After the brilliance of The Coming of Shadows, it was a given that the follow-up episode would not be able to top it. Perhaps wisely, GROPOS does not even try. Instead, it opts to tell a small and more than slightly formulaic story in a small and more than slightly formulaic way. It's predictable, clichéd, and - to the credit of all involved - more involving than it really has any right to be.
Babylon 5 receives some surprise visitors: 25,000 infantry troops - Groundpounders (GROPOS) - who are in need of housing for a few days. They are ostensibly stopping at the station in order to install a new weapons grid before moving on to IO. In reality, they are moving on from the station to Akdor, a planet being torn apart by civil war. The Earth Alliance has agreed to supply troops to quell the rebellion in return for being allowed to maintain a presence near Akdor, which is strategically located in a region of space ideal for keeping tabs on the Narn/Centauri conflict.
With 25,000 "jarheads" on the station, Security Chief Garibaldi finds himself at wits' end trying to deal with the inevitable brawls and disruptions. His wits are even further addled when he meets Dodger (Marie Marshall), a rather fetching young female soldier, who has her eyes on the chief as an ideal source of R & R before the mission.
Keffer finds his routine disrupted when he is forced to share quarters with two of the Groundpounders. Much to Keffer's surprise, he ends up getting along great with both men. The same cannot be said for Dr. Franklin, who comes face to face with the one person he has never been able to face without dissolving into rage: the leader of the Groundpounders... his father.
The Coming of Shadows was such an event episode that it would have been inconceivable to try to top it right away. The death of the Centauri emperor... the return (albeit brief) of Sinclair... the glimpse of Londo's destiny... the start of the Narn/Centauri War. A smaller, quieter episode was needed to contrast with that barnburner, and so a smaller and quieter episode is exactly what we were given. Which isn't to say GROPOS has no relevance to the greater arc. There are several minor details that stand out the second time around, and which hint at the darker places the arc will take us. Babylon 5's new weapons system is proudly announced to be sufficient for the station to face down a warship - a little detail which will become very important later. Also note Sheridan's disquiet about the Earth Alliance's insistence on "rattling sabers," and General Franklin's refusal to see aliens, any aliens, as anything other than potential threats to humanity. Though the general is ultimately portrayed sympathetically, one suspects that he is the very sort of soldier Clark was hoping Sheridan would be.
The story itself is very predictable, but it does give the spotlighted actors a chance to shine. Paul Winfield gives a typically strong guest performance as Stephen's stern, unbending father, and his characterization gives much insight into why Stephen is as strong-willed as he is. Bruce Boxleitner also gets one terrific scene opposite Winfield, spotlighting some of Sheridan's strengths. Sheridan opens to people in a way that his predecessor rarely was able to. As a result, it seems perfectly in-character, and actually rather affecting, when Sheridan talks to the general about his relationship with his own father. Boxleitner manages to play a potentially sappy scene letter-perfect, and his Sheridan comes across as sincere rather than sanctimonious.
The relationship between Garibaldi and Dodger was probably the most enjoyable part of the episode for me. Marie Marshall is absolutely adorable in a way that still manages to seem absolutely real as Dodger, and her spirited pursuit of Garibaldi makes for a highly watchable reversal of the usual gender roles in a romance story. That Garibaldi refuses to sleep with Dodger out of fear of "screwing up again" says a lot about the basic decency and sincerity of the character. Both actors play well off each other, and it is easy to see why Dodger ended up being remembered for an episode three seasons later.
Stephen's father doesn't understand him, and Stephen just can't get along with dear old dad... Oh my, this is just a bit clichéd, isn't it? And all it really takes for the two of them to reach a reconciliation (albeit an uneasy one) is for Sheridan to give a sincere little pep-talk to the general. I never enjoy this storyline. I didn't enjoy it when it was done with Riker's father in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I didn't enjoy it here. Only the splendid performances of Paul Winfield and Richard Biggs kept my finger from the fast-forward button during their scenes together.
Keffer continues to be a non-character. His scenes with the jarheads reveal nothing new about him, and his interactions with them don't make him any more interesting than he has been. It's actually a bit of a pity; D. C. Fontana managed to find a spark of something in the character in A Distant Star, while Larry DiTillio - usually a fine character writer - completely fumbles the character in this installment. He's just an anonymous pilot, who seems even less memorable than his two "bunkies" for the episode.
Finally, other than Dodger and Gen. Franklin, none of the Groundpounders we meet in this episode are characterized in anything other than one dimension. The Groundpounder named Large is... well, large, and likes to chomp cigars and tell enthusiastic war stories. The young Groundpounder with Large insists he is ready for combat, but is secretly terrified. There's another Groundpounder who's a lewd and bigoted drunk, who assaults Delenn early in the episode and starts a bar brawl with Keffer late in the episode. Then there's the tough-but-lovable sergeant major, who barks orders at his men to keep them in line. This bunch felt less like the guest cast of a Babylon 5 episode than like rejects from Starship Troopers, and their fates largely left little impression on me.
So: ultimately too clichéd to be a truly strong episode, but with enough character moments and background beats to be worth watching on its own merits. I think I'll rate it...