On a whim I decided to start watching the original Babylon 5 again since the big announcement. I’ve been hesitant to do so, in case it didn’t hold up to my teenage memories. I’m closing in on half-way through the first season, and I needn’t have worried. Despite the wonky CGI and hammy acting, the show can still surprise you and hit you in the feels.
Believers is the 10th episode of the first season, and to be honest I’d forgotten about it until it came up in the rotation. That may be because it’s got a plot that every medical drama has tackled. There’s a child with a treatable disease, but the catch is, his culture’s religion prohibits surgery. An aghast Doctor Franklin (avowed atheist) struggles with the idea that someone would let their religious beliefs get in the way of saving a life.
Franklin even goes so far as to appeal to Commander Sinclair to force a ruling that the parents are unfit. This is where Babylon 5 breaks from the formula. Other shows typically go one of two ways with this plot. One, the doctor concedes, and is there at the end for his patient, perhaps learning some humility or respect for the culture. Two, the doc does the surgery anyway, saving the patient. Often the parents come around, or are at least resigned to what happens. Not so here; Sinclair has to deliberate and that’s where things get interesting.
The parents begin asking for help from each of the major races on B5’s council, and it is a great world-building bit deftly snuck in to an episode otherwise unrelated to the greater plot of the show. They speak to Ambassador G’Kar of the Narn Regime, who turns them down because their world offers his no material advantage, no quid pro quo. Ambassador Mollari basically asks for a bribe. “Just how much justice can you afford.” The Vorlon Ambassador Kosh turns them down as well, in typically cryptic fashion. He gives them one of my favorite lines of the series:
The last Ambassador approached is Delenn of the Minbari, the one you’d most expect to be helpful. Unfortunately, they are forbidden from interfering in other races beliefs about the soul. “Whose belief is correct, and how do we prove it?”
Sinclair, for his part, struggles mightily to make the right decision. Franklin points out that he ordered the doc’s predecessor to operate on Kosh (in the pilot movie) despite the fact that the Vorlons did not want it to happen. It’s a discussion with Garibaldi that helps Sinclair make a decision. He’s reached out to Earth for advice, and they wouldn’t even give him that much. Seeing his friend struggling, Garibaldi says “it may be your responsibility, but it isn’t your fault.” A reminder we could all use at times.
Finally, Sinclair talks to the kid, seeing that he too is a believer, and gets to the heart of it. He refuses to sign the order, and has a powerful philosophical argument with Franklin. Of course, Franklin does the surgery anyway, but it doesn’t go the way he wants. Shon gets better, but his parents react like he’s not even a person anymore. There’s a bit of a fakeout version of option 2 above, where the family bring a special ‘travelling robe’ for Shon and take him from the Medlab. Too late Franklin realizes that it’s a funeral shroud. The parents ended their own son’s life, believing that the surgery destroyed his soul. The episode ends with a dejected Doctor Franklin sitting alone in the darkened Medlab, no Star Trek happy ending in sight.
I’ve been thinking about this episode for days. Believers runs in direct opposition to other media that covers this same idea. See the TNG episode Ethics, where Worf gets saved by a miraculous cure as an example. It shows that the people aboard B5 are all flawed, realistic individuals. Politics, philosophy, killer dialogue. All this from an episode that’s *NOT* setting up the war against the Shadows. I can’t wait to keep going, after I recover from this one that is.