Babylon 5: The Quality of Mercy

b5In The Quality of Mercy, something different happens.  It’s not totally unique, but it is on the rare side.  We get an A, a B, and a C plot.  Now, A and B go hand in hand: they are both very much about the titular quality of mercy.  On the one hand, a brutal murderer is on trial and the verdict will leads to the “death of personality”, which is more merciful since the person is not being killed.  (More on that in a moment.)   On the other hand, a woman is healing the sick in Down Below even though she herself is dealing with a debilitating illness.  Both are pretty heavy subjects and JMS writes in a little fun with the C plot: Londo and Lennier having a night out on the town.  While this last plot  is all about lightening the mood of an otherwise heavy episode, it succeeds on another level too.  Let’s look at how it all ties together.

Our A plot, that of the murderer, is a dark subject.  Talia finds herself literally in his mind seeing all the evils and depravity he has committed.  As the audience, we know he’s bad, but due process means the right steps have to be taken.  In the end, he is found guilty and the death of personality is ordered.  This entails erasing the memories, the entire personality, of the criminal and replacing them with something new; creating someone who can give back to the society of which he has wronged.  But is that really more merciful?  The person is killed in all practical respects other than his body.  How do families of the victims feel about this?  Is there a chance the old personality could resurface?  (And we needn’t even discuss that if the technology exists to erase a person’s entire being, it seems like that can lead to trouble.  What’s to say any one person we meet in the series is the same person they always were?  Beyond Ivanova, we see very little of anyone’s past in this series!)

The B plot sees Doctor Franklin’s off-duty work diminishing as people are going to another unauthorized clinic in Down Below.  Investigating, Franklin discovers a woman operating an alien machine to heal the sick.  Designed as a means of corporal punishment, it takes from one life to give to another.  The woman (played by Lost in Space actress June Lockhart) is dealing with a crippling disease that is slowly killing her, yet she gives her life energy to heal others.  Poetically, our A-plot villain finds himself with her, trying to use her life to heal a wound, only to have her turn the device on him, killing him but healing her.  Is this the better outcome?  An evil man dies so that a good woman can live?  The device was meant to be used in capital punishment, and it finds a way to be used as intended.  And as that idea features so strongly in this episode, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether the episode is pro- or anti-capital punishment.  It’s a heavy subject that needs careful consideration and the episode does not make it an easy decision.  Presumably Franklin will study the device or keep it in storage.  Time, as always, will tell!

So how does the comedy of C plot factor in?  C plot focuses on Londo taking Lennier out to make a little money through gambling.  When things get out of hand, Londo and Lennier find themselves having to account for what happened.  Londo is an ambassador and things might look particularly bad for him.  Lennier does the unthinkable for a Minbari: he lies.  But he does so to protect Londo’s reputation.  To lie to save face for another is not just allowed, but respected in Minbari culture.  And more importantly, it will not go unremembered.  Lennier exhibits a quality of mercy himself in understanding Londo’s position and doing right by him.

All in all, the episode is a smaller one; a cross-section of life on the station, but it puts out a good story.  More than that though, it really showcases the writing of Straczynski.  He has a bible for the series and he is abiding by it.  It’s clear that he has an understanding of the law especially regarding telepaths, but also, think back to episode 5, The Parliament of Dreams, where Londo holds up the statue of the Centauri god or goddess and the tentacles are visible.  This story gives us the anatomical accuracy of that statue.  (I can’t help but think that the networks might have had an issue with exactly what was happening but without any rules regarding tentacles on screen, they had to let it stay.  And it works while adding a great deal of comedy to an otherwise heavy episode.)

This episode works like the calm before the storm.  It follows two strong episodes and precedes a season finale, but it is not a light episode.  It’s not arc-heavy, but it leaves us with a lot to think about in the end.  And that’s something all good writers hope for.  ML

The view from across the pond:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The quote from The Merchant of Venice, from which this episode takes its title, is closely connected to all three strands of this episode: the mercy or otherwise that should be shown when sentencing a murderer, the mercy of a healer towards her patients, at great cost to herself (and the mercy of the doctor and Ivanova in allowing both of them to continue their underground medicine), and we can just about stretch the theme to the mercy Lennier shows towards Londo by taking the blame for their fight.  There are some big themes raised here.

First and foremost of the big themes is this: why would you get the magnificent June Lockhart in for a Lost in Space reunion and not write a scene where she gets to share the screen with her old co-star, little Billy Mumy?

OK, that brought things down to Earth with a bang, didn’t it.  But it bugged me so I had to mention it.  A quick googling reveals that JMS couldn’t figure out a way to have them interact.  Good grief.  And here was me thinking a writer’s job was to make stuff up.

Right, let’s get back to the serious issues.  Who decided it was OK to show one of Londo’s six penises on screen?  That came out of the blue didn’t it.

Sorry, let’s get serious, because I did have some issues with the ethics put forward in this episode.  Apparently in the future being brain wiped and “programmed with a new set of memories” is considered acceptable.  They don’t kill people for murder.  Oh no no no.  They just… well, kill people.  And then pretend they’re not doing that because it’s done in a technobabbly way.  I struggle to accept that an advanced society would not immediately realise that they are simply making themselves feel better about the process, while effectively doing the same thing to the murderer (making him cease to exist), but with the added nastiness of having a man with a murderer’s face walking around as part of society, for his victim’s families to potentially bump into.  That’s a nasty can of worms right there.  This is of course the same vision of the future where strip clubs still exist.

Strip clubs, lobotomising criminals, gambling, murder.  A bleak picture of the future.  I have commented before on how real B5 is, how down to earth.  Generally that is a very good thing, but I think this is one of those times when that approach goes a little too far, and is at risk of making it into a series that is little more than disguised contemporary drama, dressing up contemporary society (and all its faults) under a veil of prosthetics and spaceships.  You might comment that all sci-fi does that anyway, but there needs to be some degree of hope for progress if you’re setting things this far into the future, or it’s all too easy to stop caring about what we are watching.

Oh, and “corporal punishment” doesn’t mean what JMS must have thought it meant when he wrote the script for this.

As is so often the case in drama, a big ethical dilemma is posed, and then nimbly sidestepped.  Far be it for a writer to actually offer an opinion on his own subject matter.  Instead the week where a murderer needed to be dealt with just happened to be the same week where a handy Chekov’s gun of a healing/corporal capital punishment machine was kicking around the place.  Handy, that.

But I would rather see drama trying hard to engage with big topics and fudging them slightly, than just coasting on in dreary mediocrity.  So far, B5 has tended towards the latter, so a big question being raised and then sidestepped is still some much-needed progress.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Babylon 5, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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