Monday, December 14, 2015

Babylon 5: Believers

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: A mother an father of the Onteen race have, in desperation, brought their terminally ill child to Babylon 5 to seek medical treatment. Dr. Franklin assures them that while their son's condition is serious, he can be saved with a simple surgical procedure. The parents recoil in horror at this idea. Their religious beliefs hold that the soul resides within the body cavity, and that any surgical incision would allow the soul to escape, rendering the child a soulless abomination. There's much back-and-forth on ethics and morality, with Dr. Franklin appealing to station Commander Sinclair for support and the boy's parents appealing to the various ambassadors. In the end, Dr. Franklin operates on the boy against orders and against the parents' wishes. The parents subsequently kill their "cured" child in a ritualistic manner, ending his life as an abomination.

What Jayme Says: This was the very first Babylon 5 episode I ever saw. Looking back, I probably caught it on its original air date. I'd known about the program before then, obviously, but I'd missed the pilot and wasn't aware the series proper had begun until this point. My initial impression was that this episode was very Star Trek-like, and all these years later, that impression still holds. The fact that it was scripted by David Gerrold, who contributed memorable scripts to both the original Star Trek and Star Trek the Animated Series and served as story editor the first season of Star Trek the Next Generation. While this episode feels very much like a Trek episode to me--indeed, perhaps the most Trek-like of all the B5 episodes--there are clear differences. I can't recall any Star Trek character receiving such brutal comeuppance as Dr. Franklin receives at the end of the show. Nor can I recall any Trek character operating with such smug self-confidence. Dr. Franklin is incredibly arrogant here, although, to be fair, his arrogance comes from the best and noblest of intentions. I can't see this narrative playing out the same were it Dr. McCoy or even Dr. Crusher in his situation--they're both much more mature than Franklin is, both personally and professionally. If anything, this feels like a moral quandary Commander Will Riker might face on TNG.

Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but this episode resonates more today than when it first aired. There's been a steady stream of stories in the news these recent years where various parents of fervent religious belief allowed their children to die rather than take them in for simple medical treatment to "prove" how much faith they had in God, children beaten to death or starved to "force demons out" and even parents who refuse to allow their children to attend school because the Rapture is coming soon and therefore any education would be a waste of time. For all that, I thank God we live in a civil society, although far too many people would rather see it become a theocracy. I have no problem with people believing any off-the-wall thing they want (some would find my personal beliefs ludicrous, no doubt), but draw the line when they want to impose those ideas on others who don't share them. Likewise, the imposition of certain beliefs and practices upon children amounts to little more than child abuse. As a parent, this is not an academic hypothetical for me--I come down squarely on Dr. Franklin's side (although, given the rapid pace of medical technology, several work-arounds to the parents' objections come to me as a way to address the purposefully-vague ailment suffered by the boy). Were that the extent of it, there wouldn't be much of a story. But the alien family comes from a sovereign world, and Babylon 5 is intended as neutral territory. Commander Sinclair's actions in ordering medical treatment of Ambassador Kosh in direct defiance of Vorlon orders is thrown back in his face, and he's faced with the quandary of creating an interplanetary incident by overruling the parents' wishes, they themselves members of a minor race that has very little sway in galactic politics. A cruel complication to an already cruel problem.

All in all, my initial impression was that this episode was very much following in the footsteps of the formula well-established by Star Trek, but that the series was trying to push the boundaries within that formula. That impression would hold for the better part of the remainder of season 1.

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