RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “The Quality of Mercy” (Season 1, Episode 21)

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This is the penultimate episode of Season 1. It’s actually on a short list of my favorites, and one I’d probably show to people I was attempting to interest in the show. It’s also one that allows some of the B-list characters to get some time in the spotlight.

There’s a psycho killer on the station who’s been apprehended after killing two lurkers and a security guard. He’s found guilty in a trial, but since the Death Penalty isn’t legal in the Earth Alliance, there are only three options available:
1) Send him home to be imprisoned for the rest of his life
2) Keep him in prison on the station for the rest of his life
3) Sentence him to “Death of Personality.”

Option one is out because the authorities back home aren’t willing to pay to have the guy sent back. Option two is out, because they’ve got overcrowded prison facilities on the station already, and they’re not set up to hold people long term. That leave option three: Completely wipe a person’s mind, implant them with an artificial personality, and put them to work benefiting the community they’ve harmed. Before sentence can be carried out, Talia has to do a scan to make sure the guy actually killed those people. As usual she whines about it, but she does it anyway. When scanning the guy she sees the faces of dozens of humans and aliens that he’s killed while he babbles about “More voices for the choir to sing me into heaven when I die.” It’s creepy! She confirms that he is, in fact, a murderous whackjob, then goes to the zen garden to brood and mope until her stalker shows up (Garibaldi). She confides in him - which is always such a good thing to do with your stalker - and that’s pretty much it for her in the episode.

Meanwhile, when taken to the wiping, the psycho-killer escapes, but is shot and injured. He gets away, but they figure he’ll be trying to find medical help before he does anything else. He makes his way to an illegal clinic in Downbelow, where an unlicensed doctor has been experimenting with alien healing technology. He takes a woman hostage and forces the doctor to transfer her (The doctor’s) Hokey Life Energy into him. This she then does, but realizing none of ‘em are gonna’ get out of there alive, she reverses the polarity and starts transferring his Hokey Life Energy into her. She Transfers him to death, and that’s the end of that chapter.

MEANWHILE, in an unrelated subplot, Londo is getting pressured by the higher ups back home to strike up alliances with the other species’ ambassadors. He’s had no luck because the other ambassadors don’t really like him, and also he’s just lazy. He’s more interested in drinking and gambling and strippers and sex than he is in, y’know, work. And really who isn’t? In desperation, he sees Lannier passing in the hall, and ropes him into teaching him about life. This, of course, results in Londo dragging the guy to a stripper club, where he stiffs him for drinks, then gets him involved in a poker game. Of course Londo cheats using one of his six prehensile alien penises (Really!) to reach under the table and grab cards off the deck when no one’s looking. This is discovered when one of the other players accidentally rests a big pitcher of ice water atop his penis when it’s atop the table (Really!).

Londo: “Is it cold in here?”
Lannier: “It appears to be quite temperate.”

Eventually one of the other players sees his tallywhacker, and are rightfully freaked out by it. A fight ensues. Everyone is arrested, and Londo and Lannier are hauled off to see Sinclair.

Sinclair: “I’m still waiting for an explanation”
Londo: “Yes, and I will give you one just as soon as the room stops spinning.”

Lannier lies and takes the blame for the whole thing. Sinclair lets it slide, but forces Lannier to pay for damages. Lannier agrees. Londo thanks him, and Lannier asks him what the heck that thing was he was using to grab cards. Londo explains that it’s his freaky alien genitalia, and an aghast Lannier says he’s going to take a vow of silence on the matter, and that they should never speak of it again. Staring at a statue of a naked Centauri with its six penises sticking out like the arms of Kali, he says “The Minbari are odd people.”

MEANWHILE,

Dr. Franklin has been operating an illegal clinic in Downbelow, using military supplies and his time to do it. Ivonova busts him, walking in when he’s facing away from the door.

Franklin: “You can start by taking your clothes off.”
Ivonova: “Not without dinner and flowers first.”

Franklin explains his case - there’s a lot of poor people on the station - and Ivonova says she’s willing to let him bend the rules a bit, but she wants to be kept in the loop on these things.

Meanwhile, another illegal clinic opens up in Downbelow, and oddly Franklin is miffed at this. He goes to investigate the quack, and finds the mom from Lost in Space. She’s using an alien healing machine to cure people. He says some unkind things, then leaves. He has Garibaldi check up on her, and finds out that she was a doctor who was abusing drugs. Three years back she screwed up and killed a patient, and lost her license. Since then she’s been tooling around space, trying to find some bit of alien tech that will redeem her. After the requisite skepticism and whatnot, Franklin realizes that the machine in fact works.

Dr. Rosen (The mom from Lost in Space) explains that it was an ancient alien method of execution. Rather than just kill the condemned, they’d drain their Hokey Life Energy to heal the ill. She just uses it a bit at a time though. Franklin quickly realizes that it’s killing her by degrees, but she says she’s only got three years left since she’s dying of a horrible disease. He allows it to continue, provided she checks in with him regularly, and she agrees.

Sometime later the psycho killer breaks in and the stuff I said up top happens. She Transfers him to death, and in the process is given 20 or 30 years of life, and is cured of her disease. The court finds her to have acted in self defense, and the Alien Healing Machine is turned over to the custody of Dr. Franklin. She feels really guilty for being essentially a Wraith from Stargate: Atlantis, and decides to head back to earth to find some way to do something or another.

Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin asks out Dr. Rosen’s daughter.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

There’s less Sinclair in this episode than any other in Season 1. He’s only got two short scenes, neither of which he’s crucial in.

Franklin, Lannier, Londo, and Talia are front and center in this one. Lou Welch has more to do in this ep than he ever has before, or ever will have again (Three or four lines, interacting with someone other than Garibaldi) Ivonova and Garibaldi get brief but good scenes. Delenn, G’kar, Kosh, Vir, and Na’Toth are wholly absent.

Lannier mentions that Delenn is away form the station, presumably she hasn’t returned from her encounter with the Grey Council last week.

Lying to protect someone is a respected part of the Minbari religion.

The Minbari numerical system is based on elevens, not tens. Lannier speaks of his “Eleventy fifth year” and his “Eleventy-seventh” year.

Londo: “In all the time we’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve gotten to know you very well.”
Lannier: “I was born into the religious caste, I grew up in temple where I studied. Six months ago I came here. There is nothing more to know.”

Apart from treason in wartime, the death penalty is illegal in the Earth Alliance. Unlike Star Trek where all such things are treated in an unrealistic ethical ideal that everyone accepts and venerates without question, *here* it’s flat-out shown that not everyone agrees with it. Garibaldi wants the guy dead, and clearly find “Death of Personality” stupid. For his part, the Psycho Killer finds it kind of dumb, too, and doesn’t see the point of how “Spending the rest of my life mopping floors and cleaning toilets” is supposed to help society.

Given that the only approved mention of execution for treason during wartime is “Spacing” (Chucking someone out an airlock) it seems likely that it’s strictly a military punishment and not a civil one.

Once again, we see that there’s a civilian court system on the station. This is really refreshing after decades of Trek and Stargate. This is the second or third time it’s turned up. Better still, the legal system here is consistent. They thought it out ahead of time, rather than just slapping it together. (Harlan Ellison actually came up with the station’s legal system)

Is it just me, or does “Death of Personality” not really solve the problem? If you haven’t got the money to ship the guy back home, he has to stay on the station. If you remove and replace his personality, he’s *still* got to stay on the station. Either way, he’s on the station, surrounded by people who know he *Was* a murderer once upon a time, and probably are gonna’ want revenge. This is B5, after all, people behave like us, not like Starfleet personnel.

June Lockhart from Lost in Space plays Dr. Laura Rosen, and Billy Mumy from Lost in Space plays Lannier. They didn’t have a single scene together, however. I think this was deliberate, so as to avoid doing any corny ‘wah-wah-wah=wha” kinda’ stuff.

The Londo/Lannier scenes are a hoot. Nobody does likeably boring and innocent as well as Bill Mumy, and no one does manipulative buffoon better than Peter Jurissic. They’re all genuinely funny, particularly the look on Lannier’s face when he sees the naked chick.

Alcohol makes Minbari go psychotic and violent.

Psychic scans are not admissible as evidence in court. They can be used to verify guilt *after* judgement and before sentence is carried out, but you can’t “Go on a fishing expedition” to find out more information once you’re in there. These pre-sentencing scans are mandatory.

I like that people have differing opinions on this show: Garibaldi supports the death penalty, everyone else opposes it. Franklin seems more or less indifferent about “Death of Personality,” but everyone apart from him and Garibaldi seem all for it. I like that Talia breaks the rules and tells Garibaldi what she saw, just because she’s so freaked out by it.

Man, does Lou Welch look like Peter Boyle, or what?

We never see Dr. Rosen’s daughter again. Wham, Bam, Thank you guest star. The Alien Healing Machine will turn up again, however.

Think about this: They’ve got the ability to wipe people’s minds, and they’ve got the ability to basically implant a *new* (presumably artificial) mind. In unscrupulous hands. Doesn’t that seem a very dangerous tool to have laying around? As we shall see later on…

The fight scene was filmed on Bill Mumy’s 40th birthday. He once said it was a great day, his first-ever fight scene, his kids were on set, and he was featured in the episode, and his old friend June was on hand. The thing Lannier does with his fingers in anticipation of the attack was something the actor made up on the spot.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Joe Straczynski is subconsciously conservative, even though he, himself, says he isn’t. Case in point: Though “Death of Personality” is clearly intended as the enlightened alternative to capital punishment, it’s made very clear by no less than three characters that it doesn’t work, and that the minor payback to society in no way makes up for the harm done. We’re told that the options are life imprisonment - which is directly tied to money - or “Death of Personality.” This is much like spending money to keep murderers and rapists alive in prison while inner city kids go hungry for lack of federal assistance, and although this is clearly not what’s *intended* in the episode, it still comes out as jail or death, or this goofy brainwipe thing.

The unnamed aliens, however, actually harvested bad guys for Hokey Life Energy and used it to help society. I think we’re supposed to be a little aghast at this, but the fact is, it seems like a good idea to me. “Well, Earl here killed 27 people, and ate 16 of ‘em, and he’s got the death penalty, and Bessie Mae over there’ll die if she doesn’t get a new liver, sooo…..” Draining the guy to death certainly helped Dr. Rosen, and she seems like a nice person, spared endless pain. How can we feel that’s a bad thing? I think we’re supposed to find this a little morally ambiguous, particularly when she says how guilty she feels at the end, but in truth, it’s really hard to take the moral of this story as “death is really the only way to deal with these people.”

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Yup. Even though it’s not intended that way, any way you slice this one, it comes up Pro Death Penalty.

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