RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Born to the Purple” (Season 1, Episode 3)

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I remembered this one as being kind of weak, with a couple particularly terrible scenes, but it was actually rather weaker than I remembered. As usual, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but you’ve got to run a lot of water through your sperm whale to catch this low level of plankton.

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Londo is dating a stripper. Turns out she’s untrustworthy - well, duh - and she’s pumping him (eh-hem) for information. She’s the slave of an alien (Neither human nor Centauri) named Trakis, who has a certain gravity about him, but is surprisingly short. Trakis wants Londo’s “Purple Files,” which contains all the ambassador’s dirt on the other Centauri noble houses. He (Trakis) can then sell that to the highest Narn bidder and start a massive scandal amongst the Centauri which might even bring down the government.

Londo eventually asks Sinclair for help, and the two of them infiltrate the seamy underbelly of strip clubs on B5, posing as low-lifes looking to hire girls for a ‘private party.’ This brings us to the first of the two painfully awful scenes in this episode: Sinclair giving the fakest, stagiest, most amazingly over-acted laugh of all time and then giving an obviously fake, schmoozing lie to an alien named “Ock.” Since this is a badly-written episode, Ock believes it, but man oh man, wouldn’t it be fun - and wouldn’t it have redeemed an otherwise-lame episode if he hadn’t? If Sinclair was really bad at this undercover stuff, and got in a ton of trouble because of it? And for that matter, Sinclair’s the freakin’ mayor of Babylon-town, how in the holy heck can Ock not recognize him? Granted, his clothes are distractingly outrageous, but still! “Oh, yeah, I live on a ship, but I have no idea what the captain looks like.” Right.

I digress: So they figure out the grand scheme, but as the episode is running short, they decide not to solve it the easy way (Arrest Trakis). Some not very interesting subterfuge takes place during which Trakis gets beat up and Londo’s files are recovered. (Seriously, how is this better than simply arresting the guy?)

The stripper gets manumitted, and Londo offers to make her the main filly of his herd, but she decides to do what all the newly-freed former sex-workers do: Vegas Vegas Vegas! Because you can lead a whore to Vassar, but you can’t make her think. She leaves the station, and Londo tells her to come back when she’s ready (Which presumably means when she’s maxed out her credit cards and has put on too much weight to go back to dancing).

MEANWHILE, Garibaldi has noticed someone is sending messages back to earth using super-secret channels reserved for the ambassadors and the command staff. After several failed attempts to track it down, he eventually realizes it’s Ivonova. He eavesdrops on a conversation, which brings us to the second irretrievably bad scene from this episode: Ivonova’s dad babbling about love and respect and his deafness to the emotional needs of his daughter, and then dropping dead, all while on the phone. As unrepentantly goony as this is, it’s made worse by the way it’s filmed, effectively with our special guest corpse-to-be overacting directly into a camera with no cuts and some pretty hackneyed over-acting. I realize this was supposed to be very sad indeed, but the first time I saw it, I literally could not control my laughter. It’s so out of place and so badly done, it felt like someone randomly stuck an old Carol Burnett sketch in the middle of the episode, just to see if anyone was still awake.

Garibaldi lets Ivonova know that he knows without coming out and saying it, which was a nice scene.

MEANWHILE, in the more-or-less useless C-plot, G’kar and Londo are attempting to negotiate a treaty for “The Euphrates Sector,” but this isn’t resolved, and is only there to give us some cheap jokes.

The End!

OBSERVATIONS
If you’re trying to initiate your friends into B5, or if you’re new to the whole thing and dipping your toes in the pool, this is most definitely not the episode to choose. The show gets much, much better, but this is a pretty low ebb. Not only is the story the worst kind of TNG-styled filler with fake drama in relation to a nonexistent peril, but it’s badly told as well. Seriously: this *could* have been a TNG episode taking place on some planet-of-the-week, and it wouldn’t really have been any different. That’s like the worst possible thing you can say about a B5 ep!

Even still, the world building continues and we’ve learned several things:
- There are stripper joints on B5.
- Slavery is legal in the Centauri Republic. It appears to be based somewhat on “Indentured Servitude” and involves contracts and stuff. Slave ownership is open to non-Centauri. Masters can be held accountable for the crimes of their slaves. The Earth Alliance tolerates alien slavery within its borders.
- There are human perverts who like to make it with aliens. We see one three times in this episode, and then he gets beat up. (Sic semper aberro)
- There are defined limits to what telepaths can and can’t do, both on and off the clock.
- The internal politics of the Centauri Republic operates based entirely by negotiations between blackmailers.

Even so, I find it very very very hard to believe that one “Drunken old fool’s” dirt would be enough to bring the entire republic down. It might be fun if Trakis vastly overestimated the worth of Londo’s incriminating evidence, and the whole thing was a fool’s errand, but, nope, Londo really seems to think that he’s got stuff that would really do the trick. Pictures of the Prime Minister fondling a goat or something, I guess.

“Kodoth” is introduced in this episode as G’kar’s attaché and foil. She’s played by Mary Woronov, one of Andy Warhol’s factory types. She was intended to be a major character, and if you saw this episode when originally broadcast, you may have noticed her name was in the opening titles, alongside the rest of the cast. Alas, it turned out that the actress simply could not handle the prosthetic makeup, and literally freaked out a few days into filming. This is her only appearance, though we get a funny name check about her in a bit later. (Her name was in the first three episodes' opening credits, but she only turns up here. After she had a panic attack and ran screaming from the studio, her name was removed and her character written out. Her name has been entirely removed from all the opening credits in the DVD releases)

You thought Centauri men had bad hair? Check out the chicks! They’re completely bald excepting a long queue that grows out of a small patch on the top of their heads. Granted, I’ve been overly fond of Fabiana Udenio since I first saw her in Summer School, but the fact is it looked kinda’ fetching. As wispy-thin and pointless as this episode is, this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Adira.

The French Chick shows up again in this episode.

Sinclair has a penchant for making long, painfully obvious, over-earnest speeches. Were this an attribute of his character, I’d think it funny, but it’s just consistent bad writing. This time out he’s brought Talia in to oversee negotiations on the Euphrates dealie. Later on he takes her aside and says “You’re my peeler. Your job is to peel away the lies until only the truth remains.” Uhm…yes, I’m pretty sure she’s aware of her job description, there, hoss, but thanks for killing airtime with it. A cringeable scene even in an episode full of much worse scenes.

It never occurred to me before, but is Londo manic depressive? He is kinda’ all over the place. At one poin the calls Vir a “Moon-faced assassin of Joy” and just moments later he calls him “A treasure” and tickles him on the chin. I’m going to have to keep an eye on this, and see if it’s a character element I never noticed before.

I really didn’t remember Susan being this standoffish and unfriendly in the early episodes. We did find out that her brother died in the Earth/Minbari war, however, and that she entered Earthforce over the objections of her father.

So what race is Trakis? Or Ock? Or that weird alien chick with the pillbox hat and multiple mouths? We never see ‘em again. One of the bodyguard aliens shows up here again, named “Norg,” so until someone corrects me on the matter I‘m going to call them “Norgs.“ Also, Na’Grath makes a second appearance.
“This is your opportunity to get your feet moist, as the earthers say, Vir.”

“Star Laces” are bio-luminescent flowering plants. They actually look pretty neat, and are apparently native to a Centauri planet called “Davo.”

A “Mindprobe” makes an appearance here, causing Londo to give secret information with no memory of it afterwards. This never turns up again, though it’d be handy on several occasions.

“Fresh Aire” is the best restaurant on Babylon 5. It’s located in the central garden, and has a pretty magnificent view.

There’s a cute background gag where Vir is playing a hand-held video game in the conference room while they’re all waiting for Londo. Sinclair gets mad and takes it from him and sends him out to do something. When he comes back, G’kar is playing the video game. (My oldest said “Wow, that thing must be an earth antique, it’s so big!” Funny, but he’s right: A DS looks way more sophisticated than this prop did.)

Talia refuses to scan someone in this episode, but changes her mind under some moral duress.

Ivonova is clearly in the control room when she watches her dad die. She took a call like that in plain sight of everyone? In like the most conspicuous area on the station? Really?

“Quarkface” is a really stupid-sounding insult.

And that’s it for this one, kids. The good news is that I can honestly promise you the show *DOES* get better, but the bad news is that it’ll take a few weeks for that to conspicuously happen.

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