Thursday, October 20, 2016

Audiobook Review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long DarkTea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Book Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Book Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: The Dirk Gently books have their moments, but I wouldn't count them as sci fi classics.

With BBC America’s Dirk Gently series debuting this weekend, it is worth looking at the two books written by Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Creator Douglas Adams that feature that rather odd detective.  When Mr. Gently investigates a case, he works upon the assumption of the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things” rather than just trying to uncover clues like your more typical detective.  In the first book, Gently stumbles upon a case that involves a ghost, four-million year old aliens, an electric monk, and a time traveling house (among other things).  In the second book, Gently finds himself investigating a case that involves the recording industry, Norse gods, a rather irritated eagle, and a malicious refrigerator.  Needless to see, as with Adams’ Hitchhiker books, the plot itself is not important, that just carries the stories from one set of absurdities to the next.

I had previously read all of Adams’ Hitchhiker books, but for some reason never got around to the Dirk Gently tales.  I decided to try them out on audiobook and found them enjoyable enough, but definitely not as good as the best of Hitchhiker series (which is essentially the first two books).  The Dirk Gently novels have the frenetic pace that you expect from Adams and plenty of his witty observations and quirky commentaries thrown in for good measure.  But I consider these very much like the later entries in the Hitchhiker series in that they may induce a smile or a chuckle from time to time, but don’t quite rise up to the classic status of the first two books.  The Dirk Gently series can be entertaining at times, and the detective is an interesting enough Doctor-Who-Meets-New-Age-Sherlock-Homes type of character, but I never felt that Adams got the best out of these stories as he seemed to be trying a bit too hard to be clever at times.  Others absolutely love these stories, though, so perhaps it is just a matter of taste.  Interestingly, Adams’ treatment of the Norse gods in the second book reminded me very much of what Neal Gaiman later did with mythological characters in American Gods.  I don’t believe he has cited Douglas Adams as a definite influence, but you can see the similarities.

BBC America has a television adaptation of the character on the way that bows on Saturday October 22nd, and knowing about that inspired me to finally read the books.  The TV series looks pretty good from the trailers and maybe it will help me appreciate the books more (though I don’t believe it follows them too closely).  Fortunately, both books are a quick read, so if you are not quite as engrossed by them like I was, they still go by pretty quickly.  Douglas Adams fans should definitely check them out, just understand that these are closer to his later Hitchhiker books than his first two.

As for the audiobook versions, I encountered them two different ways.  For the first book I listened to the version narrated by Adams himself.  Now I typically say that writers should stick with their craft and leave the narrating to the professionals, but thought that Adams might be an exception like Harlan Ellison or Neil Gaiman.  However, Adams delivered a rather straightforward reading that failed to highlight the humorous tone of the book.  I found myself longing for the voice of Simon Jones (who played the part of voice of the guide in the Hitchhiker radio series) because I was sure he could bring more life to the material.  For the second book, I elected the full radio dramatization because I thought it would do a better job of the comic tone of the stores.  The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul was definitely the better of the two audio adaptations and improved on the source material in my opinion.  The dramatization is also available for the first book and that is the way I recommend checking it out.  Adams got his start with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in radio and that has always been the best way to experience his sci fi comedies.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Babylon 5 Re-Watch: Episodes 9-12 Deliver Two Excellent Stand-Alone Entries

The Babylon 5 re-watch is on!  These are my thoughts on the episodes as I work my way through the full five seasons (plus the movies).

I have fallen behind a bit on this because I have been keeping up with beginning of the Fall season and several of the new premieres (here's how to keep up with all the shows currently airing at this link).  But I have made it through four more eps and hope to pick on steam on this next month.

S1 Ep 9: “Deathwalker”

The Dilgar woman known as Deathwalker arrives on Babylon 5, and many of the alien races demand that she be tried for the war crimes she committed thirty years prior.  But several of the larger governments have an interest in protecting her because she may have tapped into the secrets of immortality.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing: Yes, but with a caveat. This episode has little significance to the overall story arc, but it is still one of the show’s best episodes.

Comments: Shows like Battlestar: Galactica (the 2003 reboot), The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones have come to be known for their hard-hitting stories and moral quandaries, but Babylon 5 beat them to that over a decade prior.  This is not only one hell of a good B5 episode, it is a stand out among all sci fi TV shows (though rarely recognized as such).  Deathwalker is obviously a loathsome person, but the politicians quickly look past that because she has something they want.  And if you think that any of the events in this episode are a stretch, go back to the history books and see what happened to many of the Nazi scientists after WWII with Operation Paperclip.  B5 never promised the brighter future that Star Trek delivered and instead revealed the very struggles we would have to overcome if we want to survive as a species.  This episode is one that really drives that message home.  SPOILERS TO FOLLOW (skip to next paragraph to avoid).  How right is Deathwalker when she says that humans will quickly fall upon each other when they learn they must kill one so that another can achieve immortality.  That’s a frightening moment that should make your hairs stand on end and lead to some significant reflection on the human race.   And Kosh’s final comment, “You are not ready for immortality”, is one of the most chilling in all sci fi.

As far as arc significance, we see some of the beginnings of Vorlon intervention in this episode, and we also learn a little more about the Minbari group known as the Windswords.  In addition, we get a better picture of where the League of Non-Aligned worlds stands in the grander scheme (not too prominently it turns out).  Apart from that, this is mostly a stand-alone installment, but one that really makes a mark.  I missed this when I was watching B5 during its original run, and if I had seen it then my opinion of Season 1 would have been more favorable at that time.  So who cares if it doesn’t play an important part in the grander story?  This is one damn fine episode that is definitely worth watching!

S1 Ep 10: “Believers”

Dr. Franklin faces a dilemma with an alien family when the parents will not allow him to operate on their son due to their religious beliefs.  Meanwhile, Commander Ivanova leads a mission to help a ship in deep space threatened by raiders.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing: Not necessarily.  It’s a heck of a good stand-alone episode, but not tied to the overall story.

Comments: With this one, B5 delivered two excellent stand-alone episodes in a row.  It throws yet another gut-wrenching moral quandary at us and elects not to take the easy way out as far as resolving the story.  The show is demonstrating early on that it will not follow the typical television conventions and that it will present challenging drama.  Unfortunately, the episode does not quite have the impact it could because stilted directing, acting, and dialog drags it down.  This was quite common in the show’s first season and is in part why the early episodes are looked on as subpar compared to the rest of the series.  But if you can look past that, it is still a hell of a good episode story-wise and one that hinted that B5 was not just another sci fi show.  The writer of the episode was Star Trek veteran David Gerrold who penned the legendary “Trouble with Tribbles” for the original series.  As for the episode’s connection to the larger story, other than some additional character development—primarily for Dr. Franklin—it is mostly just a stand-alone entry.

S1 Ep 11: “Survivor”

Mr. Garibaldi is framed for a sabotage attempt on the station prior to a visit from Earth Alliance President Santiago.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing: No. It is a good Garibaldi episode, but not vital to the overall story.

Comments:  This episode gives us a good look at Mr. Garibaldi’s troubled past and also lets us know that he has struggled with alcoholism.  The latter is particularly interesting, because it ventures into territory rarely covered in science fiction television at that time and again shows Babylon 5 breaking away from the expected TV norms.  And importantly, it doesn’t rely on soap opera asides to bring in these elements.  We learn about Garibaldi’s checkered history, which presents him as a flawed character.  But the series doesn’t wallow in these details, just keeps it as additional character development.  He has overcome his past demons, but we also learn that he is still susceptible to them at times.  This will come into play again later, and having seen this episode reinforces what happens down the line.   If you miss it, though, that won’t leave a major gap in knowledge.  But it does represent those nice bits of character development the show was doing early on.  And since Mr. Garibaldi is my favorite of the human characters on the show, I have a particular affinity for all the episodes that focus on him.  

S1 Ep 12: “By Any Means Necessary”

Because of under-staffing and under-funding, a deadly accident occurs on the Babylon 5 docks and the workers go on an illegal strike when they are told that no additional funds will be allocated to deal with the issues.  Meanwhile G’Kar needs a rare flower to perform a religious ritual and Londo is the only one on the station who possesses it.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing: No.  Other than some good G’Kar and Londo sparring, this episode is dispensable.

Comments: This is yet another padding episode early in the series’ run, and it is a particularly bad one at times.  The situation with the dock workers presents an interesting story and Sinclair’s resolution is a good snub to the politicians, but it that part of the episode is executed so poorly that it is often cringe-inducing.  The acting from the human actors is once again subpar and Orin Zento is little more than a cartoon villain.  And the main story has little significance to the overall story arc apart from fleshing out Sinclair’s combative relationship with the politicians on Earth (a situation which Captain Sheridan will later inherit).  As mentioned above, the G’Kar / Londo side-story offers a bit of a respite, and we get an early glimpse into the Narn ambassador’s position as a spiritual leader.  If you want to fast-forward through the episode to watch these scenes, it’s worth your time.  But take a pass on the main story.

General Thoughts: Despite one completely dispensable episode, the other three from this bunch are very good to absolutely essential.  The excellent stand-alone episodes would sadly become fewer and far between as the main story kicks into high gear starting with its second season, but “Deathwalker” and “Believers” demonstrate B5 stepping away from its main story arc and delivering first rate sci fi.  We also get some further character development as well as nuggets important to the overall story that show how well planned out the series was.  So even if you are watching more than just the essential episodes, your time is well spent.

Interesting Fact: JMS came up with the idea for “Deathwalker” when wondering what Hitler could have done to avoid execution for war crimes if he had survived WWII. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Blockbuster Overload from Summer? Here Are 5 Sci Fi Movies that Offer a Respite from the Mega-Dollar Franchises

So the Summer 2016 Blockbuster season has come and gone and perhaps you find yourself somewhat unsatisfied after gorging on the franchise-serving, mind-numbing, CGI-overload that many of the mega-dollar sci fi & fantasy entries delivered over the last few months. Well the fact is that a mountain of cash and the best sfx teams in the world do not assure a great film. And perhaps now is a good time for a respite from the blockbuster overload and a chance to look at a few offerings from the past ten years or so that might have been overlooked but that delivered good sci fi / fantasy without having to rely on the cash avalanche and high-pressure expectations of the Daddy Warbucks studios. Read the full article at this link.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Fall 2016 Preview: Westworld, Black Mirror, and Luke Cage are Some of the Shows Worth Checking Out This Fall

With over forty shows on the Fall 2016 schedule, that’s a full-time job if you want to keep up with all of them. I don’t believe too many of us have that much extra time for TV watching, so I will point out what I believe are some of the best bets from the upcoming crop of shows. I will be checking in on the ones below and a few others here and there as the season progresses. Note that this is just covering the shows that will be debuting in the Fall months and I will cover the mid-season entries at a later time.  And feel free to chime in with your own suggestions in the comments section.

(Links are to the show pages on our partner site where you can get more information as well as season to date ratings results and status updates once they are airing.)

Westworld (HBO) – Imagine this: a reboot that actually makes sense and that will work well on its network because it will have the freedom to explore its adult themes. Plus, it has a killer cast. Everything I have been hearing about this one is good so far and I’m definitely pumped for its debut.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon) – This was an excellently crafted alternate history tale in its first season that emphasized all of the strengths of the Phillip K. Dick book and threw out most of the weaknesses. I’m a little concerned that Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) stepped back as the showrunner because I credit him for the high quality in the show’s first year. But he is still onboard as executive producer, so hopefully his influence will continue to be a strong guiding force. If you haven’t seen the first season yet, you should binge that one now before the second year gets started.

Black Mirror (Netflix) – Finally, a true anthology series is back on television! This show killed it over in Britain with its first two seasons and the same creative team has carried over to the Netflix version. This one is near the top of my must-watch list for the Fall.

Luke Cage (Netflix) – Netflix has done a hell of a job with the first two entries in its Defenders series (Daredevil and Jessica Jones) and the early previews of Luke Cage look quite promising. Expect another Marvel hit for the streaming service with this series.

Channel Zero (Syfy) – While this show veers away from Syfy’s return to science fiction, it looks truly creepy and could turn into a decent series if it doesn’t lose itself in the weirdness-overload that has made American Horror Story such a mess. It’s definitely worth a look.

Timeless (NBC) – I have no idea why time travel became the trendy theme for new genre shows this year, but this one at least sounds interesting. And the early previews for it look pretty good. Eric Kripke’s last sci fi show for NBC (Revolution) failed to live up its promise, but maybe he will get it right the second time around.

Agents of SHIELD (ABC) – The quality of this show has been wildly uneven through its three season run, but it is going through yet another reboot of sorts and looks to be bringing in more characters from the Marvel stable starting with Ghost Rider. It should be worth a look to see if it finally gets things right in its fourth year.

The Flash (CW) – The CW superhero shows have been frustratingly rife with soap opera side-stories as well as copy-and-paste dialog and scenes. But The Flash was the most fun of the lot last season (even if it has delivered some downright bad episodes from time to time). Plus, it is bringing in the “Flashpoint” storyline from the comics that will shake things up a bit in the Arrow-verse, so it should be worth seeing what they do with that.

The Librarians (TNT) – I’m not going to tell you this is a great series, but it has been a ton of fun through its first two seasons. With all the dark and grim sci fi we have these days, it’s nice when a show doesn’t take itself too seriously and just sets out to give us a fun adventure with sci fi & fantasy elements. Consider this a good guilty pleasure show (and I want Bruce Campbell back as Santa).

Ash vs. Evil Dead (Starz) – And speaking of Mr. Campbell, he was definitely having plenty of scenery chewing fun with AvED in its first season and expect that to continue into its second year. If you were not a fan of the Evil Dead movies, this may not be your thing. But if you like some good cheesy blood and guts and plenty of one-liners, be sure to tune in.

The Walking Dead (AMC) – Yeah, we will get to see the battle between Rick’s people and Negan as well as the introduction of the Empire in Season 7 of this show. The world is definitely getting bigger for TWD and opens up plenty of story possibilities. But AMC did some really unforgivable tinkering with the show last season and that has me very wary going into the current year. Still this one has delivered a high level of quality more often than not and it definitely counts as an important genre entry.  But perhaps I will wait and binge this one after the season is done, spoilers be damned.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Anti-Blockbusters: Hunter Prey

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Hunter Prey is a 2009 independent science fiction film written and directed by Sandy Collora on a very economical budget of $425 thousand. It follows a group of interstellar commandos tracking their alien prisoner on a desert planet. Somehow the prisoner managed to force the prison ship carrying him to crash on this planet and now it is the job of these commandos to take him back into their custody. And they must bring him in alive. This turns out to be a point of contention, seeing as the alien proves more formidable than first thought, but the commander explains that since they have wiped out all but one of this alien’s race, it plans to “return the favor”, and they must find out how.

That’s a very brief introduction to this film, but I want to keep it as spoiler free as possible because Hunter Prey has plenty of surprises. I stumbled across this one because of a recommendation and decided to give it a look. And despite a few flaws here and there, Collora manages to deliver a very good genre entry with this modest film. It definitely has an initial cheesiness about it which may cause some to tune out early on, but I recommend that you stick with the film and give it the chance it deserves. The armored uniforms that the commandos wear are definitely an early weak point, looking not unlike discarded Power Rangers gear dragged through the dirt several times. But remember that this is no big budget affair, and pretty quickly you don’t even notice those uniforms anyway. Also, the acting has lapses from time to time, but for the most part is decent at least.

What sets Hunter Prey apart from the Syfy Saturday night cheese-fests that it resembles at first blush is that it takes a familiar story and builds on it and develops it organically instead of through contrivance. We have seen this sort of tale before, done well in the Star Trek TOS episode “Arena” and not so well in the feature film Enemy Mine, but Hunter Prey quickly establishes itself as more than just a knockoff of genre formulas. The film could have easily descended into a predicament-oriented affair where the commandos and their prey find themselves in a never-ending succession of precarious situations, but it avoids that pitfall (pun unintended but accepted). It follows a rather straightforward plot of hunters pursuing a dangerous prey, though it throws in a nice helping of twists as well. And it advances the story through character development and mostly avoids the contrivances you expect from a low budget sci fi film. The ending is a bit confusing (more on that below in the SPOILERS section), and maybe somewhat unsatisfying, but it does not completely derail the film. And the movie is relatively brisk at about 90 minutes running time which works in its favor. It’s definitely worth checking out, even if it won’t quite overshadow too many of the bigger budget CGI-fests that have hit theaters the last couple of years.

WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW (Skip this paragraph to avoid). As mentioned above, the ending to Hunter Prey is a rather vague and may turn off more than a few viewers to this film. I have actually watched it a couple of times and have picked up a few more clues each time, but still can’t claim that I fully understand it or feel like it delivers a satisfying resolution. I think a lot of the understanding revolves around the comment that Centauri makes to Jericho, “Is that what you want the legacy of your kind to be?”, referring to that latter’s plan to destroy the Sedonian homeworld. I believe that Centauri infects himself with a degree of self-doubt at that point, and we had already seen that he had his own previous disagreements with Sedonian authorities. But would that be enough for him to allow Jericho to escape and potentially carry out his plan of retribution. And what did Centauri mean when he said that he and Jericho would meet again? Was that setting up a sequel? If so, it seemed to be at the expense of a more satisfying resolution. But again, as I said above, that doesn’t completely kill the movie, which is mostly excellent up to the end, just docks it a bit in my final rating.

A note for sci fi trivia buffs, this film seems to have all sorts of obscure references to other science fiction properties. The names of Karza and Croyer seem like a reference to the Micronauts comic book series (Baron Karza and Acroyear). Centauri could be a reference to the like-named race from Babylon 5 or any of umpteen other sci fi uses of the term. Orin Jericho comes straight from Starchaser: The Legend of Orin and perhaps the Jericho TV series as well. And it seems like there were a few others that I noticed that have since slipped my mind. Also, Erin Gray, ex-spandex wearing hottie from TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, provides the voice for the computer Clea.

Director Sandy Collora had previously worked with effects and makeup expert Stan Winston (Aliens, Predator, The Terminator) and has spent most of his career behind the scenes. But in 2004, he directed the well-received fan film Batman: Dead End which Kevin Smith has referred to as “possibly the truest, best Batman movie ever made” (you can download the eight minute film at this link). Hunter Prey is Collora’s first feature-length film and he definitely shows promise with this one. Science fiction fans should check it out and keep an eye on future developments from this director.

Buy Hunter Prey and Other Anti-Blockbusters from

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Audiobook Review: Varney the Vampire by Thomas Peckett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer

Book Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Worth a look out of curiosity, but not a must-read in the vampire / horror genre

No, this is not the story of some cuddly, purple-skinned vampire who sings songs to children or some number-obsessed refugee from the Sesame Street Muppets.  This is the mid-century tale that appeared in the British penny dreadfuls (sort of an early version of pulp magazines) that actually set many of the precedents the vampire sub-genre of horror would follow in the years to come.  Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood) ran for three years from 1845 to 1847 across 109 “issues” (a total of 667,000 words!) and followed the story of somewhat-reluctant vampire Sir Francis Varney.  And while vampires had previously appeared in literary works (mostly notably Lord Byron’s The Giaour and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre), Varney was very much the prototype of what we have since come to expect.  He is a cultured gentleman much like the later Dracula (Bram Stoker’s book was published until 1897) even though his appearance is hideous, along the lines of Count Orlak from Nosferatu.  He has fangs and the ability to mesmerize his victims, and he also possess superhuman abilities.  He develops into somewhat of a sympathetic character much like we would later see with Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows as well as some of Anne Rice’s characters in Interview with a Vampire.  And one of the more recent tropes we have seen with vampires being able to survive in sunlight (i.e., the Twilight books and movies) started with Varney the Vampire.  The story even throws in the angry mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks for good measure.

But while this book is interesting for the precedents it set, I can’t tell you that it is a particularly great read.  I made it through volume one, which is twenty hours of audiobook listening, and it was definitely a chore.  It was written by hack writers mostly interested in cranking out tantalizing, serialized tales that would appeal to the lower class readers attracted to the penny dreadfuls.  The original story was credited to Thomas Peckett Prest, though James Malcolm Rymer apparently assisted on it as well (interestingly, that duo would also create Sweeny Todd).  They were apparently paid by the word because the prose is definitely rambling with scenes that often drag out much longer than needed or that are completely unnecessary (including the stories within stories found in the book).  There are a few moments of inspiration throughout the tale, but sadly we come across those far too rarely.

The basic story in volume one follows Varney’s attempts to reclaim his ancestral home of Bannerworth Manor from his relatives that currently occupy it.  He attacks the young Flora Bannerworth early in the story, but later resists his draw to her because of the feelings he develops for the young lady.  He then offers to purchase the house from the Bannerworths, but they are dubious of his motives even though they need his money because of their poor financial state of affairs.  The story starts out well enough, but drags on far too long with plenty of unnecessary digressions.  And the dialog can be outright cringe-worthy at times.  It also appears that after a certain point the authors were just making it up as they went along and trying to pad the story as far as they could.  Other nineteenth century genre novels I have read such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and more can definitely seem padded and slow at times, but for each of those the journey turns out to be worth it once you reach the end.  Not so much with Varney the Vampire.  Fans of the vampire sub-genre should check it out just for all the precedents its sets, but this is definitely not something that would appeal to the average modern reader.

I downloaded the audio version of this for free from Librivox (at this link), and it definitely demonstrates how important a good reading is to an audiobook.  Librivox books are narrated by volunteers and typically have different readers for different chapters.  My experience with Librivox adaptations has been hit or miss, with some really good ones like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as some just passable ones like War of the Worlds. Varney actually started out quite well with Annika Feilbach providing very moody vocals that fit perfectly with the book's Gothic setting.  If it had not been for her excellent intro chapters, I might not have stuck with the book.  Unfortunately, she reads only the preface and the first chapter and what follows is a (very) mixed bag of readers throughout the rest of the book.  To Annika's credit, the first chapter definitely seems better crafted than later ones because it was likely not as rushed.  But the mediocre writing that followed definitely could have used any sort of boost to make it more enjoyable, though few of the later readers could provide that.  I hate to knock the Librivox readers because they are all doing it on a volunteer basis, but some of the narrators for this book are downright unlistenable, which made the experience that much worse.  Fortunately, the reliable Roger Melin reads more chapters than not, and I have enjoyed other works that he has narrated for Librivox.  He delivers a very straightforward reading that doesn’t enhance the prose like Annika Feilbach’s narration, but doesn’t detract from it either.  Had he not been onboard, I definitely would have never finished volume one.

If you are planning on tackling Varney the Vampire, I would suggest the print version (you can find an economically priced edition at this link) in part because of the subpar audio adaptation currently available and also because there are plenty of sections that just need to be skimmed over, especially if you want to make it through the full three volumes (I have no plans of undertaking that burden at this point but there is a site with chapter summaries and commentaries to help you though if you are up for the challenge).  The books is definitely interesting for the influence it would have on more famous later works in the genre (as well as the 1930’s Universal monster movies), but it feels more hackneyed than original because of the often mediocre to poor writing.  It’s definitely a curio of genre literature, but not a must read.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Babylon 5 Re-Watch: Episodes 5-8 Have Some Important Moments for the Overall Story Arc

The Babylon 5 re-watch is on!  These are my thoughts on the episodes as I work my way through the full five seasons (plus the movies).

S1 Ep 5: “The Parliament of Dreams”

While a week-long festival celebrating the different religions and cultures of the races takes place on Babylon 5, G’Kar receives a death threat from an old rival among his people.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing? No. It adds some character development moments, but nothing that is vital to the overall story.

Comments: As is to be expected from a show with twenty-two episodes per season and a planned five-year arc, there will be some episodes that are mostly dispensable and this is definitely one of those.  It does introduce us to some of the differences in the races and also adds some background for each.  Plus, we meet G’Kar’s aide Na’Toth for the first time as well as Delenn’s aide Lennier (played by former Will Robinson actor Bill Mumy).  The character Catherine Sakai also joins up in a recurring role as an entrepreneur/explorer and Commander Sinclair’s love interest.  She will have some important moments in the first season, but later gets written out of the show when the progression of the story arc makes her dispensable.  Overall, it is not a bad episode and it has some good Londo and G’Kar moments, but this is far from a high point for the show.

S1 Ep 6: “Mind War”

Alfred Bester from the Psi-Corps arrives on the station in pursuit of the rogue telepath Jason Ironheart who was a former instructor and lover of Talia Winters.  Meanwhile, Catherine Sakai explores the ominous planet known as Sigma 957.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing? Yes. While not one of the show's greatest stories, it has plenty of significance to the overall arc and it introduces Bester while also giving us a better look at the sinister workings of the Psi Corps.

Comments: This is actually one of the first episodes I remember watching after the pilot (I missed several of the first five), and I remember it feeling very derivative at the time.  The story of Jason Ironheart as a man given power beyond his control has been covered quite frequently in the genre, and this episode did not add too much that idea.  But what I didn’t see at the time was the importance of the introduction of Bester as well as the malicious nature of the Psi-Corps.  We had a brief glimpse of the latter in “Midnight on the Firing Line”, but this episode establishes that the Psi-Corps is truly a sinister organization that holds far too much power.  And that will become much more important later in the story.  Bester, of course, also becomes a primary antagonist for Babylon 5 and one of the show's better characters.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Catherine and G’Kar scenes have major significance as well. Up to this point (and continuing on through the first season), the Narn ambassador has played more the role of the villain.  But in this episode we see a different side of him that will be explored much further in later seasons.  And the unknown beings that Catherine encounters suggest the ominous forces that exist beyond the races we have seen thus far and they will play their part as the story develops.

Note that this episode has some of the most wooden acting, and that comes—as is typical—from the human characters (I blame the directing more than the acting because this is a recurring trend).  Walter Koenig will have some classic moments as Bester in the series and he plays the character with sinister grace at times.  But there are also some points where his performance falls flat as when he deadpans out “You.Don’t.Know.What.You.Are.Doing!”  He is not the only problem with the episode, but that particular moment stands out.  Still, a lot happens in “Mind War” that impacts the overall story and we get some important introductions, so it is a must-watch episode.

S1 Ep 7: “The War Prayer”

Two young Centauri’s flee to Babylon 5 because they want to marry each other instead of the arranged marriages their families have prepared.  Meanwhile, a xenophobic Earth group known as Homeguard launches attacks on aliens aboard the station.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing: No.  It introduces the anti-alien sentiments brewing on Earth, but this is covered better and in more detail later in the series.  It also gives some more development to the Centauri and Londo in particular, but nothing really essential.

Comments:  This is a decent enough episode, especially if you are a Londo fan like myself.  We get a better look at Centauri culture and their arranged marriages as well as the impact of that on Londo.  And the introduction of Homeguard is notable, but we get much more about that later in the series.  We also get an explanation of why Lyta Alexander and Dr. Benjamin Kyle (both appeared in the pilot but then disappeared) are no longer on the station (they were re-assigned to Earth due to their direct contact with the Vorlon).  This episode would have fit in well as the launching point for Season 1 because the linking explanation, but the actual first S1 episode “Midnight on the Firing Line” is a stronger story and a better starting place.  Of interest, Star Trek veteran D.C. Fontana wrote this episode and she would also go on to contribute to two more eps for the show: Season 1’s “Legacies” and Season 2’s “A Distant Star”.

S1 Ep 8: “And the Sky Full of Stars”

Commander Sinclair is captured and his mind is probed to find out how he survived the “Battle of the Line” and what happened during that twenty-four hour period when he allegedly blacked.  You can read the full synopsis at this link.

Essential Viewing: Possibly. This covers some important back-story for Sinclair, but much of that is later covered in more detail in the movie “In the Beginning”.  To keep up with the story as it aired, though, this ep is probably important to watch.

Comments:  This episode starts to dig deeper in Sinclair’s past which we have already had hints about.  It is a particularly good one for Michael O’Hare as an actor as he was really starting to get up to speed with the character.  I know that many prefer Bruce Boxleitner as Sheridan in the lead role, but I always liked Sinclair.  Sure, O’Hare’s delivery could be overly wooden at times, but that was true of most the human characters in the show.  Sinclair had more of an intensity and darkness about him whereas Sheridan always seemed all too chipper.  Not that I didn’t like Sheridan, I just preferred Sinclair between the two.  Also in this episode, we see more than just hints that the xenophobia that manifested itself in the prior episode is not just hysteria among the people.  There are forces at work back on Earth that want to eradicate alien influence, and it appears they have allies in the Earth government.  This episode also gives us a look at the Minbari Grey Council and suggestions of Delen’s links to Sinclair.  The story is definitely picking up a bit of steam at this point and introducing some interesting mysteries to unravel (that will eventually get a satisfying resolution, unlike later shows that followed a similar arc-driven format).

General Thoughts: Even though these four episodes are not among the stronger entries story-wise, we do get some important advancement in the grander arc and some very important introductions.  Plus, these episodes continue to develop all the characters involved at this point.  You can definitely see where JMS is taking every opportunity to lay the groundwork for what is to follow, even if it is just the smallest detail.  And looking back it becomes obvious that he had a very good plan in place as he began this journey, and he followed it pretty closely.  That’s not so obvious if you have only seen the first eight episodes and the pilot, but it all starts to link together as the ball gets rolling in the show’s second season.

Interesting Fact: In the episode “And the Sky Full of Stars”, Walter Koenig was originally approached to play the role of Knight Two.  He was unable due to health reasons, but would instead take on the iconic role of Bester (“Mind War” must have been filmed later even though it was aired earlier).  Patrick McGoohan was then offered the role but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts.  British actor Christopher Neame eventually took that role and he is likely a familiar face to sci fi fans for guest starring roles in Blake’s 7, Beauty and the Beast (1989), Superboy, MacGyver, The Flash (1990), Earth 2, Star Trek: Voyager,  Star Trek: Enterprise, and more.

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