I love it when a writer is skilled at world building. I wish Doctor Who did a better job with that, but the nature of that show is different to a cohesive universe like Babylon 5. When Straczynski puts proverbial pen to paper, he must be thinking about how he can make a more cohesive world and he does it brilliantly. Remember in Knives, when Franklin mentioned a good Markab doctor he knows? We’ll we are about to meet him: Dr. Lazarenn. Lazarenn is aware of an outbreak of a plague that can wipe out his entire race. Because it is viewed as a punishment for sinful behavior, the Markab keep it secret and hope for the best but things rapidly spiral out of control. Franklin and the rest of the B5 staff have to act, but things are looking bleak.
Remember the discussion around the episode Believers? That was a thought-provoking episode, largely because there was no clear answer to such an ethical debate. Like Believers, this is not arc-heavy, but it does have a big impact on the world that JMS has built, and it does that within the structure of a morality story. Frankly, that’s good SF! Good SF should look at the human condition under an allegorical lens to see where we are going as a species. While Believers impacted a small family, this story impacts an entire species. And unlike many shows of the time (again years ahead of its time here), we don’t have a happy ending. We are dealing with a 100% contagious disease and the Markab are afraid to say anything because it might mark them as sinful. To the scientific mind, that’s crazy, but who are we to say what’s crazy when we deal with other cultures. Why, just today I was told about the beliefs of a culture right here on earth that has beliefs very different to my own and how those beliefs might impact them physically. So imagine that with another species altogether?!
As the Markab are herded like animals into a secure place to basically die together (which I doubt the efficacy of, considering the entire event takes place on a space station which by nature has recycled air anyway), we are privy to some marvelous moments. Delenn and Lennier, both spiritual people, offer to go and give comfort to the dying. The act alone is a beautiful one; one I wish I could say I’d do myself, but I know how big a germaphobe I am, and I don’t think I could do it. So I respect the decency of these characters; the self-sacrifice needed to act in such a manner is worthy of praise. When Delenn finds the little girl looking for papa, my heart breaks. When she is reunited with family and staggers, the horror Delenn experiences is felt with 100% crystal clarity by at least this fan! How can you watch this and not feel dreadful? And for that matter, I’m not even on the station with them, so imagine what it must do to Delenn, who is already going through a hard time with her new body, as she watches people die by the dozens!
Speaking of Delenn, I do love that there is a budding relationship between her and Sheridan, but I question the motivation behind it. See, I am happy it exists and I love that John is open to it, especially considering the bad blood that existed between Humans and Minbari. It speaks volumes about his character and his openness to putting bad events in the past, where they belong. But what does it say of Delenn? This season has seen a lot of her people hating her for changing and in the episode And Now for a Word, we learn that humans aren’t too happy about her new appearance either. So I can’t help but wonder if she’s not reaching out to John solely because he isn’t treating her badly. But that’s the correct behavior for the captain of a starship/space station. He or she has to put his or her feelings on the back burner or it jeopardizes the command. So is Delenn really into John, or is she falling for the one person who is treating her with kindness? (Lennier doesn’t count because he is like a student and she is not that kind of teacher!) Regardless, I’m not unhappy about the relationship, just unsure about the motivations. Since this is the episode that really starts driving that relationship home, it’s time to mention that fact. Until now, we’ve skirted the issue, but when Delenn locks herself in with the sick population, her final line seals the deal like an airlock seals in the sick. (Sorry, too soon?) “Then I’ll see you in a little while, in a place where no shadows fall.” I think that’s when John realizes he has started falling for her. (Or perhaps it was over the Dinner of Sleepy Traditions! I do wonder what he was mumbling about when he woke up. The 9 and the 1?) Whenever it starts, we at least realize that these two are together for a reason.
In the grand scheme, maybe this is another slow story that does little for the arc. But not likely. We’ve just seen an entire race wiped out. That has to have an impact. What I wonder is if this was a plan by someone or just damned inconvenient timing? I am grateful that the race was not a one-off race like the Children of Time, from Believers. This was the Markab; a race we knew, and had come to respect, just like Steven the Stim-Taker does. And that’s another thing. We’ve seen the negative impact of stim use. Will Steven’s use of stims continue without ill effect? Considering how well JMS builds his worlds, I’m going to say we’ll be back to that eventually too. (But then, I have the unfair advantage of having watched the show 4 times, so maybe I’m cheating a little!) Guess you’ll have to stick around and see in a little while, in a place where no plot threads are left hanging. ML
The view from across the pond:
Well this episode certainly lulled me into a false sense of security. We start off with Dr Lazarenn’s comedy nose (I couldn’t look anywhere else), and then Delenn’s funny rituals before eating. Meditation between mouthfuls: what cruel torture is this? What would Delenn think of McDonalds? I’ve not seen many people meditating between their McNuggets. Then Sheridan falls asleep and denies it. When B5 does humour it does it brilliantly, which makes you wonder why we don’t get more of it. So it was looking like being a light, funny episode when… oh, a plague.
“It is 100% terminal, and 100% contagious.”
Not great stats. What interested me was this:
“The disease only appeared once before, centuries ago. A small island on our world noted for certain excesses. When it was struck down the rest of my people believed it was a punishment by the gods for their lack of morality.”
So my first thought is that this has to be an allegory for aids, but a quick bit of googling after the episode reveals that others have had that thought and that JMS denied it. His intention was only to draw a parallel with the Black Death, which also works. Here’s a quote from the Bishop of Winchester, 1348:
“But is to be feared that the most likely explanation is that human sensuality – that fire which blazed up as a result of Adam’s sin – has now plumbed greater depths of evil, producing a multitude of sins which have provoked the divine anger, by a just judgement, to this revenge.”
At one point Garibaldi even name-checks the Black Death. The plague of 1665 was also attributed to divine punishment for sins by many, especially Puritans, so this is a common response to epidemics. It’s human nature to cast around for an explanation for tragedies, and sadly to attempt to apportion blame. It also provides a vehicle for hope:
“We are the pure, if we believe then the dark angel of drafa will pass over.”
After smashing all his little jars, Franklin does find a cure, but too late. It’s extraordinarily bleak. Bill Mumy sells the moment well when Delenn and Lennier are found among a room of dead bodies, showing us the first ever chink in the armour of his calm demeanour. He looks rattled. Mira Furlan instead goes with a rather theatrical sobbing into Sheridan’s chest, although part of the point of this episode is to develop their relationship a little bit more, after nothing much happening since our first hints of romance, many episodes ago. Finally we learn the full extent of the death toll:
“The entire planetary population has been wiped out by the plague.”
…and the bartender cracks a joke, just to rub salt into the wound. In the end, it was hard to see what the point of this grim episode was. What was it telling us? The human race will never really care about the fate of aliens (which we surely have to interpret in contemporary terms as foreigners)? Religion gets in the way of medical advances? It’s important to employ doctors who figure things out quickly and don’t smash so many little glass jars?
Who knows? Who cares? In the end, it was an episode that just heaped misery on the viewer and then ended. I need more than that from the television shows I watch. A modicum of hope would be a start. RP