After a couple of lighter standalone episodes, the arc rears its head again in this darkly compelling entry.
As Sheridan is out testing the new, improved Starfuries the station received courtesy of The Churchill's sacrifice, he comes across a distress signal from a surprising source. Psi Cop Bester (Walter Koenig) has returned to Babylon 5, and he has a proposition for Sheridan. It seems that Psi Corps has been infiltrated by an alien influence that jeopardizes Bester's own plans for the Corp's future: the Shadows.
Bester informs Sheridan and his command staff that he has received word of a "weapons shipment" from Earth to the Shadows. With Bester's help - and only with Bester's help - Sheridan can intercept those weapons supplies and keep them out of the Shadows' hands. Reluctantly, Sheridan decides to go ahead with the mission.
Everything is very much as Bester had stated. The transport carrying the weapons is being escorted by some of the smaller, more destroyable Shadow vessels. The White Star is able to intercept and retrieve the transport, and bring it back to Babylon 5.
But the weapons aboard the transport are actually telepaths, rogue "blips" who have been altered using organic technology. And one of those telepaths is a woman named Caroline... the only person Al Bester has ever loved.
"Your fight," an unusually emotive Bester tells Sheridan, "is now my fight."
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
As befits any episode that centers itself around this statement as a motto, Ship of Tears is a rather dark chapter in the ongoing Babylon 5 novel. In the course of this hour, Sheridan, Delenn, and company will make a new ally and gain a new weapon... but the alliance will be the very definition of an uneasy one, and the nature of the weapon is inherently disturbing.
Of course, an immediately noteworthy fact about this episode is that it heralds the always-welcome return of Psi Cop Al Bester (Walter Koenig). Bester's introductory episode - Mind War - was one of the first truly compelling episodes of the series, and did much to kick the first season into gear. It would have been easy (and a horrible mistake) for his return episodes to have simply repeated Mind War's formula. Straczynski wisely took the character in a different direction.
With each new appearance, we have learned something new about Bester. A Race Through Dark Places still treated him as a villain with a capital "V," but it also told us that he had a wife and child, while adding a more playfully humorous tone to his interactions with Garibaldi. Dust to Dust humanized him even further; he was still untrustworthy, as the end of that episode reminded us, but he also managed to be right in every single statement he made the entire length of the episode (and you had to love his gleeful reply to Garibaldi's "piñata" comment).
Here, the process of humanizing Bester is completed… without compromising Bester's nature. Again, we are reminded at every turn that Bester is like a scorpion. To trust him, even a little, is to invite disaster. Just like the scorpion of the old fable, Bester will inevitably turn on his new allies; "it's his nature." On the other hand, Bester has never been so vulnerable as he is here. Al Bester becomes simultaneously the hero and the villain of the piece... and I felt more for him than for any other character (with the possible exception of G'Kar) in a while.
As ever, Walter Koenig is pitch-perfect in the role. His opening scenes, in the cockpit of his Starfury, remind us of the joy Bester takes in being the smartest person in the room. As he verbally fences with Sheridan over the communicator, Bester's grin as he mocks Sheridan's melodramatic phrasing of "blast you out of the sky" is infectious (the follow-up look of uncertainty as Bester considers that Sheridan might just do it is another wonderful bit of business). And who could possibly resist his response to Sheridan's query about how Bester discovered his information: "I'm a telepath. Work it out" ("you moron" is unstated, but comes through loud and clear.)
Koenig's performance becomes even better after the White Star recovers the Shadows' "cargo." At first he is all business, smugly rebutting Sheridan's indignation at his withholding the nature of the cargo. Then he discovers that one of the telepaths recovered from the ship is his lover, Caroline, whom he had last seen a mere four weeks previously. At that moment, Bester's accustomed smugness vanishes.
As Bester told Sheridan and Susan of his relationship with Caroline, I was reminded of Susan's words to Talia in Midnight on the Firing Line. Susan told Talia in that episode that Talia was as much a victim of Psi-Corps as her mother had been. When Talia responded that she didn't feel like a victim, Susan noted that she was not sure if that was a good thing or a bad one.
Bester has never felt like a victim of the Corps. He believes in the Corps, mind, heart, and soul. "The Corps is mother, the Corps is father." Yet Bester is as surely a victim of the Corps as Susan's mother was, as Talia was, as Caroline was. Bester is married to a woman he does not love. Why? An arranged marriage, courtesy of the Corps. Bester is unable to free his lover, Caroline, from the re-education camp on Mars. Why? Because he doesn't have quite enough authority within the Corps to do so. Bester's sole love, the shining light in his life, is taken from him without his even knowing it, then given back to him as a broken perversion of the woman he had loved. Why? Because the Shadows have infiltrated the Corps, and Corps members who outrank Bester took advantage of his absence to ship her out with the other telepaths.
"The Corps is mother, the Corps is father." If so, it is a most dysfunctional and abusive family. And Bester is as much a victim as any of the "blips" he has hunted. Hero, villain, and victim, all in the same episode. The character is a breathtaking creation, one of the most fascinating characters ever created for television. There were scenes in this episode where I got the usual vicarious enjoyment of watching Bester smugly one-up the regulars, where I felt the usual nervous distrust of Bester, and where I nevertheless found myself quite moved by Bester.
Bester is not the only character who arouses sympathy. This is the episode where G'Kar decides he has been patient long enough, and calls in the debt that Sheridan owes him. Sheridan is not the one who ultimately has to pay this debt, however. The burden of telling G'Kar that they knew of the Shadows' return, and said nothing as the Shadows collaborated with the Centauri on the subjugation of the Narn Homeworld, falls not to Sheridan but to Delenn.
Just about any scene centered around both Mira Furlan and Andreas Katsulas cannot help but be a memorable one. From Day One, these two have been among the show's strongest assets. One of the few truly memorable scenes in The Gathering was their one scene together (the infamous "rings" scene. Yes, Straczynski was right to ditch the rings - but the scene itself was a highlight simply because of the strength of the two actors).
Here, we get a mirror image of that scene. Both scenes have G'Kar entering Delenn's quarters. In both scenes, G'Kar is asking something of Delenn. In both scenes, Delenn is reluctant to respond. In The Gathering, G'Kar's mention of the Gray Council leads Delenn to violence, threatening to kill G'Kar if he dares to even mention the Council again. Here, it is G'Kar who informs Delenn that if he had known of her decision when his world was first decimated by the Centauri, then he would have killed her instantly. G'Kar has grown considerably since the encounter in The Gathering; he intellectually understands that Delenn's decision was the right one. Even so, as he did to Vir in the elevator back in Comes the Inquisitor, he does the same to Delenn in this episode: he acknowledges her intent, but denies his forgiveness.
Umm... There's a continuity glitch in the scene with Delenn and G'Kar. In one shot, a tear is streaking down Delenn's cheek. When we cut back to her a second later, the tear is gone and her cheek is completely dry.
A very tiny little production slip, but even coming up with that much "Bad" for this episode is a reach. This is what would be termed "a good'un."