Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Two Good Ideas, Suffering From Early-Series Issues, On One Babylon 5 VHS!

The Good: Great character development, Interesting stories, Conceptual issues
The Bad: Stiff acting, Special effects issues
The Basics: When an old flame returns and a rogue telepath arrives on Babylon 5, Sinclair finds his hands full with two good episodes of the series!

Part of the true magic of the series Babylon 5 was that because so much of the series was written by the same person - writer/creator/executive producer J. Michael Straczynski - the series generally does not suffer from the problem of finding its "voice" as much as many other television shows do. As a result, early episodes at least tend to sound like later episodes. This, of course, does not mean that the series did not suffer the usual early-series issues, growing pains and difficulties with actors trying to find their voice. There is nowhere that that is more clear, perhaps, than with the episodes "The Parliament Of Dreams" and "Mind War," which share a VHS tape.

"The Parliament Of Dreams" finds Babylon 5 serving as a hub for religious freedom when the Earth Government encourages a week-long celebration of religions from all of the major races, with each government performing religious ceremonies from the dominant religion of the planet. While Jeffrey Sinclair works on presenting Earth's dominant religion, he finds himself distracted by the return of an old flame, one who he has a difficult time resisting. And while Sinclair and Catherine Sakai work through their relationship issues, G'Kar finds himself menaced by an assassin, one who may be his new aide.

"Mind War" places Babylon 5 at the center of a struggle among telepaths when Jason Ironheart sneaks onto the station. An old friend of Talia Winters, Ironheart is a telepath whose abilities have begun to increase exponentially - a condition not supposed to occur among telepaths. While Sinclair is forced to deal with the arrival of Psi cops, led by Bester, Catherine Sakai is forced to deal with the Narn ambassador G'Kar, who seems unwilling to share information with her about a sector of space she has been commissioned to investigate, an investigation which may prove fatal.

There are a number of good things about both "The Parliament Of Dreams" and "Mind War," but the acting is not one of them. In both episodes, the acting is stiff, awkward and is a clear challenge for the bulk of the performers. "The Parliament Of Dreams" marks the arrival of both Na'Toth (G'Kar's aide) and Lennier (Delenn's aide) and while Caitlin Brown (Na'Toth) seems instantly comfortable in her role, Bill Mumy (Lennier) seems even stiffer than his character. Similarly, Mira Furlan seems unusually stiff in a number of scenes as Delenn (most notably in the awkward scene with Londo expressing his affection for everyone while getting absolutely drunk.

But the acting difficulties are best encapsulated by Michael O'Hare (Sinclair) and Julia Nickson (Sakai), who are portraying characters with a long history. The two have an awkward chemistry that is not evident in this first episode they are together and instead, they clumsily feel their way through the dialogue for scenes that ought to have some genuine familiarity for them. They are stiff and their performances seem more like two people just meeting one another for the first time. And the evidence that this is an acting difficulty is that in "Mind War," their scenes together - and, indeed, Nickson's performances opposite Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar) - are much more refined, fluid and natural.

In "Mind War," though, there are acting problems from other performers, most notably Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters and the actor playing Ironheart. Thompson has the ability to jump into a role and make it seem natural from her first day out; when she began playing Jill Kirkendall in the fourth season of NYPD Blue, she leapt in with a natural quality that worked perfectly. "Mind War" is the first episode that genuinely focuses on Talia and she seems uncomfortable performing in it. Indeed, Walter Koenig - best known to genre fans as Chekov from Star Trek - overshadows her in virtually every scene they share as the villainous Psi Cop Bester. Bester becomes one of the more interesting roles Koenig performs in and he makes for a convincing villain.

The only other genuine problem with either of these two episodes is the special effects. In "The Parliament Of Dreams," G'Kar ends up in paingivers, a device that has the special effects flair of articles from the original Star Trek. It's a pretty campy special effect. And while the CGI effects in "Mind War" are not quite as bad, they look very much like computer generated effects, as opposed to any genuine recreation of reality. Moreover, the make-up effects in both episodes are still a bit rough compared with how wonderful they become as the series progresses.

That said, the episodes do showcase some of what is best about the Babylon 5 series. The first is that the stories are interesting and ambitious. "The Parliament of Dreams" has both a typical plot - the assassination attempt - and a wonderfully unconventional one - the story of religious expression. Outside Babylon 5, there is not another science fiction series that works so hard to integrate religious beliefs constantly into its characters and its alien cultures. For sure, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (series reviewed here!) comes close, but so many of the characters and cultures there live in denial of their stated faiths, where Babylon 5 is populated by characters and cultures motivated by it. Regardless of my personal views on organized religion, this "reads" as very true and real and makes the universe of Babylon 5 seem that much more realistic.

With "Mind War," the viewer is treated to the beginning of one of the subplots for the entire series. Tensions exist between the telepaths and the mundanes and "Mind War" sets up that beautifully with establishing the tenants of who and what the telepaths are and exploring the issues with them. Similarly, the plot involving Sakai and the Narn and the force out in the strange sector of space works perfectly to set up future plotlines about the First Ones. G'kar's closing monologue in the episode is one of the best of the series.

And that's a pretty positive reflection on the characters, which are another key selling point for viewers of Babylon 5. Despite the acting problems that might limit the presentation of these episodes some, the characters are interesting. The only real problem with "The Parliament Of Dreams" on a character front comes in the form of Catherine Sakai. I like Sakai and I think she's a great choice for an old flame for Sinclair. The problem is, she's not the same old flame (who has essentially the same characterization) from the pilot episode "The Gathering." As a result, it makes Sinclair seem like something of a womanizer keeping a bunch of rogue surveyors on deck for year; something his character seems far too bland for.

But to Sinclair's credit, in "The Parliament Of Dreams," the bond between Sinclair and Garibaldi is wonderfully reflected. While awkward relationships are being begun with Lennier and Delenn, G'Kar and Na'Toth and rekindled between Sinclair and Sakai, the viewer is treated to the evidence that these characters do not exist in a vacuum with Garibaldi's very compassionate looking out for Sinclair.

And it is that and the whole concept of religious expression that makes "The Parliament Of Dreams" a remarkably accessible episode for fans of general drama and not just Babylon 5. It is a strong character-driven story that combines many of the best dramatic elements, even if one truly does not believe that G'Kar will be successfully assassinated. "Mind War" is a bit tougher to sell to a general audience, but it is a solid sell and an enthusiastic recommendation for fans of science fiction. Anyone who likes science fiction - and even those who might not like Babylon 5 are bound to find "Mind War" enjoyable.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Babylon 5 - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the debut season by clicking here!

“The Parliament Of Dreams” – 6/10
“Mind War” – 6.5/10
VHS – 6/10

For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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