After a miserable excuse for a novel, it's back to the television series (G'Quan be praised) for a standard, but still quite enjoyable outing that does much to further several character arcs.
In response to all the tension among the various races, Sheridan has instituted a new weapons inspection policy on Babylon 5, one that is causing a significant delay for ships waiting to dock. The result? Endless meetings, where Sheridan attempts to explain his policies and negotiate with the captains of the various ships. These negotiations are... not going well.
So it is almost a relief when a probe from an unknown alien race comes to the station and transmits a welcome. But the probe is not merely sending a welcome; it is also sending a very advanced intelligence test. If the crew of Babylon 5 is able to answer the questions correctly and pass the test, then they will be rewarded with cures for every known disease. If they fail to pass, however, the probe will explode - reducing the station to ashes.
As the station's command staff uses all its resources to find the answers to the probe's "quiz," G'kar undergoes a test of his own. Na'Far, a representative from the provisional Narn government, has arrived on the station. Na'Far is to take G'Kar's place on Babylon 5. His mission is to convince G'Kar to return home, where he promises that the Centauri will not harm him in any way. That is the carrot. The stick? If G'Kar does not return to Narn, then the families of all the Narns on the station will be subject to harassment and possible imprisonment until he does agree.
As G'Kar faces the implications of this decision, Londo also makes a difficult choice. He calls in the favor that Ambassador Delenn owes him - not on his own behalf, but on behalf of Vir. The favor? To make Vir the new Centauri ambassador to Minbar, in the process removing Londo's attache from the ever-darkening environment of Babylon 5...
As the above synopsis probably shows, this is not a plot-driven episode. The "A" plot with the probe is merely a clothesline to give structure to the episode's real concern: the ongoing arcs of several of the series' central characters.
If Convictions showed that G'Kar had a long way to go in his development, then this episode shows how far he has come since his early days. The G'Kar we see here hates the Centauri as much as he ever did, and is still obsessed with avenging the blood of his people. He is also very thoughtful, however, and never less than honorable. Having been born a slave, and having been the son of a slave cruelly murdered for the most minor of mishaps, G'Kar knows full well the value of freedom. Na'Far attempts to sway him by telling him of the comfort, food, and security the Narn population will receive if G'Kar agrees to the Centauri terms. But G'Kar does not bend to this, nor does he bend to the threat Na'Far makes against the families.
No, it is something else entirely that makes G'Kar consider the offer. When he walks into a corridor where Na'Far and Ta'lon (Marshall Teague, returning to his role from All Alone in the Night) are about to be attacked by some of the in-station Narn, he sees that his presence on Babylon 5 has the potential to turn the Narn against each other. Just as freedom is even more important than security, G'Kar insists that unity is even more important than freedom. The Narn cannot turn against each other; that will only make them weaker when it does come time to fight back against the Centauri. It is this, and not any of Na'Far's threats or promises, that nearly makes G'Kar surrender. It is only the loyalty of his followers, who have by this time come to recognize in him the wise leader they need, that keeps G'Kar in the place where he is most needed.
I liked the way J. Michael Straczynski characterized Na'Far. He is a collaborator, it is true; he is also, at heart, loyal to Narn. He collaborates for what he sees as the greater good - the safety of his people. He rationalizes his actions by stating that this is not the time to fight back. He despises the Centauri just as much as G'Kar does. However, Na'Far believes that if the Narn can get the Centauri to relax their grip, then the Narn will be able to strike back from a stronger position when the time does come. He is wrong - the Centauri, as represented by Londo, see right through his pretend meekness, and will never relax their grip until they have shattered the Narns' pride. But though Na'Far's strategy is ultimately wrong-headed, he still sees himself as a patriot. As with Mr. Lantz in The Fall of Night, we are presented with a fundamentally good man, who is making wrong decisions for mostly right reasons - which is so much more interesting than if Na'Far truly were the fawning Centauri lackey some of the station's Narn perceive him to be.
JMS was faced with a potential pitfall this season, as Stephen Furst got a role in a sit-com and had to severely scale back his availability. JMS turns this into an asset by having Londo call in the favor Delenn owed him from Season One's A Voice in the Wilderness. Vir's assignment to Minbar is a good move. It enables Vir to appear when Furst is free and when the story requires him (thankfully, Furst - unlike Michael O'Hare - was L. A.-based, so bringing him back intermittently was feasible), and it is a development that makes sense within the arc. Vir has a strong role to play in the future, and the experience he gains on Minbar provides additional preparation, allowing him to grow into his own man. The expression on Londo's face as he watches Vir leave and realizes that he is now truly alone, speaks more eloquently than any of JMS' speeches could have done. Jurasik, as ever, is magnificent.
Finally, there is development of Stephen Franklin and his growing addiction to stims. Garibaldi, the recovering alcoholic, has been where Stephen is now and recognizes the signs in his friend. So he does the most difficult favor any true friend will do for another. He sits him down and confronts him with his problem.
Stephen reacts exactly the way any addict would. He gets defensive, then hostile. He tries to prove that he can do without the stims... and as he goes through withdrawal, he becomes irritable and insufferable, snapping at his staff and at the administrator he consults from Earth. Every so often, he opens the drawer in his desk where he keeps his stims. He tries to resist using them. Yet throughout the episode, every time Stephen opens that drawer, there are fewer and fewer stims inside.
Then comes the moment at which anyone would have to see that Stephen has a big problem. At the very end of the episode - utterly unprompted and unchallenged by anyone - he lies to Garibaldi and claims to have gotten through the recent crisis without using a single stim. Lying about drug use when no one even asks you the question. If that isn't a symptom that you are an addict, I don't know what is.
There's nothing actually badly wrong with the probe plot, which does create a crisis to give the episode its backbone. But it never really engaged generated the intensity of the character material it was trying to support. By this point in the series, the arc is gaining so much momentum that it is increasingly difficult for a standalone plot to adequately stand in its midst. The show is very near the point at which those attempts will fade altogether, and the series will become "pure arc." Just a sign of the show's evolution.
Finally, a nit-pick, but an observation that must be made. The performances of the extras in the meeting scenes that bookend this episode are absolutely dreadful. I half-expected the various blue-collar freigher captains to start waving their fists in the air and chant, "Strike! Strike! Strike!" And, not to put to fine a point on it, but we've already had that episode.