Writing, acting, music, and direction all come together magnificently for the series' best episode yet!
The pursuit of a rogue telepath brings Psi Cop Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig) to Babylon 5. Bester's quarry, Jason Ironheart, is much more than just a simple rogue. Ironheart is the result of a year's worth of intense experimentation to create a stable telekinetic: the perfect assassin, able to reach with his mind into a human body to commit murder without a trace.
As Sinclair and Talia attempt to maneuver around Bester to deal with the situation, Catherine Sakai has a situation of her own. Against the advice of Ambassador G'Kar, Catherine has gone on a deep space mission to the dead world Sigma 957. Here, she has a close encounter with an immense and mysterious unidentified alien - an encounter which renders her ship powerless in a decaying orbit, leaving Catherine helpless to do anything but watch and wait as her ship inevitably descends into the atmosphere, where it will surely burn up...
I briefly mentioned in my review of The Shadow Within that the inevitable cast turnovers on Babylon 5 had both positive and negative side effects. I suspect this episode is largely the result of one such cast change: the exchange of Patricia Tallman's Lyta Alexander for Andrea Thompson's Talia Winters.
Lyta eventually came back, of course. At the time the Season One episodes were filmed, however, it was almost certainly believed that Talia would be the telepath for the full five years. As a result, the producers needed to find a way to kick-start Talia's development, to put her on a path similar to Lyta's. It would be too obvious (and would seriously stress suspension of disbelief) if Talia were to somehow scan Kosh as well, so the production needed to find a different way to lead Talia to a similar point.
That way was through Talia's encounter with Jason Ironheart, a former teacher and lover who has become "something else" as a result of Psi Corps testing. Up to this episode, Talia's belief in the innate goodness of the Corps has been more or less unchallenged. Ironheart's discussion of his experiences begins the process of her disillusionment. Also, Ironheart's "gift" to her at the end would presumably have led to changes in Talia that would have been comparable to Lyta's changed nature by Season Five.
All I can say is, if this episode truly was entirely a result of the casting change, then thank God for happy accidents! This episode is terrific by itself. It's a near-perfect blending of elements, that results in a strong hour of suspense. For the first time in its short life, an episode of Babylon 5 crackles with enough tension to put viewers on the edge of their seats through the episode's entire 43 minutes.
Even more than the episode's quality, however, is its true importance to the series' development. The Talia development ends up being more or less irrelevant to the series, as it ultimately develops. Much more significant to the series is the introduction of Psi Cop Alfred Bester, who would grow to become a breathtakingly complex and fascinating character. I suspect the arc would have required a Bester-like character at some point. But without the need for this episode early on, the "Bester clone" would probably not have been seen until much later; and would probably not have been played by Walter Koenig. That alone makes the bumps in the Lyta/Talia/Lyta arc well worth the price.
Walter Koenig is magnetic as Bester, even in his first appearance. Smug, ruthless, and possessed of a certain dry wit that makes him fun to hate, it's hardly surprising that the show's producers brought him back more and more frequently as the series went on. Koenig plays the role letter-perfect. It is a shame, I suppose, that Bester and Londo never shared a scene together in the course of the series. It's probably just as well, though; the scenery-chewing competition might have been fun to watch, but I doubt there'd have been a prop left standing at the end of it. To say Koenig instantly erases memories of Chekov would be an understatement. To virtually any Babylon 5 viewer, Bester - not Chekov - will now always stand as Koenig's signature role.
For the first-time viewer, G'Kar finally broke away from his "Snidely Whiplash in Space" role in The Parliament of Dreams. Here, that is taken one step further. This episode provides a glimpse of the man (well, Narn) that G'Kar will become, in his interactions with Catherine. G'Kar's rescue of Catherine is an utterly selfless act. His conversation with her afterwards, in which he discusses the perspective of the ant and the mixed joy and terror he feels when he reflects on the genuine mysteries left in the universe, is the first of many superb G'Kar monologues. In addition to showing his philosophical side, it is in this speech that G'Kar delivers what may be one of the series' most memorable and summative quotes: "No one here is entirely what they appear..."
Julia Nickson's Catherine continues to be a strong addition. She has a strong will, she's intelligent, and she's highly appealing. It's a great shame we don't see her again until Chrysalis. I can't help but feel we should have seen one or two more appearances from her during the season, unless there were actor availability issues. Ah, well.
Finally, I must applaud the score. Christopher Franke's music has been consistently strong throughout, with his scores for Born to the Purple and The Parliament of Dreams particularly distinctive. His score for Mind War outdoes all his previous work. Ominous where it needs to be, suspenseful where it's called for, and strikingly dark, it's hardly surprising that one of the pieces of the score was later adapted for Season 3's credit music. Great stuff.
For the second episode running, I really can't come up with much. I continue to find Andrea Thompson's acting to be just the slightest bit artificial, but I can't find anything objective to fault her on. Well, I can't find much - I do feel she genuinely overplays the scene in the tube with Sinclair, where she discusses her relationship with Jason. But it's not just that one bit where I'm bothered by her; the only moment so far from her that I found to be completely genuine was her reaction to Garibaldi's thoughts in the elevator.
I also felt that Felicity Waterman's performance as Kelsey was somewhat weak. Her British accent felt forced. Even if the actress genuinely is British (I don't know if she is or not; I'd bet not), it sounded like she was overenunciating every word she spoke. That she was constantly on-screen with Koenig, who was pitch-perfect, damaged my opinion of her even further: the contrast did her no favors.
Other than that - which amounts to one nit-pick and one question of personal tastes - I really can't find much of anything to fault here. Another triumph.