“Walkabout” (season three, episode 18; originally aired 9/30/1996)
The third season of a series that manages to make it that far is often its best, and if not, it's usually the most interesting. At this point, a show has either almost totally collapsed in on itself, or it's old enough to have established a baseline of competence while still being young enough to be dynamic. The latter is where Babylon 5 is at this point: The show knows what it is, and knows what it's going for so well that even the below-average episodes go down easy. Part of that third-season competence is just how damn watchable these shows get.
“Walkabout” is probably a slightly below-average episode at this point for the show, to be honest. But that doesn't make it anywhere near bad, in the way a below-average episode for season two might have been, and a below-average episode of season one definitely was. It's got some good scenes and moments, it drives the plot of the Shadow War forward again after the diversion of “War Without End,” and Wallace's mom is actually a fine singer. It's just not up to the standard of the few episodes that came before, and definitely not up to the standards of the last three of the season. But that doesn't make it actually bad.
Part of its problem is the title. “Walkabout” is a reference to Doctor Franklin's plan to walk the length of the station until he “meets himself” in order to resolve his drug addiction at a personal level. I have some major problems with this idea. First, I'm skeptical about the appropriation of the term “walkabout” from “the Aboriginals” for such a TV-ready concept. Indeed, the idea that someone can resolve a major personal issue via a single dramatic gesture has always struck me as far too made-for-TV and rare in reality.
In fact, I have a deep mistrust of people who think that those sweeping gestures will fix their lives (especially when it comes to quitting Twitter or Facebook or the entire Internet or the like). Major life changes often involve a constant level of effort, and trying to skip all that by instead trying to get one perfectly poetic moment strikes me as deceptive and counter-productive. To its credit, normally Babylon 5 gets that. Garibaldi doesn't discuss his alcoholism in terms of an epiphany he had that fixed him, he talks about it in terms of an epiphany that made him realize that he needed to start working at it. And while I may roll my eyes at the glacial pace of the Sheridan-Delenn relationship, there are legitimate reasons why they couldn't just jump in bed with each other when their attraction was apparent, and instead had to slowly build a workable relationship. So the show suddenly jumping into Franklin's healing-by-metaphor is off-putting.
The other half of the episode is more straightforward and connected to Babylon 5's main plot arc. Lyta Alexander returns to the station, and Sheridan recruits her to test Garibaldi's theory that the Shadow warships are vulnerable to telepaths. Unsurprisingly, they are to a certain extent, but it's the complications along the way that are interesting.
The Narn warship from “The Fall Of Night” has returned, and is serving as B5's guardian when Sheridan launches his plan. Its captain—and the ambassadors of all the League worlds—demur when asked to join Sheridan during his test. Everyone accepts this, except for Garibaldi. He goes to G'Kar and lambasts him for allowing the captain, and all the others, to let their short-term interests damage their long-term plans. In fact, Garibaldi explicitly frames their democratic rejection of danger as oppositional to the military hierarchy Sheridan embodies, saying that the commanding officer has the “moral authority” to put others into danger.
Garibaldi's not wrong, particularly when he tells G'Kar, “It's not Na'Kal's decision because he doesn't see the big picture. You do.” As it turns out, Sheridan is correct in his hypothesis, but he also does need the help, and all of the helping ships are safe. But it's still the first time that Babylon 5 has explicitly moved away from the story of classical liberal ideals of equality and freedom, and towards a hero-centric morality, where Sheridan specifically is always the good guy, regardless of everything else. This will become one of the dominant thematic elements of the fourth and fifth seasons, and “Walkabout” is a major turning point.
Finally, “Walkabout” introduces the new Vorlon ambassador (who wants to go by Kosh, but supplementary material calls him Ulkesh, so I'm going to stick with that). Ulkesh is not half so cuddly as Kosh—he's dismissive of Sheridan's questions; he chokes Lyta for information, and his suit is all dark and pointy and creepy. He's an indication that maybe the Vorlons aren't the powerful heroes that will save the day; that there's a negative side to their paternalism.
“Walkabout” was initially supposed to air after “Interludes And Examinations” and it is, in many ways, a direct sequel to that episode. “Interludes” was all about Kosh in life, and “Walkabout,” other than the misleading storyline of the title, is all about Kosh in death. Lyta derives strength from Kosh's apparent presence inside of Sheridan, which she uses to help destroy the Shadow vessel. Ulkesh's negative paternalism makes Kosh's relatively benevolent manipulations seem better, or at least, more complicated in that perhaps he did not speak for the entirety of the Vorlon empire. And the idea that some must be sacrificed for the greater good and that Sheridan and Garibaldi and G'Kar can see that, even if the individuals cannot, is the goal that Kosh worked toward most directly. Babylon 5 embracing it in deed as well as in word is a major step for the show.
- “We are all Kosh.” Come on, buddy, that's just Vorlon 101. Gotta ramp up the cryptic.
- Franklin just picks up two oranges just in a random market stall. Sheridan must hate himself.
- “You know how crazy this sounds? You're a doctor. A scientist.” “And?” “And what?” “Exactly.” I do like this exchange.
- “So you gonna be Steve.” Erica Gimpel is really good as Franklin's temporary love interest. I was all set to make a joke about how two hundred years in the future, people would still be listening to 1990s-style lite soul. But she sings well enough that I couldn't actually make the complaint.
- Speaking of Erica Gimpel, she's the only crossover between my two TV Club Classic shows, this and Veronica Mars.
- “Worried?” “A little bit. I've never done anything like this before.” “Well, if it helps, neither have I.”
- To be honest, I prefer this viewing order even beyond its usefulness in scheduling my reviews (by putting both parts of “War Without End” on the same week). The idea that there was a lull in the war after the Vorlons showed up makes more sense with the Babylon 4 adventure separating that battle from the skirmish in “Walkabout.”
“Grey 17 Is Missing” (season three, episode 19; originally aired 10/7/1996)
This week's two episodes pair rather nicely in that they suffer from many of the same issues—except “Grey 17” is significantly worse. “Walkabout” may have been below average, but this one is the frontrunner for worst of the season. But as I said, Babylon 5 has a level of competence now that would have me put “Grey 17” well above several first-season episodes. Yes, the Garibaldi subplot is terrible, but it's ridiculously horrifyingly watchably terrible, unlike, say, “Infection” or “Born To The Purple.”
Like “Walkabout,” the misleading title makes the episode seem like it's about its worst aspect. Garibaldi's investigation of the missing floor in Grey Sector is a one-off, never mentioned again, whereas the important focus of the episode is on Delenn's promotion to head of the Rangers, Entil'Zha. Her former antagonist, Neroon, returns, and shows just how close Minbari society is to collapse. And Marcus proves himself to be a hero, as opposed to the sidekick he's played before. So call this episode “Ranger One” or “Marcus And Neroon's Big Adventure” and I think it gets a much less terrible reputation.
The hero-centrism rears its head as well in “Grey 17 Is Missing.” When Neroon initially confronts Delenn, he criticizes her rise to power. “A religious zealot compelled by ambition to take political and military power? Alllllways a bad idea.” Is Neroon wrong? No. Is his criticism taken seriously? No—because Delenn is a hero, and heroes have followers who are willing to sacrifice themselves to prove the hero's worth. And that, of course, brings us back to Kosh. Delenn may have learned his lesson of sacrifice for herself, but she hasn't learned it for others—that's what Lennier tells Marcus, when he encourages the Ranger to sacrifice himself for Delenn's greater good. Is Lennier wrong? Again, in the hero-centric context of the show, he's totally right, and Marcus not only survives but he gains Neroon's respect. But this is in huge part because Babylon 5, so willing to wade into moral ambiguity with Londo and G'Kar, treats Delenn and Sheridan as untouchable. There was never a chance Neroon would become Ranger One, as interesting as that could have been.
I suppose I should say something about Garibaldi's adventures in Grey Sector, but it's really just not that interesting. There's a germ of a good idea, in that a death cult could have arisen based off the Minbari near-conquest of Earth—“That was why they nearly defeated us in the war. They were closer to the truth”—but it never goes anywhere. It's just Garibaldi dealing with some crazy shit in ridiculous fashion, and then trying to tell Sheridan about it in a wacky fashion that brings to mind the first season's total lack of comedic chemistry. Yes, “Grey 17 Is Missing” is a bad part of the episode. But “Ranger One” is a great part of the episode, and I find it a lot easier to focus on that.
- “I respectfully suggest that he was planning to use more than harsh language.” Lennier, gettin' snippy!
- “For him to see us making war upon your people broke his heart.” Delenn explains her father's death—I wish we got to hear more about this later.
- “You're sort of left out of the cosmic loop, so to speak.” A slight pass for the amusingness of this line. Lasts for about 30 seconds.
- “We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass!” Marcus, you're Aragorn, not Gandalf. Get it straight.
- “I do not think they will die for me. But they would die for you. Entil'zha.”
- Can we talk about how great John Vickery is here? His scenery-chewing is top-tier. I wish he and William Forward (Refa) had some excuse to have a scene together. “He will not hear you.” “Then I will speak briefly.”
- “Next time you want a revelation, could you possibly find a way that isn't quite so uncomfortable?”