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Monday, 19 September 2016

Babylon 5 1-10: Believers

Episode:10|Writer:David Gerrold|Air Date:27-Apr-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm writing under screencaps from Believers, an episode of Babylon 5.

In fact this is a divisive episode of Babylon 5 as that's what happens when you put science up against religion with a child's life on the line. Personally I don't remember hating it the last time I watched it but it's not really a topic I'm hyped to explore so I dunno. I probably just thought it was a bit slow and cheesy, like most stories in season 1.

The following text will contain big-ass SPOILERS for Believers and the season so far, but I won't even hint at anything that comes after it.



The episode begins with a sick child lying in Medlab asking "Am I going to die?" I can already tell this is going to be one of the fun ones.

I like the blinky light bed scanner though. It's a step beyond your typical Star Trek: The Next Generation blinky light bed scanner.

The child's parents, who belong to a very Star Trek-looking race of bumpy forehead aliens we've not seen before, explain that if his death is written in the streams of time, it will be so.

But Dr. Franklin's got a better answer for the kid, telling him that the streams of time say that soon he will be breathing much easier, and he will grow up to be strong and wise. You know, trying to keep his spirits up.

The parents are kind of pissed off that Dr. Franklin would presume to know the future as it apparently goes against their beliefs. You might expect Franklin to back down a little after seeing what he's walking into, but nope, he contradicts them and tells the child that he's never wrong. Nice cultural sensitivity there.

The mother asks Dr. Franklin's permission for her husband to speak candidly, a reminder that this is an alien culture... that just so happens to speak fluent English. Even the sick child.

He explains that the doctors back on their world say that there's no treatment for the boy's condition, which is why they brought him all the way out here. They're in luck because Franklin actually does know how to cure him, and it'll only take a simple operation.

The parents are horrified and storm out. Food animals can be cut open as they don't have a soul, they explain, but the Chosen of God must not be punctured! They're going to let him die rather than consent to surgery. Cut to credits.


ACT ONE.


Written by David Gerrold huh? A few episodes back we had a D.C. Fontana script and now another famous Star Trek writer/producer has joined in. He's the guy who wrote the Trouble with Tribbles for the Original Series and basically co-created Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most episodes of B5 so far have been written by creator JMS, but he found some pretty acclaimed TV sci-fi writers to fill in the gaps.

There's no awkward moral dilemmas in C&C, but they have received a distress call from the Starliner Asimov. Hey that's the giant ball ship from Soul Hunter, another episode featuring Dr. Franklin and souls. The Asimov has lost its navigational computer and now it's flying blind in Raider territory. I'm guessing it wandered in there by mistake otherwise that's a pretty shitty flightplan for a starliner.

Ivanova cheerfully recommends that a fighter wing should be dispatched to escort them back to the station, led by a command officer (hint hint). Sinclair asks if Garibaldi can do it, and her heart visibly sinks.

"I certainly have plenty of things to occupy myself here. Yes sir! I think I'll just walk to and fro for a while, maybe over to my console. After that maybe I'll try pacing fro and to, just for the kick of it! Oh and there's this view of course. Granted it's not quite the same as if you are outside, for someone who's got over 100 hours of combat flying experience."
O...kay Ivanova, that kind of came out of nowhere. She explains that she's going stir crazy and Sinclair suggests that maybe she should lead the fighter wing herself. It's nice to see something quickly resolved with all participants satisfied, hopefully the rest of the episode will play out in much the same way.

Back in Medlab, Dr. Hernandez (who I don't think we've seen before) is talking to the parents, explaining the operation that would almost certainly save their boy's life. But they already understand the procedure, they just don't want them to do it to their son because his soul would escape.

"So you're just going to let him die? What kind of a god do you worship?" she asks in frustration, which understandably leaves no one any happier. But Dr. Franklin stops them from storming out a second time by presenting an alternative cure, which will be more uncomfortable and cost more. He explains that a combination of emollients and microbeams might help the body clear itself!

Once out of the parents' earshot, Dr. Franklin expresses his displeasure at Dr. Hernandez's criticism of their religion and she expresses her displeasure at the utter bullshit he just told them.

Turns out that the child won't survive a trip off the station, so Franklin's trying to stall. His remedies definitely won't work and they may actually make the kid's suffering worse, but he's convinced that it's what they have to do. "This isn't some silly superstition to them," he exclaims. "This is real! They're not going to let it go just because you tell them to."

He doesn't believe for a moment that they might be right about their son's soul, he made it clear back in Soul Hunter that he finds the idea of souls to be nonsense. So he's basically going to wear them down until they're desperate enough to put their beliefs aside for a moment so that he can save their kid.

Meanwhile Ivanova takes Alpha Wing out to the help Asmiov. You'd think she'd bring out more than two fighters seeing as they're helping a huge starliner in Raider territory, but I guess that blinky light bed scanner cut into the episode's Starfury rendering budget.

You know, this is ten episodes into season one and they still haven't shown what hyperspace looks like on the other side of each jump gate vortex. I guess there just hasn't been a point to showing it so far.

And now we're back in... I don't actually know where this is. It looks like they've set up a circular curtain and a bed in the middle of a soundstage.

Babylon 5 has over a thousand education and entertainment channels for him to watch, but the parents don't want their kid watching any of that bullshit. They believe that alien TV demonstrates false belief systems, so he can study their sacred scrolls instead. You know I'm starting to get the impression that these folks take their religion kind of seriously.

But Dr. Franklin is determined to give this poor kid something to take his mind off the pain, so he hands him piece of industrial goo and tells him it's a glopet egg from the planet... Placebo. I think he might be underestimating how fluent their English is.

Wow Franklin's actually out of uniform for once. It's been so long since he's worn civilian clothes that he still owns one of those shirts with a collar on it.

Dr. Hernandez isn't impressed by Franklin's gift of goo, but he explains that it gives the kid something to believe in, which is interesting. Franklin's not an atheist, but he seems to treat belief as if it's a reassuring lie to keep people happy and healthy. When he saw that the parents' religion wasn't helping his patient, he switched the child's attention to a false belief of his own creation.

Hernandez immediately calls him on it, and then moves on to comparing his beliefs to those of the parents. "They worship the Great Egg, your god is medicine and you can do no wrong in his service, what's the difference?" she asks. "I produce measurable, testable results," Franklin replies, which is true, though I doubt he's done a study on the results of carrying out pointless medical procedures to drag out a child's suffering until the parents give in and let him operate.

But Franklin's so sure of himself he bets an expensive imported steak dinner that she can't find a better way. He dares her to do the research and prove him wrong, as he's going to save this kid at any cost.


ACT TWO.


And then he goes and imports the steak dinner, to Sinclair's surprise.

Franklin admits that the child will die unless he operates and he doesn't know what to do. Sinclair could order him to carry out the surgery, but disregarding the parents' wishes in this case would establish a precedent. Franklin counters by pointing out that they already operated on Ambassador Kosh in The Gathering against his people's wishes, so the damage is done there. That's cheating, Franklin wasn't even in that episode!

But the neutrality of Babylon 5 is at stake here is Sinclair steps in, so he asks Franklin not to ask him to make a ruling.

Meanwhile Ivanova's still out looking for the Asimov.

Franklin's getting a bit desperate now, telling the parents to stop deluding themselves. They keep trying to tell him that their child is nothing without his spirit, but he doesn't take that seriously for a moment.

The thing is, the episode Soul Hunter made a pretty compelling case that at least some of the races really do have something that can be considered a soul and the series has had spirits flying around in little transparent globes, so maybe the parents are actually right here!

Franklin's had enough though and he makes an official request to Sinclair to suspend their parental authority. The parents don't have an ambassador here to represent them so they go to Sinclair directly and explain that if the doctor cuts his child open, he'll kill him.


ACT THREE.


The parents then go visiting the major ambassadors on the station for someone to intercede for them, so they all get some screen time in the same episode for once, even Kosh!

G'Kar declines because there's nothing in it for his people, Londo basically asks for a bribe, Delenn is forbidden to intervene because of her beliefs, and Kosh... well, all they get out of him is "The avalanche has already started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote."

That's the best Kosh line ever and it was written by David Gerrold instead of JMS! Like I mentioned earlier, Sinclair ordered that Kosh undergo an operation in the pilot, so it might well be that he's the pebble he's talking about. Or maybe they're the pebbles. Either way he seems pretty certain that they can't alter the events in motion.

The parents are alone, no one here will support them and share in the blame for the outcome.

Sinclair's alone too as Earth Central were no help, so he goes to speak with the kid to see what his thoughts are on all of this.

Turns out that he knew all along that the glopet egg is just a piece of industrial goo, but not that Franklin was lying to him. In fact he asks Sinclair to keep it a secret, to protect Franklin from learning that his belief is factually provably wrong. He'd rather let the doctor go on believing a lie than let him suffer disappointment.

The boy does want to live but he doesn't much want to lose his spirit. Sinclair talks about a serious operation that he came out of just fine, but the boy points out that he's not the same species.

At the end of Parliament of Dreams, Sinclair claimed that respecting all beliefs was the dominant Earth religion and now he's forced to put his money where his mouth is.

Franklin argues that without life, the question of what we believe in is meaningless. Sinclair argues that what we hold sacred gives our lives meaning. Franklin attitude is that they can worry about the kid's faith afterwards.

In the end though Sinclair can't allow the operation to go through, for political reasons. The commander of Babylon 5 can't step in and make decisions like this, or else it ceases to be a neutral place for aliens to meet and resolve their problems.


ACT FOUR.


Meanwhile in a happier part of space, Ivanova is leading the starliner back to Babylon 5. But hang on, Sinclair mentioned earlier that he was going to make his decision within 24 hours. Either he made his choice with hours to spare or Ivanova's been strapped inside that Starfury for over a day now.

Still, it's a very pretty Starfury. As wing art goes, Ivanova's Russian bird is definitely the best I've seen so far; more interesting than Garibaldi's tiger stripes and Sinclair's red chevrons anyway.

Plus I like how the design on the helmets matches the art on the hull, it's a nice touch.

Ivanova picks up a Raider on her scanners and goes off alone to intercept before he can call for help. Her wingman protests, but she's the boss and she needs him to stay behind and guard the Asimov.

Back on B5, Franklin decides to go through with the operation anyway, with Dr. Hernandez volunteering to assist. He knows it'll get him fired, in fact he's already packed, but he can't stand by and let a child die when he has the ability to save them.

He mentions that there might be a slight escape of air or moisture when he makes the incision. Evidence of a soul escaping perhaps? Or perhaps the cause for their superstitious belief. Franklin hesitates and asks Hernandez if she found anything in her research, something that might back up their belief perhaps. But she didn't.

So he whispers a prayer of his own and starts the operation.

Meanwhile Ivanova is having a Han Solo moment. Turned out that the lone fighter's friends were closer than she thought and she just charged right towards a swarm of them. 12 against 1 isn't the kind of odds you want to bet on, so Ivanova turns tail and makes a run for it. Though 12 against 2 isn't much better so I'm not sure she's running back towards the Asimov.

Back on the station, the child's parents find out that their boy is alive and well after surgery, and feels no different than before! So they pull out a knife and call him a demon, yelling as they back away into the corridor.

The poor kid is devastated and starts mumbling prayers to himself. Franklin somehow didn't see this coming and is utterly shocked by their reaction.

The doctor's less shocked by Sinclair's reaction later, when he very nearly asks for his resignation. But Franklin's utterly unrepentant for his actions, yelling "People come to doctors because they want us to be gods! If I have to take the responsibility then I claim the authority too." Damn, man!

They're called back down to Medlab where the parents have calmed down, put the knife away, and are ready to collect their son. They're not allowed to forgive Franklin for what he's done, but they understand that he acted out of compassion and they're not going to murder him. They have the boy's travelling robe for the long journey they explain and then walk out, leaving Franklin standing there with a smug grin on his face.

Then he asks Sinclair for an apology! "You'd better check the temperature in hell first," snaps the commander, who then storms out of Medlab before the temptation to deck him becomes irresistable.

Later Franklin's in Medlab with Hernandez, finishing off being smug for the night. Hernandez reminds him that she owes him a steak dinner for thinking he was wrong, which is good because it should be coming by on the next transport either way and it'll need paying for.

She's also finished her research on their people at last, just a little too late for it to be any use to them. Franklin glances through to read about the Great Egg, the Great Journey, the Great Song... the travelling robe. He suddenly understands the implications and the drums kick in as he runs through the corridors, shoving people out of the way.

He's too late though. They've killed their son.


ACT FIVE.


Franklin's really beating himself up over this and offers his resignation, but Sinclair doesn't want it. In fact he tells him he shouldn't have asked him for the ruling in the first place so he wouldn't have had to disobey it!

Sinclair tries to tell him that caring is what makes us human, but Franklin disagrees, saying that what makes us human is that we have so many different ways to hurt. The man just has to disagree with everyone! But he does realise now that he was arrogant.

Ivanova on the other hand has beaten the odds and pulled off an incredibly daring and ingenious move to rescue the Asimov from a dozen Raider ships. We just don't get to see it or hear what she did.

Garibaldi comes to meet her after she lands, mentioning that her fighter will be in the repair bay for a week and that she broke regs. Though how he knows this is a mystery. She explains she it was an educated risk and sometimes it works out. "Sometimes it doesn't," he replies, promising to fill her in on what Franklin's been up to as they walk. The guy can't let her be happy for a moment.

And Franklin's left alone in Medlab with the lights set to 'moody', stroking his gloppit egg. Wow, two episodes in a row where Sinclair didn't get to punch or shoot anyone.


CONCLUSION

One thing I can definitely say about Believers, is that you get exactly what it says on the tin. Everything in this episode is about people having beliefs, debating beliefs, confronting beliefs or flying a Starfury on an escort mission. Actually that last one doesn't have much to do with believing, but then it doesn't have much to do with the episode either. You can blink and miss Ivanova's B plot entirely, it's basically there just to pad the episode out and remind viewers that the Raiders from Midnight on the Firing Line still exist.

You'd think that Dr. Franklin would be one to root for here as he's a series regular and he's trying to save a child from believers of a made-up sci-fi religion that wouldn't even let their kid watch Babylon 5, but the episode goes out of its way to make you sympathise with the parents. They're presented as being good people with a deep concern for their child, driven to desperation by the well-meaning ignorance of the station's doctor and the lack of support from the aliens around them. In fact the actors are so good that it's painful to watch them suffer; no one should be able to sound so serious and believable when talking about worshipping the Great Egg.

Dr. Franklin on the other hand is presented as someone who needs to be taken down a few pegs. The episode somehow manages to make a man confronting religious fanatics and potentially throwing his career away to save a child's life kind of unlikeable and that's impressive, especially when the kid's acting is actually pretty good! The episode's basically a no-win scenario designed to test his character and he doesn't come out of it as well as he could've done. Sure he has moments of doubt, he asks people for other options, and he even hunts for evidence that the child may have a soul. But he's also an arrogant dick who lectures people on respecting religion one minute and calls the parents delusional the next. And in the end he's left to deal with the fact that he's capable of being wrong, he didn't know enough about their culture, and his actions ultimately brought nothing but suffering to everyone involved (as did the parents).

You might expect this to be a preachy episode, but it doesn't take a firm stance on religion, never gives you the slightest clue whose belief is right and it doesn't get particularly judgemental about actions either. Sure there's a lot of angry raised voices along the way, but at the end of it Sinclair's nothing but sympathetic toward Franklin and the parents presumably get away scot-free with the pre-meditated murder of their child as well. It's a 40 minute Star Trek: The Next Generation-style ethical debate with no obvious solution and no 'third way' that makes everyone happy, and all anyone can do is try to learn something from it. Like 'don't bring a child to a human doctor and expect him to let the kid die' and 'don't give a child back to his emotionally distraught parents immediately after they've threatened him with a knife'.

I know this episode doesn't work for everyone, it's kind of a miserable frustrating time, but it worked for me. They even threw in a spaceship explosion and I do like them.


Babylon 5 will return with Survivors. But coming up next on Sci-Fi Adventures it's more Deep Space Nine as I rewatch... oh great, it's Move Along Home.

If you enjoyed the episode or my writing please leave a comment! If you didn't enjoy them, you should totally leave a comment as well.

1 comment:

  1. I think this may be the first episode you've covered that I remember seeing the first time. I recall liking it, probably because -- as you point out -- it is a bit like those TNG ethical problem episodes but unlike them it doesn't fudge an unconvincing technobabble third way that solves the problem without forcing anyone to make a hard decision.

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