Babylon 5: Grail

When he tugged off his belt, made a loop in it, and moved clumsily toward her, the unicorn was more pleased than frightened. The man knew what she was, and what he himself was for: to hoe turnips and pursue something that shone and could run faster than he could. She sidestepped his first lunge as lightly as though the wind of it had blown her out of his reach. “I have been hunted with bells and banners in my time,” she told him. “Men knew that the only way to hunt me was to make the chase so wondrous that I would come near to see it. And even so I was never once captured.”
The Last Unicorn

There’s a lot to dislike about this episode. It’s another Freak of the Week story, and its mix of bad acting and woo makes it hard to take at all seriously. It’s not the worst of Season 1, but coming so shortly after the series looked to be taking fire, its disappointments are magnified. Sometimes the doldrums are worse than disaster.

But the biggest problem with it is that it’s trying to tell two stories from two different genres, one of which is not native to the show. The subplot about discovering what is blanking people’s mind and applying pressure to the Centauri to get the information they need is standard B5: light science fiction plus diplomacy. But the quest of Aldus and the redemption of Jinxo is basic genre fantasy† transplanted out of its habitat. And genres are like typecast actors: they make awkward guest stars.

I’m not just saying this because it’s a quest story. Indeed, it’s the setting that really pushes the story over the genre lines. The Babylon 5 that Aldus and Jinxo travel through is less a diplomatic meeting-ground and military base and more a space-faring version of one of the intricate and crime-ridden cities I’ve been reading about since I was a teen. This is a story that could be set in Sanctuary or Lankhmar, Riverside or Adrilankha, or even later Ankh-Morpork.

Something like this:

Into the twisting corridors and darkened spaces of Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, where the law’s reach is tenuous and all who survive do so by their wits, comes a searcher. Although he does not find what he seeks, the power of his quest affects and transforms those he encounters: the overworked judge, the petty thief with a fearsome curse, the criminal leader using a terrifying and exotic beast to tighten his hold on the underworld, and even the police and ambassadors of the upper levels…

(You will please, of your kindness, read all of the italicized sections in your best Heraldic Fantasy Inner Voice, and the Roman ones in a fine and steely Science Fiction Inner Voice)

We begin our tale as the Commander of Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, and his chief of plice meet in a public hostelry for their midday meal. They have barely begun before the two Minbari ambassadors arrive, announcing the coming of an important stranger to the station. Commander Sinclair and Chief Garibaldi have heard nothing of this arrival, but they abandon their food and prepare to welcome him.

Meanwhile, in the shadowed and chilly spaces of Downbelow , a man is being threatened. Jinxo, otherwise Thomas Jordan, owes a smuggler and loan shark called Deuce a large sum of money. By virtue of the time he spent building the station, Jinxo knows many hidden ways, ones the police are ignorant of. Deuce gives Jinxo a choice: pay back the money, or teach him the secrets of Babhylon. If he will not, or cannot, he will suffer a terrible fate. As proof, Deuce shows Jinxo his monstrous pet: a creature whose tentacles steal people’s minds. It dwells in an encounter suit in the Vorlon style, and Deuce addresses it as “Ambassador Kosh.”

There follows a brief and comical interlude about a lawsuit between the descendant of an alien abductee and that of the Grey that snatched him. With this we see the petty court system of Babhylon, presided over by an Ombuds who arbitrates both civil and criminal cases.

Our story then returns to Commander Sinclair and Chief Garibaldi, standing at the arrivals gate alongside Delenn and Lennier. Their quarry arrives: a tall man, dressed in pale colors and carrying a staff. He is Aldus Gajic, and he is the last of his unnamed order. He has come to further his quest, hoping that the aliens of Babhylon will be able to help him.

I am seeking the sacred Vessel of Regeneration, also known as the Cup of the Goddess, or by its more common name, the Holy Grail.

When Aldus visits a moneychanger, Jinxo steals his wallet. He is caught by Garibaldi, and must now face the Ombuds. It is his third offense, but because he is a builder of some skill, Ombuds Wellington offers to pay his passage to another station where he can find work. Jinxo will have none of it, insisting that he must stay on Babhylon or it will be destroyed. Aldus declares that he will take Jinxo into his custody and stand surety for his good behavior, and the Ombuds agrees.

Meanwhile, Dr Franklin is investigating yet another case of mysterious mindwiping from Downbelow. It’s new problem: people from the underworld are turning up with no memories, and barely enough cognitive function to be alive. They can be retrained, but their memories are gone.

The latest case annoys Garibaldi. The woman in question was going to testify against Deuce on charges of extortion. Without her testimony, the trial can’t proceed, and Deuce walks free.

Jinxo accompanies Aldus to his quarters. There he explains the curse that keeps him on Babhylon, Fifth of the Name. He worked on the construction crew for each of the five stations. The first three, each sabotaged in turn, exploded as soon as he left them. The fourth, completed, vanished as he departed. He will not leave the station lest this Babhylon suffer the same fate. If he is captured and killed by Deuce, he fears that Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, will fall as well. He begs Aldus to flee. But his companion does not believe that he is cursed, and names him Lucky for having four times escaped disaster*. He later tells Jinxo that staying on Babhylon to prevent its destruction marks him as a man of “infinite promise and goodness.”

Franklin contacts Sinclair. He’s eliminated any form of mechanical interference with the victims’ brains.. After some research, he and Ivanova identify a creature from Centauri space whose effects match their observations: the Na’ka’leen Feeder. Sinclair tracks Londo down to the casino and asks after the Feeder. Londo gives Sinclair the information he needs, but is clearly terrified. He rushes out of the casino and locks himself in his quarters.

Thereafter does Jinxo serve as a kind of esquire to Aldus, accompanying him on visits to the different ambassadors. The Minbari receive them hospitably, but have no useful information. The Centauri solicit money, but have nothing to offer either. While en route to their final appointment, the two are set on by a gang of Deuce’s toughs. Aldus repels them with his staff, and he and Jinxo continue on their way. But the meeting is with Ambassador Kosh, and when Jinxo sees the Vorlon encounter suit, he flees. Aldus must perforce follow.

Following the custom of the stories of Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, the two quests become one during the telling. Deuce’s men kidnap Ombuds Wellington. And a greater quantity of them appear to abduct Aldus. Jinxo, escaping, seeks out Commander Sinclair, and the pair of them, after summoning assistance, go Downbelow to rescue the captives. But Aldus has not been idle. He has already begun to exert whatever influence his quest and character provide. He confronts the Feeder and it does not eat his mind. He commands it out of its encounter suit and it emerges. The two of them, man and Feeder, confront each other, but are interrupted when the security patrol arrives.

In the subsequent fighting, the Feeder escapes into the ductwork. It reappears beside Deuce and eats his mind (neatly ending his criminal career). Jinxo, seeing his chance, goes to release the Ombuds. One of Deuce’s gang takes aim at him, but Aldus steps into the line of fire and is shot. The feeder reappears and is killed. The fight is over.

Aldus, mortally wounded, wills all that he dies possessed of to Jinxo, who vows to take up his quest. “I see in Thomas the Grail,” says the seeker as he dies.

Jinxo, wearing Aldus’ clothing and carrying his staff, accompanies his body off of the station. And Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, does not explode when his ship leaves.

– o0o –

See what I mean? The Aldus plot still not great genre fantasy, but it’s better fantasy than it is science fiction. It requires there to be a kind of magic in his quest, capable of bending judges to his will, redeeming the hopeless in a few short hours, and taming savage beasts. That’s a completely different suspension of disbelief than the one that allows Franklin to compensate for Centauri brain function in order to identify the Na’ka’leen Feeder’s peculiar effects.

(This episode also proves that, snark aside, the rest of Babylon 5 is not fantasy. Despite its Arthurian themes, it’s more SF than F in execution.)

There are also some useful tidbits of information in the episode. For instance, here’s Delenn on Aldus, and Sinclair:

Delenn: He is a holy man, a true seeker. Among my people, a true seeker is treated with the utmost reverence and respect. It doesn’t matter that his goal may or may not exist. What matters is that he strives for the perfection of his soul, the salvation of his race. He has never wavered, or lost faith.
Sinclair: I wish him luck. He’s probably the only true seeker we have.
Delenn: Then perhaps you do not know yourself as well as you think.

On the population of Downbelow:

Garibaldi: Make me a happy man. Let me clean out Downbelow. If I put all my teams on it, I could wipe out nine-tenths of the crime rate in one sweep.
Sinclair: Look, most of them are just people with nowhere else to go. They come here looking for a new life, a new job, and when don’t find it they can’t afford transport back. What are you going to do, Mr. Garibaldi? Shove them out an airlock?
Garibaldi: Don’t tempt me.

On the fates of the first four Babylon stations:

Jinxo: The day I started work on the Babylon station—we didn’t number the first, you know—that was the best day of my life. I worked a few months, had some leave, so I took it. And the station’s infrastructure collapsed. It was sabotage. They never found out who.
Aldus: I remember.
Jinxo: So I went to work on the second. The firm still owned my contract till the station was finished. I took leave a second time, and that station was sabotaged. And then when B3 blew up, well…that’s when I got the name Jinxo. When I went to work on B4, I didn’t take any leave. I was there every minute until we finished it. I thought the curse was gone. Then as I was leaving on the shuttle, I looked back, and the station just sort of…wrinkled. Twisted, like putty, then just disappeared. The minute I left.

On the Minbari castes:

Lennier: There are two castes of Minbari, warrior caste and the religious caste. The warrior caste would not understand. It is not their way.
Delenn: So we will not tell them, and spare them the confusion.
Aldus: These two sides of your culture, do they ever agree on anything?
Delenn: Yes. And when they do, it is a terrible thing. A terrible power, as recent events have shown us. Let us hope it never again happens in our lifetime.

And, of course, on the destruction of Babylon 5:

Garibaldi: No boom?
Sinclair: No boom.
Ivanova: No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There is always a boom tomorrow…What? Look, somebody’s gotta have some damn perspective around here. Boom. Sooner or later. Boom!

† Indeed, it’s not far off being Extruded Fantasy Product
* This reminds me of the fact that in the Orthodox tradition, “Doubting Thomas” is known as “Believing Thomas”.

The next entry will look at Eyes.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

– o0o –

Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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