Babylon 5 #22: The Quality of Mercy

"Next! You can start by removing your clothes." "Not without dinner and flowers."
IN THIS ONE... June Lockhart guest-stars as a dying healer who uses an alien artifact, a serial killer's sentence causes havoc on the station, and Londo takes Lennier on a corrupting tour of Babylon 5.

REVIEW: Three distinct threads, only two of which merge into each other, so let's take them one by one. In the main story, Dr. Franklin discovers Lost in Space's June Lockhart (courtesy of Bill Mumy?) is healing people with an alien machine in the decks down below. A natural skeptic, he first dismisses her as a quack and makes it his mission to put an end to her "practice", but then finds he was wrong. The machine works, and Dr. Laura is actually taking years off her own life transferring life force to those in need. Eventually, her own illness is cured when a wounded escaped killer (we'll get to him in due course) forces her to heal him and she reverses the polarity of the neutron flow in self-defense and kills him. It's all perfectly acceptable, if a little predictable, and I like how Franklin is "misusing" medical supplies by opening a clandestine free clinic in the ship's bowels. Even more that he ropes Ivanova into helping. The theme of this thread is that there's a difference between what is legal and what is right, but it's a little heavy-handed. The point is made several times over, and though Lockhart is a charismatic guest star, I don't know what it is about her, but her performance feels like it's from another era of television. The emotions are clear and correct, but her scenes feel old-fashioned because the dialog is delivered so precisely, if that makes any sense. Laura's daughter Janice is fine as a romantic interest for the doctor, but we'll never see her again so, whatever.

If the medical plot, with its point about medical care costs, doesn't make Earth policy in the future look too good, the legal drama of its secondary plot is straight dystopia. In the Babylon 5 universe, humanity doesn't have the death penalty, but judges can sentence dangerous criminals to MIND WIPE! Or as they call it, death of personality, turning people into servile amnesiacs. That's way worse and I don't think Earth society should feel relieved of its guilt just because the person's body doesn't die. The man sentenced to personality death is Karl Mueller, a psychotic serial killer whom Talia must scan as a matter of protocol to make sure something something. If you're going to use a machine, why is this necessary except to unnerve her? The scene inside his mind is properly creepy, but it really feels like this is Talia's thread and that she should "arc" in some way. But nope. She all but disappears from the episode and instead we get treated to Karl's escape - the file on Garibaldi's incompetence is getting thicker by the minute - and death.

And then there's the comedy subplot, with decadent Londo taking straight-laced Lennier to see a strip show, drink (until he hears alcohol makes Minbari psychotic) and gamble. The two of them are a pretty good comic double act, and I like how Londo's only taking him under his wing because he wants to scam him out of his money. Lennier definitely comes out ahead, showing amazing martial arts prowess and an incredible capacity for kindness and honor. The thread puts Minbari and Centauri culture in stark contrast, and yet makes it believable members of each could be friends. Londo's story is disappointing, however. When he hears Lennier is an expert on odds, he takes him to play poker, which isn't so much about odds as it is about bluffing. Blackjack and space craps (or whatever that is) would make more sense. And then the tentacle from Grail's monster is reused as, not Londo's tail, but as one of his sexual organs, which he uses to switch out cards. A massive, filthy dick joke... JMS' trademark "humor" at work. I don't know how this got on television; it's rather disgusting.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Something about Ferengi sexual organs I don't particularly want to discuss.

- Actually more watchable than that, but if I'm being honest, The Quality of Mercy comes off by turns as disposable, dumb, preachy and unsatisfying.


LiamKav said...

"(until he hears alcohol makes Minbari psychotic)"

At times, B5 has a very odd, almost teenager attitude to certain vices. Alcohol is a fairly evil thing. At least one, possibly two or three of the regular cast being alcoholics, and other recurring characters make similar commments, no Minbari can drink without going psychotic, and for the characters that do drink regularly, like Londo, it's not portrayed in the most healthy manner). Likewise, sex is also treated oddly. During season 3, we have three virgins in the cast, all male, and two of them "friendzone" a woman. Never mind "woohoo").

I know that JMS had an... interesting upbringing, what with the catholocism and joining a religious commune for a bit. And I'm also aware that several members of his family were alcoholics. I wonder if that's partly the cause of the shows strict view on vices., and at times almost childish view towards sex. (I'm really curious if D & S's courtship will seem better or worse when I watch it as a thirty-something rather than as a teenager.)

Ryan Lohner said...

Perhaps the most interesting part of all about this one is the circumstances under which it was written. The heavy use of story arcs made it necessary for JMS to personally write a good deal more of the episodes than was usual for television (the only other time it's really happened to my knowledge is Carl Reiner on The Dick Van Dyke Show). And soon this demanding schedule took a serious effect on his health and he contracted a very bad flu. And one day, just after writing this episode's opening scene, he fell into a haze of delirium and medication, then awoke to find the full script on his desk. It bears his name, and people witnessed him writing it, but to this day he has no memory of writing any of it besides that scene of Londo getting his assignment.

He notes that this is very likely to blame for how the Londo story ends up, though the nature of Centauri genetalia had been part of the show's bible from the start. In fact, remember that bit of foreshadowing I mentioned being cut from Born to the Purple? It was a shot of Adira's back, with three slits on either side of her spine. If that had made it in, it's possible some sharp-eyed viewers might have made the connection with the fertility goddess figure in The Parliament of Dreams (as is even brought in again here to drive the point home). Also, in the script volumes JMS recounts how two particular women from the props department had way more fun than they should have quizzing him about every aspect of what the Centauri penis should look like, and presenting prototypes for his approval.

Bill Mumy was after JMS from day 1 to get people from Lost in Space on the show, and when June Lockhart was tapped for this role, he was very excited and begged JMS to write a scene for them together. He refused, as there would be no point to a scene where Lennier and Dr. Rosen except the meta reference, but Mumy wasn't deterred and snuck into one of her scenes as a background extra out of his makeup, without asking permission. Also, I'm happy to say that Rosen's line about maybe having 20 years left has avoided becoming another sadly ironic one, as Lockhart is indeed still with us, and still working at age 89 (her most recent work was in the video game Tesla Effect, released two months ago).

LiamKav said...

Rewatching this just to get some perspective on the stims things now that we've up to "Interludes and Examinations", and there's a proper whiplash of going from season 3 to season 1 and seeing the character developments. But for this episode in particular, Lennier's "Eleventy-fifth year" comment really sticks out as one of those "let's be cute and have alien races not use base-10" things that just sounds really awkward. It's like using "cycles" instead of "years" or whatever... they're already apparently speaking English. Don't half arse it. I'm also pretty sure it's dropped quickly, as otherwise every instance of Delenn saying "A thousand years ago" would have to be followed up by "you mean 1,000 in base-10, or base-11? Because that's quite a difference."

Also, I think Londo is the only main character of Babylon 5 who's genitals we ever see. I do quite like how there's subtle referencing to Centauri sexual organs throughout the show (Londo's "touch this" while guesturing to his sides in this episode, a later one which has Vir show sex not in the human "finger through hole" method, but by clasping two hands together, and so on). It is a bit gross, but I think it's also a neat way of making the most "human" looking of the alien races seem a lot less human. Still though, that's an impressive amount of dexterity. I'm pretty sure I couldn't manipulate cards that well with my penis, nor would I react that well to someone putting a jug of water on it. Also, spin kick Lennier! Why isn't there an action figure of that? It could be teamed with spin kick Centauri.

Regarding Talia, her thread does stop slightly abruptly. But it does set up some stuff for the future for her, thematically if nothing else. Whether arc stuff should also resolve in an episode is another argument...


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