How many times have we said that if you’re going to copy something, copy the greats. It’s like those silly days in school when you copied someone’s homework: you want to copy the kid who gets it right! JMS offered us a wonderfully disturbing episode of Crusade, cleverly titled Appearances and Other Deceits, but I was reminded of something while watching it. I searched my memory and then it hit me. This was very similar to the Star Trek episode The Naked Time. Oh, that was a virus, but this was similar in that it was a “spread-by-touch-to-make-the-crew-act-differently” story. And how differently! I loved when Jane let out that scream; it was went right to my core!
The story opens with a very creepy alien hand sending out a distress call. While I might be reluctant to stop the search for a cure, Gideon points out that the cure for penicillin was found in mold, so they have to stop along the way to see if perhaps there is an answer to be found on the alien ship. That part of the story makes complete sense. Of slightly more questionable nature is the way-too-typical B-plot: Earth has sent interior decorators to the Excalibur to redecorate because, you know, somehow that’s important! Let’s think in terms of Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. Your mission, should you chose to accept it, will save the nation from a nuclear war … and replace all Nike sneakers with Reebok while you’re at it! Huh? How is that even a concern?? I may be oversimplifying things here, but I just don’t see the urgency! I realize that we need the over-the-top decorator to help Matheson spot the solution but that is the extent of the B-plot’s usefulness. (I don’t dislike the new uniforms, but the black ones were far superior!)
The story kept me on edge the entire time. Gideon is basically held hostage on his own ship but has an idea that saves the day. (It gives us the only funny line in this tense story when Max insists that he doesn’t use cliches!) As the crew is being taken over one by one and a “Mexican standoff” develops that seems pretty unwinnable, Max has an idea about a guard who is on life support, having saved him earlier. This might have been a bit of a convenience but I still felt the idea worked and the reason for it is actually Max’s reaction to the whole thing. He is deeply bothered by the loss of the guard, Greenberg. Dr. Chambers tries to help him come to terms with it explaining that is what soldiers do: they save people without thinking. They are trained to save people. It’s a very positive message about what soldiers do and I commend the writing. But Max’s normally-arrogant self is troubled; he needs to rationalize that Greenberg’s death actually saved more lives than just his own. That is what sells the conveniently injured crewman so well. Not only does his death have meaning, we even get an epilogue where Gideon is writing letters to the families of the deceased, offering condolences and commendations for their losses. This is that dark part of command and it’s addressed solemnly and reverently. I found that a powerful moment in a very tense episode.
On top of that, there’s a bit of a curiosity in this story. When Gideon tricks the creature out of Mr. Welles body, the audience is privy to some of its thoughts and it tries to tell Gideon not to “do this… I know what you’re looking for! I know where you can find it!” Does that mean it knows the cure for the Drakh plague? That just opens a series of thoughts, not the least of which is: where are these creatures from? What else do they know? I can’t rule out that this was a bluff, but as he can’t be heard, does it really make sense? This offers the first hint that maybe the cure would have been found sooner had the series been allowed to continue, but one wonders what it would have morphed into at that point. Clearly we will never know!
It was nice seeing John Vickery back as Mr. Welles. Fans will remember him from the end of Season 2 of B5. Also nice is seeing an Earthforce ship, though I have a hard time thinking that this military vessel really felt a need to stop along the way to get the new uniforms, but maybe they were stopping for fuel anyway. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. More than anything, it was nice seeing some deep moments from both Max and Gideon. Max’s confidence takes a shaking and that was a nice touch to a character who is often tough to warm to. Gideon’s duty is a kick in the teeth, but one that really reflects something that would weigh heavily on any commanding officer.
The solution to the episode was elegant. Unfortunately, we only have 5 episodes left before the untimely cancelation took place but I’m hoping the arrival of the new uniforms marks a quality shift on the stories. (The background behind the actual production order doesn’t offer much hope, but let’s stick with in-series continuity for now, shall we?) I’ll miss those dark uniforms, but maybe the grey will herald some good things, not just Gideon being dressed like a bellhop. ML
The view from across the pond:
“The plague is only part of the problem. The rest is panic.”
This has been such a prophetic series it’s frightening. I suppose to a certain extent the consequences of a worldwide pandemic are predictable, but having lived through the Covid-19 crisis this series takes on an extra significance. Every so often it makes you go: wow, ain’t that the truth.
The episode also plays on the theme of infection in a different way, with an alien species who invade by infecting their victims. That’s not unusual in sci-fi, but the approach is subtly different, with the alien dividing its consciousness with each new host. That’s much scarier than the usual approach to the idea. We would normally expect something like an alien jumping from one mind to another (e.g. Doctor Who’s New Earth), but an alien that can multiply simply by touching somebody else is a frightening prospect. I think JMS slightly dropped the ball by having the creature just touch a shoulder to spread, because the script then required a space suit to be sufficient protection:
“Flesh is our conduit.”
…although fabric has been a perfectly acceptable conduit up to that point. It was unnecessarily clumsy, and could easily have been solved with a simple touch on the back of the neck, or whatever. That would have also tied in with the aliens on the discovered ship being all naked, something that’s a clumsy sci-fi cliché, but could have explained how easily the parasite spread on their ship. As always, JMS’s scripts seemed to be in need of a good script editor and one more draft, just to join the dots a little clearer.
The alien’s method of invasion also functions very well as an allegory for colonialism:
“Why risk ourselves when we can program others to become us?”
They don’t kill people, at least on the superficial level of the physical body. Instead they just make people like them, which is even more insidious. I felt the script could have done a little more to represent the horror of that idea, perhaps examining what happens to the person’s consciousness. When the alien takes over, is the person’s mind locked away? Are they trapped and aware of what’s happening? But this was a scary episode anyway (comparatively). The floating dead aliens presented a creepy spectacle, and in fact I was really impressed by the special effects for the whole episode (and that’s been a rare thing with the B5 franchise). Even the flying drone was impressive.
In many ways this was the episode I have been waiting for, the one to rise above the mediocrity of the series. We have been consistently hitting average for just about every episode so far: good enough, but no more. For the first time I actually felt like I was watching an exciting series. Even the silly little B plot worked well, thanks to one little gem of a scene. Logic took flight to start with, because it clearly doesn’t matter what the inside of the Excalibur looks like from the point of view of the public back home (unless there’s some kind of a warped reality show going on with live streams of the inside of the ship), and uniform design is never going to be a job for the same person as interior design, so that was annoying me until Kevin had a quiet little chat with Matheson and effortlessly came up with all the answers to the nature of the threat they are facing. That moment deftly challenged our assumptions and showed that the man has a great brain, but sadly is just using it to annoy people.
Frustratingly we’re getting little hints that would have built up to the overall story arc, and never came to fruition:
“I know what you’re looking for. I know where you can find it.”
I suppose in one respect it was pretty obvious where we were heading with Crusade: towards a cure. But the journey is always more interesting than the destination. With the series finally hitting its stride, we can only regret the loss of that journey all the more. RP