RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Hunter, Prey” (Season 2, Episode 13)

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What a difference half a season makes! Just twelve episodes ago - heck, just six episodes ago - this story would have sucked. It’s solidly C-grade at best, but the way it’s handled - particularly the Sheridan stuff - bumps it up to B-minus effortlessly, despite the workmanlike plot. The show knows who and what it is now, and suddenly, finally, it’s a joy for me to introduce it to you.

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A-Plot:
Earthforce Intelligence - the future version of the CIA - shows up on the station looking for Doctor Everett Jacobs. Agent Cranston informs Sheridan that Jacobs is a traitor, and that they want to take him alive, but they’ve been empowered to kill him if need be. Sheridan is shocked, as extreme sanction on a civilian in peacetime is pretty much unheard of. Intel feels that Jacobs came to the station to meet a buyer for the information he’s got. Sheridan agrees to help out in every way possible, however he’s fully aware - as are Ivonova and Garibaldi - that Cranston isn’t telling all he knows. Garibaldi puts his people to work with Cranston, scanning the station from one end to the other, then heads off to find out more on his own. Sheridan and Ivonova, meanwhile, attempt to distract, obstruct, and otherwise slow down Cranston’s search, thus buying time for Garibaldi to figure out what’s going on.

Eventually Cranston grows tired of this, and demands that the station’s own scanners be used to find the guy - as had been done in two previous episodes under similar circumstances - and he’s furious as to why nobody told him this was possible. “You didn’t ask” says Ivonova, “And we don’t even know if your systems are compatible with yours.” Once this is out of the way, they scan the station and find, in no uncertain terms, that Jacobs is *not* on B5, and as far as they can tell, he never was. Cranston is flummoxed, and Sheridan feigns fury over “Giving you every cooperation, only to find out that you’ve torn my station upside down on a wild goose chase!” Cranston notices that Kosh’s ship has left the station, and demands that it be brought back and searched. This would, of course, cause a huge interstellar incident, and Cranston backs down, somewhat, settling for a long range scan. Only one life form is found aboard, and it’s not Jacobs.

Sheridan again feigns fury - helpful fury this time - saying that Intelligence obviously lost Jacob’s trail long before they got to the station, and ordering Ivonova to compile a list of ships Jacobs *could* have gotten on at the various stopping points between Mars and B5. Presumably we’re looking at hundreds of ships and liners. Chagrined, Cranston leaves.

The End.

B-Plot:
Sheridan and Ivonova are in Docking Bay 13, where Kosh’s ship is kept. The area is quarantined, mostly because it scares the crap out of the cleaning staff. They claim the ship sings to them when they sleep at night. If one gets too close, an obvious gun morphs out the side of the ship, and points at your chest. The skin on the ship moves slowly, changing patterns over time. Sheridan is amazed, and mentions that for a long time Earthforce has suspected the Vorlons were using actual living ships, but no one’s ever been able to prove it. Ivonova mentions they’ve lightly scanned the ship several times in the past two years - whatever little they think they an get away with - but they’ve found nothing.

They leave, and Kosh appears from the shadows, having watched the whole thing. He says something in Vorlon to the ship. The ship’s markings change to a series of commas and dashes, evidently a written reply to whatever the question was.

Later on, Sheridan decides to start a dialog with Kosh, intercepting him as he walks back to his quarters. “Why?” Kosh asks. “You tell me,” Sheridan says, then accuses him of telepathically inserting himself in his mind several months back, when he was on the Streib ship. “I listen to the song. For a moment you became the song,” Kosh says. “Has this ever happened before?” Sheridan asks. “Once,” Kosh says, then wanders off. Sheridan tries again, saying that he’s had the feeling that Kosh has been watching him, and pointing out that he almost never came to council meetings before Sheridan took command. Now he’s generally there. Kosh ignores him.

“What do you want?” Sheridan asks, annoyed.
“You are never to ask that question,” Kosh says, warning on the verge of anger. That’s the Morden question, after all.
“Well, at least I got a response.”
Ultimately, Sheridan doesn’t get what he wants, but Kosh agrees to “Teach you to fight legends.”

Later on, Kosh allows Sheridan do stash Dr. Jacobs in his transport, which he then sends out of the station just in time for the station’s own scanners to show the man isn’t on board. This, of course, allows Sheridan to save Jacobs from Earthforce Intelligence and Cranston. After the spies have left, the transport returns and disgorges Jacobs, who’s unconscious. Kosh wouldn’t let him go in awake. Jacobs tells Franklin that the ship sang to him while he was under.

The End.

C-Plot:
Doctor Everett Jacobs is on B5, running for his life, trying to buy fake ID in Downbelow. Being a wealthy and above-board man, he sticks out like the good thumb on an otherwise sore hand, and is immediately captured by a local thug played not entirely convincingly by Bull Shannon of Night Court. Garibaldi, meanwhile, goes to see what Dr. Franklin knows about this Dr. Jacobs guy. Franklin says the info about what he’s allegedly done can’t possibly be true, and that Jacobs is a great guy.

“Listen, Doc, no offence, but the last time you vouched for someone we ended up with two dead people and half of Downbelow blown up…” Franklin is annoyed. The two of them go undercover in Downbelow and slink about, trying to spot the guy. After about six hours or so, they spot a pocket watch at a vendor’s booth that obviously belonged to the missing doctor, and they’re able to track it back to Bull’s lair. Bull is actually out trying to sell a data crystal he found on Jacobs to Cranston at that moment, so Garibaldi is able to take out Bull’s goons fairly easy, though he gets stabbed in the process.

When Bull returns, he finds his men tied up, Jacobs gone, and a very irritable Garibaldi coming out of the shadows, explaining what a bad day he’s having, and punctuating each annoyance with a gunshot that deliberately - but only barely - misses the thug. It culminates with the security chief saying “You really don’t want to see me angry.” Bull affably hands over the crystal, and backs off.

The End.

D-Plot:
Sheridan is contacted by an unnamed agent of General Hague (Wanda de Jesus), who meets him in what looks like a boiler room, and explains why everyone wants Jacobs: 24 hours before Earthforce 1 blew up, then-Vice-President Clark reported having a virus, and left the ship. Doctor Jacobs - Clark’s personal physician - knew this was a lie, but couldn’t do anything about it. Likewise, it would look odd if Clark’s people killed the doctor, so they just bade their time until the good doctor made a run for it, and they told everyone that he was, in fact, the bad doctor.

Once he’s rescued and safe, Sheridan reports to Wanda again. They get a statement from Jacobs, and get him out of there. “It’s not enough to go public with, but every little bit helps. You did good work, Captain,” she tells him. “You should be proud. Well, until next time.”
“There’s always a ‘next time’ with you people, isn’t there?”
“You’d better pray there is. Because as long as there’s a ‘next time,’ there’s at least a chance we won’t lose.”

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

I don’t think it’s fair that Sheridan et al instantly assume Cranston is lying. We see no evidence of that whatsoever. In fact, I don’t think Cranston knows a bit more than he’s telling. In fact, we never really get the impression that Cranston is anything other than a fairly nice guy. He’s very affable with Sheridan, and even complimentary and friendly. Now, his *bosses* are definitely lying.

President Clark’s control of the government isn’t complete nor particularly strong yet. Hague’s agent makes it clear that the reason Earthforce Intelligence is out looking for Jacobs is because it’s one of the very few agencies controlled directly by the president’s office. He pointedly did *not* call out the more conventional forces specifically because he wouldn’t be able to contain the situation if he did.

Bernie Casey plays Cranston, and, no offence, he’s just not very good here. His dialog has a fair amount of technical gobbledygook in it, and it’s clear from his long pauses that he’s having to parse the nonsense words into appropriate reactions. In the scenes where he’s actually called upon to do more mundane stuff, he’s fine, but when he’s trying to explain how government staff have transmitter crystals embedded in them to prevent kidnapping, he might as well be reading random words from the dictionary. He could have used a few more rehearsals, or maybe a little extra coaching in those scenes. A little better direction would have helped, too.

There is, for instance, a scene in Sheridan’s office where Casey and Boxleitner are pointing at a schematic on a monitor, and the darn thing keeps blinking randomly between a map and some other random thing about every second and a half. Not only is this distracting, but it’s obviously hard on the actors, who are trying to point at stuff that isn’t there anymore by the time their fingers get to the target. Then, as soon as they pull them away, the object returns.

That said, I like the way Sheridan and Cranston play off each other. If Cranston feels he’s being jerked about, he takes it with good graces, and doesn’t let on until the end. He’s affable, respectful of Sheridan’s authority, and genuinely grateful for the assistance he gets. When he does finally get angry, he’s quickly beaten, and swallows his anger, and ends up somewhat uncomfortably beholden, but still kinda’ not adversarial to Sheridan. Sheridan, meanwhile, knows exactly how to play guys like Cranston to his advantage, and he, too, is (Evidently) helpful, respectful, friendly, even while he’s jerking him around. And in the end, despite his (Entirely feigned) indignation, he still makes an (entirely feigned) attempt to help the guy out, just to drive home how Cranston has completely failed. One gets the feeling Sheridan has danced this step with other government authority figures a few times. He does it easily and confidently.

When I first saw this episode 19 years ago, I thought Wanda de Jesus’ character and Sheridan had a history. I distinctly remembered a look of recognition and annoyance on his face when he realizes he has to deal with her. I re-watched the scene three times closely, and I don’t know where I got that from. There’s really no indication of it, not even subtly.

Tony Steedman plays Doctor Jacobs, and he’s just not very good at all. Much like poor Bernie Casey, he’s babbling a lot of unfamiliar nonsense, but he has to act strung out and sleep-deprived and scared on top of it. Ok: sleep deprived and strung out, sure, but it’s obvious the poor man has no idea what it is he’s even supposed to be afraid of. Again; better direction would have helped.

On the other hand, a lot of people have ragged on Richard Moll as the thug in this one, saying it’s a bad performance, and that he lacks menace. I myself just said it wasn’t entirely convincing, and I mean that: I think the character wasn’t a convincing thug, but I think they got just exactly the performance they wanted. I think Moll’s character was supposed to be physically imposing, but not all that bright, and not all that good at being a tough guy. There’s a tiny bit of ineptitude, though you only really see it in the goofy way he cleans his fingernails early on (Is he trying to be threatening and oblivious to how non-threatening that is?) and the “Whups, excuse me” fake smile he gives at the end. Again: better direction would have brought this out.

It is a subject of fanon that this episode was actually written around the return of Doctor Ben Kyle from “The Gathering,” but that he wasn’t available, or refused to do it, so it was hastily re-written. I have no idea if this is true or not, but it certainly *feels* true. We’re told that Kyle had left B5 to work on President Santiago’s staff, we’re told that Kyle and Franklin knew, trusted, and conspired with each other prior to Franklin’s arrival on B5, *and* it makes sense that if Kyle was on the run, he’d go to B5, a place he spent months on, in order to get help from people he trusted, and who knew him. Also, Steedman’s rather random line readings kinda’ match Sekka’s somewhat random performances from the pilot, but that’s probably just coincidence.

On the other hand, if this *was* intended as a Kyle episode, Kyle must have known that nobody from ‘his day’ was still on the station, excepting Garibaldi. So why would he have gone there? Maybe he was trying to reach Franklin and get spirited away through the Telepath Railroad framework they’d set up?

Dunno. Whatever the answer, JMS had said several times that he had intended to reintroduce Kyle in some capacity if possible. I suspect this was probably the episode he had in mind. Ah well.

Main cast:
Sheridan, Ivonova, Garibaldi, Franklin,
Also rans:
Lt. Corwin, Zack Allen

It doesn’t appear to mean anything, but the line “Whatever you’re about to do, I suggest you do it quickly” turns up several times in the series, including here tonight when Wanda de Jesus says it. It’s quoting Jesus from John 13:27. Specifically, Jesus says it to Judas immediately before Judas goes to betray Him.

“Fighting Legends” is obvious a reference to the Shadows, whom we’ve already seen are mythologized in some form in the Narn scripture. Exactly how Kosh goes about teaching Sheridan is counterintuitive and surprising.

Franklin went to Harvard.

Now, is it just me, or is the whole ‘get Jacobs out on Kosh’s ship’ thing needlessly complex? I mean, we know the ship’s scanners can’t scan inside the skin of Kosh’s ship, so why bother to leave? Just put the old guy inside, close the….uhm….orifice, and be done with it. Putting him in the ship, then having it leave, then having it be scanned (Which still shouldn’t penetrate the skin) and report one life form only (That being the ship itself) and then coming back just seems needlessly complex.

On the other hand, the scene of Kosh talking to his ship is just delightfully weird, and the ship itself is suitably mysterious. I do really like ‘em.

Who or what was the ‘once’ Kosh is talking about when he mentions invading someone else’s dreams? As far as I can recall, this is never resolved.

So what does all this “Become the song” and “listen to the music” and “It sings to me” stuff mean? To be honest, though it comes up a lot, it’s never really resolved in any meaningful fashion. I like this. The Vorlons are alien. So alien that we can only barely understand them most of the time, and they don’t seem to understand us all that well (Though how much of that is an act is subject to debate). In any event, it’s very clear that they do think fundamentally *differently* than us. Having them be obsessed about something that almost seems familiar, but isn’t is sorta’ cool, and it makes them exotic and mysterious. You can’t have that if everything about them is explained away. I’m happy they were written with some ellipsis and unfathomability. I’ve never even bothered to come up with a theory as to what “The song” is all about.

I *do* have a theory about what “We are all Kosh” means, though.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Conspiracy Theorists more than regular conservatives, in that it posits nasty goings on beneath the surface of the government. It’s not spectacularly paranoid, however, and a good enough story, so, yeah, I think our people will like it. Nothing here to give offence, certainly.

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