The first thing that comes to mind for Believers is “arc-lite”. It doesn’t advance anything in the grand story. It’s about a race called The Children of Time, which is very Gallifreyan sounding, but unlike our Time Lord friends, these people are religious and rely on their beliefs even if that means not using medicine or invasive surgery to save one of their own. This is a direct violation of what Dr. Stephen Franklin believes and the story focuses on the clash of two belief systems. So while we’re looking at an “arc-lite” episode, we are about to see a very deep moral dilemma and it won’t play out like most things on television. Babylon 5 is nothing if not brave…
The story builds on Franklin’s character showing his strong moral core, but writer David Gerrold does a great job taking beliefs to an extreme. On the one hand, Franklin can’t let a child die when he has the power to save him. On the other, the Children of Time believe to do so would destroy the child’s soul. This is a clear case of Science Vs Religion, but Gerrold goes a step farther than most shows. Franklin does save the child, but the family believes the child is no longer their own, that his soul has escaped and he is something else. They go through with killing the child since, in their mind, he was no longer alive anyway. This is a horrifying moment and Franklin’s reaction upon running into the room is gut-wrenching. But interestingly, it’s the Children of Time that show the enlightened path by forgiving Franklin saying they know that he did what he did because he thought it was right. As the viewer, we’re looking at this under the societal lens of what we “know” is right and we cringe at the thought, but what makes us right? The morality play is a strong one and using a child as the catalyst just exacerbates the pain. But culturally, we have to accept this is their belief. Gerrold is effectively taking the Ninth Doctor’s stance: “it’s a different morality. Get used to it, or go home!” So, as a viewer, we’re challenged. It’s a challenge I do not think I’d do any better with than Stephen does…
There’s one ironic thing that the Children of Time fail to get right: they want Dr. Franklin to honor their wishes, but they get pretty upset with Delenn when she won’t break her own beliefs for them. Now, in fairness, when a parent is running the risk of losing a child, I can appreciate that they might act irrationally, but it does seem hypocritical for them to react to Delenn with such venom when she is doing nothing different from what they do with Franklin! Broken, Stephen tries to sum up all of humanity saying that to be human is to hurt. It’s a heartbreaking episode. In the end, I don’t think there was a right choice and Gerrold does a fantastic job depicting that. It must have been a hard sell to the networks at the time, and even now, I think it would be a touchy episode. But that sort of moral debate that a show can illicit… that’s good writing!
This story has no B-plot. It’s simply an event happening on the station that builds character. If one is very attentive, in a season 2 episode, that “gloppet egg” does reappear but no one draws attention to it. It’s in Franklin’s quarters, on a shelf, and it just goes to show how deep a man Franklin really is and how much care is put into the show that they don’t ignore that it happened. I’m consistently impressed with the writing of Babylon 5, but watching it again with the intent of talking about it for our site, just makes me aware of so much more and increases my appreciation exponentially!
Before I wrap up, one line that I have to draw attention to comes from Kosh. Asked how he would feel about being probed, he demonstrates his awareness of the events in the pilot with the immortal line: “The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” That will make sense but for now it’s cryptic and wonderful. And it might sum up so much more about the series then we realize. We’ll just have to wait and see… ML
The view from across the pond:
This is a subject that needs approaching with some care. We are still going through the ABC of Sci-Fi Stories, and this week it’s the turn of science vs religion. My immediate thought was that this episode was going to be very interesting. Which side of the debate was B5 going to come down on? Medical ethics in this kind of scenario is a thorny topic to tackle, because it has real world parallels, and they are very close parallels indeed. It’s all too easy to offend people. In the town where I live there is a very strong membership for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so it’s a religion I can’t help but be reasonably aware of. In addition, many years ago I knew (via an acquaintance) a child who was denied medical treatment due to her parents’ beliefs, and was lucky to survive. The practice of refusing blood transfusions is an aspect of the JW that has made the news several times over the years. In a 2014 example in this country, a judge ruled in a doctor’s favour. As I say, it’s a thorny issue.
At first it seems like this episode is going to come down firmly on the side of respecting religious beliefs, whatever the cost.
“You never insult a patient’s beliefs. You work with them!”
But, and this is where the episode gets brave and sacrifices the audience respect for a main character to make a point, when Franklin says to “work with them” he’s not talking about respecting beliefs whatsoever. He’s talking about a bit of gentle manipulation, buying time until he can change minds and bring people round to his way of thinking. And if that doesn’t work, he’ll just damn well do what he wants anyway. So when he says this…
“Sometimes you have to heal the family before you can heal the patient. This isn’t some silly superstition to them. This is real!”
…Franklin is talking of “healing the family” by healing their religious beliefs. And when he says it isn’t some silly superstition to them, what he really means is that it is just some silly superstition to him. By the way, that blistering dramatic debate between Franklin and his assistant is an amazing moment, the first of several in this episode. It’s some great writing.
And Franklin’s ethics, let’s be clear here, are completely twisted. He tears strips off his assistant for insulting the parents’ beliefs, and immediately lies to them about an alternative treatment, as if that’s more ethical, and then eventually insults their beliefs himself anyway and starts threatening them when he doesn’t get his own way. He wants Sinclair to order him to operate, putting his commander in an impossible position.
In a poignant moment, the family ask the diplomats for help, and receive a series of rejections varying from, to paraphrase, “what’s in it for me?” to “it costs money”, to…
The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.
That’ll be our irritating Kosh riddle of the week then. Sinclair, in comparison, offers us the balanced view that I was expecting B5 to go with.
Life has to be more than just a pulse beat. What we hold sacred gives our lives meaning.
Forget enigmatic rubbish about pebbles. That’s a fabulous quote.
And then Doctor Hypocrite says a prayer before performing an operation without the permission of (a) the parents or (b) the law, and then fails to see what anyone else could see a mile off. Of course those parents were going to take the child away and kill him. No surprises there, except for the doctor who will never once for a second entertain the idea that he might not be right about everything in the universe.
“Who asked you to play god?”
Here’s the thing. In terms of the debate the episode poses, I most definitely didn’t want to write an article that comes down on the side of the parents, or indeed comes down on anyone’s side, and I’m aware that what I have written so far might have come across like that. But no, I have no answers, any more than this episode of B5 does. I’ve never seen this storyline done anywhere where there have been answers offered to the ethical debate, in terms of a genuine solution to the problem. What I am offering is a critique of the character of Franklin, who I think is absolutely hideous here in his arrogance and handling of the situation. And what bugged me most of all about the episode is Sinclair’s refusal to accept his resignation. There is no real world situation where that decision could possibly be made, and I doubt there ever will be. Franklin’s actions should have ended his career, and the character written out. I couldn’t care less what happens to him from this point onwards, and that’s a problem for one of the main characters.
“I’m waiting.. for an apology.”
“You’d better check the temperature in hell first.”
I won’t say much about the Ivanova subplot, because it’s so rushed that it’s almost not there at all. It seems only to exist to provide some kind of a contrast at the end, of somebody who “breaks regs” and saves a child. As a parallel, it falls flat.
Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.