Babylon 5: Spider in the Web

b5Guess what?  Another non-JMS episode for season 2.  Spider in the Web is written by Larry Ditillio, who clearly has a thing about cybernetic implants.  (Remember, he wrote Deathwalker, which featured Abbut the ViCaR, a character who was able to use his brain like a VCR?)  He also was trying to market his new drink, the Jovian Sunspot, because Sheridan mentions one in this story too!  I think we are seeing some repeat ideas coming up.

Spider is a thriller and it stars Adrienne Barbeau as Amanda Carter, a woman with a past.  Abel Horn is a man with no future, as he’s been dead for some time but that’s not stopping him from committing some terrorist actions.  And there’s a dream to bring peace between Earth and Mars that is just being hampered at every turn!

I find Spider in the Web to be one of the weaker episodes of the series.  It’s probably been tainted for me because I watched Deep Space 9 first.  While B5 did most things better, DS9 had Section 31 as a top secret branch of Star Fleet; they were intriguing and cool; a conspiracy-lovers dream.  Sheridan would have loved it!  So the fact that (dyslexic) Bureau 13 gets introduced here just felt like a weaker substitute.  And considering how much B5 did with world building and continuity, I just think it should have been so much better!  I guess it’s the risk we run with any non-JMS episodes, we get a great idea that promptly goes… nowhere.  (Alright, it does go somewhere, but it never feels like it pays off completely.)

Yes, the world building is still pretty great.  Something is happening in San Diego (not involving cosplay) and we learn more about the corruption in the senate.  There’s more about Free Mars, but we get little about it short of the dream of Mr. Isogi.  The episode is very good for prelude, but it’s a prelude to an idea that never feels even close to being as strong as the main storyline.  As for characters, we learn that Sheridan loves conspiracies and Susan may hate the PsiCorp but she does like Talia Winters.  (Well, someone had to!)  Oh, and let’s not overlook that we are introduced to Zach Allen, played by former Grease costar Jeff Conaway.  (I don’t know what it was about Zach, but I always liked this guy!)

It may have been unintentional but giving Sheridan a love of conspiracy theories was clever because he seems to be open minded about the assassination of President Santiago.  This might make sense from a conspiracy theorist’s perspective.  Also probably unintentional is the reference to Amanda Carter’s grandfather, John, who took the first colony ship to Mars.  (If this were written by JMS, I’d expect that to be intentional, but I’m not sure!)  Oh, why is that important?  Anyone ever read (or see the movie) John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

There are a lot of B5 episodes during the first two seasons that hit different genres and different ratings.  This is a thriller that scored pretty low for me.  (By contrast, last week’s horror, while not advancing the plot that much, still scored very highly!)  I wanted to love this episode because it has a brilliant title, and it probably indicates that whoever is at the heart of Section… I mean Bureau 13… is the spider in the web, but we may have to wait to find out.  And by the time we do, will it be small fries, by comparison to everything else going on?   ML

The view from across the pond:

Oh no, not a Talia episode.  That was my first thought about Spider in the Web, and true to form it wasn’t long before she was getting on my nerves.  Straight after the meeting between Taro Isogi and Amanda Carter, for example, she says this:

“She liked the idea. She has her doubts, but basically she likes it.”

And that’s the kind of thing that makes me dislike her (apart from the wooden acting).  What right has she got to go rummaging around in Carter’s head?  Maybe that’s the reaction we are supposed to have.  After all, it is neatly juxtaposed with Senator Elise Voudreau basically asking Sheridan to become a political spy:

“Practicality is more important than principles if lives are to be saved.”

So maybe we are supposed to draw those parallels.  Almost by accident, Talia spies on people all the time.  It’s just a way of life.  But right from the start of B5 telepaths have been portrayed as a bit dangerous, people to be wary of.  So let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume for now that if Talia is everyone’s least favourite character, maybe she’s supposed to be.

Her interactions with Garibaldi come closest to changing all that.  When she laughs at his request to “at least tell me what badinage means”, she seems human for the first time in nearly 30 episodes of Babylon 5.

So let’s look under the bonnet (hood?) and see what this episode is trying to do.  We have some political machinations, with a hired killer on the loose.  So this is another of those whodunit episodes.  More specifically, it asks the question, who hired the assassin?  This being Babylon 5, we get an answer that leads to more questions.  You really do have to commit to this series to get anything much out of it.  We are now at a stage where casual viewers are almost entirely excluded.   That’s not necessarily a fault, just an observation of the kind of series Babylon 5 has become, and that’s quite distinct from what it was in year one, although the seeds were already being sewn then.

Our “cyber zombie” is an interesting character.  The concept is fascinating and ghoulish, but it’s a shame more thought was not put into his appearance.  If you want to sell a scary cyborg in sci-fi, you’ve got to make it creepy, and that always means doing something with the face.  That could be some implants, especially the eye for added ick factor, for the Borg approach.  Or it could be the replacement of skin with plastic or metal, for the Cyberman approach.  Giving the actor a robot hand to wear or hold isn’t going to frighten a toddler.

So once you get past the chit-chat about computer implants in the brain, what this all boils down to is an episode that revolves around an incompetent assassin.  He’s having a breakdown, and not doing a very good job.  If the assassin in your story is incompetent (albeit for interesting reasons), that presents another problem, because for the story to function everyone else needs to be even more incompetent.  That ultimately leads us to a security team led by Garibaldi who behave like a bunch of dopes, allowing the assassin’s obvious target to enter a room she has been called to visit, before checking it first.

The main point here, though, is what the episode adds to the bigger picture.  We have another piece in our puzzle, and it’s starting to build up to a very interesting image.  This week’s jigsaw piece is labelled “Bureau 13”.  But you know the important thing about a jigsaw puzzle?  Those pieces had better all fit together, without any missing ones.  A five-year story is a big investment in time.  Let’s hope none of these pieces end up Lost.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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