Babylon 5: Hate Leads to Suffering

Ambassador, I have traveled far and seen much. And what I have seen is that all sentient beings are best defined by their capacity and their need for love.
—Shaal Mayan

The next two episodes make a logical pair, in that the events in them spring from the same underlying problem: a growing fear and hatred of aliens in the human community. The roots of the movement are on Earth, but there are branches and fruit on Babylon 5 as well.

It’s interesting, in kind of a painful way, to watch these in the present American political context. The Homeguard and its ilk feed on nativist feeling, playing on fears that alien influences are corrupting human society. It’s a multi-faceted movement, with places for the uneducated and the intellectual alike, rife with conspiracy theories, accusations of treason, and simplistic loyalty tests.

My impression of the mid-Nineties is that the anti-immigrant strain of American life was weaker than it is now. The movement was less evolved, and the ways that these dark sentiments work in polite society were less widely known. So one can almost read the portrayal of the Homeguard as a science fictional prediction, a casting-forward of then-present trends, and then evaluate it against our more recent understanding.

It helps, in doing this, that the episodes don’t suck. This is a relief.

The War Prayer

This starts out looking like another episode with multiple separate narrative strands, like Parliament of Dreams or Mind War. There’s the mystery of the stabbing and branding of the Minbari poet Shaal Mayan, the latest in a series of similar assaults. Meanwhile, Londo is saddled with two teenaged runaways trying to escape arranged marriages. And an old flame of Ivanova’s appears in what at first looks like a rerun of the Sinclair-Sakai reunion.

But then the thing I really love about Babylon 5 happens. Each of the strands, while retaining its own character and momentum, joins to create a greater whole. The young couple are assaulted by the same people who stabbed the poet. While Londo is visiting them in the hospital, it’s Mayan who helps him to change his mind about letting them marry each other. Meanwhile, Ivanova’s romance comes to an abrupt end when she finds out that her ex is an organizer for the anti-alien group.

(After that, plot happens. Maneuvering and gunfights ensue. Right triumphs, and the bad guys are led off of the station in restraints. Bitter words are spoken. There are summaries all over the internet, if you need details.)

It’s not a perfectly balanced episode. Although the two romance subplots run in parallel, so that the right scenes alternate (Mayan reminds Londo how painful it is to live without love; Ivanova discovers that her romance with Malcolm cannot continue; Londo regrets that his shoes are too tight, and that he has forgotten how to dance), they don’t ring off of each other. Ivanova could be a contrast to Aria, showing that choosing one’s own partner doesn’t always work out. Or she could see in herself the seeds of Londo’s profound loneliness, as her career leaves her increasingly unable to form close emotional bonds. A better resonance between the filming of the scenes, or a few lines of dialog, could have strengthened that link in interesting ways.

And I do have some reservations about how the anti-alien faction is portrayed. Not Malcolm; he’s appropriately subtle, smooth and persuasive. It’s Roberts, an early suspect in the assault on the poet, that caught on me. There’s an interesting casting decision here: he’s played by an actor of Asian descent. Since the things he says come most often from white lips at present, it’s a neat and genuinely science fictional choice. But he’s still an unshaven, uneducated character with a marked rural (American) accent and the habit of leaving his mouth open between sentences. Just as Delenn’s particular ways of breaking in Soul Hunter bug me because they play on sexist tropes, so the portrayal of Roberts gets on my nerves for its present-day class markers. It’s unsubtle, and allows Bab 5’s target audience to dismiss him too easily.

Also, when Sinclair is trying to establish his anti-alien credentials for Malcolm at the reception, he says speciesist things in the clear:

I served on the Line, and we had a motto there: the only good alien is a dead alien. It was true then, and it’s true now. The job description says I have to play diplomat. It doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I found this jarring; I would not expect such an overt statement in that context. As we know now, public appearances are the place for dog-whistles and nudges. That kind of speech would have been more plausibly saved for the private conversation in Ivanova’s quarters.

All in all, this is a decent episode. It’s another non-JMS script—by D.C. Fontana, as a matter of fact. But I think the increase in quality is as much because there’s something to talk about that stretches wider than Babylon 5’s hull, and will last longer than the credits.

And the Sky Full of Stars

This episode is another flavor of typical Babylon 5: a discovery of past events and a sowing of seeds for future ones.

Although it deals with the same forces as The War Prayer—anti-alien fanatics from Earth—it tackles the matter from an entirely different angle. Like so many xenophobic movements, the Homeguard has an inward-turning side, sniffing for traitors among “our own side”. In this case, they’re after Sinclair.

It’s not at all clear how they manage to spirit him out of his quarters, which should be secure. But they do, and then come the two hunts that course through the episode: where is Sinclair? and what happened to the lost 24 hours after he was captured by the Minbari? This kind of a quest storyline is much like a strip show: hard to summarize beyond telling the end, and heavily dependent for its interest on what is revealed and who is doing the reveal.

What’s revealed is that Sinclair was not, as the conspiracy theorists suspect, “fixed some milk and cookies and asked to work for” the Minbari during the lost time. He was interrogated and examined by a group of hooded figures. Somewhere in the process, he unveiled one of them and discovered it was Delenn. But he was never turned, or even solicited to turn.

While Sinclair is being examined, we also get a good insight into Knight One, his interrogator. He’s a third kind of xenophobe, neither Roberts’s uneducated bigot nor Malcolm’s businessman of unrest. This one is a conspiracy theorist and an authoritarian. He fancies himself a cerebral man who has come to his position through intellectual analysis. But there’s a nicely played smirk of pride when he describes how the Minbari “took one look at our defense and realized what it would cost them to invade Earth.” In the end, his position is much the same as the other two, albeit more elegantly phrased:

Look at Earth, Commander. Alien civilizations. Alien migration. Aliens buying up real estate by the square mile. Alien funding of Babylon 5. What they couldn’t take by force they’re corrupting, inch by inch.

In our present, he’d be one of the credentialed types who give the Birthers a respectable face, the kind who knows the Constitution well but only uses it to prove what he already believes. He’s a stranger to Ockham’s razor and the kind of intellectual humility that would allow him to grasp anything that contradicts his conspiracy. In short, he is all too believable.

As always, I wish that this episode had drawn more parallels between situations, in this case, between Sinclair’s treatment at the hands of the Minbari and what he gets from the Knights. But that’s just not Babylon 5 storytelling.

What is classic Babylon 5 storytelling is the swift dispersal of plot seeds at the end. Sinclair visits Delenn and lies to her: he says he doesn’t remember anything about the missing time. Another member of the Grey Council tells Delenn that if Sinclair does recover his memories, he has to die. And Sinclair records what he now remembers and his intention to investigate the matter further. All of these things will grow into longer plot points later on.

(Also, now that we’re watching for whether Delenn is portrayed as a strong character or a weak one in a crisis: note that in this episode she walks up to Sinclair while he’s hallucinating and talks him down. She stares down the business end of his PPG in the process, knowing he’s been firing at his friends, and does no more than flinch when he shoots a man behind her.)


The next entry will look at Deathwalker and Believers.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

- o0o -

Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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