Babylon 5: Infection

b5We’re back in JMS territory and it’s always gratifying to me when my wife says “Infection was the best episode so far”.  The characters are falling into their roles by now and the larger universe is coming together.  So far this season, I’ve made it a point to draw your attention to the news: the broadcasts and the newspapers.  Now, we get our first view of ISN, Interstellar Network News.  The reporter is an arrogant annoyance which might give the viewer the impression that Straczynski is not a fan of journalists, but here’s an interesting tidbit: JMS was a journalist himself in his early career.  So JMS is writing a story to introduce ISN, the network behind the news broadcasts.  To compound matters from the news, Dr. Franklin reminds us about the growing “pro-earth movement” going on back home.  This is not the first we’ve heard about it but the fact that it remains a topic could be driving home a bigger point.

While thinking “pro-earth”, notice this episode did not feature the alien ambassadors: it’s a pro-earth episode all around.  We’re given greater insight into Dr. Franklin: he’s a man who does the right thing and is not tempted by money.  He also seems to be a workaholic, putting in 15 hours on deciphering the biotech Vance brought with him.  His “I’m the doctor; I know what I’m doing!” sums up his rationale in a nutshell.  We can, perhaps, write this off to his excitement to be working on organic technology, a technology he says is the only one earth has not mastered.  He does note that the Vorlons have living ships and we see that to an extent in the way Kosh’s ship seems to move.

We also get to understand the relationship between Michael Garibaldi and Jeffrey Sinclair and its refreshing.  These are two friends who work well together and respect one another.  Early on, we see the humor they share:

Garibaldi: “What’s the worst that could happen?  They fire you, ship you off to the rim and I get a promotion to captain.  I don’t see a problem here!”

And later, we get a deeper understanding when Garibaldi acknowledges his friends willingness to put himself in harm’s way.  He reminds Jeff that it’s easy to find something worth dying for and we don’t get the typical clumsy dialogue that plagues most television, but a sincere discussion between two friends.  “Michael, I don’t have an answer for you and I think maybe I should.  Thanks!”  Where is writing like this on most shows?  Am I just watching the wrong things?

Yet the most pro-earth statement is less earth-centric, but more about mankind.  When Sinclair is finally interviewed, he is asked if he feels B5 is worth the risk.  With mounting tensions back home, perhaps we should abandon the station and close up shop.  Sinclair offers this, rather profound, answer:

“We have to stay here. And there’s a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes, and – all of this – all of this – was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.”

None of this speaks about the Icaran threat that is central to the plot of Infection, and honestly, that’s because the story is less about the monster-of-the-week than a study of humanity.  It seems Icara 7 was vexed by the notion of racial purity, a trait more than one Earthly megalomaniac has been focused on.  The fanatic, always willing to fight “the enemy” forgets to avoid becoming “the enemy” and ultimately destroys the very thing its fighting for.  For an episode so profoundly pro-human, it’s got a heavy reminder about the darker side of our nature.   And it’s another reminder of what makes Babylon 5 such an interesting show.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Well, this episode certainly rammed its point home, didn’t it.  RACISM IS BAD, I tell you, BAD!  Sinclair pointed out the parallel between the Ikarrans and the Nazis for us, but yes, we already noticed that.  It was hard to miss.

The problem with this, and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere because this is far from being a remotely original story idea, is that the whole plot revolves around Sinclair getting the Ikarran monster to look objectively at what he is doing, at which point he has a meltdown and commits suicide.  But couldn’t he join the dots for himself?  Did nobody on an entire planet get the opportunity to point out the obvious fact to one of those monsters that they were wiping out the entire race?  What’s so special about Sinclair, that he gets the monster to listen to him, when a whole planet of people couldn’t?  Maybe it’s his mad eyes and ham acting.

If it seems like I’m being hard on this one, I think it’s justified, because this really was disappointingly obvious in the approach to all aspects of the plot.  We were just ticking off all the usual things we expect to see in this kind of story idea, with nothing original or interesting to say.  Everything that took place just happened because that’s what happens in a fanatical monster story, right down to the ineffective weapons.  There was even a scene where Garibaldi reported back to Sinclair after his encounter with the monster, didn’t think to mention that the weapons didn’t work against it, and just accepted the order to track it down.

So this was a checklist made into a script.  Idolised teacher turns out to be a fallible human?  Tick.  Alien possession?  Tick.  Fanatic realises the error of his ways?  Tick.  Nazi parallel?  Tick.  Reference to Nietzsche’s fight monsters/become a monster quote?  Tick.

Sinclair as an ex-soldier who is perhaps trying to go out in a blaze of glory is also well-worn territory, but a little more interesting, depending on how it develops.  There was also a sub-plot going on with a journalist poking her nose in, which served to make the episode that little bit more annoying as (a) the subplot was completely lacking integration with the main plot, and (b) the journalist was the most annoying character in B5 to date.

The rancid icing on the stodgy cake?  A man’s body is completely consumed and transformed by an alien creature, only to return in an instant to unharmed human skin, and the victim is fine.  Good grief.

But there was one big saving grace, that made this episode watchable: David McCallum.  The old pro from The Man from UNCLE gave an acting masterclass that put everyone else in this sorry mess to shame.  It was a beautifully understated performance, and really sold the character as a man who was not evil, but had been ground down to a point in life where he was willing to compromise on his ethics.  In an episode that defied all logic, here was somebody I could believe in.   RP

About Roger Pocock

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3 Responses to Babylon 5: Infection

  1. ML says:

    I’ll grant you this: the instant transformation is embarrassing on a whole other level: when the monster is down, it’s head is turned one way. When transformed back, it’s facing the other!
    JMS didn’t like this story and said if he could remove one, it would be this but I disagree with you on one point. And it’s a big part of your criticism: why did Sinclair get through to the monster when no one else could? Because the govenering body was human. The ikarran infection was on a human man and humanity can overcome. The weapon could not beat the human host no matter how much it tried.
    So I think your key gripe is based on forgetting a huge part of the backbone of the story: it’s EARTH CENTRIC! Humanity prevails.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Ah, so in that case what you’re saying is I should instead have been complaining about the episode because it’s screamingly xenophobic, rather than just not making any sense 😉 No, I’ll stick with my first thoughts on that! I think it’s just a clumsy bit of writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. scifimike70 says:

    The 1960s had Star Trek to revolutionize the most serious SF drama for television and the 90s had Babylon 5. We may have quite a few new ones to chose from today, from The Expanse to the new Lost In Space. But B5’s critical social-issues of xenophobia, was particularly more serious than we ever saw in Star Trek, Dr. Who and Star Wars.

    Liked by 1 person

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