RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Mind War” (Season 1, Episode 6)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

After last week’s high water mark for the series thus far, we once again find the tide is going out. But it doesn’t go out all the way, and it’s not so low that we can see the mud. Between the coda of this episode, and the coda of the previous one, the show is showing a sudden and impressive penchant for the whole “sense of wonder and awe” thing that Star Trek had lost all interest in by this point.

On a personal note, during the first run of this series I was watching B5 mainly because there were only two other SF shows in those days: TNG and The X-Files. Someone said something in this episode that I thought contradicted something someone said in a previous one, so I hauled out a pencil and paper (Remember those? How quaint!) and started scribbling down notes from the previous episodes and this one, and I realized five sheets of paper later that, to my surprise, this show had done more consistent world building in six episodes than TNG had done in the previous six years.

I know, I know, it sounds like I’m bashing Trek. I’m really not, though: I loved TOS, I loved TNG: I always watched it, and for most of its run I really really liked it. Somewhere around season five, though, I found myself drifting away for whatever reason. I didn’t understand why, but when B5 hit it basically filled all kinds of needs that I hadn’t realized I’d had before.

Which is good, because a lot of these early episodes are deadly boring, and without that angle I doubt I would have made it through ‘em.

PLAY BY PLAY

A handsome black man is on the run from some fighters. His ship jumps away, and destroys the fighters in the process. He goes to Babylon 5, where it quickly turns out he’s saddled with the unfortunate name “Jason Ironheart.” Seriously: does that sound like a Masters of the Universe name, or what? “Oh, suzie’s in her bedroom making her brother’s Ironheart action figure and Barbie make out…”

Anyway, he’s on the run from Psicorps, who experimented on him, thereby changing him from a fairly run-of-the-mill Telepath into a super-powerful Telekinetic. Ostensibly he’s on B5 to say goodbye to Talia, but in reality it’s just because the script said he had to be there. It makes no particular sense otherwise, nor is there any particularly logical reason for him to need to say goodbye to Talia in the first place, as opposed to the zillion other people in his life. This is somewhat less annoying than it probably would be otherwise, but fortunately Ironheart* realizes this was a mistake almost as soon as he gets there. That takes some of the curse off of it.

Two Psicops - basically the police force/internal affairs department for the Psicorps - turn up trying to capture him and take him back home for “Help,” but it’s pretty clear that means dissection. Because they’re wearing SS uniforms, and so they have to be evil, y’see. After several conversations with Talia - the two of them were lovers once upon a time, apparently back when he was her teacher at the Psicorps academy (Uhm…ick?) - but neither of them really convey the kind of closeness that would justify this level of risk on his part. Anyway, Ironheart has a built-in failsafe code: Broadcast it to him telepathically and he’ll shut down. The psicops are hoping to use this against him, and they jump him when Sinclair tries to help the guy off the station. Sinclair punches the lead Psicop in the face, knocking him out, but the other one keeps trying to send the code. Ironheart disintegrates her using his mind.

He then apotheosizes into one of those annoying Star Trek energy-based god-like super evolved entities that are always so annoyingly smug. He gives Talia a parting gift: Telekinesis, and then says “Goodbye Commander, I’ll see you again in a million years.”

After the fact, Sinclair manages to blackmail the surviving Psicop into agreeing to a series of lies that will cover up the cop’s own wrongdoing, as well as Talia’s complicit, and Sinclair’s open defiance of orders. He reluctantly goes along with it, and says “Be seeing you,” as he heads out.

MEANWHILE, IN THE VASTLY MORE INTERESTING SUBPLOT, the commander’s girlfriend, Catherine Sakai, is heading out to survey a newly-discovered world called “Sigman 957.” It’s in a section of space that the Narn occasionally claim to own, but G’kar refuses to let her go. He warns her that it’s a very unsafe section of space, but we don’t believe him because he’s an evil bastard, after all, right? She goes anyway. No sooner is she off the station than G’kar calls homeworld and tells them to send some well-armed fighters to Sigma 957, and you just know he’s going to have her killed to cover something up, right? Because he’s a bastard and all.

Immediately upon arrival, Catherine has her ship completely incapacitated by the appearance of some great big weird glowing boojums dealie that appears, then zips away. Trapped in a decaying orbit and waiting to die, some Narn fighters show up, and tow her to safety.

Back on the station, she confronts G’kar as to why he warned her and why he saved her. He says that her death would have caused Sinclair considerable anguish for no good reason. If it would further G’kar’s purposes to have the Commander upset, sure, but why waste it on something like this.

Catherine asks G’kar what the heck that thing was that knocked out her ship. He goes over to a booth selling flowers on the Zocalo and points to a bug on a flower:

G’kar: “What is this?”
Catherine: “An ant.”
G’kar: “Ant!”
Catherine: “So much gets shipped up from Earth on commercial transports, it’s hard to keep them out.”
G’kar: “I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant, ‘What was that?,’ how would it explain? There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They are vast, timeless. And if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants. We have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know. We’ve tried. And we’ve learned we can either stay out from underfoot, or be stepped on.”
Catherine: “That’s it? That’s all you know?”
G’kar: “Yes. They are a mystery, and I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe; that we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Ms. Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957. They must walk there alone.”

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Once again, the “A” plot feels like a retooled ‘80s Outer Limits plot. It’s slow, and not nearly as dramatic as it seems to feel it is. Granted, the camera shakes about a bit, and some crap drops from the ceiling of the studio, but basically it’s just your standard ‘guy on the run who turns out to be a god’ plot. Yawn. In fact, this is all just a ‘makework’ plot to introduce a number of concepts, plot elements, and characters crucial to the show:

We’ve heard of the Psicorps previously, of course, and we know that membership is basically mandatory if you’re a telepath. We’ve assumed they’re benevolent, if a bit unyielding and heartless. This episode introduces the idea that they flat-out can’t be trusted. Ironheart says that they were intended to be controlled by the government, but “Telepaths make the best blackmailers,” and increasingly the Psicorps is the one pulling the strings. We’re also told that their research department is interested in developing telekinesis for its use in black ops, particularly assassination. (“Pinch an artery in someone’s brain and they have a stroke, with no weapons, no poison, no fingerprints, no evidence that can ever be traced back to the corps.”) We’re also told that the Psicops are the duly-appointed shepherds for this flock, and “having greater responsibility, we have somewhat more latitude in interpretation of the rules.”

“The Rules” in general mean no unauthorized scans, no use of telepathy to communicate with non-telepaths, no deep scans of people’s minds, no access to the casino, ever, and (Apparently) the wearing of gloves and a Psi Corps badge at all times in public so you can be easily identified.

All that sets the stage for things that are to come, but the most lingering legacy of this episode is the introduction of Psicop Alfred Bester. He’s a guy without mercy, or perhaps he’s a guy who’s mercy is so specifically circumscribed that he’s much more evil than he appears. Or maybe he *is* every bit as evil as he appears. It’s hard to say. He’s definitely interesting, however, and we’ll be seeing him again.

We’re told that one in thousand people are Telepaths, and that one in ten thousand are telekinetic, and that “Half of them are clinically insane.” All human telekinetics to date have been “unstable,” so while the abilities exist, they’re utterly useless.

The fighter squadron we saw at the start of the episode is called “Black Omega.” They bear Psicorps logos, and they pointedly do *not* identify themselves as part of Earth force (That is, they’re not military.)

A company called “Universal Terraform” was interested in Sigma 957. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of habitable-and-vacant worlds in the B5verse. Is Terraforming really all that lucrative? Granted, they didn’t actually seem interested in terraforming this planet, just the minerals, but still…

“Jack” is introduced in this episode. He’s the guard talking with Bester in the arrival lounge. He seems a minor character - and he is - but keep your eyes open for him. The French Chick gets her obligatory one line.

We get another elevator gag - the second one - with Talia and Garibaldi pretty much openly stalking her. She reads his mind, and elbows him.

Talia tells us that Telepathy is kind of like being in an apartment and hearing voices through the walls, though not clearly enough to make sense of them unless you concentrate. She also says that when two telepaths knock boots they essentially merge into one soul for a moment, and that’s the only time in their lives when they don’t hear the voices. The actual scene where she relates all this is pretty brilliantly done: It’s shot aboard the central shuttle/tram thing that runs through the axis of the station, and we can see the vast central garden of the station stretching impressively out below them as they zoom by. As Talia talks about the sexy stuff, they zip into a tunnel, blocking out the background so we only concentrate on her. It’s a neat trick, well shot, but it begs the question “Why don’t they do more stuff like this?” More to the point, why don’t they do more filming in the central garden? That’s really exotic! And pretty!

Andrea Thomson is pretty enough, slinky enough, sexy enough, she’s got good hair and cheekbones and a sultry voice, and she’s an adequate enough actress, but there’s just something about her as Talia that’s always put me off. Yeah, yeah, I get the Dickensian name aspect of it: she’s chilly, but it’s beyond that. There’s just something unlikeable there, and I don’t know what it is. Anyone else get that vibe?

Deep telepathic scans not only hurt, but they’re traumatic. So much so that Susan gives Talia a glass of water to calm down afterwards, the first act of kindness we’ve seen from her. Susan, by the way, is openly insubordinate while in the room with the Psicops, and very aggressively sarcastic as well. This is a new side of her.

A new side of G’kar as well. After all this time as an adversary, we got that great window into his soul last week, and a surprising insight into his sense of awe and wonder this week. He’s still a bastard, but he’s not a capricious bastard. He’s only too glad to sacrifice his pawns, but he won’t do it without a reason. Also, he’s effortlessly poetic and articulate. Good qualities in an angry lizard, don’t you think?

Speaking of poetic, “You can not harm one who has dreamed a dream like mine.”

When the ship starts shaking, the Psicops seem not at all surprised, and say “Mindquake,” as if this kind of thing has happened to them before a lot. So has it? I mean, they’ve got a name for it and all. How have they come across this phenomenon before?

Talia is a level P-5 telepath. P-10s are required to be instructors. Level P-12 is required to be a Psicop. It’s unknown how high the scale goes up. It’s also unclear what Talia’s level is now that she’s a Telekinetic.

Catherine’s ship is called the “Skydancer.” It appears to be a standard non-atmospheric human shuttle like we’ve seen scads of on the show, tricked out with extra fuel tanks and a luggage rack on the bottom.

The spotlights are in this episode.

Sinclair doesn’t entirely believe the things Ironheart told him, given that the guy was frazzled and loopy and just basically a mess. Was it the truth, or just paranoid delusion? He’s skeptical, but keeping an eye open.

The Earth Alliance communicates by “Tachyon Transmissions.” Tachyons are hypothetical particles that travel faster than light, which is how B5 can talk to ships and planets far away with no apparent time lag.

RECURRING THEMES:

* “Be seeing you.” This turns up a few more times to indicate offscreen connections between some very bad people.

* “A million years.” It’s unclear if Ironheart is talking about humanity as a whole, or Sinclair personally. Either is possible, frankly. We heard Sinclair talking about The Sun Going Out In A Million Years in his interview a few eps back, and we’ll here more of that kind of thing in the future. (The sun’s projected life is several billion more years). Rather than an arbitrary big number, “A million years” seems to specifically denote that something big happens in the year 1,002,258 AD. You know, give or take six months either way. We eventually find out *what,* but we don’t know why, or what (if any) part Ironheart played in it.

BEHIND THE SCENES

One last note: The part of Bester was actually written specifically for Patrick McGoohan, the guy who played “Number Six” on The Prisoner back in the ‘60s. He had a heart attack during preproduction, however, Walter Koenig stepped in literally at the eleventh hour to fill the role as a personal favor. Thus, when Bester says “Be seeing you” at the end of the ep, and gives the little village salute, it was intended as an in joke. (That’s how late in production he was cast - they didn’t even have time to change the script!) This is also why Bester is in his seventies in the Psicorps Books, while the actor is clearly only in his fifties in the series. Presumably, since humans live 100 years in the B5verse, this is what a normal seventy-year-old looks like. (But then why is 39-year-old Sinclair so grey?)

It was intended to have McGoohan turn up as a psicop in the second season, but he said that Koenig did a good job, and it wouldn’t be right to take the part away from him, so that was that. McGoohan is somewhat infamous for not taking parts.

Koenig decided on the spur of the moment to play Bester with a useless left hand. The reasons for this are never referred to in the show, though Gregory Keys came up with an explanation for it in his “Psicorps” novels. The ultimate resolution to the issue of Bester’s hand - which we’ll eventually get to - actually kind of put a lump in my throat.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Extreme Socons won’t like the sex, and the whole “Telepath” thing will seem like witchcraft to them, so, no. In the case of the rest of us conservatives, the notion that the Government isn’t entirely trustworthy is one that definitely resonates with us, so, yeah. On balance I’ll say we’ll like it, though it’s kinda’ dull.

* - Seriously, that never stops being goofy.

Tags: