Racing the Night bears many of the hallmarks of a pilot with a dream sequence opening that fills in a lot of background. There’s a simple reason for that: this was meant to air first. That decision might not have worked well at all, considering that the last episode (Appearances and Other Deceits) provided some logic behind the alternate uniforms. Had this aired in the original order, we also would have had a major surprise spoiled way too soon: that of the Apocalypse box. We had gotten some clues about it in a previous episode, but we haven’t seen it and I think the delay tactic works well. I do wonder how sentient it really is though, because I’d be a bit mad being left in a cupboard all day! What I really want to know, having never watched this series in the right order is, do we find out more? We have just 4 episodes to go and I’ll be honest: I don’t remember which is making me a bit itchy to jump ahead!
The plot isn’t the only thing that makes this episode feel like a pilot. It relies extremely heavily on CGI. Sadly, it’s not very good CGI, coming off like one of our early video games of the 90’s. At least the Galen simulacra is explained as being exactly what it is: a crude VR version of himself, but that doesn’t do as much for the rest of the episode. (I did have to laugh as Galen had his virtual innards removed though!) The alien planet looks like it would be awesome but too many shots in CGI take away from it. Watching Gary Cole fly around on his speeder-bike with his very modern aviator glasses doesn’t do much for the visual appeal either. (Although, I do like aviator glasses!) And where does he keep that bike when it’s not flying around the planet? Doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to fly down to the planet with, does it? But if we can get past the visuals, there’s an interesting point here. We find a race that has been put through the same ringer Earth has. The Shadows released the Drakh plague on these people as well; they too have only 5 years to live. Now, if you were watching this in the originally intended order, that might rub you a bit wrong. The reason we have 5 years, according to A Call to Arms, is because the plague was not modified for us so it’s a slow death. What’s their excuse? Or did the humans just not understand and that was always the intent?
The episode does give us a ton of visuals to connect us to the parent series too. The Shadow vessel is still a sight to behold, as is the White Star. The Rangers and the Star Furies are nice touches as well. Unlike the original series, there really is no B-plot. We have simply the primary plot: to figure out why this planet has an Aladdin’s treasure trove of formula that could change everything but no sign of life and a variety of dead organisms. When the answer is provided, an interesting ethical conundrum is proposed: will Gideon and the crew be so high and mighty about their ideals when time is running out for their people at home? Considering Gideon made a wager with the Drazi to shoot down Earth ships trying to escape in 4 years, I’m guessing he will do his best, but it is an interesting point. Sadly, the answer is largely academic as the series only has 4 episodes to go. It’s also interesting that this is the second race we’ve encountered that will be impacted by the success of Gideon and crew. Dureen’s people, those few that survived, are awaiting a cure as well. (And there’s another jarring bit to the order of the episodes. When Dureena talks to Galen, her rage at the death of her people doesn’t take into account that there is a small tribe of them still alive. Shame about the order here!)
One personal gripe with the order of these episodes is that the very last one we reviewed had a nice commentary about the military: they give their lives for others and do it without thinking about it. It was very jarring hearing Galen’s comment about them just one episode later: “If you wanted to think you should never have joined the military in the first place.” Now, sure, you could almost say that that ties in with the previous episode in that the soldier gives his or her life without thinking about it but it was pretty apparent that Galen’s comment was derogatory. Sure it could have been a playful jibe against Matthew, but I’m not so sure!
So the Excalibur is off to its next destination but it seems that’s not one of the locations provided by the Ranger, but rather by Gideon’s mysterious box. Who knows what it knows… let’s just hope it points him at the right target. And if we get a few more moral dilemmas along the way, I’m all for it! ML
The view from across the pond:
This was originally intended to be the opening episode of Crusade and it’s hard to understand why the network didn’t like it. JMS does a great job of introducing all the main characters to us (apart from Lochley, and I can only conclude she was in the opening credits as a plot to bring in Babylon 5 fans). He also establishes the premise of the series and does so without the infodump we got in the replacement opening episode. On the other hand, this still works well as a mid-season episode, with the revelation that Gideon’s five year mission has become a four year mission. If he hasn’t found a cure in four years he has agreed to spend the fifth shooting down any of his own ships that try to escape from Earth, although I suspect if it came to that then keeping his word would be the last thing on his mind.
“We do not want your kind spreading this virus to our worlds in a blind panic.”
Again, this is a prescient series. When there’s a pandemic, international co-operation has its limits, and protecting one’s own people takes precedence.
Exploring a deserted planet is one of my very favourite sci-fi ideas, and of course they are never truly deserted. When a crewmember gets murdered, his internal organs removed, I thought we were heading for the usual approach to this kind of story, with the crew getting picked off one by one by a foe who lurks in the shadows. As fun as that would have been, what we get instead is even better, because it explores a question of ethics and does so brilliantly. If your people are facing death, how far would you, and should you, go to save them? It’s an ends-justify-the-means question. If you save billions of lives by taking a few lives, is that OK? If so, at what point does it become not OK? Is one murder to save billions acceptable? How about ten? A hundred? A thousand? A million? The more you think about it, the more you don’t want to think about it.
Representing the two sides of the argument are Gideon and Max. Gideon says “you can’t murder someone because it’s a convenient form of testing,” which makes me wonder if JMS had medical tests on animals in mind when he wrote this. On the other hand Max asks him if he would sacrifice a few hundred Narns to save Earth, a question Gideon simply walks away from. That’s probably the best approach to an issue like this for a writer: pose the question and then walk away. Let the viewers take the question away with them. As soon as you try to offer answers it becomes preachy and most likely a simplification of a complex problem, and JMS deftly sidesteps that.
“Let us see how proud you are in three years.”
Unfortunately the episode was let down by the special effects, which would have been some justification for the network to ask for another opening episode (although I don’t think they gave that as a reason). It looks cheap, with an obviously superimposed Gideon flying over the abandoned city, and then Galen’s appalling computer game version of himself. It just makes you laugh to look at him, but luckily it’s a comedy moment anyway, with Peter Woodward saving the scene with his very British line delivery of Galen’s sarcastic commentary:
“Stop, that hurts! Oh the indignity of it! The horror! My liver! I wondered where that had got to.”
Galen is definitely the best thing about this series, and he has been sorely missed for the last four weeks. Luckily we also have Gideon, Max and Dureena, three great characters who have come to life far more than most of the B5 characters in the first season. Matheson and Dr Chambers are yet to make much of an impact, and time’s running out for this crew in more ways than one… RP