Babylon 5: A Race Through Dark Places

I will look upon him who shall have taught me this Art as one of my parents. I will share my substance with him, and I will supply his necessities if he be in need. I will regard his offspring as my own brethren and I will teach them this Art by precept, by lecture, and by every mode of teaching; and I will teach this Art to all others.

The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of mankind according tom my ability and judgment, and not for hurt or wrong. I will give no deadly thought to any, though it be asked of me.

Whatsoever mind I enter, there will I go for the benefit of man, refraining from all wrong-doing and corruption. Whatsoever thoughts I see or hear in the mind of man which ought not to be made known, I will keep silence thereon, counting such things as sacred secrets.

—The Esper Pledge, from The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester (1953)

I’ve heard that J. Michael Straczynski is a Dune fan. He—like so many of us—has clearly internalized Herbert’s work as one of the design patterns of our genre. In particular, his use of an organization of the mystically powerful as a sort of éminence grise in the sweeping historical narrative has a rather sandy flavor for me.

But the name of Walter Koenig’s character is a pointer to a more explicit antecedent. Calling him Alfred Bester (and using a cantrip to block telepathy1) is the closest Straczynski can come to assigning The Demolished Man as background reading. I’d read it years ago. But after this episode, where all of the previous strands of narrative about PsiCorps are given depth and context, I figured it was time for a re-read.

Even more than Babylon 5 itself, The Demolished Man is a future of the past. I don’t just mean the casual sexism (“Let’s find a girl and vote her the Monarch Jumper Girl. When a consumer buys one, he’s buying the girl. When he handles one, he’s handling her.”) What really struck me was the pre-Watergate attitude toward institutions and how they work. Consider:

  • The Peepers are a voluntary organization. They have an office where latents are given a chance to identify themselves and join, but no one is constrained to do so. Latents who choose not to come in (for instance, Chooka Frood) are not controlled or hounded in any way; they’re merely left untrained.
  • The penalty for violating Peeper rules is expulsion and shunning, but nothing more. Jerry Church suffers this; he’s desperately lonely, but he’s not dead or imprisoned.
  • Peepers are only allowed to marry each other, in order to breed stronger telepaths. One of the main subplots of The Demolished Man is that Powell hasn’t found a Peeper woman he’s willing to marry. The penalty? Occasional comments at parties.

We’ve been given glimpses of how monstrous PsiCorps is before: when Jason Ironheart tried to leave it; when Ari Ben Zayn expected Harriman Gray to be corruptible because he was a member; when Alisa Beldon considered joining it; and when Matt Stoner appeared to have escaped its grip. Both Susan Ivanova’s and Talia Winters’ backstories have given us a look at how its influence distorts the lives of anyone who comes in contact with it.

But those were just traces. This episode pulls these threads together to give us—and Talia—a fuller picture, so we know what we’re dealing with in the story to come. To do that, the episode systematically violates each of the key points of Bester’s Peeper society.

  • PsiCorps is not a voluntary organization. The law is that every telepath has to register with them. We already know that people with telepathic abilities are given a choice: join the Corps or take a mind-deadening drug for the rest of their lives.

    We discover in this episode that there’s a third choice: there are relocation camps (said to be “no better than concentration camps”) where people who will neither join the Corps nor take the drugs are sent.2

    Nor does PsiCorps leave the people who choose not to join alone, not really. Not if they’re being awkward.

    He took the sleepers. They shut off his talent, but didn’t stop him from speaking out against the Corps. He wrote the Senate, the media…got interviewed by ISN. Until one day when they came to give him his injection. He closed his eyes, and never woke up.

  • Leaving the Corps—or disobeying it—entails more than ostracism. We saw what happened to Ironheart when he tried to escape, but more ordinary telepaths can’t get out either. The underground railroad that is the focus of this episode shuttles both undiscovered latents and former members to places the Corps can’t reach.

    And Bester will lie, manipulate, and kill to stop it.

  • The Corps doesn’t wait for telepaths to fall in love. We knew already that Talia Winters was paired off with Matt Stoner, and that that marriage was a disaster. What we find out now is that she was lucky.

    My talent woke up when I hit puberty. The Corps took me in. Said I was a P11: as high you can go before they turn you into a PsiCop. After two years, they picked another P11 and said I had to marry him. They wanted to increase the odds of breeding a P12 or higher. I refused.

    One night, I woke up. Heard voices. Something soft over my face. Felt hands lifting me out of bed. The next morning they tried to tell me it was all just a dream. Four weeks later I discovered I was pregnant. When she was born, they took her from me. As soon as I could walk I escaped from the hospital. I never saw my baby again.

Bester’s character is also a far cry from The Demolished Man‘s Lincoln Powell. He’s a well-portrayed monster (Koenig does a fantastic job, and he’s given very good material to work with.) When he kills the telepath at the beginning of the episode, there’s a hint of real pleasure in it for him. And he’s adept at turning every occasion into another lever to use on the people around him.

Sheridan: What about Talia?
Bester: As far as I know, she got out.
Sheridan: You mean you haven’t heard from her since the attack?
Bester: No, but I’m sure she’s fine. It’s me they were after.
Garibaldi: Unless they took her only to get to you. Has that ever occurred to you now that you’ve managed to save your own skin?
Bester: It won’t do them any good. She doesn’t know anything that could hurt me or the Corps.4
Garibaldi: Doesn’t get it, does he? Hey! wake up! It doesn’t matter what she does and doesn’t know! She could be dead right now!
Sheridan: Garibaldi!
Garibaldi: You should have told us she was missing as soon as you called in.
Bester: If you’re this worried, Mr Garibaldi, I suggest you double your efforts to find these people. You’ve got two bodies to start with. Make the best of them.

Bester is remniscent of those concentration camp guards who had lovely family lives outside of working hours. And again, this is an impression we’re led to by the scriptwriting. Tellingly, just before the narrative of the woman forced to have, then lose, her baby, Bester gives Garibaldi this touching little family scene.

Would it interest you to know that I’m married, Mr Garibaldi? That I have a five year old daughter. That on Sundays when I’m back home we pack a picnic lunch and go out under the dome on Syria Plena and watch the stars come out? Hardly the description of a monster.

Nothing and no one in The Demolished Man comes close to PsiCorps and Bester.

In among these dark visions of a significant institution, we do also learn a lot of details that are relevant to the story to come. Ironheart gave Talia more than just telekinesis, and Bester can’t read her. Talia turns to Ivanova when she’s troubled, and Ivanova is glad to see her. And Delenn and Sheridan…well, that dinner was clearly the start of something.

And Ivanova gets a good line, the first she’s had in a while:

Bester: They must be getting desperate, to try something like this. They know we’re onto them. Why else would they try to kill me?
Ivanova: Is this a multiple-choice question?

But what’s important in this episode, more than anything else, is the clear and unsettling portrait of PsiCorps. Regarding that, let me close with three relevant quotes: two for contrast, one for parallax.

Ellery West: We’re born in the Guild. We live with the Guild. We die in the Guild. We have the right to elect Guild officers, and that’s all. The Guild runs our professional lives. It trains us, grades us, sets ethical standards, and sees that we stick to them. It protects us by protecting the layman, the same as medical associations. We have the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s called the Esper Pledge. God help any of us if we break it…

Alfred Bester: This is unnecessary, you know. If you just give us the information we need, we could stop this. We don’t blame you. You fell under the influence of outsiders. They used you and abandoned you. You mean nothing to them. You were raised by the Corps. Clothed by the Corps. We are your father and your mother. Don’t force us to do this.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. The Bene Gesserit serves another purpose.
Paul Atreides: Politics.

  1. Eight, sir; seven, sir;
    Six, sir; five, sir;
    Four, sir; three, sir;
    Two, sir; one!
    Tenser, said the Tensor!
    Tenser, said the Tensor!
    Tension, apprehension,
    And dissention have begun!
  2. This information is, tellingly, conveyed by someone who looks Native American.3
  3. While the African-American character runs the underground railroad.
  4. A nice blind spot, that ego of his. He never conceives that Talia could be a threat, not because of what she can tell them, but because of what they can tell her—and what she can do about it. He doesn’t make many mistakes, but this one is significant.

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

This entry was posted in Babylon 5. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Babylon 5: A Race Through Dark Places

  1. Annalee says:

    I think they originally intended Psi Corps to be even more like the Peeper’s Guild–consider in the pilot, Lyta refusing to break Psi Corps rules about scans because it took her a long time to “get up to P5” and she doesn’t want to get in trouble (I don’t have the DVD in front of me, so I’m paraphrasing).

    I’m not sure when exactly they walked back from that and decided that P-level was fixed/genetic, but to me, that indicated a trainable skill level similar to what’s discussed at that party in The Demolished Man where the newly-minted P2 is encouraged to pretend he’s still a P3 in order to make another P3 guest feel welcome.

    On top of that, there’s her mentioning her pedigree, talking about how she’s from a long line of Corps Telepaths–she lays this out practically as part of her introduction*, which seems to be a send-up to a Peeper’s Guild-style eugenics program–openly acknowledged and mostly voluntary. Later we get the impression that Psi Corps works really hard to undermine and break familial ties in favor of ties to the corps. In the fifth season, we see two Metapol recruits who’ve got every reason to try to impress Bester, but neither of them offer up a family history the way that Lyta did. And aside from the one scene where Talia explains that she doesn’t really remember hers, none of the other corps-raised telepaths mention their biological parents (nor does Lyta at any point after that, as far as I recall).

    The pilot also gave me the impression that being a P5 is supposed to be a much bigger deal (the top of the P-scale, or much closer to it) than it’s revealed to be later. That might indicate another similarity to the Peeper’s Guild’s 3-tier system, or I could just be making that up.

    *The only real-life parallels I’ve seen for this come from military families, and a particularly tiresome habit of some Birthright Friends with lengthy Quaker pedigrees.

  2. I got the feeling that the P2 at the party was less newly-minted than newly-identified, having been previously thought to be a P3. But the text isn’t very clear: “He’s just taken his Guild Exam and been classed 2nd”. I’m putting a lot of weight on the “his” to assume it’s a one-off evaluation rather than a measure of achievement.

    I do wonder, if children of PsiCorps parents are being taken into group care, how Bester gets to keep his daughter. I’d kind of assumed that it was non-Corps children who lost contact with their families. But it could be a privilege marker that Bester is raising his own (presumably) high-potential child.

  3. Serge Broom says:

    Back in the early 1980s, Brian de Palma wanted to turn “The Demolished Man” into a movie.

  4. Annalee says:

    I just cracked the book open again to see if I could find any other clues one way or the other–no luck so far, but good grief, the business between Powell and Barbara is creepy. I mean, I remembered having been creeped when I first read the book, but it’s even creepier than I remember. Yuck.

  5. There’s a bit in Chapter 7 when Powell walks through the Esper Guild, just after the latent has come through the EMPLOYEES ONLY door. He passes classrooms full of children, apparently sorted by psychic class:

    In the lecture hall, a class of 3ds was earnestly weaving simple basket patterns while they discussed current events. There was one little overdue 2nd, a twelve-year-old who was adding zig-zag ad libs to the dull discussion and peaking every zig with a spoken word. The words rhymed and were barbed comments on the speakers. It was amusing and amazingly precocious.

    I haven’t found a good way to interpret the word “overdue”, unless perhaps “overdue to be transferred to a class of 2nds”.

    My mental model of Bester’s Espers is that everyone has a kind of maximum potential, like a high-water mark. So children who will grow up to be 1sts and 2nds will start as 3rds, only able to read conscious thoughts. Then some of each class of 3ds will learn to read what Bester calls the “preconscious” minds around them and become 2nds. And some of those will learn to read the unconscious (“the lowest levels of the mind. Primorial basic desires and so forth”) and cross the line into being 1sts.

    And yes, the dynamic between Powell and Barbara is all kinds of ick.

  6. Fade Manley says:

    The PsiCorps are why I’ve never watched Season 5 of Babylon 5. (I may actually try now, when the rewatch here starts getting closer to it.) The Shadows are creepy and dangerous in a satisfying grand way; they’re Sauron and the mad gods of Edding books, wildly evil and monolithic and inhuman. The PsiCorps? Too damn human and plausible for comfort. The horror level ratchets up too fast for me to bear the tension, when they’re on stage.

    As for the thing with children, I assumed that telepaths could raise children if they were Good Complaint Minions who had married and had sex with their assigned partner and stuck with them. Someone who was clearly unwilling to get with the program in the first place wouldn’t get to keep the kid, either. Or possibly it’s just minors who don’t; isn’t the narrative implying that the drugged mother was maybe fifteen at the oldest when she gave birth? And it ruins some of the image of the Happy Telepath Family if there are clearly young unhappy teenage mothers trying to keep in touch with their children.

  7. Annalee says:

    My mental model of Bester’s Espers is that everyone has a kind of maximum potential, like a high-water mark.

    Obviously there’s no telling what JMS’s mental model is, but the “overdue 2” line does appear to be in keeping with Lyta’s comment about training up to P5. At the very least, Lyta’s comment is inconsistent with them being able to tell Alisa Beldon’s p-rating right away (unless I’m totally misremembering that). So it seems to suggest that the mechanics of telepathy and structure of the corps were getting revised through season 1 at least.

    As far as Bester raising his own kid, at 5 maybe she’s not old enough to go to group care? We also know nothing about his wife’s situation–given Psi Corps’ desire to breed more P12s, it’s safe to assume she’s a 12 herself. Since they didn’t walk back on all 12s being Psi Cops until near the end of season 5, it’s possible their daughter is in fact in group care, and that his special privilege is visitation.

    Not that I actually think the showrunners thought that hard about it; I find it far more likely that Bester’s wife fell into the same blind-spot as Garabaldi’s ‘funny’ stalking. They probably never thought about whether her presumably-high rating would come with its own demanding, travel-heavy job, and what that would mean for child-rearing.

  8. Lenora Rose says:

    I read the child-rearing thing the way Fade Manley suggested; compliant good Psicorps members who would drink the Kool-Aid raise their own children, while telepaths who come from outside families or not-so-compliant mothers get put into foster care. There’s also a question whether the children who come in from outside ever get to see their birth family; it seems like there are stories that go both ways, so it may again be a question how much the family agrees with the Corps. The “Psicorps Ad” we see in “And Now for a Word” implies continued contact with home and family, but it also has a strong “new father figure” subtext in the psicorps member who talks to the boy. Also, it’s full of BS and can’t be trusted for anything…

    I thought they badly undid some of the good stuff they did in this episode when later gurl unir Orfgre qvfzvff uvf jvsr nf na neenatrq zneevntr jvgu “ab ybir”, naq fnl yvggyr/abcguvat nobhg uvf qnhtugre, fb ur pna unir n ebznagvp pbaarpgvba jvgu fbzrbar jub yvirq va n erybpngvba pnzc (ARire zvaq gur fdhvpxvarff bs gung, juvpu fznpxf gb zr bs Fgbpxubyz — abg Uryfvaxv, qnzzvg! — Flaqebzr). V gubhtug Orfgre jnf zber vagrerfgvat nf n cebcre snzvyl zna guna nf fbzrbar jvgu n gentvp ybfg ybir — he does some things with the material he’s given later that makes it work, but I blame that on Koenig’s chops as an actor.

  9. Lenora Rose says:

    Oops, that’s abguvat, not abcguvat.

  10. Paul A. says:

    abg Uryfvaxv, qnzzvg!

    For what it’s worth, JMS has consistently said that that was a deliberate mistake he put in as a signal to the viewer that there’s something up with the character who makes it. (I’m not sure I’m convinced it works — seems to me if we can notice it, the characters ought to have been able to as well — but I’m prepared to believe that was the intention.)

  11. Paul A. says:

    I was just now looking at IMDb, trying to figure out where I’d seen the ringleader of the underground railroad before (not Franklin; the guy who was running things in Downbelow). It turns out I’ve seen him in a couple of things – and one of them was a first-season episode of this very series, where he’s also seen hanging out in Downbelow. Hmm.

    Also, while I think of it, does anyone have anything to say about the B-plot? Is Sheridan right to take a stand about the rent? Is he right to insist on Ivanova joining in when she’s obviously reluctant? Do the B-plot and the A-plot have anything to say to one another?

  12. Annalee says:

    The first time I watch the show, back in high school, the B-plot seemed like funny fluff. Rewatching it after having been a federal employee subject to ethics rules changed my reaction. A few credits a month or whatever it is might seem like chump change, but for a public servant, that would be grounds for not just dismissal, but also possible jail time.

    It would be one thing if JMS was trying to signal an extreme culture of corruption in Earth Force, to the extent that Sheridan’s behavior would pass for a joke. But given what we’re shown of Sheridan’s and Ivonova’s characters, I find it more likely that JMS just didn’t realize how not-funny it was for his supposed hero to be embezzling public funds from personal gain and forcing a subordinate to do likewise.

  13. Leaving aside any fiscal malfeasance, I was not at all charmed by the B-plot. Sheridan basically ranted his way over Ivanova’s discomfort with the situation, and then turned out to be a really annoying roommate.

    The two things it did for the plot were (a) to establish an interdependence between Sheridan and Franklin, which reduces the impact of Sheridan’s rebuke after Bester leaves, and (b) to give Sheridan a chance to be giddy and chirpy after his dinner with Delenn.

  14. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S2E08 "A Race Through Dark Places" | ***Dave Does the Blog

  15. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S2E09 "The Coming of Shadows" | ***Dave Does the Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s