RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Gropos” (Season 2, Episode 10)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

One of the more noteworthy things about B5 was its relative egalitarianism. In the era when it ran, pretty much everyone on every space show was an officer and a gentlemen from an idealized society in which everyone had a perfect education, freedom from want, full intellectual stimulation, and in which nobody (To paraphrase a Ferengi) ever seemed to have to go get the chairs. In other words, no one ever seemed to have any work beyond punching buttons, or occasionally walking drinks to tables. And their ain’t no money.

In the words of Larry Niven, “Utopia might be a fine place to live in, but it’s really boring to tell stories about.” And it tends to ignore real drama, which, to quote Harve Bennett quoting someone else, “Is the human heart at war with itself.”

While B5 was basically your standard stalwart heroic officers in space trope, it *did* maintain a strong commitment to “Space is for everyone,” which was more-or-less unheard of at the time. Yeah, Sheridan’s the main character, but Garibaldi’s at his left hand the whole time, and Garibaldi is - let’s make this perfectly clear - *not* an officer. He’s blue-collar, an Marine noncom. He’s smart, but he’s not an educated man. He is, however, in the thick of it all the time, just like the college boys. You’ve also got Zac Allen, a sergeant, who’s even lower class I think. He’s just being introduced in this batch of episodes. You’ve also got the occasional civilian character (Like Catherine Sakai, now gone from the cast, or the Ombudsmen), and folks kind of in-between like Talia. It’s not *just* a military show. (In fact, Harlan Ellison once told me he tried to convince JMS to make it an entirely civilian operation, simply because there were already way too many shows about the Military in space. I think JMS probably made the right call there, but it is an intriguing idea)

In addition, B5 did a number of episodes - generally at least one per season, sometimes more - that attempted to put a human face on the proceedings, to show things from the perspectives of the folks who had to “Get the chairs,” or load the ships, or clean the floors, or whatever. The best example of this was the first season’s “By Any Means Necessary” ( http://www.republibot.com/content/retrospeculative-tv-babylon-5-%E2%80%9... )
Which revolved around a dockworker’s strike that brought the station to a standstill. That was a great episode. Tonight’s ep takes a similar tack, but doesn’t quite manage to pull it off with as much aplomb. Even so, their heart is in the right place, and it’s a good episode all ‘round.

PLAY BY PLAY

A top secret Earthforce expedition shows up unannounced at the station: A battleship, and several troop transports carrying 25,000 Gropos. (“Ground Pounders,” slang for the Earthforce Marine Corps). They’re forced to find temporary accommodations for them, while General Richard “Firestorm” Franklin (Doctor Franklin’s estranged daddy) explains to Captain Sheridan that they’re on their way to attack a city on the planet Akdor. B5 is on the way, and Sheridan spent some time there a few years before, and is reasonably conversant on the city’s defenses.

Akdor is in involved in a civil war, and despite staying neutral for the entire conflict, the Narn/Centauri war (Which started last week) has caused the Earth Alliance to abruptly step in supporting the government. In exchange, the Akdorans will allow a permanent military presence in their hunk o’ space, which will allow us to observe the Narn and Centauri, as well as get advance warning if any of the other alien species decide to take advantage of the situation and make their own territorial grabs.

“The Narn/Centauri war is going to tear this galaxy apart, and sooner or later Earth will have to take a side.”

We then have some overlapping, but basically standalone plots:

1) General Franklin getting intel from Sheridan, and realizing the battle is going to be a bloodbath, and not the cakewalk he was anticipating.

2) Warren “Who?” Keffer bonding with private Wang and corporal Large, a couple Gropos he’s forced to bunk with temporarily

3) Dr. Franklin’s attempt to reconcile with his estranged father, the General.

4) Garibaldi’s brief fling with Dodger, a female Gropo.

We also get barfights, barfights, barfights, and a scene where a crazy Gropo named “Kleiss” takes umbrage to Delenn’s newly humanish appearance, and intends to…what? Beat her up? Kill her? Rape her? Something bad. Dodger breaks this up, which is how she and Garibaldi meet.

As a bit of added sauce, nobody except the general and the command staff of B5 (Not including Dr. Franklin) know that the mission is going to Akdor. Everyone believes they’re simply troops being rotated through the Earthforce base on Io.

Eventually the expedition ships out. In the episode’s coda, we see the cast and a whole lot of civilians watching a big news screen in the Zocalo while ISN covers the attack. We see General Franklin being interview (Stephen looks overwhelmingly relieved, and Susan looks very relieved for him), then the Sgt. Major shows up (Injured) and the General abruptly says “I have to go.” Lou Welch shows up and gives Garibaldi a list of the dead from the attack. His face falls. He hands the list to Keffer. The crowd starts to filter away.

We get a long slow tracking shot of Wang, Large, Dodger, and Kleiss, all dead and shot up, strewn among battlefield wreckage. Cut back to Keffer holding the list limply at his side, looking forlorn, all alone on the Zocalo. Fade to black, the end.

OBSERVATIONS

While this episode doesn’t *quite* work, the denouement saves it. The fact that *everyone* we met died, good and bad alike, puts a human face on what was basically a mission of only questionable value. How many died total? We don’t know, but Franklin says their casualties were “Very high.” All too often shows like these are a bit too gung ho, and ignore the cost in blood, and in the general privations the enlisted put up with in service to their country.

Dodger puts this nicely when Garibaldi rejects her: “I wasn’t planning on setting up housekeeping. I’m a gropo! I’m cleaning latrines one minute, and up to my hips in blood the next, and just hoping I don’t hear the round that takes me out. And in between, I’m just trying to grab something for myself to let me know I’m alive. I’m so sorry that’s not enough for you.” She storms out. That fits with most of the enlistees I’ve known in my life.

I’m a bit confused about the “Up to my hips in blood” thing, though. The Earth Alliance has been at peace for 12 years now, but this infers there’s been some fighting going on at least now and again here and there. Who, what, why, and when? Wang mentions that Large’s best friend bought it in the Mars Rebellion in season 1, but that would appear to be a fairly limited incident. Could that be the only thing? Dodger implies she’s seen a fair amount of combat. Is the EA involved in brush wars somewhere, or “War on drugs” kidna’ stuff, or what?

Another odd inference: We’re told that General Franklin is “The Liberator of the African Bloc,” whatever that means. Now, we know that the Earth Alliance is the government of our world and its colonies, and though it’s never mentioned onscreen, JMS has made it clear that membership in the EA isn’t universal - there are some small countries on earth that remain independent. Was Africa one of these? In any event, it would appear that Africa’s enrollment in the EA is fairly recent, like within a generation or so.
We also get mention of some serious fighting on a planet (or possibly a city) called “New Jerusalem” in the first season. Basically, I think what we’re supposed to take from this is that Humanity *isn’t* one great big happy family in the 23rd century, there’s still a lot of infighting.

General Franklin is played by Paul Winfield, who played Captain Tyrell in “The Wrath of Khan” and “Darmok” in the TNG episode of the same name. He appears to be a bit of a Xenophobe, and his son’s relative Xenophilia is a source of contention between them. Basically the A-plot in this ep is the relationship between the Franklins, and while it rings true, I think it’s also the greatest failing of the story. On the one hand, we’ve got Stephen talking about how hard it was growing up with his dad away for months at a time, not knowing if he was alive or dead, and this was one of the things that drove him away from home. On the other hand, the shouting match between them seems rather forced. Yet again, the scene where the General comes in and says “How dare you call me a murderer, Stephen! I’m your father! And your superior officer! Haven’t you got any respect for me?” really rings true, and in fact Paul Winfield genuinely sounds hurt (And a bit confused) by this. On the other hand, it’s just not a very interesting story in that the whole ‘fathers and sons’ thing is pretty universal. So universal that it’s the kind of thing more likely to make us roll our eyes in tedium than to say “Yeah, that’s me! Totally! I get it!”

The Keffer subplot, as usual, doesn’t work. Firstly, we’re nearly halfway through the season, and this is only the third time he’s shown up. I honestly remember watching this episode the first time, seeing him stroll down the hallway in a manner suggesting we’re supposed to recognize him, and thinking “Who is that?” Seeing a character we can barely remember, and don’t care about, bonding with guest stars we know we’ll never see again is kind of a yawner. No one comes out of this well, even though, as I repeatedly say, the story’s heart is in the right place.

The Garibaldi/Dodger not-quite-Romance is amazingly frustrating, but cleverly done, as Garibalid basically plays the female role: Pursued, whiney about his feelings, getting cold feet, while Dodger is the pursuer, emotionally separating sex and love, and basically angry when she realizes she ain’t getting’ none. It’s well done. She’s played by Marie Marshall, who’s cute, but not in a modely way, she sells the fight scenes, and reminds me a bit of R2’s sister. The only thing off here is that she seems a bit old to be a Private in the Marines. She’s got to be pushing thirty.

Really, all these cats are kinda’ old. The actor playing Wang was 25, Kleiss looks to be like 40 or so, and Ken Foree, who played “Large” was 47 at the time. Granted, we’re told he’s been in for 25 or 30 years, but we’re also told he’s *just* a corporal. What?

I’m going to attribute this to (A) older actors giving generally better performances, and hence being sought after by casting directors, and (B) JMS’ ongoing confusion as to how military ranks work. (He seems to think that “Major” is a really high rank, for instance, and that an Air Force Colonel outranks a Navy Captain, and so forth) Since enlisted and noncom ranks really *are* somewhat confusing, it’s reasonable to assume he’d have more problems with this than the straight forward officerial ones.

JMS has said that Earthforce is a unified command divided into two major wings: the space ship part, which was basically a merger of the Navy and Air force, and the infantry part, which was a merger of the Marines and Army. That said, it was a little unclear until this ep if “Gropo” was their real name, or just a nickname. Tonight they make it very clear that it’s a nickname, as we see some Gropos singing a cadence about the Earth Force Marine Corps while marching along. Interestingly, the space ship portion is never given a name in the entire run of the series. The closest we get here is when General Franklin refers to his life in “The Force” several times, but that appears to mean Earthforce as a whole.

Even so, it’s a little unclear on how this is divided. Ari ben Zayin and Alana Kemmer in season 1 were both wearing uniforms that were green, rather than Olive like Garibaldi’s, or Blue like Sheridan’s. Is there an Earthforce Army?

There was some talk about General Franklin returning in some capacity later in the run of the series (I can think of a couple situations in season 3 or 4 where he’d have been an amazing element to add in), but he never does.

Relatively short cast tonight: Sheridan, Ivonova, Garibaldi, Keffer, and Delenn. Among the Also-rans, we’ve got Lt. Corwin, and Lou Welch. In fact, I think tonight is Welch’s final appearance in the series.

NEW SPACECRAFT

The Battleship we see tonight is the “EAS Schwartzkoph.” This is basically identical to the Agamemnon, Sheridan’s old ship, *except* that it lacks the rotating section, and has a bunch o’ big guns. These “Dreadnaughts” (Their official name) were the capital ships in the Earth/Minbari war. It was quickly realized they weren’t up to the task, so their design was revised during the war. The Omega Class Destroyers (Like the Agamemnon) are basically built on a Dreadnaught frame, but extended and with the carousel added. They’re cool looking. The first Omegas didn’t enter service until after the war.

We see a whole mess of troop transports that look a lot like C5 Galaxies with rocket engines on ’em. These are never seen again in the run of the show, though they’d be handy.

We also see some hovering twin-bodied fighters (I call ’em P-38s) in the attack on Akdor. These are never seen nor heard of again, and once again they’d be handy in some of the situations we see later in the show.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Absolutely positively yes.

Tags: