Babylon 5 #10: Deathwalker

"The billions who live forever will be a testimony to my work, and the billions that are murdered to provide that immortality will be the continuance of that work. That will be my monument!"
IN THIS ONE... A war criminal may hold the secret of immortality.

REVIEW: Babylon 5 creates its first true monster in Jha'dur, AKA Deathwalker the last member of the Dilgar race, a war criminal who experimented on countless sentients to give herself some measure of immortality, and whose evil goes well beyond being unapologetic. As the episode progresses, we discover her final plan was to ensure her people's legacy, not by turning them into the heroes who gave the universe immortality, but by turning another race into the same monster who would butcher millions to ensure their own survival and dominance. Would humanity succumb to the temptation and start killing sentients to get the x-factor responsible for eternal youth? I bet it would. But we don't find out because Mr. Enigmatic, Ambassador Kosh, has a ship blow her up after 40 minutes of debate and compromise (should she be tried and by whom, should we get her secrets first, and so on) because we're not ready for immortality. (Are the Vorlons? Do they have it already?) Bit of a deus ex machina - the characters don't have to live with the consequences of their choice - but it doesn't take away from Jha'dur's creepy villainy or Sinclair's political wrangling, which is one of my favorite things about the show. The fact that Kosh himself doesn't suffer any consequences is a bit glib, however. I guess the Vorlons are more powerful than Kosh's few discreet appearance would have us believe.

Kosh is also a main player in the B-plot, in which he contracts Talia to telepathically monitor negotiations with a clownish (read: annoying) "human recorder" with an open brain plate and a silly hat. They just speak nonsense phrases until they provoke terrible memories in her and we find out Kosh was recording her greatest fears in case he ever needed to use them against her because Vorlons don't trust telepaths. So it's all rather bizarre and jokey and then turns queasy with a tale of violation (and again, no consequences for Kosh). I don't look for spoilers, but I nevertheless do very cursory research before writing these reviews, and it looks like this never really came up again. I appreciate adding to our store of knowledge about both Kosh and Talia, but it's not a subplot I enjoyed watching, so I'd like it to justify itself a bit better.

But then a lot of B5 is texture. Some details will eventually find a plot use, some won't. The episode is full of examples. The Narn blood oath - Na'Toth never gets to fulfill it or react to Deathwalker's final fate, so it's texture. The way the council works. All the historical details about the conflict with the Dilgar, the Wind Swords, the League of Non-Aligned Worlds and the various relationships between the galactic powers. That G'Kar was a resistance leader, which gives him a very different background from his homologue Londo. Just the announcements on the station's P.A give off small, unimportant details that nevertheless help build this world and enhance the experience. They're worth paying attention to. To echo Kosh: You seek meaning? It seems like everything in this world should have meaning, but it's not always about what's said so much as what it infers, and don't novels function as aggregates of inferences? That's what Babylon 5 aspires to be.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE:
A blood oath, eh? The Narns have never felt more like Klingons. (DS9's Blood Oath had only aired about a month before.)

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - A sound ethical dilemma, but it's all rendered moot at the end, which kind of grates.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I figured the plan was for Kosh to need Talia's primal memories so she could bust free of mind control at some point. Perhaps Kosh had even seen evidence of mind-tampering in Talia. But things went in a different direction so we never found out where this was going.

Ryan Lohner said...

There actually is some really neat stuff for the future here, but as so often happens in season one, the introduction, this is not the proper time to discuss it.

Jha'Dur is played by Sarah Douglas, best known as the evil Kryptonian Ursa in the first two Superman films. Not really doing much to expand her range here, but I can't argue that she does her stuff well. Though I swear one of her contact lenses is crooked in a few shots.

If you found Abbut annoying in the actual episode, just picture this: JMS wrote the role for Gilbert Gottfried.

Siskoid said...

Gah! We dodged a bullet there!

Then again, I'd rather have Gottfried really GOING FOR IT, than someone who can't quite achieve that level of camp doing a watered-down version.

Ursa! Right! I knew she seemed familiar. And the League leader was played by Robin "Saavik 2" Curtis in extreme, fishy make-up.

LiamKav said...

"Then again, I'd rather have Gottfried really GOING FOR IT, than someone who can't quite achieve that level of camp doing a watered-down version."

TNG's A Matter of Time springs to mind...

LiamKav said...

You know, considering the mess with the widescreen-ishness of the show, I find it quite funny that Sinclair uses a widescreen monitor in his room when he talks to the Earth senator. Everyone else seems to be stuck on 4:3.

LiamKav said...

(sorry, on my phone so these small posts are easier...)

Lennier describes the Wind Swords as the most millitant of "all the warrior castes". Pretty soon that term loses it's pluralisation, when they decide that there are just 3 castes. I wonder if they'd hit on the Minbari obsession with 3 yet... The Minbari Fligher seen at the beginning is also a bit different from their normal designs, having 4 wings.

LiamKav said...

There are lots of reflected images of Talia, which could be interpreted as foreshadowing, if you're generous. (Reflected images are pretty much page 1 of "how to look like your foreshadowing was deliberate).

Small mistake at the end... We see the jumpgate open up on the tiny tiny monitor the council is looking at about twenty seconds before it opens up for real.

David said...

I do like that this episode really cemented "Vorlons are paternalistic controlling jerks and are powerful enough to get away with it" in my mind when I was first watching the show. That's a pretty important ongoing theme, after all.

Anonymous said...

There was something about this Deathwalker business that didn't ring true to me; it's been a long time since I've seen it, so maybe I need to watch it again. I think this was sat wrong with me: Deathwalker was analogous in a lot of ways to the Nazi scientists we good guys used in the Cold War, but where she is un-analogous is that she is pretty clearly too unpredictable to be of any use to any government. Werner von Braun was useful because he was interested just in getting the rockets to go up, and he didn't care where they went down; he's easily an asset and not a viper waiting to strike. Deathwalker is no Werner von Braun.

Madeley said...

Agree with David- my lasting impression of this otherwise by-the-numbers episode is the Vorlons essentially saying "BE VERY SCARED OF US", via adreary cop-out ending. Oh, and also maybe contributing to the feeling that the Babylon 5 universe is an incredibly violent, warlike place.

Thinking about it, this is one of the things I love about the show. On a philosophical level I hate, hate, hate narrative approaches that take a biblical view of a past paradise where people have fallen from grace. Give me the story of each generation attempting to pull itself out of the horrors of history any day of the week, which is exactly what B5 is all about.

(Well, maybe B5 is more about cycles and *ahem* Wheels of Fire, but for the most there is a strong thread of striving to better what came before, and moving towards enlightenment.)

LiamKav said...

I dunno. I think I read JMS saying that In the Beginning IS designed to be watched first. Any potential spoilers (such as Delenn speaking at the beginning, or the flash forward at the end) would most likely be forgotten once you then started on season 1 and were busy wondering where your leading man had just gone.

This episode also introduces the "Battle for the Line" music, which is one of the best pieces composed for this show. It's so good that it was retroactively inserted into The Gathering when they did the SE of it, at the point where Sinclair is reminiscing about this battle. And, of course, it's also used for the AMAZING season 3 title sequence.

I love that title sequence so much

Siskoid said...

Anon: I don't think that was necessarily the analogy, because von Braun didn't commit atrocities, he just worked for the other side. But say instead of aeronautics, the U.S. had become super interested in drugs developed in concentration camps, and given a known unethical Nazi scientist asylum. It's all taken to quite an extreme.

Madeley: Do you have examples of this Edenite narrative approach in television?

Liam: I shudder to think how your favorite opening sequence will look like all zoomed-in and blurry.

LiamKav said...

Ah, that comment was supposed to go "And the Sky Full of Stars". Whoops! I'll post it there too, just so it makes sense.

If I'm correct though, I don't think the title sequences are affected by the widescreen/fullscreen mess, because they were all designed in widescreen to begin with. I suppose it depends on whether it was all done in 16:9 and they added the bars on for the original title sequences, or it was done in 4:3 with "fake" black bars at the top and bottom, and they've just zoomed in...

Siskoid said...

We'll see Liam. The Season 1 opener looks mighty blurry to me.

Madeley said...

Siskoid: The "fallen world" themes tend to happen in fantasy narratives and (obviously) Abrahamic-religion-themed stuff (so, anything where angels are taken as Real- I've never watched it but maybe that Supernatural show?) TV stuff escapes me at the moment, but see Lord of the Rings and endless swordnsorcery derivatives, Star Wars's Old Republic, the Transformers backstory (Cybertron's Golden Age), Arthurian stuff from the Malory school. The modern cousin of this is anything that casts the WWII Allies as the flawless, Greatest Generation (the "Good Old Fashioned Values" lot).

And to clarify, I love a lot of the stuff that does trade in the Wise Ancient Days of Grace, I just loathe the philosophy on the grounds that in the real world an endless amount of damage has been caused by people wanting to go back to the ways things used to be.

Babylon 5 stands out for me because it explicitly uses the language associated with some of this stuff (the LotR references are numerous and explicit, for example) as it has Ancient Races and Great Old Ones, but as the show goes on we'll see the extent to which it subverts the idea of them automatically being flawless wisdom-givers.

David said...

Bit of a tangent, but on the fallen world stuff... that's a fun area where Buffy stood out. It was solidly fantasy, but it was also explicitly a setting where everything was getting better and better.

"This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their...their Hell. But in time, they lost their purchase on this reality. The way was made for mortal animals, for, for man. All that remains of the Old Ones are vestiges, certain magicks, certain creatures..."

...is what came up as the initial introduction of this in episode 1.

Craig Oxbrow said...

Prussian Werewolves! A less successful prequel to the Nazi Werewolf genre.

Cradok said...

Nobody sanctions Kosh for what he does, because, at the end of the day, there's not much they can actually do. The Vorlons don't trade, they don't have military treaties, their motivations are a mystery, and even if they did decide on something, there's no guarantee they'd actually care. Nobody even really expected that Vorlons to send an ambassador, and now that one's there, nobody really knows why.

 

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