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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Babylon 5 1-06: Mind War

Episode:6|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:02-Mar-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm spoiling episode 6 of Babylon 5! I'm only one screencap in and I've already given away that it's called Mind War and that act one begins with a kind of dull looking establishing shot of the station. Again. It's a shame the producers didn't take some inspiration from other Warner Bros. shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Looney Tunes, and give each episode a unique painted title card to make my reviews look more interesting.

I can't actually remember what happens in the episode exactly, but I do know it has telepaths in, and I'm sure there'll be lots of exciting shots of people staring at each other intently, maybe even with their hands held out. That helps you aim the telepathic power you see.

So yeah there'll be all kinds of SPOILERS for this episode and maybe earlier ones too, but I won't even hint at how it fits into the grand arc of the series.



Wow, I'd forgotten the black Starfuries showed up this early in the series. I love these things, as they somehow look less 'CG' to me than the standard grey ones. Also this is a good shot to illustrate why Babylon 5 is always visiting the more colourful corners of space, as certain important factions use black ships, and the things would disappear against a traditional inky void.

Who this faction is and why they get to use Earthforce starfighters isn't explained yet, but they're out here trying to catch this freighter. Unfortunately for them the ship starts twinkling, and then wipes them out in a flash of light.

Over on Babylon 5, Catherine Sakai is still here after Parliament of Dreams! I'm genuinely surprised, as I didn’t think we’d be seeing her again for weeks. Commander Sinclair has joined an exclusive group of TV sci-fi heroes who can keep a relationship going for two episodes.

She's going to be doing some planetary surveying for a megacorp though and he's got a budget meeting with the construction guild, so they don't have time for a romantic B plot this week.

Meanwhile the pilot of the mysterious sparkly transport ship gets clearance to dock at Babylon 5! End teaser!


ACT ONE.


Act one begins with resident commercial telepath Talia Winters back after skipping the last two episodes. In this scene she's explaining to her associate what it's like to have telepathy, while Garibaldi (who just happened to be waiting in the elevator) admires the view from the back.

"Casual thoughts are very easy to block, but strong emotions have a way of slipping through sometimes," she says. Out loud. And yet Garibaldi still doesn't get the hint.

A swift elbow to his lower abdomen completes the lesson. Should've paid attention to the exposition Mr. Garibaldi.

Down in the customs area, a pair of sinister black-clad agents arrive and oh shit... it's the first appearance of this security officer who shows up occasionally! "Garibaldi's Aide" he's credited as.

Also one of the agents is Walter Koenig. I want to mention that he sounds different without the fake Russian accent, but he's not talking, so I can't. The security officer is carrying on a conversation like he can hear him though, and a holographic card and some menacing glares are enough to get the two on board.

Meanwhile it turns out that the guy from the elevator is here to hire Catherine Sakai to scan a planet for a rare material (with Talia at the meeting to read their minds and keep their negotiations honest). The thing is, the world is in contested space so they need Ambassador G'Kar's approval to proceed with the survey. Looks like Catherine's going to have her own B plot after all.

Hey I just noticed they're using the same wide-base mugs that appear in Deep Space Nine. Another shocking similarity between the series.

Garibaldi's aide leads the two agents to Sinclair's office, introducing them as V.I.P.s. Sinclair sees them more as pains in the ass though, and demands they get out of his head and speak out of their smug grinholes. Not an exact quote.

He's Bester, she's Kelsey, and they're Psi Cops tasked with hunting a rogue telepath. The Psi Corps (with an 'r') are the group that regulates human telepaths, and the Psi Cops (no 'r') are Psi Corps agents with high level psychic powers who keep the others in line.

Elsewhere the pilot from the sparkly transport is renting guest quarters from that woman wearing curtains, and settles for a room with shelves full of miscellaneous kitchenware standing in the middle of the floor. He doesn't care, he just needs something he can afford.

He pours a cup of whatever liquid is the jug behind him and reacts as if he has a migraine. Then the whole room begins shaking and it suddenly becomes really obvious why there's so much easily-toppled crap in shot. Now I'm wondering if they actually built the room to move, or if they had people off screen wobbling the furniture by hand.

The man's name is Jason Ironheart and he was one of Talia's instructors in the Psi Corps training academy. He's a P10 rated telepath, which puts him well above P5s like Talia, but he's not quite as strong as P12 like Bester and Kelsey, which is why they have the job of being arrogant bastards and keeping an eye on the rest.

Ivanova's not impressed, asking "Who watches the watchmen?" But then she's a little biased against the Psi Corps after their telepathy suppression drugs drove her mother to suicide. With two high level agents here it's a testament to her emotional control that she hasn't leapt over the desk and done something she'll regret. Yet.

The Psi Cops claim that they want Ironheart because he's going to sell their secrets to alien governments. But they didn't being Talia to Sinclair's office to help them find Ironheart, she's here because they think she already knows where he is.

So the two of them forcibly scan her mind for his location, which is eerily similar to a scene I watched last week in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This deep telepathic scan is equally as horrific and disturbing, or at least it would be if the two cops didn’t step left and right with their hands out as if they needed to shift over to scan different sectors of her brain. Kind of makes it hard to take seriously.

Eventually Sinclair gets tired of the tense heartbeat sound and yells at them until they stop. They were pretty much done microwaving her brain anyway and realise now that she really doesn't know where Ironheart is.

A nice touch is that it’s Susan “I’d rather have my mouth filled with scorpions than exchange civil words with someone from the Psi Corps” Ivanova who immediately offers Talia a glass of water after seeing that she’s suffering. I suppose this is hitting very close to home for her considering how they treated her mother. Any more telepath-related trauma in her life and she'll be spending her off-hours in a cape and mask, beating up Psi Corps-affiliated fortune tellers in downbelow.

The Psi Cops order Talia not to approach or speak to Ironheart and then they let her go.

And then she immediately approaches and speaks to Ironheart. Well he approaches her, but it has much the same result.


ACT TWO.


Ironheart tells her that came here because he needs a place where he can wait for a little while. Millions of lives are at stake somehow but he can’t explain what’s going on yet, not in a corridor. Talia is generally 100% on team Psi Corps but it seems like she's going to at least hear her old friend out. Plus the Psi Cops just cooked her brain, so fuck 'em.

Meanwhile Catherine is harassing G'Kar in the station's mall as he's refused to let her survey Sigma 957. The Narn don't have the resources to mine a world so far away, that's not the issue; he doesn't want her to go there because it isn't safe. She sees right through his apparent bullshit though, and believes the Narn are holding onto the planet purely out of spite.

Suddenly the phrase “IMPORTANT SPEECH: PAY ATTENTION!” flashes up on screen in bright invisible text and G’Kar gives her a bit of advice about Babylon 5.
“Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place: no one here is exactly what he appears. Not Mollari, not Delenn, not Sinclair, and not me. My warning is sincere, ignore it at your own peril.”
That’s a message from the writer straight to the audience and there’s no way anything that happens later in this episode is going to contradict it. But I don't blame her for not trusting the guy who framed her boyfriend for murder to incite a war a few months back.

Well Ironheart said he’d explain everything later and he’s definitely making good on that promise. This scene is a huge block of exposition carried one-handed by Ironheart’s actor. He may as well be talking to his cat for all the input Talia has.

A year ago Ironheart volunteered for a Psi Corps experiment to make telepaths more powerful. Stronger telepaths can block and cut through the blocks of weaker ones, so whoever has the best telepath wins, at least that was their reasoning they gave when they talked him into taking the injections.

Only 1 in every 1000 humans is a telepath he explains. So that means there are millions of mind readers out there? That seems like a lot. But only 1 in every 10,000 telepaths has telekinetic abilities, and that's the upgrade the experiments were really intended to give him. When Ironheart realised what was going on he made a run for it... because whatever they did to him worked.

Garibaldi’s closing in on him though. Only 50 guest quarters have been rented in the last 24 hours so he’s having them all checked. “Just 50 quarters to search. Good, that should help narrow it down,” says Bester, revealing that he casually stole the information from his mind.

Garibaldi locks a glare on him that’s readable even without telepathy, but Bester’s good enough to pick up the details. “Anatomically impossible Mr Garibaldi, but you’re welcome to try,” he replies with a grin.

Man, Koenig was wasted as Chekov. He should’ve been a fascist secret police officer in Star Trek as well somehow. I don’t know how they could've possibly made that work, but man it would’ve been awesome.

Meanwhile it seems that Catherine got her permission to survey Sigma 957 another way as she’s taking the Skydancer out.

So we actually get to see her ship! And it looks like the inside of a tool cupboard! On Star Trek: The Next Generation the art department made strategic use of thin black tape to add detail to surfaces and make things more interesting to look at. Turns out when you do the same thing with caution tape it just ends up looking cheap.

G’Kar gets wind of her expedition and opens up a channel to his homeworld’s military headquarters to request the use of a heavy fighter, destination Sigma 957. Uh, I’m sure he’s only sending it to make sure she’s safe! There is no way he’s the bad guy in this episode, not going to happen. Nope.

Back in the A plot, Ironheart’s still talking.

He thought the Psi Corps were after telekinetics for big jobs, but they actually wanted agents with precise control over the tiniest object. A person who can clamp arteries shut with a thought would make the perfect assassin. He gets a bit too emotional over this and his powers suddenly go haywire again, so he encourages Talia to find somewhere safer to be. They can continue the monologue after the ad break.

Cut to Sinclair and the Psi Cops checking rooms, and becoming a bit concerned when the corridor starts shaking. “Mindquake” Kelsey notes, entirely deadpan. I bet you that’s the title of Syfy channel horror movie. In fact I’m going to check, hang on.

IMDb says… no. I am shocked and disappointed.


ACT THREE.


Now level 16 is blocked off with some kind of mental barrier surrounding it 360 degrees. Presumably it’s like a bubble because no one’s suggested going to level 14 and using a ladder.

You know, for a series that prides itself on being relatively realistic with its science, it’s sure been using a lot of fantasy concepts in this first run of episodes. Telepathy, precognition, floating soul globes, death perception, and now mind forcefields. Battlestar Galactica it's not.

Sinclair's a little bit angry that the Psi Cops forgot to mention that Ironheart is insanely dangerous and convinces Bester to tell them everything. But it turns out that they don't actually know what's up with him! He went paranoid in the last stage of an experiment, killed the head researcher and escaped to B5. Honestly I’m relieved, I thought that this was going to turn into another long scene of exposition.

But they do know that Ironheart’s power is growing and he’ll probably be at ‘station destroying’ level soon if it isn’t already. Which sounds about right for this place. Some cities can go a whole year without a single alien war machine or super powered telepath wrecking the streets, but Babylon 5 struggles with this crap every month. Fortunately he had a mental shutdown code implanted in his head during the experiment, and the two telepaths just need line of sight to send it.

Wow, Ironheart’s really done a number on this corridor. He even left the blue stripe on the wall looking all creased and scruffy. Or maybe the production crew didn’t expect the camera to get so close to it, it’s hard to know.

Ironheart opens up a section of the forcefield to let Talia back so he can continue spilling his secrets. You’d think that the galaxy’s most powerful telepath would be able to chat to her wherever she was on the station (or maybe even the sector, whatever one of them is), but I guess he’s busy concentrating on not blowing up Babylon 5 with his brain.

Ironheart’s really going to pieces now, rambling about how the Psi Corps is blackmailing Earth's government, pulling the strings behind the scenes. He’s becoming “everything” right now and that’s a bit stressful for him.

Some people have criticised Ironheart’s actor but I don’t actually think he’s doing so bad at portraying a desperate fugitive with increasing omniscience and an exploding brain. He has to give pages of exposition while struggling to hold himself together and I’m not sure the writer intended him to be subtle about it.

In the entirely unrelated B plot, Catherine has finally entered orbit around Sigma 957 and is carrying out the atmospheric survey. It's nice to get out of the station for a bit this season, even if it's just to orbit a big CGI rock.

Catherine tempts fate by doing a bad impersonation of G'Kar's when he warned her not to come here (she apparently remembers him being English). Fortunately it’s a one-man ship so there’s no else around to cringe. But unbeknownst to her a crackling space vortex is opening up nearby!

Back on Babylon 5 Talia runs into Sinclair, but she can’t explain what’s going on yet, not in a corridor. Man, I feel like the episode has looped and I'm not sure I can cope with that concept.

They decide to go somewhere far from prying minds, taking one of the core shuttles that run down the centre of the station.

The last time the shuttles turned up was in The Gathering, but when I reviewed it for my site I was watching the Special Edition with updated CGI, so this is the first time I've seen the original interior model in a while. I can definitely see why they chose to rework this structure at the end of season 2, as with the light strip in the centre those shuttle rails should be casting huge permanent shadows across the gardens.

The Gathering: Special Edition
You can kind of see here how they'll replace the single light strip with three of them spaced out the same distance as the rails.

This Special Edition screencap of mine is really handy as I can demonstrate the future visual effects going on outside the window, and the old style interior at the same time. The station generates fake gravity by rotation, so the closer you get to the centre, the slower you're moving and the less gravity you experience. So they added roller coaster restraints to keep the actors from drifting away from their seats.

But by Mind War the roller coaster seats have been replaced with boring regular ones! Plus at this point the stations had rainbow lights at either end and they look terrible.

Now that the two of them have got a secluded place to converse, it’s Talia’s turn to begin explaining things. This is an episode of explanations. She also feels comfortable enough to ask “Do you know what it’s like when telepaths make love, commander?” which can't be the way he expected this chat to go. But she's only bringing it up because Ironheart... used to be her lover. That's why he came here and why he trusts her to be quiet during his monologues.

While they're talking the tram travels the length of the grassy open section and enters a long dark tunnel at the far end. They're in the dark so long I almost expected the track to run out and stars to appear, with the tram breaking free of its tedious life and flying off to explore the galaxy.

Oh speaking of galactic exploration, Catherine finds a giant space mushroom, and I don't mean the Spacedock from Star Trek.

Turns out that there is a very good reason that the Narns stay clear of Sigma 957.

The thing opens up another space vortex that looks entirely different to the jump points that starships use to get around, and in a flash it’s gone. But it's left Catherine in a decaying orbit with most of her power reserves inexplicably gone. There’s just two hours left until her ship becomes a new metal deposit for the next survey ship to scan for.


ACT FOUR.


0.7 hours later and Catherine still hasn’t solved the ‘falling to her death’ problem. She can’t phone for help, she can’t find any nearby ships, and she can’t bounce off the atmosphere. On the plus side her cockpit looks better in the dark.

C’mon, just stick a spacesuit on, attach a few survey probes around the ship as makeshift thrusters and blast yourself out of orbit! This lack of problem-solving ingenuity is why you’re not a main character.

Back on the station, Sinclair finally meets Ironheart, who reveals that he has become strong enough to see subatomic particles and vaporise people with a casual thought! Which is about the point in the conversation that I'd be bolting for the door. Though how does he know what he can do unless he's tried?

Bester wasn't lying earlier though, Ironheart did kill the head researcher, but only because he had to make sure they could never create anyone else like him. The Psi Cops mustn't be allowed to capture him or else they'll figure out the trick and then people will be causing mindquakes and vaporising folks all over the place. So Sinclair arranges a clear path to the docking bay so they can get rid of him without Bester knowing.

Meanwhile at Sigma 957, Catherine runs out of time and the Skydancer begins to burn up in the atmosphere.

But then the heavy fighters G’Kar requested earlier swoop in and save her!

Well they intend to save her anyway, but I learned from Soul Hunter recently that grappling another ship can take forever.

Well trying to sneak past the Psi Cops was a good plan in theory, but Sinclair neglected to take into account that telepaths can read minds. They figured out what was going on after scanning a security officer and came right here.

But when they try to shut Ironheart down with the mental code everything starts shaking, giving Talia her chance to say the word ‘mindquake’ with a straight face too, and Sinclair an opportunity for a solo action hero moment! He walks up to Bester while he's concentrating and knocks him out cold with one punch.

Something worth mentioning here: Ironheart, Bester and Kelsey have all been engaged in psychic battle by this point, and yet not one of them has had a cliché nosebleed yet!

Kelsey goes to plan B and pulls a PPG on him, but it turns out that Ironheart really can make people disappear with a casual thought, as long as he's reciting a Sioux poem while he does it.

"You cannot harm one who has dreamed a dream like mine," he says, before making her blow away like dust. Shame he was so preoccupied with poetry or else he could’ve been a bit more surgical with his annihilation of matter and just evaporated the gun. R.I.P. Kelsey the Psi Cop.

Bester gets up and takes a shot at Ironheart, who just pushes him down again with a brain forcefield, but they're running out of episode at this point so they quickly cut to him flying away in his ship. Which then explodes.

Ironheart’s pulled a Star Trek and become a being of pure energy! Or a 3D torso that the visual effects team bought and made transparent. It might look a bit cheesy in a still screencap, but when it's moving and the music's playing, it's somehow actually worse.

He sends Talia a mysterious ‘gift’ of light into her forehead that makes her pass out, says ‘see you in a million years’ without moving his lips, and then warps away to wherever sparkly gods go.

So Sinclair makes a deal with Bester: if the Psi Cop agrees to report that Ironheart died and that Talia was under his mental control, then he’ll forget to mention in his own report that Bester lied to him, endangered the station and got his partner killed. Bester realises he’s lost, so he heads for his transport back home, but gives Sinclair a little salute on the way out, saying “Be seeing you, commander.” I guess the Psi Cops are in the middle of a The Prisoner rewatch back in the Psi Corps.

Garibaldi reminds Sinclair that Ironheart mentioned a whole lot of stuff about the Psi Corps being corrupt and controlling Earth’s government, but the A plot's basically over so they decide to leave it for now.


ACT FIVE.


Catherine’s back on board safe and she’s a lot warmer towards G’Kar, but she still doesn’t get why he saved her life. “Why not?” replies G’Kar. 'What kind of an asshole would let a woman die when it’d only take a phone call to save her life', is basically his reasoning.

She wants to know what drained her ship's power back at Sigma 957 so he picks an ant up off a flower and uses it as a metaphor in his final speech for the episode. What can one ant tell another ant about the creature that just picked it up? What chance do either of them have to communicate with it? We’re ants with language and interstellar communication technology though so you'd think we'd have a fighting chance to say 'hi' at least, but the Narns have tried, and failed. All G'Kar knows is that the space mushroom of Sigma 957 is likely billions of years older than them and they should stay away or get stepped on.

Oh, also Talia finds that she's got telekinetic powers now. So I guess Ironheart's whole ‘mankind must never have powers such as mine’ thing went straight out the window when he realised how cool it is being a transparent space torso.


CONCLUSION

Mind War, more like Mind Bore! Okay it’s not actually as bad as some of the earlier episodes in the season, but this one's definitely for fans of impassioned exposition delivered by a theatrical actor.

The episode is owned by the guest stars, with Ironheart and Bester dominating either side of the Psi Corps plot, and Catherine Sakai practically getting an entire B plot to herself, but at least the actors are up to it. Sure Ironheart's actor is hammy, but the guy's carrying enough exposition for ten regular men while simultaneously suffering in pain, holding back his immense destructive abilities and ascending to a new level of cosmic awareness on his way to exploding into full on apotheosis. If you can't go full Shatner then, when can you do it?

This kind of reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Transfigurations, or at least it would've done if there was anything really memorable about that story. They go along the same lines, with a man becoming a powerful energy being while the authorities try to catch him, but in Babylon 5 it's a human organisation that's after him. And not because they want to stop him, they actually want to know how to repeat the process! Star Trek's been getting a bit less utopian over the years, but Babylon 5's Earth can seem straight up sinister at times.

No one here is exactly what they seem, except for the bloody Psi Cops who come in dressed like fascists. Their Psi Corps only looks worse the more we learn about them, and we learn a lot this time thanks to Ironheart. Seems that being a telepath isn't all that fun unless you're right at the top of the power scale like Bester. Then you get to dress up in black, violate people's thoughts, boss people around and act like a smug dick to everyone around you. The guy doesn't even have any sympathy for Talia and she's supposed to be part of his happy friendly telepath club!

Walter Koenig's performance as Bester is fantastic, but I think I found the tiny Sigma 957 B plot to be a bit less dull to watch overall, even if Catherine basically exists in this episode as an alternative to having G'Kar monologue the themes of the series straight to the camera. But Andreas Katsulas is so damn good at talking that the story kinds of works. It's not a huge shock that he'd save Catherine, they weren't going to end the B plot with her pointless death, but he's been such a scheming self-serving bastard up to this point that you’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop… and it doesn’t.

It turns out that G'Kar can be as decent as anyone when his own interests are taken out of the equation, and he's wiser and more aware than he's let on. He's at least partly right when he says that no one is exactly what he appears, as we already know that Delenn's secretly one of the leaders of the Minbari, plus Sinclair has that hole in his mind. And his speech at the end ties the episode together as both plots are ultimately about immensely powerful beings that were are mere ants in comparison to.

So there's a lot to think about in this one, but overall I'd still have to rank it 'meh' out of 10. The 'show to tell' ratio's way off and whenever anything does happen, the direction, music and visual effects come together to make it laughable.

IVANOVA QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
"Good old Psi Corps, you guys never cease to amaze me. All the moral fibre of Jack the Ripper. What do you do in your spare time, juggle babies over a fire pit? Whoops, there goes another calculated risk!"

And that's what I think about Mind War. Babylon 5 will return with The War Prayer, so there's two 'war' episodes in a row with absolutely zero connection to each other. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures Doctor Who's back with The Zygon Invasion.

Alright I'm done for today, it's your chance to shine now. Share your opinions, leave your comments, tell all your friends about the site, post about it on all your favourite forums, it's all good.

4 comments:

  1. Man, Koenig was wasted as Chekov. He should’ve been a fascist secret police officer in Star Trek as well somehow. I don’t know how they could've possibly made that work, but man it would’ve been awesome.

    Yeah, it's funny that the main reason he's in B5 is "look, we got someone from Star Trek!" but I do think he's better in this than he was in Trek, although I will always love "nuclear wessels".

    I am also surprised that "Mindquake" isn't an obscure 90's X-Man. I checked.

    Hang on though; this episode is the Tesco value Akira, isn't it?

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    1. To answer that I'd first have to understand Akira (though the Tesco value bit is dead on).

      Actually you've inspired me to put Akira onto my list of movies to get around to. I need more variety and screencaps of anime motorbikes on my site.

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  2. What a loss for B5 fans:

    "Jerry Doyle -- best known for his role on "Babylon 5" -- died Wednesday ... TMZ has learned.

    Sources tell us ... a call was made to his Las Vegas home yesterday afternoon after he was found unresponsive. It's unclear how the political radio talk show host and actor died ... but we're told no foul play is suspected. An autopsy is pending."

    http://www.tmz.com/2016/07/28/jerry-doyle-babylon-5-dead

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It'd be really great if the universe would stop killing off Babylon 5 actors too young.

      Garibaldi's always been one of my favourite characters on the series and Jerry Doyle did a great job of making him the most normal of the cast. It wasn't a huge surprise to learn that he'd died, I heard he wasn't in great health, but that hasn't made me any happier about it.

      Delete