RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “A Race Through the Dark Places” (Season 2, Episode 8)

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I just watched the first episode of Lost. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it, I’m not a virgin. We were - and remain - huge fans of the show on the site here. In fact, we had two different guys running independent reviews of each episode as they aired, just because there was enough stuff in the story that it was possible one of us might miss something. It was good enough a show that we didn’t *want* to miss anything, so we reviewed each ep twice.

That said, I haven’t watched it at all since it ended. It ended well, I enjoyed the calm, contented feeling of completion that came from it, I was happy. “Know when to say goodbye” is one of my several mottos. I’m not the kind of guy to make a tearful final farewell, then come blustering back in five minutes later asking the person I said goodbye to if they wanna’ go get a snow cone. It makes a mockery of things. Know when to close the door, and know when to leave it closed. It’s not that I never had any intention of watching the show again, just, I just had to let it sit for a bit.

This is a Babylon 5 review, by the way. We’ll get to that.

My dad took a bad fall on Christmas eve, was rushed to the ER, and died on December 30th. It was abrupt, out of nowhere, tragic, appalling. We’re all reeling from it still. He was in great health, there was no warning, no preparation. We figured we had another eight or ten years with him, but, no: survive the Great Depression and the Korean War without a scratch, then take one clumsy step in the suburbs, and that’s all she wrote.

My dad didn’t have hobbies, really. The only two things he was interested in were Working and Goofing Off. Goofing Off only exists in relationship to work, and in order to be “Goofing Off” it has to be unstructured, unorganized, and fairly brief. I occasionally tried to snag him into getting interested in stuff, though. Several of his friends liked “Lost” and talked about it, I liked it and talked about it, he was vaguely interested, so I thought “I’ll get him these DVDs and maybe he’ll get into it, and it’ll give us one more thing to talk about.” Predictably he never got into it - old guys generally aren’t all that into TV, unless it’s sports or CNN - and that was that. That was, what, maybe, 2005 or so? 2006? Thereabouts.

Now, I’ll level with you: I have raved and raved and raved and raved for nineteen years now about Babylon 5, I’ve called it a lot of good things, I’m pretty fanatical about it, I’ve watched the entire series start-to-finish several times, I adore the show. When we started covering it here on Retrospeculative TV, I was pretty into it, pretty excited, really looking forward to it. It’s the only full-length series we’ve ever covered in this feature, actually. 110 episodes, five seasons, and several TV movies. Alas, as my coverage has gone on, it’s begun to feel more like work and less like fun. I start to think of all the other things I could maybe be watching or reading or writing about instead, and my stupid little B5 reviews begin to feel…tedious. Burdensome.

A week or two, I found the Lost Season 1 DVDs at my dad’s place. He hadn’t even taken ‘em out of the box. My mom told me to take ‘em, as she’ll never watch it, and there’s no point in just throwing ‘em out. I reluctantly did. They’ve sat in my car for several days. I felt like I really shouldn’t get into another TV series at least until I’ve gotten through the 2nd season on B5. Not a big deal. 14 episodes to go, I can do that in two weeks, no sweat. Once I schedule it, that gives me 3 and a half months to do other things. Cake. I do it all the time. I watched episode 8 last night, and couldn’t bring myself to write up a review.

“Screw it,” I said this evening, “I’m watching Lost!”

So I did, and, hey, no big surprise, it was everything that I remembered it being, if maybe a little over-much on the jittery cam in the cockpit sequence, but, man, what a great show! What a great first episode!

And this makes me think about context and the times. For me - for a lot of us, I assume - the way we react to something involves the circumstances in which we saw it. When I first saw B5, I had outgrown everything on TV, and it was the only show that treated me like a grown up. It was fast, funny, smart, interesting, complex, deep, had a great style, and was modestly exciting on occasion. Yeah, it was cheap and looked like crap and the acting was adequate at best, and JMS has an unfortunate penchant for soliloquies, but I recognized all that on the front end, and it didn’t matter: The thing is a product of its time, and in relation to its time, this thing is, was, evermore shall be better than Trek or Andromeda or any number of other SF shows on at the time. It just *is.* And all that is true, and all that will remain true, and I’m not backing away from any of that…

Then I watch the first episode of Lost, and I’m blown away. Not because I haven’t seen it before, not because I don’t remember it accurately, but rather because of the massive watershed of differences between B5 being the cutting edge of SF in January of ’95, when the episode I’m theoretically reviewing first aired, and September 22nd, 2004, when the first episode of Lost aired.

Amazing. Just amazing. It’s not even the money - though Lost’s weekly catering budget was probably about as much as B5 spent to make each episode individually - it’s just the style. The writing is dense and organic, the storytelling is smooth, there’s a sense they all know where this is going, the use of flashbacks is deft and, frankly, brilliant, and the gradual sense of emerging mystery is just frankly better than *anyone* had ever done on *any* TV series before. It’s a brilliant show. B5 was a brilliant show in its day, and Lost was a brilliant show in its day, and lost is *still* a brilliant show.

Now, I’m not sure if I’m depressed - well, clearly I am, how could I not be? - but I’m not sure if it’s the depression talking, or simply that I’ve had to swim through three Talia episodes in a row, or maybe it’s just that I’ve wandered into Saint Sophia’s in Constantinople for the High Easter Services circa 1000 AD, and suddenly my little Sunday School class with the felt board is seeming a bit inadequate, but B5 is suddenly not really cutting it for me anymore.

Why? Well, take “Tempest in a Tub” by Jonathan Swift: Reputed by everyone to be the best, funniest, smartest thing he ever wrote, and I believe “They” are probably right, but I can barely understand a word of it. It’s 300 years old, a parody of church relations and politics, which I can kinda’ sorta’ get in the broad strokes, but the specifics are too specific, the issues are ones that boiled away centuries ago and have no relevance, humor doesn’t age well in the best of times, and so, basically, though the book was and is unquestionably brilliant, to me it’s just so much word salad. The only reason I got through it is I’m OCD and *HAVE* to finish everything I read.

B5 isn’t word salad, but nineteen years after the fact, I’m far enough removed from the circumstances, the spirit of the time, that even though it’s brilliant, it’s not the kind of brilliance you can really recognize without putting a lot of effort into it. I know there’s good stuff coming, but I find myself less and less enthused about it. I mean, yeah, it was the best thing in the world at the time, but in *our* time, there are so many things that are effortlessly as good, or better. The standard has raised. Thanks in large part to B5. And yet, y’know, it’s just not as fun for me to watch anymore as it is for me to watch Lost.

I just thought I should address that for anyone who thinks I might be a little too much on the Rah-Rah-wagon regarding this show. I’m not. I’m tired.

Moving on to the review part of our review:

Bester interrogates a rogue telepath to death on Mars, then follows the information he gained to Babylon 5, where he checks in with Sheridan et al. We’re told that there’s an “Underground Telepath Railroad” moving rogues through there to places unknown. He insists that the command staff help him, and they have no choice. Meanwhile, Talia reflects on the incidents of “Mind War” last season, in which she was given telekinetic powers, and maybe one or two other wrinkles. She’s abducted by the rogues, who explain to her how bad the Psicorps is, and she appears to change sides. Dr. Franklin, meanwhile, outs himself to Sheridan as the local “Conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Bester busts in on the rogues, and Talia changes sides, and helps him kill all the rogues, then he leaves, happy.

Turns out, however, that she didn’t actually change sides, nor did anyone die. She was able to create an illusion that Bester believed, owing to her enhanced powers resulting from Mind War. Since B5 is no longer safe, Franklin announces it’ll no longer be on the Railroad, and he’s out of the biz. Sheridan lets him off light.

In the more-or-less-unrelated subplots, Delenn and Sheridan go out to dinner and have a nice time; and Sheridan and Ivonova get kicked out of their quarters because they’re larger than standard for officers of their grade. Oh, yes, and Ivonova and Talia basically become friends in this ep. Though they've obviously kinda' liked each other up until this point, they've resented each other as well. From here on out, that's different. The payoff on that'll bug you, too.



“Knock Knock”
“Who’s there?”
“Kosh who?”

“How many Minbari does it take to screw in a light bulb? None! They always surrender right before they finish the job, and then they won’t explain why.”

I’ve been speculating on the dates these episodes take place on. My formula, unless contradicted by something onscreen, is pretty simple: there’s 365 days in a year, and 22 episodes in a season, ergo each episode takes place about 16 or 17 days apart. Nothing scientific in that, but it seems broadly appropriate. Thus this episode should take place somewhere around May 16th.

Nope. Way wrong. We’re told in the start that it’s March 14th, 2059, so I’m just way, way wrong. In fact, it would appear that these episodes take place just about a week apart, which annoys me for all kinds of reasons, but what can you do about it? I’m wrong.

This is the first time we’ve seen a glimpse of Mars on the show. We’ll revisit it a lot later. Bester mentions a Psicorps facility on Syria Planum pretty openly, but in “A Voice in the Wilderness” last season, it was a secret and Garibaldi wasn’t supposed to know it existed. (How he knew it existed is a story unto itself which perhaps we’ll someday cover if my apathy lifts).

Sheridan once again displays his genuine but somewhat dilettantic interest in religion.

The whole “You’re doomed, you know” scene between Franklin and Sheridan was pretty good.

“Fragging” is mentioned in this episode, in context presumably a 23rd century profanity, similar to “Fracking’ or the 20th century equivalent. In actual fact, “Fragging” was when a soldier in Vietnam attempted to kill his own officers by throwing a fragmentation grenade in the office. Just sayin’.

The fakeout at the end was nice, but really this episode just feels kinda’ why bother. It’s primarily a placeholder to remind us of stuff that happened a year or so ago, and thereby re-set-it-up for a payoff later. The payoff here? I’m too tired to jerk you around, but I don’t think I’ll spoil it yet. Suffice to say you’ll be pretty under whelmed, or pissed, or underwhelmingly pissed off. Nobody comes out of this liking it, suffice to say.

The midget guy that Garibaldi talked to in “Chrysalis” last season right before he was shot makes another appearance here, once again really pretty compelling. It is, unfortunately, the last time we see him. He’s the real breakout here.

Small cast tonight: Sheridan, Ivonova, Franklin, Garibaldi, Talia, Delenn, and Bester, and that’s pretty much it.


Assuming they’re not having more fun watching “Lost,” yes. The ‘who watches the watchmen’ riff is way too obvious, as always, but the ruminations on how those in power take their power for granted is pretty good. In particular, the contrasting scenes between the rogues telling of the horrors they’d endured, while we get the flipside of those same horrors from Bester and Talia as though they’re ok, and perfectly natural.

And that’s that. Maybe I’ll be back next week. Maybe not. We’ll see.