Oh, dear. A tedious, heavy-handed allegory designed to let us know that "Hate Crimes Are Bad." And it had all been going so well, too.
The human separatist group, "The Homeguard," has been growing steadily in power and influence back on Earth... and now it is establishing a presence on Babylon 5. Sinclair and Garibaldi find their hands full trying to track down the perpetrators of a series of increasingly violent hate crimes against various aliens on the station. Meanwhile, Ivanova meets an old flame who has just arrived on the station to "set up business." Hmm... do we think there might be a link? Sinclair goes undercover as a Homeguard sympathizer in order to find out. Unlike Captain Kirk, he at least manages to keep his shirt on.
It really is startling how fast the regulars on this show have gelled into a convincing team. There were some rough spots during the first four episodes; nevertheless, in the last three episodes I've reviewed, I'd have sworn Michael O'Hare, Claudia Christian, and Jerry Doyle had been playing opposite each other for years. This really struck me when watching the scene where the three of them are deciding on a course of action to deal with the Homeguard situation. The three actors seem totally at ease with each other, and the character interaction is completely natural and unforced. Given that this is only Episode 7 of a fledgling low-budget sci-fi series, this in itself represents an accomplishment.
The episode itself is undistinguished. It is noteworthy, however, in that it marks the beginning of Vir's character growth. In the episode's "B" story, Vir finds the courage to stand up to Londo for the very first time, when he tells the Ambassador that he's wrong in trying to force two Centauri teenagers to honor their families' arranged marriages. Some of the "love conquers all" dialogue in this subplot is quite heavy-handed (which at least keeps it consistent with the rest of the episode), but Stephen Furst does a fine job delivering it. Vir is clearly someone who prefers to avoid conflict, and the viewer can almost feel the inner struggle as he forces himself to confront Londo. Despite his obvious discomfort, and despite the anvils in the dialogue, these scenes show the first signs of what will become Vir's evolving role as Londo's conscience.
It is very nice to see some continuity with The Gathering, as well. After a meeting with Kosh, Sinclair muses about how quickly Dr. Kyle and Lyta Alexander were recalled to Earth after viewing/scanning him. Though the fact of the two characters' replacement was, in actuality, an accident of actor availability and contract issues, this scene turns that into an asset. By noting the coincidence - the only two humans to see a Vorlon were quickly called back to Earth - a disquieting chord is struck, setting the tone nicely for later revelations about conspiracies in Earthgov.
The most entertaining scene of the episode is the scene between Sinclair and Kosh. The Vorlon Ambassador gets the best line of the episode when Sinclair inquires after his unusual viewscreen. "What is it?" Sinclair asks. "Efficient," is Kosh's succinct reply.
(Oh, and when the Homeguard thugs divulge their plan to assassinate all the ambassadors, including Kosh, I couldn't help but reflect that it would actually have been quite amusing to have seen them try. G'Kar's analogy from the last episode about ants being trod upon seems very apt, somehow...)
Speaking of G'Kar, we do get to see the talents for public speaking that will later serve him so well. Here, of course, he's misusing his rhetorical skills and nearly causes a riot; but it's nice foreshadowing of his later role, just the same. It's also interesting to see an episode that puts G'Kar, Londo, and Delenn all on the same side of an issue. I can't help but feel the episode missed a trick by not giving Londo and G'Kar a proper scene together. They don't often get to agree, and it would have been amusing to see "early Londo" and "early G'Kar" react when made reluctant allies.
Finally, there is a glimmer of something interesting in the scene in Sinclair's quarters, where he talks about the Battle of the Line and the Minbari surrender. "That victory tasted like ashes," Sinclair confesses - and though Sinclair is undercover, I nevertheless felt that every word he was saying here was the absolute truth. Michael O'Hare is very good in these scenes. His voice conveys genuine bitterness as he speaks of his experiences on The Line, hinting that there is some real turmoil beneath Sinclair's genial surface... something that will be revisited in a few later episodes this season.
Susan has an old flame arrive at just the time that the Homeguard is setting up shop on the station. Is there honestly any suspense about the identity of the villain? It would have been a surprise if Malcolm had turned out to be innocent.
That might have been OK if there had been anything unique about the story progression once Malcolm is (finally) revealed as the dastardly villain. Unfortunately, the plot follows a depressingly predictable pattern. The script never delves beneath the surface of the Homeguard's followers. We never get a good look at the source of their hatred. They're just a bunch of one-dimensional thugs. I'm not afraid of villains who are one-dimensional thugs; I am dead terrified of villains who seem like nice, normal folks who honestly believe they are doing the right thing. Had the members of Homeguard been presented as real people, the episode might have been somewhat effective or disturbing.
The episode's major problem has nothing to do with bad acting; both regulars and guest cast are all pretty decent, this time out. The dialogue is not particularly praiseworthy, but there are only a few, particularly heavy-handed lines that make me cringe. It's just all so very predictable, so utterly formulaic. It takes no time at all to guess where both A and B plots are going; and sure enough, they go straight to their predictable destination, by a predictable route.
The episode does have some importance to the arc. It's the first episode to really address the anti-alien sentiment growing back on Earth. It also strongly implies that the Homeguard have very influential friends in the military and government, making it the first episode to strongly indicate that not all is as it should be back home. It's just a shame that the execution of the story is so simplistic. It's not that The War Prayer is bad, as such. It's just so resolutely mechanical, connecting the dots between the hook, the problem, the complication, and the solution in as pat and dramatically easy a fashion as possible.
From a purely critical standpoint, The War Prayer is probably a better episode than either Soul Hunter or Infection. However, I will take either of those over this episode any day of the week.
Not actually the worst episode yet, but certainly the most uninteresting. Though the quality should turn around again in the next installment...