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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Babylon 5 1-08: And the Sky Full of Stars

Episode:8|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:16-Mar-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm ruining another episode of Babylon 5!

And the Sky Full of Stars is good long pretentious TV title and I like that. It's also a call back to the pilot movie The Gathering, where Commander Sinclair described his memories of fighting in humanity's last stand at the end of the Earth-Minbari War:
"The sky was full of stars and every star an exploding ship, one of ours."
So this episode had better have some actual continuity and perhaps even a revelation or two or else I'll... be extra snarky about the next one.

I wouldn't recommend reading any further if you haven't seen the episode yet and care about SPOILERS as I'll be going through every scene of it. In fact I'll likely end up spoiling earlier stories too, though I'll not say a word about later episodes.



The episode begins with a gentleman wearing a grey blanket arriving on the station and presenting his identicard. Suddenly nothing happens and he's allowed through, though he shares a sinister surreptitious nod with another man waiting inside wearing a quilt. The music quietly indicates that neither are to be trusted.

Meanwhile this security officer is having a surprisingly public confrontation with a pair of people who believe he owes him money. I guess they chose this spot because it's one of the few walls on the station that doesn't wobble when you throw a guy into it then punch him in the gut.

Officer Benson he's got 24 hours to get them their cash or else they're going to get really mean. And by that I mean they're literally going to cut his head off.

Sinister agent #1's unpacking in his quarters when sinister agent #2 arrives at the door, and he asks him if he was followed! Dude, he's obviously a pro, I think if he was followed he'd probably tell you. Or better yet, not lead his tail right to your front door.

Wait hang on, I just need to check the credits. Okay sorry I got the numbers the wrong way around. The one who just came on board is called Knight #2 and the one played by Khan's #1 from Star Trek 2 is Knight #1. I hope that's straightened that out.

They have a target on board, but it's hard to tell who it is because someone's been running Photoshop filters on their giant fuzzy hologram image. Oh it's station commander Jeffrey Sinclair! And they'll be taking him out soon.


ACT ONE.


Just to make his remaining 24 hours a little more stressful, Sinclair's called Benson up to his office so that he can scare him as well. Turns out that Benson's been gambling more than he can afford in the station casino and that's against the rules as Security personnel who owe money to the wrong people are a liability to the station. But Benson isn't willing to come clean about his upcoming execution so he's removed from active duty pending outcome of an investigation.

This gives Sinclair a chance to chat to Garibaldi about lying. His opinion is that everyone does it: the innocent because they don't want to be blamed for something they didn't do, and the guilty because they don't have any other choice. Another glimpse into Sinclair's optimistic view of the world.

Meanwhile our sinister friends from the teaser, Knight Two and Knight One, are constructing a device in their quarters. They don't have a power source for it, they couldn't get that onto the station, but Knight One somehow knows a security officer in desperate need of cash, as the next shot shows Benson using his clearance to get them one.

I guess Knight One went through a list of all the people on the station with access to the power source, then checked around to see which have been thrown into walls by loan sharks lately.

In a storyline that apparently doesn't involve Benson (yet), Dr. Franklin is examining Ambassador Delenn in Medlab because... she's perfectly healthy, and he could use a baseline to help him treat the other Minbari like her. Wait, he didn't know what readings to expect from a healthy Minbari and he's been her doctor for 7 episodes?

We get some backstory for Franklin here, as he tells Delenn that he used to hitch-hike on starships, trading his skills as a doctor to go see things he'd never seen before. When the Earth-Minbari War started he got dragged into that instead, though his commitment to the Hippocratic oath forced him to destroy his notes to prevent his people from developing a biological weapon that could annihilate hers. For which she is grateful. I guess those notes didn't include a scan of a healthy Minbari though.

Franklin asks Delenn what she did during he war, but she dodges the question with cat-like agility and leaves. No additional shocking revelations about Secret Satai Delenn of the Grey Council this week I guess.

That conversation gave Benson enough time to get the Knights the the biggest energy pod he could find, and they get him his money. Looks like Benson's solved all his problems already and it's only 8 minutes into the episode!

They plug the battery into a sci-fi looking chair covered into cables and now they're ready to proceed. Meanwhile Sinclair's blissfully unaware of forces scheming against him, as he's currently in bed, dreaming of spaceships.

Well maybe not all that blissful, as he's back in the final hours of the Earth-Minbari War, 10 years ago. The Battle of the Line was the last desperate stand by the human forces fighting to protect Earth from the incoming Minbari fleet, and things aren't going well for them.

Weirdly the CGI has a blurry dreamlike step printing effect on it and the live action doesn't, which leaves the visual effects looking even worse than usual. It's a shame really as this is one of the important events in the series' backstory.

Sinclair has a Minbari fighter on his tail, so his friend Mitchell leaves this boring group of Starfuries to go off and help him. Sinclair yells that it might be a trap, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but then he sees something and... wakes up.

The waking world turns out to just as stressful as his nightmare though, as he finds that his computer's broken and he can't reach maintenance on his link. He can't reach anyone in fact, so he heads out to chat to someone about it.

The station's looking moodier than usual but I can't put my finger on why. Maybe it's just because the front is in shadow and there's a blue light coming from below. Oh also the ships that are always buzzing around it have all gone!

On the plus side the station is still spinning, so it hasn't lost gravity.

Well Sinclair's successfully made it to C&C at the front of the station, but it's abandoned and nothing's working here either. Seems that others decided to prank him last night by evacuating the entire station just to see his reaction.

This seems like a good time for me to mention that I don't like the red on that window frame, it's been bothering me these last 8 episodes. Also it's you can see here that there must be real glass or plastic in the window, which is something the Star Trek series often avoided due to the reflections.

Eventually the computer comes on line and reveals that there is one other lifeform on board, over in the Blue Sector central corridor.

I really wish they'd had the budget and floor space to actually build a real curving central corridor. Though then they would've had to rig the extras with wires so they could walk up it. When the station wasn't entirely abandoned I mean.

Sinclair races to the corridor, only to find that the other lifeform is hiding somewhere next to the light switches and a microphone.

"Maybe you're asleep! Maybe you're insane! Maybe you're dead! Maybe you're in hell!" the mysterious stranger taunts him as he shuts off the corridor's lighting one section at a time. Babylon 5 can be a bit theatrical at times, but this guy's determined to turn it into a two man play.

"Not that it matters much Commander Sinclair, because wherever you are, wherever you go, you're mine!"

Hey it's Knight Two, played by Christopher Neame, who liked to show up in every SF franchise imaginable from Doctor Who to Star Wars. He also liked to give it 110% apparently, as he'd be eating the scenery right now if there was any.


ACT TWO.


Whoa forget about Sinclair's theatrical nightmare, Garibaldi's got a newspaper and the text is readable! Well, some of it.
  • The Homeguard leader has been convicted, so that's good. That's following up on a plot from The War Prayer, though a Homeguard leader was also reported convicted in Born to the Purple.
  • The Narns have settled the Raghesh 3 controversy from Midnight on the Firing Line.
  • The Psi-Corps from Mind War are getting into trouble for getting involved in politics and endorsing Vice President Clark. I KNEW there was supposed to be a dash in the word 'Psi-Corps'!
  • San Diego was nuked in a terrorist attack 100 years ago and is still too radioactive for occupancy. Well that's what happens when a city pisses off a sci-fi producer.
  • And Bookzap are involved in a copyright trial over books downloaded into the brain.
Delenn appears to ask where the Commander is, as he's late for a meeting, but Garibaldi doesn't know. No one has seen him since last night.

Knight Two's still tormenting Sinclair in the alternate B5, this time by allowing Garibaldi to find him and then killing him off, to demonstrate to the Commander that what he's seeing is just a virtual reality simulation. He's strapped into that chair somewhere, probably in Knight Two's quarters, and nothing here is real except for the two of them, locked together in his mind.

Oh also pain, that's real too. He demonstrates that by electrocuting him a bit.

The trouble with this being cyberspace is that they've broken the rules by showing that shot of the station from the outside. You should never show the outside establishing shot when someone's (pretty much) inside their own mind, as it's basically lying to the viewers. Unless... that was an exterior shot of the simulated station, in which case I think they need to get a better VR simulator as it looked like a CGI shot from an early 90s science fiction show.

Meanwhile Garibaldi opens up Sinclair's room and finds the Commander's communications link device next to his bed, but no Commander. He either fell asleep in the toilet, or he's been kidnapped!

In the simulation, Knight Two (finally) explains why he's torturing Sinclair: it's because of his missing time at the Battle of the Line, the 24 hours he was out of contact with Earthforce defence. Though he doesn't explain why he waited 10 years to interrogate him.

Sinclair explains that his fighter was damaged and he blacked out, but Knight Two doesn't believe him. He pulls someone else in from his memories to confront him: his friend Mitchell from the Line, still dressed in his Starfury flight suit.

Then we get a replay of the same footage from earlier, only this time we're shown what Sinclair was reacting to at the end: it's a giant Minbari cruiser, an entire fleet of them in fact, and they're cutting through Starfuries effortlessly. Mitchell thinks he can take them and, well, he can't. A green particle beam slices up his Starfury and a second destroys the ejected cockpit.

I have to say, I'm disappointed. The sky may be full of stars here, but only a small percentage of them are actually exploding Earthforce ships. The episode title is quoting an exaggeration!

Back on the simulated B5, Mitchell wants to know why Sinclair betrayed them. "Mitchell's dead, this isn't real," replies Sinclair, showing a keen understanding of what Knight Two's been telling him for the last ten minutes.

Sinclair's own memories reveal the truth of what happened after Mitchell's death: he set his Starfury on a collision course for a Minbari cruiser and tried to ram it. Truly a traitor to humanity.

I really like the lighting in these scenes by the way. I feel like I should find it cheesy, the way the two actors are basically yelling at each other in a black void, but I do have to admit that the sets look far less cheap and rushed when you can't see them.

Knight Two keeps on pushing Sinclair about his missing 24 hours, until the guy finally snaps and punches him, knocking him straight out of the simulation. "Well well, it looks like the pain is real for both of us," he mutters to himself.


ACT THREE.


Garibaldi's been trying to speed up the search for Sinclair, but his sidekick (the same guy from Mind War, this time credited as just 'Aide') reveals that he's already pulled everyone in, even Benson. Garibaldi's a bit concerned about this, seeing as Benson's off duty for his gambling, but his sidekick shows that he's checked out clean, all his debts are gone. Though it just happens that the money to pay those debts appeared in his account a four hours ago.

Back in the simulation, the Knights have increased Sinclair's dosage of drugs to accelerate the process and get the information before they're caught. It could cause hallucinations or death, but that's an acceptable outcome for them.

Right now he's hallucinating up a room full of wizards and one's even got a magic staff! A cloaked figure zaps him with a blast from his staff and no one learns anything. Well besides that wizards are dicks, but we knew that already.

In the real world Benson's panicking about security coming after him, so he goes to Knight Two's quarters for help. He still doesn't know what they're up to in there, but I'm fairly certain he wasn't expecting it to be this:

The ultimate evolution of the Oculus Rift.

Knight One picks up a gun and shoots the security officer dead, ending Benson's participation in the series' five year arc. He could've had an amazing story, with twists, turns, shocking betrayal, surprise redemption, and eventually a place in the opening credits. But now he's dead. R.I.P. Benson. At least he died with his head on.

The security teams eventually find his body floating outside the station, pulled back towards the hull by its gravity, but he's not as talkative as they hoped so they still don't know what's happened to Sinclair. I guess Delenn's going to have to wait a bit longer for her meeting.

In the simulation (and outside of it too) Sinclair has begun opening and closing his hand, trying to regain control of his real body. Or maybe he's just stressed out.

Sinclair's still arguing that he blacked out for 24 hours and when he woke up he found that the Minbari had surrendered for no reason and the war was over, but Knight Two has a theory. He believes that the Minbari surrendered 10 years ago because they realised it would cost them too much to take the Earth by force. Instead they'd bring it down from within, using people like Sinclair.

"Look at Earth, Commander. Alien civilization, alien migration, aliens buying up real estate by the square mile, alien funding of Babylon 5. What they couldn't take by force they're corrupting inch by inch!" Seems a bit of a Homeguard type this one.

Speaking of Homeguard, Sinclair showed a hint of his resentment towards the Minbari when the group tried to recruit him last episode, but here he admits what he really felt. For years after the war, any time he saw a Minbari he had to fight back the urge to strangle them with his bare hands.
Speaking of beating Minbari up with his hands, Sinclair suddenly thinks back to a scene from The Gathering, where a Minbari assassin in pilot movie make-up told him that there was a hole in his mind. The "hole in your mind" thing is getting answered!

Knight Two sees the flashback too and pushes Sinclair to remember. "Don't you want to know, just for yourself?"

Then we get to see the same Battle of the Line footage again, with Sinclair watching Mitchell and the others getting killed around him. His own Starfury is hit and useless, so he sets a collision course for the cruiser, to some of the best music in the series so far.

Only this time he realises that the cruiser grabbed his fighter with its tractor beams and pulled him inside.

Then it looks like the Minbari beat him up, tied him to a big triangle and then scanned him with a smaller triangle.

Sinclair's back to yelling at folks in cloaks again, only this time he remembers getting close enough to remove one of their hoods and see a face.

"I know you, I know who you are," he says. Then he gets zapped with the staff again.

This gives Sinclair that extra bit of adrenaline and fear he needs to break from his restraints, get himself unplugged from the machine and smash Knight Two's VR hardware while he's still connected. Then he sends Knight One down with a single punch, grabs his gun and escapes.

"Minbari broken through. Have to report, get back to my ship," he mumbles to himself. Turns out that using hallucinatory drugs and VR to force a traumatised pilot to dig up a decade old repressed memory of the time all his friends died has led to certain side effects.


ACT FOUR.


Now Sinclair is armed and on the run, believing that he's still on the Minbari cruiser and seeing everyone as a Minbari in a cloak. A security officer tries to help him, but he opens fire and nearly kills her!

The poor officer's day gets even worse when Knight One comes by and finishes the job... for no good reason I can think of. She'd already reported in about finding Sinclair, so I guess K1 just didn't want her following her boss around and getting in the way when he finds and murders him.

Knight One catches up to Sinclair in the Zocalo, but manages to miss his target so badly that he hits the floor instead! Garibaldi and his aide soon turn up, but Sinclair starts firing at them. His solo action hero climax has gone horribly wrong!

Dr. Franklin calls to explain that Sinclair's been given psychotropic drugs and may be delusional, confused and possibly even dangerous. 'No shit,' Garibaldi would've likely replied if this had aired a few hours later in the day.

And then Delenn arrives, walking right up to the crazy person with a pistol who's in drug-induced Minbari shooting frame of mind. She must be really determined to get this meeting of theirs started.

Sinclair has actually already met her once today though...

...10 years ago, on a Minbari cruiser. She's one of the people who captured his Starfury and wiped his memory.

Sinclair now knows what Delenn didn't tell Franklin earlier: what she was up to during the war. Turns out that 'Ambassador' Delenn spent the war as one of the leaders of the enemy side, and is actually still part of their government now.

The Commander raises his pistol towards Delenn and opens fire... killing Knight One behind her, and then he finally collapses.

Sinclair blacks out for 24 hours, for real this time, and wakes up to discover that Knight Two is being sent back home for trial, on the orders of Earth Central.

Knight One's dead and Knight Two has lost his memory due to feedback from the shattered virtual reality cybernet, so Sinclair's secret is safe. Two mentioned earlier that if they fail someone else will be sent to try again, but with his memory fried he can't remember who he works for, so they have no idea who'll be doing the sending.

That's a great looking sci-fi wall behind them right now by the way. Almost good enough to distract me from Knight Two honestly pulling the 'maybe we're both still in the simulation' cliché. You've got a good story here Two, quit trying to ruin it.

That's a nice matte painting of the docking bay as well.

I always appreciate it when we get to see more of the station than just the curved central corridor, someone's quarters, the hallways with the coloured lines on the wall, Medlab, C&C, the garden, the customs area, the casino, Downbelow and that circular room that seems to stand in for everything else.


ACT FIVE.


In the epilogue Delenn asks Sinclair in her quarters if he remembers anything about his ordeal, and he lies to her face, saying he doesn't remember a thing. Whatever they were after is a mystery to him! This turns out to be a wise move on his part as another member of the Grey Council comes out of her bedroom once he's gone, saying that if he ever remembers they'll have to kill him.

Later, Sinclair records his thoughts in his log, saying that he recalls being captured, tortured and taken to what he assumes must be the Minbari Grey Council, but there's still something else they don't want him to remember and he has to find out.


CONCLUSION

And the Sky Full of Stars isn't Babylon 5 at its best, but it is Babylon 5 getting better. The series' main strength is its ongoing story and this takes clues from The Gathering and Soul Hunter, and connects them up in a way that makes the lead character consciously aware that there is a bigger story going on here. It makes this the closest to a must-watch episode since... Midnight on the Firing Line maybe.

It also helps when an episode is written and directed well, and this is a definite step up from the last episode in both departments. JMS is back behind the word processor this time and there's no preaching, no heavy handed moral, and the villains may actually have a point! The Minbari are up to something here; they're lying to Earth, manipulating Sinclair, and for all he knows he really did sell out his people. He could be their brainwashed agent and not even know it.

This is the first episode of the series directed by Janet Greek and it seems like she knew what she was doing as it's one of the most visually interesting episodes so far. Sure a lot of it basically someone getting shouted at in a black void but I'll take stagey over outright cheesy. Like Mind War it's all about exploring backstory and discovering the sinister schemes of a major faction, but Mind War is made up of long scenes of exposition delivered by a guest star, while this is all flashbacks and arguments and drama. It's about the show rather than the tell. There's also a ton of VFX shots in this one compared to earlier episodes (or even the 2 hour pilot) which means more Starfuries per minute than ever. It's just a shame that it repeats the same shots over and over, and the choice to mix dreamlike CGI with regular live action leaves the effects looking bad even by B5 standards.

There's a prequel movie called In the Beginning that shows off the Earth-Minbari War and the Battle of the Line with more advanced CGI, and kind of acts as a replacement pilot episode for the series. But it also spoils the hell out of Sinclair's capture and Delenn's role in the war, amongst other things, so if I ever get around to writing about that it'll be after season four. If I even write about season four. It's not a sure thing that I'll even stick with the series for season two, though a few more episodes like this could make it hard for me to walk away.


Babylon 5 will return with Deathwalker. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm getting back to Deep Space Nine with The Passenger.

I don't have to tell you that any feedback from you is welcome and appreciated, but this sentence strongly implies it anyway.

4 comments:

  1. Just discovered your site, and am enjoying re-visting the series through your posts. I hope you do stick with B5 past season 1. The first season is kind of a grind as it sets up the stage for the planned 5-year-arc of the show. Season 2 definitely starts to pick things up a bit.

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    1. That's cool, enjoyment is good.

      I can't make promises about what I'm going to be doing six months from now, but I've decided that I'm going to have to be less comprehensive with these series if I want to get more variety in my content. I can either write about 22 episodes of one season or 22 different movies or TV series, and I'd rather not be focused on just three shows any more.

      That said, if Babylon 5 were to suddenly get very arc-driven all of a sudden, then it just wouldn't be right to leave episodes out...

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  2. I too am enjoying your critiques. I've tried to start B5 a few times but couldn't get past the terrible acting/directing of the first episode. It really threw me as it seemed everyone loved the show and sing it's praises everywhere. Fortunately your complaints are rather similar to my own and I've pushed on, using your reviews as a bit of a guide of whether a Season 1 episode is worth slugging through or not. So I definitely appreciate you slugging through them for me :)

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    Replies
    1. That's awesome! I knew that if I kept complaining about things on the internet some good would eventually come of it.

      Though I'm worried now that I'm spoiling all the reveals for you. I'll tell you right now that you'll probably not regret watching Signs and Portents, Babylon Squared, Voice in the Wilderness and Chrysalis without reading up about them first.

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