Thursday, March 29, 2012

Garibaldi Searches For Lochley's Truths In Two Mediocre Episodes of Babylon 5.

The Good: Moments of character, Moments of performance
The Bad: Mediocre special effects, Fairly recycled plot, Some truly lame moments, Predictability
The Basics: With two mediocre episodes of Babylon 5, this video sinks, regardless of how essential the plots of the episodes are to the bigger story.

As I nab the final Babylon 5 VHS tape I had to review, it occurs to me how unfortunate it is that Babylon 5 ended on such a shaky note, that its final season was so uncertain. I wonder how much - honestly - had been intended as part of the five year planned arc by series creator, writer J. Michael Straczynski. With the fifth season episodes "Learning Curve" and "Strange Relations," with their peculiar mix of necessary plot and character moments and the recycled sense that the viewer has seen them before, it certainly is enough to make one at least question if Straczynski was desperately fleshing out the final season.

"Learning Curve" finds a new crime boss taking over Down Below on Babylon 5 and a series of murders, as messages to his competitors, confounding security. As Garibaldi continues to investigate and badger the station's new commander, Captain Lochley, a pair of Ranger teachers and their Ranger acolytes come to the station to provide Delenn with a status report. While there, one of the Rangers is beaten by the new criminal leader as a sign and left for dead. Supposedly terrorized, Delenn intervenes with station security and Lochley to help use the righting of this violence as a lesson for the Rangers.

"Strange Relations" returns the telepaths to the forefront when Bester and a Bloodhound Unit arrive on the station to hunt down the rogue telepaths given sanctuary on Babylon 5. When Garibaldi is finally told why Sheridan selected Lochley for the position of station commander, he is placated some, but forced to sit out intervening with the villainous Bester. As Sheridan and Lochley look for a way to prevent Bester from taking the rogue telepaths, Lyta becomes more involved with Byron and his movement. And Londo's planned departure for Centauri Prime is delayed by an assassination attempt, prompting him to take on a bodyguard.

Both "Learning Curve" and "Strange Relations" have some serious problems that make them difficult, if not impossible, to recommend, especially to a general audience. As a fan of Babylon 5, there is a troublingly familiar quality to "Learning Curve." In the first season of Babylon 5 (reviewed here!), there was an episode with a nervous character who was terrified of leaving the station and who slowly came into his own throughout the course of the episode. "Learning Curve" feels much like that episode and the problems of the nervous character notwithstanding, there is something unsettling about how familiar the two episodes feel to one another.

Mentoring younger characters and teaching them a lesson is not new in drama or science fiction. Indeed, Star Trek: Voyager has an episode involving teaching the next generation also entitled "Learning Curve.” The fundamental problem with the Babylon 5 episode by the same name is this: the latter half of the episode simply does not work. The Ranger who intervenes and stops an informant from getting killed is beaten to a pulp by the crime boss and his associates. As he lays near death in the medical bay, his mentors announce that he is terrified. The Minbari can't speak, can't really move and his wounds are being held together with small stitches and a lot of hope. I'm not sure he's even conscious enough to be terrified!

The point here is that writer J. Michael Straczynski asks the viewer to take on faith a condition just because two characters on screen say it is so. One says he's terrorized and therefore terrified and Straczynski expects us to all sit up and say "okay, I guess he is!" The truth is, the Ranger acolyte does not look like he is even able to hear his mentors at that point. So when the latter half of the episode degenerates into one young Minbari's quest to overcome his own feelings of terror, it's much more told than shown. And the message has to continue to be repeated to the viewer so that the actions of the Rangers rise to something above a streetfight. I'm not entirely certain it succeeds in getting there, even after multiple viewings.

And this whole plotline is so weak that by the end of the fourth act, it is over. The rest of the episode picks up the thread of Alliance Covert Security Chief Michael Garibaldi trying to figure out why Sheridan chose Lochley to succeed him as captain of Babylon 5. Delenn beats him to the truth and that leads to some tension between Delenn and Sheridan.

Garibaldi receives the truth he has sought, finally, in "Strange Relations." This second episode on the video is somewhat better than "Learning Curve" and is part of the essential Babylon 5 because of the plot elements that occur. Bester's return is of great interest to fans who were enthralled by the fourth season of Babylon 5 (reviewed here!) because he manipulated Garibaldi and almost cost Sheridan his life. So, it's natural for Garibaldi to want to settle the score and it is strangely satisfying to see him make a spectacle of himself in the attempt. No, this is not Garibaldi's best episode.

It's also not the high-water mark for Lochley or Bester. Indeed, outside the character elements of Lochley's revelations to Garibaldi about her past with Sheridan and the very minor G'Kar/Londo subplot, this episode is strangely devoid of interesting character development. One might point to Lyta, who is slowly pulled farther and farther away from the Psi Corps in this episode. This is not much of a development, as she was reluctant to work for the Psi Corps and always hated Bester anyway. Given the choice between the kindly and pacifistic Byron and the sadistic hunter Bester, the choice seems fairly easy and obvious to those who have an affinity to Lyta. Or anyone human.

The result is a Bester episode that is strangely unsatisfying. Lochley is content to work with the Psi Cop and the tension this causes between Sheridan and Lochley is surprisingly minimal. The only truly inspired element of the episode is that it is Lochley who solves the problem, thus bolstering the idea in the mind of the fans that she belongs as captain of the station. "Strange Relations" is not bad, it's just pretty blandly average.

Part of the problem - in both episodes - is the acting. Tracy Scoggins, who arrived in the season premiere "No Compromises" (reviewed here!) still seems a little uncomfortable with the role. She is unable to play passionate and angry without being loud and melodramatic. There is a soap opera quality to her scenes with Garibaldi that ring false and are even painful to watch for their somewhat hammy presentation of how a fiery woman speaks.

Similarly, in "Learning Curve," most of the Minbari are played by actors who do not seem quite at home within their characters. Ironically, when watching two of the Minbari joking with one another, Garibaldi has the epiphany that Minbari never walk away from a fight, whereas most viewers will have the epiphany that Minbari actually have a sense of humor. Actually, the banter in both episodes is decent with the rifts between the Warrior and Religious castes being healed in the Ranger movement and G'Kar and Londo coming to terms with one another even more than before. It is gratifying to watch the show attempt to portray some characters having normal balance with humor amid episodes where people are being hunted down and beaten.

And as far as the telepath plot goes, the idea is not a bad one, though the idea that Byron is something of a cult leader is troubling, even if it might be accurate. The problem there becomes that Byron does not seem to be attracting more people to his flock; the station has not become inundated with telepaths the way it becomes overrun with Narn when G'Kar reaches legendary status later in the season. The point here is that the idea of Bester arriving to hunt down the telepaths and even Lochley's willingness to let him do it, is not a bad idea, but it does ring flat and seem awkward, especially to a fan of the series.

And honestly, I'm not sure this pair of episodes is accessible to those who are not fans of the series. "Learning Curve" is just boring for those not invested in the Rangers. And "Strange Relations" hinges on extensive backstory, especially of the entire telepath subplot that began back in the first season. As a result, it's a shaky two pack.

[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!

“Learning Curve” – 3/10
“Strange Relations” – 5/10
VHS – 3.5/10

For other television and movie reviews please click here to visit an organized listing of all the film works I have reviewed!

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

  1. I don't think I could disagree more.

    But, thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!