RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “A Distant Star” (Season 2, Episode 4)

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If the previous episode is where Babylon 5 *wants* their average to be, this episode is more like where it actually is. It’s certainly not bad, certainly far better than the competition at the time (cough cough DS9), but it’s not *as* good as they’re generally shooting for.

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The EAS Cortez visits the station, ostensibly for resupplying, but in actual fact it’s just for its captain to say ‘hi’ to Sheridan. Turns out he was John’s first-ever commanding officer, one Sheridan got out of the academy. They served on the Moon-Mars Patrol together, whatever that means. Sheridan gives him the tour, we here the same ol’ chat we always hear about how B5 is the place to be, but Maynard isn’t really buying it.

He’s happy to see his friend, but he feels like Sheridan’s been beached. Sheridan must have been suspecting this himself, since it hits him pretty hard. He gets short tempered, cranky, he’s not ‘Smilin’ Jack,’ and as annoying as ‘Smilin’ Jack’ is, I guess that’s a bad thing. Sheridan questions if he can even do his job on the station, and more-or-less openly longs to be commanding a starship again.

The Cortez leaves, and immediately has a poorly-defined malfunction that gets them lost in Hyperspace. They get out a distress call. Sheridan mounts a crazy plan to rescue the ship and his friend (And the several thousand extras that live on the ship), despite the fact that no ship lost in hyperspace has ever been found again.

Basically, they send out a squadron of Starfuries into hyperspace. One holds position, another one flies ahead a few thousand klicks until the first fighter is right on the edge of its scanner range, then it holds position. A third fighter flies forward, and stops when the second is at the edge of its own scanner range, then a fourth and a fifth and so on. Theoretically, the Cortez should be able to find them, and follow them back to the gate.

Theoretically.

MEANWHILE, the Minbari on the station are questioning Delenn’s recent metamorphosis. They want to know what she is, and why she is. She refuses to explain, and when the representative of the local disgruntleds asks if she’s still on of them, she replies with an ever-so-slightly fanatical “I am more one of us than I have ever been.” Just the same, the dude asks to verify it with the Grey Council, and she says, sure.

MEANWHILE, Garibaldi is mostly well, but has some lingering problems from his injuries. Doctor Franklin puts him on a diet (“Food Plan”) to adjust his metabolism, and bring his blood pressure down. He also uses this as an excuse to go over the “Food Plans” (Diets) of the other senior staff. Sheridan is basically forced to eat “Rabbit Food,” and Ivonova is told to eat more pasta and sauce because she’s underweight, and low in calcium.

Ivonova: “It figures. All my life I’ve fought against imperialism, and suddenly I *AM* the Expanding Russian Frontier.”

Franklin: “But with very nice borders.”

This results in a lot of grumbling, some cheap humor, and one stagy but funny scene in the Zocalo where the three of them swap food, then, hurriedly swap it back again when they realize Franklin is watching.

MEANWHILE, Warren “Who?” Keffer and Zeta wing are out looking for the Cortez in hyperspace. Commander Ray “Dead Meat” Galus and he end up being the guys at the end of the expanding line of fighters. They sight the Cortez, but just as they’re about to make contact, one of those freaky shadow ships shows up for no adequately explained reason, killing Galus and damaging Keffer’s fighter.

As the episode is running a bit short, Keffer’s radio doesn’t work, so he has to indicate which direction the Cortez should fly in by shooting repeatedly in the same direction. This eats up a minute or two of screen time. Once Captain Maynard has figured it out, Keffer’s radio magically starts working again, and he heroically sacrifices himself: “If you come trying to rescue me, we’ll both get lost.” Maynard proves once again that this *isn’t* Star Trek by doing the sensible thing, and leaving the guy to die.

All alone, Keffer waits out the end, but then the shadow ship comes by again. He’s able to plot out it’s course relative to his own, which allows him to figure out where the gate is, and he makes his way back to the station several hours after he’s been presumed dead. Everyone is happy to see him. He’s promoted to Commander of Zeta Wing, and is clearly obsessed by figuring out that that thing he saw out there was.

MEANWHILE, Garibaldi is attempting to cheat on his food plan by smuggling in the ingredients to make Bagna Cauda, which is basically the Italian equivalent of fondue. He has to keep it hush-hush because Franklin’s on his butt the whole time about his eating. Once he’s finally got the ingredients, Franklin busts him, so Garibaldi explains that his dad used to make it for him on his birthday every year. “He’s been gone a long time, and I miss him, so every year on my birthday I make it sort of to honor him. It’s all of him I’ve got left.” Franklin relents and tells him to make enough for two. They end up eating and having a good time.

MEANWHILE, Sheridan and Delenn have a really painfully hokey overwritten conversation in the Zen Garden about the changes both of their lives have come to these last few weeks. They both decide they’re where they need to be, and they’ll stick it out.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

By my entirely baseless calculations, I figure this episode probably takes place around the beginning of March, 2259. Sheridan, however, makes a statement that implies he’s only been on the station a month. It’s hopelessly arrogant of me to assume I’m right and the show is wrong, but in fact shows have interior continuity errors all the time, and I think this is one of ‘em. It’s minor. It doesn’t hurt anything, and even if I’m right, it doesn’t really *mean* anything. Just the same: a month seems rather rushed, don’t you think?

Hyperspace in B5 has always been one of those “Don’t try to figure it out, just accept it” things. Unfortunately, since this episode revolves around it, there’s no way to squint or look away. Let’s just dive in, shall we? It is impossible to go faster than light in the B5 universe, however Jumpgates allow ships to go into and out of hyperspace, ending up crazy distances apart. I accept that, no problem. Large ships can generate their own jumpoints. I accept that also, no problem. We’re told that ships in hyperspace follow beacons. Again: No problem.

The issue here is that the Cortez has lost its ability to follow the beacon, so they’re going to drift off and be lost. So: why don’t they simply turn off the jump engine, and fall back out into normal space? I asked Straczynski this on AOL back in the day, and he said that hyperspace doesn’t have a 1:1 correspondence with real space. In other words, let’s say you’re trying to use Jumpgate A to get to Jumpgate C, thereby bypassing a whole bunch of boring nothing that is the “B” in between. If you turn off the Jump Engine in between points A and C, the place you end up re-entering normal space will not be in “B,” but rather more-or-less at random. Might be ten miles away, might be the other side of the galaxy.

Ok, this is all well and good, but it *Still* doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t do that anyway. Ok, so you pop out in a random location, so what? You look around, figure out where you are, and then jump again and find your way home. Assuming you’re in BFE and can’t figure out where you are, just hunt around for a Jumpgate. The Jumpgate network spans the galaxy and is so ancient no one really remembers who built it (Sometimes it’s said to be the Vorlons, sometimes not, as far as I know there’s no official canon answer to this) If you can find your way to the Jumpgates you should theoretically eventually be able to find your way anywhere. But even if you can’t, it beats being dead, right?

Which begs another question: What’s actually *in* hyperspace that makes it so dangerous? Sheridan says in this episode that there’s a current that tends to pull ships away from the channels. The network can be added to - the Agamemnon was building jumpgates when Sheridan was reassigned, and Maynard says the Cortez does a good deal of that as well. Theoretically, then, one can add to the Jumpgate network, so it must be relatively plug-and-play. Despite this, however, no one seems to have done any real exploration off the beaten path. Certainly humanity hasn‘t, they make it patently obvious in the series that nobody has the slighted idea what lays off in that swirling red chaos. The Minbari and Centauri have far more experience in hyperspace than we do, but they‘ve never said anything that would indicate they actually *know* more about it than we do. The Narn and the Nonaligned worlds mostly are less technologically advanced than earth, so there‘s nothing to really be learned from them.

We do eventually find out in the short-lived Crusade series that the Technomages have actually got a lot of off-the-beaten-path knowledge of hyperspace, and can and do go wherever they feel like, with not too much concern for getting lost. Likewise, the Shadow Ship we saw tonight was going wherever it wanted, regardless of the beacons, so at least two things can do it. Are those things related? Maybe. Maybe not. Could be a clue, I ain’t sayin’.

Several episodes back, sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed a man reading “Universe Today.” The headline said “Is There Something Living In Hyperspace?” Keffer referenced it today, obviously it’s become something of an urban legend. Presumably the Shadow Ships are what people have been seeing to inspire the rumors. (Completely unrelated to this, of course, we do actually see something that definitely *is* living in hyperspace in Crusade. It’s not as interesting as all this Shadow business, of course. )

Bottom line: everybody in this episode did everything they did simply because the script told them to, and not because it made any kind of internally logical sense. Hyperspace basically does whatever it’s required to in service of the plot, and looking at it any closer than that will make you go all crosseyed. It goes without saying that Keffer’s miraculous escape never *quite* makes sense.

The exposition on Sheridan’s backstory is done better here than in any previous episode, but I’m officially sick of hearing about stuff he did before the show started. I was really sick of it from the outset. Ok, the dead wife stuff: we needed to know that, but the Dali Lama? The Orange Blossoms? Nothing we learn today is of any consequence. His actions in the war are relevant, but we didn’t need to know them right the moment he got off the plane, so to speak. I prefer to find out about a character by watching him do stuff, not hearing him tell about stuff we’ll never see. Particularly when it revolves around characters that we know full well we’ll never see or hear of again: Sheridans’ sister? Never mentioned again. Captain Jack Maynard? Ditto. It’s cloying to use ‘close personal friends’ in this way when it’s obvious from the outset that they’re *not* close personal friends, just plot contrivances.

Once again, Doctor Franklin attempts to show concern, but just comes across as surly. And when he’s actually trying to be authoritarian, he’s even surlier:

Garibaldi: “Ok, it’s my birthday. You can check the date.”
Franklin: “Ok, it’s your birthday: So what?”

Ivonova’s newfound penchant for complete nonseqetors continues. Last week: the puberty thing, this week the imperialism thing. Franklin’s out-of-nowhere leering comment was pretty funny, though.

The running diet gag plays out funnier the first time you see it, kind of tedious on repeat viewings. It was a nice slice-of-life thing at the time though, the kind of thing you hadn’t commonly seen on SF. Mundane stuff like keeping your weight down, or exercising. Stuff that people theoretically must be doing all the time in this fictional world, but we never see it. It is also a sort of inside-joke. Bruce Boxleitner was looking a bit paunchy when he joined the cast. He’s looking trimmer here. In this episode and the second one, his weight gain is blamed on the station providing actual real hydroponic fruits and vegetables and grains and stuff, not synthetics, which he’s been over-indulging on. But in fact, this is hokum: the actor was just a bit out of shape when he got the gig.

This episode was written by Dorothy C. Fontana, who worked on Star Trek: TOS back in the day. Pretty much any kind of internal consistency that Trek has is due to her. She kept track of that stuff on her own initiative. Much as I bag on Trek, I *never* bag on DC. She’s one of the unsung heroes of that franchise, and Science Fiction on American TV in general. All hail Dot! All hail Dot! This is, by the way, her second episode for the series. It is also the first episode this season that wasn’t written by Joe Straczynski, and the first one he hadn’t written himself since episode 17 of the previous year. That’s an eight-episode stretch written by one guy. In our post-David E. Kelly world, this isn’t to unusual, but it was unheard of then.

G’kar, Na’Toth, Vir, Londo, Lannier, and Talia do not appear in this episode. Lt. Corwin does, however. We also see Earhart’s restaurant. The Zen garden turns up, too. The bridge of the Cortez is the same redress of the B5 control room we saw on the Agamemnon.

A few words about the Cortez: It’s an “Explorer Class Ship.” In the 135 filmed hours set in the Babylon 5 universe, we see exactly two of ‘em. They are extremely rare, and designed to function on their own, completely away from a port for as many as five years at a time. They’re huge, too, miles long. Eyeballing it parked alongside B5, it appears to be about half as long as the station itself, making it about 2.5 miles bow to stern. My old fan club ship recognition chart gives these measurements:
Length: 4572.3 meters
Beam: 304 meters
Draught: 4572 Meters
Displacement: 100,000 (metric) Tons
And it’s got six engines.
It’s actually a pretty reasonable design for a starship, too: basically a small LaGrange colony with engines.
Its mission is scouting, mapping, building jump gates, doing scientific research, and first contact situations. It is *THE* cherry assignment in Earthforce. Everyone wants it. Let’s convert it to the terms of our own world to give it a sense of proportion: Sheridan was essentially the captain of a Supercarrier, let’s pick the Nimitz or the Reagan, which is *the* best thing you can get, the best there is, the thing everyone dreams of. And yet he was openly lusting after Maynard’s command.

Yeah, it’s that cool!

They mention that there are kids living on the station in this episode. We almost never see kids on the show, and it’s a little unclear if this is transitional, or if they have basic facilities like schools and whatnot, but in context it appears there are some fully-functioning families living here. Which you’d expect in a city of a quarter million people.

Once again, Jerry Doyle plays the small scenes really well, but he overplays the big one. The scene where he’s talking about his dad is really good, the bit where he’s griping about Franklin’s menu is overtly slapstick, but not in the really funny fashion Vir got last week.

CONTINUITY STUFF

The appearance of the Shadow Ship seems forced, and basically just there to remind us that arc is still going forward. Conversely, Delenn’s scene dealing with the obvious revulsion of her people was a nice, subtle reminder of the ongoing Minbari Prophecy storyline.

And that’s about it, kids, there’s not really too much to pour over in this one. It’s never *quite* business as usual on B5, but as of this episode, all the really overt transitional stuff brought on by the departure of Sinclair is out of the way, and we’ve hit our new more-or-less status quo.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Sure.

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