Babylon 5 Rewatch: “The War Prayer”

“The War Prayer”
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by Richard Compton
Season 1, Episode 7
Production episode 107
Original air date: March 9, 1994

It was the dawn of the third age… Delenn is having drinks with an old friend, Shaal Mayan, a creator of Tee’la, a type of poem-song. After they part ways, Mayan is ambushed on her way back to her quarters by humans wearing cloaks who stab her, brand her, and tell her to stay away from Earth.

This is apparently the sixth attack on a non-human on the station in the past few weeks. Delenn is outraged, and is not at all placated by Sinclair and Garibaldi’s insistence that they’re on the case. Mayan, at least, is saved by Franklin, though she declines his offer to remove the brand. She prefers to keep it as a reminder.

The brand, which is a symbol that combines the Greek symbols for male and female, is a hallmark of Homeguard, an “Earth-first” group of xenophobes who want to rid Earth of all alien influences. Sinclair says he wants no hate groups on his station. He also has to tell G’Kar to cool his jets, as the Narn ambassador is threatening bloody retribution if something isn’t done about this.

A Centauri liner is about to dock, and they have two detainees who need to be turned over to a member of the command staff. Ivanova meets them—two youths named Kiron Maray and Aria Tensus, who demand to see “Ambassador Cotto.”

Also in customs is Malcolm Biggs, who calls Ivanova’s name. He’s an old flame of hers, and he tries to fan that flame, to poor effect while she’s still on duty. Later, Biggs finds her at the end of shift and the conversation is a bit friendlier, though she urges him to take it slow, as it’s been eight years.

Vir is Kiron’s cousin, and he introduces them to Mollari. They ran away from Centauri Prime because they’re in love, but their parents have arranged marriages planned for them both. Mollari explains, not very patiently, that that’s how marriage works among the upper classes of the Republic, and they need to suck it up and deal with it. He intends to put them on the next transport back to Centauri Prime where they will get married like they’re supposed to.

Garibaldi has a suspect: a man named Roberts who has an illegal knife that has bloodstains on it, and who has expressed sympathy for the Homeguard. Unfortunately, the DNA on the blood isn’t Minbari, it’s Roberts himself—he really did cut himself with it.

Ivanova agrees to dinner with Biggs. They catch up and Ivanova expresses no regret on taking the assignment to Io even though it meant their relationship ended. Biggs announces that he’s moving his business to B5—he’s already rented quarters and office space. So perhaps they can rekindle things…

Kiron and Aria are ambushed by the cloaked Homeguard goons, with Kiron critically injured. Vir finds them and brings them to Medlab, where Franklin is able to treat them. Aria is fine, but Kiron is in a coma. Mollari is appalled, and even more so at the way Aria is mooning over Kiron. Mayan points out that love is the one commonality that all sentient species have; Mollari is skeptical, and feels that their being in love will only make it worse for Aria if Kiron dies. Mayan counters that the grief will be lessened by the memory of their love for each other.

G’Kar holds a very contentious meeting in Brown Sector, which a large chunk of the non-human population of B5 attends. It turns into a rally and almost turns into a riot. Meanwhile, two Drazi ambush Roberts, having heard that he was arrested and thinking he is responsible for the attacks.

Garibaldi has been keeping tabs on Roberts, thinking that Homeguard might try to recruit him after his arrest. Sure enough, he’s approached in Medlab by someone from Homeguard and is recruited—worse, it’s Biggs. Ivanova is devastated, but agrees to a sting operation to catch him, but only on the condition that she be there for the arrest.

During a diplomatic reception, Sinclair is cold to Delenn and the others, including an Abbai representative Delenn introduces. After Ivanova introduces him to Biggs, and Sinclair goes full ugly human. Eventually they wind up in Sinclair’s quarters, where the commander talks about how they used to say the only good alien is a dead alien back when he fought in the Earth-Minbari War. Biggs practically salivates at the notion of having B5’s commander on Homeguard’s side, and he wants to introduce him to the rest of the gang, so to speak. But Sinclair will also have make a good-faith gesture when he does so.

Sinclair continues the charade by announcing to Delenn, Mollari, and G’Kar that the investigation is over, the perpetrators have fled to Earth, and that’s all there is to it.

When Kiron wakes up, Mollari announces that he’s arranged for both Kiron and Aria to be fostered by Mollari’s second cousin Andlo. Andlo is a very powerful Centauri, and the offer of fosterage is a huge honor, one that neither Kiron’s nor Aria’s families dare decline. They can then spend time together under Andlo’s roof, and learn all about being a Centauri aristocrat, and then they will be able to make their own choices. The two youths are thrilled, as is Vir.

Sinclair and Ivanova meet with Biggs and the other Homeguard thugs in a cargo bay. The thugs all “decloak,” wearing black-light camouflage prototypes that Homeguard acquired from EarthForce. Homeguard’s plan is to assassinate Delenn, G’Kar, Mollari, and Kosh, which will be the signal for their people on Earth to assassinate other alien delegates. Biggs will need Sinclair’s help getting off the station after the killings. (How he was planning to get off the station before he knew he’d have an ally in Sinclair is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

However, there’s still the good-faith gesture: the Abbai representative, whom Biggs instructs Sinclair to shoot. However, the cavalry shows up in the form of Garibaldi and his goon squad, and they take Biggs and his people down, aided by Sinclair and Ivanova. They’re taken away and deported back to Earth. Delenn and Mayan observe their departure (presumably after Sinclair has explained why he was acting like an asshole), boggling at that kind of hatred of someone just for being different.

As he’s being taken away, Biggs expresses disgust at Ivanova’s siding with aliens over him. Ivanova makes it clear that the aliens are better people than his bigoted ass.

Nothing’s the same anymore. Sinclair muses to Ivanova on the peculiarity of what happened in “The Gathering” and immediately afterward: that Kosh touched the assassin disguised as Sinclair with his hand, even though Vorlons are usually always in their encounter suits; and that the two people who saw Kosh without the encounter suit, Kyle and Alexander, were very soon after transferred off B5, the former to work directly with the president.

Ivanova is God. Ivanova, to her credit, wastes no time in making it clear that she’ll do her duty and not let her relationship with Biggs get in the way of stopping Homeguard. (Biggs being a total piece of shit probably helped…)

The household god of frustration. Garibaldi has discovered that someone (Ivanova) is growing coffee beans illegally in one of the hydroponics bays, and if Ivanova won’t take up a duty Garibaldi doesn’t have time for, he’s just gonna have to wander by hydroponics and rip those suckers out. Ivanova declares that Garibaldi is a cruel man and does the thing.

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If you value your lives, be somewhere else. Delenn is livid at how Mayan has been treated, and is completely unimpressed with Sinclair and Garibaldi’s assurances (not that those assurances are very assuring…).

In the glorious days of the Centauri Republic… Arranged marriages are standard in the Centauri Republic, as is polygamy, as Mollari discusses his three wives. He doesn’t love them, in fact he obviously can’t stand them, and took an assignment many light-years from home at least in part to get away from them.

Though it take a thousand years, we will be free. G’Kar is even less impressed with Sinclair and Garibaldi’s assurances than Delenn, and nearly starts a riot among the non-humans to express his (justified) fears and concerns.

The Shadowy Vorlons. At one point, Sinclair visits Kosh to brief him on the attacks on non-humans. Kosh says that they have no interest in the affairs of others. In contrast to this statement, Kosh is also studying human history on a viewer, though he doesn’t tell Sinclair why.

Looking ahead. Some have said that Mayan’s description of her attackers as shadowy and covered in shadow is a kind of foreshadowing of the Shadows, but I don’t see it, since Homeguard isn’t really connected to the Shadows, and shadow is, y’know, a regular word…

No sex, please, we’re EarthForce. Biggs sends a rose to Ivanova’s quarters by way of flirting with her, and it gets her to agree to dinner. Later, when she learns that he’s a bigoted piece of shit, she tosses the rose in the garbage.

Also Aria and Kiron are totally adorably smitten with each other.

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Welcome aboard. Tristan Rogers is boringly slimy as Biggs, Nancy Lee Grahn is delightfully philosophical as Mayan, and Rodney Eastman is blandly earnest as Kiron. Diane Adair plays the Abbai; she’ll return in “Confessions and Lamentations” as a Markab and in “Comes the Inquisitor” as a Narn. Ardwight Chamberlain returns as the voice of Kosh from “Midnight on the Firing Line”; he’ll return in “Deathwalker.”

And then we’ve got two Robert Knepper moments! There’s Danica McKellar as Aria, one of her first roles after her long-running star turn on The Wonder Years as Winnie Cooper (though to me she’ll always be Elsie Snuffin on The West Wing). And then there’s Michael Paul Chan as Roberts, over a decade before his brilliant time on The Closer and its spinoff Major Crimes as the nerdy Detective Mike Tao.

Trivial matters. This is the first of three episodes written by D.C. Fontana, who is best known as one of the most prolific and important writers of the original Star Trek and its spinoffs (she was show-runner for the animated series, was the uncredited co-creator of The Next Generation, and also wrote for Deep Space Nine and various bits of tie-in fiction).

The title of the episode is a reference to Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” which J. Michael Straczynski has said should be read by everyone.

Mollari refers to his three wives as Pestilence, Famine, and Death. This means Mollari himself must be War, which is appropriate given what happens to him over the course of the series. The three wives are seen in pictures in this episode; they’ll be seen for realsies in the episode “Soul Mates,” where they will be played by Lois Nettleton (“Pestilence,” really Daggair), Jane Carr (“Famine,” really Timov), and Blair Valk (“Death,” really Mariel).

The conversation between Sinclair and Ivanova about the unanswered questions from “The Gathering” and its aftermath was originally written for “The Parliament of Dreams,” but that episode ran long and this one ran short, so the scene was moved, with some ADR done to cover the seams.

The echoes of all of our conversations.

“My shoes are too tight.”

“Excuse me?”

 “Something my father said. He was old, very old, at the time. I went into his room and he was sitting there alone in the dark, crying. So I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘My shoes are too tight. But it doesn’t matter, because I have forgotten how to dance.’ I never understood what that meant until now. My shoes are too tight, and I have forgotten how to dance.”

Mollari baring his soul to Vir.

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The name of the place is Babylon 5. “We have friends everywhere.” For the second week in a row, the A-plot sees a good script sabotaged by a weak guest actor. The damage is much less this time, mostly because the guest actor in question is a small part of a larger problem, one that will continue to plague our heroes through the show. Indeed, bigoted humans will continue to be seen throughout the show, which is the main difference between B5 and Star Trek—the latter is utopian fiction, the former is realistic fiction. Trek is about humanity at its best; B5 is about humanity as it is.

And humans can be real assholes. Malcolm Biggs is a particularly assholey asshole, and unfortunately, he’s played with all the subtlety of a nuclear explosion by Tristan Rogers, who’s practically has the word “SCUZZBALL” tattooed on his forehead. (This would’ve been a much better role for David McCallum than the dipshit scientist in the execrable “Infection.”) And he’s not the only one. I think it was a particularly nice touch to have an actor of Chinese ancestry play one of the bigots, given that Chinese-Americans have been victims of discrimination in the U.S. for centuries, for a nice little touch of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (It was also hilariously weird to see Michael Paul Chan with hair, as he’s been bald for more than twenty years now…)

There’ve been hints of “Earth first” groups in the past, mostly from comments made by the reporter in “Infection,” as well as some of the noises made around the presidential election in “Midnight on the Firing Line.” Learning that they’re organized and have access to classified tech is worrisome to say the least, especially given the audacity of their plan.

The B-plot has the reverse problem. The script is a hoary young-lovers-escaping-the-icky-arranged-marriage storyline that has whiskers on it, but it’s elevated by the performances. Mostly Peter Jurasik, as is typical, but also by Stephen Furst, who shows the first signs of Vir’s backbone when the aide berates the ambassador for being a big stinky. The indications of just how miserable Mollari’s life is are beautifully and subtly played, adding depth to a tired plotline.

Mention also must be made of an excellent guest turn by Nancy Lee Grahn as Mayan. From her lovely conversation with Delenn at the top of the episode to her impressive equanimity when discussing keeping the brand with Franklin to her incisive comments to Mollari, Grahn plays the role beautifully.

Next week: “And the Sky Full of Stars.” icon-paragraph-end

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