May 17, 2012
Babble On, part #12: "Believers"
"Believers" presents me with a dilemma, because of all the episodes of Babylon 5 reviewed so far it is easily the most frustrating. It provides a strong, confrontational story, but it brings with it a horrible inconsistency with the rest of the series as well as (a standard failing of the series) some pretty ripe dialogue. In the end my overall opinion could go either way. This is also an episode I can't review without completely spoiling, so if you haven't seen "Believers" you might want to skip the rest of this entry.
The episode is written by David Gerrold, most famous of course for his Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" but also an established novelist in his own right. He presents an intriguing premise: what if, as a doctor, you know you can save the life of a dying child, but to do so would ignore the expressed wishes of the parents, whose religion does not allow the surgery to go ahead. The culture that Dr Franklin is fronting up against dictates that to cut open the body is to allow its soul to escape - only animals used for food are cut open, and the idea of conducting surgery on an intelligent creature is deeply horrifying.
This does raise some interesting questions that aren't addressed in the episode: how would such a culture go to war? One wound and you are, for all cultural purposes, a dead, inhuman shell feared by your friends and family. Actually, you don't even need to go to war: one slip while chopping up vegetables for the family dinner and you're a goner. It makes me wonder how such a civilization would have survived to reach interstellar flight.
On a basic dramatic level the episode works very well. Dr Franklin gets centre stage for what I think is the first time, and the story pushes him into conflict with Sinclair, his fellow doctor and the child's parents. Franklin tries to convince the parents to allow the surgery, and fails. He tries to get permission from Commander Sinclair to override the parents' wishes, and fails. In the end he undertakes the surgery against orders, and the parents subsequently murder their own child as they no longer consider him to be alive. It's a punch to the guts, and again on a dramatic level it works incredibly well - particularly for mid-90s American television, when audiences expected to get happy endings every week.
But here's the problem. This conclusion, which on a dramatic level works very well - basically, everyone loses - rides roughshod over key parts of Babylon 5's mythology. Gerrold presents the parents as monstrous. The episode's climax is effectively a moment of horror, as these deluded aliens murder their own child because they primitively believe his soul has gone. The problem is that the series has already firmly established that souls are real, and that they can be removed from bodies (see "The Soul Hunter"). This episode in isolation demonises the parents, yet the series as a whole strongly suggests they may be right. None of it sits very well with me, and the episode as a whole feels cheapened as a result.
There is, as I mentioned at the top, a subplot involving Ivanova flying around defending a passenger liner from raiders. It's a boring subplot, which does little more than satisfy the formula requirements of "A plot/B plot" television scriptwriting. It would have been a stronger episode if it had been removed entirely, and those extra 10 minutes given over to examining the main plot in relation to the other characters on the station. It would have been particularly good to bring Delenn further into the episode, given her and her species' own beliefs on the nature of the soul.
In the end I just can't quite get behind "Believers". It's got a great in-your-face climax, which is usually the sort of thing I adore, but it doesn't earn it in the context of the series as a whole. Add in the clunky dialogue, the pointless subplot and the generally judgemental attitude against the alien parents' beliefs, and it's just not good enough to get my vote. So 10 episodes in, and Babylon 5 has three good episodes - or 30%.