Another long-overdue commissioned review (6th commissioned post out of god knows how many), this time SPOILER FREE and sponsored by an anonymous donor, who, lo those many months ago, wrote:
“Review any single episode of one of the following series: Doctor Who, Star Trek (any series, including Enterprise), 24:Live Another Day, Sherlock, Firefly, Babylon 5. I love them all equally, so it doesn’t matter which one you eventually choose. 🙂 .”
It was an easy choice as to which show I would pick, not because those others aren’t worthy contenders, but because Babylon 5 has a special place in my heart, and so few people I know have watched it that if anyone by some freak chance gives me the opportunity to review it, I’m taking it. (Caveat: This is not so much a review of this episode as it is a discussion of the experience of revisiting a favorite TV show. I mean, there’s a review in here too, but that’s almost beside the point.)
This show owned my soul in 9th grade. I’d never heard of it before then, but early in my freshman year of high school, my brother introduced me to it and told me that I needed to watch the whole thing, that it was one long story arc that had to be watched in order, unlike most other shows I’d watched before (which consisted of mostly Arthur, Sesame Street, and Star Trek: The Next Generation — my parents were a lot stricter about what shows we kids were allowed to watch then than they are now). Babylon 5 was my gateway drug into the world of serialized television, and honestly, my gateway drug into television shows as a whole since up until then, my experience of TV was clearly very limited, and this was before the days of efficient methods of online streaming (I think we still had dial-up internet at the time).
So me and my brother bought all 5 seasons of the show on DVD from some Chinese seller on ebay for about $35 a season, which I now look at and think, “holy crap that was expensive” but at the time, believe it or not, that was ridiculously cheap for a season’s worth of DVDs, which, if purchased from respectable American sellers could have cost us $50-$60 a season.
This was also before binge-watching had become a socially acceptable thing, and my parents limited me to one episode a day, after I finished all my homework. So my nightly schedule looked like this:
5:15 — finish school
6:00 — arrive home
6-9 — homework/dinner/novel writing
9-9:45 — Babylon 5
10:00 — go to bed
That was how it was pretty much every night — I mean, come on, it’s not like I had a social life. As I mentioned in a previous post, all my friends were school friends and all my schools were always far away, so friendship and socializing was a school thing, not a home thing. I was also too deeply closeted about my religious views at that time in my life to really attempt to make meaningful connections with anyone, especially not anyone I perceived as much more religious (“how could they ever understand my heresy?”) or less religious (“what if they corrupt me and make me even worse than I already am?”), and most of my classmates fell into those categories. I was lone wolf and a social floater — I could effortlessly sit down and have lunch with any group or clique (the ultimate in social acceptability) and everyone liked me, but nobody knew me. It wasn’t their fault; I just didn’t let anyone in. And I was sick a lot and didn’t have the energy to stay up later than 10:00 most nights (I got sicker between 9th and 10th grades; in 10th grade I could rarely stay awake past 9), and that’s a killer for a social life as well.
I also didn’t have my own computer or DVD player, so I couldn’t watch in the comfort of my own bed as I do now like a proper couch potato — I had to watch in my dad’s study on my brother’s computer, a room that no longer exists since we converted it to a bedroom for my grandmother when she lived with us for about six years before she passed away, and renovated the garage into my dad’s new library/study/thing which he actually rarely works in, preferring to do most of his work at the dining room table, which results in massive piles of books from the basement library teetering in stacks on the table and sometimes also the chairs, much to my mother’s chagrin.
None of this is relevant to Babylon 5 itself, but my point in including it here is to explain how far back me and B5 go, how deeply rooted and intertwined it is with memories and other bits of my heart and soul, regardless of the content of the show.
So, Babylon 5 it was.
Then the question became “Which episode?” and that was complicated, but mostly because I unnecessarily complicated it for myself. See, Babylon 5 is highly serialized, and I knew right off that bat that I did not want to do an arc-relevant episode, so that left standalone episodes. And the first one that popped into my head was “Believers,” because even from all those years back, I remembered how self-enclosed the whole story seemed and what a punch in the gut the ending was, but then I thought I should at least consider other options before making a final choice.
Fortuitously, I happened to make a new friend around that time who was an even bigger B5 groupie than me, and we started rewatching some of it, and a different B5 fan friend of mine got wind of this through our incessant B5-related posts on facebook and invited me to come rewatch the whole show from start to finish with him (which I’ve never done before), and we’ve been doing that on and off for the past few months. Between our busy schedules, we’ve managed to just finish Season 1.
And in a lot of ways, the show is better than I remembered it or expected it to be. Whenever you watch something that you have a nostalgic fondness for, your biggest fear tends to be that in the intervening years, the Suck Fairy may have visited and sprinkled suck dust all over everything, and you’re forced to confront the reality that when the two of you first met, you were simply too young and stupid to recognize bad acting, awkward writing, horrible CGI, or whatever it is that was always there but somehow escaped your notice and actually rendered the entire show/book/movie/thing complete crap.
So I was braced for the Suck Fairy, especially when it comes to one of my favorite characters, the central character of “Believers,” Dr Stephen Franklin. In the aforementioned intervening years, I’d heard plenty of people malign the character’s role and Richard Biggs’ acting of it, so I was ready for him to be awful upon revisiting this episode, which I actually thought showed up later in the series, but nope, it’s a Season 1 episode.
And then we rewatched this episode, and I was like, “Gosh darn it, I LIKE Franklin, and I LIKE this episode, and I AM going to review it! Take that, haters!”
Why do I like Franklin?
Well, firstly, I don’t think his acting is bad at all. I was worried that maybe I only thought this because Rick Biggs (may he rest in peace) had an incredibly beautiful face, but upon careful study and analysis of said beautiful face and all the rest, I really do think that his delivery was more natural than a lot of actors that have come and gone on the show, something which is made all the more impressive by the fact that Biggs was nearly deaf and so had to learn all his own lines and everyone else’s and lip-read for his cues. But even without that, I don’t find his acting to be bad or strained or wooden as the haterz would have me believe.
And aside from the acting, I like the character. He has a different vibe from all the other main cast members; he’s passionate and fiery. Each character in Babylon 5 brings something different to the table: Sinclair is solemn, Garibaldi is easygoing, Londo is bombastic, G’Kar is conniving, Delenn is dignified, Kosh is cryptic, Vir is bumbling, Lennier is adorably earnest — and Franklin is fiery. The man cares. He cares deeply, and he cares passionately, and it shows. I’ve seen some reviewers accuse him of seeming arrogant and unsympathetic in this episode, but I just don’t see it.
In case you don’t know or don’t remember, this episode is the one where Franklin is presented with people whose beliefs are entirely in opposition to his scientific worldview: their son is dying and needs surgery, but they believe that cutting open a body releases a person’s spirit and refuse to allow Franklin to operate.
Rather than verbally attacking them for this like his assistant does, he tries his hardest to work with them and be respectful, because he cares about his patients. It’s only as the situation becomes increasingly desperate that he begins to take less respectful and more drastic measures, but again, it’s because he cares so deeply about the life of this patient, Shon, that he simply can’t not do absolutely everything in his power to save his life. I’m not saying that what he does is right or wrong; I’m just saying I don’t see it as being an arrogant or unsympathetic motivation. I understood where he was coming from every step of the way.
And I also understood where Commander Sinclair is coming from, when he refuses to grant Franklin’s request for an executive order to override the parents’ wishes and operate on Shon. Being an orthodox Jew, I can tell you from personal experience that it is sometimes really nervewracking to see your religious practices come up for legal debate, to see people legislating things that they don’t understand and therefore deem “primitive” or dangerous. For instance, the process of kosher (and halal) animal slaughter has come up for debate in many countries and has recently been banned in Denmark, in a move that many have pointed out is pretty hypocritical, given the inhumane ways that animals are raised and killed in Denmark that have not been banned. I’m not trying to get political here, but my point is that there are all sorts of religious rituals, and a lot of them make people uncomfortable out of ignorance or knee-jerk reaction of “this is harmful,” and once you start legislating what religious rituals are harmful in accordance with your particular worldview, things can get very dicey and disruptive and alienating to a lot of people whose worldviews are different from yours.
So Sinclair’s choice to stay uninvolved even though he knows this may be condemning a child to death struck me as a profoundly humble one, a decision that recognizes the limitations of one’s own moral code in order to make room for one that one does not understand and to avoid setting a precedent that could later be abused. Again, I don’t know if I think he was right or wrong, but I respect his decision.
Another thing I really liked about this episode and what makes it so quintessentially Babylon 5 is how Shon’s parents approach several alien ambassadors to ask for help, and they each respond in such different ways that all make sense according to the internal logic of each society as we’ve seen so far. Babylon 5’s development of very distinct major alien cultures and attitudes is one of its greatest strengths.
I’m not going to discuss the ending because this is a spoiler free review, but yeah, it packs a punch, and I remember being shocked that the show went that far. A writing teacher of mine liked to quote someone else who said that the best endings are “surprising but inevitable,” and this one definitely felt that way.
So yay! A positive review! Let’s say 3 out of 4 stars? That sounds about right. Definite deduction for the unmemorable B-plot which involved Ivanova and some space raiders. But the A-plot, as discussed, resonated for me and picks up some of the slack.