Attack of the Twenty Foot Woman
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Tony Dow
When Gideon ignores Galen’s advice about not exploring a ruined planet, they find a hidden danger lurking.
I seem to remember thinking this episode was okay in previous viewings, but now I have to say it’s become one of my least favourite and is particularly lacking after the high point of “The Needs of Earth.”
As it’s one of the first episodes produced, it feels (much like “Racing the Night”) that they want this episode to help define the show’s raison d’etre. Try hard they do – throwing everything at it, except the Excalibur’s kitchen sink – we get the team exploring an abandoned world, a spooky threat, Galen arriving with dire warnings, Eilerson being a jerk, Dureena discovering hidden passages (in the sky), Technomage intrigue, characters being taken over by a outside forces. Yet, despite this, it doesn’t even become the sum of it’s parts, never mind being greater than them. I may be in the minority here, but despite all the supposed big events and suspense, it all feels a little boring. In the end it just feels too rough around the edges and unfinished.
The stupidity of some of the situations are infuriating. You have to wonder how the mission briefing went: “There have been reports of an unseen killer on the planet below. Oh and we’re searching to the cure for a plague, does anyone see any similarities? Ring any bells anyone? No? Oh well, maybe we shouldn’t worry about wearing hazmat suits…” The crew of the Prometheus (the Ridley Scott one) took better precautions. Seeing as they’ve been warned of deadly invisible danger by Galen, you might think taking a huge scientific research team down might not be the best idea until they discover if the place is safe? Nope, the team they take is the largest one we ever see on the show.
Max acts as though the situation they’re approaching – dead world, potential technology, etc. is a uniquely amazing new opportunity. Strange, it’s just like the opportunity they just had in the episode “Racing the Night.” He must have memory issues.
Certainly a large part of the episode’s failings have to be the effects, because if you can’t suspend disbelief, then the whole story suffers. I realise it’s a particularly effects heavy episode and this was the show’s early days, but the quality control department must have been snoozing after a heavy lunch. There’s a bunch of poor effects throughout, but there are a few the standouts for me. There’s a shot of the probes launched by the Excalibur, splitting up over the world – the scale, physics and overall quality are just terrible. They had a reasonable shot of the probes being deployed from below the Excalibur, then they cut to the awful one. We’ve just seen the probes launched, ditch the crappy shot.
Then Dureena finds the secret “light bridge” (forcefield? hard-light hologram?) on the side of a building. Why it’s there, god only knows, it leads from the side of one building simply to the side of another (couldn’t someone have simply accessed the area from the other building instead?), although nonsensical, I can kind of forgive it as it gives us a cool moment of discovery and mystery.
What’s not forgivable is what happens next – the device powering the bridge starts powering down and instead of staying safely where she is (where she could be picked up by a skimmer) she decides to run back along a flickering bridge, made of light, hundreds of feet up in the air. To finally grind a handful of rock salt into the wound, the effects then completely shit a brick – the scale of Dureena to the path and building become so bad you almost have to assume it was left in as a joke – just look at the image.
A little later Dureena and Max discuss the data crystals, where he berates her for not getting more of them. Well, why doesn’t someone get a bloody skimmer and go get the rest of them?! Why introduce the skimmers and then never use them? Yes, there’s some vague talk of a thin ozone layer allowing solar interference of electronics during the daytime, but it’s never mentioned whether it stops the skimmers, or just wait until night time.
I know I’ve mentioned not wanting to bang on about Chen’s music, but this is one of the worst examples. His atmospheric stuff is often fine, but it’s the character moments that end up so broad and melodramatic. For example: Galen’s entrance on the ship is unintentionally hilarious. He’s just dropped some silly, self-depreciating comments about “coming onboard, so hide the breakables” then he comes striding up the corridor in slow-mo with a highly portentous soundtrack so he can basically give us again the same information. Oh, another thing, there’s so much gratuitous slow-mo in this episode, ease up please Tony.
The biggest shame of the episode is that the smaller, character moments are often quite decent – quiet, thoughtful and interesting, sadly the main story that they’re woven into is so dull, forgettable and clichéd.
Did I just say clichéd? We have an unseen killer on the loose on a deserted planet (see Forbidden Planet, et al), regular characters taken over by an unknown force (every SF show ever – two episodes of Crusade’s thirteen include this trope), obvious IPX “redshirts” discussing expendability, then the pièce de résistance – having the Technomage avatar’s face in the explosion, pushing us beyond cliché to sheer parody.
So what IS good?
As mentioned before, most of the quiet character moments away from the main story are actually pretty good, adding depth and nuance to the characters, it’s just a shame the story didn’t get the same treatment. As an example of these, Dureena’s retrieval of Galen’s staff is a nice moment. It’s done with zero dialogue and it solidifies his bond with Dureena – the hand contact in particular is a great little moment and one that helps toward his trust of her and possible future training. That they completely doused poor Carrie Dobro in mud, then let it dry just for this scene is pretty mean, but it sells the moment.
The reason the virus exists on the planet is vaguely interesting, and Galen’s discussion with the avatar brings up a few interesting questions about what Technomages will do and what Galen’s price might be. I like the idea that the avatar is only aware when activated to kill, so basically if he wants to stay conscious, he has to kill. It’s a good idea, but not well explored and glossed over too quickly.
The scene with Galen accessing the probes on the bridge looks a little static, but the crash-zoom into his eyeball and out are very well done. However, the graphics of Galen’s POV/interface when he’s scanning the caves is a bit clunky-looking.
The physical sets on the planet look good for the budget – the forest, the buildings and architecture Dureena clamber over, even the caves look okay, but then the CG caves look terrible and match up poorly with the green screened actors.
The scale of the story and what they’re trying to do is laudable of course. Many will say that it’s better to try something grand and difficult but fail, than succeed at something small and easy. Do you know what’s better? Attempting something large and difficult, knowing your limitations and working around them to succeed – something which Babylon 5 did on numerous occasions.
Crusade continuity check and notes:
- Galenwatch – Present
- Minor continuity issue (one that most people wouldn’t care about or notice) – the ISN news anchor describes the Drakh attack as having happened four months ago. Not the fault of the episode as first written and shot, but once it was pushed back, it clashes with other dates – most obviously “Ruling from the Tomb” which is set in June.
- While it’s not exactly a continuity issue – the news programme feels like pure early-episode info-dump. All it does now is remind the viewer of lots of things we’ve now heard a great deal about, such as the Earth quarantine. The newsreader’s mention of what the Excalibur is doing and how it’s enlisting the help of the Rangers feels like very old news to those watching, yet it’s feels like she’s explaining something to us for the first time. From what we’ve seen in this order, we’ve already been told the Excalibur and the Rangers are being portrayed as heroes for Earth, while here they’re just a footnote in a news summary…
- From the nanotech-virus in this episode we get the development of the nano-virus shield , which is a pretty cool idea, although only used once in the series.
- With the medical imaging Chambers has on board, they are able to observe a nano-machine in real time, even enhancing it enough to see the Technomage symbol.
- I had to laugh when Galen cuts off Dr Chamber’s explanation of what nanotech is. By the 23rd Century it’s ancient technology – it’s like someone today explaining to you what a steam engine is, plus he’s a Technomage
We get quite a lot of Galen backstory throughout:
- We see some kind of implants (or the remains of) on Galen’s back. From what we’ve seen on Babylon 5 and Crusade, this is a new revelation, but those having read the Technomage trilogy will have a better idea of the significance.
- Galen gets a bit of a shock about the reasons for his order’s warnings about this world – it seems they’re not above lying to hide their mistakes and embarrassments.
- Galen’s staff came from the one who taught him – Alric from B5 episode “The Geometry of Shadows”
We also find out that the Apocalypse Box had a hand in finding this planet, and it was truthful in that they did find something of use, it just forgot to mention the danger. The Box also tells Gideon not to trust Galen – there’s many potential reasons, some of which may be true:
- He may not be trustworthy despite evidence to the contrary
- The Box knows Galen would oppose its presence and is sowing discontent between them
- It knows some of the Technomage history the audience is not yet party to
- Maybe it has limited ability to see the future and is foreshadowing the events of “The Well of Forever’?
- Something else entirely?
It’s nice to hear a little about Dr Stephen Franklin on the news report, probably just to remind us he exists and there to whet our appetites for “Each Night I Dream of Home”
Chronological Order Analysis:
- Production order = 2
- Broadcast order = 10
- Continuity order = 8
- Is this episode better in this order? – Yes
This episode works better here because the nanovirus they discover will be used to make the nanovirus shield seen in “Patterns of the Soul” and “Each Night” – “Broadcast Order” had “Patterns of the Soul” air first!
While it doesn’t have any glaring problems with continuity, to me this episode has somewhat of an “early feel” to it, like they were still trying to iron-out certain aspects of the show. This feeling would be the same in almost any possible order, except for one where only the “First Five” are watched. Overall, that’s pretty forgivable.
(All images are property of Warner Brothers)