An engaging standalone with more good character work for Dr. Franklin, Marcus, and G'Kar, a strong guest performance, and one of Christopher Franke's best incidental scores. Not an essential episode, perhaps, but well worth the viewer's time.
Realizing that they cannot rely indefinitely on the protection of the Minbari warships circling the station, Sheridan decides it is time to take some steps toward making the station - designed and operated as a satellite of Earth - into an independent entity. The first step is to draw up a Mutual Defense Treaty, whereby representatives of the alien governments who wish to continue to use the station for its original purpose will contribute to the station's defense.
As traffic to the station gradually resumes, a visitor arrives: a middle-aged British man (Michael York) carrying a sword and proclaiming himself to be, "Arthur, King of the Britons!" After defusing a potential confrontation between "Arthur" and station security, Marcus takes him to Medlab.
Marcus is duly skeptical, but eager on some level to believe that the man really is King Arthur. After all, Sheridan had a recent encounter with Jack the Ripper, and there are elements of the Arthurian legend which suggest Vorlon involvement. Dr. Franklin discounts the possibility immediately, however, observing that Arthur's speech patterns are far too modern. Franklin takes DNA samples of Arthur to check against Earthforce records.
As Franklin awaits the results of his tests, Arthur escapes from Medlab and wanders into the area of the station known as Down Below. Angered when he sees the weak and helpless being made prey for criminal elements, he battles - sword in hand - to retrieve stolen goods from a minor crime boss. When G'Kar, in Down Below to conduct some business of his own, observes him, Arthur soon finds himself with an ally, whom he dubs, "Sir G'Kar."
I already cracked my Monty Python jokes back in my review of Season One's Grail, so I'll refrain here. Besides, it was easy to make jokes at Grail's expense; that was a weak episode buoyed somewhat by a strong guest performance. This episode is also given a boost by a guest performance. The difference is that where the earlier episode failed, this one largely succeeds. I enjoyed it tremendously.
Much of the reason has to do with Michael York's performance as Arthur. York (who was apparently Straczynski's first choice to play Sheridan back in Season Two, before the network nixed the idea) is an actor with a very strong natural screen presence. He is able to summon a regal bearing as Arthur, which goes a long way toward making me believe that Marcus so desperately wants to believe in him.
York is also a good actor, a better actor than many critics over the years have given him credit for. Note the differences in his performance when he is playing "Arthur" and when he is playing the stranger's actual identity. Since both men are essentially honorable - and indeed, both identities are actually the same man - many of the differences are subtle. But while York's enunciations are more clipped and theatrical, and his gestures far broader, as Arthur, at the end of the episode the vocal intonations and physical gestures are much more subdued. York also excels in two scenes where the reality threatens to break through the character's Arthurian delusions: one scene where he recalls the horrible misunderstanding that led to the final battle between Arthur's forces and Mordred's, and another scene where Dr. Franklin confronts Arthur with the truth of his own identity. In both scenes, the expression of pain in York's eyes and face are quite haunting.
Arthur observes that if he has come at this time, to this place, then this must be where he is most needed… which rather obviously echoes the events of the larger arc. If he really had been Arthur, there could have been no better place or time for his return. But more than that, I was struck by the one area where Arthur does get to take action in this episode: Down Below. The need for an "Arthur" figure in Down Below is very strong, and is aptly set up early in the episode in the scene where Marcus and Dr. Franklin observe most station personnel's aversion to getting involved in that area. The problems of Down Below are simply accepted. Arthur does not accept them, and in taking a stand for the woman's photo of her husband, he takes a stand for the basic humanity of those who live in that area. It is almost too bad that Dr. Franklin does insist on "curing" him; the lurkers of Down Below could have used a strong, honest, and noble leader to protect their interests. And I'd have loved to have seen Arthur and Brother Theo encountering each other. Or Arthur confronting Garibaldi and/or Sheridan when the interests of those in Down Below perhaps conflicted with the larger interests of the station. Ah, well. That's not the story being told, and the arc does have quite enough going on already.
The teaming of Arthur and G'Kar is an unexpected, yet perfectly appropriate, delight. In the scene where Arthur stands up for the lurkers in Down Below, G'Kar can see many parallels between this man and himself. As Arthur demands to know what kind of men prey on the weak and helpless, G'Kar is probably thinking that the answer is, "Centauri." In Arthur's refusal to ignore a situation that offends him, and in his insistence on standing up for the lurkers against the crime boss, G'Kar sees a reflection of himself, his people, and the Centauri. Given G'Kar's own essentially noble nature, it is little surprise that he jumps in to assist Arthur when the criminal's "friends" arrive.
Also, as G'Kar himself notes, it is an enormous relief for him simply to be able to fight in a clear-cut situation of "good guys and bad guys." "We were the good guys, they were the bad guys, and they made a most satisfying thump when they hit the floor!" G'Kar crows. Andreas Katsulas scores playing G'Kar's nobility in these scenes. He also does a very amusing bit of scene stealing playing the aftermath, as G'Kar gets drunk equally on alcohol and the thrill of a good fight.
In reference to the larger picture of the series, it is nice to see some of the consequences for the station of breaking away from Earth. It was repeatedly emphasized, particularly in the series' first season, that Babylon 5 is an expensive station to maintain. With Earth support removed, all manner of services that had been taken for granted fall to the station to resolve internally. Sic Transit Vir showed one effect in the scene where Londo had to conduct a bug hunt in his quarters. This episode deals with other effects. The subplot involving Garibaldi's feud with the post office official underscores the difficulties the new situation creates with certain basic services. Meanwhile, the mutual defense treaty that Sheridan and Ivanova put together in order to make the station's defenses self-sufficient (rather than just relying on the Minbari) is a sensible solution to a problem most series would probably simply ignore.
Finally, no discussion of this episode could possibly be complete without a mention of Christopher Franke's magnificent score. Franke's work for this series is almost always exceptional, of course, but he raises the bar on his own work here. This is one of my favorite soundtracks of the entire series. The Celtic-themed music is not only appropriate to an episode dealing with the legend of King Arthur, but quite haunting, particularly in the context of Arthur's real story. Many scenes that are already quite strong on their own are made far richer and more textured by Franke's work here. Wonderful stuff.
I can't really think of anything that felt false or that annoyed me in this episode. Garibaldi's subplot with the post office official might be a bit too broadly comic for some viewers. But I've generally enjoyed Babylon 5's broader comic moments (Ivanova's "sex scene" in Season 2 notwithstanding); and given that I spent a few hours recently wrestling with bureaucracy at a post office, I was probably in the exact right mood to appreciate that particular subplot.
. I go back and forth between a "7" and an "8," but Franke's wonderful score tips it over for me.