So after two-and-a-half great episodes in a row, we’re right back to crap city. A lot of people consider this the worst B5 episode every. They’re wrong. It isn’t even the worst B5 episode we’ve seen thus far in the first season. It is pretty terrible, though, and yet there is one thing to like.
PLAY BY PLAY
Garibaldi’s old friend, Walker Smith, visits the station. He’s a washed up prize fighter who got blacklisted, and he hopes that by competing in an alien combat sport - the Mutai - he’ll get enough notoriety to get his career going again. It works. Yawn.
MEANWHILE, in the vastly more interesting subplot, Rabbi Yosef Koslov visits the station to ask Ivonova why she hasn’t sat Shiva for her father yet. That’s right, she’s Jewish! How cool is that? After some hemming and hawing and emotional dysfunction, she does.
I know that’s a pretty threadbare play-by-play, but there really isn’t anything more than that. And it takes 44 minutes. Really.
There’s no getting around it, this is a pretty bad and wildly uneven episode. The A story about the boxer is boring, stupid, violent, and pointless. The B story about Susan and her grief is vastly more interesting and entertaining, but it’s hard not to wince as the dissonance between the two halves of the story. This is made worse by the director’s decision to cut back and forth between the ludicrously long, padded out fight scene and the Shiva service. I get what he was going for, I might have even tried it myself were I in his state, but it just didn’t work. Still and all, the director is clearly aware he’s working with a turd here, and does his best with it.
I can’t tell you how much I love, love, love, love the whole Jewish subplot. Totally love it. Why? Because traditionally in American SF up to this point, religion has been a taboo. It was either completely ignored for fear of offending Christians in the audience (“How dare they drag Jesus into their crazy little monster show!”) or because the producers were agnostic and didn’t want it (“How dare they attempt to drag Jesus into our crazy little monster show!”). There were passing references - the Robinson family praying on Lost in Space one time, Admiral Nelson quoting Jonah in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the “Sun Worshipers” episode of Trek, but Religion was generally ignored. If it was mentioned at all, it was some hokey space religion that generally served as a vehicle of scorn: Either “These stupid aliens still believe in God” or “Huh. The gods are aliens/computers/space probes sent out by earth 300 years ago. Whoda’ thunk it?”
The idea that human religion not only still exists in the 23rd century, but exists in a recognizable form, and is still an important aspect in society was just…I can not tell you how heartwarming that was to me as a believer. More importantly still, I love that they chose Judaism to showcase, since Christianity is so widespread as to seem almost generic in these proceedings. All too often “Christianity” is used interchangeably for whatever the author or producers consider randomly positive or negative traits. If they’re liberals, and the subject comes up, then “Christianity” represents positive “Spirituality,” and if they’re liberals in a pissy mood, then “Christianity” represents superstition and fear. Christianity is so huge and so fractured that from a dramatic perspective, it can mean whatever anyone wants it to. The problem is vastly worse when dealing with Buddhism or any other trendy Asian religion. Judaism, however, is not beplauged with this. Judaism is Judaism, and has been recognizable in its present form since about 200 AD and will still be recognizable in its present form in the year 3800 AD. There’s no doubletalk or backpedaling here: There are religious Jews in the future, and God bless this show for saying it!
We already knew that Sinclair was educated by Jesuits - he mentioned that a couple weeks back - and “Parliament of Dreams” made it very clear that many - most - religions had survived. Franklin’s behavior in “Believers” betrays some religious beliefs within him that conflict with his more rational side, just like it does at one time or another with all of us. These people are still people, they’re in starships and space stations, and hanging out with us, but there’s no fundamental disconnect from our society or our beliefs as you find in other shows.
This was a huge watershed. Apart from the original Galactica in 1978, which touched on it, and fumbled the ball by turning the whole thing into “Ancient Astronauts” nonsense, no American SF series had ever touched on this. It threw open the doors and made vastly more things possible, and things vastly more interesting in general. Every show that’s utilized this since - Firefly, the new Galactica, Andromeda - owes a massive, massive, massive debt to B5.
It is still a pretty terrible episode, however. No getting ‘round that.
The scene where Ivonova breaks down crying was actually pretty powerful and unflinching. We only ever see her that messed up one other time in the run of the series. Ordinarily she jumps back and forth between Stoical and Violent. We find out more about the family history, too. Father: Andre; Mother: Sophie; Brother: Ganya. Ganya died in the war about a year after Sophie killed herself. This is related to why Susan only wears one earring, which was based on an incident in the actress’ own life - Claudia Christian’s brother died - that Straczynski worked in to the series. We’ll see more about this later.
The Rabi wears a tie. This is the only one we ever see in any iteration of Babylon 5, 23rd century fashion favoring mandarin collars, as everyone knows. I wonder why? Perhaps the tie has become a kind of ceremonial badge for Jewish Clergy? These things do happen…matters of fashion become tradition, become venerated tradition, become liturgical over time…
Susan is reading Harlan Ellison’s autobiography, “Working Without a Net.” This is an in joke as Harlan often mentioned that when he got around to writing his memoirs, he’d use that title. To date he never actually wrote ‘em, and I guess now he probably never will, but at the time it seemed like a safe bet.
“That guy’s a chump. I could beat him on crutches, but this guy? He’s going to show me where my heart is.”
“Zima” makes its first appearance in this episode. Remember that? If not, then “Zima” was a clear carbonated alcoholic libation, sort of a combination of beer and a soft drink. There were all kinds of annoying commercials for it, “Zomezing diferent,“ and so on. It never caught on, but it lingered for about a decade. You can see lit signs advertising the stuff in the background of several scenes, and you’ll continue to see ‘em for a while yet. This is often thought to be product placement, but it wasn’t. It was intended as a gag by the production crew, though exactly what the punch line is remains obscure. Were they saying it was so bad that only aliens would drink it? Did they think it would be the next big thing? Was this a variation on the theme of looking back from the future at an as-yet unwritten book? Any way you slice it, it’s not really worth trying to figure out, because it’s just Zima after all, and that sucks.
Susan said she invited her father to the station several times, but he always refused. How long has she been on the station anyway? He died in episode 1, and yet she was still pretty new on the station at that point. We’re told it had been a long illness, and his death wasn’t a surprise.
Kaliban is our first definite example of a Brakiri, one of the better way-too-human aliens. I like his character, he’s wasted in this ep, alas. Speaking of which, *Many* new alien designs turn up in this ep, and are never seen again. Just as well, most of them are way too prosthetic foreheady…
Based on dialog, there was a World War III at some point.
“If regret could be harvested, Russia would be the world’s fruit basket.”
Lots of alien foods mentioned in this episode: Treel, a centauri fish; fried tree worms, Jovian Tubers. We also get a nice matte shot of Fresh Aire.
Gregory McKinney, who played Walker Smith and who has a great speaking voice, died just four years after this episode. Brain aneurysm.
There’s always a bit of debate as to what language people are speaking in shows set in the future. It was fanon that they were actually speaking some goony fictional universal language in TNG, though as far as I know, it’s never been addressed on the show. B5 makes it very clear that everyone is speaking English, however.
And that’s it. Onward and upward. It can only be uphill from here, right? The next episode is “Grail?” Sheesh. Well, it’s not very far uphill, but it’s better than this.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?
Conservative Jews will love it! I see no reason why conservative gentiles wouldn’t like it as well: Nice confirmation of the importance of religion, and an affirmation that Boxing will still be legal in centuries to come. We’re all about both of those things, right?