How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?
—James T. Kirk
One of Babylon 5’s great strengths as a series was its ability to tackle difficult ethical questions without lapsing into Wheel of Morality style resolutions. Sometimes there’s a right answer, but you know that no one will choose it. And sometimes there’s just no good outcome possible, and all that the characters can do is hang on to their honor as the disaster unfolds around them.
The next two episodes are a salt and pepper set, one of each of the above types, on the same theme: what, if anything, is more important than life itself? And who gets to choose, who gets to judge, when our answers vary?
Both of them suffer from a surfeit of palmed cards in the setup. The questions themselves may be subtle, but the way they’re presented to the audience is not. I think this is yet another weakness in early Bab 5: it’s hard to set out a nuanced problem from a standing start each time.
Na’Toth, just arrived at spacedock to meet a Narn official, attacks a newly-arrived passenger without warning or mercy. Security staff pull her off of the victim, who is taken unconscious to Medlab.
Na’Toth accuses the woman of being Jha’dur, also known as Deathwalker, one of the worst war criminals in the history of the galaxy. Jha’dur killed off entire planetary populations on the non-aligned worlds, and also performed experiments on Na’Toth’s grandfather. The entire family has sworn a blood oath for revenge.
The problem is that although the passenger is a Dilgar, which is the correct (extinct) species, she’s too young to be Jha’dur. But when she regains consciousness, she confirms Na’Toth’s identification. Her youthful appearance is the product of an “anti-agathic”, a substance which she has invented that protects against both aging and disease.
The Narn regime want to buy the anti-agathic, so G’Kar demands that Na’Toth delay her revenge until the Narn have the substance.
And so begins the slow betrayal of values. Earth, which formerly helped the non-aligned worlds throw off the Dilgar regime, orders Sinclair to sneak Jha’dur off of the station before they can demand that she stand trial. The Minbari vote against prosecuting Jha’dur because they’re ashamed that their warrior castes sheltered her. Even the non-aligned species postpone their demand for justice in exchange for a share in immortality. (As Jha’dur herself points out, political reality is that she will never be tried under the deal.)
And then the Deathwalker, who has taken great delight in watching all of the compromises and sellouts, reveals the secret of her discovery: the ultimate moral compromise, baked in.
The key ingredient of the anti-agathic cannot be synthesized. It must be taken from living beings. For one to live forever, another one must die. You will fall on one another like wolves. It will make what we did pale by comparison. The billions who want to live forever will be a testimony to my work, and the billions who are murdered to buy that immortality will be a continuance of my work. Not like us? You will become us. That’s my monument, Commander.
In the end, the Vorlon
throw the ring into the Crack of Doom blow up Jha’dur’s ship as she is escorted to Earth. “You are not ready for immortality,” explains Kosh. One cannot disagree, however annoying the Vorlon intervention is.
(There is also a subplot about Kosh using a “vicar”—a VCR, an entity that records thoughts and experiences—to obtain the experiences of reflection, surprise and terror from Talia Winters’ mind.)
The episode also has a really good Ivanova quote:
Makar Ashai, our gun arrays are now fixed on your ship. They’ll fire the instant you come into range. You’ll find their power quite impressive…for a few seconds.
From the very large-scale, with billions of deaths and multiple flavors of moral compromise, we move to the intimate agony of a single family and a single choice.
M’Ola and Thara are from a deeply religious culture. Their only son, Shon, has a blockage of his internal air bladders, which is growing and slowly smothering him. It can be easily cured, and his life saved, with surgery. But their religion bans any sort of cutting, piercing or puncturing. His parents believe that his spirit will escape if he goes under the knife.
Dr. Franklin and Dr. Sanchez want to perform the surgery. Sanchez argues with the family, while Franklin invents an alternative solution that he says might work, though he knows it won’t. Basically, he wants buy time with a ruse, in the belief that he can persuade them to let him operate.
(There’s a neat parallel here: he also gives Shon a piece of glowing industrial goo, which he claims is a “gloppit egg” that the boy can care for. It’s both a good distraction from his growing respiratory distress and another lie.)
Shon’s parents remain firm in their opposition to the surgery. They believe Franklin when he says that their son will die without it. But they also believe that the surgery will let his spirit out of his body. They value his spiritual integrity more than they do his life, as is the custom of their species.
Like anyone at an impasse, both parties then go looking for allies. Franklin asks Sinclair to step in and order treatment. And M’Ola and Thara go to the different ambassadors, looking for support if Sinclair does so. (Each of them answers in their own unhelpful way: G’Kar will only aid a useful ally, Londo wants a bribe, Delenn explains that the Minbari have a policy of non-intervention in religious matters, and Kosh is simply gnomic.)
Sinclair asks Shon what he wants, and spends some time learning about the religious beliefs involved. After that conversation, he refuses to overrule the parents. They prepare to watch their son die, surrounding him with love and reassurance of a peaceful journey to “the other side”, where they believe that one day they will rejoin him.
Franklin tells them that Shon needs to rest and sends them away. Then he performs the surgery. Shon wakes up breathing normally, but his parents reject him as a demon. Then they come back and collect him, dress him for a “great journey”, and take him back to their quarters. Franklin figures out that the journey is not the one to his homeworld, and rushes to their quarters to find them sitting with his dead body.
This is not a simple episode. M’Ola, Thara, Franklin, Sanchez and Sinclair are all passionately, desperately trying to save Shon from a terrible fate. Either he will die, or he will lose his spirit and be rejected by all of his people as a demon.
It’s easy from our perspective to say that the parents were wrong to oppose the surgery and to kill Shon afterwards; that Sinclair was wrong to prevent the surgery; that Franklin was right to overrule them all and do it anyway, as though they would abandon their entire culture at his behest. (Mind you, even from our perspective, treating a patient when he, his guardians, and the local equivalent of an ethics committee have refused consent is still wrong. Our community, too, has things it values more than life.)
But from M’Ola and Thara’s point of view, Franklin released their child’s spirit before the natural time of its departure, disrupted its journey to the other side, and prevented them from singing it safely on its way. Because they are good people who understand that those not born of the Egg do not know the truth of the Chosen, and because they know he acted out of the best intentions, they come as close as they can to forgiving the butcher who did them such profound damage. They have disposed of the demonic shell he left behind like some kind of toxic waste, and they will return to their own community, deeply damaged by the humans’ high-handed intervention.
In short, aliens are aliens, with different priorities and values. Choosing courses of action that depend on them reacting like humans, or expecting them to see the primacy of human values, will lead to failure.
(The secondary plot of the story, about how Ivanova gets to be the one to take a fighter wing out to defend an incoming ship, is much more sketchily told. It does, however, contain an excellent Ivanova quote:
I certainly have plenty of things to occupy myself here. Yes, sir, I think I’ll just walk to and fro for a while. Maybe over to my console. After that maybe I’ll try pacing fro and to, then just for the kick of it. Oh, and there’s the view of course. Granted, it’s not quite the same as if you were outside. As someone who’s got over 100 hours of combat flying experience…
Well, if you’d rather…
No, that’s fine, don’t worry about me. I’m just gonna sit here and…knit something. Maybe a nice sweater. Some socks. Does the term stir-crazy mean something to you, commander?
I wish Uhura had been able to say that to Kirk.)
The next entry will look at Survivors and By Any Means Necessary.