The first of only two official two-parters for the series, its first installment at least sees a real return to form, with a genuine sense of wonder in some scenes. I praised Eyes in my last review, and stand by that praise; but this J. Michael Straczynski-penned episode brings the series back up to the level of its best episodes, a level it rarely seems to achieve in episodes by other writers. No wonder he ended up writing most of the last three seasons by himself.
No, I haven't forgotten about Legacies. That particular episode was originally meant to air after Babylon Squared, and that episode features Delenn using an item she doesn't actually obtain until Babylon Squared. So this is the first of a handful of times where I will juggle the viewing order for the sake of an ideal run.
Picking up where Eyes left off, the radical Free Mars group has brought its campaign out into the open, staging violent riots throughout the Mars colonies and threatening to make the Martian sands "run red with Earther blood." This particularly impacts Mr. Garibaldi, whose former fiancee, Lise Hampton, still lives on Mars.
The station's command staff is given little time to worry about developments back home, however. A handful of people on the station - including Sinclair and Londo - begin seeing an apparition of a mysterious alien pleading for help. At the same time, Epsilon 3, the dead world in whose orbit Babylon 5 resides, has suddenly come to life... with a vengeance. It starts quietly enough, with seismic disturbances beneath the planet's surface. But when a survey team goes out to investigate, the team is targeted by a very lethal automatic defense system. Finding themselves face-to-face with both a threat to station security and a potential first-contact situation, Sinclair and Ivanova pilot a shuttle into a fissure leading beneath the planet's surface. There, they make a remarkable discovery: a Great Machine, with a lone alien residing in its center, warning Sinclair and Ivanova:
"Help me... or your people... all your people... will die!"
Well, I'll start by observing how glad I am that I shuffled Legacies back to its originally intended position. This episode definitely gains from being viewed back-to-back with Eyes. The budding Martian conflict that set the scene for that story explodes into violence here. By noting the separatists' organization, and by connecting Garibaldi to Mars through its introduction of Lise Hampton (so far not seen, but Garibaldi's feelings for her are palpable), this episode sets the stage for much of the series' last two seasons.
I'll save most of my discussion of the plot for the review of the second part. What I will discuss is the series' welcome return to form in this installment. I enjoyed Eyes for its drama and for its use of continuity and character elements; but it, TKO, and Grail all felt somehow just a little less vivid than the best episodes of this series. I wasn't even entirely sure what was missing. Part of it had to do with lack of involvement of the regulars (which is why the Sinclair and Ivanova-centered Eyes was by far my favorite of the three), but even Eyes lacked a certain spark that the very best episodes possess. Something had been missing from these non-Straczynski installments, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was.
This episode identified it for me: that rich, flowing dialogue/monologue writing that Straczynski does so well. There are so many examples of it here. The precredit sequence, with Sinclair and Talia waiting outside the lift, is among my favorite comic moments in the entire first season, and even it is topped by Ivanova teaching the surveyors "the Babylon 5 mantra," in what may be the single most quotable speech of the entire season. Meanwhile, Londo, a character who suffered from particularly poor writing in Grail, makes up for it with an abundance of great bits. His scene with Garibaldi, in which he details his marriage to a Centauri stripper, is as funny as it is charming. His scene with Sinclair and Delenn, in which he reflects on the Centauri and the Narn as "victims of mathematics," is unusually introspective for the character at this point in the series. Finally, the scene in which he goes into a full-on rant while attempting to find hidden meaning in "the Hokey-Pokey" is a moment that straddles vague awkwardness and sheer genius (I think it tips over into genius when Delenn's mentor Draal privately mentions that he enjoyed the song - only for Delenn to admonish him not to tell Londo).
These comic moments keep the episode's pace sprightly. What's more, these bits are perfectly rooted in the characters, and the directions in which the first season has seen them evolve. Watch Sinclair and Ivanova as they mull the decision to go to Epsilon 3 personally. You can really see both officers' joy at the prospect of getting off the station and actually getting into the thick of things. Then there's Garibaldi's desperation when he begs Talia to use her Psi-Corps connections to help him contact Mars; it's the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a life raft. His refusal to believe that anything could have happened to Lise carries just a hint of madness - this is a man who climbed out of the abyss, and if the news he finally receives is bad, one senses that he is more than willing to fall back down and never come out again. In these scenes, Jerry Doyle gives what is almost certainly his best performance to date.
Finally, we have more seeds planted in the arrival of Delenn's mentor, Draal. Wonderfully played by Louis Turenne, Draal brings sad tidings of home. Not only is the rift between the warrior caste and the religious caste growing, but Draal sees things back home changing for the worse. His disillusionment has driven him out to the stars to do good with the time he has left, because he no longer believes he can do good on Minbar. This is definite set-up, not only for Draal's fate but for the multi-episode Minbari arc that will erupt in Season 4. I still find myself marveling at how much I spot looking at these first season episodes after having seen the full series - Straczynski really did do a fine job of controlling his great arc.
I continue to be underwhelmed by Andrea Thompson. She does have one great moment in this episode. Her first scene, with Sinclair outside the lift, shows a talent for comedy. The facial expressions of both Thompson and O'Hare when the lift doors open are as genuine as they are priceless. However, she still fails to really make me believe in the character during the dramatic scenes.
The only other nit-pick I really have is that Sinclair and Ivanova's adventures in the corridors of Epsilon 3 seem a little too much like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. It's not unentertaining, but the whole bit with tossing the rocks through the laser field just doesn't quite seem to "fit" with Babylon 5, somehow.
Next Up: Part Two.