Review of Babylon 5: “By Any Means Necessary”
Written by Dan Carlson
October 12, 2000
This week’s problems on the seemingly-cursed station involve the plight of the overworked and underpaid laborers of the Docker’s Guild, which coordinates the loading and unloading of cargo— a critical responsibility for an important port like B5. Due to a combination of faulty equipment, operator error, and plain bad luck, a fatal accident takes place in the station’s docking bay. Many dockworkers are seriously injured and one is killed in the accident.
In the uproar following the incident, the representative of the Guild, Neeoma Connoly, threatens a strike if conditions for the workers aren’t improved immediately. A large number of workers call in “sick,” crippling station traffic and creating a major mess. Commander Sinclair tries to negotiate with the workers, but he soon gets a call informing him that EarthGov is sending its top negotiator (aka strikebreaker), Orin Zento, to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, this does nothing but escalate tensions as it becomes clear that the government intends to do nothing to help.
Meanwhile, another diplomatic and cultural crisis is brewing. Narn Ambassador G’Kar lost a valuable and spiritually significant plant in the docking accident, which he intended to use to celebrate his people’s most important religious holiday. Unfortunately, the only other available plant is currently in the possession of his arch-nemesis, Ambassador Londo Mollari. A series of threats, counter-threats, break-ins, thefts, and other antics take place creating more headaches for Commander Sinclair.
The negotiations with the workers are not going any better. The dockworkers abandon their pretense of calling in sick and officially declare a strike; Orin Zento responds by officially invoking the Rush Act, a government order which allows the use of armed troops to arrest the offending workers and “restore order”; however, everyone on the station knows that this will only lead to violence. Things threaten to get out of hand, but before open rioting breaks out, the Commander finds a loophole in the Rush Act— he is officially empowered to use “any means necessary” to quell the strike. Using this authorization, Sinclair diverts funds from the station’s military budget to address the dockers’ grievances. Satisfied, the dockers agree to return to work.
Sinclair still has to deal with the two quarreling ambassadors, though. Londo continues to needle G’Kar, but eventually agrees to hand over the plant— because the Narn holiday is already over, and the plant is useless. But Sinclair applies more “creative reasoning” to allow G’Kar and the other Narns to celebrate their holiday, leaving all sides satisfied— finally.
All is not well, however. The Senate does not appreciate Sinclair’s “creative” handling of the situation, although they decide to let things be for the time being. But Sinclair has made new enemies today.
Aside from the obvious heavy-hitters like the next episode, “Signs and Portents,” “By Any Means Necessary” is one of my favorite first-season episodes. It’s a rarity in science fiction series when the plot focuses on events outside the core characters which invariably form the command staff of whatever outpost or ship the show takes place on. An unfortunate side effect of this is that the outside world of that series tends to be glossed over or even ignored.
This is obviously not the case on “Babylon 5.” Rather than focusing entirely on the main staff, the show brings in a relatively large number of guest stars (not to mention the huge live-action crowds seen in the docking bays) for a riveting hour of action and diplomacy. And this isn’t any ordinary “lower decks episode, either— in a way it determines the future of station policy. You get the feeling that big things are going on here. The station is not the center of the universe.
For example, there’s the threat of the Rush Act. It’s obvious that such an action is a very big deal— there are numerous allusions to previous strikes on Europa and Ganymede, among others. We don’t need the details, really. The writers trust us to make the appropriate connections rather than burden us with heaps of annoying expository dialogue— it’s clear from what’s going on that the situation is very bad.
Though I have to wonder just how such actions could be justified. The Rush Act strikes me as an extremely paranoid and reactionary measure to use. Background information on the show says that the Act was created during the Earth-Minbari War to ensure that government and military facilities are not threatened by civilian strikes. That sounds good in theory, and may even be acceptable as a wartime measure (considering how badly Earth was getting pounded) but in peacetime— it seems like there are some sinister things going on in the government.
This brings me to Sinclair— I’m not really a fan of either the character or Michael O’Hare, but I should say that he puts in a very good performance here. Though he still seems a bit dry and stiff, it’s to a much lesser extent, and he presents himself as a capable commander and a sly negotiator as well. Which is a good combination for a post like Babylon 5. The guest characters as well were very capably portrayed, although John Snyder as the strikebreaker Orin Zento got a little too far into the stereotypical sleazebag role, I think. But in general, a very good job all around.
With the main plot out of the way, we come to the secondary story which many are sure to dismiss as “fluff.” Yet this is not the case, if you stop to think about it. Sure, Londo and G’Kar act like a pair of scheming buffoons that seem more like they belong on “Looney Tunes” than a sci-fi drama. But it goes deeper than that. It starts simply with G’Kar’s search for a replacement G’Quan-Eth plant, which, by total coincidence, happens to be in the possession of one Ambassador Londo Mollari. The scene in the Zocalo when G’Kar first finds out, and Londo’s taunting “yoo-hoooo!” wave is hilarious.
But their story gets more serious from there. It turns into a grudge match, basically— which is nothing new where these two are concerned. But it’s become personal. Londo alludes to the Narn invasion of Ragesh 3 back in “Midnight on the Firing Line,” something which we knew touched Londo very deeply, because G’Kar manipulated Londo’s own nephew. Here, he gets a chance for revenge. And though his demeanor is cheerful or taunting the entire time, you can see the hatred in his eyes. The final confrontation in the council chambers is very moving, because as he leaves, you can see Londo all but spit in G’Kar’s face.
It’s the nuances like this that make me love Babylon 5 so much. These are things that the Trek writers, I think, would never, ever attempt. Yet here we are, still in the first season of this new (when it aired, anyway) sci-fi show, and we get something very different from what we expect. And if you are watching Babylon 5 for the first time... all I’ll say is that there’s much more where this came from.
You should never hand someone a gun unless you’re sure where they’ll point it. Your mistake. - Commander Jeffrey Sinclair