The last of Season One's utter standalones, TKO is not the outright disaster it's sometimes made out to be, but it certainly stands as one of the series' least memorable installments.
A star liner brings two visitors to the station, each with a link to station personnel. The first visitor is Rabbi Koslov (Theodore Bikel), who has come to see Susan about her father's death. Koslov is here to deliver Andrei Ivanov's legacy to Susan. But he is also there to try to persuade her to sit shivah for her father, a ritual that she has thus far refused to observe.
The second visitor is Walker Smith, a former prizefighter whose title dreams were destroyed by false drug allegations. Smith is an old friend of Garibaldi's, and he has come to the station to resuscitate his career by fighting in The Mutai, an alien contest of strength and endurance. No human has ever fought in The Mutai, which is considered too brutal for human participation. Garibaldi tries to convince Smith against taking part. Smith, however, is determined to revive his career - even if it kills him.
On the surface, the episode's two plotlines appear to be entirely separate. The two story strands do not intersect at any point save the very beginning, and neither strand affects the other at all. However, there are a few thematic links between the "A" story and the "B" story. Both storylines involve rituals: the Jewish tradition of sitting shivah for the departed, and the alien tradition of The Mutai. Walker Smith must learn respect for The Mutai before he is allowed to participate; Susan must learn to forgive her father and respect her long-suppressed feelings for him before she can bring herself to sit shivah. Rabbi Koslov tries to manipulate Susan into sitting shivah by speaking with Sinclair behind her back; Garibaldi tries to manipulate Walker out of fighting in The Mutai by not identifying the Muta-Do, head of The Mutai, thus allowing Walker to disqualify himself through disrespect. In this way, two very dissimilar stories manage to both sit comfortably within the same episode.
It is also nice to see Babylon 5 when "things are quiet." It isn't reasonable to believe that the station can really be the site of massive upheaval every single week. Having a relatively quiet, low-key episode where the station/galactic peace/the lives of the regulars are not at risk is a good idea in concept, one that adds to the credibility of J. Michael Straczynski's universe. The stakes here are much smaller and more personal than in previous installments. Susan won't die if she doesn't come to terms with her father's death; she simply will fail to acknowledge her grief and grow from it. Garibaldi's career won't be harmed in the slightest if Walker Smith dies in the ring; he will simply be hurt by the failure or death of a friend.
Something else I enjoyed was this episode's focus on one of the first season's most enjoyable character relationships: the one between Sinclair and Ivanova. In previous installments, we have seen these two fall increasingly into a mentor/pupil relationship, with Ivanova learning Sinclair's strategy of working inside the rules to achieve her ends (very memorably seen in Deathwalker, with Ivanova's entertaining strategy to delay the ships threatening the station). Here, their bond is further cemented by showing the friendship that has built at the same time.
It is not a friendship between equals, such as the one that exists between Sinclair and Garibaldi, or the one that will exist between Sheridan and Susan. Sinclair and Susan are never really on the same level - not in rank, not in maturity, and not in experience. Sinclair has been very much Susan's mentor from the moment she arrived on the station, and he is implicitly presented as a second father figure for her. He also is often shown treating her almost as a father would a daughter. Notably in two upcoming episodes - A Voice in the Wilderness and Eyes - Sinclair will attempt to shield Susan in ways that Sheridan later would not (contrast Sinclair's order to Garibaldi regarding her in A Voice in the Wilderness with Sheridan's promise to Susan in The Long Night).
Ironically, the very nature of the Sinclair/Ivanova relationship points up a way in which the show benefited from Sinclair's departure. In the first season, Susan needs a mentor like Sinclair. Nevertheless, just as a child cannot truly come into his or her own while under a parent's protective wing, Susan cannot truly come into her own with Sinclair protecting her. As much as I enjoy the relationship between them, it was necessary for the development of Susan's character that Sinclair be removed.
Finally, the episode stands out within the Babylon 5 mythos simply because of Walker Smith's advice for Garibaldi, advice that will come back to haunt him, and that will be memorably echoed at a much later date:
"Watch your back, Michael."
Where TKO fails as an episode is in its lack of drama. There is little real conflict, here. Susan's internal conflict manages to carry the episode for a while. But that conflict is too easily resolved, and resorting to a flashback from an earlier episode reeks of week-old cheese.
Despite the fisticuffs, there is even less conflict in the Walker Smith storyline. Immediately after Smith's failure with the Muta-Do, he just happens to run into an alien named Caliban (Don Stroud, in his first of many series guest roles), who just happens to be able to help him get into The Mutai in such a way that the Muta-Do will have to accept him. Surely Caliban will be revealed to have hidden motives? I mean, he certainly isn't given much compelling reason for helping Smith. But... no. Alas, Caliban is exactly what he seems, making his very presence the ultimate plot convenience.
The Mutai itself isn't half so brutal as its reputation would seem to indicate. The bare-knuckle boxers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had it rougher than the Mutai fighters, judging from the two bouts we see here. The climax of the bout, in which Walker Smith and the Mutai champion exchange head blows (with no subsequent ill effects) is nothing short of laughable.
A potentially interesting source of conflict is introduced when an alien grows upset over Smith intruding on The Mutai. The issue of human intrusion on alien affairs nicely parallels the Homeguard's stance against alien intrusion on "human turf," and showcases that narrow-mindedness is not just a human trait. But this subplot vanishes almost as quickly as it is introduced.
Finally, the entire Walker Smith plotline seems to operate under the assumption that viewers of Babylon 5 will actually care what happens to Smith. After all, Smith is the one in jeopardy - Garibaldi is safely on the sidelines throughout. Personally, I wouldn't give you a fig for the fate of Walker Smith. A cliched character, whose link to Garibaldi never feels truly real at any point in the episode, and whose motives (publicity to get another title bout) seem shallow at best... if he had died in the ring, I certainly wouldn't have shed any tears for him.
In the final analysis, TKO isn't the worst episode of Babylon 5. Its "A" plot has some good character work, and there are a few interesting themes lurking around the edges.
But with a lack of conflict, and a "B" plot that is both cliched and centered entirely around the fate of the Guest Character of the Week, it is one of the dullest and least interesting episodes of the entire series.