Another standalone episode, for the most part, but one which does a great job at making Babylon 5's universe feel genuine and lived-in, and also a superb character episode for both Sinclair and G'Kar.
An accident in one of the station's docking bays costs G'Kar some valuable cargo, and costs a dock worker his life. When the investigation determines that the accident was the result of faulty equipment, and when the station's revised budget allocates no funds to the workers, it proves the final spark for the overworked, understaffed, underpaid dock workers. The workers strike - a breach of their government contracts which leaves Sinclair trapped in a situation where his job directly conflicts with what is right. Caught between the demands of the workers and the demands of Earth's Senate - neither of whom are willing to compromise - Sinclair drives himself past the point of exhaustion searching for a peaceful solution.
Meanwhile, G'Kar seeks a replacement for his lost cargo: a plant that is absolutely essential to a Narn religious ceremony. The law of averages being what it is, he discovers that there is another plant on the station... exactly one other plant... and that its owner is none other than his hated enemy, Londo Mollari.
Science fiction television has rarely excelled at getting into the gritty, day-to-day reality of human existence. That is this episode's biggest triumph. An episode centered around a dock strike may not be as stirring as great wars and fleets of relentless alien invaders, but it makes the world of this show feel a lot more real. In the future, there will still be an underclass that the world relies on for manual labor; there will still be an upper class that will take them for granted; and this will still lead to conflict.
The portrayal of the situation is very believable. Babylon 5 was the fifth such station constructed. By the time they got to #5, we have been told repeatedly, no one actually expected it to last even a single year. Given this, it is no surprise that the government awarded the contract for construction to the lowest bid. It is similarly no surprise that - as is frequently the case with such constructions today - much of the equipment is shoddy and out-of-date.
As we begin the episode, the situation has already been festering for far too long. The workers are already tired of working with substandard equipment, and they have been overworked for so long that they are probably in a continuous state of mental and physical exhaustion. It is a problem that has to be solved for the station to continue running successfully.
This episode remembers an important point to keep in mind in Season One: in Season One, the station is still in its infancy. Even though it is operational and performing its function, the basic machinery and resources that will enable it to keep running long-term are still being put in place all the time. Sinclair is not only running the station; he is also, at the same time, working to make and keep the station operational. These are issues that Sheridan never has to deal with later in the series - in part because, once the arc kicks in, the story has little time for these episodes; but also because, by the time Sheridan shows up, these issues have already been addressed. Sheridan arrives on board a fully operational station; Sinclair is still, at this point and for most of the time he's on Babylon 5, making the station ready.
The episode is a superb one for Sinclair. If And the Sky Full of Stars is the key episode scrutinizing Sinclair in relation to his past, then this is the key episode studying Sinclair in his present position. This episode, more than any other, shows him as the man "nibbled to death by cats." From the first moment we see him, he is dealing with a stressful situation that he knows is only going to worsen. The Senate wants to punish the workers and ignore the larger problem, and Sinclair knows full well that the larger problem isn't going to go away. His ultimate solution is a perfect tribute to Sinclair the Commander. Going back to The Gathering, Midnight on the Firing Line, and Deathwalker, he fights his superiors' orders... but he does so within the exact letter of the rules.
Finally, even though he does find a solution that solves a severe problem for the station, he does so at some cost. It does not end on a perfectly happy note for Sinclair. He acknowledges himself that there will be repercussions for this, and Senator Hidoshi gravely warns him that he has made some very powerful enemies. I realize that Sinclair's removal was not something Straczynski envisioned during the production of Season One; even so, this episode and a couple episodes to come are serendipitous in light of that removal. Effectively, the events leading to Sinclair's replacement can be considered to begin here.
This is also a very strong episode for G'Kar. The "ant" scene in Mind War showed us that G'Kar had an introspective side. This episode builds on that even further, by showing G'Kar in his role as a spiritual leader. Londo may gain great pleasure from needling G'Kar in this episode. But as he notes, his 50,000 credit price tag for G'Kar's plant is not about the money; it is about how important G'Kar's faith is to him. Based only on the show's very early episodes, most viewers would probably have guessed "not very." But G'Kar almost immediately agrees to Londo's sum (and does so before resorting to less legitimate means), proving that his faith is of paramount importance to him.
Finally - and equally important, given G'Kar's later development - Sinclair's solution to the Narn Ambassador's dilemma marks a turning point in G'Kar's view of humans. Up to this point, his "dislike of the Earthers" has been referenced repeatedly, and demonstrated on occasion. He may be capable of benevolence, particularly when it comes to attractive human females, but he has seemed distrustful and somewhat contemptuous of humanity. Sinclair's elegant solution clearly raises him (and by extension, humanity itself) in G'Kar's estimation; the solution itself also demonstrates a lesson that G'Kar will later embrace, that sometimes there can be more than a single, literal interpretation of something. Now that I think of it, in that respect this episode may be even more key to G'Kar's character arc than I had initially supposed.
On paper, I rather like the character of Neeoma Connolly. She is a smart but stubborn woman with strong beliefs who is unwilling to compromise her people's welfare. In that respect, she is a clear precursor to the "Number One" character seen heading the Martian Resistance much later in the series. She understands Sinclair's position and, as the episode wears on, she even expresses sympathy for him. Her first loyalty, though, is to her workers, and she knows that she must stand up for them if their situation is to improve. On paper, she's a great character.
It's sad, then, that Katy Boyer does such a bad job of playing the character. It's not that Boyer is the wrong actress for the job: she has the right general look, the right voice, and the right presence. Unfortunately, someone on the production crew really needed to take her aside and tell her to STOP ACTING! If she were to just deliver the lines in a natural manner without doing anything else, her performance would immediately improve. As it is, her every line is delivered with melodramatic force, punctuated with elaborate hand and arm gestures.
Unfortunately, Boyer is not alone in this. Many of the scenes with the dock workers are overplayed. In an episode which mostly succeeds by dealing realistically with a realistic situation, the story's single biggest failing is that the striking workers blend into one blue collar melange in the background. We only end up caring about the workers in relation to how the situation affects Sinclair. The script and O'Hare's performance are sufficient to make that enough for the story to work... but it would have been nice to have actually cared about the workers themselves (perhaps planting one or two worker characters as "background characters" in some earlier episodes to bring them to the fore in this one might have been a good solution to this problem).
Finally, John Snyder's Orin Zento makes MASH's Frank Burns look like a subtle and multi-layered character by comparison. He's a cartoon villain. All he lacks is a fawning lackey to clean up the layer of slime he leaves behind him. I would have preferred a more restrained Earth representative, one who could have elucidated the Senate's position, perhaps even a person who behaved as though he believed he were doing the right thing. Zento is a bad guy, and that's all there is to his character: "Orin Zento, Bad Guy." He probably kicks puppies as a hobby. In an episode I otherwise praise for its realism, this kind of 2-dimensional cardboard villain seems too easy, somehow.
Despite the faults, however, this really is one of my favorite Season One episodes. By daring to spend a full episode dwelling on the mundane, the series makes its station and character much more real and textured than they otherwise might have been. That the writing and acting of the regular cast combine to raise the bar for a few of the series' key characters is an added bonus.
In view of the episode's flaws, I'm almost certainly overrating it from a purely critical standpoint: but as I said, this one's one of my favorites.