After a big episode, JMS likes to give us a break; a breather from the heavy things that have just happened. TKO isn’t a terribly strong episode considering the title. But if offers closure to one outstanding story line and gives us a taste of what else goes on below decks.
Several months earlier, Susan’s father died. Garibaldi stumbled upon the conversation between Susan and her father as she watched her father pass away. But Susan hasn’t mourned and an old rabbi friend comes to the station to sit Shiva with her. Meanwhile, an old friend of Michael’s shows up on the station with the intent on competing in the Mutai, a brutal form of alien boxing that humans are not typically allowed to compete in. Grand scheme: pretty basic. We know having seen Rocky and The Karate Kid, the human has to win and this follows the pattern. Nothing new in that. Back with Susan, we know she’s going to come to terms with her father’s death and sit Shiva, even though she protests for so much of the story.
What makes the episode interesting is subtle things. The themes of the episode are both peace and fighting. Susan has to find peace and forgiveness to accept her father’s passing. (“One must forgive in order to mourn”). Walker Smith has to fight in order to prove himself and in turn, all other humans. That dichotomy is at the heart of the episode. Sinclair once said that the best way to get to know a man is to fight him. Perhaps this is part of the Mutai experience as well. By fighting with Walker, the aliens get to know who he is and what he’s about, and they form a respect for him. Also of interest is that Walker Smith refers to the aliens as “snake heads” and “ET’s”. This ties in with the general prejudices that are festering back home on Earth.
Within the fiction of the show, it’s fun to know the news has a sports section. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen it. Attentive viewers would have noticed a sports section in Signs and Portents. Outside the fiction of the show, Walker Smith was the real name of the fighter Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson died April 12, 1989. Strangely, the actor playing Walker Smith died April 12, 1998. Just a fascinating tidbit.
The episode is light and fun with that Karate Kid style victory at the end. It’s not a great episode but it adds to the lore of the station. Walker offers Garibaldi a playful piece of advice when he leaves: “watch your back”. Seems like good advice on a station where anything can happen… ML
The view from across the pond:
“He said humanity had no business in space until it could live in peace on Earth.”
I have mentioned before how much I like this kind of thing, which really sets Babylon 5 apart from other sci-fi. It’s a realistic vision of the future, acknowledging that the human race is still going to have problems. Life isn’t suddenly going to get absolutely perfect, like the utopia Trek sold us. I mean, it would be nice to think that might happen, but this is a future we can understand, and one that is better placed for drawing parallels with contemporary life, which is one of the most important functions of science fiction.
But the other storyline going on this episode takes that too far. I refuse to subscribe to a vision of the future in which a sport that involves people hitting each other is still a thing. It also makes little sense that a violent sport would be permitted on the station, however wrapped up it is in spurious nonsense like tradition, honour, valour… you know, those excuses used to make people feel better about hitting people to earn money.
The human boxer in this episode is named Walker Smith, which was the real name of famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. You might have heard of him, but probably not because he killed a man in the ring in 1947. Apparently that was “very trying” for him, but not trying enough to discourage him from continuing to hit people for a living. So I found it disappointing that B5 named a character after Smith, made him xenophobic for good measure (“Relax, ET.”; “damn snake head caught me by surprise”), and then painted him as the hero of the piece. If he had wound up dead or crippled like dozens of others in the Mutai, the episode might have had something to say, but instead he gets a convenient draw and walks away. The really nasty thing is how there is a parallel being drawn with the other storyline: Ivanova’s Jewish mourning process. These stories were clearly not juxtiposed by accident. This is B5 showing us two different belief systems, two different cultures, and by equating the alien boxing with Judaism as some kind of deep, meaningful, honour and tradition is a way of validating the alien culture of violence. And however much you dress it up in those terms, it’s still just two blokes hitting each other until they can’t stand up.
Ivanova’s storyline was mercifully far better, which lifted the episode from the ranks of unwatchable. It had nothing particularly to say beyond providing a lecture in the importance of forgiveness and also the importance of the grieving process, but at least this part of the episode had its heart in the right place.
You cannot run away from your own heart Susan, not even in space.