Babylon 5 #3: Soul Hunter

"This isn't clear and present danger? I must read the rulebook again."
IN THIS ONE... An alien soul hunter wants to add Delenn's soul to his collection. First appearance of Dr. Stephen Franklin.

REVIEW: Compared to Trek's secular humanism (although not necessarily DS9's), Babylon 5 doesn't shy away away from religious debate and presents the soul as a real thing. Or is it? Ambiguity reigns. Soul Hunters could be seen as harvesting "minds", since they speak to their "collection" and draw wisdom and comfort from it. They are "saving" souls the same way we might save a file on a computer, and these souls/minds have a will of their own and eventually turn against the featured Hunter played by the always awesome William Morgan Sheppard. In the Soul Hunter's view, lost souls evaporate into nothingness, true death. This is completely at odds with the Minbari world view, which turns what could be a noble enterprise into an evil nightmare. The Minbari are Emersonian transcendentalists who believe in an Oversoul from which all souls are formed. Remove souls from the whole, and generations are born with less soul-stuff to share among themselves. The Soul Hunters are boogeymen to others as well, possibly to anyone who believes in an afterlife from which "preservation" might cut them off. Humanity seems generally secular, judging from most characters' reactions. Neither Londo nor G'Kar appear (with its big cast, B5 has committed itself to using essential personnel), so we don't know what the Centauri or Narns (or Vorlons) think of this. Talia is also noticeably absent, as telepathy might have provided a complication too many.

This is very much a Delenn-centric episode. She has such poise and zen wisdom usually, that it's a bit shocking to see her so freaked out by something, though it may be a bit early for it. What do we really know about her? Well, less than we thought! It's revealed here that she's actually a member (was a member?) of the Grey Council, the Minbari's ruling body, "slumming it" as an ambassador on Babylon 5. The mystery deepens when it's suggested that she's there to manipulate/help (depends on your point of view) Sinclair. Is he at the very center of why the Minbari surrendered? He WAS at that battle. More to come. And while Delenn's anxiety and later, her panic as she's being bled out, bring her a little too close to human and damsel in distress, the episode ends on a bizarre note that restores her alienness. She frees the Hunter's collection, clearly in the throes of extasy, the screen going to credits under an orgasmic sigh. What the hell is going on, exactly? Kind of gave me the heebie-jeebies.

This is Dr. Franklin's first episode, which Richard Biggs plays as another genial old friend of Sinclair's. (Is the commander a little too chummy with his subalterns?) Franklin makes a good first impression, a scientifically-minded skeptic with an easy smile and the capacity to take control of his surroundings. Another recurring character making its first appearance is N'Grath the mantis-like black marketeer who lives in the Alien Sector. This inhuman thing could easily have looked ridiculous, but I think it works. More N'Grath, please! As for catering to other characters, Ivanova proves herself a cold pragmatist, a true Russian with the driest of wits, and Sinclair gets his hands dirty by recovering the Hunter's damaged ship in his personal fighter before it crashes into the station (he'll also dispose of the Hunter in the climax). The outer space sequence, despite its technical problems, is vertigo-inducing, feeling like it might to actually be in space where there is no up or down. The climax, however, is a little limp.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: The Grey Council once had a leader called Dukhat. Seeing as the Minbari have a similar place in history the Cardassians do vis-à-vis Earthers...

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Despite the fact the episode introduces much, reveals much and isn't lacking in the action department, it still feels a little slow and talky. I can't wait for everything to be established enough for a more serialized format, leaving these very "DS9" episodes behind (you know the ones I mean: Alien/object comes trough the wormhole/jump gate and causes trouble for 40 minutes).


Timothy S. Brannan said...

Well that was faster than expected. I have actually seen this episode.

Siskoid said...

You mean it didn't take as much as time as you thought before you recognized an episode?

Ryan Lohner said...

In just its second regular episode, B5 is already giving us material you'd never see in Star Trek. The Minbari and Soul Hunters have religions that are utterly in conflict with each other, and the writing refuses to take one side over the other. In the end it's up to each individual viewer to decide if either or even neither is right about the soul, when you know a typical TNG and maybe even DS9 episode would conclusively reveal it by the end.

Here we get the final replacement character from the pilot. Johnny Sekka, who played Dr. Kyle, was loved by everyone, but also suffered from fragile health. There were several times during filming when he visibly ran out of steam in the middle of shooting, and it was clear he wouldn't be up to an ongoing series. He kept up a steady if quiet acting career in less demanding roles until his death from lung cancer in 2006. And the insertion of Franklin was by far the easiest course change JMS had to deal with. Since we knew so little about Kyle, he was able to simply transfer his plans for the character wholesale into Franklin.

As for his replacement: You'd never know it from any of his acting roles, but Richard Biggs was almost completely deaf from birth. But he never let that stop him from going after any role he wanted, and the B5 staff created a system where a monitor would be hooked up to the camera just out of its view, so he could watch what was going on behind him and react to any cues he needed to. He was also very grateful to JMS for giving him a role that was written as just a character, rather than "the black character." And sadly, despite being one of the show's youngest cast members, he was the first of them to die. On May 22, 2004, at age 44, he woke up, said "Good morning" to his wife, and then collapsed, killed instantly by what was later determined to be a congenital heart defect that no one had ever known about. And of course, this makes Franklin's speech in this episode about the briefness of life quite painful now. Godspeed beyond the rim, Mr. Biggs.

Siskoid said...

An incredible story, Ryan. Thanks for sharing it. Wow. I did not know of this (I imagine DVD extras will eventually clue me in) and it's amazing stuff.

Ryan Lohner said...

I have all the script volumes, including the ones for the episodes written by other people (and it's still astounding how few of those there are), which are full of great info about the show. I'm happy to enrich the experience with it.

LiamKav said...

Watching the episode now. Some thoughts:

- We've all gotten used to the Trek idea of the senior officers doing everything while the hundreds of other people on the ship twiddle their thumbs. In light of that, the fact that the commander of the station is the one who leaps into a Starfury to grab the unknown ship isn't that odd. Except that it IS actually an important aspect of his character. In many ways, Sinclair just wants to go back to being a fighter pilot, and will use opportunities like this to escape from the day to day reality of having to deal with a myriad of squabbling races. (A similar things happens with Sheridan, unsurprisingly, but in a slightly different way.) Plus JMS mentions that, if nothing else, Sinclair would get extra money for logging flight time as well as kudos towards promotion, which is probably also a motivating factor.

- I always liked how the Starfuries were personalised. I remember that with the model kit, you got a variety of decals so you could make it look like Garibaldi's, a PsiCorp 'fury, a presential convoy one, and so on. For some reason Sinclair is in an unlabelled one at the beginning. I didn't watch the first episode so I don't know if that was present there or if it's something they introduce later on.

- Apparently it was Foundation Imaging's idea to have a physical clamp. Originally they were going to use a Trek-style tractor beam, but FI were keen to keep the real-world physics going.

- When I was younger, I really sided with Franklin's out and out atheism. It's first introduced here, and then gets a much bigger airing later on in the first season. Now, older and hopefully wiser, he can slightly come across as Richard Dawkins-smug. I find it interesting that professed atheist JMS would write the guy who shares his beliefs with a slightly condescending tone, while making lots of the religious humans we meet later seem extremely sympathetic.

- I love how you can never tell if Ivonova is joking. Her response to "is it always this busy?" ("Yes. We like it that way"), and her "I'm Russian, Doctor. We understand these things" are delivered completely straight, and yet you can almost hear the smile in her voice.

- It really is a shock going from the TNG-R blu rays to these DVDs. Not just in terms of HD to SD, but in the care. You can see the effort put into every part of the TNG remaster. Here, apart from the SFX blurrines, we have some fairly horrible menus, and the scene in Down Below as the Soul Hunter is waking up has horrible blue lines on the screen. Lots of scenes have scratches and marks appearing all over the screen. And I'm pretty sure that the audio is slightly delayed from the video, too.

(I won't talk about the bad mastering of the DVDs again. At least, not until we get to the title sequence issues that cause unintended spoilers at the start of season two.)

Siskoid said...

To address only a few of your excellent points, Liam...

Franklin's atheism: I find that in my own fiction writing, when I give my protagonists my attitudes, I tend to send them up in the same way. I.e. I know where and when I come across as smug and superior, and do not especially like that trait, so it becomes a way of apologizing for it self-deprecatingly.

Ivanova is the BOMB, son!

Transfer quality: I've chosen not to talk about it too much beyond my intro a few days ago, because it's possible someone is reading these, following along in some future with better transfers, or using their own tapes, or online resources, etc. But you're absolutely right, there's dirt on the image, occasional bad synching on sounds, in addition to the horrendous blur on VFX (and not JUST on VFX).

Hey, if I could watch weeks and weeks of Doctor Who reconstructions, I can watch this.

Alex Osias said...

I think that the honorific of Satai is also introduced here, but not explained.


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