Friday, November 30, 2007

Babylon 5 Review: "Mind War"

This is the first Babylon 5 episode that I think of as truly good, though not all earlier ones were as bad as "Midnight on the Firing Line" and "Born to the Purple." It's the first time the show used a solid, wonder-evoking sci fi plot which simultaneously advanced its larger arcs and portrayed some of the key issues the show would explore without getting preachy about them. Both the main and secondary plots were strong, and contributed to the development of major characters and the larger B-5 universe.

Babylon 5's portrayal of telepaths always struck me as far more realistic than we usually see. Yes, they serve many social functions, but everyone is also afraid of them, and even the terminology, in which non-telepaths are called "normals," conveys society's judgment. People hate the Psi Corps, but the whole reason it exists is because of people's fear of telepaths. This was hinted at in a conversation near the end of "Midnight," when Talia argued that the Corps was necessary to protect normals, and Susan, who hates the Corps specifically as the daughter of a rogue telepath, claims it traps its own members as well as those who refuse to join, which Talia doesn't then understand.

These issues, which reach their fullest development in the fourth and fifth seasons, are already painted here in lots of light touches in how the characters relate to each other. Talia's conversation with Sinclair in the station's tram, while it looked horrid on the DVD, is also very poignant, doing what I've previously criticized season one for not doing: using Talia's personal experiences to highlight issues in the life of a telepath, such as why they hang together and the ongoing struggle to shut out the voices in their minds.

The issues of power inherent in telepathy are made in a different way through Jason Ironheart, whom Psi Corps experiments have turned into something far more powerful than humanity can yet become. The show doesn't dwell much on his ablities. They simply are, something that inspires fear and yet carries a hint of wonder in his ultimate "becoming." The idea that humanity may find certain powers attractive for which it remains unready is hit several times during the first season, and here there is no question that the Psi Corps would misuse this power. Ironheart's knowledge that it can be used for good supplies another subtle theme, that progressing to some higher level implies in part conquering the demons within.

The B plot, in which Catherine Sakai encounters some highly advanced aliens at Sigma 957, goes well with the Ironheart story, while giving G'Kar some depth I don't think we'd seen to this point. The fear and joy at the galaxy's unexplained wonder echoes the themes of the main plot in another arena, while we get the first hints at some of the Narns' distant past that will play a role in the show's overall arc. Like the main plot, it, too, was well executed and a pleasure to watch.

There were a few moments where the episode displayed the show's youth. The weird sound effects and hand gestures that accompanied telepathy were thankfully dropped in later seasons, and Bester wasn't quite his classic self yet. However, while his yelling in the docking bay when he met Sinclair, Talia, and Ironheart broke an effect, a lot of this was because his role as psi cop was split with Kelsey and because in the case of Ironheart, he really wasn't in control of the situation, as he usually is. What's more, this episode didn't delve into the ambiguities of his role as a bad guy spawned by the world represented by the good guys - for now, the Psi Corps is simply trying to gain power in illegal ways for presumably evil purposes.

Altogether, this was a nice piece of work, one of too few times where new elements of the B-5 world were explored in a show-don't-tell manner, and one which worked as one of the best single episodes of the first season. As I've noted, it's at its best when you see it as part of a larger arc, but as a single piece, I'm calling it 8/10.



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