Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dr. Franklin's Medical Mysteries With "Deathwalker" And "Believers" On Babylon 5!

The Good: Excellent moral dilemmas, Decent character development, Mostly good acting
The Bad: Simple plots, Some shaky acting
The Basics: When medical ethics issues are brought to Babylon 5 in the form of war crimes experiments and religious zealotry, Babylon 5 does not shrink away from exploring the consequences!

Babylon 5 is not Star Trek. Never was, wasn't trying to be, didn't even enter into the equation. Yet, as a die-hard Star Trek fan, I find that Babylon 5 has a lot to offer and because it isn't bound by the conventions of the Star Trek universe, the cultures are distinct and the menace posed by threats is often quite real and binding with a permanence that Star Trek often lacks. Indeed, the great cited death in the Star Trek universe would have to be that of Tasha Yar from Star Trek: The Next Generation in "Skin Of Evil" (reviewed here!). As a result of death being a somewhat permanent condition in the Babylon 5 universe, the situations have an ability to take a turn toward the fatal and unexpected. Nowhere is this more true in the first season than with "Deathwalker" and "Believers."

Na'Toth is waiting for a transport to arrive when suddenly she assaults a woman who is boarding the station, yelling "Deathwalker!" The last of the Dilgar, the biogeneticist Jha'dur is nearly killed by Na'Toth before the Narn is dragged away. Jha'dur is Deathwalker, a corrupt scientist whose experiments on living beings has led to the development of an elixir that offers nothing less than immortality. While Na'Toth schemes for a way to kill Jha'dur, the races aboard Babylon 5 vie to obtain her research. Meanwhile, the Vorlon Ambassador, Kosh, has a scheme of his own in the works, a series of senseless negotiations requiring the presence of Talia Winters.

"Believers" finds Dr. Franklin caught in an ethical bind when the religious beliefs of a child's parents prevent the doctor from performing a simple lifesaving surgery on their son. When the child takes a turn for the worse, Dr. Franklin is forced to make an official request for Commander Sinclair to intervene. While the parents approach the various ambassadors aboard the station to prevent Sinclair's intervention, Ivanova is sent to escort in a passenger ship full of civilians that has been left adrift in Raider territory. But of course, the time comes when Sinclair has to rule . . .

As I said, this isn't the Star Trek universe, so medical dilemmas are not always handled with happy results. While Star Trek: The Next Generation explored end of life issues with shows like "Half A Life" (reviewed here!), only Star Trek: Deep Space Nine truly agonized the death of a character on screen with "Life Support" (reviewed here!). "Believers" pits religion versus science and Dr. Franklin's arrogance is in the assumption that his way is the right way. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the dilemma is that Dr. Franklin is one of the more spiritual characters on Babylon 5 and his belief in the power of medicine makes for an interesting dilemma that is hardly as black and white as a simple faith versus science argument. And the result is an episode that does not have any simple answers.

But it does have consequences. In fact, both "Believers" and "Deathwalker" are big on consequences. And those consequences are illustrated in painful detail right on screen; Babylon 5 does not tiptoe around them. Instead, Jha'dur gets beaten while we watch, Commander Sinclair's gambit to simply follow orders and extradite her to Earth is thwarted by an alien ambassador, and Deathwalker's revelation of the consequences of creating her serum are all unapologetically explored on screen. It makes for a poignant pair of episodes that resonate with anyone who wishes to explore medical and scientific ethics. Both episodes focus on the strengths and limitations of science and the exploration of medical science. With "Deathwalker," the viewer is treated to an argument exploring uninhibited research. Jha'dur's methods are easily considered barbaric and cruel. In "Believers," the episode explores the nature of intense restrictions on medical practices and many will find the prohibitions and mannerisms of the parents to be almost as barbaric or cruel.

Babylon 5 does not get excessively preachy about the issues, though, either. Instead, the consequences of the moral dilemmas are kept couched in character terms. Dr. Franklin's decision does not become a broad statement on medical ethics, nor does the willingness of every "civilized" planet in the galaxy to use Jha'dur to continue her research. And the character studies are compelling.

One of the very cool aspects of "Deathwalker," for example, is the use of character limitations for Commander Sinclair. He is not all-powerful and in "Deathwalker," he finds himself out maneuvered by one of the ambassadors from the League of Nonaligned Worlds. When the ambassador rounds up a posse on her own to blockade the passageways Sinclair finds himself unable to execute his orders and forced to grant the League a hearing for extradition of Deathwalker.

It's nice to see even the leaders of the galaxy limited by obstacles that equally smart and driven individuals scheme up. But moreover, Sinclair's determination not to use force in the situation to resolve it makes for a compelling character stroke as well. He becomes a man of principle who sticks to the principles, even when it is not easy.

Both b-plots have their merits as well. Talia's trial at the (proverbial) hand of Kosh is easily one of the most memorable b-plots in the entire series. The peculiar negotiations she is sent to monitor make for a series of intriguing scenes that are initially confusing but end up making perfect sense. In "Believers," the plot that has Ivanova confronting Raider ships keeps the nebulous enemy alive in the mind of regular viewers despite its somewhat inconsequential nature within the episode. It gives Ivanova something to do and that's always nice.

"Deathwalkers" highlights just how wonderful first season Babylon 5 can be on the acting front. Jha'dur is played with icy menace by Sarah Douglas. Douglas is probably best known in mainstream culture as one of the villains in Superman 2, though I fondly remember her as the Visitor commander Pamela from V: The Final Battle (reviewed here!). Douglas has two strengths she brings to bear in the role of Jha'dur. First, she proves that she can act around the extensive prosthetics and make-up she is given as a Dilgar. Even though she is covered in latex, she is able to emote and create a memorable character. Second, as someone who is accustomed to playing villains, Douglas is charged with making Jha'dur distinct and different. She does this by using a sense of understatement that she does not usually bring to her roles. Instead of playing Jha'dur as an outright villain, she plays her as a quiet scientist who simply did what she was trained to do. It's a nice twist and it works to create another memorable villain notch in her belt.

"Deathwalkers" also features Robin Curtis as an alien ambassador. Curtis, perhaps best known to genre fans for her role as Saavik in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (reviewed here!), has to match wits and stature with Michael O'Hare to convincingly lead the plot to a standoff and she does it beautifully. Curtis has very emotive eyes and she is able to stare down O'Hare in a way that freezes him . . . and the viewer.

Michael O'Hare, for his part, does well being jerked around in "Deathwalker" and playing complete discomfort in "Believers." While Franklin has a pretty sound ethical dilemma - made more complicated by Sinclair's actions in the pilot episode - Sinclair is in murky legal waters. O'Hare plays Sinclair smartly; not as a man who cannot make up his mind, but a man who does not want the burden of a decision that sets such dangerous precedent.

Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin) gives a solid performance that establishes his character as a determined and self-actualized healer.

Sadly, the performers playing the alien parents and the alien child are just plain terrible in the roles. Sure, they are supposed to be stiff and conservative, but half the time they look like they've forgotten their lines and are simply lost. And the child actor is, well, a child actor. This does not serve the episode well. Virtually every scene they are in is a weird combination of Biggs delivering flawless, emotional, poetic lines abruptly meeting with their stiff delivery of their parts. It just does not sit right.

The special effects in both episodes are among the better effects in season one with the CGI ships looking more real and less animated.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Babylon 5 - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the debut season by clicking here!

“Deathwalker” – 6.5/10
“Believers” – 5/10
VHS – 5/10

For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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