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Sunday, 13 August 2017

Babylon 5 2-08: A Race Through Dark Places

Episode:30|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:25-Jan-1995

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm back to Babylon 5 season two, writing about A Race Through Dark Places. My DVD's telling me I should be watching Soul Mates now, but I'm following the Lurker's Guide Master List which reorganises the stories into a more chronologically logical order, and it says that A Race Through Dark Places was always meant to come first.

What happened was the network, PTEN, planned to finish off 1994 with six new season two B5 episodes in a block (following straight on from the season one finale Chrysalis, which had been held back two months because... I don't even know why.) But then they decided to increase the block to seven episodes and Race Through Dark Places just wasn't going to be ready in time, so Soul Mates was aired in its place. They were aired in the correct order for me in the UK though... eventually.

Anyway the end result of this schedule shifting is that this is the first episode of Babylon 5 to air in 1995. It also means that there's another weird Babylon 5/Deep Space Nine coincidence for the ever-expanding list: both series aired exactly 29 episodes during their first year, which is a ridiculous number. Especially as one of DS9's episodes was feature length.

If you're wondering what else was going on in 1995, it was the year that Voyager, Sliders and Space: Above and Beyond started. Also they're not science fiction, but it says here on the internet that Hercules and its spin-off Xena both got a series this year and that's weird. Meanwhile in cinemas, sci-fi movie fans got to enjoy Johnny Mnemonic, Species and Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd. Yay.

Warning: I'll be sharing SPOILERS for this episode with my words and screencaps, and earlier episodes are fair game for spoilers too (aside from Soul Mates). I won't spoil anything that comes after though.



The episode drops us straight into the action, with Ivanova going through the station's budget with Sheridan in his office. Apparently there's been a 15% drop in station revenue over the last two months!

They've been running at a deficit for a while because they've had to route some of their commercial traffic elsewhere to make room for all the Earthforce military transports dropping by lately. So there's an interesting little fact to drop into the conversation... but the two of them let it sail away without comment. They've been told it's only temporary and they're not all that curious about what it's about.

The two of them have a more important matter on their mind: they've been ordered to move to cheaper quarters or start paying rent. It's only 30 credits a week (which is about the price of a good meal or a fraction of the cost of a cheap apartment, according to earlier episodes), but Sheridan's the most stubborn bastard in the galaxy since the last Babylon 5 commander and he's not going to give in. Plus he's making sure that Ivanova doesn't give in either... which is probably why she was so reluctant to tell him about it.

Whoa, we're finally getting to see what Mars Colony looks like!

Last episode we got our first look at Earth and now they're giving us our first glimpse of Mars. But there's no physical models this time, it's entirely CGI, and it doesn't look all that bad in my opinion.

It's a shame though we didn't get this shot an episode earlier, seeing as Spider in the Web was all about Martian terrorists, Martian businessmen and Martian independence. It would've been nice to have been provided with some images I could reference in my mind whenever people started talking about the place.

Oh, it turns that Mars Colony looks a lot like Babylon 5 on the inside. Well this part does anyway; Garibaldi time-jumped someplace nicer back in Babylon Squared.

Hey that's Alfred Bester the evil telepathic Psi Cop, still played by Star Trek legend Walter Koenig. He's been mentioned a few times but this is only his second appearance in the series. The guy in the chair is also a telepath, and Bester would very much like him to tell him who's running the underground railroad smuggling unregistered telepaths away from the Psi Corps. I know this because they're both talking out loud instead of using telepathy.

But Bester's charming personality alone isn't enough to get the job done, so he decides to get inside the guy's brain instead. This doesn't work so well either because the man knows hows to use advanced mind-blocking techniques to build a wall around his secrets (he's singing Mary Had a Little Lamb). This was probably inspired by a similar trick used in the 1953 novel The Demolished Man... written by author Alfred Bester. So Bester's really only got himself to blame here.

So Bester turns his scan up to 11 and tears the thoughts right out of the guy's brain. In fact he scans him so hard that the man coughs up blood and dies. Most shows seem to prefer the nose bleed as a sign of mental strain, but Babylon 5 doesn't mess around. I can only assume that his brain has been liquefied and is now leaking out of his mouth (it happened in Doctor Who once and that means it's a totally plausible thing that can happen).

You'd maybe expect Bester to be a little more upset about interrogating a telepath to death, but he's not all that bothered. In fact he's got a grin on his face because now he knows exactly where to go next. It's Babylon 5, obviously.

That's Walter Koenig's wife on the right by the way, playing the role of 'Psi Cop'. I guess her husband having so much fun playing as a fascist that she wanted to put on a black suit and join in next time.


ACT ONE


Man, how can you hire a guy called Apesanahkwat and have him play 'Telepath #1'? I realise that his real name was doomed to be more interesting than any name the writer came up with for him, but they could've at least tried. Also I looked the guy up on the IMDb, and he's apparently a Vietnam vet who served in the US Marine Corps and a champion Northern Traditional Dancer who's competed across the U.S. and Canada, so he's probably more interesting than this episode is too.

Series creator JMS is back behind the keyboard again for this one by the way, after delegating the last three episodes to other writers, so he's got no one but himself to blame for Sheridan saying "abso-fragging-lutely" here. He also gave him the line "Buncha butt-scratching hand-wringing penny-pinching 'let's stick it to the new guy' pinheads. All of them," to say as he's ranting to Dr. Franklin about Earthforce taking his quarters away.

But Franklin's able to escape when Ambassador Delenn intercepts the two of them on the way out of Earhart's with a very Star Trek request for Sheridan: she wants to understand more about what it is to be human.

Sheridan doesn't know where this is going, and it could be going anywhere, but Delenn just wants to invite him out to dinner. Every time she has a conversation with humans it's always about business and negotiations and she'd like to just talk with someone for a change.

"One day they're shooting at you, the next they're taking you out to dinner," he mumbles with a bemused grin on his face after she's walked off. Actually it's been more like 4000 days since the Earth-Minbari war at this point, though I guess it might feel like yesterday if you're one of the people who was getting shot at.

But before Sheridan can go to dinner he has to finish with work, which means dealing with the Psi Corps representative who's just turned up looking for an underground railroad smuggling telepaths away from Earth. Everyone else already knows and hates Bester (Ivanova hates anyone wearing a Psi Corps badge in fact), but Sheridan's never met the man so Ivanova suggests that he should get his season 1 DVDs out and watch Mind War to get a bit of backstory on the guy. Uh, check the logs I mean.

They're all well aware that Psi Corps does some shady shit though, even if they don't know the extent of it. The Psi Corps was established years ago to control and contain telepaths, but it evolved into a monster of humanity's own creation. Now they're going around wearing black gloves and endorsing vice presidents, and Talia's got good reason to think that they had her friend assassinated last episode too.

Wait, telepath Talia Winters is here! It's rare to see her at all, so seeing her turn up two episodes in a row is pretty amazing. She came close last season when she was in the Voice in the Wilderness two-parter, but then she bailed halfway through!

Down in the dingy depths of Downbelow we get a rare glimpse of the tiny train from Chrysalis running overhead again. It's a different shot too, they didn't just reuse the old effect.

It's always nice when they break out the computer generated set extensions like this, as the 90s CGI blends in with the live action sets much better than you'd expect. If they'd used lower resolution paint on the walls the transition would've been seamless.

Speaking of Chrysalis, they've brought back that guy from Chrysalis too! The one who pointed Garibaldi in the right direction when he was investigating the conspiracy to kill President Santiago. And I recognise that guy behind him from the film Guyver: Dark Hero. That's the one with David Hayter in not the one with Mark Hamill.

It seems that these people are all telepaths and they're the ones smuggling people away from the Psi Corps. But now that Bester's closing in on them they don't have any choice: they're going to have to kill him. Fortunately he came here without any backup this time so it shouldn't be all that difficult.

It's funny how the episode uses this threat to Bester's life as a hook to keep viewers watching through the commercials, despite him being a villain everyone hates. Viewers don't want Bester to die, they want him to come back once or twice a year to piss off Garibaldi! Plus it amuses me that the underground railroad is operating right next to the Downbelow railway.


ACT TWO


Garibaldi finds Ivanova in Earhart's and tells her he needs to speak with her about official business. That gets Ivanova yelling to the whole club about it, which gets the bartender ringing the bell and announcing that the next round's on him, as mandated by Earhart's law. Wow, they even gave the bartender lines? Garibaldi's unimpressed though, as he was kinda trying to keep this conversation quiet (plus she just cost him a fortune).

Once they've regained a bit of privacy, he tells her that he knows that she's the one running the telepath railroad on the station. Someone on staff has to be giving them support and she hates the Psi Corps more than anyone. She hates them so much that she basically smuggled an unlicensed telepath off to the Minbari in Legacies right out in the open!

But nope, she's not involved in the railroad and she has no idea who is. Which is good, because Bester totally would've picked it up when he had them all in a meeting earlier. Sure he's not supposed to scan people (and Eyes revealed that Ivanova spent enough time with her telepathic mother to be able to notice if he tried), but she'd would've been repeating 'Don't think about being the leader of the railroad, don't think about being the leader of the railroad,' in her head so loud that even the telepaths down in Downbelow would've been able to hear her. And they'd be thinking 'Idiot.'

Meanwhile Delenn joins Sheridan for dinner at the swanky Fresh Air Restaurant, wearing a human dress intended to "turn heads". It does its job so well that Sheridan has to tell someone to mind his own business.

The two of them spend so long chatting about cats and humour and how much they have in common that they're eventually the last people left in the restaurant. But he's the station's military governor and she's one of the four most important ambassadors, so it's not like anyone's going to dare kick them out.

This reminds me of the scene last episode where Sheridan and Ivanova were sitting at a table together, padding out the run time with a discussion that had nothing to do with the plot. Only this time I'm being drawn into it. I guess it's just nice to see two people being happy together, especially as one of them's just gone through a dramatic change that's only made her miserable so far. It helps that the two actors are so good at smiling and making it seem genuine.

Bester must be feeling left out, because he suddenly gets it into his head to invite Talia to breakfast. He feels he was a bit rude to her back in Mind War, which is kind of downplaying the fact that he violently scanned her brain and then tried to murder her friend. But she agrees to join him anyway.

Then she goes and stares into a mirror for a bit, thinking back to clips from the episode. They're not black and white memories like Garibaldi had in Revelations though. For some reason she gets to have memories in colour.

Which means we get to see the 3D Poser model in space again!

This is her friend/teacher/former lover Jason Ironheart, who was a part of Psi Corps experiments that triggered his metamorphosis into a glowing non-corporeal godlike figure with the power of lens flares. But Ironheart gave Talia a gift before he vanished: the power to telekinetically push coins slowly across a table. You'd think that the series would've found some way to make use of this ability in the meantime to remind us that she's got it, but nope, it hasn't come up again.

Until now that is, where were learn that her ability has evolved into the power to telekinetically fling coins so hard that they end up embedded in the wall.

Talia's been doing a good job keeping this quiet, but Bester should've picked up on it right away and he didn't. Seems that Ironheart's gift to her wasn't just telekinesis, but also the ability to block telepathic scans. That's not just my assumption, she says it out loud to her empty room.

Sheridan eventually makes it back home after his date with Delenn, only to discover that his key isn't getting the door open.

Ivanova comes around the corner to reveal that the same's happened to her. She set off the sprinklers and scrambled the lock codes on both sides of the hall trying to get into her quarters, and achieved nothing but to scare the crap out of security. Earth Central have ordered that their doors stay sealed until they move to smaller quarters or pay rent.

So station security were able to lock out their own boss, how does that even work? Doesn't Sheridan get to have one of those skeleton keycards that can open any door, or is it just Garibaldi who carries one of them? Hey they should ask Garibaldi to let them in!

Anyway Sheridan's still not giving in, so Ivanova asks what he suggests they do.

Cut to him assembling a pistol and... oh hang on these are the unregistered telepaths again. There's no way that cut wasn't supposed to be funny though.

The telepaths are all gathered together in a circle chanting 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' while building guns to murder Bester with. They need to practice their nursery rhyme to block his telepathy you see, as the other guy's rendition was sloppy and that got him killed. No seriously that's what they're doing: practising a nursery rhyme.

I'm sure that writer JMS was going more for creepy than comic here, but it just comes off as goofy to me.

Then we get to see that Sheridan's actual plan involves them him and Ivanova sleeping in his office, with him getting the chair and her getting the couch. She goes along with it, but his jokes are a level of torment that's pushing her loyalty and friendship to breaking point.
"How many Minbari does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None. They always surrender right before they finish the job and they never tell you why."
Ivanova has no idea how to react to her close friend and commander of a diplomatic station making Minbari jokes, so she just closes her eyes and tries to wish this all away. I thought it was a bit weird too, then I realised... he was talking about humour with Delenn at dinner. He may well be repeating jokes he heard from a Minbari. A Minbari he's getting very fond of, judging by his grin when he thinks of her.

The next morning Talia joins Bester for creepy breakfast and he's soon asking her about what the command staff think about the death of President Santiago. He wants her to keep an eye on things, like the senator wanted Sheridan to keep an eye on her friends' business dealings last episode. Earth's all about keeping an eye on people these days.

Just then Bester's distracted by a voice in his head. Someone's about to take a shot at him!

Wow, that telepathy of his is better than spider-sense. He got himself safely behind a PPG-proof table before they could even draw their guns. He's also damn good with a pistol, taking out the guy from Guyver and the other assassin down with a single shot to the chest each.

So Bester survives yet again, but he was too preoccupied with his own problems to notice that Talia got grabbed, drugged and kidnapped. If only she'd had a coin handy.


ACT THREE


Talia wakes up amongst the telepaths to find that she's been captured by desperate killers again. That's two episodes in a row this has happened to her! But they haven't killed her yet, so that's definitely a good sign.

She tries to talk some sense into them, explaining that the Corps exists to protect telepaths, but they know better and so does she. She'd already heard Ironheart's story in Mind War, about how he was experimented on by them to create a telekinetic assassin, and now she gets to hear about the woman who was drugged and impregnated in her sleep to breed a better telepath, and the man who was murdered for his outspoken disapproval with the Corps' methods. Every time the Psi Corps are referenced in a story we're told that they're bad, but they're really turning that up to 11 this episode.

The guy we saw from Chrysalis explains that he actually escaped with Ironheart, so he knows what the Corps did to him and he also knows what he gave to her. I guess he must have sneaked aboard from Ironheart's ship during Mind War and then stuck around without anyone noticing.

Meanwhile Dr. Franklin has returned to the episode to relay a message from the telepaths to... hey, Sheridan's back in uniform! How did he get his uniform back from his sealed quarters? Does he keep a spare under his desk for emergencies? Or was security thoughtful enough to grab it for him before locking him out?

Anyway Franklin wants Sheridan to go to Downbelow alone to meet with the leader of the telepath railroad or else they'll... do absolutely nothing to Talia because she's not actually their hostage. They have gotten a bit murdery and kidnappy lately, but Franklin's sure that they just want to talk to him and he can trust them. Though he can't tell him why yet.

I've suddenly got a vivid mental image of how Commander Benjamin Sisko would react on Deep Space Nine if his doctor said "I can't tell you why yet, you'll just have to trust me," during a not-hostage situation but Sheridan decides to just go along with it. It's not a smart idea for the station commander to go wandering the slums alone to meet with a gang of desperate telepathic kidnappers but there's only 15 minutes of episode left to wrap this up so he has to move things along.


ACT FOUR.


Surprise, the guy running the underground railroad is Dr. Franklin! I was kind of hoping that Sheridan had figured from what he was saying back in his office, but nope he was clueless.

Turns out that the free clinic Franklin was running in The Quality of Mercy was set up so that he could process runaway telepaths and change records without anyone in Medlab knowing about it. That seemed like such a quiet, inconsequential, entirely standalone episode at the time, something you could skip with no worries, but the alien healing device came back in Revelations and now the clinic's come back into play as well.

Franklin's put Sheridan's in a serious dilemma here, as if he does his duty and turns the doctor in, it'll be embarrassing for everyone and will give Earth another reason to shut them down. But if he does nothing, then he becomes an accomplice.

Talia tells him that there's a third option... but she doesn't have time to elaborate on it, as Garibaldi's managed to figure out where the assassins were living and now Bester's on his way to get the rest of them.

I have to admit, Bester's got a ridiculous amount of nerve to come strolling into the telepath's lair without backup right after two of them tried to murder him in public. He couldn't wait for Garibaldi and his team though as he doesn't want him asking any questions and he doesn't really like him much either. Having them as witnesses to what he's about to do would probably be awkward as well.

But Talia steps out and joins hands with the others. Alone they're no match for a highly trained P-12 Psi Cop like Bester, but together they can... do something. It's not obvious what though.

Whatever they're trying though, it's not working. Someone in their group is fighting them.... and it's Talia!

Oh damn, Talia with a pistol kicking ass!

Serves them all right for trying to escape from the miserable life without rights!

And then the two of them pose over the bodies in front of the most 90s-looking giant fan I've seen since the 90s.

Bester's going to slip away before anyone can spot him here or ask him any questions and he suggests that Talia leaves via a different route. He'd have preferred to have taken some prisoners to use to set an example but otherwise today's worked out pretty damn well for him. It's good to be Bester.

Cut to the telepaths still standing there holding hands.

The plan worked! They combined their telepathic power to trick Bester into thinking they were dead with a telepathic projection of what he wanted to happen and now they've got the time to move their operation way clear of Babylon 5 for their own safety. So Sheridan doesn't have have to turn anyone in or become an accomplice to anything. It's a happy ending for everyone... well except for those two telepaths that got shot and killed earlier.

Franklin's curious though about whether Sheridan agrees with what he did, which gives JMS a chance to write the line:
"I'm not saying what I'm saying. I'm not saying what I'm thinking. As a matter of fact I'm not thinking what I'm thinking."
The only thing on his mind right now is that he needs a drink. Plus a place to sleep for the night, Franklin reminds him.


ACT FIVE


A while later Ivanova turns up at Sheridan's office with her pillow to turn in for the night, but Sheridan informs her it won't be necessary. I guess when he was checking the logs about Bester's last visit he also read up on Commander Sinclair's solution to the dockers' guild crisis in By Any Means Necessary, because he uses the same solution here. He's taking 60 credits from the combat readiness budget each week to pay their rent, on the grounds that he's not combat ready if he hasn't had a good night's sleep in his own bed.

The funny thing is that the other quarters were only 7 square foot smaller (less than 1 meter squared), so he would've barely noticed the difference. It's not like anyone mentioned anything about him losing his amazing real water shower... though he probably expected that'd be the next thing to go if he'd caved in here.

Meanwhile Talia's learned from the guy from Chrysalis that their trick on Bester only worked because she's become much more powerful than a regular telepath. And even though it did, Bester's still bothered by something. Maybe he's sensing something from her, maybe he's sensing nothing from her, maybe he just finds it all slightly odd, it's not clear.

Either way he apparently still trusts her enough to remind her to keep an eye on the command crew, Sheridan in particular. He expected he'd to be more supportive of the Psi Corps, which gives some insight into what people think of him back home. Everyone wanted rid of Sinclair, but it seems that they assume that Sheridan's on their side.

Cut to Ivanova's quarters, where she's finally able to lie down on her own bed in her suspiciously sexy shiny purple nightwear and get some sleep.

But then Talia turns up at the door with an entire bottle of wine!

She's here to admit that Ivanova was right about Psi Corps and she wants to reevaluate their relationship. Basically she needs someone to talk to and all her other friends have been electrocuted by a cyberzombie or have evolved into a incorporeal space being, or worse... they're still part of the Psi Corps.

Ivanova's actually happy for Talia to stick around, but only if she doesn't have to look at that bloody Psi Corps badge she wears. So she takes it off, along with the gloves that telepaths are always supposed to wear.

And the episode ends with ominous music playing over the shot of her Psi Corps badge on a table.


CONCLUSION

There was absolutely no racing through dark places for the entire episode! What is it with this season and its lying episode titles continually setting me up for disappointment?

Against all odds A Race Though Dark Places is another Talia Winters episode, the second in a row! It's strange for the series to get so distracted by the Psi Corps all of a sudden, but I think it was necessary to have this come right after Spider in the Web or else we might have forgotten who Talia was. Or where her character arc is at least. She needed to have an episode like that to show her doing her job as a commercial telepath and demonstrate her loyalty to the Psi Corps to give her decisions in this story some context. What she does here is a massive turning point for her, as she's going against everything she believes in, after realising that she hasn't really believed in it for a while now.

This is also an episode penned by JMS himself and I'm not sure it's just a coincidence that it's better than the last few stories. It's not a stand out classic or even really that good, but it's better. It feels more like proper Babylon 5, with everyone acting just a little bit more true to their characters. Plus it's nice to get some continuity, with Franklin's clinic from The Quality of Mercy being mentioned and the lurker from Chrysalis reappearing.

But it turns out that Dr. Franklin's also been running an underground railroad for telepaths, and that's definitely never been hinted at before! Plus he quits immediately after it's revealed, so there's no consequences for him or anyone else there. And that lurker turns out to be a super telepath who escaped with Jason Ironheart... but then he leaves the station, so that's a dead end too. Fortunately the Psi Corps plot is going somewhere. We've known right from the start (Mind War) that they're an absolutely no good, awful organisation with way too much power and creepy uniforms, but now we know that there's people standing up to them... or at least running away from them. The important thing is that Talia knows all this too and she's made her choice.

Next on Babylon 5: a third Talia/Psi Corps episode. No seriously.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with Soul Mates. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, the concluding part of Deep Space Nine's Circle trilogy: The Siege!

All comments are greatly appreciated, except for the rubbish ones.

6 comments:

  1. It's not a smart idea for the station commander to go wandering the slums alone

    No, but it is a station tradition.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Between the giant fans and the steam pipes everywhere, Babylon 5 seems like it must have a pretty toasty environment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Only in the moody, smoky places where the senior officers go to find fistfights and life-threatening wounds.

      Delete
  3. The 'real water shower' thing always seemed a bit... I know the station was built on the cheap, but its still a five mile long hulk built far out from Earth with hydroponic gardens, restaurants, a rail system... Could they really not install a waste water treatment system sufficient for 250,000 people?

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    Replies
    1. I dunno, it seems to fit with the picture they've painted of how EarthGov operates to me.

      They could've installed a lot of things, but they probably didn't want to. They don't even want to let Sheridan have 7 square feet of extra floor space or give room in the hydroponic gardens for Ivanova's coffee plants. Plus it hasn't been long since the station nearly had a riot because the cheap docking equipment they installed was falling apart and killing people, and they chose to replace the workers rather than the hardware.

      Delete
  4. Babylon 5 showers: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu2CUFKEMmg

    ReplyDelete