Babylon 5 #41: Confessions and Lamentations

"All life is transitory: a dream. We all come together in the same place in the end of time. If I don't see you again here, I will see you in a little while in the place where no shadows fall." "Delenn… when I do see you again… call me John?"
IN THIS ONE... A plague wipes out the Markab species.

REVIEW: Let's start with my own confession - I think I've finally hit the point where I can say I'm neck deep in this world and its characters. This is the first episode that got me to laugh out loud (at everyone's reaction to how poorly the Minbari dinner date went) and tear up (mostly at Delenn's soulfulness). I can't even process right now why Confessions and Lamentations left me so thoroughly gutted. After all, it's very nearly just a traditional medical mystery episode. I say "very nearly" because the story does feature a couple of vicious twists that make it rise above the usual fare, in particular how Doctor Franklin doesn't create the treatment in time to save the Markab living on the station, and then how the entire species is made extinct by the disease. The Markab have been one of the most visible alien species in the Non-Aligned group, and the show has just jettisoned them. That in itself is shocking and shows the value of developing background aliens in at least some detail, but it's not where my grief comes from.

Nor is it in the allegorical/political aspects of the story, at least, not consciously. The main reason the Markab's disease is so hard to treat is because it's all tangled up in a social stigma. The Markab believe, because of where the disease first historically cropped up, that it is a punishment for immoral behavior, and so even checking for the illness is considered a grave insult, an accusation. While the model for this is explicitly the Black Plague, which was believed to be a visitation from the Devil, the Drafa plague can stand in for any illness with an attached stigma. While JMS has protested the link to AIDS, methinks he doth protest too much. Doc Franklin even mentions it, which I thought was giving away the game a little. But Markab being assaulted in the corridors as a "carrier" doesn't quite make sense - you'd be exposing yourself to the plague - until you add the "only junkies and gays can get it" element. Today, we have the incredibly stupid idea that vaccines are dangerous, which has made infectious diseases explode in the Western world. The point of all this is that treating illness according to political or religious belief is dangerous. Drafa does not spare the "moral" - it kills an innocent child, no problem - though one could argue it's punishing the sin of pride which made the Markab trust in their purity more than the available facts. A poignant irony that still resonates today.

So what is it about this episode? For me, it's how the characters react to this emergency with acts of kindness and sacrifice. Delenn and Lennier are at the top of the list, "space elves" whom I somehow still expect to be above it all, but are remarkably empathic and sensitive creatures. They actively feel others' pain and are obliged to offer comfort and succor. So being confined to the a space where everyone else dies must be unbearable, and that is their sacrifice even if they can't be infected. Delenn, a sort of Sister of Mercy, gets all the best, surprisingly touching speeches, but Lennier's quiet, controlled grief is just as potent. In the middle of this is Sheridan admitting his feelings for Delenn in a simple, implicit manner. "Call me John." Letting her go into what becomes a tomb (and the direction very much bears this out in the closing moments) is HIS kindness and sacrifice. Similarly, Garibaldi's is very simple, risking contagion by giving a hurt Markab his hand. Obviously, this is Doc Franklin's plot and I'm always taken by his passion. He snaps at interns, he rages when his friend Lazarenn, the only progressive Markab on the show, dies (and again, great direction with the stark shocking light change to indicate the termination of a patient), some of which is no doubt fueled by the stims he's been taking. And yet, there's clear focus too, and though I'm sure real scientists can poke holes in the episode, a believable, logical investigation the viewer can understand, not the hand-waving technobabble similar shows have gotten us used to. So they killed off an alien race no one actually cared about, but through the visceral emotion of the main cast, C&L MADE us care. Delenn is right, nothing should limit our compassion.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: As contrast, I offer Voyager's Learning Curve, broadcast two days early, about Neelix's stinky cheese infecting the ship. I should probably limit comparisons to Deep Space Nine given the gap in quality between Voyager and everything else ever.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A surprisingly powerful episode.


Madeley said...

Another episode where Babylon 5 demonstrates the kind of story that, at the time, only B5 could do. I remember at the time half expecting the Markab would turn up again later, somehow, even though by this point it's clear that when something like this happens in B5, it's for keeps, no reset.

If I recall, JMS almost had the Drazi be the race to be wiped out, but decided the angry makeup wasn't flexible enough to show all the necessary emotions.

Oh, also, and chalk this up to being an oblivious teenager, despite all the earlier hints first time round I didn't realise Sheridan and Delenn were being set up as a couple until this episode.

Siskoid said...

Good thing it wasn't the Drazi, because we might actually have been happy about that, and it would have detracted from the episode. Besides, one dangerous superstition per species is enough.

Ryan Lohner said...

This was naturally a hard episode for everyone to make, but the hardest part of all for JMS personally was having to break it to the costuming people that the Markab were really gone for good, and all the great work they'd done on the species' prosthetics and costumes would never be seen on the show again. And that actually does add to the episode's theme: when a species is wiped out, it's a loss for the whole universe.

I suspect the Minbari dinner scene was thrown in for a similar reason as much of the comedy scenes in The Wire: without it, the story would be too grim for anyone to want to watch. And it works even better for being placed at the beginning, putting us off our guard for what's to come. In a more subtle way, the search for the missing Markab ship also serves this role, first appearing to be nothing more than another "find the bad guy and stop them" story until it weaves into what's happening on the station in a big way.

Not really anything else to say here; the story really speaks for itself as to what everyone was trying to do, though I will note that despite the network naturally being a bit worried about the audience response, there was not one negative reaction about it (at least, no public ones).

LiamKav said...

It almost sounds like Delenn and Lennier are taking the piss out of Sheridan when talking about the two day ritual (without sleep) for preparing a meal. Otherwise, how does this race get anything done? (I do love Lennier's expression when Delenn says "we must do this again", as if he's thinking "I spent two who days making that and the ungrateful human just fell asleep? Was I allowed to fall asleep? Nooooo!" I'm pretty sure this moment explains something Lennier does in a few years time. But we'll get there, eventually.)
I guess the conversation they had when Sheridan left was something like "He didn't like the flarn" "Oh, you're always worrying about the bloody flarn. Get over it, Will Robinson."

Hey, the Markab ambassador is That Guy Who Usually Plays An Angry Drazi. He finally gets to speak in complete sentences! Still angry, though.

I know the scene where none of the non-speaking extras want to go into the isolab is pretty standard, but no-one wonder Franklin starts taking stims. Apparently he's the only doctor on his team with any compassionm integrity, or vocal chords.

I don't know when it happened, but Delenn's makeup has improved. It actually merges into her head, whereas at the start of the season it seemed to not be fully attached. It'll get better again when we hit season 3. (Contrary to what you said when you reviewed "Revelations", apparently it took longer for Furlan to get the partial makeup that the full Minbari, as it was lots of little pieces rather than one big piece.

In some ways, Franklin's personality makes him a terrible doctor. I know a fair few doctors, and ALL of them say that if you don't learn to cultivate a degree of detachment, you'd go mad. It's not to say that you stop caring, but you can't put 100% of yourself into every patient. Franklin seems to do exactly that. It's astonishing that he hasn't already had a breakdown.

Finally, there are a series of images from Babylon 5 that have struck me over the years. Delenn's silent scream when she hugs Sheridan is one of them. It's horrible and painful and gut-wrenching and everything.

Siskoid said...

1. The meal. I believe this was a special meal ceremony for honored guests. Think of it as the Thanksgiving turkey. You don't make it every day.

2. The Drazi are getting more well-spoken with time anyway. I think what we saw in their feature episode was biological. Their internal clock turns them into fighting morons every 5 cycles, and then they grow more intelligent and civilized, hit a peak, then go back down. Crap, are they a metaphor for B5's 5-act structure?

3. Delenn's make-up. I was thinking less of time in the chair than getting your ears unblocked, having less latex glued on and irritating skin, etc.

4. The silent scream. Probably reinforced by the fact it's in the 3rd season opening sequence, right? (At least, I think it is.)


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