Babylon 5 – The X Files – tape 2048

First on this tape, the Channel 4 announcer proudly says “for the first time anywhere in the world” as it premieres the first of “the final four” Babylon 5 episodes from season 2, Divided Loyalties.

This was a very big deal. The show’s broadcast pattern in the US had been somewhat erratic – US shows tended to have seasons of between 20 and 26 episodes, but these episodes were usually shown over a much longer period, so there would be a run of new episodes, then some repeats, then more new episodes. That’s why US programme trailers always made a big deal of “All New Episode”.

Babylon 5’s network also often took the show off when there was a big sports event, so there were often long periods with no new shows. And as series 2 was going out, something interesting was noticed. Channel 4 had started running the show well after it had started in the US, knowing how many episodes were in the series, and when the final episode was due to air in the States. But the US network changed its schedule over time, and a decision was made to hold the last four episodes to run later than had been intended.

But this meant that, if Channel 4 kept its one episode a week schedule, as was the norm for UK TV, the final four episodes would air in the UK before the US. Almost three months before, it turned out.

This was a huge deal.

The Internet was here, and there was a big B5 dscussion group on Usenet, the old Internet News system. Creator J Michael Straczynski participated in the group, giving fans the kind of direct contact with the show that was unprecedented. And B5 was exactly the kind of show that thrived on that kind of environment. It had a long-running storyline – a true 5 year story was promised – with secrets to be revealed, genuine major changes to the story universe playing out, and plenty of twists and turns. Spoilers were a big deal now, in a way they hadn’t really been in the past.

And now, the UK was getting to see the end of Season 2 three months before the US.

Boy were they pissed. They had never really experienced this – almost every interesting genre programme was American, so they would just always get it before us, and that’s how it had always been. UK viewers had to hope they would avoid spoilers from online discussions in the weeks and months we would wait before getting the new episodes.

And now the tables were turned. We were promised massive, world-changing revelations leading to a huge final episode, and we would be seeing it first. It was all rather exciting.

I had a friend and former colleague who had moved to America to work for Microsoft, and I think he had moved there before these episodes aired. I remember taping copies of them for him and mailing him VHS tapes as they went out (although that might be a false memory, and it might have been for the end of Season 3). But we definitely had a mutual tape swap thing going. When Season 3 was in full swing, he’d send me tapes of the latest episodes (that definitely happened because I know which episodes they were) and for that season, I’d send him the final five episodes as they aired.

In these times, when it seems that more and more regular shows have almost simultaneous broadcast – genuinely simultaneous in the cases of Game of Thrones and the end of Breaking Bad, it’s easy to forget the time lag we used to suffer, so this one time when the position was reversed was genuinely notable.

Onto the episode itself. It starts with some stilted banter  between Sheridan and Delenn about newspapers. The B5 imagined universe has machines that print out a personalised copy of a big interstellar newspaper, and which recycle your old copy. The idea of consuming all your news on a screen was still too far fetched for this story of aliens and planets.

Then there’s a sequence on Mars, where two men are pursued through a dark, cheap looking, generic underground tunnel. One of them is injured, and passes a data crystal to the other, urging him to get it to Babylon 5. “Tell them it’s not safe” he says, then says “A substantial banana”. At least that’s what it sounded like to my family as I played this line over and over again to try to understand what he was saying.

So I broke out my DVD copy of this season. It’s weird to see the episodes presented in 16:9. All the non-effects scenes look fine, but the full CGI scenes look horribly zoomed in. I don’t think they bothered to re-render the CGI scenes on this series.

But, it does have subtitles, and the mysteriously substantial banana line is actually “there’s danger within” which on reflection is a lot more dramatic.

After the titles, Sheridan and Garibaldi have some more stilted dialogue about trees. But this time there’s a reason – Garibaldi is sweeping the room for bugs.

They discuss recent events, including the death of the president (which happened at the end of Season 1, so about a year ago in show terms, but is obviously something we need to remember as an audience) and whether the telepath Talia Winters might be a useful resource for them, if they are going up against the new president, and the Psi Corps.

Speaking of Talia, she’s having a meal with Ivanova, and they are obviously hitting it off finally, after two years of antagonism due to Ivanova’s loathing of Psi Corps. I remember being a bit surprised at the speed of this character shift at the time.

Speaking of telepaths, a ship arrives with one, injured occupant – Lyta Alexander, the telepath from the pilot episode who scanned Ambassador Kosh.

She has an important message for the command crew. “One of you is a traitor. And I can prove it.”

Patricia Tallman

She has information about a sleeper agent program of the Psi Corps. Someone on the staff is an agent, but doesn’t know it. They have a deeply hidden personality that can be brought out by a telepathic password – which she has.

She wants to try sending the password to all of the command staff to draw out the mole. But the staff are obviously unhappy about having their loyalty questioned. Ivanova in particular would never submit to a scan.

(You can see, given what this episode is promising, how the US were horrified at spoilers coming out.)

It’s clear that Talia and Ivanova are becoming close.

Andrea Thompson

While Lyta is being moved to a more comfortable quarters, someone tries to kill her, and she disappears. Talia notices that Ivanova had gone out that night – incidentally, it was quite a big deal that they were sharing a bed, and the next morning Ivanova tells Talia that she’s “hidden things”. It’s not looking good for Ivanova. No wonder she’s always avoided being scanned by telepaths.

So she goes to Sheridan and tells him her secret. That she’s a latent telepath. And she can’t submit to a scan or Lyta would find out.

Then Lyta returns, with the senior staff gathered. She sends the password to them in turn. Sheridan and Dr Franklin are clean. But Garibaldi has a reaction.

Garibaldi faking

A fake reaction. Ho Ho.

At this point, they skip Ivanova. Sheridan’s obviously hoping to find the mole, and avoid having to scan Ivanova entirely. They arrange for the rest of the command staff to come and see Sheridan briefly, and Lyta sends the password to each of them. There’s a montage, as the work through the staff, and Ivanova keeps looking shifty.

Finally, she relents and lets Lyta scan her.

And she’s clean.

They’re starting to exhaust possibilities, when Talia walks in looking for Sheridan. Lyta sends the password and Talia flips out.

Talia Flips

She’s the mole, and pretty soon she’s leaving, presumably Psi Corps are taking her home. Sheridan and Co feel they dodged a bullet, because they almost invited her to join their conspiracy against the new President.

Lyta also leaves, but not before visiting Ambassador Kosh and asking to see his true form once more. We get a glimpse of bright light, but nothing else, just some suggestive sound effects.

Kosh Strips off

You can really see why the possibility of spoilers was a big worry. This was a massive revelation for a major character, effectively writing out Talia as a recurring character. Actor Andrea Thompson wanted to leave the series, so creator JMS used the ‘control’ backstory that he had already seeded to give a way for the character to leave, and reintroducing Lyta (Patricia Tallman) gave him a telepath to use as the story continued.

The need to write out the character does go some way to explain why the Talia/Ivanova romantic subplot seemed to spring from nowhere, mostly in this episode as I recall.

After this, recording continues with an episode of Deputy Dawg – Catfish Crisis.

Next, over to Sky One with The X Files – Soft Light. Tony Shalhoub is a scientist whose shadow can kill people.

Tony Shalhoub

The way his origin is explained, it sounds like it was cribbed from Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen. He was locked in a science experiment looking for dark matter, and now his shadow contains dark matter particles that act like a black hole (or something, I wasn’t really paying attention). Looks cool when someone gets dark mattered.

Gravity Sucks

The episode was written by Vince Gilligan, of future Breaking Bad fame.

Back to Babylon 5 with The Long Twilight Struggle. Londo is on Centauri Prime where Lord Refa tells him the war with the Narn they started six months ago is about to end, thanks to him. On Babylon 5, there are strange energy surges from the planet below, and Sheridan has a visit from Draal, the minbari who took over control of the Great Machine on the planet in the episode A Voice in the Wilderness. Although now he’s played by a new actor, John Schuck.

John Schuck

He explains away this change by saying the machine has returned him to a more youthful form. He asks Sheridan to visit him as soon as possible.

G’Kar is visited by a Narn war leader, his Uncle, who briefs him about a new offensive in the war against the Centauri. He’s played by W Morgan Sheppard.

W Morgan Sheppard

Refa tells Londo that he needs him to ask ‘his allies’ to stop the Narn attack, so that the bulk of the Centauri fleet can attack the Narn Homeworld.

G’Kar gets a hint of this happening from Dr Franklin, who treated a Narn refugee who had been interrogated by the Centauri about Homeworld defence. He pleads with his Uncle to abort their mission and secure Homeworld but the mission is too far along. The fleet is attacked by several Shadow ships. It doesn’t end well.

Shadow Attack

On the planet, Draal tells Sheridan and Delenn that he is offering the capabilities of the Great Machine to them, in an alliance for the forthcoming conflict.

Then the news arrives of the Centauri assult on Narn. The Narn government has no option but to surrender. And G’Kar is told to seek sanctuary from Sheridan, to stop Londo having him arrested and sent for trial.

Then, in the final scene, Delenn gathers a large group of people together to introduce them to Sheridan, They are the rangers, and she puts them under his joint control in the forthcoming fight against darkness.

Babylon 5 does sometimes creak and show its age, and the writing isn’t always brilliant, but then it delivers an episode like this, where the whole of the fictional world is shaken up, and there’s some genuinely moving scenes. G’Kar seeking sanctuary and Londo dictating the orders in the council chambers are very powerful. Even the brief, wordless scene of Londo watching the bombardment of Narn from a Centauri ship is deeply moving, as you can see a man trapped by his position and enabling a great evil for reasons which once seemed right.

Londo Watches

After this, recording continues a bit with a cartoon, featuring Gandy Goose. No, I don’t remember him either.

Then, Sky One again for more X-Files and the episode Our Town. People in a small town are being attacked with a machete by someone cosplaying as Papa Lazarou.

Masked Killer

A woman at the local chicken processing factory goes berserk, and is shot by a guard in front of Mulder and Scully, adding a piquant new ingredient to the chicken parts.

Chicken Feed

Sculley discovers that the woman had Creutzfeld Jakob disease (the human variant of Mad Cow Disease) and that the apparently young woman was 47.

Mulder gets the local river dragged, looking for the corpse of the first man who died. He finds more than that.

Lots of bones

The head of the chicken processing plant has an interesting collection.

Heads

But it’s the whole town that’s in on the cannibalism. Sculley almost gets added to the ingredients, until Mulder rescues her, and the Papa Lazarou man in the mask is unmasked as the Sheriff, in an almost Scooby Doo moment. Lucky he was already dead, otherwise he might have said “and I would’ve gotten away with it too…”.

The X Files was tosh, sometimes, wasn’t it?

After this, there’s the start of a teen drama, but I don’t recognise which. Beverly Hills 90210 probably. Then the tape ends.

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2 comments

  1. ‘Soft Light” is an exceedingly creepy concept. Meanwhile, bring back the Mighty Heroes, I say! Weatherman, Ropeman, Diaperman…

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