RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Believers” (Season 1, Episode 10)

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Last week I pointed out that B5 was tackling territory already well-traveled by Trek, and yet it did it in a much better fashion. This week does it again, and in a much better fashion still. I’ve long grumbled that TNG refused to take a non-didactic, non-preachy angle on *any* issue, and as such there was little or no drama, little or no risk, no moral ambiguity, and ultimately little-or-no meaning. The show was, as a whole, an exercise in “Luring intellectuals into believing what they already know to be true.” (To quote They Might Be Giants). Here, however, there is a real exploration of a real issue: The questions are simple but the answers are not easy, and they bring pain on all sides.

Also, ten episodes and twelve hours into Babylon 5, this is the first episode that *Wasn’t* written by Straczynski. This is by David Gerrold.

PLAY BY PLAY

A family of alien Christian Scientists come to the station with their son, who’s dying of a minor respiratory problem. Owing to their beliefs, they can’t allow surgery, and medical knowledge on their planet is limited, so they’ve come to B5 in hopes that earth’s superior knowhow might provide a non-invasive solution. Unfortunately, it won’t. Franklin explains the situation, but they won’t have any of it. The aliens believe that if the body is cut, the spirit escapes and the person is possessed by a demon. Franklin attempts to talk them out of it, then attempts to manipulate them into agreeing to the surgery with false hope. When that fails, he attempts to force the surgery. The aliens go to the various ambassadors, all of whom refuse to get involved, but Sinclair ultimately rules against Franklin and tells him not to do the surgery. Franklin does it anyway, and so, once their son recovers from the surgery, they kill him in a religious ceremony, assuming him to be possessed.

MEANWHILE, in the underdeveloped make-work subplot, Ivonova leads Delta Squadron out to escort the starliner Asimov back through raider-filled space. They get in a battle, but she manages to save everyone on the liner, including a kid.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

“Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t change anything.”

There’s a lot to chew over here, philosophically. At first Franklin attempts to respect the alien’s beliefs and to work with them. He’s actually quite insistent on it, actually. Later, as the situation turns against him, he goes against his own beliefs about the beliefs of others, and does what he thinks best.

Sinclair: “Who asked you to play God, anyway?”
Franklin: “Every damn patient that comes through my door! […] They want to be well, and they come to me when their prayers aren’t enough. ”

This isn’t a namby-pamby “Maybe they’re right and maybe they’re wrong” dilemma, the episode makes no bones about the aliens being completely wrong in this issue, however, as Sinclair points out: “Life is more than just a pulse beat. What we hold sacred gives our lives meaning.” Franklin gives lip service to this idea early on, but his confidence in this is only superficial - politically correct - and he can’t comprehend how others would. This is not the first nor the last time that we’ll see Franklin do the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and have it backfire on him badly. He’s not by any means a bad man, in fact he’s consistently just about the best guy on the station, but he’s got a somewhat overly-mechanistic view of human nature that works against him.

Dr. Hernandez says, “Your god is medicine, and you [believe you can] can do no wrong in it’s service.” Even still, we get a glimmer of religious faith from him when he prays, “Lord, protect this child” right before he starts the surgery. We’ll see more exploration of Franklin’s religious views later in the series.

There’s some real despair in this episode: His parent’s abject horror at seeing their son ‘possessed,’ the boy’s utter devastation when his parents reject him, Franklin’s very well acted shock/disgust/horror when he realizes they killed the kid. This is tough stuff. The cheap ‘90s production values work against it a bit, but not that much.

Franklin: “Maybe we’d be better off if there were no God, if God had never been invented. Then we wouldn’t have to be anything; we wouldn’t have to care.”
Sinclair: “Maybe so, but caring is what makes us human.”
Franklin: “No, what makes us human is that there are so many ways to hurt.”

Despite being fairly unimaginative Star Trekian prosthetic-forehead aliens, the Christian Scientists are not mammals, they’re born from eggs, and they’re somewhat creeped out by the fact that humans are “Descended from egg-sucking mammaloids.”

Franklin doesn’t wear any rank pins on his uniform, oddly.

Sinclair says he had a very serious operation once. When was that, and why? I’m not a huge fan of Michael O’Hare’s acting much of the time, but the scene with him and the kid are pretty well done, and on the whole Sinclair seems much more believable than he generally is.

They’re making an effort to showcase Ivonova more.

Franklin: “God save us from false religion.”
Sinclair: “Who says any of them are false? Maybe if one of them is true, all of them have to be true. Maybe God doesn’t care how we say our prayers, just as long as we say them.”
Sinclair is obviously leaning towards universalism, but he actually is a believer, as we’ve seen here and on other occasions. Garibaldi mocked him for this last week. We see glimpses of it here, too.

Delenn makes a very veiled reference to the Soul Hunters interfering in Minbari religious beliefs in this episode, by way of explaining why her people are forbidden to interfere in the religious beliefs of others.

So how does the medical system work on B5, anyway? Franklin is obviously a military officer and a doctor, but he appears to take civilian patients in this episode. Are there civilian hospitals on the station? I’m assuming not, I’m assuming that the EA maintains a medical monopoly, and provide services to everyone. Given the large number of species and aliens on the station, this probably *is* the safest way to go about it.

I don’t know what a Fingal egg is, but Sinclair and Garibaldi both hate them enough to block their import to the station.

Steak is not available on the station, there’s simply no room to grow cows. It has to be shipped in from earth, and this is super-expensive. It’s not served in any of the restaurants.

There’s a great Garden FX shot in this episode.

Ivonova mentions that she’s got 100 hours of combat experience. How? It’s been 10 years since the war, and she wasn’t involved in it. Is all that time fighting raiders? Was there another conflict we don’t know about? That said, it’s possible that the flight time could rack up really fast: Ivonova’s mission takes at least a day and a half, possibly more like two, so that’s 48 hours of flight combat experience right there. By the way, the use of shadows in the Starfury cockpits to indicate motion is really cool!

I realize it would defeat the purpose of the episode, but couldn’t this have been fixed by laparoscopy? Just go down the windpipe, pluck the obstruction off, no incision. Hard to think that Nanitic surgery wasn’t available this far into the future, seeing as they mentioned nanites in the "The Gathering." Obviously, that would have detracted from the moral dilemma Gerrold wanted to set up, of course, I’m not dissing him, I just wonder…

It’s interesting that the alien Christian Scientists were not arrested for murder. They killed their son, after all. How much latitude are people given in deference to their faith on B5? I mean, we’ve already seen knives aren’t allowed in, even for religious purposes…

“My husband wanted me to tell you that though it is not in his power to forgive, he understands that what you did was out of kindness, and if he could, he would. I am not permitted to forgive either, but if I could, I would.”

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

I get the feeling ‘no’, but really most of us should, since these kinds of ethical issues are *entirely* within our bailiwick.

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