Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Long Exhalation of the Spirit: Babylon 5, "Soul Hunter" (season 1, episode 2)

Previously on Babylon 5... 

The first season of Babylon 5 is a rough beast.  It's got some good episodes -- maybe even a handful of great ones -- but it's also got some true dross.  The majority of the episodes are of a sort typified by "Soul Hunter" in that they're too shabby to praise, but too notable in some key aspects to fully dismiss, either.
This can make recommending the series to people iffy.  Even if you feel certain they'll enjoy B5 as an overall story, there's simply no doubting it: this first season can be a tough row to hoe.  But there aren't all that many episodes that can be skipped, either; many of them, even the lame ones, contain elements that are simply too important to what comes later.
Let's take a jaunt through "Soul Hunter" and see what's fit to be seen.

(season 1, episode 2)
airdate:  February 2, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Jim Johnston

I'll tell you up front: it's my intention to get in and out quick with this one.
We'll see how successful I am; my intent and my results don't always align in that regard.

Hey, looky!  Richard Biggs, playing Dr. Richard Franklin!

Those watching the series for the first time may have wondered during "Midnight on the Firing Line" where Dr. Kyle was.  Well, wonder no longer: he's gone, never to be seen again.  Written off the show in favor of Dr. Franklin.  Franklin even mentions the old coot.  "Ran into Dr. Kyle at the transfer point on Io," he tells Sinclair; "he sends his regards."

I'll render my verdict fairly quickly: I don't think this is a particularly good episode.  I don't mind it; it's got a lot in it to appreciate.  But as a whole, I think it's pretty weak.  The idea of the Soul Hunters is a little out-there for my tastes; and in a somewhat ambiguous manner, on top of that.  And yeah, I get it; that's purposeful.  But is that aspect useful to the series overall?  Does it result in a quality episode?

I'd answer the former question with a "not really," although I'll admit that it does help to layer some of the spiritual aspects of the series.  I'd answer the latter question by saying that the episode ends up being too filled with cheese and convenience to be of significant quality.

But, as I said, there are things to appreciate.  For example, I love the scene that follows the one in which Delenn tries to kill the Soul Hunter.  She's in Sinclair's quarters, apologizing for her outburst, even as she defends her urge to take action.  "You do not know these things as I do," she says apologetically.

"Then educate me," responds Sinclair.  It's a very simple, very brief moment, but Michael O'Hare's delivery is perfect.  It's not super dramatic; he simply delivers this as though Sinclair's openness to understanding things that are foreign to him is an innate part of who he is.  That's not a mistake.  I don't know if Straczynski's screenplay directed this in any way, or if the actual director (Jim Johnston, who would go on to direct a total of twelve episodes of the show during the first three seasons) had a hand in it, or if O'Hare was simply being canny.  Whatever accounts for it, it works, especially given a knowledge of the entire series.

The Soul Hunter himself is played by W. Morgan Sheppard, who has done all sorts of things.  For example, he's the warden (?) of Rura Penthe in Star Trek VI, and he's a Vulcan Science Academy bigwig in the 2009 Star Trek; he's the narrator in Kingdom Hospital, he's in Shogun, he's in The Keep, and he's in about a gajillion other things, too.  He's about as good in this role as anyone could be expected to be.  As written, the role verges on camp.

"Low; quick; muffled; terrified," speaks the Soul Hunter in reference to a death he is sensing elsewhere on the station.  "It comes!  It comes!  It comes!  Quick-flash: the deep blue of pain.  Dull; muffled; slower now.  It comes: the transition.  A shadow; the long exhalation of the spirit.  Can you see it, healer?  Can you see it?

"Gone.  Gone now; gone; gone; gone.  Gone.  If only you could see!  If only you could see."

Later, the Soul Hunter is sitting in the isolation chamber, meditating.  He's doing this weird chant that I've remembered for the better part of twenty-five years now: "SEE-tow, REE-cho, MON-tow, RAY," he chants.  What THE fuck is this shit?!?  I'll tell you what it is: it's enough to have made me stop watching Babylon 5 in 1994.  Yessir, that's what did it.

Nowadays, I kind of like it.  Probably in a hipsterish way, granted.

Either way, I don't think Sheppard can be faulted.  He's giving the role his all, leaning into its weirdness in an attempt -- a successful one -- to make it distinctive.

I love the look Franklin is giving Sinclair in this scene as he hears about the notion of a "soul" being captured and gives it as big a scoffing-at as a doctor can give.

There's a great bit here, too, where the Soul Hunter talks about how his people have been continually stifled by the Minbari, who will not allow the Soul Hunters to "help" them.  All the Soul Hunters want to do is preserve the souls, and among their chief goals was "preserving" that of the Minbari leader Dukhat.  The death of Dukhat, the Hunter pointedly tells Sinclair, was the fault of humans; the result of the war between Earth and Minbar.  The Hunters were drawn to this death in large numbers: "We came: I; others," he says.  But the Minbari were not receptive: "They made a wall of bodies to stop us."

That kind of gives me a shiver up my spine, that does.
I also love the scene in which Ivanova and Franklin attend to the burial at "sea" of the guy whose stabbing death the Soul Hunter sensed.  "Have the next of kin signed off on the death certificate?" Ivanova asks the doctor.

"Yes," he answers; "they can't afford to send the body home."  This means it will be consigned to the void of space.

"From the stars we came and to the stars we return, from now to the end of time," says Ivanova, not necessarily the type of gal you'd expect such poetry from.  "We therefore commit this body to the deep."  This is a job for her; but not, it seems, a mere job.

"It's all so brief, isn't it?" muses Franklin.  "The typical human life-span is almost a hundred years, but it's barely a second compared to what's out there.  Wouldn't be so bad if life didn't take so long to figure out.  Seems you just start to get it right, and then ... it's over."

Ivanova's poetical side has disappeared.  "Doesn't matter," she responds.  "If we lived two hundred years, we'd still be human.  We'd still make the same mistakes."

"You're a pessimist," Franklin says, a note of surprise in his voice.

"I am Russian, Doctor," she retorts.  "We understand these things."

On the whole, I'm not into the Russkiesploitation the show engages in periodically during these early episodes.  At the same time, I can, when needed, summon a certain amount of fondness for the way Star Trek did that via Chekov; and Claudia Christian is great in this scene, so no complaints from me on this one.

Here's another scene I dig: the one in which Delenn goes to confront the Soul Hunter, only to have the tables turned on her.  She's indignant that he might have the captured souls of Minbari with him, and pledges to find them and set them free by destroying their containers.

"They will join with the souls of all our people," she says, "melt one into another until they are born into the next generation of Minbari.  Remove those souls and the whole suffers; we are diminished; each generation becomes less than the one before."

"A quaint lie," counters the Soul Hunter.  "Pretty fantasy.  The soul ends with death ... unless we act to preserve it."

The real kicker comes, though, when the Hunter recognizes Delenn as one of the people who was present when he was stopped from claiming the soul of Dukhat.  "They called you Satai Delenn of the Grey Council," he marvels.  "What is one of the great leaders of the Minbari doing here playing ambassador?"  Delenn rushes out of the room, presumably aghast at being discovered in that way.
Obviously, this is a provocative revelation.  And there are further hints which get dropped throughout the episode.  When the Hunter catches a glimpse of Delenn's soul, he is stunned by what he sees.  "You would plan such a thing?" he asks incredulously.  "You would do such a thing?"

And later, of course, there are hints that Sinclair is somehow involved in this.  "Don't you understand?" the Hunter asks him indignantly.  "They're using you!"

Which, of course, leads to this:

"We were right about you," says a groggy Delenn who has barely escaped death.

The final scene of the episode shows us Delenn, who, having (with Sinclair's help) triumphed over the Soul Hunter, is freeing the souls he's collected.  She sits on the floor in her quarters, cracking the spheres that hold the luminous sould, allowing their energy to escape into the world once more; to go where, it cannot be said.  Mira Furlan is great here; she's got a devastated sort of tranquility on her face, and if that seems like a paradoxical attitude, well, welcome to Mira Furlan at the top of her game.


So yeah, for my money, there's some good stuff here.  Probably mostly for hardcore fans, though; this is certainly not the episode you want to use to try to convince someone to give the show their time.
Before me move into the spoiler section, let me gripe about a few things.  Even at its best, Babylon 5 could be a rickety endeavor from a production and/or acting standpoint.  But this episode is shabbier than most, and here are a few things that really fall flat for me:

  • Straczynski's dialogue is occasionally just ... weird.  He's seemingly got ideas in his mind about how things are going to play out, and sometimes, the finished product just does not reflect them at all; whether poor production design is to account for this or poor direction or poor acting or a combination of all of the above, I do not know.  But things were occasionally very much not sympatico early on.  For example, when Franklin has just come onboard and is looking around him at the bustling thoroughfare, he asks if it's always so busy.  "Yes," says a stone-faced Ivanova; "we like it that way."  As if she's getting a percentage or something.  Of the seven extras who've just walked by.  Why would the command crew like the station being busy (assuming it actually is and that the handful of extras are meant to represent hundreds)?  Wouldn't that make their jobs shittier?  I don't get it.
  • The scene in which Sinclair takes a Star Fury out to intercept the Soul Hunter's spaceship is useless.  For one thing, isn't it established in either "The Gathering" or "Midnight on the Firing Line" that the jump gate is, like, an hour away from the station?  If it isn't, then wouldn't there be a small squad of Star Furies constantly on patrol around the station?  What sense would it make to have to scramble them in the event of unexpected hostile/dangerous traffic coming through the gate?  None of this works, and it's just needless tension.  Not actually very tense at that.
  • Pretty convenient that Delenn just happens to be walking by so that she can have a conversation with Sinclair on his way to Medbay so she can be there to find out it's a Soul Hunter they've brought onboard.  Not great, show; not great.  But, obviously, contrivances like this are a part of watching teevee shows.
  • The bit in which Delenn freaks out and grabs Garibaldi's PPG to try and kill the Soul Hunter is pretty lame.  It's staged poorly, and it's acted poorly.  How much better would it have been if she had instead just freaked out and melted down emotionally?  No need to bring unconvincing violence into things.

  • Not sure how easy it is to see from the above screencap, but boy is the picture quality awful in some places on this episode.  The entire series looks rough these days; it is a show that has not been at all well-taken-care of.  This episode is especially rough, though.  If you look at the full-size version of the above image, you'll see three heavy blue lines running vertically through the image.  Those are scratches on the print.  They aren't present for the entire episode, mercifully; but they pop up once in a while.  Elsewhere, there are scenes that appear to have been zoomed in on for no apparent reason, resulting in an image that is even blurrier and murkier than it already was.  What a shame, man; what a shame.
  • Holy weeping Jesus does the security on Babylon 5 suck:

The staging with the extras who play security guards is often head-scratchingly awful.  Just watch the way this guy glances around without seeing a damn thing.  Better yet, don't.

Babylon 5 security guards are twenty times more worthless than Trek's redshirts, and make the Stormtroopers appear to be superheroes.  They are almost always awful at every turn, in every way.

And now, we go into spoiler mode:











  • Alright, well, let's begin with the brief mention of Dr. Kyle.  We find out that he's been recalled to Earth, ostensibly because the wave of alien migration to Earth increases the need for physicians with his skillset.  You may also have noticed that Lyta -- the Psi Corps rep played by Patricia Tallman -- has been taken off the show after the pilot.  In both cases, the idea -- and I can't remember whether this is made explicit at some point or whether it is merely implied -- is that both Kyle and Lyta have in fact been recalled to Earth due to their experiences with the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh.  No human had ever seen one until these two.  Coincidence?  Not likely.
  • The grappling scene is useless, and if you've got your thinking cap on you might find yourself wondering in what universe it makes sense for it to be Sinclair who goes out to intercept the Soul Hunter ship.  You're right.  It makes NO sense for that to be him; and later in the season, his penchant for jumping into a ship and finding as hot a situation as he can find will be a major plot point in one of the season's best episodes.  Straczynski paves the way to that episode pretty nimbly, I have to say.  This is especially true when you consider that during this era of television, of course the lead of a sci-fi show is going to be the guy taking on much of the action.  That's just how television works.  That Trek even tried to go the opposite route with Picard on Next Generation in its first few seasons (and, arguably, with Sisko on Deep Space Nine's) remains somewhat iconoclastic.  Babylon 5 hews more to the Kirk model, but with an emphasis on examining the psychology of why a guy like Sinclair would put himself in positions like that.  We're not exactly talking Mad Men-level quality in the writing, but at the time, it seemed revolutionary.

  • I also complained about the convenience of Delenn stumbling across Sinclair.  That said, I like how this episode further establishes the relationship between the two of them.  Buy, now here comes a major spoiler of sorts, so buckle up: Sinclair does not remain on the series for the entire run.  He exits after a certain point and is replaced by Commander John Sheridan (played by Bruce Boxleitner).  Accounts vary as to why this happened; for years it was assumed that it was due to O'Hare's performance being poorly received, but Straczynski has gone on the record after O'Hare's untimely death as saying that it was because the actor was having severe mental-health issues and needed to step away.  I love Sheridan, and I love Boxleitner as Sheridan; but every time I watch this series, the more struck I am by how much I like O'Hare and how much I love Sinclair.  I wonder if parts of Sheridan's story were not originally intended for Sinclair, and if they were, then boy do I wish I could somehow see a version of how the series was originally supposed to play out.  I see hints of it in the interactions between Sinclair and Delenn, and it is very, very tantalizing.  As shabby an episode as "Soul Hunter" is, it's got fleeting moments of genuine power, and many of them are due to those little hints of what might have been.
  • In reference to the approach of death, the Soul Hunter refers to "a shadow."  Hmm.  Hmmm.
  • What do you suppose the Soul Hunter has glimpsed when he asks Delenn "You would do such a thing?"  This could refer to a few different things, but I wonder if any of them are what the Soul Hunter himself is referring to.  Impossible to say; impossible not to wonder. 
That's about all I got.  Except these leftover screencaps; I got those, sure...
Does this seem like a sensible storage device for a fucking soul?

This alien, N'Grath, was evidently meant to be a sort of recurring underworld figure.  But everyone thought the animatronic sucked, so he only shows up twice, I think.

"Two Soul Hunters," says Sinclair disgustedly.  "Did someone book a convention without telling me?"

Lookit the charming hat on that alien in the background.  WTF

"You will feel as if you are falling.  Do not be afraid; I will be here to catch you."

Sinclair is holding a giant flashlight; I enjoy how you can kind of see him through this wave of light in this stray moment.

The entire end-of-the-Soul-Hunter scene should have gone into my complaints section.  It sucks.  It sucks hard.

Hints of what might have been.
So there you have it.  Another episode down!

Bryant's rating:  **/*****


  1. Yep, this is the one that lost me.

    I shouldn't say lose. This is the one that derailed my momentum. I'll get back there eventually!

    1. It's going to be fun for me as I work my way through the first season to identify the episodes that almost certainly caused hundreds of thousands of people not to come back the next week. This was one; the next episode was probably another.