortez has only been gone two minutes and they’re already having an exciting new adventure involving hilariously explosive computer failure. They haven't ran into an alien battle fleet or a space iceberg here, this is all due to hardware failure.

All producer JMS wanted was a few sparks and a bit of smoke but I guess the pyrotechnics people were bored. Well at least it's different; sparking consoles were cliché even then.

The bad news is that they're stuck in hyperspace, they've lost the lock on signal from the jump gate, and the room stinks of burning plastic. The good news is that it gives Pat here an excuse to tap buttons like crazy and shout a lot. He's playing that console like he's Daffy Duck on a grand piano.

I like their subtle redress of C&C by the way. They put a couple of red stripes on the walls and suddenly it looks like a spaceship bridge. A Star Destroyer bridge to be precise, now that there's an actual bridge dividing the pit.


ACT THREE.


Everything's still dull on Babylon 5 though. The command crew have finished their shift and now they're faced with the meals Dr. Franklin has chosen for them. But as usual they're able to apply their out of the box problem solving skills and think their way out of the crisis.

Sheridan passes his rabbit food to Ivanova, Garibaldi gets Ivanova's fattening meal and Garibaldi's food goes to Sheridan. Can't tell what it is, but he seems to want it.

Of course Franklin catches them in the act and they have to swap back. Cue the comedy music (man I thought they'd stopped doing that.)

The scene did make smile though, and it further establishes that Franklin in a monster. Seriously, whenever I think of the character of Dr. Franklin, this subplot from this episode is the first thing that jumps to mind. He'll always be a tyrant inflicting his inhumane food plans upon the crew to me.

Oh right, the crew of the Cortez are still having their own crisis. They're so screwed that they don't even get their heroic theme music this time!

This is probably only the second time that hyperspace has made an on screen appearance in Babylon 5, despite it being referenced all the time. It's a bit late but the series is finally taking a moment to explain how their FTL works.

Nice background there. Apparently the door from the Cortez's bridge leads out to a painting of a large hadron collider. I keep staring at it in the hopes of catching the Flash running around out there but there's been no sign of him yet.

Unlike other sci-fi series, FTL travel in Babylon 5 requires travelling through a chaotic cloudy red hyperspace dimension which can only be navigated by locking onto jump gate beacons. There’s no other point of reference for the Cortez to use out here, no stars, no landmarks, nothing. They can't just flip the ship around 180 and go back either because they've already been swept off course.

And they can't just re-emerge in normal space where they are using their own jump engines and then build a new jump gate beacon because... I have no idea. Maybe they could and it wouldn't help as they still wouldn't know where the rest of the network is.

Babylon 5 picks up the Cortez's mayday, but they can't just send a ship out to help them because they don't know where she's ended up. No ship lost in hyperspace has ever been recovered. This isn't a 'in a thousand years' situation, no known race in the galaxy has ever pulled this off in their entire history.

So of course Sheridan's going to send out some fighters to give it a try. He's gathered a room full of people here to brief them on the plan: five Starfuries will head into hyperspace and form a chain, each locking on to the one behind them to make a lifeline back to the gate. The rest of these pilots, they've got the rest of the day off I guess. Who knows why they were even dragged in here.

So the Starfuries carry out the dangerous plan, with one stopping every thousand kilometers to form the next link in the chain, until Keffer is able to home in on the Cortez's mayday.


ACT FOUR.


Suddenly a one of those spiky black spider ships emerges and blows up Galus’s Starfury just by being close to it. It explodes in a weird way too, by crackling with blue energy then cracking into pieces, so I’m not really sure what happened there.

Keffer’s hit too, though he only takes damage. They’re not about to kill a guy in the main credits in his second appearance. Probably.

Maynard can see Keffer’s Starfury, crippled, spinning out of control and firing shots off into nowhere, but it takes him a while to figure out that he must be firing his guns in the direction they need to go! I guess 2000 kilometers away there's another Starfury pilot down the chain wondering who's shooting at him.

But then they manage to get in radio contact with him, so all that drama about the Cortez crew trying to work out what he was doing was pointless. Sadly they can't rescue him so I guess the series really is about to kill a main cast member on his second appearance.

Meanwhile on Babylon 5... I think? Yeah that’s definitely B5’s C&C, you can tell because there’s no walkway covering the pit and the red strip’s been taken off the row of blue lights. Meanwhile on Babylon 5 they get the good news, the Cortez has been saved and it only cost two Starfuries to do it. The ship even gets its theme tune back when it comes through the jump gate. It heroically made a short trip back without anything exploding this time!

So yeah the impossible thing that had never been done before turned out to be really easy, kind of obvious, and only cost lives because spider ships were in the area doing spider ship things.

And I'm sure in time they'll realise that the loss of Keffer was actually more of an opportunity than a tragedy. Now they've got a second chance to introduce a pilot character and not screw it up this time. Or the command crew could take turns climbing into a Starfury and leading the fighter wings themselves like they did all the time back in season 1!

Well the Cortez has been saved, but that doesn't resolve Sheridan's dissatisfaction or Garibaldi's birthday meal plotline!

Garibaldi had managed to find a source for his bagna càuda ingredients to get them onto the station without Franklin finding out... but then Franklin found out.

So Garibaldi tells him the story of how his father would cook bagna càuda for him on his birthday. He could never tell his son he loved him, but he let him know through his awesome cooking. I'm not sure if we're supposed to believe this, but he seems genuine enough and Franklin's convinced. So he relents on the bagna càuda ban, but only if he gets to have some too.

Well, good! Maybe I'll get to find out what this stuff is before the episode's over.

Delenn finds Sheridan in the garden later and decides that if nothing else is going to cheer him up this episode she might as well do it. She's had cause to do bit of thinking herself lately, about whether she's meant to be on Babylon 5, and her conclusion is that everyone's exactly where they should be.

She then basically quotes Carl Sagan, or his Minbari equivalent, pointing out that atoms in our bodies were forged in stars and that we are universe attempting to understand itself. So... he should be happy with his desk job I guess.

And then Keffer emerges from the jump gate, to the relief of absolutely no one watching this (though Sheridan's quite happy to see him). He used the spiky black spider ship's trajectory as a reference and then used it to calculate his path back to the gate. Somehow.

You might wonder if there's something... suspicious about his miraculous return. After all no one had ever rescued a ship lost in hyperspace before today, so a ship rescuing itself is doubly implausible. But nah, he just did a clever thing. He sure is suspicious about those spider ships now though. Obsessed you could say.


ACT FIVE.


Yep, the episode's still going. Babylon 5 does that.

In Garibaldi's quarters, Dr. Franklin is exposed to the apparent awesomeness of bagna càuda. Turns out it's basically a hot dip. I decided to go to its page on Wikipedia and learned this interesting fact:
"The US television series Babylon 5 episode "A Distant Star" featured Michael Garibaldi's effort to smuggle the ingredients for the dish onto the space station in defiance of doctor's orders."
Even the food pages on Wikipedia have TV spoilers!

Anyway Franklin's tempted to authorise dessert, Keffer gets promoted to Zeta Squadron commander in Galus's place, and Sheridan clears the crap off his desk. The end.


CONCLUSION

Some Babylon 5 episode titles become perfectly obvious five minutes in, like Grail is about a man looking for the Holy Grail, Believers is about people with strong beliefs, and Deathwalker is about Deathwalker. Others like Parliament of Dreams and The Geometry of Shadows take a bit of thinking about. But then there's titles like A Distant Star which make no sense no matter how much brainpower you devote to solving them. The episode has nothing to do with any distant stars whatsoever! Sure it's got Sheridan wishing he could visit distant stars again and it's got Delenn talking about starstuff, but for the most part it's about a ship trapped in hyperspace, which is the furthest these folks are ever going to get from the stars. Though it had a distant Starfury at the end I guess.

This is a definite A plot/B plot kind of episode, with two running storylines (Sheridan and the Cortez, Franklin's food plans) that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Plus Delenn shows up for a couple of scenes in her own tiny C plot where she has to confront the fact that her people don't trust her any more. Then she drops in on the B plot to accidentally rat Garibaldi out, before making her way to the A plot at the end to help Sheridan feel at home, because resolving the Cortez crisis didn't get the job done. So she never actually fixes her own problem, but she does inadvertently get Garibaldi and Franklin to bond over bagna càuda, and Sheridan to clean his damn desk up, so she's done well this week.

The food plan B plot helps establish that the crew likes to eat food they like and that Franklin is a smug self-righteous tyrant that sustains himself on the suffering of others. In fact for a moment it seemed like he was about to start a second Earth-Minbari war by pushing his suggestions on Delenn as well but that didn’t happen. His plot does lead to the best (and most obvious) food swapping comedy moment since Garibaldi’s prank on Ivanova at the start of Babylon Squared though, and it’s nice to see the doctor come around at the end thanks to the power of Italian food.


The Cortez A plot was alright I suppose, and it does help explain some things about hyperspace, but the most interesting thing about it for me was seeing Sheridan actually being friends with an Earthforce starship captain. In season one Sinclair was continually butting heads with other officers and by A Voice in the Wilderness he had zero patience left for people who could threaten his authority. But Earthforce captains are Sheridan's people, and he and Maynard get on great together. It shows that Sheridan is his own person and they didn't just run a find/replace on Sinclair's name in the scripts.

The second most interesting thing was the possibility of Keffer's death. I'm not saying that to be mean to the little git, I think the one advantage of putting him in the cockpit instead of one of the leads is that that there's an actual chance he won't make it back. But Keffer managed to maintain his grip on the opening credits yet again and now he's become the second person to encounter a spider ship and live (after G'Kar in Revelations)! Though the ships were mostly just serving the function of a rock this time, acting as hazard and landmark. Whatever they were up to, they weren't slicing anything up.

I can't remember if I enjoyed this episode first time around when I didn't know exactly what was going to happen, but this time around my attention was really wandering. I was making notes about the types of paper appearing on screen just as excuse to scribble things on my notepad. I may have also sketched that Minbari that visited Delenn as well. It's not a bad episode, it's certainly no TKO or Grail, but we're definitely back to business as usual after dealing with the fallout of Chrysalis, and you could skip it without missing out on much.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with The Long Dark. But next I'm watching Stargate SG-1's epic feature-length pilot episode Children of the Gods!

Comments are always appreciated.

3 comments:

  1. The only thing I can think of is that the title may be referring to the way sailors would use stars to navigate and that sort of ties in with how Keffer gets back to B5.

    Tenuous, I know.

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    Replies
    1. Makes more sense than anything I've come up with.

      Delete
  2. +1 for the Chris Foss shout-out. Those are as rare as Explorer-class starships.

    ReplyDelete