RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “A Spider In The Web” (Season 2, Episode 6)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Lots of stuff happens here, setting the stage for far more stuff to happen down the road, and since this is Babylon 5, you just *know* it’s building up to something big, right? But is it…? Well….

PLAY BY PLAY

An alien delegation is visiting the station to do negotiate possibly joining the League of Non-Aligned Worlds, or the B5 Advisory Council or something. It’s not entirely clear what, but we’re told it’s important, and that it all went well.

Unrelated to this, Taro Isogi of Futurecorp is meeting with Amada Carter of the Martian Provisional Government on B5, to negotiate some business deals. The always-unwilling-to-do-her-job Talia Winters is functioning in her official capacity for the talks. For once, she doesn’t complain, and in fact it even seems to make sense having her along, even if she’s maybe a bit too Counselor Troi, telling us stuff that the audience should really be able to pick up for themselves. Just the same: her job *finally* is shown working the way it’s obviously been intended to on paper all along, and she’s not annoying this time out.

Then a terrorist from “Free Mars” shows up and kills Taro, and that’s the end of that.

The plan (Details a bit nebulous) involved Futurcorp gaining a license to operate on Mars (Evidently hard to get) and basically mining resources for alien governments who need them. The Aliens would provide most of the investment capital to get the program up and running, and Taro projected that in a best-case situation, Mars could be “Completely self-sufficient in ten years.” Amanda Carter seemed to think this was actually an ideal solution, though it would meet with a lot of political opposition.

And indeed it does: No sooner do the negotiations begin, when a senator from Earthgov (Jessica Walter) contacts Sheridan and tells him to spy on the proceedings. He more-or-less refuses, she tells him he more-or-less can’t, but the issue never really comes to a head because the whole game got cancelled when Tarro died. It would have been interesting to see how Sheridan would have handled the senator if there hadn’t been a flag on the play.

Anyway: the terrorist is named “Abel Horn,” a member of a Martian Independence Movement which of course uses violence to gain their ends. One of his bombings killed some friends of Sheridan years earlier. It was thought that Horn was killed in the Mars Uprising in season 1, but since he’s walking around on the station, apparently he wasn’t.

Or was he? Talia is assigned security, and once again Horn makes a play to kill her, but gets the guard instead. When he goes after her, she sees him getting blown up by an Omega Class Destroyer over and over again. She gets away.

Sheridan and Garibaldi place her under protective custody, and Garibaldi sits with her for a while, as they talk about their lives. Seriously: in the 28 episodes since she was introduced, this is the first time his obsession with her hasn’t seemed creepy and stalkery. (And in fact it *does* at the beginning of the episode, but it lightens up when they’re just sitting around talking). Talia mentions that she was raised by Psicorps from age five on, and ha little memory of her real parents. She was cared for that first year by “Abby,” an older Telepath, who calmed her down and cared for her and made her happy and stuff. It’s supposed to be heartwarming, but in fact it’s a bit creepy, particularly when we’re told that the very next year Talia was on her own, and Abby was asigned to a new five-year-old.

Ew.

Actually, I think this plays out exactly like we’re supposed to: Talia thinks it’s all nice and sweet, but we in the audience are supposed to find it ‘ew.’

During all this, we keep getting glimpses of “The San Diego Wasteland” on earth, the nuked remains of the city. Hidden therein is a secret base of some sort. The base only identifies itself as “Thirteen.” They’ve been getting reports from an unidentified person called “Control,” and giving instructions. On the station, Abel Horn has been reporting in to “Control,” and getting his marching orders from them as well. Control seems able to effortlessly hack into/subvert the station’s communications system.

Sheridan, based on no real evidence whatsoever, deduces that Horn is a cyber-zombie (Garibaldi’s term, actually) using more-or-less forbidden technology left over from cyborg experiments in the 2230s. He sets to work on re-jiggering the dingus to track the dealie with the stuff. You know, the stuff?

Horn goes to Amanda Carter, who turns out to have been his girlfriend 15 years back. He tells her he needs to see Talia to figure out what the thing in his head is, and eventually Carter agrees. She calls Talia to her quarters under the guise of wanting to discuss continuing Taro’s plans, and she’s escorted by a security detail who never think to clear the room before letting her go in. Buncha’ dopes. So she *instantly* ends up a hostage, but Garibaldi and the guards right outside the door don’t notice.

Talia attempts to scan Horn’s mind, and sees his death over and over again, and also gets flashes of him being operated on by two surgeons while a pretty psicop observes and says “All ours.” Talia appears shocked. Sheridan, meanwhile, pulls the old “We traced the call and it’s coming from upstairs in your own home!” bit, then Garibaldi et al actually do their job. Sheridan comes along, too.

This results in the obligatory hostage situation, but Horn lets her go, and Sheridan shoots him. “Thank you for ending it, Earther,” he says, then explodes leaving no evidence.

Sheridan later explains to Garibaldi that he collects secrets, conspiracies, black ops, and generally paranoid crap like that, which, frankly, seems a bit out of character. He says that there have been rumors for six years now of a rogue agency in Earthgov called “Bureau 13” which has been calling the shots behind the scenes, furthering their own nebulous agenda, and doing very bad things up to and including killing the guy who first told Sheridan “Thirteen” existed. The whole Abel Horn business is their style, he figures.

Back on earth, in the wastelands, in “Thirteen” headquarters, “Control” checks in and says the situation has been contained, and they’re pretty sure Talia isn’t a threat. The Psicop says “Pretty sure” isn’t good enough, and that “He” (Control) must take care of the situation. This is, of course, the same Psicop we saw from Horn’s flashback.

Meanwhile, in her quarters, Talia does a search for the Psicop in Horn’s flashback, and finds a picture of her. The Psicop is officially listed as ‘deceased’, and no name is given, but Talia is shocked. She obviously recognizes the person.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

This is actually the first Talia episode that’s any good. She was never a fan favorite, and she doesn’t make a massively impressive showing for herself here, but we finally actually *see* her doing her job like a professional, and not just being a walking plot complication. (With very nice legs, it must be admitted). Some people - myself included at one point - complained about how weak she seemed when she went running off after the second attack screaming for someone to help her. Looking at it now, though, I find I like that. She’s not military, after all, and while Ivonova would have decked the guy, there’s no particular reason to assume a civilian woman would have the same perspectives or abilities in that kind of situation. I’ve decided to find the “Not everyone acts the same way” aspect charming.

Despite the fact that Doyle and Thompson were actually *married* when this episode was filmed, they don’t display much chemistry. They’d be divorced within the year. They met barely a year before this episode was filmed, by the way. Whirlwind.

Speaking of people just met: this episode marks the late Jeff Conoway’s first appearance on the show as Zac Allen. He’s just another random guard in this one, but he’ll eventually grow in importance. Corwin makes an appearance, too. Delenn, Londo, Lennier, Vir, Na’Toth, Kosh, Franklin, and Keffer are all absent, though. In the case of Franklin, it’s a bit conspicuous: there’s at least one scene he *could* be in, but they use a special guest doctor. He doesn’t even get a name check. Oddly, when they do Talia episodes, the aliens are always absent, and when they do alien episodes, there’s never any Talia.

Sheridan asks Ivonova what she thinks about Talia. Ivonova gets uncharacteristically flustered, and says “She’s interesting,” but decides she’s trustworthy on an individual level, though probably not on an institutional one. Can you guess where this is going?

Ivonova once threw a telepath out a third floor window when she was working for Sheridan on Io.

There’s something that’s always put me off about the way Sheridan mentions that he and Anna had some “Very special friends” who got killed on Mars. There’s no significance to the line, it’s not delivered oddly at all, it’s just there to give a personal connection to the terrorist (Rather ham-fistedly), but it just bugs me. I mentioned it to a friend. He said “Maybe they were swingers?” We had a good laugh at that. Definitely if that were the case, that would definitely account for it. But, no, they clearly weren’t swingers: Sheridan is quite prim sexually speaking. He had several opportunities to score on the station, and he deliberately passed ‘em all up. When he does eventually get some action, he’s clearly in love, and very courtly about the whole thing. He’s a romantic, it seems.

Incidentally: I haven't mentioned it for a while now, but there *is* more going on with Sheridan than meets the eye. Keep a lookout for foreshadowing. For instance, in this episode he tells the Senator that he's not going to spy on Civilians. This is all-but-a-lie, though it doesn't become apparent until retrospect.

We’re told in no uncertain terms that Cyborg technology doesn’t work in this ep. That’s not entirely true: Abbut the Vicar (“VCR”) from season 1 was an obvious Cyborg, the Technomages are clearly cyborgs, and Earth uses fully-functioning prosthetics that are technically cybernetic. I think what they’re getting at is that computer/human integration is basically beyond the ability of earth’s tech at this time. Clearly they were really interested in it 20 years prior to the start of the show, though the experiments were dead ends, or (More likely) just went underground.

That said, the concept as explained doesn’t make much sense: they’d take someone recently dead, revive them, have them relive their death over and over again while the computer controlled them. Really, all of that seems pretty random, and if you can revive at least *some* dead people (Horn appears to have been pretty dead - he was shot, spaced and had at least one arm blown off - shouldn’t that have made an appearance in the show before now?

Amanda Carter is said to be the great granddaughter of the man who piloted the first colony ship to Mars: John Carter. Get it? Yeah, it’s pretty obvious.

We get a really nice cyclorama shot of the interior of the station from the windows in Taro’s hotel room. It’s the same view we see in Earhart’s, the Officers’ Club, but we get a better view here. I wish they did more of this kind of thing.

The Martian Political Situation has never been entirely explained, but here’s what I get: Mars was colonized prior to interstellar travel. It was expensive, and not entirely successful. Then the Centauri showed up, and suddenly the stars were open. Mars was *still* expensive, and still a colony, but way more effort than it was worth when there were habitable worlds out there for the taking. Thus it ceased to grow (Population of the whole world is about 3 million people) and was quickly overtaken by the interstellar colonies. Life is hard there, but the colonists (“Marsies”) want independence. Since they *still* haven’t paid off the initial investments, and they’re still dependent on imports from earth, this isn’t gonna’ happen. In the lifetimes of our characters, there have been at least three major uprisings: one during the war, the “Food Riots” at some point either before or after the war (Unclear), and the one in 2258, during the first season. I think we’re supposed to take it as a kind of “Northern Ireland” situation, though I don’t think that’s really a particularly apt comparison. I *do* however think it’s the comparison JMS was going for. In any event, Earthgov considers Mars a liability and their own private property, and they’ll do anything to keep it in their pocket. This doesn’t entirely make sense, but it is, in fact, fairly realistic: politics seldom makes perfect sense. I could see a government being very reactionary about this kind of thing.

In any event, Sinclair from the first season was Martian. None of the current characters are, but the Martian situation will continue to be a recurring background issue through the run of the series. In actual fact, the B5 version of Mars is the most developed, explored version of Mars ever seen on in American TV SF. Which doesn’t mean it’s *brilliant* or anything, but it’s definitely more rewarding and important than your typical ‘planet of the week’ stuff. It matters to the narrative.

Speculation generally states that the Psicop Talia recognized was Abby, who took care of her when she was five. We never get a positive ID on that, alas, for reasons detailed below.

The whole “Alien Delegation” thing comes to absolutely nothing, and functions basically as filler. The alien species itself is never seen here, nor mentioned before nor after this episode. Sheridan’s little monolog about first contact and visiting their cloud-like alien ship basically comes to nothing. I’m not really sure why it’s here. It doesn’t really function as world building, it’s not related to any particular arc, it doesn’t tell us anything useful, it’s just kinda’ there. I suppose it’s possible that it was intended to set up a new minor race like the Abbai or whomever, but the thread got dropped.

That happens a lot in this episode.

A CAVALCADE OF ABANDONED THREADS

In fact, this entire story - which is pretty good in and of itself - gets retroactively undone by later events in the series, thus turning it into a kind of annoying tease. A *lot* of stuff is introduced, then dropped. A lot of things that seem of major importance are never mentioned again:

* - Sheridan’s fondness for conspiracies and whatnot
* - “Abby” the Psicop
* - Bureau 13
* - The secret base in the San Diego wasteland
* - The Lazarus cyber-zombie experiments

There are several stated reasons for this: First and foremost, this episode was written by Larry DiTillio (He did seven episodes in all), who didn’t realize the name “Bureau 13” was already the title of an RPG http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bureau_13 so they had to change that. Secondly, Straczynski has said that he felt like throwing in yet another conspiracy at this point in the show needlessly muddied the waters. The ongoing cast changes may have affected it as well.

It’s hard to be sure exactly how many of the things transpiring in this outing are DiTillio’s own inventions, and how many are Straczynski’s own plot elements woven into the script. For instance, was the idea of “Thirteen” something Larry came up with, or was it based on the germ of an idea Joe had, then realized he already had too many cards on the table and decided to drop it?

MAY DIFFERENT ‘CONTROLS’ AT MANY DIFFERENT TIMES

The one significant element introduced here that actually hangs on for a while is the concept of a mole or spy or traitor in the midst of the station. “Control” was a concept that was actually introduced in very subtle fashion in “The Gathering,” the B5 pilot movie from two years earlier. In that iteration, the traitor was to be Laurel Takashima. The actress didn’t get hired for the series, however, but JMS still wanted one, so that role *Apparently* got reassigned to Commander Sinclair’s girlfriend, Catherine Sakai. Once again, cast changes at the end of the season de-railed this plan. (This appears to have been a rush decision, since the spy was *intended* to be revealed when she shot Garibaldi. “Jack” was pressed into service in this part for the season finale). The “Control” portions of the plot were re-assigned to a third character at that time.

While the identity of “Control” is ultimately revealed, I’m not entirely convinced that the person who’s revealed in that capacity was *intended* to be in that capacity once it became apparent that Julia Nixon/Catherine Sakai was leaving the cast at the end of Season 1. I strongly suspect that - once again, due to cast changes - the identity of the mole was reassigned a *Third* time. We’ll discuss more of that when this whole subplot is resolved.

As frustrating as all this is, these behind-the-scenes shifting sands affecting the storyline are kind of fascinating, aren’t they? I mean, it’s neat to see how ugly, stupid reality is a bucking bronk continually attempting to go its own way, and JMS is the cowboy desperately struggling to stay on top and keep it on track. (Spoiler alert: He mostly succeeds)

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

I dunno. As a standalone drama, it's pretty good, and there's nothing here to give offence. If you're of a paranoid bent, you'll probably respond well to the idea of a loose canon agency in the government. If you're not a conspiracy theorist (And I'm not), then that might be more annoying than entertaining.

Tags: