RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “By any Means Necessary” (Season 1, Episode 12)
This one is a watershed, kids; B5’s first actual *important,* game-changing episode, though most of us aren’t going to like it
PLAY BY PLAY
There’s an accident in the docking bays when a Narn transport and a defective ship elevator collide. The investigation quickly proves that the defect was caused by contractors using substandard equipment when building B5 in order to come in on-budget. (And even in the future, “Lowest Bidder” gets the job as they specifically point out here) On top of that, the thousand or so dockworkers who load and unload cargo from the ships that visit B5, and refuel them, have been understaffed and under budgeted since day one. Most of them are working double shifts, with less than ten hours off before they have to do it all over again. Triple shifts aren’t uncommon. It’s a hard life, and now, thanks to these privations, people are starting to die.
Making matters worse, B5’s new fiscal year budget (Yeah, they’ve still got those in the future too!) has come out, and the Dockworkers Guild didn’t get any increases. Sinclair struggles to cope with the situation, but it quickly gets out of hand, and it ends up in an illegal strike in a strategically-important defense-related job (B5 is a military outpost, after all). “Illegal” since their contract states they can’t strike under any circumstances. The senate sends in Orrin Zento, a labor negotiator, to mediate the dispute. He makes a sort of token pro-forma half-interested attempt to end the strike, but mostly he condescends and threatens, and it’s fairly obvious (Though never stated) that he *wants* the situation to go bad for some nefarious reason. Sinclair, meanwhile, has been going over the budget and reading all the senate agreements pertaining to the situation.
A riot breaks out, and Zento imposes “The Rush Act,” which everyone is afraid of, and which hasn’t been used in years, but it’s apparently pretty draconian. Sinclair marches right into the middle of the riot, and says “The Rush Act empowers me to end the strike by any means necessary, correct?”
Sinclair: “And I have your complete support in whatever I do?”
Zento: “Yes, of course.”
Sinclair: “Ok, I am hereby allocating 1.2 million credits from Babylon 5’s military budget to be used towards hiring more workers and upgrading our substandard equipment.”
And the strike is over! Zento is furious, and leaves the station. Senator Hidoshi contacts Sinclair to tell him that he’s personally quite pleased with his solution, but also to warn him in no uncertain terms that there were those in the Senate who *wanted* the situation to turn ugly, and Sinclair has now angered a lot of them and made some powerful enemies.
MEANWHILE, that Narn transport was carrying a “G’quon Eth” plant, a rare Narn plant difficult to grow, hard to transport, expensive to own. It is, however, crucial for the most important religious ritual of the Narn year: When the first rays of light strike G’quon mountain on Narn on a set day of the year, they have to offer prayers and sing while putting the seeds or nuts or berries or whatever of the G’quon Eth plant in a holy fire. As the highest ranking member of his faith on B5, it is G’kars’ duty to lead the ceremony and provide the plant. It must happen at the exact same moment the sunlight hits the mountain throughout every Narn community in the galaxy. He made arrangements months ago for one to be shipped out, but it ended up overdue and of course it got destroyed in the crash.
As it happens, Londo has one. The nuts or seeds or berries or whatever evidently have some hallucinogenic qualities, which are quite enjoyable when plunked in an alcoholic beverage. The taunts and torments G’kar in pretty humorous fashion, and G’kar tries various methods to get the plant - including buying it - but Londo has no intention of letting him have it. Ultimately, G’kar complains to mom - Sinclair - but owing to the strike he can’t get to resolving the situation until *after* the prescribed moment for the ceremony. He rules the plant a “Controlled substance” and confiscates it, then gives it to G’kar with instructions to pay Londo for it. G’kar is quite depressed until Sinclair points out that the light which touched G’quon mountain a decade ago will be reaching B5 in several hours, and they can have the ceremony then.
Impressed, G’kar genuinely and effusively thanks him, and rushes off to lead the ceremony on the observation deck.
This is exactly how you should do a B5 episode: Solid dramatic A-story, equally solid humorous exotic world building B-story. Both are interesting, both make good use of their time, both are thought provoking, and both intersect at the beginning and end of the hour, complimenting each other. This episode was written by Straczynski’s wife who, by Joe’s own admission, knows the B5 universe better than anyone excepting himself. I always wished she’d write some other episodes, alas…
If an earth decade equals 12.2 Narn years, then that means a Narn year is 298.5 earth days. This implies it orbits a cooler star than our own, and is consistent with the red lighting we see in G’kars’ quarters: They orbit a red giant. This is really the *only* acknowledgement of different spectral classes for stars in the entire run of the show.
“G’quon” is a Narn prophet/religious leader from 1000 years ago*. (There’s that number again!) We’ll find out more about him, and it will be relevant. Despite G’kars’ frequent malfeasance and hatred and sexual perversion and chicanery, he seems to really believe in it and hold it in high personal regard. Londo accuses him of using the religion for the power and prestige it brings, but in fact G’kar seems to be genuinely anguished that he can’t do the ceremony, and legitimately overjoyed when he finds out he can later on. There’s some real reverence there. Na’Toth is an agnostic or an atheist, though her father was a follower of “G’lon,” an older Narn religion.
Despite being polytheistic, the Centauri consider the Narns to be “Pagans, still worshiping their sun.” Odd, no? The Centauri maintain a “Cultural Center” on the station, which houses the idols of their whole pantheon, and evidently serves as a temple for religious services.
The Earth Alliance (The government comprising Earth and all its colonies) is in the middle of an economic recession.
Sinclair becomes increasingly stubbly and bedraggled over the course of this episode, and visibly more worn out. At the end he mentions he hasn’t slept in two days.
“New Kobe” and “New California” are mentioned, though it’s unclear if these are planets or regions on planets or cities or space stations or what. Mars Colony, Europa, Ganymede, and Io (The latter three being moons in our solar system) are all mentioned to have had major strikes in the past. Ganymede had a pretty famous strike situation in ‘37 that lost some lives, and The Rush Act was last invoked on Europa.
There’s some fan speculation about the nature of the Rush act. Though specific terms are never mentioned, everyone is afraid of it, and the implication is it’s pretty harsh, far harsher than needed. Why would such a law exist, and why would you need a Senate vote to enact it? Most fans believe its only previous usage was on Europa, and that during the Earth/Minbari war, when workers would have been severely overused and when a strike would have seriously impeded the war efforts. I think this is a fair speculation.
“The Rush Act” is named after Rush Limbaugh, as a kind of in-joke by the writer.
Neither Zento nor the Union Leader chick were terribly believable in this. The guy who played Zento was previously seen as the second Soul Hunter a while back. As to the chick, I have to think she was simply miscast. I get what they were going for: diminutive chick who’s forceful out of all proportion to her size, but it just doesn’t work. She yells like a woman who hasn’t yelled much, you know?
Senator Hidoshi is, as always, a bit of a wad, but he does actually come out as a friend of Sinclair and the station this time out.
Zento is said to be twelve hours from the station, so where was he coming from? B5 is about a week from earth.
If Narn orbits a red star, and if that star is 10 LY from B5, and if B5 orbits Epsilon Eridani, then there are two contenders for the location of the planet: the stars V577 Monoceri and Luyten Half-Second 1723. I know, I know, stars have crazy names. Of the two, Monoceri is the less likely since it’s a binary star system, but in fact both are really super cold and unsuited for carbon based life. If Narn orbits a red giant (More likely), then there are no contenders within the parameters given.
“Credits” are actually called “Commercial Credits,” sort of an international trade unit.
G’kar swears “By my pouch” on one occasion. That’s right, the Narn are marsupial lizards! This is the first mention of it.
This is our first time seeing The observation deck. The scene was intended for a generic internal room in the station, but they cobbled the set together at the last minute because they felt the scene needed a bit more magic and visual oomph. They were right: It’s a very nice scene, and it wouldn’t work any other way.
Jack shows up in the riot scene, the French Chick is here as always, and the reporter chick from “Midnight on the Firing Line” shows up unexpectedly as well. Ivonova gets another amusing badass scene.
“Morph Gas” can be pumped in to knock out the workers, and then they can haul ‘em off to the brig.
“So,” you ask, “Why is this an important episode, r3?” Well I’ll tell ya’: Science fiction on TV is generally regarded as goofy kid stuff, and not without good reason if we’re honest. Space-based SF set in the future is even worse, as the writers and producers frequently take that as a license to throw any and all real-world concerns out the window, which makes their fictional world all the less consistent and renders it a thing of plastic to be twisted and shaped or even contradicted at whim. This is made worse still by some of the more socially impaired fans - and yeah, I’m just going to say it: a LOT of us are - who are drawn to SF because they can’t stand real world stuff in the first place. Romantic love? Money? Religion? Politics? Crime? Law? Art? Sports? Don’t want me none o’ that, I just want sets that look like a dentists’ office fullthinly-defined characters who stomp around fascist space pajamas giving easy solutions to nonexistent problems. Yeah! Chairman Mao rules!
B5 was really the first American SF series to say “People in the future will still be people, and hence we will still have all the problems arising from people.” This episode in particular, was the first one to really do that, and the first American SF show *EVER* to deal with economics in a reasonable fashion. This was unbelievably refreshing after half a decade of Trek’s utopian socialism. Leaving money aside, this is the first time we get to see a blue-collar perspective of life in space, a world in which low-station not-terribly-well educated people like most of us still exist. Trek makes a big deal out of the “Perfectability” of the human species, but in fact there’s something vaguely exclusionary about that, isn’t there? They might *say* that everyone in the future is beautiful or handsome and educated, and gainfully employed in some adventurous or interesting or artistic pursuit, and yet this “Kalifornia Uber Alles” view of life is conspicuously absent of people with long hair or folks with obnoxious hobbies, or people who really don’t give a crap about understanding your emotional needs, they just want you to fix the fracking dishwasher; or snore, or won’t shut up about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; or who are particularly human at all. It’s a vaguely Aryan view of the future. It’s Aryan minus the skin color requirement, but with every bit as much uniformity and dogma.
This episode of B5 changed all that: The dockworkers are clearly lower class, but they take their jobs seriously, they love their families, they’re very upset when one of their own dies. They get angry, they lash out, but they regret their actions after they calm down. They work crappy jobs for miserable bosses who don’t care, as many of us do. They deal with recessions. Many of them are ugly, all of them are very physical. At least one of them appears gay (Check out the dude clapping behind Garibaldi when Sinclair reveals his solution), they are neither propagandistically good nor stereotypically bad, they are simply people, like you and me.
You wanna’ know why the Trekies hate B5? Because it’s full of people, and that threatens their worldview. To massively paraphrase CS Lewis, the trekian view of the future involves the abolition of the mankind of the present.
This is the first episode in any American SF show that didn’t simply show us what the future looked like, it also showed us how it *worked.* More modern shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly and (To a lesser extent) the Stargate franchise have all scooted in to make good use of this stuff, but make no mistake: It was Babylon 5 that first cracked that door!
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?
It’s pro-union, so no.
*- “1000 years ago” being the mid-1200s.