SJ Review #410

Episode: 410 - Racing Mars
Jesus Trevino
Donovan Scott (Captain Jack)
Clayton Hardy (Number Two)
Majorie Monaghan (Number One)
Mark Schneider (Wade)
Jeff Griggs (Dan Randall, clip from episode "The Illusion of Truth")

Franklin and Marcus arrive on Mars and make contact with the Martian underground. Whilst they struggle to discover who is friend and who is foe, Ivanova tries to find a way around the quarantine on Babylon 5 imposed by President Clark...

This episode had a feel totally unlike any season four offering so far. In fact, "Racing Mars" is more in the style of season two than season four. I say this for a number of reasons: Firstly, the directing, of which more below; secondly, the script, which brought back the strong characterisation and witty dialogue that made the first two seasons so good; all this was accompanied by good performances from all the cast. From this, one could be forgiven for thinking that this episode would be something of a disappointment, given how much the series has changed and (generally) improved since the first two seasons.

However, whilst most things have definitely improved over the years (special effects; acting, particularly the guest actors; scripts; the main plot arc), other aspects of the show have suffered somewhat, because of all the arc-driven episodes of seasons three and four. Whilst arc-episodes give us an incredible adrenalin boost (usually) and are incredibly exciting to watch, they almost always accompany bad characterisation and a casting away of the interesting 'realistic' side to the space station (ie, the things that have no relevance to the plot at all, but make the whole B5 universe that much more believeable). This episode managed to combine the two rather effectively.

On the one hand we have the important arc-related plot of the Mars mission; on the other we have the character development between Sheridan and Delenn and Sheridan and Garibaldi, as well as an insight into how the station runs, with the black market subplot. These are aspects of the show that have been badly negelected recently, and it was a refreshing change to see them back. As an added bonus, it was all done competently, if unremarkably.

Perhaps the best thing about this episode was the characterisation and humour - both were spot on. Whereas in previous episodes the humour has been somewhat strained and unconvincing, mostly due to whichever character spoke it, but everything seemed to fit into place here. Ivanova telling Sheridan to take a break - that is *exactly* how we would expect Ivanova to talk. The "woo-hoo" scene, which will probably split fans down the middle into those who hate it and those who think it is the funniest moment of the whole series, was nevertheless perfectly timed and acted. The scenes between Marcus and Franklin were equally well handled. Marcus, played by Jason Carter, came across as being much more three-dimensional than in previous episodes.

The general consensus about Carter is that he is annoying, and cannot act. This episode gave him some good scenes which he could get his teeth into so that, instead of us getting annoyed with what we supposed was the actor, we got annoyed with Marcus, and could tell that it was his *character* we were seeing, not the actor struggling with useless dialogue (Marcus has traditionally been the character who explains some useful plot device; thankfully we got more than that this time!).

This episode also had fairly strong guest cast. Donovan Scott as Captain Jack did an excellent job. His character could have become the joke of the episode all too easily; all credit to him that he managed to get us to like him before his untimely end - that was a genuinely moving moment. In a way, it was similar to the sacrifice Ericsson made in "The Long Night": Although the character was not of great importance to the overall arc, a bad actor could easily have ruined the whole affair (see my review of "The Long Night" if you would like more explanation). Clayton Hardy was convincing as Number Two, even if he was a bit melodramatic. The only let down was Mark Schneider as Wade, who didn't come across as being very real to me. Perhaps this was because of a lack in acting skill, or perhaps it was because he didn't get particularly good lines. Whatever, his scenes left me curiously unsatisfied.

As mentioned above, there were some very juicy character scenes. The confrontations between Sheridan and Garibaldi were acted extremely well, and the dialogue managed to be pretty good. What let down these scenes, and, indeed, the whole episode, was the directing of Jesus Trevino. This was uninspired, boring and lessened the impact of the episode as a whole. Whilst this type of directing was par for the course during the first two seasons, season four has shown itself capable of some very innovative filming techniques (especially in "Whatever Happened To Mr. Garibaldi?"). If the directing had been better, this episode would have got a higher rating. The ending fell rather flat due to this poor boring filming, too.

Special effects-wise, "Racing Mars" was something of a mixed bag. The shots of the space liner (similar to the 'Asimov,' seen in season one) were exciting, in that we got our first real close-ups of the ship, and the 'through the window' shot was excellent. However, the ship looked very undetailed in the close-ups, which was a pity. The Mars city initially looked rather poor and unrealistic, with the establishing shot, but then looked wonderful as we saw the train travelling through the tube, and then from inside the train itself. The explosion later on was similarly impressive. So, again, the effects were good and bad.

This somewhat disappointed me. The 'location' effects shots of Centauri Prime, Narn and Minbar have been incredibly realistic, far more so than in previous seasons. Earth and Mars, however, have been less convincing and have looked very much like the computer graphics that they are.

Rating: 7.5/10 - a hugely entertaining episode, let down by some dodgy effects and stolid directing.

Simon Jones, reviewer.

1997 Simon Jones.