Walter Koenig returns as Psi Cop Alfred Bester for the first time since Mind War. The results are extremely engaging, though the tension created by Bester's presence is diluted by an excess of subplots.
Alfred Bester is interrogating a suspect: a member of Psi Corps who has been caught using the Corps' resources to help rogue telepaths escape into an "underground railroad." The man is determined not to talk, and Bester pushes so hard that the suspect dies... but not before yielding the location of the underground railroad: Babylon 5.
It is evidently a fairly quiet time on the station when Bester arrives. The biggest crisis Sheridan has to deal with seems to be a bureaucratic squabble with Earth Force over the size of his quarters. But Bester has a knack for turning a calm into a storm. Soon, at Bester's behest, Security Chief Garibaldi is hunting through the station's command staff, searching for the identity of the person responsible for helping the rogue movement.
Meanwhile, Delenn approaches Sheridan, tentatively asking for his help in understanding human interaction. Her proposal? A dinner date.
Bester returns! Walter Koenig's Bester exploded into the first season like a lightning strike in Mind War, bringing a level of intensity to the fledgling series that hinted at the great things we would eventually see on a regular basis. The character was so memorable that he was utilized as a major adversary (albeit offscreen) for Sinclair and his command staff in Larry DiTillio's Eyes. Later, when the novel series was launched, he was used again by writer John Vornholt in Voices.
Still, references to offscreen manipulations and a presence in spinoff media are no replacement for having the actor actually present on-screen. In his second appearance, Koenig does not disappoint. His Bester is always calm and collected. He is charismatic, soft-spoken, pleasant, unfailingly polite, and often seen with a smile on his face. Koenig knows, too, how to hold that pleasant smile just a beat too short or too long, so that it feels "not quite right." His vocal inflections in this episode are not quite as silkily smooth as they would become in later, even more assured appearances. Nevertheless, the character is already magnetic (as indeed, he was in Mind War), and it is easy to see why J. Michael Straczynski kept bringing him back.
This is a very important episode for several characters. For Garibaldi, the episode reinforces how seriously the security chief takes his responsibilities. Garibaldi despises Bester and distrusts Psi Corps; at the same time, he is reasonably sympathetic to the rogues. Despite this, he insists on enforcing the law as it is written. He doesn't like it, but he aids Bester in this episode to the best of his abilities, and never once in this episode is he complicit in the plot to shield the rogues. For all his character quirks and rebellious instincts, Garibaldi ultimately is very by-the-book when it comes to his work - something that will come up again, even more memorably, later this season.
For Dr. Franklin, the episode is important because it reinforces his willingness to bend the rules in the name of what he believes is right. We saw this in Season One, in Believers, when he put his job in jeopardy to operate on a boy against the parents' wishes and Sinclair's orders. We see it again here, as he aids the rogue telepaths in defiance of Earth Force laws, potentially putting Sheridan in a very awkward position. This makes two commanders in two seasons who have threatened to fire Franklin, giving an early hint of the innate recklessness that will get him into trouble later.
Finally, this episode gives Talia her final push to sever her loyalties to Psi Corps. In the beautifully-played final scene between Talia and Ivanova, we see Talia remove both the gloves and the badge that mark her as a member of the Corps, as she confesses to Ivanova that she had been right to call Talia a victim (way, way back in Midnight on the Firing Line). This also marks a turning point in Talia's relationship with Ivanova, as Talia announces that it is time for them to "re-evaluate (their) relationship." Yet again, I was struck by the screen chemistry between Claudia Christian and Andrea Thompson. These two really do play well off each other, to an extent that should have been exploited even more than it was during the first two seasons.
It's also a nice touch to see a character from Chrysalis return in a more significant role. Details such as that are a large part of what made this show what it was.
Though the central storyline, involving Bester and the rogue telepaths, is very strong, the tension is diluted by an excess of subplots.
There are two separate "B" stories in this episode, neither of which properly connect to the main plot. The storyline centering around Sheridan's dinner with Delenn is far the less distracting. The dinner scene itself is charmingly played by Boxleitner and Mira Furlan, and it does prod forward one of the key character relationships of the series.
However, the comic-relief story, in which Sheridan ropes Ivanova into his Quixotic face-down with Earth Force over having to pay rent, was an irritant for me. It gobbles up a fair amount of screen time, time I would have preferred to have seen devoted either to Garibaldi's search for the mole in the command staff or to Bester's machinations. Sheridan's outrage, while convincing enough for the character, seems petty given the low stakes. His insistence on pulling Ivanova into his fruitless battle, when it is clear that she would as soon just switch to smaller quarters and be done with it, makes the character come across as an insensitive dimwit (which does not actually jibe with most of the characterization we have seen thus far in Season Two). Finally, and worst of all in a comedy subplot... these scenes just aren't funny. And I usually like Babylon 5's humor (I think I'm one of a tiny minority that laughed during Londo's "Hokey-Pokey" scene in A Voice in the Wilderness).
Despite the subplots, the central storyline holds interest throughout. The final facedown brings out new and interesting dimensions to Talia Winters' character, dimensions I regret the show never got the opportunity to explore. And any episode that brings Walter Koenig's Bester back to Babylon 5 is always worth watching.
Not quite the punch to the gut for the second season that Mind War was for the first season, but still an effective episode.