Back to previous post: Keep Watching the Skies

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Legal Filings

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

February 18, 2011

Babylon 5: TKO
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 08:22 PM * 55 comments

I think this is the first episode of Babylon 5 that’s not lived up to my memories of it. I wouldn’t say the Suck Fairy’s done more than pop by it for a cup of tea, but the Meh Fairy seems to have settled in and put her feet up on the coffee table.

I’d remembered it as being an emotionally powerful journey, as Ivanova gradually came to terms with her father’s death and, to a certain extent, her own relationship with the religion of her childhood. It was interspersed with some pointless boxing subplot, but it was the sort of intense episode I wanted to deal with on its own, and maybe even hang some of my coalescing thoughts about religion and faith in the show off of.

But looking at it now, the Ivanova plot seems mechanical, while the fighting plot, for all of its own weaknesses, is a useful counterpoint to it. On the surface, the two of them are a meditation on the value of ritual; on a deeper level, they’re a compare-and-contrast study on friendship and influence.

It’s still not the intense story I remember from before, but there’s some food for thought here.

The episode opens with two men disembarking from the shuttle, talking to each other. One is a Classic Rabbi straight from Central Casting, a heavy, bearded man with a dark suit, a yarmulke, and an Eastern European accent. The other is broad-shouldered and muscular, even for the super-toned cast of this show.

Each of them has a friend on-station: Rabbi Koslov has known Ivanova since childhood, and Walker Smith is an old crony of Garibaldi’s. From this point on, the two stories run in parallel, with the usual layering of scenes to compare and contrast two subplots.

Rabbi Koslov has come to Babylon 5, ostensibly to give Ivanova her late father’s legacy. But what he really wants to do is help her to deal with her difficult relationship with him. Unfortunately, he goes about this in a deeply damaging way. Ivanova claims that one reason she did not go to the funeral or sit shiva for her father was lack of time off from work. Rabbi Koslov, showing less interpersonal perception than I would expect of a man whose job is people, takes this excuse at face value and sets out to solve it.

One of Ivanova’s problems with her father centers on control: she feels that he tried to run her life, and that one of the reasons he showed her too little love was that he disapproved of the choices she’d made. So when Koslov goes to Sinclair and arranges time off for her, she is furious. She stalks away from dinner with him.

In the meantime, Smith has been discussing his reasons with visiting Babylon 5 with Garibaldi. He was a professional boxer, but when he wouldn’t throw a title fight, the organizers framed him for drug use. He hears that there is an alien fight on the station—the Mutai—which no human has ever participated in. He wants to be the first to do so, in the hopes that the publicity will relaunch his career.

Smith goes to the dojo where participants in the Mutai practice, and makes an ass of himself, insulting the aliens and disrespecting what is for them an important ritual. The Muta-do, who runs whole thing, bans him from participating. Garibaldi is fine with this; he’s worried that Smith could be injured or killed in a fight with “no rounds, no rules, no gloves.”

Now both problems are set up; each character has a choice to make about a ritual. Neither is in the right state of mind to go through with it. Each gets a helpful intervention.

Caliban, one of the aliens from the dojo, takes Smith aside and offers to show him how to get into the Mutai, “but with respect. And it will require great courage.” Smith is keen, and goes off with Caliban.

Meanwhile, Sinclair summons Ivanova to his office. He offers condolences on her father’s death, and grants her indefinite leave to sit shiva. She refuses the leave. Sinclair emphasizes his professional and personal respect for her before trying to advise—but not compel—her:

Sinclair: You’re the best officer I’ve ever served with, Ivanova. I couldn’t run this station without you. But I also consider you a friend. And as your friend, I’m telling you, it does no good to bottle up your feelings. Your father’s dead. You need to express your grief or it’ll eat you up.
Ivanova: I appreciate your concern, Commander. And your friendship. But my feelings are my own, and how I display them, or not, is my choice. Now, if I may return to my duty?
Sinclair: Susan…before you make that choice, be sure you know what it is you’re really feeling.

Then focus shifts back to Smith. He’s got tickets for a Mutai fight that night, and wants Garibaldi to come with him. They go to the bout, which is as brutal as broadcast TV would let it be, I guess (which is to say, not very). There’s a phase in the ritual when the Muta-do throws open a challenge, and Smith takes it up. The fight is scheduled for three days hence. Both Garibaldi and the aliens watching the fight are angry at Smith: Garibaldi because he wants to protect his friend from injury, and the audience because they think this human is a disrespectful meddler.

Rabbi Koslov comes by Ivanova’s quarters to say goodbye and give her her father’s samovar, which is an heirloom from the days of the tsars. He asks again about sitting shiva, and Ivanova refuses. She explains the ways she felt that her father left her unloved, then blamed her for leaving him when she joined EarthForce. She is deeply upset, and unable to forgive. But then, when the rabbi is leaving the station, Ivanova remembers her father’s apology to her as he died. She decides to sit shiva after all.

Meanwhile, Smith is practicing for the fight under Caliban’s tutelage. Garibaldi and Caliban agree to stand as his seconds. Smith seems to have grasped a deeper meaning to the fight, and tries to explain it to his friend:

To be the best, you have to face the best. I could take Vesaro on crutches. But Gyor? He’s going to show me where my heart is. And maybe I’ll show him a little something, too.”

Ivanova goes to Sinclair and requests leave to sit shiva. Sinclair invites himself to it as a friend of the family, for which Ivanova is grateful.

The shiva scene is intercut with the fight; together they’re the climax of the episode. Ivanova tells a story from her adolescence, of a moment when she and her father were close. Meanwhile, Smith faces Gyor, the champion of the Mutai. The fight is closely balanced, and ends in a draw when neither participant can stand any more. Meanwhile Ivanova breaks into uncontrolled weeping after the mourning prayer.

The episode closes with both Rabbi Koslov and Walker Smith leaving the station, each with their own farewells from the people they leave behind.

On one level, this is an episode about rituals, about when they do and do not have value to us. Both Ivanova and Smith have to arrive at the right state of mind before they can participate in their very different rites. Smith is the less-prepared at the start of the episode, seeing the Mutai as less than a prize fight (because he cares what happens in a prize fight). Ivanova, at least, knows the value of sitting shiva—she simply does not want to go into that emotional territory.

There are other similarities as well: both Smith and Ivanova do these things in the presence of strangers, detached from all but one or two people whom they know and trust. (I get the feeling that Rabbi Koslov scraped together the other participants from the station’s Jewish community; none of them seemed at all close to Ivanova.) But most importantly in each case, when the participants are ready, the ritual is a profoundly transformative experience. Neither Ivanova nor Smith will be the same after that day. Old damage has been healed, and new possibilities opened up.

But there’s another facet to the episode that interests me. I don’t know that it’s intentional, but the episode is a philosophical statement about friendships, one we should think about as the series unfolds. What do the writers value in friendship?

If I may be permitted a brief digression: during my year abroad in Scotland, there was a time when I was dating N, a lovely fellow, while in love with someone else. (I am not proud of this.) The someone else, J, was gay. But he loved me back, and we wrestled for months with these complex and agonizing emotions, as only twenty year olds can.

Though N was a good guy, I did myself profound and unhelpful damage with him Meanwhile, the product of all of the to-ing and fro-ing with J was the emotional readiness to form a lifelong bond, which I did shortly afterward. As J said once, “N is good to you, but he is not good for you. I, meanwhile, am not good to you, not at all. But I am clearly good for you. I only wish you could find someone who was both good to you and good for you.”*

Garibaldi tries to dissuade Smith from participating in the Mutai, because he’s concerned that his friend will get hurt. But the bout is a way out of a trap for Smith, not just professionally but personally. Garibaldi’s concern for his physical wellbeing isn’t, in the end, helpful. Garibaldi is good to Smith, but he is not good for him.

Rabbi Koslov, meanwhile, is so keen to get Ivanova to sit shiva for her father that he overrides the two things she values most: her privacy and her independence. Had she wanted Sinclair to know of her father’s death, she would have told him. And arranging time off for her behind her back is deeply creepy. But his intervention helps her in the end, opening up her friendship with Sinclair and forcing her to confront how much pain she’s in. Koslov is not good to Ivanova, but he is good for her.

And Sinclair? Although he’s cursed with a paternalistic voice, his intervention in Ivanova’s emotional life is explicitly based on his esteem for her. He advises her, but respects her agency and her emotional barriers. And when she needs him at the end of the shiva, he’s there. He’s both good to her and good for her.

(The other thing I noticed in this episode was Ivanova’s unfailing good manners. Even when she’s running away from the restaurant table in tears, she asks Rabbi Koslov to “please excuse” her. When she’s almost incoherently upset, she still thanks him for bringing the samovar. It’s a nice and telling piece of characterization; she’s clearly used formal manners as a shield until they have become second nature.)

* I did. And, Reader, I married him.

The next entry will look at Grail.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Comments on Babylon 5: TKO:
#1 ::: Naomi ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2011, 08:54 PM:

One of the interesting things about watching B5 the first time around was the experience of interacting with the creator, JMS, on Usenet.

In one of the scenes with Ivanova and the rabbi (the restaurant scene, probably) he asks her if the fish he's been served is kosher. She doesn't know; he shrugs and says something like, "I'm sure it's not mentioned in the Torah," then starts eating.

On the Usenet group, someone pointed out that in fact there were ways of determining the kosherness of fish (fins? scales? etc.) JMS said yes, and initially they tried to have the characters analyze it, but this raised the question, what qualifies as a fin, a scale, etc.? And it quickly turned into a full-blown Talmudic argument which brought the plot to a compete screeching halt.

The access to the show's creator was a really interesting aspect of B5. It was so clear that JMS was "one of us" -- a geek, a fan.

#2 ::: CLP ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2011, 09:16 PM:

If I recall correctly, this is the episode with a noticeable Zima sign in the background--not as a paid product placement, but because "we just kinda thought it was funny."

#3 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2011, 09:34 PM:

CLP: If I recall correctly, this is the episode with a noticeable Zima sign in the background--not as a paid product placement, but because "we just kinda thought it was funny."

There were two or three episodes with the Zima sign visible, and JMS later said that he got so much flack from fans over it that he was tempted to hire the actor that showed up in those ads so he could write a scene with him coming off a passenger ship near the beginning of an episode "and two Narn warriors would grab him and beat the crap out of him."

#4 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2011, 11:04 PM:

Naomi @1, see, I can think of three or four obvious ways of handling that scene that would've been consistent with Jewish practice, while not taking more than a few seconds. (Simplest: Have it not come up; assume the rabbi knows what's kosher, and orders accordingly. Slightly less simple: Rabbi orders some dish. Ivanova asks "Is that kosher?" Rabbi replies "Yes, I checked." More science-fictional: Rabbi says "I'm going to have [name of alien critter]. The OU finally declared it kosher, after 15 years arguing over whether it counts as a fish or a bird.")

#5 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2011, 11:15 PM:

I had totally forgotten (till I just looked it up right now) that Rabbi Koslov was played by Theodore Bikel.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2011, 11:49 PM:

Avram... Didn't Bikel play Whorf's adoptive father? (Lokking) Yes, he did.

#7 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 12:47 AM:

Serge @6, so Whorf's father was a rabbi?!

#8 ::: Antongarou ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 12:50 AM:

she’s clearly used formal manners as a shield until they have become second nature

More then that- they're her shield and sword in certain situations. It's what a friend of mine calls "behaving like a lady": If she does this then she's either at some function or other, or she's intensely furious with at least one person in the current interaction. If/when she loses her facade of manners in front of you? Then, unless it's a really big explosion at you, you've been declared her friend. Interesting to note we don't see her losing her manners in front of Rabbi Koslov, IIRC.

Avram @4: exactly. Not to mention that sitting shiva should be done immediately after the burial, and cannot be postponed normally- I would expect Ivanova to at least comment on that, since the father is characterized as religious.

#9 ::: Zander Nyrond ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 05:03 AM:

I didn't go for this episode so much because I have a blind spot where it comes to unnecessary fighting; I don't see the point.


I took it for granted that Koslov's apparent acceptance of Susan's claimed reason for not sitting shiva, and his apparently ham-fisted attempt to resolve that, was actually a way of, as it were, calling her bluff. He's portrayed as being an old family friend, an honorary uncle, and he's not stupid--he knows the time thing is an excuse, and he's not willing to let her hide behind it. "Oh, so you don't want to go down to the cellar because you can't find the torch? Look, see, I bought you another one. Now what's the real reason?"

Yes, it violates her privacy and her independence, and Koslov is not unaware of that, I think, but you can't lance the boil without first removing the plaster. It's direct, but I don't think it's evidence of a lack of perception.

Antongarou #8: I think possibly the reason she doesn't lose her courtesy with Koslov is not that he's not a friend. It's that, in the deepest depths of her childhood mind, he's ten feet tall, a hundred years old and in direct contact with God, and she hasn't seen him for years. Give him a few weeks on the station, a few arguments, time for her to adjust and get over this thing, and I think you'd see a change.

#10 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 05:46 AM:

Serge & Avram @ 6 & 7: There is no "h" in Worf (except after Sapir).

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 06:16 AM:

Zander Nyrond @9:

I took it for granted that Koslov's apparent acceptance of Susan's claimed reason for not sitting shiva, and his apparently ham-fisted attempt to resolve that, was actually a way of, as it were, calling her bluff. He's portrayed as being an old family friend, an honorary uncle, and he's not stupid--he knows the time thing is an excuse, and he's not willing to let her hide behind it. "Oh, so you don't want to go down to the cellar because you can't find the torch? Look, see, I bought you another one. Now what's the real reason?"

The problem with that reasoning is that his meddling doesn't just involve an inert torch. He brings Ivanova's boss into the situation, interfering in one of the primary relationships of her life. After a career in interpersonal relationships, he should know that there are horrific failure modes involved in so doing.

Ivanova is:
* a woman working for a man
* a Jew working for a Gentile
* a Russian working for an American

Every single one of those situations contains the seeds of disaster both personal and professional (to the extent that, with Ivanova, those differ). Koslov has no idea whether Sinclair is an abuser looking for a vulnerable subordinate, a sexist looking for any sign of emotional weakness, a closet anti-Semite pre-emptively resenting imagined accommodations, or secret Reaganist who thinks the Russkis are still an Evil Empire. If he figures out that she's covering something up, he still doesn't know what. And he doesn't give himself time to read either her or Sinclair to find out.

Right at the moment, I'm in working a multi-national, multi-religious context, as a woman among men, and there are about the usual quantity of land mines that I'm finessing my way around. I don't work with monsters, but I'm not working with Jeffrey Sinclair either. Having someone come in from the outside and tromp all over the territory, even for my own good, would be more than just horribly intrusive, poorly judged, and intensely belittling; it would also be tremendously damaging.

I wouldn't have managed a "please excuse me" before I left that table.

#12 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 06:28 AM:

Avram @ 7... It was a long time ago, but I think his parents were Russian Jews. That was in episode "Family", about what happens after defeating the Borg.

#13 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 06:58 AM:

Abi @ 11... I don't work with monsters, but I'm not working with Jeffrey Sinclair either

I think I'm working for Captain Deckard.

#14 ::: Antongarou ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 07:05 AM:

Zander Nyrond @9:he's ten feet tall, a hundred years old and in direct contact with God

Which is exactly why he's not a friend. to be a friend you both have to regard each other as social peers.

In addition he simply does not behave in any way that a social peer would:going to Sinclair is only one example. Any friend of mine who did that, and tried to dictate to me how to air my grief would get an explosion. The fact Ivanova didn't react this way to Rabbi Koslov shows she doesn't regard him as a peer either

#15 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 07:24 AM:

Ivanova is:
* a Russian working for an American

Sorry to be nit-picky but Sinclair was born on Mars. It is possible also that his pre-Martian ancestors were British at some point. ("Fighter pilots since the battle of Britain.")

#16 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 07:47 AM:

Paul Duncanson @15:

You're correct, though Sinclair reads as American to me, that's probably just because it's a US-made TV show.

Nevertheless, being a Russian working for a non-Russian is still potentially problematic. It doesn't happen to be in this case, but Koslov doesn't know that.

#17 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 08:17 AM:

re 1: on the identification of kosher fish while travelling

It's bad enough when you can tell that it's a fish.

#18 ::: Naomi ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 10:35 AM:

Avram @4, your problem-solving here is excellent. I found the writing on the show frustratingly bad at times, though this bit didn't bug me nearly as much as nearly all of Grail. (It was after Grail that we started talking about the Bad Guest Actor of the Week.)

(I was in college when this show aired. My college had a large, thriving SF club, so my experience of B5, DS9, and the X-Files was intensely communal. We had a deep love/hate relationship with B5. On one hand, we loved the fact that the aliens were not people with latex foreheads; we loved how they had this big sweeping arc story instead of an approach that put all characters back on the shelf exactly where they'd started before the credits rolled; we ADORED Ivanova. On the other, the writing sometimes made us groan out loud, and there were members of the group who despised the show and said the rest of us loved it for what it COULD BE rather than what it actually was.)

#19 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 11:05 AM:

I had - and continue to have - a visceral reaction to the Rabbi's interference since the first time I saw this episode. Abi articulates exactly why in post #11. At the time of my first viewing (the sci-fi channel all-in-order syndication) I was about 10 years away from being a Mormon and still bristled every time my parents tried to engage me in religious conversation, or even mentioned or alluded to it. That anger turned my agnosticism into hard-line atheism every time I felt pushed.

My immediate reaction to this piece of plot is still very "You're not the boss of me!!!" with my secondary "oh, so now the Man is going to tell the Woman what to do. Typical." and the meddling still makes me deeply uncomfortable.

#20 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 02:55 PM:

abi: I really like your distinction between being a good friend to someone and a good friend for them.

Re. Rabbi Koslov and his going to Sinclair the way he did and presenting the leave to Ivanova as a fait accompli. I remember thinking that was way more paternalistic than any rabbi I've know. Talk to Sinclair and hint, or even state, that Ivanova really ought to have time off and sit shiva, perhaps - for a rabbi who is also an old friend of the family. But actually arrange the time off... That's going too far and I think Ivanova did very well to remain strictly polite.

Zander Nyrond @9: I think he's forgetting that she's an adult now, with an adult's right to make her own mistakes. I think perhaps he's still seeing her as his old friend's little daughter - as a child, for whom the adults arrange things.

#21 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 08:00 PM:

The thing that struck me, each time I've seen the episode, is the resemblance of the fighting subplot to the movie Bloodsport. There are some significant differences -- the opponent is not villain in the Mutai, for example -- but it's pretty clear that the movie is a strong influence there. It's also interesting to note that Garibaldi questions his friend's ability, while he's fine with trusting his colleagues in difficult situations. How well did he really know Walker Evans -- and how much of the bits that he didn't know were affected by his drinking at that time, as opposed to his sobriety now? (I mention that because they made a bit of an issue about it in this script, and because it really is the running story with Garibaldi.)

Antongarou @14: He's a friend of Ivanova's family (particularly her parents) and not hers, especially (though it's certain that they share a bond outside of the one the rabbi has with her parents, as well; likely he was her teacher of things Jewish at some point, for some years around her bat mitzvah, to name one aspect).

#22 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 08:36 PM:

Antongarou @14;
It might not be a matter of viewing as a peer, but a matter of trust. There is an idea ( cliche, pop-psych, psych-lite) that children only rebel against those that they trust. Ivanova might love the Rabbi as an Uncle, but if he went behind her back before to help her, I can sorta see her keeping a shield of formality between them.

(I would not mind being corrected on this. I have nieces.)

#23 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 08:40 PM:

And I must say, this time around I was hearing 'Mutai' as 'Muay Thai'. Even though I knew it would not happen, I was half-way expecting to hear in the background somebody saying, "Apa? Apapapapa!!!" accompanied by the sounds of equipment and load-bearing walls breaking.

#24 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 09:07 PM:

I was thinking over what I wrote in comment 22. I did not mean to infantilize Ivanova as a woman or military commander. I was trying to point out that this might not be the first time that the Rabbi 'helped' her, and that Ivanova considers emotional distance in the form of formality as a trade-off to stay friends with Uncle Rabbi Koslov.

Mea Culpa.

#25 ::: Joshua Herring ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 09:08 PM:

Just wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful review. I really hated TKO the first time I saw it - but your analysis of the friendship theme is interesting, so now I have a reason not to skip it the next time 'round.

What I can't forgive this ep. for is the straight-outta-StarTrekTNG Mutai tournament. I mean, we all agree to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story, but only as long as the writers don't flagrantly abuse their trust. Mixed martial arts between alien species? C'mon. There's no level playing field here, and once they're in the ring I just can't forget that these are really humans in rubber suits. And the Sumo announcer feel to the Muta-do just hammers it home.

#26 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 01:06 AM:

Well, I've finally caught up enough with B5 to be able to contribute.

Abi/Zander: Can't one see this both ways? Koslov's knows perfectly well that Ivanova's stated reason for not sitting Shiva is not the real reason; but what he does is still unacceptably paternalistic. (I hope this way of seeing the story makes sense, because it's the way I saw it.)

I'll take dcb's word on rabbis; but I'd have to say that I've certainly seen say that I've seen similarly paternalistic misuses of authority in my own religious tradition. So that aspect of the plot didn't strike me as that implausible.

I think I had a similar reading of the kosher fish scene. The fact that Koslov is asking, doesn't mean he doesn't know the answer: he wants to know whether Ivanova does. (I'm a teacher - I spend half my life asking people questions that (I think) I know the answer to.)

#27 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 02:56 AM:

Joshua Herring @25:

They lost a lot of my suspension of disbelief in the ring, too, for two reasons.

First off, yeah, bilaterally symmetrical bipeds aren't really that alien. Even having it leak white fluid instead of red doesn't help. His moves were really not culturally alien, either. I've seen stranger stuff on the Aikido mat.

And second, despite Garibaldi's wooooo, scary act, it really was not extraordinarily brutal and damaging a fight. I suspect some of this is the result of living in a world with YouTube and another decade-plus of Hollywood bidding up the levels of visible violence. One gets harder to impress, and harder to scare.

#28 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 06:24 AM:

I have to say, TKO is my least favourite B5 episode. The fighting plot is, to say the least, stupid, for the reasons already pointed out - it's bad SF, the supposedly alien characters have somehow managed to end up with a culture that's almost indistinguishable in terms of what's shown from several east-asian human cultures (a fact which pulls me totally out of immersion and prevents any form of enjoyment of the plot), and it is in the end just a slightly modified rerun of the plot of a movie that was popular a few years before it was made.

The Ivanova subplot is the only reason I don't recommend people skip it whenever I introduce a new viewer to B5; it's a good, important subplot, but IIRC it gets very little screen time in comparison to the Mutai plot, and it's therefore quite hard to say it saves the episode.

OTOH, I must admit I'd never noticed the parallel in themes between the two plots, and may just have to watch the episode again to see if noticing this helps at all.

#29 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 06:39 AM:

Naomi @18: members of the group who despised the show and said the rest of us loved it for what it COULD BE rather than what it actually was.

Heh. Amongst my crew (who had been following the saga for months—even years—before it went into production), this was an openly acknowledged attitude, even amongst the most devout of us.

Joshua Herring @25: Mixed martial arts between alien species? C'mon. There's no level playing field here, and once they're in the ring I just can't forget that these are really humans in rubber suits. And the Sumo announcer feel to the Muta-do just hammers it home.

Along with being humaniform, another aspect of TV aliens I find myself irritated by is that they're all the same size as humans. (Star Wars did a much better job with this; though the relative budgets were doubtless a factor.)

The two things that blew my suspension of disbelief for the fight scenes were: standard-issue martial arts fight choreography. But even more than that: They're wearing gis. Really?

Oh yeah. And that horrid cut from the last scene of Susan weeping and the fight. Ouch. Guys: can you say "timing?"

#30 ::: JD Rhoades ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 11:10 AM:

Did anyone else find the portrayal of Rabbi Koslov to be a bit stereotypical? I kept thinking, would a 23d century rabbi really still look and talk like a character from Fiddler on the Roof?

#31 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 11:14 AM:

JD Rhoades @ 30... would a 23d century rabbi really still look and talk like a character from Fiddler on the Roof?

Of course.
It's Tradition!

#32 ::: JD Rhoades ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 11:30 AM:

Of course.
It's Tradition!

Heh. Good point.

#33 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 06:28 PM:

It's been a while since I saw this episode, but am I remembering correctly that one of the aliens involved in the Mutai said specifically that humans were unwelcome because they are disrespectful and appropriate our traditions, or something like that?

I'm afraid I don't remember the exact wording, but I do remember something that singled out humans and thinking that it rang very false. I could imagine that humans might be one of several species that haven't ever competed; someone has to be first. Or I could imagine that this might be something that just two or three species put together and that they resent all other outsiders. But as is, there was a bit of a suggestion that humans were special and that the dozens of other species that competed were a homogeneous mass. I didn't see a recognition that they were just as alien to each other as they are to us.

#34 ::: gelasius ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2011, 09:47 PM:

But as is, there was a bit of a suggestion that humans were special and that the dozens of other species that competed were a homogeneous mass

I read it like this: The Mutai is a sort of underground tradition set against the overwhelmingly human authority of Babylon 5 itself. Humans stand out from the mass of other aliens because they are seen as the privileged group in the setting of the story, and are therefore (perhaps with good reason) seen as disrespectful and suspect. Which all relates to the fact that the subplot is a clumsy retelling of the American martial arts film trope that has the First White Guy Ever to learn (Asian tradition) and is made a Better Person by it.

But that doesn't mean it isn't also irritating that the aliens were a homogenous mass in this case -- particularly when B5 usually does a better job of showing diverse alien cultures and bodies.

#35 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 12:34 AM:

The thing that turned me against Rabbi Koslov was that, when Sinclair reveals that Ivanova didn't tell him about her father, the rabbi doesn't back off.

I've been a signal-blind would-be-helpful meddler once or twice in my time, and that would have been a huge flashing red light to me: either the situation isn't like I think it is, or else Ivanova doesn't trust Sinclair with her personal life. Either way, it's high time to get out without mucking anything up worse than you already have.

I could imagine a well-meaning person going to Ivanova's boss in the knowledge that she wouldn't be likely to ask for leave herself: it's a bit paternalistic, sure, but then the rabbi does see himself as an uncle and she doesn't have a father anymore, so maybe he thinks that's cool. But if you walk into that office thinking Sinclair is an ally of yours who wants the best for Ivanova, same as you do, finding that she hasn't told him about her father in the several months since his death should suggest other possibilities.

As to the fish: Avram, all of your suggestions assume that the rabbi's been prepped. In the scene, he hasn't. Somehow some food comes to be in front of him (we don't see how: maybe he ordered without being sure what he was getting, maybe Ivanova ordered for him, or perhaps the restaurant serves a fixed menu or something). He has to ask Ivanova what it is, and then he asks her if it's kosher, and she says that she doesn't know. His response isn't, to my (admittedly Gentile) eyes, really about his attitude towards keeping kosher in the broader sense (for instance, I suspect that if someone else had asked for his scholarly opinion on whether they should eat it, he would have reacted quite differently). It seemed more like he was just acknowledging a difficult situation and getting on with his life.

Given Rabbi Koslov's powerfully stereotypical habits in most respects, having him break stereotype gave him a bit more character. Might have been cooler ways to set him apart from a Central Casting rabbi, but the scene did serve a purpose.

#36 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 01:28 AM:

He didn't ask anything about how the restaurant stored its plates, did he? That suggests either a certain flexibility in his interpretation of dietary law, or perhaps that conventional interpretations have changed over the course of a few centuries.

#37 ::: Antongarou ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:45 AM:

Matt Austen@36: depends- I don't remember if we see anyone eating meat in that restaurant: as long as it's only fish/vegetarian/dairy combo on the menu then he shouldn't care about plates. In addition the business with separate plates and tableware is rather new IIRC, so i can see it swinging back- especially if the usual cleaning method becomes somewhat extreme.

#38 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 03:10 AM:

gelasius@34, the 'underground tradition' idea might make sense if the station was fifty years old or something. But, like Downbelow, it fails to convince because the station is *two years old*. You can have joke-traditions that are only two years old, but a tradition strong enough to have people *offended* because its mores are violated? No, the Mutai must have been imported from off-station for that to work, and in that case you are left again with the question of why humans are singled out.

Now it is possible that the Mutai members all come from the Non-Aligned Worlds, and that those worlds have been feeling resentful of Earth for a while (perhaps it was throwing its weight around excessively in the time between the Dilgar and Minbari Wars). But it still feels a bit of a stretch to me.

#39 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 07:40 AM:

I think the attitude towards humans is simply because we're the new guys on the block. The other species have been around for centuries or millennia and probably each had to go through their own phase of suspicion and outright prejudice before acceptance. Of course, the fact that we picked a fight with one of the oldest species around and almost got extinctified probably does nothing for our interstellar reputation.

#40 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 10:22 AM:

NelC (39): I have no comment, I just want to repeat 'extinctified'. Great word!

#41 ::: R. N. Dominick ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 11:08 AM:

We have a lot of in-jokes at home, most from geek culture. When someone mutes our small TV, it says MUTING up in the corner; it is required that someone say "Mice may not fight in the mu-ting!" Thus I remember this episode fondly, even though I've always quite disliked the MMA subplot.

The big TV just shows a picture of a speaker with a line through it, which kind of spoils things.

#42 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 11:28 AM:

"Mice may not fight in the mu-ting!"

Because the mu-ting is a ting for cats? (Island cats?)

#43 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 11:36 AM:

@NelC 39 -- the Narn are also represented as being fairly new to the game in terms of tech and interstellar capability. The "humans are different and special" trope is one of my pet peeves with B5.

I did like the Ivonova plot. I'm rewatching both B5 and ST: Next Gen right now and I was very amused to realize that the guy who plays Rabbi Koslov is clearly the guy you called when you needed someone to play Older Russian Jewish Men in Space. I have to admit, though, that it would have made me much happier if there was any evidence that Judaism had adapted to space travel or other elements of the passage of several hundred years. Because, really, the more liberal movements have already changed since that episode was shot, and even Orthodoxy is at least reacting to external change in interesting ways even if it isn't changing much itself.

#44 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 12:01 PM:

the guy who plays Rabbi Koslov is clearly the guy you called when you needed someone to play Older Russian Jewish Men in Space.

... and Mel Brooks isn't available.

("...zooming along, protecting the Hebrew race...")

#45 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:31 PM:

J.D.Rhoades @ 30

That's pretty much exactly what I thought.

#46 ::: bartkid ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 03:04 PM:

>showing less interpersonal perception than I would expect of a man whose job is people, takes this excuse at face value and sets out to solve it.

Y'know, I think that is a common problem with a lot of rabbis, pastors, priests, etc.

Years of theological training, but only months or less of any sort of training on interpersonal counselling.

#47 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 03:07 PM:

bartkid @46:

Considering Koslov's age, I'd be relying more on experience than training.

(Also, have a cite for that proportion? How much do you know about the training for the various forms of clergy? For which religions/sects/orders?)

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 03:08 PM:

Sarah @ 43... That'd be Theodore Bikel, who's been around long enough that he appeared in "The African Queen"

#49 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 05:26 PM:

JD Rhoades @30:

Well, of course rabbis have to wear out-of-date clothing, as well. Just like contemporary Chasidim consciously wear out-of-date clothing. Bikel's tie was from the 1970s.

Matt Austern @36:

Actually, it's more a reversion to older practice. In the Jewish legal literature, it's clear that religious Jewish travelers ate from regular plates at inns along the way where the proprietors/cooks were not Jewish. They might eat fish, but they'd use the plates, for a variety of technical reasons. Nowadays, it's just as easy to ask for a paper plate, but they didn't exist until 1904. Being a rabbi, if he was Orthodox, this would have been part of his basic training. I don't know the curricula at the heterodox rabbinical seminaries.

If you're at a caterer/restaurant that's owned by Jews and claims to be kosher, they have to be held to a higher standard.

Sarah @ 43:

older Russian Jewish man...

Debbie & I call Worf's parents Tevye and Golde.

#50 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 05:46 PM:

10 Paul: not proven; it's just a hypothesis.

34: "film trope that has the First White Guy Ever to learn (Asian tradition) and is made a Better Person by it" - and still manages to outperform the people with a lifetime of experience in it, because (Americans/White Guys) are just Better. Yeah.

The Koslov end-run: my privilege is showing. I definitely saw it Zander's way, without the implications abi and nerdycellist are pointing out. Yes, paternalistic, and very much "I know what you need better than you", but this has happened to me several times, by many people trying to help me, most of whom had the "my M.D. trumps your experience" syndrome, who forced me into things that they thought I needed, even though it was clearly not what I wanted. At least sometimes, they were right (but that doesn't make me feel any better about that style of treatment). Now I have more stuff to think about.

I think that what Rabbi Koslov was trying to do - not just there, but throughout his trip - was something that Ivanova needed, and that he knew she needed. I think that Ivanova's Jewishness was something that made her who she was and as good as she was, and that she was repressing some of it for good reasons (even if there were other solutions that wouldn't require the repression). As a friend of the family and as a Rabbi, it should be Koslov's duty to re-complete her. His methods were in conflict with his all-growed-up niece, and that was a huge mistake; maybe he learned something, as well. That's not unique to paternalism, though, and is also a good story; haven't we all been on both sides of "I'm really glad you got me to do X, now, at least; but I'm still not happy with the methods you used to do it"?

#51 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 08:41 PM:

What do you know? 1958's "The Defiant Ones" is on TCM right now and guess who's in it? Yes. Theodore Bikel.

#52 ::: Kaleberg ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2011, 12:36 AM:

I remember seeing the rabbi and laughing. He had to be Hasidic; he's wearing clothing a few hundred years out of date. Whenever an old fashioned Jew chews out a more modern Jew for lacking respect for history, I always respond that's just garbage. Judaism keeps changing, as it always has. It's Judaism that hasn't kept changing that lacks respect for history. (Besides, that kosher crap is new-fangled. No Jew kept kosher until after the Babylonian captivity. Abraham and Moses could eat all the pork and oysters they wanted.)

#53 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:12 PM:

I watched this episode last night. I found Ivanova's story more interesting and believable. The story about the Mutai did not, IMO, emerge from its stew of cliches. I felt sorry for Theodore Bikel, playing That Character one more time.

I also wondered about the "Is it kosher?" question. Most Orthodox Jews I know would prefer to simply order a salad rather than risk breaking the dietary laws. However, I also thought that the rabbi asked the question mostly to see if Ivanova knew the answer, or had even thought about it, i.e. he wanted to see where on the spectrum of behavior she identified as a religiously-observant Jew, and also to find out if she had considered that it might be important to him, as her guest on the station.

For all we know, the rabbis and scholars in his particular branch of Orthodoxy had already discussed this issue, and decided that the dietary laws don't pertain to species not from Earth. Or something. That would be a fascinating discussion. Well, I would be fascinated. YMMV.

#54 ::: Justin Turnell ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2018, 05:07 AM:

Simply wanna input that you have a very decent site, I love the design it really stands out.

#55 ::: Buddha Buck sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2018, 06:13 AM:


Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.