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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Babylon 5 1-04: Infection

Episode:4|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:16-Feb-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I’m spoiling Infection, which actually isn't Babylon 5's inevitable 'plague spreads through the station' episode, and involves precisely zero scenes of Dr. Franklin struggling to come up with a cure before it's too late! It should've been the plague episode though, because that's what Deep Space Nine's fourth episode was about too, and it'd would've given us another weird coincidence for the list.

Infection is chronologically the fourth episode, but it was the first written and filmed after The Gathering pilot movie, so it's probably a little shaky compared to the ones that aired before it. In fact a lot of fans consider this to be the worst of all B5 episodes, even worse than all the other episodes in season one! Personally I'm not sure what I think of it, because it's been ages since I last saw it, but I'll give it a fair chance to win me over.

I'll be writing SPOILERS for this episode and those that aired before it, but nothing that comes after. So if this episode somehow leads to any huge events down the line I'll keep my metaphorical mouth shut about what they are.



Establishing shot!

I've noticed that they haven't been writing the date or location on screen at the start of episodes since Midnight on the Firing Line. Probably because we haven't seen anywhere but B5 station itself.

Inside the station, Security Chief Garibaldi is showing an ISN reporter called Cramer a bit of root he just grabbed from someone's market stall. It's either an aphrodisiac or a kind of floor wax, he explains. Cramer's here to interview Commander Sinclair, but the guy keeps doing things like jumping into a Starfury and flying off into deep space to avoid speaking to her, so Garibaldi's trying to keep her distracted in the meantime.

Cramer makes it clear she's not all that happy about any of this, though she doesn't get too far into her rant before having to take a bathroom break (toilets confirmed to exist in the B5 universe!) Also he decides to take a risk and buy the root.

Over in Medlab, Dr. Franklin gets a surprise visit from an old teacher, Dr. Vance Hendricks (played by David McCallum of The Man From Uncle and NCIS fame!) It's just occurred to me that Franklin wasn't in the pilot, so this would've been his very first episode. Ivanova's too.

Vance has come to offer Franklin an adventure, perhaps the biggest he’s ever had! But he won’t tell him what it is until after the opening credits.

Meanwhile in customs, there’s a bit of an interior/exterior mismatch going on with the depth of one of the boxes that’s just come in. The owner explains that it’s just packaging material at the bottom, not some kind of secret compartment concealing hidden contraband. Then he murders the customs guard to get his cargo onto the station without further scrutiny.

And now it finally cuts to the opening titles. So that’s three exciting story hooks packed into one teaser! I can't wait to see which of them has the infection.


ACT ONE.


By the time the theme music has finished, Dr. Franklin has made it down to the docking bay and determined that the customs guard died of natural causes, likely due to a heart attack.

He returns to Medlab and meets Vance's assistant Nelson Drake, the murderer from the teaser! Turns out that the 'adventure' Vance was promised actually involves sitting around in his lab examining ancient archaeological artefacts from Ikarra 7. Just like how my 'Sci-Fi Adventures' mostly involve me sitting indoors examining crappy ancient Babylon 5 episodes.

Dr. Franklin's a bit confused here, seeing as he's an actual doctor doctor and his area of expertise involves things which haven’t been buried for a thousand years, but Vance has his reasons for coming to him. Nelson opens one of the boxes to show off their haul and at that moment the techs in C&C pick up an energy spike around Medlab.

It's such a huge spike that three people working in the computer pit in the centre of the room turn around and talk to each other about it! I’ve seen one or two of the unnamed techs in C&C get speaking lines before, but three of them having a conversation with no main cast members present in the scene is a rare and amazing thing.

I love the pit by the way. Not only does it add some depth to the set, but it also makes these guys look like Imperial officers working away on a Star Destroyer bridge, hoping Darth Ivanova doesn't have reason to notice them.

Looks like Medlab's monitors are ancient relics themselves.

Franklin's scans one of Vance's artefacts and discovers veins, capillaries and traces of DNA. This is a genetically engineered gadget! For the benefit of the viewers, Vance explains what Dr. Franklin already knows, that biotechnology is something that Earth still hasn't cracked. The super advanced Vorlons have it figured out, the Minbari too perhaps, but they're not sharing.

So if Franklin can figure how how this organic hardware works his name will go down in history alongside Fleming, Salk, Jenner and Takahashi! It definitely seems like Vance just pulled the classic Star Trek 'real person, real person, fake future person' line, but on the other hand there's plenty of doctors called Takahashi so I have to admit ignorance here.

SUDDEN ORGANIC SPACESHIP TANGENT.

Organic technology wasn't a concept new to TV sci-fi at this point, Star Trek: The Next Generation had shown off a living starship in the episode Tin Man back in 1990, but series were definitely getting more interested in the idea as the decade went on. In 1993 there was the SeaQuest DSV with its genetically engineered bio-skin, and the Vorlons in Babylon 5. Then in '96 there was Earth: Final Conflict with the Taelons bringing organic tech to Earth.

Lexx began in 1997 starring a gigantic planet eating starship shaped like a... dragonfly, followed by Farscape in '99 with the crew living on a Leviathan called Moya.

But then in the early 2000s starships took a turn for the retro, with Star Wars' prequel ships, low-tech prototypes like Stargate SG-1's Prometheus and the NX Enterprise, and beat up old relics like the Galactica and Serenity, all very much made of wires and metal. A decade later and organic tech is still lost to TV sci-fi; no one flies around in dragonflies any more.

Anyway when Medlab's empty Nelson takes a peek inside one of the boxes and gets a bolt of electricity in his face so powerful that it throws him across the room. He seems fine though, except for the staring and the sweating and the way patches of his skin are turning green. Franklin and Vance don't notice.


ACT TWO.


In C&C Garibaldi reveals that the autopsy on the customs guard still points to it being natural causes, Ivanova mentions her concern about the weird energy readings, and Sinclair explains why he’s been ducking this news interview.
“The last time I gave an interview they told me to just relax and say what I really felt. Ten minutes after the broadcast I got transferred to an outpost so far off the starmaps you couldn’t find it with a hunting dog and a Ouija board.” 
Wow... Earth Alliance really needs to update its starmaps to include all its outposts. Also Sinclair should totally get a hunting dog! He can fly his own doggy Starfury (Starfurry?) and lead the crew to ships in distress with his keen sense of smell.

After 15 hours of obsessively studying artefacts, the cracks begin to form in Franklin’s commitment to the cause. They didn’t do the work to discover this technology themselves, they’re reverse engineering someone else’s creation and that’s cheating! It’s a shortcut! Jurassic Park's Jeff Goldblum would be ashamed of them (but not Independence Day's Jeff Goldblum, he'd be right behind them 100%).

I’m not entirely sure we’re supposed to be on Franklin’s side here, considering Earth had to take a few shortcuts along the way for Babylon 5 to even exist, but it’s the ‘corporations financing expeditions to dead worlds’ bit he’s really uncomfortable with, not the 'playing with technology we haven't earned' bit. Seems a bit like grave robbing to him.

Vance counters with the Blade Runner speech. “I’ve seen things off would you couldn’t imagine. I’ve stood in the Abendi desert and watched all seven moons go into eclipse.” etc. Basically exploring alien worlds is far more interesting than locking yourself away in a lab doing the inventing bit yourself. So he should quit whining, get some sleep, and then get back to his epic lab work adventure.

Now we're suddenly back to the reporter plot line for approximately 30 seconds. Even Garibaldi’s starting to get sick of her now, after she mentions rumours that he got fired from his last five jobs for unspecified personal problems and that this is kind of his last chance. Garibaldi backstory out of nowhere! That could explain why he’s been so driven to do a good job as Security Chief, like obsessing over the Gold Channel security breach last episode.

Oh by the way check out the way the corridor curves upwards in the background. It’s a ramp leading to a backdrop, not a CGI set extension, so it’s inevitably going to look weird when the camera’s not dead-on, but I think it works more often than not. Sure it doesn’t look remotely believable if you focus on it, but they've cunningly filled the corridor full of extras wearing futuristic costumes and alien makeup to draw your eye away.

Nelson’s looking a bit more ropey now and he’s been fishing around in the artefact boxes again. He basically pulls out the Blue Beetle's scarab and then attaches it to himself to give himself biotech armour and super powers! Or more likely transform him into a body horror movie monster. He's already halfway along even without the bug on.

Unfortunately Dr. Franklin doesn’t understand the concept of rest, and returns to Medlab in the middle of the night just in time to get a first hand experience of alien biotech weaponry.

Now YOU know what it feels like to get blasted across Medlab by lightning!

You might have noticed that image quality's taken a bit of a dive (I’ve definitely been noticing it all episode), and there's a good reason for that I've probably already mentioned on an earlier episode.

Here's my understanding of what's happened with the DVDs:

The live action footage was filmed on Super-35 film stock, with room on the sides for a later widescreen release on whatever format eventually replaced VHS (unlike the first four Star Trek series which were shot for 4:3). Super-35 is movie stock, with enough resolution to put it up on a cinema screen, so it's fine.

But the visual effects on the other hand were rendered at lower than DVD resolution for broadcast on a 4:3 television. So whenever an effect was composited in, that means the live action footage had to be transferred to digital, cropped to the green box in the image above, and resized to 90s TV resolution to match. A ton of quality was lost doing this and there was no extra picture information left at the sides for widescreen any more.

So for the widescreen release, any shot with CGI, compositing or even crossfade transitions was taken from this low res source, then cropped again to the red box, and upscaled back to DVD resolution. Badly. And I haven't even mentioned the issues caused by interlacing and different frame rates!

Where was I? Oh right, Franklin got electrocuted by Nelson.

Fortunately Franklin survived to tell the tale, and now Sinclair and Garibaldi want to know why Nelson’s walking around in alien artefact armour and shooting doctors. Those artefacts should’ve been in a 48 hour quarantine!

Turns out Vance knew from the start that the artefacts could graft themselves on a host to gain mobility but never expected they’d trigger it accidentally. He suggests that he be allowed to study the other artefacts in case there’s a readme file on one with instructions, because things went so well the last time they did that. Reckless plans with great personal risk are Sinclair’s favourite kind though, so he lets him continue his work.

So far Nelson-bot seems to be roaming the more industrial looking parts of the station for whatever reason. All the crew know is that he blasted a pair of civilians here with enough force to leave nothing but burn marks on the wall. The C&C techs picked up the energy flash again, 20% stronger than the last time.


ACT THREE.


Suddenly Cramer turns up in C&C and asks to know what’s going on. Sinclair explains that this is a secure area and that she has to leave, but she replies that people have a right to know what’s going on and stays put. Sinclair throws out a threat about her spending the next two days in the brig, but she’s entirely unfazed so he quickly loses interest and goes back to organising the hunt for an alien superweapon.

So is it really this unusual for a reporter to visit Babylon 5? Sinclair has no idea how to deal with her, the security outside C&C just let her right in (assuming they even have security), and the staff seems generally unprepared for the possibility that someone might want to know what they’re doing.

Cramer pushes her luck just a little too far though and gets Lieutenant Commander Ivanova’s attention. There's been no on screen evidence that Ivanova is ever in a good mood, but harassing her commander during a crisis is definitely one of the ways you can make her mood worse. I'm thinking that "Don’t. You’re too young to experience that much pain,” might be the best line I'm getting this episode. It was good enough to send the poor reporter running at least.

Garibaldi’s strike team finally catches up to Nelson-bot, but sadly their weapon fire is utterly inadequate. I mean obviously Nelson laughs off their shots and escapes through a wall, they’re not going to kill him at minute 22, but the gunfire visual effect is just rubbish! The muzzle flash is a weak looking red splat and the projectiles themselves are like spheres of distortion, barely visible as individual shots. All you can see is the screen wobbling and that doesn’t make the red splats look any better either.

They're going to figure out what to do with this guy soon as the energy level of his blasts increases by 20% each time, and they're already off the scale. He'll end up blowing up the station at this rate.

Fortunately Franklin re-enters the story to relay some exposition he found recorded on an artefact.
Ikarra 7 had problems with alien invaders a thousand or so years back, so they had the idea of building cyborg weapons programmed with the brainwave patterns of one of their researchers and hard-wired not to respond to anyone who wasn’t pure Ikarran. Trouble is that no one is 100% pure.

Nelson-bot's lost his pants and gone full rubber suit at this point, complete with robot noises whenever he moves. Subtle ones though, and to be honest the suit doesn't look all that bad to me either.

As he stomps around and blasts his way through to the station’s central corridor, Sinclair and Franklin race to get there first and meet up with Garibaldi’s men. Well, stride purposefully at least.

Franklin's hasn't finished his exposition yet though, so he tries to fit it all before they run out of hallway.

“They programmed the weapon with a level of standards based on ideology not science,” the doctor explains, all fired up with righteous indignation. “Like the Nazi ideal of a perfect Aryan during World War II” replies Sinclair, getting Godwin’s Law out of the way early.

“The next invasion, eleven of the machines were released and they stopped the invaders by killing anything that didn’t match their profile of the pure perfect Ikarran,“ Franklin continues, while the two of the turn a corner and disappear off camera. There are no actors on screen right now, this is just bizarre.

Oh they're back! It cut to a new corridor, but the exposition dump isn't quite over.

“When they were finished the machines turned on their creators. They began a process of extermination based on the slightest deviation of what they were programmed to consider normal.  They killed and kept killing until the last Ikarran was dead.” Wow, if this isn’t the plot of an old ‘Star Trek’ episode, it should be. ‘Planet wiped out by intolerance and irony’ is right up Captain Kirk’s street.

Another corridor? Seriously? The scene's turning into a comedy sketch now. This walk and talk must have been going on for almost a minute now, and they started talking long before they started walking.

Now they’re chatting about what happened to the rest of these cyborg weapons on Ikarra, which Franklin couldn’t possibly know about, because it happened after the twelfth weapon scarab and its recorded exposition data was sealed in the vault Vance found it in. Well okay I suppose Vance could’ve told him.

And we've cut to corridor shot number 4! I think this must be the end of the conversation though as the camera’s given up following them.

Franklin explains that there’s an intelligence in Nelson-bot that can be reasoned with, but that pesky Nazi programming is in the way. A few billion Ikarrans already failed to talk sense into these things, so it probably shouldn’t be Sinclair’s plan A.

Well it turns out that Sinclair’s plan A was a lot like the last plan: waste ammo trying to kill it until the thing gets bored and smashes through a wall. Or in this case the floor.

It’s heading right towards the civilians so Sinclair decides that this is the right time to pull out the ‘lead character’ card and go up against the Ikarran Nelson-bot alone. Sorry Franklin, it’s his storyline now.


ACT FOUR.


Plan B is simple: Sinclair has patched his hand communicator to the speakers and he’s going get through the core personality in a way that the programming won’t try to block: he’s going to get him really really mad. You see if he can really piss the thing off he can get it to focus on him and chase him right to the docking bay, where he can blow them both out into the cold vacuum of space. It’s a reckless plan with great personal risk and that’s why it’s going to work.

Sure it gets him shot with a blast of energy that was 20% past 'off the scale', but that's what flak jackets are for! Speaking of his jacket, it's looking a lot better than the outfit he was wearing when chasing the assassin in The Gathering. The rifles' much better too; that break between the pilot and season one did the series some good.

Well the plan's working out great so far, but Sinclair just needs to lure him just a little further to reach the airlock.

So he starts repeating that chunk of exposition Franklin told him in the endless hallways scene, with more mocking emphasis on the word ‘pure’. It’s like one of Captain Kirk's computer killing speeches except meaner, and to be honest Michael O’Hare might actually be overacting more.

I think all of those who accused the man of being a wooden actor must have had the sense to skip this episode, as he's going full Nicholas Cage right now... crossed with Leslie Nielson.

Sinclair tells the Ikarran weapon to look inside of Nelson’s memories and see what the other weapons did to the world they were created to protect. Nelson-bot doesn't much like what he sees and now he's joining in with the overacting!

He finishes by yelling “IKARRRRAAAAA!” in despair, before ripping his own heart out... well, the Blue Beetle bug that gave him the full exoskeleton anyway, leaving Nelson lying on the floor, naked but alive. I'm honestly surprised, as I figured the character was as good as dead (seeing as he's a murderous henchman), but nope he survived to carry out his prison sentence.

Also holy shit, Sinclair really did just pull off Captain Kirk’s ‘talk a machine to death with logic’ trick! I wouldn’t say this was anything like an episode of Star Trek though, as there’s one thing that makes the two shows very different: this still has eight minutes left to go.

So Franklin discovers that Nelson was a killer even before he got the Mega Man arm blaster and calls security on his old teacher.

Then Garibaldi confronts Sinclair on the fact that he's been ending each episode with a solo action hero scene; he thinks he's been looking for a way to go out in a blaze of glory ever since the Battle of the Line.

And the Ikarran artefacts are collected by Earthforce's Bioweapons division, proving that some people are too dumb to learn from history (or the movie Alien). So Ivanova goes off to have a drink "with the rest of the aliens". But the episode's not over yet...


ACT FIVE.


...because Sinclair finally sits down with Cramer for his ISN interview! Hey, the hovering cameras from The Gathering are back. Star Trek might have inspired the tablet PC and the clamshell phone, but Babylon 5 inspired camera drones.

We only hear the one question, which is basically "Was it even worth coming out here into space or should humanity just go home?" and Sinclair's answer is actually pretty good. It's only very slightly relevant to the themes of the episode, but I think he's escaped being reassigned to the ass end of Space Siberia at least.
“No. We have to stay here. And there's a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you'll get ten different answers, but there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on: whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes, and all of this… all of this was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.”
If only the Ikarrans thought of that.


CONCLUSION

Infection may seem like a simple monster of the week story featuring a guy in a rubber suit with robot noises dubbed over him, but it actually has something to say. In fact it has a lot of things to say, and it puts them into the mouths of the characters to make sure it's impossible to miss the moral of the story. 'Hatred against people who are different is ultimately self destructive because we're all different in some way,' is far from a terrible message, but it's delivered with absolutely zero subtlety and the show's set up to be smarter than that. Plus it basically devolves into a Star Trek parody in the last confrontation with some theatrical acting by both O’Hare and Marshall Teague in the suit. It's hardly their fault though, as they could only play what was on the page, and you kind of need to go full Shatner to deliver lines like "IKARRRAAAA!"

This seems like it should be Dr Franklin’s episode: the arrival of his teacher kicks off the events of the story, he’s the one with moral decisions to make, and he’s the one who discovers the key to defeating the Ikarran weapon. But then he gives the information to Sinclair and disappears for the entire climax! It feels like it should’ve been Franklin giving the speech to the weapon, or maybe even talking Vance into sacrificing himself, but nope as lead character Sinclair had to jump in and take the glory. Though that's kind of redeemed afterwards when Garibaldi actually calls him on it, setting up Sinclair’s death wish as being part of a larger arc.

Plus I was expecting Franklin's old teacher would bring some revelations about the doctor's past but we actually learn more about Garibaldi's backstory here. It's revealed that he was in the Earth-Minbari War (but not on the Line), he managed to screw up five other jobs before this one, and his friendship with Sinclair is likely the only reason he was made Security Chief on B5. Though I suppose it makes sense that the human characters would get some development this episode, seeing as the alien cast is entirely absent! There's no Delenn, G'Kar, Londo, Vir or Kosh. Or telepath Talia Winters either now that I think about it.

Does Infection work as an episode? Nah, not really. Even on a production level it's not particularly well directed, scenes end abruptly, and it basically feels like a first try by a crew who were still figuring out what they were doing. But there’s interesting pieces in there amongst the cheese, it sets up biotechnology and hate groups on Earth for later down the road, and honestly it made me cringe less than Born to the Purple did last time. At least this was taking itself seriously, even if I wasn’t able to. And it had a nice last speech.


Babylon 5 will return with Parliament of Dreams, eventually. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'll be watching Deep Space Nine season 1 episode Captive Pursuit.

Before that though you might want to read though all the fantastic comments below. And if there's no fantastic comments you might want to write one.

2 comments:

  1. I'm finding it difficult to remember any of these episodes so far, but I know I watched them. I'm not sure if that's damning of Babylon 5, of me, or both.

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    Replies
    1. You probably found it difficult to watch them as well. This isn't B5 at its most memorable.

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