Sunday, January 6, 2019

There Are More Important Things in Life Than the Next Breath: Babylon 5, ''Believers'' (season 1, episode 10)

Tonight, on an all-new episode: Dr. Franklin's oath to do no harm comes into conflict with a family of aliens who refuse to allow him to operate on their son.
(season 1, episode 10)
airdate:  April 27, 1994
written by:  David Gerrold
directed by:  Richard Compton
Here's an episode that was designed by all involved to be a button-pusher.  In some ways, it's a swing-for-the-fences attempt to both replicate and reject (by furthering and intensifying) the sort of ethical-conundrum episodes that had been the occasional forte of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Heck, Straczynski even assigned the episode to David "The Trouble With Tribbles" Gerrold!
The setup: a family from an alien race brings their ill son aboard the station to see Dr. Franklin, whose skill with operating on a plethora of races has spread far and wide.  Their child has a blockage in his airway and is slowly drowning on his own fluids.  Franklin examines him, determines that indeed yes, it is quite serious, but fixable with surgery.  With what now...? ask the parents (I'm paraphrasing).  You're going to ... cut into him?!?
That's a deal-breaker.  Their religion believes that the region where the blockage is -- an air bladder of sorts -- houses the spirit.  To cut into it would be to deprive the boy of his soul, and of his life eternal.  This is a fate worse than mere death; it's a complete non-starter.
Franklin, being the man of science he is, is completely aghast at this, and asks Sinclair to step in and (for the boy's own good) order the surgery anyways.  Sinclair then has to wrestle with the ethical and political implications of such a move; it could theoretically end the station's neutrality.  But it might also be the right thing to do; or the complete wrong thing to do.  It's kind of a pickle.

And hell, I guess I'll go ahead and briefly summarize the resolution, too.  Sinclair, after talking with the boy (who says that while he wants to live he also doesn't want to have the operation and lose his soul), declines Franklin's request.  Franklin, feeling his oath outweighs all other considerations, performs the operation anyways.  It is a complete success, medically; and when the parents see their son, healthy and fit and energetic, they recoil in horror.
This is not their son; this is some devil in their son's former shell.
Eventually, they take their son out of Medlab to get him ready for the journey home.  Which in their case, means a mercy-killing in a candlelit ritual.

As the episode leaves him, Franklin is left in torment over the futility of it all.
It's an ambitious episode, and I'd say it works more often than not.  Dare I mention that certain aspects of the production don't quite work?  
Dare I not...?  I mean, that's Babylon 5, certainly in this first season.  Does some of the acting suck?  Yeah, sure does.  The kid playing the alien son is iffy at best; the actress playing Franklin's heretofore-unseen assistant is even worse.  Michael O'Hare has his requisite dodgy moments.
He's also got some good ones, though, and I'd say Richard Biggs as Franklin is mostly quite good.  We also get meaty one-scene bits for G'Kar, Londo, and Delenn; an occasionally fun subplot for Ivanova involving rescuing a stranded passenger liner under threat from raiders; and, happily, good performances from the two actors playing the alien parents.
This is Tricia O'Neil, who is quite good.  She had the small (but crucial) role of Captain Garrett in "Yesterday's Enterprise," so here's yet another Trek veteran popping up.

The father is played by Stephen Lee, who is perhaps not quite as good as O'Neil, but is solid.
All in all, I think this is one of the more consistent episodes thus far regarding the quality of production.  Golly, do I wish this was a thing I could stop harping on.  But it is sometimes a serious issue for the series; less so this week, I'll grant you, but still.
Much was made at the time about the climax of the episode, in which the kid is put to death by his own parents.  Straczynski was proud of the fact that he'd been able to get something done that television wasn't generally permitted to do, and even today you hear this episode spoken of by admirers as something "Star Trek wouldn't dare to do."  (I'm not sure who I'm quoting there; a hypothetical B5 enthusiast, I suppose.)
I can see the distinction, I suppose.  Would we have gotten an episode in which Picard ordered Dr. Crusher not to perform a procedure, and then she did it anyways, and it had horrific consequences, and got pissed at her about it?  I mean ... that doesn't sound that atypical of TNG, to me.  Maybe you'd not have gotten a child's death out of the episode, but I'm not sure that's necessarily a thing to get excited about depicting.  I'm not saying don't depict it; I'm just saying, maybe your ability to murder a fake child isn't cause for bragging rights.
Anyways, I can think of numerous examples of Trek going dark, ranging from "The City on the Edge of Forever" to "The Paradise Syndrome" to "The Outcast" to "Duet," and "Half a Life" explores some of the same issues "Believers" does.  So the notion that Trek is perpetually toothless -- even in 1994 -- simply doesn't hold much water for me.  And yet, it's not hard to find evidence of the people behind the scenes feeling like they'd gone where no sci-fi show had gone before; and it's not hard to find fans of the show even today who'll echo the sentiment.
Whether this sort of thing should actually be held against "Believers" is a matter of individual decision.  You know, like whether to let your kid die of easily-fixable problems because your religion says to do so.
The notion of whether that latter issue actually is (or should be) a matter of personal belief hangs over the episode, and there is some interesting stuff here resulting from it.
I myself am an atheist.  However, I find myself on the side of the parents in this episode.  Reflexively, too; I don't have to work myself up to it, or talk myself into it, or anything like that.  I simply acknowledge that that is their decision to make, especially once you consider that that is what the kid himself wants.
Thing is, I'm not sure I actually feel that way in the real world.  I'm not sure I don't, either.  In theory, it's a case-by-case thing.
But that's not the point, and it's a discussion that is going to remain beyond the purview of this blog.  The point is, in watching "Believers," I'm on the side of the parents, not because I believe in what they believe in, but because Dr. Franklin is a fucking prick.  He's such a sack of shit, in fact, that I'm tempted to accuse David Gerrold of stacking the deck against him in an unrealistic manner, just to steer the episode in the right direction.  I'm not going to go there, though; it seems consistent to me with some of the later stories involving Franklin.
But either way, he is awful here, and he is awful right from the get-go.  He tells Shon (the alien kid, who really ought to have been named something else) that he's going to live; the parents rebuff the doctor, and actually ask him not to say such things, because he has no way of knowing.  Franklin looks at them coldly, then looks back at Shon and tells the boy that he's never wrong about such things.
Later, he'll try to con the kid into thinking he's given him a "gloppet" egg to take care of in the hopes of lifting his spirits, and he also lies to the parents about an alternative treatment plan that amounts to a series of placebos, all so they'll stay on the station longer and have more time to change their minds.  And later, there's the whole illegal operation thing.
Yep, I'm definitely NOT on Franklin's side during any of this.  Which is interesting to me, because this is one of the main characters of the series.  Shouldn't I be on his side, more or less?  And here, perhaps we do get to a place where this episode sets both itself and its series apart from those other sci-fi shows.
If I'm thinking back to earlier episodes involving Franklin, I might recall his outright dismissal of the notion of people having souls having come up before: in "Soul Hunter," the episode in which the titular madman came onboard the station and tried to suck Delenn's soul out of her body using a hunk of metal and a zenon lamp and some tubing.  And by gum, it damn near worked!  Not that Franklin would have given it any credence.  I was kind of with him in that episode, even though I was also with Delenn as well; and thinking back on it now kind of puts me closer toward being fully on Delenn's side.  This, of course, is not an atypical place to be.
But it's interesting to be so anti-Franklin suddenly.
Of course, my interpretation of the episode is not the only interpretation.  Others may well feel that Franklin's efforts to save Shon were admirable, perhaps even downright heroic; maybe even leaning toward a sort of martyrdom.  Such an interpretation would by no means be impossible, and I think there is plenty of evidence to prove that the episode plays that way as well.  After all, so what if Franklin is smug and arrogant?  He's correct; he knows he's correct, he proceeds from that knowledge, and he achieves precisely the results he medically stated he would achieve.  It's fucking dumb to think your soul is kept in your air bladder, and that it can escape like a fart out of a butt hole.  That's dumb.
And the episode's subplot kind of mirrors this to some degree.  Ivanova has gone out on a mission to lead a crippled passenger ship back home.  It's a clear mission, and when some danger pops up, she takes the necessary actions to neutralize the enemies providing that danger.  In a pointed (and effective) moment near the end of the episode, she and Garibaldi observe a child who was onboard the passenger ship being reunited with his parents back on the station.  that child is alive because of the actions Ivanova took; in a more sensible universe, Shon would be alive and his parents would be ecstatic over it because of the actions Franklin took.  That they aren't is a poor reflection on their society.
I can't make myself see it that way, though.  After all, where do thoughts like that end?  Eventually, I'm taking part in some crusade to make all the planets see things exactly the way I see it, and that sounds awfully expensive.  Frankly, I can't afford it, and even if I could, it also seems like a lot of work.  Also: the wrong thing to do.
Straczynski was quoted someplace as saying, more or less, that his aim with the episode -- and his instructions to Gerrold (who executed them capably) -- was to show that everyone was right, and everyone was equally wrong.  In other words, if you watch the episode and don't feel a bit conflicted about the way it all went down, you didn't get from what it what was intended.
So it worked on me.  I lean in one direction more strongly than the other, but it's not a hard lean; it's one I can shift, if I need to.

Interesting stuff, for sure.  The episode is not free from problems, but even so I think this is handily the best episode of the series through its first ten.
I'll go ahead and give you my rating now, and then we'll check out some screencaps.
Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****
In rebuffing Franklin's promise to Shon that he is going to heal him, the mother says, "No one knows what is written in the Stream" [of Time] "until the waters surround him."

Franklin literally goes a bit slackjawed at this.

Shon calls his parents bogus-sounding alien equivalents of "Mom" and "Dad" that go something like "Manya" and "Datya."  Bad David Gerrold!  Mustn't!

After Franklin tells the parents he's going to ask Sinclair to order the operation be performed, the parents are able to meet with the four major ambassadors on the station.  They get no help from those quarters.

G'Kar: "We do not casually entangle ourselves in the affairs of other species."  Helping these sad-sack religious nutcases will not help the Narn at all.

Londo: "Unfortunately, we are on a budget here; we cannot justify such expenses for non-Centauri."

Kosh: "The avalanche has already started.  It is too late for the pebbles to vote."

And, finally, the parents see Delenn, who delivers the wisest refusal.  When told by them that they are merely trying to save their son, she points out that that is what Dr. Franklin believes he is doing.

"Whose belief is correct?  And how do we prove it?"

This scene, in which Sinclair decides to ask the boy what he wants, contains one of the episode's worst moments, as well as one of its best.  The worst: Sinclair welcomes the kid to the station, and asks him how he likes Babylon 5.

The kid coughingly answers that he doesn't know; he's only seen the Medlab.  Sinclair just got dunked on.

The commander sees the "gloppet egg" and asks what it is.  Shon tells him it's a gloppet egg; except it's actually just a piece of industrial goo.  But he then asks Sinclair not to tell Franklin;  the doctor still believes it's an egg, says Shon.

It's a touching moment.

Franklin is stunned by Sinclair's refusal to order the procedure.  He even points out (albeit earlier, not in this scene) that Sinclair has already set precedent for such an action by ordering Dr. Kyle to operate on Kosh when the Vorlon ambassador was poisoned.

"Operating on Ambassaor Kosh was the camel's nose in the tent," admits Sinclair.  "Operating on Shon would be the rest of the camel."  Nicely done, David Gerrold.

The father recalls his son first emerging from the egg he hatched from; he could fit in his palms.

The post-op Shon is devastated by his parents' refusal to accept him.  What must Franklin be thinking in this moment?  What will this boy's life be from this point forward?  Will he be cast out from his own society?  Where will he go?  Will he be able to accept his new life, or will he forever be tormented, believing himself to be soulless and evil?  Franklin, I would guess, has no answers to such questions.  That's for someone else to figure out.

Sinclair opts not to fire Franklin.  I mean, naturally; this is television, after all.  And while it feels to me personally as if Franklin deserved to be shitcanned as fast as shit can be canned, it's consistent with the trajectory of the series that Sinclair would opt not to do so.  I would speculate that because Sinclair's own professed feeling is that saving the boy's life was the right thing to do, he has a certain amount of sympathy for the doctor.  I would speculate further than the series was at this point establishing these characters as people who would prove to be capable of taking extreme risks to do what they felt was the right thing to do.

Doing the right thing will certainly come up again on this series.

Hey!  I almost forgot to give the context for the title of this post.  "There are more important things in life than the next breath," Shon's father says.  "Without his spirit, he wouldn't be alive anyway."
I should also mention one of the worst moments: "In the name of the Egg and the Nest in which it resides," whimpers Shon after his parents curse at him and flee.  Then he begins singing in what sounds to me like Ewokese.  The episode goes a wee bit overboard in the wacky-alien-language department.  Which makes it weird that everyone is just speaking English, but that's a thing we can't afford to dwell on; or even remember, quite frankly.
Oh...!  And here's a great scene, which comes after the parents have seemingly accepted the post-op Shon and have told Franklin they understand why he did what he did.  This is what happens between the doctor and Sinclair next:

And, finally, a note about something Franklin says to Sinclair during the scene in the zen garden.  "Maybe we'd all be better off if there was no God ... if God had never been invented," the doctor says.

I can't help but put this in the context of the overall series.  As such, it's kind of a wowser line.

As for the episode itself?  I suppose it's a bit of a wowser, as well, in some ways.  I think that three-and-a-half I gave it is about right; but many fans of the show would likely rate it higher, and I don't much blame them.

See you next time!

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