Babylon 5: “A Race Through Dark Places”/“Soul Mates”
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Babylon 5: “A Race Through Dark Places”/“Soul Mates”

“A Race Through Dark Places” (season two, episode seven; originally aired 1/25/1995)

“A Race Through Dark Places” feels far less eventful than it actually is. We get important revelations for and from two cast members, Talia Winters and Dr. Franklin. We also get the clearest confirmation yet that Psi Corps’ corruption extends beyond a few bad apples—this is an organization that’s rotten through and through. Yet “A Race Through Dark Places” comes across as a trifling episode, a case-of-the-week affair where a villain shows up, causes a bit of chaos, forces the heroes to fix things, and the show reverts to the status quo.

Bester, the Psi Corps villain from the first-season episode “Mind War,” returns to the station hunting more rogue telepaths. The path the rogues take is called an “underground railroad,” which is perhaps the least subtle aspect of an episode utterly lacking in subtlety. The ethics of turning in fleeing, harmless telepaths trigger  several debates about the nature of Psi Corps, with lines like “If you ask me we created our own monster. Maybe we deserve it.” Some of this is understandable; it’s been more than a season since the main telepath conflict was introduced. But it does mean that the episode itself rarely approaches high quality.

That’s a shame, because there are two interesting twists that illustrate the important character-building going on. First, Dr. Franklin tells Sheridan that he’s arranged a meeting with the leaders of the underground railroad, which Sheridan goes along with, only to discover that Franklin himself is actually the leader. It’s perfectly obvious from the setup of the episode, but still manages to be a bit of a surprise. But we’ve seen this idealistic rebellion from Franklin before, like when he set up a clinic Downbelow to give health care to those who couldn’t afford it.

The second twist comes in the climactic scene, when Bester confronts the rogue telepaths, who attempt to take control of his mind. They appear to fail, with Talia fighting against them and maintaining her loyalty to Psi Corps. She and Bester kill all the rogues, and evilly smirk at one another (and there’s a great shot of Andrea Thompson holding the gun next to her head, noir-style). This is actually totally believable as well—I know I believed it the first time I saw it. Talia has always indicated that she feels strong loyalty to Psi Corps. But it’s false. It’s actually the deception the rogues, including Talia, put into Bester’s head so that everyone can leave the station in peace.

The clear breaking of Talia’s unconditional loyalty to Psi Corps is a huge moment for her character, and it’s also the reason I encourage everyone to switch the order of these two episodes to production, instead of their incorrect airing order. In “Soul Mates,” Talia is immediately skeptical of anything Corps-related, which doesn’t make sense without the events of “A Race Through Dark Places.”

Part of the reason that “Race Through Dark Places” doesn’t entirely work may be the side plots. In the first, Sheridan and Ivanova are forced to start paying rent on their quarters. Their scenes are cute and occasionally funny, but tonally quite jarring compared to the revelations of institutional rape and forced experiments of the telepath plot. My partner, watching for the second time, said that all she could remember of the episode was the rent subplot. That’s not a good sign for an episode that should be dark and revelatory.

Grade: B-

“Soul Mates” (season two, episode eight; originally aired 12/14/1994)

I feel like I should hate “Soul Mates.” It’s a comic episode that draws its humor from ancient gender stereotypes. This is exemplified in the final line, when Delenn, having had her new human hair wrangled by the Ivanova, asks Susan “Do you have any idea why I suddenly started getting these… odd cramps?” as a look of horror creeps across Claudia Christian’s face. The joke, such as it is, is that periods are funny and people are scared to talk about them. It’s a man’s joke, really, and there’s no particular reason to believe that a woman like Ivanova would be so uncomfortable explaining the biological process of menstruation. Yet here’s the problem: It’s actually funny. Mira Furlan’s look of weakness and confusion as she asks gets at the feeling of exceptionally bad cramps, while Christian’s look of horror is fantastic. I can’t actually hate “Soul Mates” because I find it legitimately funny.

Watching the episode this time helped me understand why it makes me laugh despite my dislike of its joke forms. I’d wanted to frame them as outdated and old-fashioned gender stereotypes, and that’s not incorrect, but it is insufficient. It’s a traditional battle-of-the-sexes-style of comedy, and reminds me most of a cynical Shakespearean romantic comedy like Much Ado About Nothing, although obviously not as good. Even the episode’s direction seems properly staged and artificial, like the superb, artificial shot of an artificial scene of Londo entertaining an entire casino.

“Soul Mates” was the first of two Babylon 5 episodes written my longtime science-fiction and comics writer Peter David. David demonstrates an understanding of the characters and comic touch that’s very different from J. Michael Straczynski’s usual stabs at humor—and more consistently amusing. After Sheridan wonders why people might be worried about how settled-in he is, a wide-eyed G’Kar says “Oh, nonsense, it’s not like anyone expects you to vanish overnight to a strange Minbari post. Why that would be unprecedented in the station’s history.”

Two parallel plots run through “Soul Mates.” The first involves Londo calling his three arranged wives to the station so that he can decide which of them to keep and which two to divorce. This is what feels most like an arbitrary, staged romantic comedy, where a single whim of a powerful character forces other characters to compete in revealing ways. The wives each fill traditional negative stereotypes: the seductress, the manipulator, and the nagger. The writing lays the groundwork for comedy, but it’s up to the actors to deliver, and Jane Carr, the actress who plays the nagging, belittling wife Timov, does the best you could expect with the role. She’s the most important of the three wives, as she ends up saving Londo’s life and he also ends up choosing her to keep as his wife. So she needs to be funny enough to avoid simply being shrill, brutally honest enough that she appears to be a powerful individual, and humane enough that her decision to save Londo’s life makes sense. Carr pulls it off, and makes a story that could have been grating much closer to being great.

The other storyline is less overtly comic, but still filled with some amusingly vicious repartee. Keith Szarabajka (almost unrecognizable as the guy who would later play Holtz on Angel) plays Matthew Stoner, an ex-husband of Talia’s. He sets Garibaldi’s “gut feeling” alarm bells off thanks to his apparent success and manipulating, and the crew eventually discover that experiments supposedly shut down his psychic abilities actually turned him into an empath, capable of forcing people to change their minds for his own purposes. It’s a fairly entertaining, low-stakes story, but again, David’s script gives it enough energy that it stays entertaining. Like most of “Soul Mates,” it shouldn’t be as good as it is.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • “A Race Through Dark Places” opens with Bester on Mars, the first time we’ve seen a major character on another planet. This expansion of Babylon 5s scope is intentional and fascinating.
  • “This is difficult,” Delenn says, inviting Sheridan on what’s CLEARLY a date. “So, what would suggest?” “Dinner!” Delenn trying to understand human customs is another way these episodes are tied together.
  • The use of traditionally oppressed people, particularly native Americans, to play the fleeing telepaths is quite fascinating. I wish it had been matched by diversity in the main cast, though.
  • “In temple we spend one whole year studying humor.” I can’t imagine anything worse than Minbari humor training.
  • Okay, “But what happens when the gloves come off?” may be the least subtle line in these episodes.
  • “Well, if there’s nothing illegal going on here… anymore.”
  • The 20th century history exhibition Talia wanders through is a good example of the constraints with which a televised science-fiction show has to work. What a coincidence that it’s all stuff that’s easily acquirable and that the audience is familiar with!
  • Londo gleefully saying “Ladies, ladies, please… continue!” as his wives sharpen their tongues is probably the funniest bit of “Soul Mates.”
  • “And I’m tired of being part of an organization that scares the hell out of me.” There’s the skepticism about Psi Corps that wouldn’t make sense in the airing order.
  • “G’Kar. If you were married to Londo Mollari, we’d all be concerned.”
  • “Look into my mind. No shields. No tricks.” “No chance.” Ultimate Talia Zinger!

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