We take our moral ambiguity very seriously in the world of “quality TV,” usually with a dash of masculinity and a few drops of antiheroism. Tony Soprano, Tyrion Lannister, Walter White, Boyd Crowder, Malcolm Reynolds, Stringer Bell, and even Bill Adama and Angel the vampire fit into this mold at times. The explosion of moral complexity on television in the 2000s, compared to previous decades, seems like a total departure from what came before.
But it wasn’t. The pre-Sopranos transitional shows, so many of them science or speculative fiction, dabbled in this ambiguity. On The X-Files, it only takes a tiny change of perspective to switch Mulder from determined, usually correct heroic figure into a pathological figure deserving of mockery, or a man so blinded by his personal beliefs he makes terrible mistakes.
Most science fiction is built on the wisdom of the patriarch, however. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart was such a dominant presence as Captain Picard that the show had difficulty creating tension because he was so perfect. There are some famous episodes like “The Best Of Both Worlds” which remove him from the proceedings. But it’s rarer—and I think more interesting—when Picard is confronted by the potential wrongness of his actions, as in “Suddenly Human,” where his knee-jerk resort to Enlightenment ideals almost gets himself killed. There are times where there simply isn’t a good response, and even for these idealized heroes, wading into the ambiguity is necessary at times.
Commander Sinclair is a patriarch in the Picard mold (though not one played by an actor of Patrick Stewart’s caliber), but Babylon 5 is quite different from TNG. Chiefly, the setting, as a space station, demands characters and factions with entrenched interests. This leads directly to serialization, because problems and characters can’t simply be left behind—but it also leads to ambiguity. The entrenched interests have to have some tension with one another, and any decent storyline will take advantage of that historical tension. (This is equally true for Deep Space 9, of course, with the best episodes early on involving Bajoran-Cardassian relations.)
Both of this week’s episodes involve decisions of moral ambiguity for Sinclair and other characters. In “Deathwalker,” a war criminal arrives on the station with an apparent immortality serum, but every minor race in the “League of Non-Aligned worlds” wants her tried, and others are very interested in the serum. In “Believers,” an alien couple has a sick son, easily cured through surgery—but their religious beliefs forbid cutting open the body.
“Deathwalker” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 4/20/1994)
“Deathwalker” is the superior of this week’s episodes for a couple reasons. First, it has a nice twist—Deathwalker’s immortality serum demands the death of another sentient being to work. On a literal scale, there are problems with this. Obviously, an immortality serum is extremely unlikely to be be widely disseminated during the show’s run, as it would make the premise of the series almost unrecognizable. And the science behind the idea of requiring a single death is essentially magic, and not in a Clarke’s Third Law fashion.
View the episode as a parable, however, a structure for a story to generate tension, and it’s superb. We learn more about each race, and the ambassadors for each race, in symmetrical fashion. The human wanted justice, but was undercut by his planet’s desire for power. The Centauri makes a grand gesture, but shrinks from the right thing. The Minbari knows the right thing to do, but follows orders to keep secrets. The Narn grandstands, maneuvering for political advantage. The Vorlon acts, ignoring everyone else.
The end result—the Vorlons destroying Deathwalker’s ship—is a deus ex machina, but it’s not a bad one. We know very little about the Vorlons other than their power and their inscrutability. But Kosh acts with intent here, preventing the weaker races from gaining immortality (something he implies that the Vorlons possess). He also manipulates the telepath Talia in the B-plot, triggering negative reactions while recording her thoughts. When queried about what he did, he replies “Reflection. Surprise. Terror. For the future.” The first three words are about as literal as he’s been on the show, and the final line is an apparent threat to Talia, but also a promise to the viewers: the Vorlons mean something. “They say God works in mysterious ways.” “Maybe so. But he’s a con man compared to the Vorlon.”
“Deathwalker” is also more entertaining than most of the episodes surrounding it. It’s not subtle (this may be a common refrain through these reviews) but subtlty isn’t always necessary. Let the characters make speeches, let them debate Platonic ideals like “Justice or immortality. An intriguing choice,” and let Deathwalker laugh her unhinged laugh to lead into a commercial break (okay, the last was a bit too much). Oh, and let Na’Toth kick ass. We don’t get enough of that.
Thematic importance: The political structure of Babylon 5 becomes a lot clearer after “Deathwalker.” The Earth Alliance’s victory against the Dilgar gave them a sense of self-worth in galactic affairs. Meanwhile, the League Of Non-Aligned Worlds has power all together, and they are quick to use it, but also easily divided.
And there’s further detail about the Minbari Warrior Caste (I believe it’s the first time we’ve heard that phrase used, actually.) The Wind Swords are the “most militant” of the Warrior Castes, and they know about Sinclair.
The Great Spoiler Machine: The Vorlon, most powerful race in the galaxy, sends a large ship to ensure the destruction of Deathwalker and her immortality serum. It pops through the jump gate, guns blazing, and with it first shot, it… misses? That can’t be right.
“Believers” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 4/27/1994)
Regular readers of TV Club will certainly have noticed that some of our writers use personal anecdotes to introduce their reviews on a fairly regular basis. I’m not one of them, except in rare cases. But “Believers” is perhaps the biggest exception of all. I have no idea how to write about it outside of personal experience. It’s the first episode of Babylon 5 I ever saw. Babylon 5 became the first television show I ever watched on a week-to-week basis, the first television show that got me onto the Internet and discussing it with fellow fans, the first show to push me into analysis. It is my origin story as a critic.
All because I was channel-surfing and came across a promo that said, essentially, “Coming up next! A sick boy needs an operation, but his religious parents refuse to allow it. What will happen?” That was enough for me, even though I wasn’t really a science-fiction fan at that point. It’s also not a typical Babylon 5 premise—a simple ethical dilemma, with an alien race we’ll never see again. For many, it’s even a good episode of Babylon 5. And I’m not sure what drew me to it, except perhaps for a fascination with religious debate. But that was enough.
It wasn’t enough for me to seek it out again, though, when I rewatched the series a few years back. After Babylon 5’s conclusion in 1998, I avoided the show. (I never watched Crusade). When I went to college, I actively rejected the nerdiest media of my teenaged years: B5 went ignored, alongside They Might Be Giants. But a few years ago, I finally got past that, and tried to watch the show again, alongside my partner, who had never seen it. I made a list of the most important first-season episodes, and decided to avoid “Believers.” It was entirely possible, I thought, that my teenaged self was an idiot. That he had been a fool for trying to loving Babylon 5 so much, and that he was especially foolish for having fallen for it because of this episode. I was quickly able to move past the idea that the show was bad, liking it for many of the same reasons I did as a youngster. But I didn’t face “Believers,” until now.
And, well, it’s fine. Like “Deathwalker,” it’s not subtle. It’s a vehicle for characters to deliver speeches. The alien parents on the importance of their religion, Dr. Franklin for the importance of life, and Commander Sinclair on the difficulties he faces, as station commander, in situations like this. The alien parents are surprisingly sympathetic, given their destructive beliefs. The scene where the father describes how his son can only read from the holy scrolls, and earnestly describes a story of responsibility that he’s always found particularly inspiring is both amusing and effective. Even the child actor succeeds with the most critical scene, where, after Franklin has secretly performed the surgery, he sees his parents, and they reject him.
In the end, the kid is killed by his parents. Or, in their words, the shell of his body is put out of its misery after his soul has been lost by the surgery. Unlike “Soul Hunter,” I think Babylon 5 did a good job here of not implicitly prioritizing one belief structure over another. It lets you make your decision of who’s in the right. To me and my belief system it’s obvious that Dr. Franklin is, but it’s not so obvious that I can’t begin to understand a decision that would otherwise be intolerable.
“Believers” is also a good episode for understanding Franklin—certainly far better than his other showcase, “Infection.” We see that he is a man with strong ethical beliefs, and a willingness to get into trouble over them. But those beliefs are tied into a certain arrogance, demonstrated when he demands an apology in apparent victory over a pissed-off Sinclair. It’s a real sucker punch of an ending for him.
Hell, “the kid dies” is a shocking ending for any pre-2000 TV show, as far as I can tell. It’s an indication of the rising moral ambiguity of television, and another piece of evidence for calling Babylon 5 a crucial transitional television series.
Thematic importance: The concept of the “soul,” introduced in “Soul Hunter” and continued here, is an important aspect of Babylon 5’s metaphysics. Although there are some quotes from (atheist) J. Michael Straczynski indicating that he thinks the series is ambiguous about the reality of the soul, there’s a great deal of textual support for Delenn and the Minbari beliefs in the soul, referred to here.
The Great Spoiler Machine: This episode introduces perhaps my favorite Babylon 5 trope: Kids who show up on the show don’t survive. It’s a nice big “fuck you” to Wesley Crusher and cynical ratings ploys. As I recall, this is the first of four instances, although I can’t remember one of them at the moment.
- “Ah, you seek meaning.” “Yes.” “Then listen to the music, not the sound.” All kinds of Kosh this week.
- “Sorry ambassador, I thought it best to handle this quietly.” Ahh! Good job!” Best comedy of these two episodes is, unsurprisingly, from Londo. Sarcasm is always appreciated.
- “And like all secrets long-kept, we cannot bear the shame of admitting it now.” It’s the first episode for Lennier to demonstrate personality, and I think Bill Mumy does a good job of it.
- “I’m just gonna sit here and… knit something.” Another example of Claudia Christian bringing life to awkward lines.
- “We are the Children of Time. We could not break our covenant any more than you could be cease to be the descendant of egg-sucking mammaloids.”
- “Sure is for people with nothing on the line.” Not a bad philosophy, to be honest. I’d totally forgotten the line, and it may be generally applicable.
- “Believers” is inexplicably missing from WB.com’s free streaming of the first season. Too controversial?
Next week: “Survivors” and “By Any Means Necessary,” two total standalone episodes that I skipped in my last rewatch, and thus have very little memory of. I do recall that “By Any Means Necessary” is focused on union negotiations, which isn’t exactly your typical science fiction and is fairly interesting for that.