While season 3 is a powerhouse, the first few stories are pretty average because they seem to need to rev up. Like starting a car in the cold, it might take a mile or two before the heater is clearing the windshield. You can be upset with the car, or just realize that’s the way it is. If you accept it, you get on with the drive and enjoy the music you’ve got playing and that’s that. That’s probably best for this episode as well. Well, A Day in the Strife reminds me of the first mile or so, because it’s good, but it’s ignoring the overall story about the war, which at this point, is well and truly underway. The big threat in this episode is an alien probe that makes contact and promises all sorts of technology if certain questions are answered. That, or it will destroy the entire station if those questions are not answered. For a story about a war that’s been brewing, it feels like we’re taking a side-step into another series. To combat that, the Centauri have appointed a new ambassador for the Narn. Meanwhile, Vir is being sent away by Londo, which begs the question: is Londo just trying to get rid of his Jiminy Cricket, not wanting to hear the voice of his conscience any longer? Just what we needed: Londo without a moral compass. Or perhaps he truly just wants Vir safe, knowing that it may be too late for himself, but he can protect the one genuinely good Centauri? So, yes, while we should be dealing with the war, we’re looking at what Roger often calls a slice of life episode. Actually, as I typed that, I realized why the title is what it is: it’s a day in the life of Babylon 5 and the theme is one of Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong… hence strife. (Look, I never really thought about it before, ok!?)
Now that aside, we get a bit of opening bravado by Sheridan to set the stage before Na’Far and Ta’lon arrive. We’ve seen Ta’lon before and I actually like the character especially after his informal chat with Sheridan. Na’Far, on the other hand, is one of those sycophants that obeys the ruling tyrants because … well, he’s a sycophant; it’s what they do. Job description and all that. But it’s actually Sheridan that I wanted to focus on. I think of much greater significance to this episode than the Narn/Centauri stuff is what might be seen as a minor sequence starting at the club scene. Franklin and Garibaldi are chatting. Ivanova comes in and verifies that Stephen looks beat. He’s been working 20 hours and has to go on shift again shortly. After he leaves for the “little officers room”, Garibaldi and Ivanova talk about Sheridan. Then Franklin comes back reinvigorated. So there are two items of consequence here. Franklin is using stims again and he’s hiding it. Later, Michael invites him to dinner where he confronts Stephen about it, and things get a little ugly. So the question is, while a major war is going on, do we need the chief medical officer becoming addicted to stims? And what impact might that have on the station? For that matter, how does this affect Michael, who “never met a bottle he didn’t like”? (Perhaps not at all, perhaps they’re setting something else up too…) Based on Stephen’s actions later in the episode, he’s already in a bad way as he humiliates a fellow doctor. But back to the conversation between Ivanova and Garibaldi, Michael states that he researched Sheridan and learned that he can take an “inferior defensive force and turn it into an offensive force capable of taking on a better equipped enemy”. He gives examples with the Black Star but, more importantly, we’ve seen this at the start of the season too, when he uses the White Star to defeat a Shadow vessel using a jump gate. As Michael says, he may be the one person who could get them out of this war alive. And that takes us to this episode where it’s Sheridan’s tactical thinking that saves the entire station. It’s Sheridan who realizes that the probe might not be all that it appears. Furthermore, he’s not content to survive knowing the probe will go play the same game with someone else; so he transmits the answers the probe was seeking, leading to a massive explosion. He not only saves the station, he saves a potential future ally! Of course, it still begs the question: where did it come from and who sent it? Perhaps some things are just never meant to be answered.
But now I’ll pose one question to you, dear reader. When Corwin is asked if there are any bots in the area, he says “just one”. This isn’t a Nimon trick, I swear, but how many probes do you see here?
I counted twice, to make sure I didn’t lose count. You try. One… Two… TWO PROBES!! (I even called my friend The Count, who has a house down on Sesame Street and he validated it for me…)
Anyway, back to the idea of the “Berserker”, offering a veritable Aladdin’s cave of technical treasures and medical marvels; it would be very helpful in the time of war. The idea that you have a set number of hours to answer the questions it poses or it would destroy you is a terrifying concept. At face value, your own ignorance could kill you. (Come to think of it, that may be true a lot in life, so maybe I should think of life as quite the terrifying concept!) The gifts it offers could change your life. Imagine having to make that decision? If you’re wrong, you’re dead. If you don’t know, you’re dead. And it turns out, if you do know, you’re dead! In Star Trek, this would be a no-win scenario… unless you can out-think it. Turn down the promise of treasure because you realize it might be a trap. (Where is Admiral Ackbar when you need him?! If he were here, the episode would have been over in minutes. “IT’S A TRAP!”) And then it dawns on you: this was a phishing attempt of the future. Yes, today it’s that rich Nigerian uncle who wants to send you $10000000 if you just provide your bank account information, tomorrow a probe appears on your doorstep offering technology and medicine to cure all woes. Do you click the link … take the bait? Or do you ignore it and hope you didn’t just offend that uncle you didn’t know you had? Personally, I’m going to work on some tactical thinking problems now. For instance: how many probes make one? ML
The view from across the pond:
Babylon 5 episodes often have an A plot and a B plot, which works well when they are integrated in some way, at least thematically. This week we get an A, B, C and D plot, which is perhaps taking things a bit far and results in some of the storylines being rather thinly spread.
Providing the most significant jeopardy this episode we have the probe that turns up with some tricky questions for the human race to answer, like some kind of interstellar Jeremy Paxman (sorry, the reference won’t cross the pond), and they’re not even multiple choice.
“Apparently it’s some form of intelligence test to determine if we’re sufficiently intelligent for contact.”
I think it’s fair to say that the human race in general wouldn’t take kindly to that sort of thing, and would decide that the probe can just **** off and contact somebody else then. But there’s more. If the questions are answered correctly, there’s some cures for disease and advanced technology on offer. Oh, and by the way the probe will blow up if they get the questions wrong, and take the whole station with it. And I thought I was hard done by when I had to do mock exams at school.
This should be all very scary and the focal point of the episode, but because the B, C and D plots are all a lot more interesting it instead feels like an annoying distraction. I did like how astute Sheridan was in figuring out that answering everything right could be more dangerous, because the probe is looking for races who are advanced enough to be a threat. Anyone who doesn’t do well in exams, have that excuse on Sheridan.
Our B plot is G’Kar, N’Far, Ta’Lon, and other apostrophised gentlemen. Ta’Lon seems like a nice chap, N’Far not so much, because he’s a collaborator. G’Kar is placed in an impossible position. If he doesn’t return to the Narn home world the families of all the Narn on the station will be tortured. If he returns he will almost certainly be killed. Fortunately for us (because G’Kar is a great character), his followers decide that there is no fate worse for them than tucking their tails between their legs and collaborating with the Centauri, who have all but wiped out the Narn.
That brings us to the C plot, which looks at the fundamental moral difference between Londo and Vir.
“It’s not enough that we’ve beaten them, we have to break them?”
Londo asks N’Far how things are going back on the home world. How are the work farms, the relocation camps, the construction gangs, the executions? There are obvious real world historical parallels here, and history shows what a fool’s errand the Centauri are on if they think they can break the spirit of a defeated foe to ensure they will not rise up against their oppressors in even a hundred years’ time. This isn’t defeat, it’s humiliation, and Vir recognises the futility of it all and is horrified. He remains the only good Centauri we have ever met. In fact, he is so out of place that Londo decides to send him on a diplomatic mission to Minbar, well away from the horrors of the Narn occupation. It’s a rare act of kindness from Londo, who values friendship highly and struggles to find it in any genuine sense (being a monstrous war criminal will do that to a person), but one can’t help but get the feeling that he underestimates Vir. The C plot ends up unresolved, with Vir heading off to Minbar, presumably (and hopefully) to return soon.
Similarly unresolved is the D plot, because I’m not buying Franklin’s insistence that he’s OK with his “stims” for one second. I liked how Garibaldi’s alcoholic past hasn’t been forgotten, and enables him to recognise that Franklin has a problem. The way he lashes out at Garibaldi when the subject is raised is enough to indicate that Garabaldi has hit the nail on the head.
“Stop trying to put your problems on me, just because you never met a bottle you didn’t like.”
After nearly 50 episodes, Franklin remains a difficult character to warm to. The minute he went off to the loo and returned all hyper after 20 hours on duty, it was immediately obvious he was on something. The problem with this storyline was that, despite being an interesting one, JMS was true to form and screwed it up. Addiction stories in drama always follow a pretty standard pattern, and you always get a moment where the addict’s behaviour crosses the line and gets noticed. This is the moment where other characters are supposed to realise that the addict has a problem, and the addict’s behaviour reaches a tipping point, often motivating him or her to seek help. So we get one of those, when Franklin shoots his mouth off at the scientist woman who is supposed to be putting together the medical answers for the probe. And that clearly doesn’t function in the way that it is supposed to.
“Doctor Franklin, are you alright?”
Um… yes, he is. What, she thinks his behaviour is unreasonable, towards a woman who doesn’t want to inconvenience somebody on holiday to save a quarter of a million people? This is clearly intended to demonstrate his addiction, and yet it collapses in that endeavour by his behaviour being entirely reasonable in the circumstances.
In the end, I did enjoy this episode though, because there was so much going on. The thematic link between Vir and G’Kar both being pushed into leaving against their will was weak, the probe as the big source of danger was a bit of a non-event, and Franklin’s addiction storyline went nowhere and was fudged by the writer, but I can’t fault the ambition in trying to give us four storylines within 45 minutes, all with a beginning, middle and end of sorts. On balance, though, it might be better in future if B5 does a little less, and does it a little bit better. RP