Babylon 5: The River of Souls

Babylon 5 ArtworkOf all the movies in the Babylon 5 archives, I found River of Souls about as exciting as watching a sloth sleep.  At least, that was what I remembered so I was dreading watching it again for the Junkyard.  And then I put it on and saw Ian McShane and thought: he’s in this?!?  I thought this was the one with Martin Sheen.  (It is, but he comes later.)  I typically like McShane in everything he’s in.  Before long, I realized this was a far better movie than I remembered.  I’m glad I gave it another chance in fact.

First, like the other movies, let’s talk placement.  Well this one is easy.  It’s some time after Sheridan and Delenn went off to Minbar and Michael went off to Mars.  That puts this firmly at the end of the series, somewhere between Objects at Rest and Sleeping in Light.  Although it’s never actually stated how long after, it doesn’t look like much time has gone by since Objects.

The story casts McShane as Dr. Bryson who unearths the Testimony from Doctor Who’s Twice Upon a Time; a room full of glowing balls of memory.  He steals one, because, of that’s what one does with glowing balls of memory.  Then he goes off to Babylon 5 to meet Michael Garibaldi.  He also gets to talk to Captain Elizabeth Lochley.

Lochley: “Did you find anything?”
Bryson:  “Oh yes, most definitely!”

It should have continued: “A glowing bowling ball!”  Yes, I’m afraid that’s what he walks around with, complete with it’s own bowling ball case!  While the story is actually surprisingly well done for a movie I found hard to stomach once upon a time, you can’t hide the fact that McShane runs around the station with a bowling ball.  That’s the big, cool artifact of the story.  Anyway, that bowling ball is the property of the Soul Hunters; a race we last saw in Season 1’s Soul Hunter

While all of this is going on, the movie takes the episodic approach of having two storylines that will intersect at some point.  The B plot here has to do with a holobrothel which was a bit lame.  I don’t deny Tracy Scoggins looks very enticing in her lingerie, but was it necessary?  B5, after 110 episode and 3 other movies, finally falls victim to Trek’s failing.  Oh well.  I think this area was why I didn’t like the episode the first time around; it felt like a weak story with one goal only: increase the viewership.  Not to mention, there are times I think JMS doesn’t know how to do humor all that well.  The guy in the holodeck starts blathering like the guy who runs the holodeck, who happens to blather like Vir.   There’s probably a name for this style of humor, but I am reminded of Woody Allen and I find him neither funny, nor likeable but that is one of his comedic schticks.  It’s like he can’t just say a thing without linking it to 15 other things in pure ramble-mode which loses the comedy and becomes caricature.  On the other hand, when Lochley, Garibaldi and Zack are discussing that death is coming, and Zack starts to cough, JMS recovers his ability to do humor.  Even the dialogue between Lochley and Garibaldi in the elevator about her holo-image was well handled.  (“I heard it’s very popular.”  “Is it?”)

The movie does two things surprisingly well.  It tackles the idea of the soul in greater detail than we had in the season 1 episode.  Lochley has a Near Death Experience, seeing herself die on the operating table.  She then encounters the souls of others including one of the people the Soul Hunter captured who explains that they were not dying; they were evolving.  This leads to the dialogue that convinces the Soul Hunter that they made a mistake and saves the day.  The other thing it does well is merges what seemed like a weak comedy storyline with the question of possessing something that belonged to another.  The Soul Hunters take the souls of the dying while the owner of the holobrothel took the likenesses of people.  (Zack picks up on that fact, once again proving that his ignorance in the lift with Lyta in Thirdspace is terribly out of character.)  Ironically, even the name of where the Soul Hunters keep their bowling balls, the Whisper Gallery, might have a parallel to the brothel; they are often shady places that no one is going to talk about openly.  (And there are also balls involved there, but not of the bowling variety!)

While the love bat was ridiculous (can you imagine Corwin standing around his room hitting himself with it?) it wasn’t the worst thing about the episode.  It wasn’t even the idiotic nature of the lawsuit.  For me, it was Lochley’s comment when Garibaldi says the Soul Hunters are coming.  She says “I thought they were just legends.”  Wouldn’t that Season One encounter be on record and wouldn’t Lochley, as the new station Captain, be required to know those records?  At the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of noteworthy moments.  Zack seeing the ghost was actually quite creepy.  Lochley’s understanding that doing is what makes us real people; the ability “to touch and be touched” is part of the human experience; again tying into the idea that holographic people are no substitute for interacting with the real thing.  And I have to say, I do love the way Sheen plays the unnamed Soul Hunter and the way Lochley cares about him even if she disagrees with his mission.  (“No one has ever done for us what you have done for me.”)  Some great stuff here.

Overall, it was a far stronger movie than I remembered it to be.  Not my favorite of the movies but it was entertaining.  But where do we go from here?  I don’t mean what’s next, but Thirdspace made it clear we have a potential spinoff called The Mistakes of the Vorlons.  I think Michael gave me the idea for a new pitch to Warner Brothers.  The Black Projects of Edgars Industries.  Come on, tell me that doesn’t have a ring to it?  Maybe with that we can eventually cover the Telepath War after all!   ML

The view from across the pond:

When I was a child I used to love watching a series called Lovejoy, starring Ian McShane, about an antiques dealer with a knack for finding valuable items, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him across the pond and in the far future, playing a seeker of treasures of a different kind on Babylon 5. First of all he finds a pretty little coaster that promises “life eternal”, and then he steals a ball and starts talking to it. Just when I thought I was watching Castaway rather than Lovejoy after all, it turned out to be more like Shada from Doctor Who, with a British dude and his magic ball in a bag. As if that weren’t enough, we eventually got an obese version of TRON. That’s a heady mix of influences, if ever I saw one.

This was a great episode, but I’m not done poking fun at it yet, so let’s get the amusing things out of the way first before we get to the slightly less fun part of the review where I have to heap praise on it. Lochley’s impulse purchase of a vase was unintentionally funny, because she paid for it and then didn’t take it with her. Eventually it turned up magically in her quarters anyway, just in time to get smashed. But the real comedy moment this episode came from David Corwin, who appears to present Lochley with a giant toblerone, which turns out to be a baseball bat with a difference.

“It’s a love bat.”

Oh dear. It’s no wonder Corwin never made the title sequence. This episode had a comedy B-plot of sorts, with Lochley and Zack attempting to shut down a holographic brothel. It had a sign on the wall that read “pleasure for men and women”, although at first glance I thought that curly lettering said “fat men and women”, which is probably not too wide of the mark. That very large gentleman in his “sensual telemetry body suit” was quite a sight to behold, and considering what they are used for I wouldn’t want to have the job of cleaning one of those. It was all nicely integrated with the main plot though, with the ghosts being mistaken for holograms.

Just when things are starting to get freaky, along comes a Soul Hunter to sort things out, and he wants his ball back. Martin Sheen amused me greatly. He starts off talking in a very odd manner, as if he’s not quite used to the whole process of speech, and then all of a sudden he forgets that speech is supposed to be difficult. I get that it was an intentional decision, but the transition from one to another isn’t exactly gradual, so it did make me laugh. It reminded me of Dodo from Doctor Who, whose accent suddenly disappeared. Also trying out a different way of speaking was Franklin in Lochley’s near death experience. I think he was going for South African, but it didn’t stop him doing that Richard Biggs thing of running two sentences together as if they were one, speeding up at the full stop instead of slowing down.

So there were plenty of funny moments, most of them unintentional, but I actually loved this episode, and following on from a couple of fairly tedious efforts at TV movies it was a breath of fresh air. It was the closest we’ve got to Babylon 5 doing a straight-up psychological horror story with ghosts. Plenty of traditional horror movie techniques were used, such as the zoom in on a guy’s screaming face while a monster wielding a scythe comes towards him – proper horror stuff. There were some moments where it all went a bit Ghostbusters, particularly the trapped soul shouting “leave us alone!” and going all deathly looking, and also the cloud of souls causing mayhem, but I didn’t mind that at all. There was also a lot of thought-provoking debate about the afterlife, and the ethics of preserving life at all costs, even if that continued existence is a form of imprisonment, and prevents the soul from moving on to heaven or nothingness, depending on which side of the debate you subscribe to. We also had a continuation of the theme of hubris from the Vorlons in the last movie, with a Soul Hunter realising this time that he maybe shouldn’t be playing god after all.

“We thought we were incapable of any error.”

This still felt like a stretched-out main series episode rather than anything particularly movie-ish, but at least we are moving the story forwards post-Season 5, there was a real sense of jeopardy, something to make us think, and most importantly a sense of fun to it all. I just wish I could unsee the big guy in his flashy Tron suit.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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5 Responses to Babylon 5: The River of Souls

  1. BenF says:

    “There were some moments where it all went a bit Ghostbusters…”

    Well, JMS was the script editor and a main writer for The Real Ghostbusters, so that tracks (sorry if it’s been mentioned before).

    Back when this movie first aired I didn’t think too much of it, but after your reviews I think I’m due for a re-watch.

    Liked by 2 people

    • scifimike70 says:

      With special guest stars like Ian McShane and Martin Sheen, fans might expect some forms of flamboyance in the story. I’m glad that those kinds of episodes hold up even if re-watches are the better impressions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. scifimike70 says:

    It’s amazing how some shows and movies, particularly SF, can get better recognition on re-watches.

    Liked by 2 people

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Well I’ve said it before, I think it comes down to the way we view things. For the write ups, I’m engaged in “active viewing”. When I watch TV just to watch, it’s passive.
      When we take a more active role, we can sometimes see things that might have otherwise eluded us.


      Liked by 3 people

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