The first season of Babylon 5 opens with guns blazing (very nearly literally). Even on first viewing, Midnight on the Firing Line impressed me as being quite strong on its own, and a tremendous improvement over the series pilot. This time around, knowing all that is to come, it is nothing short of breathtaking just how much of the series arc this seemingly simple standalone episode manages to either foreshadow or directly set in motion.
Ragesh 3 is an agricultural colony on the outskirts of the Centauri Republic. It is of little strategic or political importance, and its military defenses are minor - after all, what interest would anyone have in attacking it?
So naturally, the episode opens with a full-on sneak attack on Ragesh 3 by the forces of the Narn regime. When news of the attack reaches Babylon 5, Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari favors immediate military action - action the Centauri government refuses to supply. Station Commander Sinclair prefers diplomatic means, in the form of sanctions - sanctions the Earth Alliance refuses to support on the eve of a very close Presidential election. Meanwhile, Narn Ambassador G'Kar presents evidence of his own, indicating that the Narn occupation of Ragesh 3 may not be quite the invasion it appears to be.
The original plan for Babylon 5 was to go straight from The Gathering to series. PTEN, feeling cautious about launching an ambitious science fiction program, chose to wait to see how the pilot movie was received. As a result, there was a 9-month gap between pilot and series. This resulted in a few hiccups, in the form of character replacements (only one of which I actually regret); but the wait also allowed the series producers to step back and take a good look at their pilot, and see which elements worked and which ones needed some rethinking.
The result of that rethinking is very evident in Midnight on the Firing Line. This is a much stronger, tighter, leaner, and altogether more confident piece of television than The Gathering was. There is more of a sense of the writer trusting his audience. Exposition is allowed to come through naturally, rather than in infodumps and 5-minute monologues. Much is set up for future episodes (a staggering amount is set up for future episodes, when you go back and look at this after the fact), but the set-up is not as obvious or heavy-handed as in The Gathering. Instead, many important details, such as the election that brings President Santiago and Vice President Clark back into office, are allowed to sit in the background: referred to just enough for the audience to absorb, but without stopping the actual plot.
Ironically, given that it is less than half as long as The Gathering, the plot of this episode is far more complex. Moreover, it is a storyline well-tooled to the setting. In the first regular series episode, we actually see Babylon 5 acting in its role of a "United Nations in Space." The way the characters react to the conflict also reveals quite a bit about each of them.
Londo is a very emotional character, and his bitterness at his Republic's loss of status continues to play into his reactions. His first reaction, when he discovers that the perpetrators of the attack were the Narns, is to declare that "blood cries out for blood." When he discovers that the Centauri government consider Ragesh 3 "too far away" and insignificant to risk a confrontation, his blood boils: partly because his nephew is stationed at Ragesh 3, but also because "the great Centauri Republic, the LION of the galaxy... does nothing." It is this very frustration at his once-great government's current impotence that will lead Londo down the path he is all too soon to walk.
As in previous installments, Jurasik walks away with every scene not nailed down to the floor. The scene where he recounts his prophetic vision of himself and G'Kar, 20 years hence, with hands locked around each other's throats, remains one of the series' great moments. He is equally strong when confronted by Garibaldi near the end of the episode and, between their scenes in The Gathering and their scenes here, the friendship between these two characters already seems quite firmly established. Finally, making a nice contrast with The Gathering's presentation of Londo as a weakling and a buffoon, he is allowed to display his shrewdness here by ordering his new aide, Vir, to conceal the Centauri's response. His plan to get the other worlds to vote for sanctions against the Narn in order to shame the Centauri into taking action is not the brainchild of a buffoon, but of a fairly sharp maneuverer who has simply fallen on hard times.
G'Kar's bitterness is equal to Londo's, even if it comes from a different wellspring. G'Kar is capable of being pleasant and ingratiating, but turns on a dime to a feral viciousness when discussing the Centauri. On first viewing, he came across very much as a one-note villain in the early episodes; but on re-watching, knowing that the Centauri are not the purely likable victims that they first appear to be, G'Kar's stories of atrocities ring much clearer in the ears. This time around, I know that G'Kar is neither lying nor exaggerating when he talks of the Centauri's brutal occupation of his world, which makes G'Kar's actions here - while still unsavory - far more understandable. He is not "Snidely Whiplash in Space." He is a man whose drive for revenge against some very real grievances have left him with a massive blind spot when it comes to Right vs. Wrong in dealings with the Centauri.
Sinclair also comes across much more strongly here than in The Gathering. In my review of the series pilot, I noted one of the major narrative flaws of that piece was Sinclair's passivity. It took a good three quarters of the pilot movie for Sinclair to become proactive, which - combined with the weaknesses in Michael O'Hare's performance - made it very hard to really connect with him as a character.
Here, we see a much more proactive Sinclair. He doesn't sit around brooding about the situation or his responsibilities; he takes prompt, intelligent action, action which at the same time builds on what has already been said about the character.
In The Gathering, Laurel Takashima recalled Sinclair urging her to "fight within the rules." Here, we see Sinclair putting that theory into action. By going on the mission to stop the Raiders, Sinclair avoids having to cast a vote he doesn't want to, but at the same time avoids disobeying an order. With that skill of navigating loopholes in the rules, Sinclair may have missed his calling by becoming a military officer; he'd have made a hell of a lawyer.
Probably in part because his material is so much stronger this time around, Michael O'Hare's performance is much improved over his inconsistent showing in The Gathering. He particularly seems to raise his game during the scenes he shares with Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas. His confrontation with G'Kar at the stone garden is a wonderful moment; his anger at G'Kar is palpable, and the scene gives the series' first hint at the violence buried beneath the commander's rigid surface. Also striking is how well O'Hare plays Sinclair's weariness at the end of the episode, when his link goes off yet again, with yet another crisis, when all he wants to do is get some sleep. The scene is a beautifully direct illustration of J. Michael Straczynski's statement on the commentary for The Gathering, that Sinclair is a man "being nibbled to death by cats" by the demands of his post.
Finally, there is a new second-in-command (thankfully). Gone is Tamlyn Tomita's Laurel Takashima. In her place, we have Claudia Christian as Susan Ivanova. Christian's work here is more than a little wooden, as she seriously overplays the character's harsh military reserve. Still, she plays her "big scene" with new station telepath Talia Winters very nicely. There's even a flash of Susan's sense of humor, as she observes her reservations about President Santiago: "Santiago has no chin, his Vice-president has several. This is, I think, not a good combination." Though much better was to come from both Ivanova and Claudia Christian, she already shows far more promise than Tamlyn Tomita's Takashima.
I do regret the loss of Patricia Tallman's Lyta Alexander. Andrea Thompson does well enough as the replacement character, Talia Winters, and it would have been no disaster had Thompson remained for the full 5 years. But I just can't warm to Talia the way I instantly did to Lyta.
Part of that is a personal issue. I have always found something decidedly artificial about Andrea Thompson, not just in Babylon 5 but in her other work, as well. This sense of artifice, the sense that I am watching a woman "acting," keeps me from fully engaging with her characters. She's a very technically competent actress, certainly - probably moreso than Patricia Tallman. But there's just something about her performance style that keeps me at a distance. Suffice it to say, I'm not a fan.
That said, she does have instant screen chemistry with Claudia Christian's Ivanova, and her most genuine moment in the episode is also Claudia Christian's best moment in the episode - that wonderfully-played scene between Talia and Ivanova near the end. There is also a bit of neat foreshadowing here, when Ivanova finishes her remembrance of her mother by telling Talia that she is "as much a victim of Psi-Corps" as her mother. One of many nifty little moments that make this episode so much fun to re-watch after having finished the full series.
I'd be honestly tempted to give it a "10," save that I know that there's not only better, but much better, yet to come.