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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Babylon 5 1-07: The War Prayer

Episode:7|Writer:D. C. Fontana|Air Date:09-Mar-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm spoiling the episode The War Prayer, which comes right after the episode Mind War, around 17 years after Star Wars and 97 years after H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. I can't actually think of anything else with 'war' in the title right now, I'm sorry. Well, except for the original Mark Twain short story that the title refers to.

Mark Twain left The War Prayer to be published after his death because of its controversial content, but it's basically about a church full of hyped up soldiers and their families praying for victory in their glorious war followed by a stranger reading out to them their unspoken prayer for all the horrors that come with it. So I'm guessing that the plot of this has something to do with that.

The War Prayer is the 7th episode of the first season, which is notable because it means I still have two thirds of season 1 left to get through after this. Still, I remember there being some great episodes scattered around the first year of the series, and this... probably isn't one of them.

I'll be writing SPOILERS for every scene of this episode so don't go any further if you care about that. In fact I'll be spoiling episodes that came before it too (but not the ones that came after).



The episode begins with Ambassador Delenn hanging out with her childhood friend Shaal Mayan and discussing poetry. One of Mayan's poems in fact, as she's a poet on her way to Earth to... perform poetry.

This is a bit of continuity issue as Delenn seemed entirely new to the concept of poetry back in The Gathering (aside from knowing one of Garibaldi's dirty limericks), but that's easily resolved by just forgetting The Gathering exists entirely. Or maybe this episode, whichever turns out to be worse.

Delenn asks if she can walk her to her quarters but Mayan declines the offer. She then goes and finds the one corridor in the diplomatic sector of the station with poor lighting and stops for a while to contemplate what could be making that 'switchblade' sound over in the shadows.

Suddenly a figure plunges a knife into her gut and brands her forehead with a symbol while she's down, yelling "Stay away from Earth, freak." I'm not a big fan of poetry either, but that feels like it may be crossing a line.

You might notice the slight make up failure here, as Mayan has developed a ridge across her forehead, probably due to the bone crest pushing it forward. This isn't something you can blink and miss either, as it cuts to a close up of her head with someone pointing a branding iron at it!


ACT ONE.


After the credits, we find Delenn in Sinclair's office yelling at him for doing a crappy job of keeping people safe on board the station. She's usually the most rational and reserved of the ambassadors, but I guess learning that your childhood friend got stabbed just down the hallway from your quarters can make anyone a bit tetchy.

Garibaldi mentions that he offered her an escort, giving her an opportunity to mention that you shouldn't need an escort to walk around the diplomatic sector! Sinclair tries to explain that he's doing everything he can to correct that, but she responds that he's required to do better. Much better.

G'Kar catches up with him in a corridor, seeing a good opportunity for a righteous rant of his own, but Sinclair's not in the mood. He warns him that any disruption of the station will be shut down, even if it means throwing every Narn in the brig. The writer didn't give G'Kar a comeback to that so all he can do is look pissed off.

Here's a fact you might not be aware of unless you've glanced at the screencap above: this episode was written by the legendary Dorothy Fontana, who scripted ten episodes of the original Star Trek, then worked as a producer on both the Star Trek animated series and the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Definitely not a bad choice of writer for a sci-fi series, especially if her involvement inspired a few Trek fans to give the series a chance.

Well at least that nasty swelling across her forehead has gone down. Mayan intends to keep the brand though, as a lesson.

All she could see of her attacker was a shadow so she's got no clue if he actually was human, but the symbol belongs to the Homeguard. They're a pro-Earth hate group which has strong feelings about aliens visiting their neighbourhood, and they've been expressing them with attacks back on Earth and Mars.

Weirdly The Way Prayer aired around six months after a Deep Space Nine episode where another alien got a similar brand on his latex forehead by a similarly xenophobic hate group while on a similar space station. But the B5 team only learned about the DS9 episode after War Prayer's filming was complete, so add that to the endless list of coincidences.

Later a Centauri transport arrives at the station with detainees to be handed over to someone of command rank. I thought we'd escaped having a B plot in this episode but it guess it was just running late.

Sinclair's busy elsewhere so Garibaldi and Ivanova try to outmanoeuvre each other to get out of being the one who greets the detainees. It looks like Ivanova's going to win, but then Garibaldi lets slip that he knows that she's inherited Takashima's character trait of growing illegal coffee plants in the hydroponic garden and she gives in to his coffee blackmail. 

This was a great scene right up until the comedy music started. I can't believe I'm at episode 7 and they're still doing that.

But while down at the docking bar to collect the Centauri detainees Ivanova runs into Malcolm! Whoever that is.

Turns out that the two of them used to know each other 8 years ago. I'm just hoping he's not her old teacher, as the last couple of times someone's teacher showed up without warning the station was nearly destroyed by an energy blast.

Meanwhile the detainees ended up in Sinclair's office, and then into Ambassador Mollari's custody.

Turns out they're not really criminals, they're just a lovestruck couple who are running from their arranged marriages to be together instead. Though when Londo hears what the two of them have done because of love he yells
 "WHAT DOES LOVE HAVE TO DO WITH MARRIAGE?"
so loud they must have had to switch to a special mic and give out ear protectors to the film crew. I mean damn man!

In the Centauri Republic marriages are arranged to meld the houses together, he explains. Sometimes they even call for great sacrifice he continues, pointing at the pictures of his three wives. The lovers aren't entirely receptive to his wisdom though.

Cut to Mr Garibaldi interrogating a man called Mr. Roberts. He's not a prisoner here, he's just a guy they brought in who likes to wear orange jumpsuits... and carry a bloody knife around.

Garibaldi suspects that he might have something to do with the stabbing of Shaal Mayan and I can see why. I know he's innocent as his knife isn't a switchblade, but Roberts' actor and his dialogue are conspiring together to create a total caricature of a racist xenophobe who thinks that aliens are ruining everything. He straight up admits that he thinks that Homeguard have the right idea.

"I don't know what's worse, damn aliens or the traitors that suck up to them over their own kind," says a man who decided to travel 10 light years into deep space to work on a station home to more different species of alien than anywhere else in the known galaxy.


ACT TWO.


Exciting music plays as Sinclair puts on a breathing mask and goes to visit Ambassador Kosh. I know I'm hyped, as this is the first time we've seen the guy since... well probably the first episode actually.

Then the music stops and they chat in front of the TV for a bit about the recent attacks.

"It might be helpful if you spoke with the other ambassadors," says Sinclair's voice, while his lips remain completely still. "We take no interest in the affairs of others," Kosh replies, openly watching a floating CGI monitor showing him the affairs of others. Kosh is a bit of a dick.

The reason, by the way, that Sinclair's voice is a bit disconnected from his mouth here is because the entire scene has been taken from another episode that was running too long and then dubbed over. They pretty much get away with it too because of the mask he's wearing.

Though the talk with Kosh has just shaken loose something in Sinclair's mind that doesn't make any sense to him: Kosh himself was nearly assassinated in The Gathering by a poison administered via the hand, but he wears a sealed encounter suit outside of his quarters (and inside it more often than not), so how did the assassin even get to his hand?

Ivanova points out that they've no idea if he really needs the suit or if he's just using it to hide his appearance. By pure coincidence the two people from the pilot who might know were both transferred back to Earth afterwards and they never saw them again.

It actually was a coincidence that those two actors didn't return for season one, but it fits the ongoing story really well. Kind of a weird interlude for this episode though.

Elsewhere on the station Londo is still shouting to Vir about love and how it's overrated, showing him the photos of his three wives again: Pestilence, Famine and Death. No idea why he named them after human mythological figures.

"Arranged marriages every one," he explains. "But they worked out, they inspired me! Knowing that they were waiting at home for me is what keeps me here, 75 light years away."

He's arranged a transport for them to take the fugitive couple back home, so that they're no longer his problem.

Speaking of couples, Malcolm and Ivanova have rekindling their relationship. It didn't work out for them eight years ago because she chose to focus on her career and move to Io, and she doesn't regret that. But this time she won't have to choose between them as he's moving to Babylon 5 to start a business here and hopefully become a semi-regular character like Sinclair's girlfriend Catherine Sakai... who actually isn't in this episode now that I think about it.

Meanwhile Garibaldi's finished the DNA scan on Roberts' bloody knife and it turns out... that Roberts cut himself by accident and it was his own blood. But they're going to keep him under surveillance anyway as there's no way this guy isn't going to end up being recruited by the Homeguard eventually.

Here's a shot that would look amazing in a remastered Blu-ray release, not that it looks bad now.

The two Centauri runaways have run away into an orchard, with Vir in pursuit.

But suddenly the A plot interrupts, as they're attacked by four humans in optical camouflage!

Kiron jumps up to defend his girlfriend Aria, but doesn't manage to do much more than tear one of the bags they've got over their heads.

Oh crap, it's... you know, I can't really tell. I get the feeling that it's Malcolm though. That bastard, he's no Sakai at all!

Ninja bag-mask squad can't take the risk of being ID'd, so one of his crew puts a bullet into Kiron, or whatever these guns fire. Superheated plasma gas I suppose.

Whatever it is, the effect still looks terrible. There's some nice sparks though.

Vir turns up just too a little late to get shot himself, finding the two of them alone, lying unconscious on the floor. By the way that's Danica McKellar of Wonder Years fame wearing a bald cap. I never saw the series myself... but I did watch Young Justice and she was pretty good in that as the voice of M'gann.

When Ambassador G'Kar hears about Centauri getting gunned down on the station he's not as happy as you'd expect. After proving himself to be a surprisingly complex and moral character in the last episode, he decides it's in his interests to be an asshole again, inciting a crowd to violence in one of the central corridors. But Garibaldi drops by with a squad of security officers in body armour to convince him otherwise and they break up his mob.

The main group is under control, but two stray Drazi confront Roberts and give him a vicious beating for the crime of being a hateful caricature. They kick the crap out of him for close to 30 seconds straight, which almost doubles his screen time so far!

Still, it could've been worse for him. If Garibaldi had let him keep that knife then Dr. Franklin might have found it covered with far more of the guy's own blood when he pulled it out of his back.


ACT THREE.


Down in Medlab, Aria wants to be with Kiron to help him recover, but Londo thinks that medicine rather than love is probably the best medicine in this situation.

Shaal Mayan has been waiting down here all this time to find a way back into the episode, so she decides to involve herself in Londo's B plot, telling him that love is a potent force for healing. She's travelled to many planets and she's discovered that all sentient beings need love. So that's now canon in the Babylon 5 universe.

Londo's continues on his 'they'll learn to live without it' rant, but Mayan counters with "As you did?" Careful Mayan, he'll go get the three pictures of his wives again.

Meanwhile Garibaldi reveals that the surveillance he put on Roberts has finally paid off! They couldn't save him from a vicious beating, but they did catch someone from Homeguard trying to recruit him... and it was Malcolm. Ivanova's not happy at the news that her boyfriend is part of an anti-alien hate group, but she holds herself together.

Sinclair decides it's time for Ivanova to introduce the two of them so that he can infiltrate his group, but she has one condition for her help: she wants to be there when he takes them down.

Vir finds Londo sitting in a garden trying to recover from Mayan's cutting retort, and decides this would be a great time to have another conversation about valuing love over tradition and power.

"My shoes are too tight," Londo blurts out, in the way that television characters often do when they hit upon the key piece of their storyline's puzzle. In this case it's something his father once said: "My shoes are too tight, but it doesn't matter because I have forgotten out how to dance." He's never understood what that meant until now.

The trouble with this scene is that we've had only two other Londo focused episodes in the series so far, and the previous one was all about him deciding to put love over tradition! So none of this rings true at this point. It would've worked so much better if this had come before Born to the Purple.

There was even a newspaper report about Homeguard's leader being convicted in that episode now that I think about it! Seems like they've got their stories in the wrong order.

Anyway Sinclair goes to a diplomatic reception in what looks like the council chambers, but probably isn't.

C'mon Sinclair can you turn around a little, you're ruining my screencap. This is the best shot I can get and it's of the back of your head.

Ivanova has also invited Malcolm as her guest, so Sinclair has to be on his worst behaviour to gain his attention without outright causing a diplomatic incident. He's keeping to himself when Delenn introduces Mila Shar, who looks forward to studying his hydroponic cultivation methods... and to not being stabbed while walking the hallways. Sounds Garibaldi needs to put more guards around the ambassadorial wing and Ivanova needs to hide the coffee.

"Wasn't a Centauri youth seriously injured just last night?" she asks. "He'll recover," Sinclair replies with his best attempt at sinister grin, leaving Delenn with no idea what just happened.

A few episodes back, Born to the Purple established that Sinclair is terrible at pretending to be a bad guy, but he's got Malcolm fooled at least. In fact the man must think that he's hit the jackpot here when the commander of biggest diplomatic centre in the galaxy comes out with lines like "I served on the Line and we had a motto there: the only good alien is a dead alien."

They continue the conversation in Ivanova's quarters over drinks, which would be a great opportunity to force Sinclair and Ivanova to confront the tiny sliver of genuine hate they're still carrying with them after the horrific Earth-Minbari War ten years ago, but the episode doesn't really go there. Though we do at least get a bit of truth from Sinclair:
"I fought, my best friends died. And we won. Not because we out-fought them, not because we were luckier than them or stronger than them or smarter than them. We won because the damn Minbari let us win. You know what that victory tasted like? Ashes."
Malcolm agrees to bring them in to the Homeguard but first he needs a gesture to prove where their sentiments lie.


ACT FOUR.


Finally another council scene! I can't remember seeing one of these since the season opener Midnight on the Firing Line. But this is Dark Sinclair talking, so he's raising his voice and people are getting riled up.

He explains to the ambassadors that there's no longer any danger on the station as the perpetrators have fled back to Earth. G'Kar's angry that no arrests have been made and Delenn's displeased that they can't reveal the attackers' identities, but Sinclair tells them that the investigation is over and leaves. So the Homeguard should be satisfied at least.

Everyone's happy in the B plot, as Londo comes up with a scheme which will let the two Centauri stay together in a way that'll satisfy both their parents. They all hug and Londo proves he's not really a heartless bastard. Well not after everyone's been wearing him down for an episode anyway.

Malcolm brings Sinclair and Ivanova to Cargo Bay 5 where the other members of Homeguard are hidden. Turns out that they've been using prototype Earthforce invisibility suits to attack aliens without being detected, so I was totally wrong when I wrote that the invisibility tech used on the bug in Born to the Purple never came back again. Now that they've got security after them and they've pissed everyone off, they're ready to make their final move: in one night they'll take out Ambassadors Delenn, G'Kar, Mollari and Kosh! Good luck with that last one guys.

But Malcolm's not going to believe that Sinclair's up for this mass assassination unless he shoots an alien in the face right now... and he's brought Mila Shar from the diplomatic reception instead of anyone we know or care about. That means she might actually die here!

Just then their scanner reveals a whole lot of Garibaldi's security people their way and they pause to figure out what to do about that.

Sinclair's unarmed in a room full of nervous people wearing stealth suits, so he decides it must be solo action hero o'clock! He grabs Malcolm's pistol, knocks him to the ground, and shoves Ivanova behind cover.

Sinclair shoots who he can, giving Ivanova a chance to run over and beat up the goon trying to flank them. Eventually someone drops a gun near her and she grabs it just in time to stop Malcolm shooting Sinclair in the back. It's not the most beautifully presented or exciting shoot out ever aired on television, but with those PPG effects they were doomed from the start.

Garibaldi finally bursts in with a strike team to find that the two of them have already cleared the room, and Malcolm surrenders his weapon. Once again good is victorious because evil was too stupid to turn on their invisibility suits.


ACT FIVE.


In the epilogue Mayan, Delenn and G'Kar gather to watch the Homeguard prisoners getting shipped out and use the opportunity to talk about how unfathomable humans often are. "Such great hatred for so little real reason," says the poet to the woman who tried to murder a wounded alien she'd never met in Soul Hunter, and the man who once stated that he looks forward to the day when "we have cleansed the universe of the Centauri and carved their bones into little flutes for Narn children."

C'mon guys, if love is universal amongst sentient beings then hatred and violence driven by fear likely is too, and true peace comes through understanding and empathy, not this superior 'what is this human emotion you call xenophobia?' attitude.

I'm also a bit annoyed that Ivanova pulls a Captain Kirk and tells Malcolm that she finds many of the aliens here to be more human than him and his kind. I can just imagine Spock watching this and facepalming. Because if he was going to watch any episode of B5 it'd be one by D.C. Fontana.

Anyway that's another episode finished. 7 down, 15 to go.


CONCLUSION

The War Prayer... more like the Bore Prayer. Wait, I did that joke with Mind War last week.

It's not a subtle or clever episode that's for sure. Hate groups targeting other cultures, stirring shit up and trying to keep the homeland pure of 'alien influences' is a topic that's never going to be dated, sadly, but this episode feels like it's from before even Babylon 5's time in its sledgehammer approach to the subject. The series hasn't quite found its tone yet, with the writing, direction, music and acting all off track to varying degrees. The comedy music in particular is worse than it's ever been here, and it really needs to go find a Tom and Jerry cartoon to play over.

There's three stories here, with both Ivanova's and Londo's plots sharing a theme of love over duty, but it seems practically irrelevant in Ivanova's case as once Malcolm revealed his true colours there was no tough decision to be made or even a hint of remaining affection for him. She was just quietly pissed off and that's her default mode anyway.

Meanwhile Londo's decision to help someone else avoid the same sacrifices he made is kind of touching but rings false after his relationship with Adira in Born to the Purple. I mean I've no doubt he believes that arranged marriages are a necessary evil in his society and he's certainly lived a loveless life for the most part, but this is not a man who needs to learn the value of love unless he's suffering severe amnesia.

And they both eventually tie into the overall A plot, leading to Sinclair playing the bad guy again, which is something he should really think about never doing again. It'd be fine if he was supposed to be terrible at it, but people keep inexplicably falling for the act! At least Ivanova got to join in with his big action scene at the end this time, though most of the joy in that was offset by it being a bit crap.

So that means the most interesting part of the episode for me was that out of place conversation between Sinclair and Ivanova as they discussed the mysterious Ambassador Kosh and the cast changes between the pilot and series. It's always nice when characters remember and question things, even if right now they can only spare a moment for it.

But overall I'd have to give this a rating of:

If you're curious you can read Mark Twain's The War Prayer short story in its entirety by clicking this link: warprayer.org. Then maybe you can tell me what it has to do with this episode, because I have no clue.


Babylon 5 will return with And the Sky Full of Stars. But next week on Sci-Fi Adventures I'll be going through another episode about aliens on Earth and xenophobic violence: Doctor Who's The Zygon Inversion.

You're welcome to leave your thoughts and opinions about The War Prayer or Sci-Fi Adventures in the comments box below.

4 comments:

  1. The human supremacist thing is one of the more interesting aspects of Babylon 5, in comparison to Star Trek anyway; alas, I don't remember it being explored well, not until later at least.

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    1. Yeah, it's definitely something that comes back into play in a much more interesting way down the line (like pretty much everything else in season one). Babylon 5's got an unfair advantage really when it comes to examining problems with Earth, seeing as Star Trek's Earth banned all problems a century or two ago. Though I remember Enterprise having the crew face some proper human supremacists in its last episodes, as they led up to the Federation being created. That was probably a much better story than the War Prayer, seeing as it had RoboCop in it, plus the Mayor from Buffy.

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  2. Watching this in the UK 20 years ago I thought "this is quite a good Nazi allegory, is it a comment on the dark counter-culture to the American civil rights movement".

    Watching it in the UK in 2016...

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    Replies
    1. It'd be cool if SF writers would pick to be either prescient or depressing and not both.

      Though it brings me some relief to know that we're probably safe from being invaded by an armada of genocidal Minbari at least.

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