Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Smart Premiere And An Inconsequential Second: Babylon 5’s “Midnight On The Firing Line” And “Soul Hunter!”

The Good: Good establishment of characters, Good plots, Most of the effects
The Bad: Frequently stiff acting, “Soul Hunter” has no lasting consequences, Medium issues
The Basics: Split between one surprisingly good pilot episode and a scary, but meaningless episode, the video of “Midnight On The Firing Line” and “Soul Hunter” is distinctly mixed

Every now and then, I am surprised by how, even for a serialized series, early episodes of a television show can be startlingly erratic. This is true even for Babylon 5, which developed into an astonishingly good show episode after episode. With "Midnight On The Firing Line" and "Soul Hunter," the erratic nature of early Babylon 5 is illustrated.

"Midnight On The Firing Line" picks up after the events of "The Gathering" and already has the station’s first officer replaced. When the Centauri outpost at Ragesh is attacked, the uneasy sense of peace in the galaxy is instantly upset. The new first officer, Ivanova, uses the chaos engulfing the galaxy outside as an excuse to avoid the new telepath sent by the Psi Corps. As Earth’s Presidential election nears, tensions on Babylon 5 rise when it is revealed that the Narn were responsible for the attack on the Ragesh agricultural colony.

When Londo receives a directive to not move for sanctions against the Narn, G’Kar tries to extort him with information about his family’s dark past and the Centauri Ambassador tries to let the other representatives do his dirty work for him. Commander Sinclair gets a directive not to move for sanctions either, but he decides to leave Babylon 5 to lead a mission against raiders in a nearby sector in order to avoid directly disobeying the Senator’s order. With the political threat causing a menace of all-out war, Londo prepares to assassinate G’Kar in his rage!

A "Soul Hunter" arrives on Babylon 5 on his severely damaged ship, which Sinclair rescues out in space. The new doctor, Franklin, nurses the alien back to health, though Delenn makes an attempt to kill the alien when she sees it in the medical bay. Delenn reveals that the alien is a Soul Hunter and his type arrives only at moments of great importance to take the souls of influential people. Dr. Franklin disbelieves her story until a civilian is stabbed in the down below and the Soul Hunter is able to sense it happening from the medical bay. The situation gets worse for Delenn, though, when the Soul Hunter abducts her and tries to add her Minbari soul to his collection!

Both of these Babylon 5 episodes have important character elements to them, though “Midnight On The Firing Line” has stiffer acting than one would hope, even for a pilot episode (which the episode essentially is). “Midnight On The Firing Line” provides essential information about the characters of Londo and Ivanova, with a great deal of history for the Babylon 5 Universe being thrown into the episode. “Soul Hunter” serves as a far less useful episode, though it is essential to understanding the eventual Babylon 5 film River Of Souls (reviewed here!), though it has a lot of characterization for Delenn.

Londo is characterized in “Midnight On The Firing Line” as a patriot and not just an unsuccessful politician. He has a deep love for both his family and the Centauri Republic. That affection for his people and their history (however destructive) owes a lot to the performance of Peter Jurasik. Jurasik infuses his lines when talking about the fall of Centauri with so much passion that it seems like he is talking about a real place. Even with G’Kar’s angry protestations about how his people were treated under the Centauri, it is impossible not to empathize with Londo due to Jurasik’s portrayal of the ambassador.

Unfortunately, Claudia Christian is incredibly stiff in the same episode. Christian’s Ivanova is presented not as efficient or particularly Russian, but as an actress who was thrown into something she did not understand, playing a character she was not ready to make nuanced. Watching “Midnight On The Firing Line,” especially after having seen how good Claudia Christian’s performances can be, it is hard not to cringe while Ivanova is on screen and speaking.

As for “Soul Hunter,” the implication about Delenn from “The Gathering” is made explicit when the Soul Hunter outs Delenn as a member of the Minbari’s ruling body, the Gray Council. The Soul Hunter knows that Delenn is both a woman of destiny and that she was present at the death of the great Minbari leader, Dukat. In her scenes, Mira Furlan sells the menace of the Soul Hunter and her terror is enough to convince the viewer that her character is in mortal peril. “Soul Hunter” may not have a lot of lasting consequences, but it allows Sinclair to rescue Delenn in a way that makes their burgeoning relationship seem plausible.

While “Soul Hunter” is, ultimately, a simple horror episode, “Midnight On The Firing Line” is smartly-written and illustrates just how difficult establishing peace can be. War has consequences and immediately in the saga of Babylon 5, writer J. Michael Straczynski works to develop themes built around the importance of negotiating peace and struggling with the ramifications of racism and war. These two episodes make for a great start and a fair continuation of Babylon 5.

[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!

For other works with William Morgan Sheppard, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Star Trek
The Prestige
"Bliss" - Star Trek: Voyager
Gargoyles - Season 1
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
“The Schizoid Man” - Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Midnight On The Firing Line” – 8/10
“Soul Hunter” – 4.5/10
VHS – 5/10

For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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