February 9, 2012

Babble On part #8: Mind War

Two "Psicops" arrive on Babylon 5, hunting for a runaway telepath with links to Talia Winters - but what is the mysterious Mr Bester not telling Commander Sinclair? Meanwhile Catherine Sakai takes a prospecting job in a remote star system, despite Ambassador G'Kar's warnings.

I recall "Mindwar" was one of the Season 1 episodes that fans generally liked back in 1994. It's easy to see why: it features former Star Trek co-star Walter Koenig as Alfred Bester, who is a showy antagonist rich with opportunities for cutting insults and barbed dialogue. Koenig is visibly enjoying the opportunity to play him too, and I think that enjoyment does rub off on the audience as a result. He even has a geeky science fiction name to amuse the hardcore.

Unfortunately Bester has been paired with who is possibly the worst actor I have seen in a television episode ever. I'm loathe to include her name in case she ego-searches the Internet from time and time and might stumble upon this review. Let's just say it hasn't escaped my notice that the character never appears in the series again.

While Bester himself seems very promising, the subject of his mission is not. Jason Ironheart is a rogue telepath with increasingly dangerous powers, but it never feels as if the potential of this premise is realised. Things aren't helped by his rekindled romance with Talia Winters - the dialogue in these scenes is excrable. Romantic dialogue is hard to write without resorting to cliche, but it would have been nice to at least sense there was an attempt to be a little original with it.

The best element of this episode is actually the side plot, where Ambassador G'Kar does his best to convince Catherine Sakai not to visit Sigma 957. The results of this thread are excellent, and very engaging, and are one of the biggest signs of the massive expansion in scale and scope Babylon 5 is going to reach.

One final thing I've noticed about the series, now that I'm six episodes in: there is a remarkable superfluity of characters. Check out this list of American TV shows from the 1990s.
  • The X Files (regular cast: 2)
  • ER (regular cast: 6)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (regular cast: 8)
  • Babylon 5 (regular cast: 11)
Babylon 5's first season cast is 38% larger than Deep Space Nine's, and almost twice as large as those of ER. That's an awful lot of characters to cover in a 42 minute television episode. Then when you examine the two storylines of "Mind War" you discover one is dominated by two guest characters - Bester and Ironheart - and the other is dominated by a third - Catherine Sakai. As a result, while Mira Furlan, Richard Biggs, Stephen Furst, Bill Mumy, Julie Caitlin Brown and Peter Jurasik all appear in the opening credits, they don't even cameo in the actual episode. That's more than half the regular credited cast of the series not appearing in their own show. I'm not sure if that's necessarily a bad thing in the long run, but it does explain why the characters all currently feel so thinly drawn - we've barely had time to get to know them.

While I did like some parts of "Mind War", the really bad actor and the terrible romance dialogue - coupled with the generally unsatisfying A-plot - lead me to give this one the thumbs down. So that's six episodes in, and we're two good versus four bad. Babylon 5 may be online, but it's running at 33%.

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