With a title like Soul Hunter, you have to expect great things. But we are still in the “getting to know you” phase of Babylon 5 and there has to be more build-up first so what we get instead is a slow burn. And that’s fine, since the series is just starting off. Let’s get the introductions out of the way first, right? Midnight on the Firing Line focused heavily on Londo and G’Kar leaving Delenn out of sight for most of the episode. Soul Hunter puts her back in the (soul-absorbing) limelight.
There are a couple of interesting things that happen here. For one, we are introduced to Dr. Franklin. He’ll be replacing Dr. Kyle who has gone to work for the president and with “so many aliens migrating to Earth” his expertise will come in handy. This seems like a small point to write Dr. Kyle out, which to some extent is the case but those astute listeners might have heard that Presidential incumbent, Luis Santiago, made a commitment to preserve “Earth cultures in the face of growing non-Terran influences”. So the series is subtly building a larger framework around the cast. This may become important as the series develops. Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin comes off as a very deep, introspective man as he discusses how “it’s all so brief…”. This is further reflected by Susan’s very brief but thoughtful funeral speech. And that’s a major theme to the episode. We’re two episodes into the series, and we are being asked to consider death. Bleak or necessary? You decide.
But that brings us to another aspect of the story: the attitude toward the soul. The Minbari see the soul as something that will go back to some greater pool, while the Soul Hunter feels one needs to collect and preserve the souls. It may be of little consequence but those two views are very different. The irony is that Dr. Franklin doesn’t seem to even believe in a soul. So we are seeing three very different views and the only thing we can really assess is that Dr. Franklin is the only one that is wrong because we know something is captured and, at the end of the episode, released.
Also of note, the soul hunter recognizes Delenn from a major battle between her people and the Earth where she prevented him from taking the soul of one of the Minbari leaders. He refers to her as “Satai Delenn”, a member of the Grey Council, of which we had just the slightest hint during The Gathering. Delenn was keen that G’Kar should never even speak the name of the Grey Council and maybe now we know why: she’s one of them, or at least, she was. This revelation is not enough because a mystery is building around the Minbari and Sinclair. In The Gathering, it was established that Sinclair had a “hole in his mind”. Now, the Soul Hunter sees that the Minbari are using him. He is stunned that they would “do that”, whatever “that” refers to! Still, it’s Delenn who take the final brush stroke with her line, “We were right about you”, when she first regains consciousness in Medbay.
So while it’s a slower episode, it offers us a lot to think about and continues building a framework. Souls, tensions on Earth, and a mystery surrounding a human commander… Just where will all this lead? To quote Commander Sinclair: “Life’s full of mysteries. Consider this one of them!” ML
The view from across the pond:
As I understand it from a quick googling, J. Michael Straczynski rewrote this one heavily at the last minute because he felt what he had written was Star Trek by another name. I was interested to see that what finally made it to screen was… Star Trek by another name.
OK, that’s not quite fair, because Trek would have probably made it a bit more boring with a technobabble explanation of the soul hunting rather than leaving it open to interpretation. In fact, Doctor Who would have done that too, so it is good to see B5 developing into an open-minded series about such matters. While we are on the subject of Doctor Who, we no longer need to feel bad about the Ergon (a man with a chicken costume perched on his head). B5 easily tops that with a man with a fly head perched on the top of his head.
Functionally we have a Trek-ish storyline of an alien getting rescued and then endangering the station. Amusingly he does that by playing dead, something that Doctor Who dismissed in seconds in 1964 as a silly idea when silly Susan suggested it, but here it works a treat. Who fans will enjoy seeing W. Morgan Sheppard as the soul hunter, albeit in a fruity performance. I’m not entirely sure how he kept a straight face. The idea is an interesting one: a race of people who gather souls at the point of death, and a race like that having a rogue who decides not to wait until death before he reaps his harvest is gloriously creepy. One thing I would most have liked to see done differently, and I genuinely think Doctor Who is a better series in this respect, is the way that the soul hunters only collect the souls of special people. The ones that matter. The Doctor wouldn’t be having any of that, some kind of an arrogant hierarchy of “important” people. It needed at least one lone voice to challenge that assumption and point out that the greatest minds alive today are actually quite unlikely to be the leaders. That might have given Sinclair something to do other than do Garibaldi’s job for him (“I really hate it when you get heroic. Cuts into my business. Man’s got to earn a living you know.”) and resolve the plot by opening a bag. Couldn’t those balls get themselves out of there anyway?
While all the soul hunting shenanigans are going on, we are introduced to the new head of the medical team, Dr. Stephen Franklin. It seems that the new regular cast members are being introduced one episode at a time, which isn’t a bad idea. This one’s pretty dull so far, although on the plus side his acting is far better than the guy he replaced, who made me laugh with every over-emphasised line reading. The wonderful Delenn had a big part to play in this story, and a new mystery was established:
“What is one of the great leaders of the Minbari doing here playing ambassador?”
At this point, Straczynski seems to be throwing in mystery after mystery. I am reliably informed by Mike that this is not Lost, and that it’s all coherent and will pay off, in which case laying the groundwork like this for later plotlines is a shrewd move.
We are three episodes in, and I would describe this all charitably as a product of its times, but with plenty of potential. As cheesy as this all was (again), I have to admire a sci-fi series that explores the idea of the soul departing at death, and makes the sceptical doctor look like the one with the backward views. Maybe in the future it will be the scientists who will be clinging to their “faith” of a strictly rational world view. If there’s one genre that should be opening our minds to possibilities beyond our understanding, it’s science fiction. RP