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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Babylon 5 2-10: GROPOS

Episode:32|Writer:Lawrence DiTillio|Air Date:08-Feb-1995

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm finally returning to Babylon 5 with season two episode GROPOS.

You'd think that the biggest problem GROPOS has to live with would be its name, but it also suffers the misfortune of coming directly after The Coming of Shadows, the Hugo Award-winning mid-season game changer, so it was pretty much doomed to be a let down no matter how good it is.

Still, the episode that came after last year's mid-season game changer was TKO, and there's no way it can be that bad... though they do share the same writer. This was script editor Larry DiTillio's sixth episode for the series, and also his penultimate one, as he left at the end of the season. I guess there was no point in keeping a script editor around anymore when the executive producer took over writing all the episodes in season three.

Underneath this point the article's all SPOILERS and screencaps, so continue at your own risk. I'll not ruin anything that happens in the episodes that came after this though.



The teaser begins with exciting events transpiring in C&C. Not only has Lt. Corwin got a part to play in a scene for once instead of just popping up to relay information to a real character, but he's basically sticking his head in a lion's mouth by leaning next to Ivanova's chair. He's still only credited as 'Tech #1' at this point so it's weird seeing him do actual acting.

Ivanova's in a good mood for once though, as it's night time on the station, which means no traffic, no complaints, and she gets to put her feet up on the console... at least until Corwin jinxes it by pointing out that there's no night in space (also time's a meaningless concept).

Her 15 seconds of peace and quiet are ended when Tech #2 pops up to relay that an Earth Alliance fleet has jumped in looking for somewhere to stay for a while. Sure the troops could stay on their cramped transports, but Babylon 5 has soft beds, casinos and gravity. It's also got ropey looking computer generated virtual backgrounds, though to be fair this is far more convincing than the Sanctuary set in the last episode.

Turns out that this is the 356th Infantry Division, led by General Richard Franklin, aka Captain Terrell from Star Trek II (he's also the guy who kept going on about "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" in that episode of Next Gen). He's a stern authority figure with his own little stick and he immediately makes things awkward for Captain Sheridan by tasking him with finding room for 25,000 of his troops. He'll be making things even more awkward for Dr. Franklin though, as he's his dad.

This scene reinforces a big difference between Sheridan and Sinclair that we've seen several times now: Sheridan gets on just fine with every high ranking Earthforce officer who drops by (and is friends with most of them), while Sinclair would usually knock them out or threaten to blow them up. Franklin seems relatively sane, but I bet Sinclair would've still found a loophole in the law to force his men to sleep on their transports.

Anyway, that's the cliffhanger they're going with to keep viewers from switching channels during the opening credits: Sheridan needs to find 25,000 beds, can he find a way to do it? Knowing Sheridan I'm pretty sure the answer is 'yes' and his solution will be 'tell Ivanova to figure it out'.


ACT ONE


Damn, that's a huge docking bay. They could likely fit a few thousand people in here if they needed to. They'd just need to get some camping gear brought over for them.

The transports are a bit on the tiny side though, considering how many CGI soldiers are marching off them. Seems like the Earth Alliance has been experimenting with clown car technology.

There's so many people coming aboard that they're using a special four-lane customs area we've never seen before. Well, it's actually the same lane filmed from four different angles and then composited together along with that room on the top left, but I can't say the effect doesn't work. Trouble is that all these effects shots cost so much that JMS had to write two cheap episodes to make up for it.

These are the 'gropos' from the title by the way. It's short for 'ground pounder', which is a nickname for these unfortunate Earthforce marines currently trapped in endless queues. Further along each of them spends about 10 seconds with their arm in a scanner that reads out their name, which turns out to be a cunning way for the episode to introduce us to Pvt. Elizabeth Durman, who'll be important later. Let me see: 25,000 gropos, divided by 5 transports, with a scanner at the end of each line...  that's 14 hours they're going to be queuing up, right?

While the troops are moving to their billets, General Franklin has made himself at home in Sheridan's office, which he's redecorated to serve as his war room. Oh wait, I think it's meant to be an entirely different circular room with a suspiciously identical desk.

Huh, did they lose the pattern for the uniforms when it came to making these brown ones? The leather strip on their jackets is so far off centre that there's fabric under the collar flap.

We learn here that Dr. Franklin's dad commanded Garibaldi's dad during the Dilgar invasion (the big war that came before the Earth-Minbari War), which seems like an amazing coincidence. I get the impression he's glad he's not commanding Garibaldi though.

The general sits the command staff down and reveals the secret reason why the gropos are really here: there's a civil war raging on a planet called Akdor in the Sh'lassen Triumvirate, and Earth's going to fly in and end it.

Oh damn, they should’ve lit the back walls up blue more often. I remember reading that the sets were deliberately coloured grey so they could put anything in front of them and it wouldn't clash, but it looks great with a bit of classic Star Trek-style coloured lighting.

Sheridan's a bit confused as he was ordered to tell the Akdorians or Sh'lassens or whatever that Earth wouldn't be providing help, but it turns out that was just a cunning ruse to cover up their sneak attack on the rebels' stronghold. General Franklin needs Sheridan in the loop now though because he's visited the place before and knows the layout. Surprise, he's not just in charge of finding beds, he'll also be involved in planning this massive assault.

Elsewhere, Lt. Keffer comes home to find... wait, Lt. Keffer's in this episode? The guy had been missing for 5 episodes straight, which is pretty impressive for a character with his face in the opening credits. Na'Toth has him beat though, with her 8 episode absence.

Seems that no one told Keffer he'd be sharing his cushy quarters with gropos for the next few days and he wants them to put his model plane down and go. Private Large (on the right) would prefer to stick around though and gets up to blow smoke in the poor actor's face, before deciding that he's alright and dragging him to the couch to hear his war stories. Man, I know that actor's face from somewhere and I just can't figure it out.

While they're bonding, General Franklin decides to pay his son a visit.

Damn Franklin, you got enough shelves of glassware there?

The doctor and the general actually get on surprisingly well here, right up to the point that don't. Doc Franklin successfully gets his dad to try some alien fruit juice, despite his preference for orange juice. But then he starts talking about how awesome it is being a xenobiologist on Babylon 5, getting to see all the different kinds of aliens, and his dad's response is basically 'I could get you a job developing ways new ways to kill aliens!'

Seems like they fall right back into an old argument here, with Dad Franklin believing that Dr. Franklin has a duty to help his own kind, as aliens are a threat to humanity, and Dr. Franklin believing Dad Franklin should try to respect alien life instead of trying to murder it. Well that escalated quickly.

I'm definitely starting to see why these two don't get on now: his dad's as stubborn and self-righteous as he is.


ACT TWO


Dr. Franklin's bad mood isn't helped when Ivanova drops by Medlab with a bunch of soldiers who are going to be moving in for a while. Either the place is much bigger than it looks or they're going to have to take turns on who gets the two beds.

Wait, did the sergeant just call his men "starbutts?" There's always treasure like this to find in the dialogue from a Larry DiTillio script.

Ivanova can relate to Franklin's problems with his dad; she had her own issues with her own father back in season 1. But her dad died before they could fix their relationship and she doesn't want him to make the same mistake, and her concern tips him off to the fact that his dad's actually going into combat soon on a secret mission and might not come back.

Meanwhile Garibaldi's having to lie to Ambassador Delenn, who basically just wants the soldiers off Babylon 5. She's not a bit fan of warrior castes and this is supposed to be the Last Best Hope for Peace, not an Earthforce military outpost.

Not that they've been doing so well at maintaining peace, seeing as two of the major powers are at war right now and their ambassadors aren't talking to each other.

The minute Garibaldi turns his back these three turn up and decide to take offence at a Minbari trying to look human.

I take offence at them trying to come off as human, as there's nothing believable about their dialogue, performance or the way this plays out. If she was being menaced in a dingy side corridor somewhere then it might have been a scary moment regardless, but she's right in the middle of a huge public area surrounded by security, with Garibaldi within shouting distance!

Plus it seems strange that she's so threatened by them as I thought Minbari were much stronger than humans. But then I guess her confidence has been taken down a few notches lately with her extreme physical transformation and her people losing trust in her.


ACT THREE


After the commercial break we see another marine jump in to Delenn's rescue; it's Private Durman from that scene with the scanner at the start! She then goes and makes the three of them look even more like clowns when she beats them all up single-handedly with a series of kicks and palm strikes.

Unfortunately the sergeant major interrupts before she can knock them into unconsciousness and he demands to know who started the fight. Durman's got no trouble performing unarmed plastic surgery on their faces but she won't rat them out, so they all get sent to the brig... until Garibaldi intervenes and gets them let off.

At first I didn't think twice about this, as I've seen a fight break out and end like this in a dozen other shows and movies. But these people just tried to assault a woman and that'd be bad enough, but the woman they threatened could've brought Earth-Minbari War II down on their heads! I realise that with 25,000 troops on board under the command of a xenophobic general Garibaldi has to tread lightly, but those three need to be kept separate from civilians and ambassadors. In the brig.

Well, at least he made a friend out of Durman, who tells him to call her Dodger.

Meanwhile, Sheridan and General Franklin are playing a tabletop game in the blue war room. Sheridan does his best to talk him out of attacking the fortress as it's going to lead to bigger losses than Earthforce imagined, but it has to be done, apparently. Resolving the civil war will earn them a base in the sector close to the Narns and Centauri, which will be handy for when Earth eventually has to pick a side.

Dr. Franklin decides that this time would be the perfect time to come in and make peace with his dad... but it turns out that it's kinda not, and this sends him storming off again.

General Franklin's still pissed off that his son believes he's a murderer just because he kills people for a living, and figures he may as well dump this all on Sheridan seeing as he's the closest thing he's got to a peer onboard. Sheridan reveals he's got the opposite situation going on, as his dad's a diplomat and he's a soldier, but they've got a great relationship. He explains that it's not because they agree on everything, it's because they came to terms with the fact that they can't be anything different than what they are.

With advice that good it seems that the Franklin plotline is on track for a happy resolution and it's only halfway through the episode.

Garibaldi's having a crappy day trying to keep the gropos from groping the locals but Dodger's taken an interest in him after he saved her from the brig and she wants to drag him away. He can't, he's on duty, but his friend Lou offers to handles things for him so that he'll be free to give her a tour of the station. Or at least a restaurant and then his quarters.

This is Officer Lou Welch's final episode, but he goes out a hero.

There's a nice shot for you, with Garibaldi and Dodger silhouetted against his doorway.

The two of them seem to be a great match for each other... right until his neurotic side kicks in and he begins trying to think this through.

Garibaldi reveals that he's made a lot of mistakes in the past, like screwing up his relationship with Lise and getting shot in the back by his friend, so he doesn't want to screw everything up again by moving too fast. Plus he lets slip he hasn't given up on getting together with telepath Talia Winters, even though he admits he feels she's out of his league...

It's really painful to watch him utterly sabotage his chances of sleeping with this woman like this. She knows that there's a good chance she'll be sent off to the front lines in a day or two, maybe to die; she's not really looking for a relationship here. But it seems that Garibaldi didn't even consider that this could be a one night stand. So Dodger storms out in fury, and he's left standing there with his shirt hanging open, feeling like an idiot. I mean I assume that's what happened, I could barely bring myself to look at the screen.

Things went much better for him in the original script, but the actor Jerry Doyle requested the change as he'd just filmed a bunch of episodes which made it clear his character was in love with Talia. Plus he was in a relationship with Talia's actress in real life and Dodger was apparently played by his ex-girlfriend, so that seems like it'd be awkward. I think this had to happen though, or else there'd be no twist in this subplot whatsoever.


ACT FOUR


Over in C&C, Sheridan and Ivanova are checking on their new gifts that General Franklin has brought over on the Schwarzkopf. His people have been screwing around with the station's defence grid over the last few days, installing advanced tracking systems and the latest weapons from Earthforce R&D. Now the station has enough firepower to take on a warship! Hopefully the screws don't fall out the first time they try firing them, as that seems like a pretty massive upgrade to pull off in just a couple of days.

I hope it isn't too much of a spoiler to say that this is something else you can add to the Babylon 5/Deep Space Nine coincidences list, though Babylon 5 got there first this time.

Getting bigger guns isn't necessarily great news for B5 though, as it's supposed to be a symbol of peace! A symbol that can protect incoming ships from raiders sure, but not a heavily armed Earth Alliance military outpost. I guess Earth has different priorities these days and the Narn-Centauri War is a good excuse to move their plans forward.

General Franklin decides to pay his son a second visit, interrupting him while he's trying to unscrew a bauble or something. I've no idea what he's doing there.

Dad Franklin's still pissed about that murderer line and Dr. Franklin's still being driven crazy by the way he doesn't listen to him, but they both manage to avoid storming out of the room long enough to tell each other how much they respect and care about each other. Then they end the scene with a hug.

Babylon 5 has been accused of some bad acting from time to time and I've heard rumours that General Franklin actor Paul Winfield had trouble memorising his lines, but these two nail this scene.

Hey, they've still got their casino set! I don't remember seeing this place for ages. It looks like they've got a new wheel though, possibly due to Ivanova kicking someone into the last one when she started that bar fight in Eyes (another Larry DiTillio story).

It's weird how I remembered this episode being all about Keffer and his new roommates considering that they've only shown up twice so far. They seem to have skipped straight to the resolution of their story arc without all that messing around in the middle. Scene 1: they meet and don't get on, scene 2: they get on now, the end. Plus it's driving me mad that I still can't figure out who the tall one is.

Oh shit, it's Peter from the original Dawn of the Dead movie! The guy looks different without his hair.

Keffer starts telling his new friends the thrilling tale of how he sat in a Starfury and heroically did nothing back in Points of Departure, and gets so into it he accidentally bumps into that asshole who threatened Delenn earlier! 25,000 gropos on board and somehow this one keeps turning up.

The man's dying to assault someone in public again (he's presumably taking offence at Keffer trying to pass himself off as human), and seems to be under the impression he can win this time. I guess he didn't notice that Keffer's new friend is like 7 foot tall and the woman that beat his ass last time is sitting behind him.

But they don't even need to step in, as Keffer blocks him easily and sends him to the floor him in one punch! Shame no one bothers to warn him about the asshole's friend swinging a bottle at his head.

Of course, when two people get punched in a bar that means it's a bar fight and now everyone's gets to join in. In fact someone actually shouts "Battle call!" and then jumps for a chandelier.

Swing chandelier guy, swing!

As far as I can tell the fight is mostly pilots versus gropos, with Garibaldi defending himself from the soldiers and Dodger attacking the cameraman. At least that's what it looks like when we get a first person view from one of her victims as she unleashes a storm of kicks and punches at them.

We also get a comedy shot of a civilian taking out one of the marines with her shoe. To be fair she may have been off-duty security or one of the pilots. On the other hand, she took out a marine with her shoe.

A few people manage to get some good roundhouse kicks in, including chandelier guy, but the fight's called off by General Franklin who requires his troops to go to war. Which is a shame because the actors all seemed to be having fun. Plus the casino wheel actually survived the fight this time!

But Garibaldi at least gets to say goodbye to Dodger with a kiss as she's leaving, to the delight of the soldiers lined up behind them. This is a good episode to keep an eye on what the extras are doing. Even the sergeant major manages a grin once he's shouted a bit.

And Franklin gets to hug his dad again. The end.


ACT FIVE


Well, it's not quite the end yet, as everyone gathers in the Zocalo to watch the news report about the attack on planet Akdor. Wow, they just had to find a way to have Keffer hanging out with the command staff before the end. It works fine here though; much better than when he went drinking with them like he was their best friend we'd never met.

The ISN news report means we get the first appearance of the ISN reporter in season 2! At first I thought this might be her first appearance ever, but I checked and it turns out that she showed up three times last season, including the first episode.

She’s actually one of only two characters to appear in all five seasons of B5 and then show up in the spin-off as well, with the other character being... a spoiler.

It's a cliché to say this looks like a video game cutscene, but it really does! It's straight out of the video game Command and Conquer. Or maybe Alien Breed: Tower Assault, seeing as it's spaceships assaulting an alien tower.

It was quite impressive for a TV series in 1995, when you think about what Star Trek was doing with its planet shots at the time, but it wasn't exactly convincing back then and it's even less so in 2017.

I like the composited flames though. They should try doing that in the space shots as well some time.

The effects look even worse when they put people in front of it, they've gone full 'YouTube reviewer with a green screen' here, but that's understandable considering how new the production crew were at this kind of thing. B5 has only shown someone standing outdoors once in the last 31 episodes (last episode in The Coming of Shadows).

General Franklin has survived the battle, which wasn't really in doubt considering he's a general, they're not likely to have sent him running out on the front line with a sci-fi assault rifle, but Dr. Franklin's still relieved.

Also he won! The objective was completed, the rebels have been defeated, and hopefully this was a good thing. Though for all we know they could've just killed Princess Leia and Han Solo on behalf of Darth Vader; we're not exactly familiar with the Sh'lassenians.

We're familiar with some of the gropos though, and they didn't do so well.

Dodger, Large, Large's sidekick, the asshole who attacked Delenn, they're all dead. The space-bullets didn't care about who was good or bad, who were rookies or veterans. Though they did seem to show a preference to folks with speaking roles.

It's kind of a cheesy shot, with all these people we met lying conveniently close to each other. This is one occasion where they may have been better off sticking to just telling instead of showing.

Well, I mean they should've left it at showing Garibaldi and Keffer being told. Their silent reactions after they read the casualty reports gets the point across just fine.

Then the episode ends with the season 1 opening theme playing over the credits, which is only weird because Coming of Shadows switched over to the season 2 theme for a change. It gave the impression they'd be sticking with the new theme for the rest of the season, but nope, they've gone and switched right back again.


CONCLUSION

GROPOS is kind of a plot-light breather episode compared to the intensity of The Coming of Shadows, though somehow I have a feeling it's all about the subject of war and how it affects the people who do the warring (it kills them). It's interesting that we got an episode about how war sucks directly after an episode that kicked off an entirely different war, but I suppose they are connected. We're seeing one of the first consequences of the Narn-Centauri War here, and it's a diplomatic space station in neutral territory getting a major weapons upgrade and being used as a staging area for an Earth fleet on its way to get involved in someone else's fight purely to earn a better spot to fight from later.

Babylon 5 was built by the terrified survivors of a horrific war to help ensure that they'd not have to fight another one. But now Earth has rebuilt its forces, with upgraded tech and better ships, and they're thinking of the station more like a military outpost. Though I suppose that's nothing new, as in By Any Means Necessary Sinclair had to use a legal loophole to take cash out of the station's vast military budget to pay for necessary docking equipment upgrades and extra dock workers, because Earth didn't have the cash to spare for such luxuries.

Anyway, the episode starts off being about the crew struggling to deal with the onslaught of soldiers in need of beds, but it soon splits into three other stories, with Franklin struggling to connect with his dad, Garibaldi struggling to screw up a one night stand, and Keffer struggling to justify his presence in the opening credits.

Paul Winfield is pretty much perfectly cast as Franklin's dad, in my opinion, playing a man just as stubborn and principled as his son, just about the opposite things. I've read things about the problems folks may have had with him behind the scenes, but what was ultimately captured on film really works for me. Though I wonder if it was awkward for Richard Biggs to play those scenes as his son, seeing as he apparently had similar issues with his own father, who was also in the military. The elder Franklin somehow comes off as a likeable enough guy, despite being a stern xenophobic authoritarian, and the episode's only ray of sunshine at the end comes from the fact he's not dead. General Franklin lives on to lead another group of rowdy caricatures to their deaths on some other alien world we'll never hear about again.

Garibaldi gets another romance plotline this episode, but weirdly it's not with telepath Talia Winters. I'm with Jerry Doyle on this one, it doesn't feel right for him to fall into a high-speed TV romance and immediately sleep with a woman a couple of episodes after Soul Mates. His self-sabotage feels entirely in line with his character though and I'm kind of okay with him and Dodger getting back on track by the end as the two of them have a lot of chemistry. Plus she was fun and liked to kick people! And now she's dead, because Garibaldi hasn't had enough tragedy and guilt in his life yet.

And then there's the Keffer story, which also ends in tragedy. He finally had friends and screentime, and now they're dead and he's alone again. I felt that he was being used properly here for once though, as through him we got a glimpse at how things were for the people outside of the command staff who didn't know what was going on. It's just a shame his new buddies came off as total clichés and only really appeared in two scenes. Instead of getting new insight into Keffer I ended up wanting to put Battlestar Galactica on for a bit to see the same thing being done right.

Overall, I wouldn't say that GROPOS is one of my all-time favourite episodes, in fact it's more likely to be ranked in the bottom third, but I can't deny that it is crowded. If I was rating episodes based on how many extras they put on screen, this would be right near the top. Plus I can't hate any episode with a bar fight, and this has to have the biggest of the series.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with All Alone in the Night. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'll be writing about GROPOS! Actually, it'll probably be an episode of Discovery or The Orville, but I don't have a little 'coming soon' thumbnail for either of them yet.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for leaving a comment as well, if you've done that.

1 comment:

  1. Lou Welch is a competent security officer and master of the Bro Code, too.

    Awww, I get the thumbnail once more! Yay!

    ReplyDelete