RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Deathwalker” (Season 1, Episode 9)

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The show is definitely beginning to get some feet under it. I’ve mentioned once or twice that some of these early episodes feel like they would fit better in other series - the Outer Limits, or TNG, or whatever. Well, this episode bears more than a few similarities to the TNG realm of storytelling - a clear-cut moral tale with good guys and bad guys and a strong (If obvious) message about the triumph of good over evil and the perfectibility of humanity. Except: the moralizing quickly gets muddied on both sides of the line, evil makes a strong case for itself and wins on at least one level, the didactic preachifiying is dispensed with, and the “Perfectibility of humanity” is shown to be utter nonsense though some individual people are pretty swell. The episode doesn’t give us some utopian nonsense about what ascended we might become, but rather an unblinking look at what we *are* and the demons we could easily become if we’re not very, very careful. To me, that seems more useful. Essentially this episode is an example of what TNG from this era *could* have done, had it not been agenda-driven. Basically, this episode gives us a glimmer of what ‘90s Trek could have been if it didn’t suck.

PLAY BY PLAY

Dr. Joseph Mengele comes to Babylon 5 aboard a Minbari ship, wearing Minbari Warrior Caste clothes. (I’m being funny, it’s not supposed to be Mengele, but an allegorical Mengele-like alien chick.) Na’Toth spots her in the arrival lounge and beats her near to death before security pulls her off.

It quickly turns out that she is Jha’dur, known as “Deathwalker,” the most infamous of the bad guy leaders from the Dilgar war thirty years before. She was into biomedical stuff, and killed the populations of entire worlds, rendering entire sentient species extinct, torturing others, experimenting on live subjects in mass numbers. She was the most feared of the Dilgar. When Earth joined the war, things turned against the Dilgar. They were mostly killed, and “The few who survived” were forced back to their homeworld, which itself was later destroyed when its star went nova. The entire Dilgar species is extinct. Deathwalker Jha’dur was unaccounted for, but it was assumed she died too. Now, here she turns on the station, happy, snappy, not looking a day older than she did three decades back, and fresh as a daisy (Excepting getting her face caved in by Na’Toth, of course.)

She recovers quickly. Too quickly, and explains that in the years she was offstage she’s used her wartime research to produce a drug that will make people immortal, young, and healthy. It’s universal, it’ll work on anyone. Franklin confirms this, though most of it is way beyond him, and he mentions that without her to explain her work, it’d take decades to crack the drug and reproduce it. To cure death, they need death walker.

Unfortunately, no one wants to be Piccardian about this, because really who wants to die? G’kar has been instructed by his government to negotiate for the drug, though he promises Na’Toth that once they have what they need, he’ll *help* her kill - and possibly eat - Deathwalker. The Earth Alliance instructs Sinclair to have her shipped to Earth. Everyone wants a piece of it. Sinclair admits this is bigger than they can handle on the station, and attempt to ship her back home, but word has gotten out and the Nonaligned ambassadors demand a council meeting. Sinclair agrees.

In the meeting, the new Abbai ambassador demands Deathwalker be turned over to the league for trial for “Crimes against Sentience” (Oooh! Nice one!). However:
The Vorlon don’t care and abstain.
The Centauri vote against trial (It’s rumored they collaborated with the Dilgar during the war)
The Narn conditionally vote “yes” so long as the trial take place on their homeworld, which is unacceptable to the league, so they change their vote to “no.” (It is also rumored that they collaborated with the Dilgar during the war)
The Minbari vote “No” to cover up the fact that they’d been sheltering Jha’dur all these years, in exchange for “Terrible weapons” that they used against humans in the war ten years back.
The Earth Alliance votes “Yes” for trial.
Infuriated, the League stages a walkout, and league ships show up to blow up the station.

Sinclair brokers a compromise with the league: “Let us get the info out of her, and then we’ll turn her over to you for trial and make the drug available to all your people.” They agree. While they’re taking Jha’dur to the transport that’ll take her to earth, she confesses that the drug is her final revenge upon the galaxy: It will work, but the key ingredient can not be synthesized. A living sentient must be killed to make it. “For one person to live forever another must die. You people take blind comfort in the fact that you could never be like us. You will devour each other like wolves. Not like us? You will become us!”

As soon as her ship leaves the station, a Vorlon transport shows up and blows it up, killing her and destroying the drug. “You are not ready for immortality,” Kosh says. “We finally find a reason to keep Jha’dur alive, and the Vorlon smoke her for the same reason,” Garibaldi observes.

MEANWHILE, Kosh has hired Talia Winters to help with some “Important” business between himself and a Mr. Abbut. Talia can’t scan Abbut at all, which is a bit unnerving. The negotiations are utter nonsense and gibberish, and she starts having flashbacks of a serial killer investigation trial she was involved in on Mars four years before that scares the living crap out of her. After two days of this, Mr. Abbut takes off his hat to reveal an exposed brain and a whole bunch of cyber-implants, pulls out a data crystal, and hands it to Kosh. Freaked out, Kosh explains that it contains “Reflection, Terror, Surprise, For the future.” Turns out Abbut is a “Vicar,” a nickname derived from “V.C.R.” - the Vicars can record anything, and Sinclair reasons that Kosh must have wanted a weapon to use against Talia if she became a threat to him.

“Kosh’s been a busy boy today,” Garibaldi notes.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

The Dilgar Invasion appears to have lasted from about 2030 to about 2038. This is the war Sinclair’s dad fought in, and presumably died in.

Abbut claims to be a level 23 telepath. Given his enhancements, he may not be lying.

Kosh is always a bit enigmatic, but he’s very much so this time out: “We will meet in the hour of scampering;” “We will meet again in the hour of sorrows;” “The Gribos must scuttle carefully;“ the infamous “Understanding is a three-edged sword;” and “You seek meaning? Then listen to the music and not the song.” It’s never entirely clear what any of these refer to. My personal favorite Koshism, by the way, is from “Midnight on the firing line” when he blows off the Narn/Minbari conflict by saying “The avalanche has already started; it is too late for the pebbles to take a vote.” He’s condescending, that Kosh.

The Windswords are “The most militant clan in the warrior caste” among the Minbari. They sheltered Jha’Dur for about fifteen years without their own government knowing about it. When they did know about it, they used it to their advantage, and continued hiding her until “like all secrets long-held, we can not bear the shame of admitting it now.” They fear Sinclair and say he has a hole in his mind. This was the group that tried to bump him off in “The Gathering.”

It’s interesting - and a bit refreshing - to see that the alien governments are capable of just as much duplicity and badness as our own. Not only are we imperfect, the aliens are imperfect too: The Minbari coverup, the Narn drive for personal gain, the violent expansion of the Narn we’ve seen elsewhere; the Centauri court intrigue, and Londo’s clear amusement at the way the situation resolves itself here.

Some have complained that this is a deus ex machina ending, but it really isn’t. The climax of the story didn’t require the intervention of the gods or even the Vorlons. Sinclair resolves the whole thing in the fourth act on his own, figuring out a solution to himself. That’s the climax of the story, and its resolution. When Jha’dur is killed, it’s in the coda *after* the resolution. Having your plan foiled doesn’t count as a Deus Ex Machina, in fact it’s just the opposite: the gods are against you, not saving you.

This is the first appearance of a “Minbari Flier,” a vaguely race-car shaped craft that carries one person. It’s also the first time Lannier is given something substantial to do, and we discover he’s really into history. We get some more insight into Na’Toth and G’kar, and it’s interesting that G’kar - who will not hesitate to kill if it’s to his advantage - is appalled at the notion of killing Na’Toth when Jha’dur asks it of him. This is also the first appearance of Senator Hidoshi, who replaces the previous dude as the chair of the B5 oversight committee.

I really really really like when Sinclair says “This one’s too big for us,” and turns it over to Earthgov. Even though he’s ultimately forced to resolve it himself, I love the notion that the guy has a strong sense of the limits of his authority. You didn’t get that in other SF shows of the period. In fact, you really don’t get that now.

The fact of the matter is that Jha’dur’s revenge plan would have worked: the bad people of the galaxy would have fallen upon the good people of the galaxy and eaten them to live forever, then they would have turned against each other, forever or until they’d gone extinct. The Vorlons did us a favor, and I think the entire episode was explaining to us *why* it was a favor.

We get our second example of Ivonova’s gift for trash talk when she warns a drazi about B5’s guns: “You will find their power quite impressive, for a few seconds.” We also see she thinks on her feet.

This episode introduces the Drazzi Sunhawk, the Vree Saucer, and a weird ring dealie we never see again from a species we never hear from again called the “H’cha.”

Races in the council meeting: Markab, Abbai, Drazzi, Hyach. The Markab makeup is still evolving. They’re rather lantern-jawed at this point. It would appear that the League doesn’t have any actual power on the Advisory Council, as their vote isn’t tabulated in the final score. I guess they’re an advisory group more than anything else.

We get our first mention of Garibaldi’s atheism and of Sinclair’s theism: “You’d better pray to that God of yours, Jeff.” He gets rather sacrilegious later on, but I won’t repeat that.

The Vicars are interesting. My opinion was that they were kind of a proto-Technomage, but as with the Ikaran Rubbersuit Monster from “Infection“, Straczynski has informed me this is not the case. We never see them again because (As JMS said online somewhere), “I was uncomfortable having that level of technology in my universe.” The script is a bit unclear as to whether he’s human or alien. The part was originally written for Gilbert Gottfried, who wasn’t available when it was filmed. It would have been much funnier with Gilbert, the dialog was obviously written for his style. Man, that’s a bad hat, though. “Bad” in the “Bad” sense, not “Bad” in the good sense.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

That’s going to break either way, really: there’s a lot of moral dilemma here, and the show ultimately doesn’t preach at us telling us how to feel. Should medical knowledge from past atrocities be used to save lives now? Does that give meaning to the victim’s sacrifices, or is it spitting on their graves? Can a government be trusted to do the right thing? Is there even a right thing to do in a case where your own survival pretty much predicates the death of others and the fall of civilization?

It’s a good story, well told, and I enjoy it, well worth watching, but whether Conservatives as a whole will? That’s going to depend on your own philosophical preferences this time out.

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