Saturday, March 24, 2012

Another All Right, Another Abysmal Episode Makes For Another Split Babylon 5 Tape Review

The Good: One good idea, Decent character development and plot, Good acting, Great special effects
The Bad: One truly lousy execution, Terrible characters, Insipid plot/alien race tailored specific to one episode
The Basics: Babylon 5 tries a change in narrative technique that fails and sucks another, already derivative episode down with it on this video!

There's something truly disturbing about some of the old VHS tapes with two episodes. Every now and then one comes along that has an episode that is good or excellent paired with an episode that I wouldn't even let my cats use for litter (if they were inclined to use VHS tapes in their litter boxes). One of the most poignant examples of this regrettable phenomenon was in the Babylon 5 season five episodes where "The Paragon Of Animals" was paired with "A View From The Gallery." At least the tape starts out strong; following that first episode, though, it goes bad real quick.

"The Paragon Of Animals" returns the telepaths to the forefront when Sheridan finds that getting the races of the newly formed Interstellar Alliance to adopt the Declaration of Principles is much harder than it initially seems. When his head of covert intelligence, Garibaldi, suggests using the rogue telepaths aboard the station to spy on the local alien races, Sheridan is reluctant. When a peaceful planet on the edge of Drazi space is nearly bombed out of existence by raiders and Sheridan is compelled to use the White Star fleet to save them, he begins to open up to more extreme measures to get the needs of the Alliance met. This puts Lyta on a collision course with Byron, leader of the rogues and the Drazi in a position where their culpability may become undeniable.

"A View From The Gallery" follows Mack and Bo, two maintenance workers who keep Babylon 5 up and running as their mundane tasks overlap with the prominent station personnel's jobs. With Babylon 5 under attack from an alien race that is intent to feel out weaker races that are ripe for conquest, Captain Lochley finds herself being given a trial by fire and a running commentary on how the station is run by two depressingly uninteresting characters.

I am all for trying new things and exploring the lens through which a show is seen. Star Trek: The Next Generation did an episode similar to "A View From The Gallery" called "Lower Decks" (reviewed here!). The episode was interesting and illustrated a mission the U.S.S. Enterprise was on through the eyes of junior officers who were vying for a promotion. The fundamental difference in the two episodes was that the plot was not concocted in a way that made it seemed tailored solely for the episode (i.e. the plot could well have been done from the standard perspective) and the characters were interesting.

I don't usually comment on the end of episodes, but "A View From The Gallery" is so bad that it inspires me to break from my usual tradition and style. As the denouement to the episode, Mack shouts out to Captain Lochley, "Hey! You're all right in my book!" and the thing is, we don't give a damn. This is such a terrible self-referential episode with the obvious goal being to establish Lochley as a credible character that fans feel welcomed to like - something similar was done when Bobby Simone joined NYPD Blue in the second season (reviewed here!) of that show - that writer J. Michael Straczynski oversells it. Mack is such a dull, ridiculous character that his endorsement of Lochley has the exact opposite effect; we feel more unnerved by Lochley. It's like when someone who one knows has terrible taste in food endorses a restaurant; their lack of credibility from one source taints all future evaluations.

Mack and Bo are basically stereotypes of blue-collar workers and the farce that is established to have them interact with virtually all of the main cast is just that. The circumstances that push Mack and Bo into proximity to G'Kar and Londo having a deep character-intensive discussion about their childhood is ridiculous. How the main crew, like Dr. Franklin and Ambassador Delenn interact with the workers becomes almost a parody of Babylon 5 with them lecturing these blue-collar folks like they are yokels. Now, they are, but that's a separate problem; the way Dr. Franklin talks down to Mack and lectures him like a child is very much a departure from his character in other episodes.

But the whole plot idea for "A View From The Gallery" is a ridiculous contrivance. Babylon 5 is beset by an alien force unique to this episode. They pop up to give the station a good pounding and then are never seen from again. Were the show episodic, this would not be so much of a problem, but Babylon 5 is largely serialized; things have consequences and the loyal viewer want elements of every episode to have consequences. This episode lacks them and given the nature of the presentation - through the workday of mundanes Bo and Mack - the episode ultimately has an air of being completely inconsequential. In other words, fans of the show are going to feel like they wasted their time after sitting through this one. Fortunately, it comes second on the tape so those not looking to be bored and troubled by the stupidity of what amounts to a filler episode, never have to watch it!

But "The Paragon Of Animals" is worth watching and it actually improved with the second viewing. The first time I watched "The Paragon Of Animals," I was troubled by its similarity to an episode in the fourth season (reviewed here!) where Sheridan essentially tricks the nonaligned worlds into accepting the White Star Fleet on their borders by insinuating nothing is wrong and letting the paranoia of the League members overcome them. "The Paragon Of Animals" has Sheridan facing a similar dilemma and his methods are not entirely dissimilar to the prior episode. As a result, the manipulating the nonaligned worlds to his will plot seemed a bit overdone.

With time and a little distance, though, "The Paragon Of Animals" holds up better because the episode seems to focus more on the telepaths. The rogue telepaths allowed a colony on Babylon 5 in "No Compromises" (reviewed here!) resurface, as does Lyta Alexander. Lyta is working for the Psi Corps and has been tired for some time been tired of feeling used. When she aids Dr. Franklin by scanning a Ranger before he dies - and thus managing to deliver his message about the planet under siege by Raiders - she begins to truly question her purpose and she finds herself in the presence of Byron who seems to have a legitimate interest in bettering the lives of telepaths.

Robin Atkin Downs seems much more comfortable in the role of Byron than he did in his first outing and he and Patricia Tallman play off one another quite well. It's easy to see why Downs was cast and now that he is coming into his own as the character, he and Tallman are able to start developing some on-screen chemistry and it works!

What works a little less well is the sheer amount of comic relief the episode seems to want to rely on. I like that G'Kar and Londo have taken up more of a camaraderie and their attitude toward one another is friendly, but in "The Paragon Of Animals," it is somewhat ridiculous. G'Kar makes jokes about Londo repressing someone else, which seems a bit soon as it is less than a year since his eye was plucked out by an oppressive Centauri. Similarly, G'Kar's appearance near the end with the revised Declaration of Principles and Sheridan's reaction to it, just reeks of a writer having fun at the expense of the bigger body of work.

That said, the performances in "The Paragon Of Animals" are decent. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas seem like they are having fun as Londo and G'Kar. Mira Furlan has a great deadpanned demeanor to counter their silliness with and Jerry Doyle infuses Garibaldi with a decent sense of paranoia throughout the episode.

But it is Bruce Boxleitner who once again sells the episode. Boxleitner has a quality few would expect to be truly presidential and in this episode he seems less like a leader trying to strategize to win battles and a complicated mind attempting to work his way around the intricacies of developing peace. It's a decent performance and it keeps his character fresh and watchable.

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

“The Paragon Of Animals” – 6/10
“A View From The Gallery” – 1/10
VHS – 3/10

For other television reviews, be sure to check out my television and movie review index page by clicking here!

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