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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Babylon 5 2-13: Hunter, Prey

Episode:35|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:01-Mar-1995

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm rewatching a Babylon 5 episode called Hunter, Prey.

I've never much liked the title of this one, it feels lazy somehow. Plus it's probably a quote from some poem I've never heard of, and I hate poetry almost as much as I hate it when television makes me feel ignorant!

Anyway, the following text will contain SPOILERS for this episode and the ones that preceded it, as I'm going to be doing a full recap with screencaps. But I'll not mention a thing about what's to come, so if you're a first-time viewer you don't have to worry about me ruining everything for you.



The episode begins with this show-off effects shot, replicating the zoom in on the C&C window that's in the opening credits of every episode. Except this time Sheridan and Ivanova are missing and Garibaldi's looking for them.

There's one problem I have with this shot though, aside from the fact that it's cruel to Deep Space Nine's effects team who couldn't zoom in on the windows of their physical model, and that's that it reminds me just how close to the centre docking bay C&C is. I may have mentioned this before (and I'll likely mention it again someday), but according to a website calculator I found, the gravity in that that room should be roughly identical to the moon. They should all be bouncing around with every step.

Turns out that the two missing officers are hanging out in the forbidden Bay 13, where mysterious Ambassador Kosh's equally mysterious ship is docked. Makes me wonder if Takashima or whoever was running C&C at the time put him in 13 deliberately as a joke.

Garibaldi's a bit confused by them being down here, as nobody goes to Bay 13, so it's a good thing that he's not around when Ivanova reveals to Sheridan that she sometimes comes down here at night to look at it. The guy's only happy when he thinks he knows everything about what everyone's been up to.

Nobody knows a damn thing about Kosh's ship though. The thing's been here for 35 episodes and a pilot movie and they still don't know what kind of propulsion it has or what it looks like on the inside. They haven't even figured out where the door is yet! Plus their surface scans just won't penetrate the hull, so that's an important fact to file away for later.

Sheridan's first reaction to seeing it is to say "It's beautiful," which is pretty optimistic writing by producer JMS, who should've really known better by this point.

Babylon 5's CGI quality ranges from 'dated' to 'shite', and the texturing on this ship is closer to the 'N64' end of the scale. It gets the job done when the model's viewed at a distance, but they really needed to create a more detailed section of the ship for these close-ups. Or used a matte painting; those are always good.

This defence turret tentacle is a nice effect though, as it forms out of the skin of the ship, gaining detail as it stretches out.

Seems that the craft is well aware of Sheridan's internal structure and would appreciate it if he respected its personal space. Ivanova assures him that it hasn't shot anyone in the last two years it's been here, but they did have to quarantine the bay because the maintenance workers were complaining about the ship giving them dreams. That's got to strike a chord with Sheridan as he got a cryptic Kosh dream himself the other day.

In fact, he decides right here he's had enough of the Vorlon ambassador's secretive ways and he's going to make it his personal project to get to know more about him. Kosh's been creeping around the station being cryptic and useless since the pilot movie The Gathering; it's time he justified his existence as a character on this series.

Garibaldi finally makes it down here to set up the plot for this week, but he doesn't want to say anything in front of the spaceship in case it's listening in. Because it probably is.

But it turns out that it's not the only one spying on them, because as soon as they're out of the room Kosh himself pops up from behind a box! He has a bit of a chat with his ship, but he speaks in chimes and it sends him alien text messages across its low-res hull, so who even knows what's being said.

The senior staff hike all the way to Sheridan's office, where Garibaldi is finally able to reveal what he's so bothered about. Turns out that there's a fugitive loose with enough stolen information to tear the Earth Alliance to pieces and he's suspected to be here on Babylon 5 right now. The weird part is that the guy used to be a doctor on the President's personal staff, and if he puts up any resistance they've been ordered to shoot to kill.


ACT ONE


After the opening credits, Agent Cranston from Earth Special Intelligence arrives to conduct the search for the fugitive physician, Dr. Everett Jacobs, but Sheridan's not sure whether he can trust the guy. On the one hand, he's Felix Leiter, one of James Bond's closest allies! On the other hand, Bernie Casey only played Leiter in Never Say Never Again, and that's not a real Bond movie. Plus it seems a bit suspect that the President's personal physician would even have the opportunity or clearance to steal confidential government files. But Sheridan decides to go along with it, putting B5 security at Cranston's disposal so that he can catch the guy before he sells the data or sneaks out of their jurisdiction.

Sheridan's definitely friendlier with visitors from Earth than Sinclair used to be. Sure he's part of a secret conspiracy to prove that President Santiago was assassinated and knows that anyone working for the government could be up to something sinister, but that's no reason to be rude to them!

Garibaldi decides to start by seeing what Dr. Franklin can tell him, seeing as he seems to have met every doctor that gets mentioned in the series, and sure enough he knows Dr. Jacobs. In fact, he's one of Frankin's old teachers, which means we're in a 'main character's old friend/mentor/lover visits the station' situation here, and those usually leave the crew with a fair amount of fire damage/debris/dead people to clear up.

Amazingly, Garibaldi actually mentions this in dialogue!
"The last time you vouched for a doctor friend of yours, we had three dead bodies, half the station was trashed, and an Ikarran war machine was burning through decks and shooting at everything."
Yay continuity! Though, on the other hand, I've just been reminded that season 1's Infection exists, which is less good.

Cut to a market in one of the grimier parts of the station, where we get to see that Dr. Jacobs is definitely on board the station and he's currently doing a terrible job of trying to buy a counterfeit identicard. Half because he seems to have been dropped into the Babylon 5 universe yesterday and he struggles with pronouncing anything remotely sci-fi, half because he's obviously desperate and it's scaring the guy he's trying to do business with. The way he sees it, Jacob is either working for security or he's in the kind of trouble he wants to stay well clear of.

In fact, the guy wants to stay out of his trouble so badly that he starts packing his wares away and putting the curtains down! He must have never met anyone who agreed to pay his prices without haggling before, he just doesn't know how to deal with it.

But as Jacobs walks away, a mysterious man steps out of the shadows and thinks over what he just witnessed.

Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Sheridan's getting started on that new personal project, trying to get Kosh to open up a bit.

I expected Sheridan to be a little disingenuous here and get caught being sneaky because Kosh overheard his conversation earlier, but he basically comes right out with 'I was in Bay 13 looking at your ship, it gave me the idea to get to know you and your people better'.

Kosh asks 'why', so Sheridan tells him 'because you were messing around inside my dream a few weeks back'. So we've got continuity with All Alone in the Night as well! Kosh explains that "I listened to the song, your thoughts became the song", but that sounds to me like an irritating cryptic response by someone who clearly knows way more than he wants to let on.

Hey, Zack Allan's in this episode! The guy must have had more screentime in total than Warren Keffer by this point, though I'm not eager to count up the minutes and check.

This looks like the customs area, but they've hung some body armour on the back wall so I guess it's actually the room where the security personnel line up whenever someone comes in to give them the Tommy Lee Jones The Fugitive speech about how they're going to hunt someone down. Except Cranston's kind of low-energy by comparison to be honest; he's not even yelling at people. A lot of the actors who visited Babylon 5 during its run gave exaggerated, theatrical performances. This guy, not so much.

Zack thinks that it could take weeks or months to search the whole five-mile station for one guy (I guess he wasn't around during season 1 where they searched for Garibaldi or the stolen corpse of that Minbari war leader), but Cranston has a plan to speed things up. He tells them that Jacobs has a chip in him that they can detect, so they're going to sweep the station one section at a time with their little short-range handheld scanners, placing guards as they go to make sure he doesn't double back on them.

Hang on, is that monitor on the right glitching out?

Babylon 5 CG playback
Well that's probably not supposed to be there.

There's no way someone didn't notice this on set, as most of the people in the scene are staring right at it, but I guess they had better things to do than film another take. Plus they got lucky here as the screwup's only visible in the widescreen version, so it's possible they caught the mistake and decided it was good enough for TV broadcast in 1995 so why waste time and money fixing it?

Now Sheridan's out having a stroll with Garibaldi, though the two of them unwittingly have a shared moment of intrigue as they're simultaneously distracted by secrets they can't let the other in on: Sheridan notices a ribbon tied to one of those light fittings and Garibaldi spots one of Sinclair's Rangers walking by.

This confused me at first though, as I thought it was the Ranger that left the ribbon for Garibaldi. But nope it was actually this woman:

This mysterious visitor has been sent by General Hague to have a secret meeting with Sheridan in one of the more distinctive-looking industrial areas of the station. Lots of interesting piles of crap in this room.

She's come here to bring him a message and it's not one you generally want to hear: "You're in great danger, captain". Damn, now I have to stick around for act two to find out why!


ACT TWO


But her dire warning's entirely forgotten about after the commercial break, as the woman puts a bug jamming device down and then gets to business. She explains that Earth Special Intelligence is under President Clark's direct control and he's sent them after Dr. Jacobs because he's a threat to him. When Earthforce One was blown up back in Chrysalis it was considered to be an accident, and Vice-President Clark was considered remarkably lucky to have left the ship the day before due to illness. But Jacobs knows that he wasn't really ill and that's the Earth Alliance-shattering confidential information they can't risk getting out.

So basically what she's asking Sheridan to do is to go around his own security force to find Jacobs before Cranston does and get a sworn statement out of him. He responds by asking if she'd like mayo with that, but he knows that if he pulls this off it'll give them an invaluable piece of evidence to use against Clark when they eventually go public, so it's got to be done. Somehow.

Then the woman leaves, forgetting to take her jamming device with her! So now Sheridan has to meet with Garibaldi and figure out how they're going to do this.

Over in Medlab, security people are waving scanners all over the place looking for Jacobs while Dr. Franklin's trying to work. Then Garibaldi phones him up to wish him a happy birthday... even though it's not his birthday.

Franklin's a damn idiot today so he questions it out loud right in front of all the security officers, then starts asking the computer to sweep the message for abnormalities. Hey Franklin, I know that the corner where the grating in the ceiling casts moody shadows all over the walls is where you like to go to record personal logs and suchlike, but just because no one else is on screen doesn't mean there aren't five other people in the room listening to everything you're doing right now. For someone who ran an underground telepath railroad he seems pretty clueless on how to conspiracy.

So Franklin goes through Garibaldi's birthday message frame by frame and finds this:

Well, that's one way to send a secret message, scribbling speech balloons on your face. Even if someone else discovers it they won't immediately jump to thinking 'he's part of a secret conspiracy'. They might jump to other thoughts, but nothing that'll get the secret police on him.

Also, it seems CRT televisions are back in fashion by 2259.

Down in DownBelow, Dr. Jacobs is recording a message to his beloved Mary explaining that he's taking stims to stay on his feet. Seems like every time an older doctor shows up on the station, they've turned to stims.

But he's interrupted by the arrival of Zack Allan and his scanner patrol, so he has to make a very slow run for it just in time to escape detection. I don't want to sound like I'm mocking the guy though, as he seems to be doing a better job of evading security than Garibaldi did back in Survivors, and Garibaldi had a cunning disguise (a hat).


ACT THREE


Trouble is he runs right into the mystery guy from earlier, who spots the nice suit and decides to empty his pockets and see what he can sell. Like an audio recorder full of messages to his beloved Mary, an expensive watch with "Office of the President of the Earth Alliance" engraved on it, and a mysterious data crystal full of secrets.

I was sure I'd already seen this guy in something else, so I checked IMDb and... I was mistaken. But I have heard him before, because he's Harvey Dent in Batman: The Animated Series! This is what Two-Face looks like behind the mic.

Back in Sheridan's office, the actors are struggling with this monitor screen as it keeps flipping between two images just as they go to point at it. The production team were having real problems with playback this week.

Agent Cranston's sure they must be closing in on Dr. Jacobs in DownBelow now, and Sheridan agrees. After all there's no way he's going to be hiding in, uh... Downtown. Nothing down there but the waste recycling plant and some heavy lead walls!

Cranston immediately jumps right to the conclusion he's leading him to and decides that Jacobs would obviously go there to hide from their scanners! So now he and his men are going to be spending the next six hours cutting through pressure doors in the most unpleasant part of the station aside from the methane bathrooms, giving Garibaldi and Franklin a chance to find Jacobs first. Man, poor Zack... the guy doesn't deserve this.

But on the plus side, this means we've got a rare Garibaldi and Franklin team up! The two of them will be going undercover for this job...

... so Garibaldi's wearing a hat again! It's the perfect disguise, as Garibaldi doesn't usually wear hats. Plus he claims that when he visits DownBelow people don't see him, they see the badge, and he's left that at home.

By pure coincidence, the two of them run into the same shady shopkeeper from earlier who's now trying to sell a watch with "Office of the President of the Earth Alliance" on it. So the guy's finally found that trouble he was so concerned about earlier.

They also sit down with a couple of NutriGrain bars to rest their legs and have what's probably the best conversation in this episode, about how people are losing hope lately. Everyone used to be so enthusiastic about the future, they dreamed about meeting aliens and travelling across the stars! But now they've reached the future and gotten all the things they were told about, and it's not all they thought it'd be. "Maybe someone should've labelled the future 'Some assembly required'," Garibaldi says, which is basically what the series is all about now that I think about.

Meanwhile, Jacobs' new friend is calling up Cranston to see how much he'd be worth to him. To protect his identity he's cunningly disguised himself as a character from an FMV 3DO game.

Oh right, I forgot all about Kosh's B-plot. Sheridan's come down to his quarters for a chat, and the ambassador's being his usual charming self.

Sheridan: "You wanted to see me."
Kosh: "You wanted to see me."

Sheridan: "Can you help me to understand you?
Kosh: "Can you help me to understand you?

Repeating everything that someone says back at them is one of the quickest and most reliable ways to piss them off, but Sherdian's more annoyed that the guy's been watching him but won't just tell him what he's after. Most people on the station have a healthy fear of the Vorlon but that's not how Sheridan rolls and soon he's yelling "What do you want?" at him. This riles Kosh up a bit, as it was Mr. Morden's catchphrase back in Signs and Portents and the two of them don't get on. In fact, last time Kosh met Morden and his scary allies, he had to hammer his encounter suit back into shape afterwards.

So those are the first folks that jump to mind when Kosh suddenly declares he's going to be the cryptic Yoda to Sheridan's Luke Skywalker until he's ready "to fight legends"! Now I've got visions of Sheridan running around DownBelow with Kosh on his back, doing somersaults and suchlike. They're really setting me up for disappointment here.

Things are moving a lot faster in DownBelow, as Garibaldi and Franklin use the info they got from the shopkeeper to rush in and rescue Jacobs. Everything goes fine until Garibaldi lets his guard down for a moment and gets a screwdriver through the arm. Fortunately Franklin knows Kirk-fu, and he knocks the guard out with a double-fisted neck slam, followed by a kick to the head.

We learn that the man who caught Jacobs is called Max, but he's not here right now, and he's got his data crystal with the evidence on. So Garibaldi sends them both to wait for him in a storage locker while he hangs around to ambush Max.


ACT FOUR


Max comes back to his lair to find his henchman tied up where his kidnap victim should be, and is confronted by an angry man in a fedora who wants that data crystal he swiped.

And then Garibaldi just starts unloading his gun in his general direction! Not at him, just around him. You'd expect him to make a comment about this being his wounded arm he's using and how he's struggling to shoot straight, but nope he just walks forward and whines about his day.

The scene feels like the pay off to a whole Garibaldi adventure, with him finally at the end of his rope after a day of escalating bullshit, but all he's done is walk around with Franklin, grab a dude and get stabbed. It's making me want more than the episode's given me.

And Max just gives him the data crystal. Well, that was a total anticlimax.

A lot of Babylon 5's DownBelow thugs have come across as pretty comical so far, and this guy's no exception. He's definitely better than Deuce back in Grail though. Oh, plus the praying mantis. I wonder what happened to that guy.

By this point Cranston's figured out that the station's sensors can be used to scan for Jacobs' chip without all the messing around with tiny hand scanners, and he wants to know why he wasn't told this the minute he came on board! Which is a good question actually, as the crew were genuinely trying to help him at that point. Maybe they just wanted to rile him up to the point where he started putting some emotion into his lines.

Cranston mentions that they've already used the scanners like this twice in the series already, which has got me struggling to think of what episodes he's talking about. I'm pretty sure one of them was probably Infection but that's all I can come up with. I wish this episode would stop reminding me of that bloody episode.

Sheridan escapes Cranston's wrath though and goes to meet the others. I guess Garibaldi just let Max and his friend go then afterwards, seeing as arresting them would make the situation even more awkward. I hope Sheridan remembered to put the little jamming device down before this conversation or it could soon get even more awkward than that.

Dr. Jacobs reveals that the data crystal contains evidence proving that Clark wasn't actually ill when he left Earthforce One. It's not exactly proof that he blew the ship up, but it's a piece of the puzzle.

But now Cranston's about to scan the whole station for him, so they need a plan. Weirdly neither of the two doctors in the room even thinks of removing the chip they'd be scanning for. But Sheridan has a plan.

We don't get to hear the plan just yet though, that'd kill the tension!

Cranston runs the scan and... wait, 'Dr. Everett Jacoby'? They're scanning for the wrong guy!

Typo aside, they run the scan successfully and it comes up negative, proving to Cranston that Jacobs isn't currently on board and probably never was! This gives Sheridan a chance to rant at him for a bit for making him turn his station upside down for no reason.

Meanwhile, Kosh has been sitting in his ship waiting patiently for clearance to leave the station while the scanning took place, so now that it's done Ivanova gives him permission to depart.

But Cranston suddenly has an idea: what if Jacobs is escaping the station in Kosh's ship? Well, it makes sense I guess, as the Vorlons could probably do something with all that top secret information he's supposedly carrying. But he was still docked when the scan took place; his ship has already been scanned.

Cranston wants to risk a major diplomatic incident with the super-powerful Vorlons over this anyway and demands that they scan his ship! So they do... and sensors read one non-human lifeform. Presumably Kosh himself, definitely not Jacobs.

But Sheridan's a nice guy, so now that they've firmly established that Jacobs never came to B5, he gives Ivanova the job of providing Cranston with a list of his other possible locations... so that he can leave them alone and go bother people there instead.


ACT FIVE


The last act reveals how Sheridan pulled his magic trick off.

Turns out that he got Kosh to hide Jacobs unconscious in a bubble on his ship! Then the ship left the station to, I dunno, torment Cranston? It was still docked when they ran the first scan so I have no idea what their plan was there; they knew their sensors couldn't penetrate the hull no matter where it was. It seems like Kosh's life signs showing up contradicts that, but it turns out that he wasn't actually on board when it left the station; it was the ship itself that the sensors detected. So they've finally confirmed now that Vorlons do use organic technology, something that was first mentioned as a theory way back in... ugh... Infection.

Babylon 5's not the first series to put living spaceships on TV, as Next Gen had Gomtuu five years earlier, but it got there before the things dominated the latter half of the 90s in series like Farscape, Lexx and Earth: Final Conflict. So it doesn't seem weird for the series to give the characters a moment to express some actual wonder at what they've learned (even though they suspected it all along).

And the story ends with Sheridan handing both Jacobs and evidence over to his contact. So they've walked away from their first covert operation against the nefarious agents of President Clark with a 100% unambiguous non-tragic win. Poor worn out Jacobs even got to have a nap in the end! I can't say I saw that coming and I've seen the episode once already.


CONCLUSION

I'm not entirely certain where I'd rank Hunter, Prey against the 109 other entries on Babylon 5's episode list, but I think I can narrow it down to bottom 10 maybe. The title I mean, not the episode itself. The episode it's attached to is alright, though it doesn't stick in the mind all that much... which is making my job here kind of difficult. It doesn't help that I realised about 15 minutes in that I'd absent-mindedly started doing some cleaning and wasn't really paying attention anymore, though I guess that says a lot about the episode on its own.

The A-plot's all about the about the humans dealing with their own problems this time, though the episode also features a lot more Kosh than most stories. In fact, he actually takes an active role in helping the crew out of their Cranston pickle by letting them borrow Chehkov's spaceship, which I'm pretty sure has never happened before. It seems crazy that they brought him into their secret scheme against their own government (off camera) and he actually agreed to help. He's still plenty cryptic and mysterious though and it seems like he's made Sheridan his project as much as Sheridan's made him his.

This is the first episode to feature the heroes working for the conspiracy, with the four senior officers having to solve the crisis personally, which mixes things up in an interesting way. It means we get a Garibaldi and Franklin undercover team up, Sheridan gets to troll a government agent (while the folks running the video playback troll both of them) and Ivanova gets to be a smart-ass. Plus they've got their hands on the first piece of evidence needed to take down President Clark! So it's shame really that I found the episode to be average at best. This story should feel much more important than it does.

I think it's let down by the guest cast, who don't get the most compelling roles to play and don't do a spectacular job in them. Max was pretty lame, but he's a DownBelow thug so that goes without saying. Dr. Jacobs was very convincingly out of his element in DownBelow, but he also seemed pretty new to the universe in general, almost like he was being played by an actor who couldn't remember how to pronounce all the sci-fi terms. And Cranston was basically playing Diet Bester: same role in the story but zero energy. It was a bizarrely dull performance, at least until the end where he woke up a bit and proved they'd hired an actual actor. Sheridan's contact was alright though, if surprisingly sinister for an ally. Her performance had me wondering if they could even trust her, which I suppose is a good thing for a story about conspiracies.

So overall I'd have to say that Hunter, Prey was a little disappointing. Though on the positive side, it's much better than a story that rehashes parts of Mind War and keeps referring to Infection should be.



COMING SOON
Next on B5: Babylon 5 becomes a deep space franchise in There All the Honor Lies. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'll be writing about The Orville's New Dimensions.

Thanks for reading! Maybe now you could leave a comment maybe?

4 comments:

  1. A lot of Babylon 5's DownBelow thugs have come across as pretty comical

    Even though, ironically, Richard Moll (Max) and William Sanderson (Deuce) were both playing very different characters than they had in their recent sitcoms.

    ReplyDelete
  2. [Cranston] wants to know why he wasn't told this the minute he came on board!

    Probably because the dummy neglected to mention the chip when discussing this operation with the station's command staff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I assumed he must have told them off screen or it was in the briefing, otherwise the guy's a real idiot.

      Delete
  3. the heroes working for the conspiracy, with the four senior officers having to solve the crisis personally

    A rare case where "the main characters do everything" is actually justified.

    ReplyDelete