28 thoughts on “Zocalo: Spoiler-free Discussion of “Grey 17 is Missing””

  1. One the last episode of the podcast, one of our hosts expressed the opinion that their guest, Ms. Myles was unique in not thinking that Grey 17 is Missing was the worst single episode of Babylon 5.

    I don’t even think it’s the worst episode of season three.

    Here’s the defense. Some of this I’ve said before in the spoiler threads, so I’ll keep this short.

    There are two parts to Grey 17 is Missing.

    One part, the Neroon and Marcus part, isn’t just not bad – it’s positively *good*. I remember liking it on first broadcast, and I still do. It’s not absolutely amazing and tremendous – it’s not one of the best ever things seen on Babylon 5 throughout its run. But John Vickery is as immensely watchable as Neroon as he always is and it’s one of the best uses of Marcus as a character in the entire series.

    But, of course, what everyone seems to dislike so much is the other part, the Zarg plot. I have a theory that one of the consequences of JMS’s pioneering interactions with fans online is that it had an outsized effect on the reputations of episodes whenever JMS expressed dissatisfaction with some aspect of them. As he did here, with the realization of the Zarg.

    (And yes, the Zarg is unconvincing. But, you know, so is the CGI on B5 sometimes, and we manage to look beyond that. And every single Doctor Who fan learns in childhood that sometimes you have to be prepared to look beyond the special effects.)

    Leaving aside the effects failure, point one is: even if the Zarg plot is bad, is it really so bad that it utterly and completely cancels out the other plot?

    Second, exactly what is *so* bad about the Zarg plot? It’s crazy nonsense, of course – but it is, crucially, not something that pretends to be anything other than crazy nonsense.

    It’s all based on a conceit that there’s an entire missing level to the station!

    (This conceit is clever and fun, and a Good Thing about the episode. If it’s not an allusion to the episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in which Solo and Kuryakin discover that T.H.R.U.S.H. have a base on the 13th floor of every hotel, it should be.)

    It has a ventriloquist’s dummy that shoots tranquilizer darts!

    It has Robert Englund spouting sheer insanity about the Big Bang!

    And – this for me is the clincher – it ends on Garibaldi summarizing this craziness to a bemused Sheridan and saying “Am I going too fast for you?”

    The Zarg plot is self-evidently not presented as something to be taken seriously. It’s there to counterpoint the Neroon and Marcus plot, which is to be taken seriously.

    Is it the best thing ever? No, but it’s not the worst either. It’s not boring, for one thing.

    1. I will say, having watched tonight for the first time since I don’t remember when in advance of recording, I did not remember that the Neroon & Marcus subplot happened in this episode. I think my opinion will align very much with yours in the end.

      1. I was thinking something similar. The Neroon and Marcus story is amazing and it is certainly what I remember in regards to this episode. For me the title plot is somewhat redeemed by the fact that they set up Grey Sector as a “Bermuda Triangle” all the way back in Knives.

    2. One quick follow-up. The “every single Doctor who fan learns in childhood” was poorly expressed, since it implies that if you didn’t start watching as a child, and are put off by the effects in the old series, you’re somehow not a “fan.” One of those cases where I should have thought more before deploying hyperbole.

      1. I’ll get into it with you about the quality of the episode after I give it a watch. Right now I’m just picturing the command deck of a spaceship, and the Captain issuing the order: “Lieutenant, deploy the hyperbole!”

    3. I agree with everything you say here Voord. I’ve never hated Grey 17 as much as i am apparently “supposed” to. I think the Delen/Neroon/Marcus plot is absolute gold (for reasons that cannot be discussed here), and would redeem the episode as a whole for me even if I did hate the cult/Zarg plot.

      But I also don’t find the cult particularly annoying or even unrealistic, except for the Zarg itself. It is basically a cult of humans that have decided to follow and re-interpret a subset of Minbari religion and segregate themselves from society. I don’t find that in any way unrealistic in fact I would consider it to even be expected in the event we meet other life in the universe.

      And as for the “missing level” conceit I can buy it. It is a space station. Theoretically you can seal off any one part of it from the rest in the event of a hull breach. You hack the computer to seal off level 17, remove it from the lift’s control system, and swap around the level “name plates” next to the elevator doors. You could do it in a night with a half dozen people. And considering the low population of Grey sector (I’m not sure it even has any living quarters) in general it probably wouldn’t be difficult to do without being seen. Especially if you did it early on in the station’s life before it had a full crew compliment, which is implied.

      Honestly the only bit that really bothers me is Garibaldi using a steam pipe to fire his bullets, apparently one at a time even though he drops them all in there in a nice line. if it worked at all it would have been more like a “metalstorm” weapon and blasted all of the bullets out all at once. Oh, and the Zarg isn’t well thought out. If they’ve been down there for years what is the Zarg eating? Presumably the cultists would have brought a large supply of food packs or something, but if the Zarg is primarily eating the cultists then why does it generally stay so far away from them until someone is ready for their “pure” death?

      1. I tend to feel that the depiction of the cult pushes a little over the line beyond “realism” into “daft.” And so “funny.” In fact, I think – whether or not JMS intended it – it comes across as self-parody. Specifically, I think Englund’s grand theory works as parody of the sort of “profound” dialogue that JMS likes to put into the mouth of Delenn, and also G’Kar.

        But that’s not, for me, a bad thing. The reverse, in fact: on the whole, B5 takes itself a little too seriously, and anything which counteracts that is worth having.

    4. I also do not think this is *anywhere near* the worst ep of B5. Infact, while a likely hokey, I too quite enjoy the Zarg and missing level plot. Then coupled with the great Marcus / Naroon happenings, I think this is a perfectly fine episode.

  2. The Neroon and Marcus stuff makes it worth watching. The Grey 17 storyline isn’t great, but no where near as bad as Infection from Season 1 (that episode is truely unwatchable).

  3. I agree that the story w/Marcus and Neroon is a great story maybe not epic as the rest of the Babylon 5 stories in season 3&4 but it was a great story. I loved the fighting scenes between Neroon and Marcus and the moment when Neroon got that light bulb blip when he realized that Delenn is the one I thought that John Vickery delivery was fantastic!

    The only part I liked in the Zarg story was the ending w/Garibaldi and Sheridan in Sheridan’s office ,the way that Garibaldi told Sheridsn what happened putting his legs on the desk and Sheridan reaction was funny one. That’s the only scenes I remember

  4. Unrelated note: Is there an email address for the show? I’m not on Twitter or Facebook or anything like that, and some of my posts are not appearing in the discussion threads, and I don’t know who to contact about that.

  5. My one nitpick with the Neroon plotline. He just claimed personal responsibility for more than 20% of the human deaths in the Earth-Minbari war. So what do people think is he inflating the numbers or did JMS how low he set the total number of dead?

    1. He was second in command on one of the most prominent Minbari cruisers in the war. The cruiser that led the Minbari forces during the battle of the line. He may not have personally killed them, but if we consider that a commanding officer is responsible for those killed on their orders then he would be responsible for a large number of the Human’s deaths. Everyone killed on the battle of the Line in particular, being second in command of the battle.

      1. The line in context does seem to refer more to having killed them himself, though, at least as I remember it. I think I’d go with Cheryl’s option B, that JMS (elsewhere) set the overall number of deaths too low.

  6. Having rewatched the episode, here are my thoughts:

    In general, I have a similar two-sided reaction as several of the others here, but with a far less positive evaluation of the Zarg plot. This duality is to such a degree that I find it odd that the same director did the entire episode.

    This episode was directed by John C. Flinn III. Flinn has a mixed resume when it comes to B5 episodes, having given us the deeply unimpressive “TKO” as well as the deeply impressive “The Long Twilight Struggle.” That’s right, the same guy who gave us the bombing of Narn gave us “Bloodsport In Space But Not As Good As The Actual Bloodsport.” He also has a couple of Season Four and Season Five episodes under his belt, but this is the spoiler-free space.

    On the Neroon side of the story, I was quite satisfied. I thought that the fight scenes were handled competently (given what they had to work with) and Marcus was his usual enjoyable self. I especially liked his joking with Lennier, and how he immediately turned off the humour when Lennier told him that Delenn was in danger. I had no trouble believing that his devotion so impressed Neroon that Neroon changed his mind.

    “A religious zealot propelled by prophesy into a position of military and political power? Always a bad idea.”
    Anyone else think Neroon has a good point? Had he not gone straight to threats, many of us might have actually been on his side this time around. This ties in with one of JMS’s common issues. I’ve talked about this before. A recurring theme in his writing is that the key to success is morally excellent people equipped with overwhelming force. If it were anyone else but Delenn, I think a lot of us would look at what she is doing and think “this looks a lot like a theocratic dictatorship.” In real life it is never a good idea to let any one person have too much power. To play a little politics, there is always the temptation to wish that political leaders in the modern democracies had more power to force their agenda through… when the one in charge is on our team. Now imagine that the politician whom you most despise is the one in charge. Now how do you feel about unlimited power? If this episode was reality, I would be advocating for the establishment of a balanced system in which Delenn’s power is checked, and she is held accountable. The fact that we bypass this issue and go right to Neroon preparing an assassination plot is a missed opportunity.

    Dr. Franklin makes an appearance, looking quite miserable. When we first discussed Steven’s walkabout, there was a lot of talk about how it was a bad idea. Here we see another reason why it was a bad idea. Steven thinks he needs to be alone to work through his addiction? Not a good plan. One of the most powerful predictors of successful and healthy recovery from addiction is social support (I can cite studies if anyone wishes). I chalk this up to Steven’s pride. He always has had good intentions, but is too full of himself. He thinks he’s always right. He thinks he can handle anything. Now he thinks he can beat his stim addiction by his own power. He would have been better off humbling himself and doing something less grandiose, like checking the bulletin boards to see if there is a B5 Addiction Support Group.

    Okay, I’ve put this off as long as I could. The Zarg story. [sigh] What a festering pile. I’m sorry, Voord, but yes the story is really that bad. JMS is trying to play with some horror tropes, and by themselves there is potential here for a good fun story. I blame Flinn for not being able to pull it off. The death of the maintenance guy at the beginning was reminiscent of Chrissy’s death at the beginning of Jaws, but just wasn’t that scary. The creepy doll could have been disturbing, but just came off as annoying. Everyone who knows horror knows that Robert Englund can bring the scary fun, even to movies that are stinkers (he was the only redeeming feature of “Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer”). But in this episode his character was twitchy and neurotic without being sinister or spooky. Finally we have the Zarg, which we are told is the scariest murdermonster ever (somebody forgot that the rule is “show, don’t tell”). But there is simply nothing scary about the performance. Believe me, I can handle cheap costumes. But nothing in the camerawork or the physicality of the guy in the suit (Bill Blair?) made it look like anything other than a guy walking around in a suit. Blah.

    I don’t know if the badness of the Zarg plot is so bad that it eclipses the goodness of the Neroon plot, but it is certainly enough to make me not want to watch the episode anymore. It’s like eating a peanut butter and poop sandwich: it doesn’t really matter how good the peanut butter is.

    1. You’ve pointed out another good thing about the episode! That Neroon does really have a point about Delenn is underlined by the Zarg plot, which is about fanaticism. So despite their tonal (serious vs. humorous) differences, the two plots inform one another, lending the episode thematic coherence. 🙂

      More generally, though, your overall take on the Zarg plot might be – from my perspective – reasonably summarized as: Interesting writing let down by terrible direction.

      As you know, I think it’s a surreal comedy, so I’m not as disappointed by you that it fails as straight horror. I’d agree that the scene with the workman at the beginning as straight horror. It sets the viewer up to believe that s/he’s going to get Alien, before the episode instead goes somewhere else.

      But I’m not going to defend the direction overall. (I’m certainly not going to go as far as saying that the Zarg is *meant* to look like a man in a suit…). And I have to admit that I tend to be forgiving of failures in execution if I think the story itself is interesting.

      Still: does an episode which can be summed up as “One of the plots is solid, and the other is an interesting idea failed by awful direction” really deserve to be called “Worst Single Episode of Babylon 5”? You mention TKO. TKO is for me *definitely* worse than Grey 17 is Missing.

      1. One follow-up: since it’s (American) TV, I don’t know that the direction is entirely to be blamed on the director, either. The editing was probably not in Flinn’s hands, and the Zarg is the sort of thing where better editing might have saved it. Flinn may of course not have supplied the shots to work with in the first place.

        1. You make a good point about the editing.

          I think that the title of Worst Episode Ever is a difficult call, just as Best Episode would be. There are several outstanding episodes that are outstanding for different reasons, so adjudicating between them to determine a single “best” is not a task that I would attempt. Similarly, we have several stinkers, but the foul aromas are foul in different ways. I don’t know exactly how I’d pick between episodes like “TKO,” “Infection,” and “Grey 17” (and that’s just the regular episodes. I have strong opinions about Legend of the Rangers and Lost Tales). I’ll just say that I place “Grey 17” on the short list of Worst Episodes.

    2. I don’t hate the Grey 17 plot. In season 3 context it’s weak, but only the Zarg scene is really bad.

      In the script books JMS admits that the episode has some of the dumbest things ever filmed, and takes blame for it, except for the Zarg. He says that in three seasons he had already learned that a man in a rubber suit just doesn’t work on their budget, and the script very explicitly states “We never get a good look at it”, underlined. So for the well-lit rubber suit he blames the director alone.

      About Flinn’s other directorial credits… He was not supposed to direct TKO, the episode was supposed to be built on Jim Johnston’s vision of how to make fight scenes look bigger than the budget would allow, but when Johnston did Babylon Squared the previous week (not Janet Greek as I think was said in previous podcast episode) he couldn’t do it and Flinn wanted to try directing. However, I don’t know how the direction could have saved the episode, which I think is the worst of the entire series. But then, another Flinn episode The Long, Twilight Struggle is one of my top three episodes and has my favourite image from the entire B5, Londo watching the Narn being bombarded. Then again, the script is very detailed here, going as far as requesting the reflecions.

  7. Garibaldi’s gun as a connect to family life since breaking tires to Earth
    Franklin not really knowing where he is what he needs to do. I think at this point he’s built in the idea that his quest is going to fail. He’s squandered the opportunity to seek help. He’s walked out on his friends and a new good relationship the dancer. He’s flying blind but afraid of not flying.
    Neroons eyes, he’s tense!
    Close up faces, wires, leads and pipes, I like the directing.

    Marcus: I’m in awe, Lennier… Did you attend some sort of martial arts class for the philosophically inclined?

    Delenn telling Sheridan about her parents, how the war with Earth broke her father’s heart, puts a new spin on things.
    I quite like hearing Delenns lines about the universe studying itself through us, spoken by the cult speaker. Nice to see the other side of the peace when we’re used to hearing how great humans are from Minbari and other species. In fact the cult aren’t completely mad. They certainly seem aided that way by Garibaldi playing the straight man.
    Neroons point about Delenns dangerous nature, mentioned above, is nicely framed when we cut from Marcus saying he’ll die for the one, straight to Delenn with big red wine glass surrounded by her followers in cult like ceremony.

    I’ve just realised who Neroon reminds me of. It’s his jacket. He’s Avon.

    Not a bad episode at all.

      1. Well, at least the thread has more posts than its equivalent for Walkabout.

        Because Grey 17 is Missing is a much better episode. Obviously

        1. You said it a while back and as ever you’re on the money. Grey 17 is the new Babylon 4. If you go to Zarg you will die. In the original treatment the missing floor played a pivotal role…too much?

  8. Hey, I’m commenting in the Zocalo for a change!

    Just to say: Your comment about “a frustrated Zack Allen is a hilarious Zack Allen” echoes an oft-noted fact about Leverage’s Elliot Spencer. In my head, this means B5 takes place far in the future of the Leverage-verse and Zack is a many-generations-removed descendant of our favorite cranky “retrieval specialist.”

    (Okay, I know that Word Of God is that Leverage shares a universe with Stargate SG-1. Whatever! My headcanon is mine.)

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