Babylon 5: Born to the Purple

b5Everyone remembers the Count from Sesame Street, right?  Count with me: 1 episode not written by J. Michael Straczynski….  (Tell the truth, you put on the accent, didn’t you?  Get ready to do it again, when we continue counting…)

Born to the Purple is the first of 20 episodes not written by JMS and it shows.  It’s not that the story isn’t good, but it’s territory we’ve been in before with dozens of other series.  Boy (in this case, with more hair) meets girl (with substantially less hair).  Boy falls for girl.  Girl is a spy and steals from boy.  Boy has to get stuff back while still loving the girl.  Love conquers all…   I can almost hear Adira in a James Bond moment, “I’m sorry James.  I know this is the 20th movie we damsels have gotten one over on you, but I just had to do it!  The  random bad guy has a thing over (Select one of the following: me, my family, my country) and I had to betray you, but I do love you!”  This is compounded by the ending where she won’t stay with him because the wounds are too fresh.  What wounds?!   I guess that’s the last we shall ever see of her.  “I hadn’t sensed so many lies since I worked for the political bureau!”

While it may be formulaic, it’s not a bad episode.  It has the pacing of a cinematic thriller with a hint of comedy.  G’Kar and Londo may not agree on much but over women, they can both enjoy a toast.  It’s also humorous to note that through their differences, they both give their staff the same advice: “don’t give away the homeworld!”  But barring some lightweight humor, what is really going on here still has the JMS signature: we are given an understanding about the Centauri as a race, and Londo as a person.  The Centauri are all about appearances and actually horde data about others to gain power; having “dirt” on another family increases ones reputation.  Those who do not take part in such seedy behavior typically end up as slaves.  Londo, as we saw in the pilot, longs for the glory days of his treasured republic. To quote him, he is a “washed up old republican dreaming of better days”.  We will see if this plays into his character as time goes on.

We also get a chance to understand Susan Ivanova, whose first meeting came off as icy, to say the least.  We are given an understanding about how she grew up so that we understand her coldness.  Garibaldi basically admits to her that he saw her whole private conversation but reveals a very human side to both of them.  He offers to buy her a drink and, though she declines, she does accept for “another time”.  Again, we’re meeting “real people” in this series, not characters.  It’s a small subplot to the story, but it helps define the people we are getting to know.

There are a couple observations of note.  Purple typically signifies royalty.  This comes about from how difficult it was to obtain the dye necessary to color cloth purple and how it was reserved for royalty; a fact dating back to ancient times.  The significance of purple for royalty is still in use today.  We also typically associate gold with riches and Gold Channel is what is being used behind Garibaldi’s back.  Gold channel is to be used by command staff only.  Ironically, gold is also the color of command in classic Star Trek.  So there’s an interesting, if fairly insignificant, parallel with the use of color and power in this episode.

The last observation I will mention about the episode is the newspaper Garibaldi is reading (… yes, my wife pointed it out too, newspapers are still a thing, ok!?).  The front page, which I had to pause to read, was “Home Guard Leader Convicted”.  Something is wrong back home.  How that factors into the series is yet to be seen!  ML

The view from across the pond:

I’m still waiting for an episode of Babylon 5 that offers something new, an idea that hasn’t been done in other television shows a hundred times before.  This isn’t it.  Instead we are still wandering through the greatest hits of standard dramatic plots.  This week it’s that old story: a pretty girl spy fooling an old man in a position of power, and developing some feelings for him along the way.  The twist in the tale is also a familiar one: the pretty spy girl is being forced into it by a man who basically owns her, in this instance quite literally.

The lack of inventiveness isn’t a massive problem, because the main characters are fun, and watching them go through the motions of clichéd storylines is reasonably enjoyable anyway, but at some point this series is going to have to find a unique selling point.  I assume it will, or if not these “across the ponds” are going to get increasingly grumpy and I’ll have to start poking fun at the muppet with a fly head to get my kicks.  Anybody got a giant fly swat?

If the story is dull, at least the execution of it is intelligent.  There is some interesting philosophising about a life lived for appearances:

“When I look beneath the mask I am forced to wear, I see only emptiness.”

The delays to the negotiations are a welcome distraction from the main plot.  I haven’t mentioned Vir before, one of the newly introduced characters who wasn’t in the pilot episode, but he is a lot of fun, and together with London Londo forms a great double act.  It was entertaining to see the negotiations taken over by two underlings, both with the instruction “just don’t give away the home world”.  I would have liked to have seen that aspect of the episode developed more fully, with a stronger focus on the dynamic between Vir and the G’Kar’s new head of his diplomatic staff (whose name I didn’t catch because it’s another of those annoying sci-fi names), with the negotiations proceeding without G’Kar and Londo present.  G’Kar is still fabulous, of course:

“I wasn’t expecting you for several year…days.”

I still can’t warm to creepy Talia, especially when she is perving on Londo’s thoughts about Adira.  She ain’t no Deanna Troi, that’s for sure.  Trakis was entertaining as the villain of the week, following in the proud American tradition of hiring a Brit to play the bad guy.  Strictly speaking Clive Revill hails from New Zealand originally, but he moved to London in 1950 to become a notable stage actor, and he has just the right kind of plummy Shakespearean voice for this kind of role.  We Brits aren’t really all villains though, even if we do diss your favourite sci-fi shows from time to time.  Give me a new idea, and I’ll stop doing that.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of Co-writer on Editor of
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1 Response to Babylon 5: Born to the Purple

  1. scifimike70 says:

    When I reflect on Andreas Katsulas as the morally wise and belevolent G’Kar, it astonishes me that this was the same actor who had previously played quite a few bad buys in movies, most notably of course the one-armed man in the movie version of The Fugitive. Maybe it’s because I first saw him as Joey Venza in Ridley Scott’s Someone To Watch Over Me. His menacing delivery with lines like “If you EVER see me again, you NEVER saw me before!” is timeless.

    He was indeed a versatile actor who had also played a Romulan villain in Star Trek: TNG. He will be missed by the SF community for proving how any actor, who was previously noticeable as bad guys, can triumphantly break the type-casting curse with such an iconic ET character like G’Kar.

    Thank you, Andreas. R.I.P.

    Liked by 1 person

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