Babylon 5 #11: Believers

"The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote."
IN THIS ONE... Dr. Franklin operates on a child in spite of his parents' religious objections.

REVIEW: Having a doctor in the cast inevitably requires at least some plots about medical ethics, something I learned long ago from Star Trek. As far as these things go, Believers is a heavy discussion on religious rights vs. medical oaths, and it still very relevant today with the absurdly increasing anti-vaccination sentiment a prime example of belief trumping science and putting public health in jeopardy, though the more obvious parallel is religions that refuse life-saving blood transfusions. The parents in this story refuse their son's surgery because piercing the body will release his soul, and their orthodoxy is presented in other ways the more secular among us will recognize from other orthodoxies. What follows is a 40-minute ethical conversation.

If that sounds dull, it isn't. Noted SF writer David Gerrold wrote this one and really debated the ideas from top to bottom. Obviously, the parents have beliefs we do not share (unless there are "Children of Time" reading this), and if there's a bias, it's that no one else on the station shares them either. We can merely respect them. Or can we? There is bias here, seeing as any religion of the "chosen" sounds supremely arrogant (but arrogance is certainly the theme of Believers), and these loving parents end up rejecting their son when Franklin and his over-acting colleague indeed do operate on him, and end up killing him ceremoniously. Franklin has his beliefs too, and they are in complete opposition to the parents' wishes, but he's right when he asks if his beliefs are any less legitimate than theirs. Except he is outside their culture, and though each ambassador in turn refuses to give the believers' protection for various reasons, some political, some, like the Minbari, appropriately belief-based (and Kosh's bitterness is an especially chilling justification), it's Sinclair's solution that's perhaps the best. He asks the boy himself what to do, and Shon is a product of his culture; he cannot be convinced of another world view and prefers death to losing his soul. Franklin was arrogant to think he could change any of the Onteen's minds, somehow "fix" a culture/religion and bring it in line with his modern science. He embraced the concept of "playing god", so much easier to do when you don't believe in capital "G" God. There's something sweet too about Shon patronizing Franklin about his placebo egg, knowing the truth but not wanting to offend what he perceived as Franklin's beliefs. See, the kid had some wisdom and should act as an example to others, so it's only right Sinclair listened to him and that, in the end, he got the fate he preferred.

The B-plot isn't quite as involving. Ivanova is stir crazy standing by a window all day and begs Sinclair to let her go and escort a lost ship out of a dangerous part of space. She's just lucky Sinclair didn't want to do it himself, that's right up his alley. This thread is also about arrogance, because she leaves her squadron to fight a raider, and ends up in front of a whole armada. And... that's it. Next we see her, she's back on the station safe and sound and so is her squadron and the missing ship. It's like there's a scene missing there (is there a hole in my mind?). I appreciate the need for a little action in such a heavy and intellectual episode, but the subplot just isn't catered to enough to be worth the trouble. And speaking of flaws... I know I said I wasn't going to bring up the DVDs' technical problems every time, but Believers has to be the blurriest episode yet. You see, it's not just the FX sequences. Every time there's a dissolve between two scenes - effects or no - those scenes will be zoomed-in and blurry. And this director loved his dissolves. I hope most episodes stick to hard cuts!

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - A heavy ethical drama that's worthy if a little predictable, but the abortive B-story hardly relieves the viewer of the episode's heaviness.


Madeley said...

The Star Trekiest episode they ever did on the show. I never really liked it for that reason, even though the questions of politics, religion and ethics are a big part of why I love B5 so much.

I always liked the way JMS used to leave the question of how much "religion" in the B5 universe was bogus, or advanced science/weird physics, or Actually True (and this comment probably relates more logically to episodes like Soul Hunter, but I'm behind on reading these columns so I'll pop it in here). To my recollection, I feel JMS expressed his approach more explicitly while writing Spider-Man than in this show, during the (much-reviled) spider-totem stuff.

For the record, and I think I've mentioned it before, I never really minded the spider-totem stuff, and I think it's fits into the "mystical" side of the Spider-Man/Marvel universe better than many of the biggest detractors like to admit. I don't think it's an all-time classic story arc, but it doesn't bother me the way it does some. The pertinent scene (and I'm working from memory, so the specifics probably aren't right) is where Spidey asks a mystical character whether he believes Spidey's powers were given to him by a spider-god, or by weird science, and the character responds by saying he believes the myth of the sun being destroyed every evening by a serpent, and being reborn every morning, and he also believes that the sun is a giant nuclear furnace that the Earth revolves around.

I think many people see this approach as a cop-out, needing to know what the ACTUAL intention is, where JMS is actually planting his flag, but I think it's an accurate observation of human nature that we frequently maintain two contradictory viewpoints in our beliefs, be they spiritual or otherwise. I think it's one of the most fundamental ways in which our minds work.

So yes, JMS gives ample evidence that "souls" are real and Minbari belief is correct, while also [spoilery spoiley spoiler, something about DNA, we shall revisit this].

Ryan Lohner said...

Every episode of season 1 features some kind of foreshadowing for later, but this one has the most superfluous of the lot with Kosh's line about the avalanche, which doesn't really add anything to our understanding and could have been placed anywhere.

David Gerrold, best known for perhaps the most famous Star Trek episode of all, The Trouble with Tribbles (which led to a supporting character being modeled after him in the animated series episode More Trouble, More Tribbles), really didn't want to do this episode, seeing it as a preachy cliche of an idea, but JMS insisted he was the perfect choice, and Gerrold realized what he meant when halfway through writing it, he was driven to check on his own sleeping son. This is literally the only thing he says about it in his introduction from the script volumes, which is easily the shortest of the bunch.

Basically, the whole thing is one big middle finger to Trek ideology, particularly the unbearably smug first couple years of TNG, where you just know if this story had happened it would have ended exactly as Franklin expected, or at least with a last minute deus ex machina discovery of a third option that everyone would be satisfied with. The ending is basically a big neon sign saying "We're not that show."

The Ivanova story is...weird, though at least JMS himself has said we weren't meant to think she'd actually defeated all those raiders, and instead she simply hauled ass out of there while occasionally firing back. It seems the A-plot simply took up too much time to give us a true resolution here.

The episode does try its hardest to present the alien Christian Scientists with an equal voice, but I do get pissed off every time I see them chastise Delenn for not respecting their religion, literally seconds after they were asking her to disregard her own. She was extraordinarily nice to let that one go.

John Trumbull said...

The incident with Franklin and the egg actually happened in real life. David Gerrold gave one of the original Tribbles to a sick child so that she would do her breathing exercises. When she left the hospital, she asked them to give the Tribble to another sick child who might need it.

Alex Osias said...

This was interesting because, at the time, endings like this WEREN'T commonplace.

Nowadays, well, I guess TV's a darker place.

But I remember the web (as it was at the time) flooded with posts by people who were surprised at what happened to the kid, but also at the parents' role in it.

Randomnerd said...

This was one of the first episodes I saw that made me realize B5 was shooting for more realism (at least from the actions of the characters) than other science fiction shows up until that point. And even with it being the most comparable to Star Trek, it made a much larger impression than any of the Trek episodes where they debated medical vs. religious ethics. It could have been smarmy, but it wasn't. The weight felt real, especially when at the end the whole thing blew up in Franklin's face. And the conundrum of what to do when the outcome (the child's death) is inevitable, brings up an interesting point. What action do you take, the one where you can live with yourself, or the one where someone else can live with themselves?
JMS was always much slicker about his messages than anyone gave him credit for in the beginning, and it's plots like these that always have me begging my suspicious friends to watch B5 with an open mind.

Siskoid said...

John: Aww cute.

Alexander: Deep Space Nine was also forging ahead in this direction with "heavy lies the head" endings, something else the shows had in common.

Cradok said...

When I was young, I could never get behind anyone's view in this episode other than Franklin's, and so hated this episode. As I got older, I came to appreciate that everyone's viewpoint was valid, and I'm actually rather fond of the episode now.


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