I feel like it was just a week ago that I was saying how happy I was to finally be in the main story of Season Five without any more distractions. Oh, wait… it was just a week ago I said that! Yet here we are taking a tour of the Psi Corps offices with our favorite neo-space-Nazi, Bester. What bothered me about this is that I really felt JMS planned to “humanize” Bester. I thought this would help us warm to him so that when Garibaldi finally gets his revenge, we would side with Bester; what a twist that would have been! Unless of course, there’s another plan: kill Bester! The idea that Bester is afraid of this “mind shredder” did lead me to think that, just maybe, this would be the end. There again, give us an episode that makes us like the man, then kill him… again, good strategy to subvert expectation. And, mild spoiler, this is the last time we see him in the series so maybe that’s what’s going to happen. When Bester is shot, I felt sure I’d figured it out: Garibaldi won’t get his revenge and Bester will be dead. But they spent the episode dehumanizing him even more, so how was that going to work? No, this whole episode seems to be little more than a side trip down mind-reading lane with Bester. Why bother?
Lauren Ashley and Chen Hikaru get a chance to meet their hero, Alfred Bester. (I had to look up their names because I didn’t recall them saying Chen’s last name, but find it a nice homage to Trek putting Hikaru and Chekov together again. Then Chen gets stabbed in the heart and he’s out! Maybe not such a nice homage after all! But of all the episodes, why not the one featuring a bad guy named “Jonathan Harris”, as in Dr. Smith from Lost in Space! Anyway…) These two interns are pieces of work. Not only does this episode fail to humanize Bester, it also makes the entire Psi Corps even more difficult to like, if that can be believed! Lauren basically throws herself at Bester which was early enough in the episode that I thought they were using this to show us what a decent guy Bester is; he lets her down gently and with grace so she won’t even feel badly the next day. Ah, nice guy. But then he gets to Babylon 5 and the insults start. His contempt for “mundanes” is out of control and the fact that he’s teaching this prejudice to his wards, Lauren and Chen, is terrible. While the way he treats Zack might be excused, the way he treats Franklin is another matter altogether. This is one of those great moments for Franklin when Bester says that he reacted on instinct. Franklin doesn’t just deny it, he offers to allow Bester to scan him to prove that it was a genuine reaction. Franklin won back a lot of points in this episode, while Bester dropped more than ever with his contempt! Franklin gave us a fantastic slap-in-the-face moment and it was the highlight of the episode for me. We don’t see any of the Psi Corps respond anywhere nearly as benevolently as Franklin. Rather, we see Lauren actually toss a mundane out an airlock to a particularly unpleasant suffocating death. Far from humanizing the Corps, we are shown that they really are monsters. (Even if Lauren had been willing to give Bester a back rub when they get home! Because why not keep trying, Lauren…)
“Not everything is about Babylon 5!” And yet, we did get a lot of B5 world building even in an episode that barely features the main cast. It’s subtle though; blink and you might miss it. When Lauren makes the comment about recording thoughts, Bester suggests its something they are working on. Perhaps they should talk to the Vicar in Season One’s Deathwalker. He was able to record Talia’s thoughts for use later on. Speaking of Talia, if you think it’s rare that Harris had a split personality, need I remind you of what happened to Talia, who had a completely hidden personality? And that begs the question of whether, like Harris, the other personality was still in there, or if it’s gone forever. (Then again, I can’t say I was particularly interested in Talia, so perhaps it’s not worth finding out.)
Overall, I find this episode an unnecessary distraction. Oh, I love the Prisoner-esque references in the Psi Corps building (Obey, trust the corp, protect the family) akin to those of the Village (Walk on the grass, a still tongue makes a happy life, questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself) but that hardly makes the episode good. If there’s a skip-worthy episode, it’s this one. It does not advance the story and does not paint the Psi Corps in good light even though I felt like it wanted to. And if you need proof that this one could be skipped, notice the date on Harris’s papers: Feb 9th…. 2264. This episode takes place in 2262! If not for Franklin’s presence, I’d almost wonder if this took place in the future. I love the series, but that doesn’t mean I think every episode is a winner. I guess I’d push this out an airlock myself. It was just too mundane… ML
The view from across the pond:
I love it when Babylon 5 does an experimental episode. They can be a bit hit and miss but at least they mix things up a bit. In The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father, the station isn’t really the focus of the episode at all, with only Zack and Franklin making appearances. For the first time, we are seeing things almost entirely from the perspective of Bester. He is our focus character, and that allows us to understand his motivations that little bit better, and also see the other side of the coin in terms of how others perceive him.
There is little in the way of new information. We already understand what Bester and the Psi Corps are about, with all the parallels we could draw to WW2, The Prisoner and also the way cults operate. That is driven home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer with the notices on the wall, pushing the idea of the Corps as a family, attempting to legitimise their extremism with a bit of Latin, and just telling everyone to “Obey”, which is unintentionally amusing. You would think even the most indoctrinated of cult followers would take issue with that one. So we know all that stuff, and we know about Bester’s unwavering xenophobia. Our nuggets of new information are (I think) Bester’s orphan childhood, so the Corps really did function as his parents, and the fleet of Psi Corps ships hiding in hyperspace.
But it’s not just the new information that matters. In fact, that’s the least important of aspect of this episode. It’s the perspective we get on Bester that is key to the episode. Firstly he does seem genuinely distressed by the suffering or death of a telepath, and he is absolute in the line he draws between telepath and mundane lives. One matters, the other doesn’t. You can also tell by the look on his face that he is deeply unhappy about the idea of returning to Babylon 5, so this is not a man who is looking for a fight. B5 is just an unpleasant obstacle in his path, and that’s probably all it has ever been to him.
The situation he faces is a relatively predictable rogue telepath story, with a few twists and turns along the way. Coming so soon after the Byron storyline, where telepaths took up arms and inexplicably used none of their talents in a life or death situation, this is a bit of an awkwardly placed story. I get that the fugitive has some special skills, but Byron’s followers also had skills that were subsequently ignored.
Let’s not go over old ground too much though, because this episode did actually offer something very new: Lauren’s perspective on Bester as a hero. She was so awestruck by him that she was ready to jump into bed with him at the first opportunity. The way in which he gently turned her down was actually very kind:
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed about anything that happened, because nothing did happen.”
In a way, the split personality fugitive was a reflection of Bester as well, because this is a man who can kill mundanes without flinching, and yet cares about the feelings of a girl he has just met. It’s xenophobia taken to extremes, where the xenophobe no longer sees his enemy as a human, and yet is still in touch with his feelings. As JMS said at the time, even Hitler painted roses.
After the mission is over, Lauren is still trying her luck, offering Bester a back rub, and then wins his respect by making her first kill. This is where the episode really became shocking to watch, because this young girl, full of smiles and enthusiasm, commits murder for her hero. Bester might have refused her advances, but in the end her innocence was corrupted in a much more sinister way. The fifth season of B5 continues to be the best of the bunch, and the image of a beautiful, bubbly, smiling murder is one that will linger in the mind. RP