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January 28, 2011

Babylon 5: Kobayashi Maru
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 10:40 AM *

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.

Deathwalker

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.

Believers

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.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Comments on Babylon 5: Kobayashi Maru:
#1 ::: Lis ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 11:29 AM:

Believers was a wonderful, thoughtful episode. There is one aspect of moral complication that I think you slighted just a bit.

Franklin did wrong to the family by overriding their beliefs and values and doing the surgery anyway. The patient, the family, the "ethics committee" had all said no, and he should not have done it.

But the parents also kept pleading with Franklin to find some way to cure their son, and they did not remove him from Franklin's care. And Franklin is a doctor: his training and his values are entirely focused on using his skills and knowledge to save lives. So Franklin is getting mixed messages; the parents refuse surgery, but want a cure, and leave their son in his care.

He did the wrong thing, but so did the parents--not in refusing the surgery, but not accepting Franklin's, initially clearly stated, lack of an alternative. They should have removed their son, and not put Franklin in the situation of violating either their values or his until he finally stumbled.

#2 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 11:43 AM:

Lis @1:

I think you've forgotten a few things about the episode.

Franklin himself muddied those waters with the offer of emollient therapy at the end of the initial consultation. As he admitted to Sanchez, he did this to keep them around while he tried to talk them into surgery. They were about to leave when he suggested it.

So the parents had grounds to believe that he might be able to cure Shon without surgery, because Franklin himself said so practically from the start. They agreed to that—they never agreed to, or pressured Franklin for, a cure that would violate their beliefs.

And they didn't remove Shon from Franklin's care while they hoped that the alternative would work. Then, by the time it was clear that it was doing no good, the boy was too ill to travel.

#3 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 11:45 AM:

It could be argued that all of the characters do have to act as they do (and especially Franklin, which I will address in a moment). and that (excepting perhaps Londo and G'Kar, who are both presented as controlled by their faults at this early stage of the game) none of them does anything wrong by the standards that governs them; the tragic quality of the episode, of course, is that we are all in Franklin's camp.

The subtext of this is that there is a big difference between Mimbari and human notions of ethics and religion: Mimbari are ethnocentric, while humans are universalist. Yes, it's another "humans are special" story, and in a way that is pretty weak when examined closely. See, Franklin has to act because his views about the morality of healing are universalist. He knows1 that the aliens are wrong, and he isn't going to let their views trump his, and he hopes that once the matter is played through they will see The Truth. The aliens are correct in their own context, but Franklin isn't in that context. Without setting some universal metaprinciples over top of everything else, I don't think there is a way to reject this outcome in favor of one in which Franklin does nothing.

And agian we have a situation in which the humans, unlike anyone else, are not a monoculture, because of course Franklin's moral context isn't Sinclair's. The latter must not act, of course: he's a captain, not a doctor. What becomes interesting in light of later episodes is that Dalenn's Mimbari answer now is not, I think, necessarily the one show would give a few years later. Her thinking here is really pretty close to that of the aliens, who when it comes to it don't really care about the religion or ethics of others. She has to learn to believe in universals. G'Kar comes to think that way when he really starts to think about the matter at all. Londo perhaps does not, but I think that's more out of preoccupation than any other factor: once he becomes a player his concern is for his people, first to bad ends, but then to desperate ends.

1 I almost put quotes around "knows" but it seems to me that the episode tends to lean towards identifying the tenet in question as superstition.

#4 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 12:15 PM:

How old is Shon supposed to be, in human-equivalents? And is the family subject to human or alliance laws? That is, would the people on B5 have jurisdiction to say "endangering a minor" and make Shon the equivalent of a ward of the state? Because, if B5 hasn't got the jurisdiction to do that sort of thing, the parents are sadly within their rights to refuse treatment.

I mean, just because *I* think souls are twaddle, or, at best, a useful metaphor, outside of fiction, and just because I think that parents who refuse treatment like transfusions or insulin for their children on religious grounds are behaving criminally (I figure the odds differently if they're refusing another-round-of-chemo for a child who's suffering and whose life may only be briefly extended by same) doesn't necessarily give me the right to make those decisions for them.

And, this may be an unorthodox position, but I feel that it's important to consult the child, starting from a very early age. The Catholic concept of "age of reason" starting at seven holds a lot of truth for me, even though I'm not a Catholic, based purely on memory of myself and observation of other children (not to mention some casual study of child development literature). So I'm with Sinclair, I guess.

As for "Deathwalker" -- is anyone else reminded of Joan Vinge's "The Snow Queen"?

#5 ::: Heather ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 12:36 PM:

I never bought that there was no other way to cure the kid. I don't know; maybe it's an effect of our own medical technology advancing in between the time the episode was written and the time I saw it (last year)?

But as a result, I didn't find Franklin's position all that sympathetic. It seemed like he thought of one solution, and then just stopped thinking.

#6 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 12:39 PM:

I always wondered about that religion, though. I mean, does every member of that religion who gets a papercut become a demon? What about someone who gets stabbed in the finger with the needle while embroidering?

Leaving that aside, I think Franklin's problem was a failure of imagination. He couldn't imagine that parents, confronted with the fait accompli of a cured child, would not decide that maybe there was some room for stretch in their religious beliefs. He thought they'd see Shon, realize he "wasn't any different", and be OK with it.

#7 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 01:11 PM:

As one of my old undergrad teachers observed, if you want to crank up the tension and the angst for dramatic purposes, the conflict of good vs. evil has nothing on the conflict of good vs. good.

#8 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 01:53 PM:

Debra Doyle @ 7 - It reminds me of the Niels Bohr quote about the opposite of a great truth being another great truth.

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 02:43 PM:

Rikibeth @4:

Shon looks to be somewhere around 12 years old.

He's sophisticated enough to realize that the gloppit egg is just a piece of industrial goo—and to ask Sinclair not to tell Dr. Franklin because he (Franklin) still thinks it's an egg.

#10 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 03:06 PM:

abi @9:

In that case, I'm definitely with Sinclair: that's someone who's old enough to rationally refuse treatment, even if his reasoning is not my reasoning.

Seems to me that Franklin isn't considering a broad enough definition of "harm" in "first, do no harm."

#11 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 03:48 PM:

re 10: Unless one is willing to pick one context and make it universal, I'm doubtful that there is a way to make Franklin's acts absolutely harmful. OTOH It's been a long time since I saw the episode so I'm reluctance to stake too much on the nuances of Franklin's interaction with Shon.

#12 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 03:53 PM:

C. Wingate @11: The universal harm I'm willing to ascribe here is acting without a patient't consent. I have very strong feelings about consent.

#13 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 04:30 PM:

Believers: Did anyone try doing a detailed argument with the parents about whether their beliefs make sense?

#14 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 04:43 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 13 -

Kind of a paradox, I think. If they were that amenable to logic, they wouldn't have had the beliefs in the first place.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 04:45 PM:

Nancy @13:
Did anyone try doing a detailed argument with the parents about whether their beliefs make sense?

Not on-camera. Sanchez loses her temper and asks them what kind of God they worship. Franklin assures them that Shon's spirit will not escape with surgery. Sinclair tells Shon that he himself had had major surgery in the past and came out all right.

The response is the same in all cases: you are not the Chosen. You are not born of the Egg. What is true for you is not true for us.

When they see Shon after the surgery, talking, sounding like their beloved son, they reject him as a demon.

(More generally, though, how often does a detailed argument dissuade people of that kind of deeply held belief?)

When I said that the episode palms too many cards, one of the things I was referring to was the nature of the family's religious belief.

#16 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:01 PM:

Believers: and here I was, thinking that this was simply a "SF from the pages of the newspaper" episode. Those asking questions about what happened there could ask the courts and doctors here (and, of course, get equally conflicting answers. That's why "SF from the pages of the newspaper" works so well - one can investigate a particular problem without explicitly condemning a real-life point of view; even if they take you out of context (say, halfway through the investigation of the issue, or by saying that X character is the author avatar)).

#17 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:16 PM:

Mycroft W @16:

And here we see the difference between Plot and Story. To pull a few quotes from Learn Writing with Uncle Jim:

Plot is the sequential arrangement of consequential actions. This happened, then that happened because of this.

[...]

Recall that sailing ship a bit upthread, ready to get underway? Think of the elements that advance your plot as sails. Each one properly rigged on its mast and yard adds to the speed of your voyage and the beauty of the overall design of the ship.

Elements that don't belong in the plot -- however diverting they may be on their own -- are like taking those same sails and trailing them over the side in the water. They slow the ship, make it look slovenly, and perhaps put it in danger of capsizing.

Story, now, is the wind that drives those sails. Story is simple. "Who are those guys?" "How do I get home?" "Who am I?" "I saw something neat." "What makes us human?" "Am I normal?"

What happened? That's from the newspapers.

Why did it happen? What does it show us about the people at the fulcrum of the crisis? That, now, is where things get interesting.

#18 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:25 PM:

Sometimes careful argument makes a difference, though not often, and I grant that the odds go down in high-stress situations. Still, it might have been nice to see it tried.

I suppose the most dramatic outcome would be that only one parent is convinced that the religion is mistaken.

#19 ::: JD Rhoades ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:29 PM:

abi @#9:

Shon looks to be somewhere around 12 years old.

Using human standards. For all we know, he could be five and his parents in their 20s. Or fifty and they could be over 200.

I took Kosh's response that "the avalanche has started, and it's too late for the pebbles to vote" as a rather bitter reference to his own situation, when he had to be taken out of his "encounter suit" to save his life in the pilot. But I've only started watching.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:36 PM:

Nancy @18:

It would have been a very different story if one or both parents had been persuaded to change their views. Personally, I think it would have been less suitable for Babylon 5 and more typical of, say, Old Trek in that case.

This was about people being genuinely, irreconcilably different, and how the characters have to accept and live with that. A story about their conversion to human rationality and the value of Dr. Franklin's medical judgment would be a very different lead-in to a very different story arc.

We all have our preferences, of course, but I think I would rather have this one, however painful and uncomfortable it is in the watching.

#21 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:39 PM:

Nancy, 18 (et al.): ISTM that the question is not "is this religion mistaken?" but "are there things we value more than life?" The Chosen answer "yes," Franklin answers "no."

When this originally aired, I was torn. But now I think Franklin was wholly wrong. Part of this is that my parents are getting older, and we've recently had several serious discussions about their (hypothetical, thank God) end-of-life care. I'm wholly in favor of sentient beings getting to choose their deaths; Shon was sentient, which means that Franklin should not have high-handedly interfered.

Or suppose Shon had been a cancer patient. Would Franklin have tied him to the bed and forced chemo on him? How is this different?

#22 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:40 PM:

JD Rhoades @19:

The variability of age among aliens is why I mentioned the evidence of Shon's cognitive development in his dealings with Sinclair and Franklin.

I'd say the ability to recognize the gloppit egg for what it is, and the consideration to ask that Franklin not be told, shows a theory of mind and a consideration of others that puts him at least at twelve-equivalent in intellectual terms. It's certainly as complex a piece of judgment as evaluating the probable consequences of surgery within the context of his beliefs.

#23 ::: Brendan Podger ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 05:54 PM:

It was eps like Believers that really blew me away and made me a fan of Bab 5. I just couldn't see ST allowing that sort of thing to happen. They would have produced a happily-ever-after ending. This is much more satisfying.

#24 ::: Gement ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:06 PM:

Given the Jehovah's Witness and Christian Science stuff, I think of Believers as being an episode where the station, like our own over-culture, needs to define some clear boundaries.

The boundaries I'm most concerned with involve the nature of informed consent and age of consent. I emphatically support the right of adults to refuse treatment.

I also emphatically support the right of the state to say that if we don't even trust young people to make their own sexual or alcohol-related choices yet, and regulate the need to educate young people with or without their parents' consent, then whether or not they want to accept life-saving care measures that are considered reasonable by the medical profession is clearly off the consent table.

Wow, that was a long sentence. Pretend I figured out how to break that up into smaller bites.

When they're adults, when they have any chance of forming their own nuanced opinions and have a tangible sense of what life and death mean, sure. They can go off themselves. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of adults to tend their well-being conservatively, within a range of culturally accepted standards.

And then we hit "but there's more than one culture!" Yup. And at some point you still have to pick some values to build your legal code upon.

I don't know what B5 says about schooling, about age of consent (which must vary widely by species), about any of those things. I do know they must have a body of interplanetary laws on which situations preservation of clinical life takes precedence over cultural observances, and which it does not, because you've got too many cultures not to draw a line on what's murder. This episode makes me want JMS to spell them out. Possibly in a separate book of regulations to be read only by wonks like me.

If the station just shrugs and says "Work it out for yourselves," then that's the rules, folks. If Franklin's acting on behalf of the station, he should have recused himself. If he's acting as an independent agent, then he's exercising his cultural standard and they're exercising their cultural standard and this kind of mess is inevitable.

#25 ::: Chaomancer ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:22 PM:

I find it interesting to note that, in B5, there is something that could be defined as a soul. See Soul Hunter, for example.

Given that, the parents belief could well be based on something accurate. it could even, for their species if not others, be literally true. More investigation is needed.

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:23 PM:

Germent @24:

Actually, much of this is addressed in the episode.

Sinclair explicitly says the only precedent he has to work with was the decision to operate on Kosh against his consent, and that he feels that decision was wrong. It imposed human values on an alien.

There is no body of law about how these varied people live together. Where they have ambassadors, those ambassadors represent their interests to the station staff. Where they do not have an ambassador (and this species does not), it is Sinclair's responsibility to take extra consideration of their needs when dealing with matters like this.

He did that. He decided that Franklin was not entitled to override the parents' wishes (and the patient's, though as a minor his carry less weight). Franklin did so anyway, against Sinclair's ruling.

Although Babylon 5 is an Earth outpost, its purpose is to provide common ground for many species to work together. Imposing the values of any one culture on the entire station would damage that objective, so Sinclair's job is to keep that kind of intervention to a minimum. Even so, he's repeatedly accused, in multiple episodes, of favoring humans over other species in any conflicts that occur.

(I suspect this legal system—or lack thereof—makes Garibaldi's job astonishingly difficult at times.)

If it's still seeming horrible and unfair, try turning it around. Suppose you're part of a minority community of humans on these people's world, and one of you needs an appendectomy. How would you feel about them imposing their rules about surgery on you? (Not that they would. You're not born of the Egg.)

#27 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:26 PM:

#21 ::: TexAnne:

I'm not saying that the operation should have been done without consent, I'm saying that some discussion of whether the religion is true might have been good-- and there are consent issues with discussion, too.

It would have been an interesting, and very different, and possibly not suitable for B5 story, if it had turned out that M'Ola and Thara had very good reasons for opposing the operation.

#28 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:32 PM:

I'd say another "palmed card" comes from the pattern of "our headlines in outer space". OK, there's the whole argument about conflicting beliefs, and the questions of arbitrating beliefs. Fine, but that argument could have been, and has been, done right here on Earth.

But... we're talking about an alien species, one different enough from humans to have "internal air bladders". Who is Franklin to declare that their beliefs are mere superstition? For all he knew, that operation could have left the boy a mindless husk, or a berserk killer.

A more "interesting" ending would have been if he'd been rejected on sight as "demonic", not just by his parents, but by others of his species, including individuals who hadn't known about the operation. Schoolmates or strangers, doesn't really matter -- the point is, they see a difference, even if we humans can't.

#29 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:32 PM:

And I see that Chaomancer beat me to it.

#30 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:39 PM:

Nancy @27:

M'Ola and Thara did have very good reasons for opposing the operation. It released Shon's soul before they could sing it through to the next world to await them, and left a demon—a soulless body—behind for them to deal with. Those were, to them, the best reasons in the universe. Would they have let their beloved son die for anything but good reasons?

Babylon 5 is fiction. You don't have to be religious here and now to accept their reasons as valid in their context, any more than you have to believe in the un-synthesizable ingredient in Jha'dur's anti-agathic to deal with its consequences in "Deathstalker".

It's all too easy to project our own ideas about religion onto these characters. Franklin did the same thing, and came to regret it. It robs one of the ability to deal with them fairly.

#31 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:39 PM:

Nancy, 27: It's hard to discuss the truth of a religion when one person is already convinced it's bunk, and the other is convinced it's not. Even if Franklin had tried a respectful conversation, the Chosen knew they were right. (Do I remember correctly that he was mostly a researcher, not a clinician? If that's the case, it explains a lot.)

#32 ::: Jim Lund ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 06:59 PM:

I *really* dislike sf episodes that are the equivalent of the afternoon movie of the week. It's... an alien with bulimia, it's... latchkey alien kids, and on and on. These episodes of TV sf almost always handle the *issue of the day* crudely and bluntly, mapping the human issue one-to-one to the alien/sf context.

And aside from the legal environment on Babylon 5, the moral issues don't really work across the alien/human divide. I mean the issues seem clear because the situation is meant as an analogy of Jehovah Witnesses medical issues in a Western legal context, but aren't so clear if you fuzz in alien elements and differences between humans and aliens.

I mean, how would a man feel if he fell ill on a cruise out along the Galactic Rim and woke to find that while being treated for a stomach bug the docs threw in a castration to cure the testosterone poisoning they diagnosed? Or discovered their human patient was suffering from chronic loss of brain cells (almost 1% a year!) and decided that popping out the brain and installing it in a cyborg body with a stabilizing blood replacement bath was the necessary cure?

Do humans and aliens agree on the disease diagnosis? On the severity? On the value of the cure to the individual? On the social value of the cure?

Again, perhaps the patient turns out to be suffering from a serious mental illness--illogical thinking, very dangerous--and that a simple drug treatment permanently cures it. It has the side effect of removing the patient's sense of humor, but that's OK, the aliens consider that an unnecessary quirk, like pigeon toes.

#33 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 07:45 PM:

What basis do we have for thinking that M'Ola and Thara (their species is apparently the Children of Time) were wrong about their son's soul? How much less plausible is it than the notion that Minbari souls are transmigrating into human bodies? I mean, they just had that Soul Hunter plot line a few episodes back. (Hey, maybe the Children of Time should get in touch with the Soul Hunters about adapting that soul-capture technology for soul-catching-and-restoration.)

Babylon 5, in many ways, resembled a fantasy story set in the future rather than a science fiction story. That anti-agathic is a prime example. It's not a medical procedure; it's an immortality spell powered by human (or other sapient) sacrifice.

#34 ::: JD Rhoades ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 07:51 PM:


A more "interesting" ending would have been if he'd been rejected on sight as "demonic", not just by his parents, but by others of his species, including individuals who hadn't known about the operation. Schoolmates or strangers, doesn't really matter -- the point is, they see a difference, even if we humans can't.

That WOULD have been interesting. Another interesting ending would have been if Shon's rejection by his parents or culture had shattered him to the point where he actually did become the "soulless" creature his parents feared. But that would probably have created another story arc in a series that already had plenty.

#35 ::: Gement ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 08:06 PM:

@26 abi, I actually am in agreement with you. It's just been too long since I have seen the episode, and remember at the time being blazingly annoyed by the lack of any kind of reasonable procedure. The argument I intended to make was "These are our precedents and our context. Without their precedents and their context, we just don't have enough data." Apparently their context was "it's a mess," which sounds about right.

@32 Thanks for giving some much better examples. The episode was so clearly about a newspaper issue that it made it hard for me to engage with the hypothetical ethical problem. Your suggestions make it clear why B5 has to say "screw it, do what they say" in any medical context.

It doesn't solve the problem of clashing life-and-limb values that involve different cultures in shared space, which is what they were trying to get at here, but they were trying to get at it with the wrong hammer, I think. The real issue is the intersection of their fist and my face.

#36 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 08:45 PM:

Some while before I saw Believers, I saw, quite by accident, an episode (the only one I have ever seen) of Doogie Howser, M.D.

The plot was very similar, with an oriental couple opposing an operation on their child for reasons we would think superstitious. But Doogie saved the day by finding a religious person from their culture to do some make-it-all-right thing. Which left me thinking that that was very nice, but what about when there is no rabbit in the hat. So when I saw Believers, I was delighted to see a non-happified version of the problem. And delighted to see the parents shown as loving and thoughtful people, who would give anything to help their son live, when it would have been easy to make them, rather than their beliefs, the problem.

I suspect that David Gerrold, who had at least one of his Star Trek scripts (The Cloud Minders) happified, was glad to write an episode where a problem has no good answers,

#37 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 10:10 PM:

The Kobayashi Maru, as I recall, is the test given to Starfleet cadets to assess their ability to binge on hot dogs and then plunge head-first into boxes.

#38 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 10:34 PM:

Brendan Podger @23: It was eps like Believers that really blew me away and made me a fan of Bab 5. I just couldn't see ST allowing that sort of thing to happen. They would have produced a happily-ever-after ending. This is much more satisfying.

And, in fact, you've just described the ST:TOS episode "The Mark of Gideon." The story had several points at which they could have dealt with the values conflict, but instead, they Made It All Better. Fairly typical of the era, as I recall. I can't imagine any primetime TV show doing any differently.

#39 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 11:29 PM:

TexAnne, #21: This is very close to my position on this issue, as long as the patient is competent to give or withhold consent. I consider that to be entirely consistent with my support for "death with dignity"; everyone has the right to choose the time and path of their own death (so long as it doesn't endanger anyone else).

Things get much dicier when the patient is clearly too young, or too mentally incapable, to give consent. The question I have asked about that situation, WRT issues such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Christian Scientists, is: when is a child considered competent to say, "I don't want to go along with my parents' religious beliefs"? I think most people would agree that the average 2-year-old is not competent to give consent, but that the average 12-year-old probably is. Where does one draw the line?

#40 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 11:39 PM:

Avram @37: I must say, my favorite depiction to date of the Kobayashi Maru test -- and my favorite truefax-in-my-fanon description of how Our Favorite Crew did in it -- is in Julia Ecklar's novel by the same name.

It is teh ossim, and I recommend it highly. For Spock's and Scotty's reactions to the test, if no others, but they're all good, and very believably What Those People Would Do.

Rot13ed for those who care enough to know but not enough to find and read the book: Fcbpx qrpvqrq vg jnf abg hc gb uvz gb pbagenirar vagrefgryyne gerngvrf sbe n irel onq punapr ng fnivat n qnzntrq fuvc, fb ur yrsg jvgubhg ragrevat gur Arhgeny Mbar. Fpbggl, ba gur bgure unaq, jura ur jrag va sbe gur erfphr naq sbhaq uvzfrys fheebhaqrq ol Birejuryzvat Sbepr, unq uvf jrncbaf bssvpre naq uryzfzna qb n ovmneer frdhrapr bs guvatf, naq fubg gurz nyy qbja. Gur cebsrffbef uhqqyrq nobhg vg sbe na rkgraqrq crevbq, naq qvfpbirerq nsgre zhpu erfrnepu gung jung Fpbggl qvq jbhyq bayl jbex va n fvzhyngvba -- orpnhfr gurve fvzhyngbe'f fyvtugyl-fvzcyvsvrq culfvpf ehyrf nyybj vg. Ohg va gur erny jbeyq, sbetrg vg. Gurl pnyyrq uvz ba gur pnecrg naq nfxrq jung ur gubhtug ur jnf qbvat ... naq gura gurl abgvprq gur anzr ba gur CuQ gurfvf gung CEBIRQ vg jbhyqa'g jbex va gur erny jbeyq: Zbagtbzrel Fpbgg. Zbfg bs gur perj gel gb 'purng', ol fbzr qrsvavgvba bs gur ehyrf (naq zbfg ybfr nalubj), gubhtu Xvex zbfg oyngnagyl.

#41 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2011, 11:52 PM:

Elliott, 40: I think I read that! Did Scotty roll his eyes and ask some redshirt if they thought *every* Chief Engineer was given the conn? I might have to idly keep an eye out.

#42 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 12:21 AM:

Believers is one of those eps that I've puzzled over repeatedly, in terms of Abi's "palmed cards" -- I keep getting stuck puzzling over the parents telling Franklin (who I think was wholly and indefensibly Wrong, but that's another post entirely) that they were very familiar with the operation, veterinarians do the procedure to food animals, regularly, but the food animals don't have spirits that will escape.

That strongly suggests to me that their food animals are physiologically extremely similar--or, horrors, identical--to the People of the Egg with their escape-prone spirits, but culturally/religiously Other. And that supposition, then, opens a whole other can of worms about their religious beliefs.

But I have a convoluted and twisted point of view, sometimes, I have to confess.

#43 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 01:04 AM:

Believers was one of the first-season episodes that struck me as Not Very Trekkie, with the refusal to make everything come out all right at the end of the episode; that was one of the things that kept me watching the show, even if I didn't like the resolution. (There's no good resolution given the set-up, but it was very wrenching for a first-time watcher. Later on we'd realize that JMS really was trying to kill off all the Cute Kids...)

#44 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 05:44 AM:

I found Franklin somewhat offensive in chiding his assistant for saying the religion is stupid when he basically does the same thing with less respect for them.

BTW, on a second watch, Kosh isn't really being all that mysterious. His response was right after they ask him how he would feel if the Humans operated on him without his permission, and his reply was basically: that's already happened, the precedent is set, and it's too late to do anything about it.

I would consult either one of that race's religious leaders or someone familiar with their faith. My first impulse is that it can't be that stupid and there's some way out; most religions and honor codes do have such exceptions (grr..Legend of the Rangers...grr..)Then again, Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses sort of proves me wrong.

I'd expect there must be SOME mechanism to deal with people of that race getting stabbed, shot, or cut. A Dr. House would probably actually stab one or both of the parents non-lethally to make the point.

#42; It's a crime fiction trope that Vets can work on criminals or others that want to avoid hospitals with mandatory report laws. Dunno how real that is; I'm sure someone will be along shortly.

#45 ::: Leigh Kimmel ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 07:08 AM:

#42 Actually, the physiological similarities of their food animals to themselves don't necessarily imply anything sinister or horrifying -- think how similar cattle and especially hogs are to humans. We have the same basic anatomical structures and develop very similar problems, because we do come from a common ancestor evolutionarily, albeit quite distant. In fact, many veterinarians get equipment from the same medical supply houses that supply human hospitals.

#46 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 07:24 AM:

Lee #39: And if you think having a mere life at stake makes things "dicey", consider the RW arguments involving sexual exposures or even information!

MacAllister #42: You mean like we sterilize dogs and cats, or amputate earflaps and tails? I think the vets here will confirm that internally, humans resemble most other mammals; Pigs in particular have organs so similar to ours that they were considered for transplant donors (before xenoimmunity and zoonoses backed us off that line of investigation).

Marc Mielke #44: One possibility is that M’Ola and Thara, and presumably Kosh, are, say, part of a "hereditary priesthood" ("The Chosen") which suffers special taboos.

#47 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 07:54 AM:

Abi, you were dead right re. Deathwalker: Sometimes there’s a right answer, but you know that no one will choose it. Oh yes.

Re. "Believers", i thought it was quite well set up so that there was no right answer*

David Harmon @28:A more "interesting" ending would have been if he'd been rejected on sight as "demonic", not just by his parents, but by others of his species, including individuals who hadn't known about the operation. Schoolmates or strangers, doesn't really matter -- the point is, they see a difference, even if we humans can't.

That is what happened. At least, as I saw it: M'Ola and Thara walked in not knowing Shon had been opperated on, took one look at him and knew with horror that he was soul-less - although he didn't feel any different to himself, and he didn't seem different to any of the humans. Are you saying they saw how much (physically) better better he was, deduced Franklin had operated (rather than working out some other miraculous cure), and rejected him, all in that second? I thought that, at the least, their reaction left the possibility that, rather than making that deduction, they did indeed see/feel the damage that had been done to him.

Although, yes (Carrie S. @ 60), I did wonder about the problem of someone cutting themself accidentally, or whatever.

I did think they were both good, make-you-think, episodes.

*I remember the lession about situations with no right answer in C.J. Cherry's "Cuckoo's Egg", also - although it was put in simpler terms!.

#48 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 09:48 AM:

David Harmon @ #46: actually, porcine heart valves are still being used to replace human heart valves. I've met someone who's had that surgery.

#49 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 10:18 AM:

Although, yes (Carrie S. @ 60), I did wonder about the problem of someone cutting themself accidentally, or whatever.

It's occurred to me since that perhaps it's only the abdominal cavity (or analogue) that mustn't be opened, but I could be wrong.

#50 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 12:16 PM:

Carrie S. (49): That's certainly a plausible interpretation.

#51 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 12:58 PM:

Leigh Kimmel @45 and David Harmon @46 - You both make excellent and calming points, in that human beings are indeed extremely physiologically similar to many of our food animals. And admittedly, my own suspicions may be unfounded, regarding egg-hatching aliens who perhaps eat their own siblings like some sorts of squid or fish or reptiles do.

The thing is, we also don't tend to do very many expensive or complicated life-saving surgeries on our food animals, we tend to just go ahead and butcher 'em out. Treating a milk cow for bloat, perhaps, could be analogous? And I know dairy farmers and vets often do that, especially on a youngish cow who should have several productive years ahead of her.

Dogs, cats, horses, and other animals we esteem more highly than those we eat, though, we'll happily pay for cosmetic surgeries, colic surgeries, spaying and neutering and so on. At the vet hospital I used to work for, I remember an exotic-animal vet operating on a guy's koi, to stabilize a badly torn fin, in fact.

But mostly it makes for a more twisted and interesting story in my own brain, to turn the various possibilities and assumptions over and poke at them. YMMV (grin)

#52 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 01:40 PM:

Lila #48: (Warning: major digression from original topic.)

Interesting, but it looks to me like a classic "exception that proves the rule". Examining your linked article indicates that the porcine valves, and similar valves made from bovine tissue, are "fixed" with glutaraldehyde. Consulting Wikipedia indicates that glutaraldehyde is a powerful preservative which disrupts ("cross-links) proteins. That is, a porcine valve transplant is thoroughly killed tissue, which (reading into "ingrowth") serves to provide a scaffold for host tissue to regrow the correct structure. Presumably, xenorejection is thus prevented, or can be held off long enough, for ingrowth to dominate.

ISTR that a similar technique is sometimes used with bone, involving a preparation called "demineralized bone matrix" -- again, dead tissue provides a suitable shape and raw materials for regrowth of host tissue.

In contrast, I've heard that the few times surgeons have tried to transplant live organs, the host body attacked them so fast and hard, that the surgeon could see them turning black at the edges even before he closed the incision! Current theory is that this aggressive response is probably a defense against parasites. (Thinking about that one too long is nightmare fuel....)

#53 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 01:57 PM:

Well, I seem to be interpreting Believers very differently than most people here. I think that religious tolerance goes only so far, and denying life-saving medical care to a child is over the line, along with human (or in this context, sentient) sacrifice, suttee, killing the infidels in the name of God, and pretty much every other flavor of religiously motivated murder.

Similar remarks apply to respect for parents' decisions on behalf of their children. Sometimes those decisions are child abuse (even sometimes when the parents don't realize it), and we have an obligation to step in and stop them. In a sense that's arrogant, I guess, but Franklin *does* know better what the effects of a medical procedure are -- that's what his medical training is for.

It's one thing for someone to choose to die for his beliefs; it's quite another for two people to choose to have someone *else* die for their beliefs. And our society (and, it seems likely, the societies of other sentient species) don't allow children to make those kinds of decisions because they aren't capable of fully understanding the ramifications.

#54 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 02:06 PM:

I tend to think that Franklin was wrong. But one of the things I like about "Believers" is that there *are* no clear-cut answers. Not only are the issues open to debate, but the episode doesn't come down on one side or the other, either. Life is messy like that; it's refreshing to see a TV show that is, too.

#55 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 02:39 PM:

chris, 53: Those are reasonable arguments, for Earth. But in the context of the episode, Shon's choices were 1) die and go to Heaven-analogue; 2) live as a demon; 3) agree with the aliens that everything he has ever been taught is wrong, and stay with the aliens, cut off from everyone he loves. There's no way that Shon, as presented, would have picked option 3.

#56 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 04:37 PM:

There's also, to return again to what several other commenters have pointed out, the clearly-established precedent that, in the B5 universe, souls (or spirits) DO exist. They can be trapped in glass bubbles, play amid Minbari windchimes, or tranmogrify into human bodies from other (at least from Minbari) species.

That's definitely enough, for me, to cast Franklin (who doesn't have first-hand experience or even seem to know about those examples), into the "doing the best he can with limited information" camp, which makes him marginally more sympathetic -- even though his actions do make him seem to veritably personify hubris, resulting in the inevitable tragedy that hubris always seems to cause.

#57 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 06:44 PM:

On a second rewatch, Shon's affect was a little strange post-surgery. His 'please take me to my parents' almost sounded like it should have ended with 'so I CAN EAT THEIR SOULS', and he had a strange look in his eyes.

Maybe kids just freak me out.

#58 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 07:46 PM:

Option 4: Regime change to wipe out morally inferior religions by force.

#59 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2011, 07:53 PM:

Marc Mielke @44: I would consult either one of that race's religious leaders or someone familiar with their faith. My first impulse is that it can't be that stupid and there's some way out; most religions and honor codes do have such exceptions (grr..Legend of the Rangers...grr..)Then again, Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses sort of proves me wrong.

From what I've read, Mary Baker Eddy wore eyeglasses, and had dental treatment, so there must have been some exceptions. The Christian Science FAQ says that Christian Scientists are free to seek medical treatment if they wish to.

Furthermore, Christians Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses don't constitute the whole of the human species. The Church of Christ, Scientist in particular is tiny, maybe a quarter of a million members. The Jehova's Witnesses claim about 7 million practicing members, but they don't reject all medical treatment, just blood transfers. And some of them define this as only a prohibition of transfers of whole blood, not (say) fractionated blood plasma, which sounds like the kind of exception you're talking about.

That's hardly the same as the science-fictional "every member of this species follows this same strict and merciless religion".

#60 ::: Heather K ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2011, 02:41 AM:

Carries @ 49: Word of God is that the concern was indeed cutting into the thoracic cavity. JMS used to hang out in online SF communities (the specific one I ran into him on was the CompuServe SF Forum, later SF Media), and people asked him the same question when the episode first aired.

#61 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2011, 10:38 AM:

I think in the B5 universe it is quite, quite clear that souls are concrete things. So start from there. Shon's soul was lost from his body because of the operation. His parents could tell that immediately upon seeing him.

The human analogy, it seems to me, would an alien race who thinks that healing a human with a brain injury is best accomplished by removing part of the brain. Because that race does does not keep its memories there.


#62 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2011, 05:14 PM:

Chaomancer@25, no, all we know about souls in the B5verse is that some people / races believe very strongly that there is a soul and are willing to make major sacrifices for that belief. We don't know that souls exist. (What evidence do we have, even in the _River of Souls_ movie, that what is captured in those globes are souls? None. They could just be mindstate copies or something, very different from the Minbari light-on-wall soul.)

#63 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2011, 06:12 PM:

Chaomancer @25. Beth @61 et al: While souls are widely believed in the B5 universe to exist, their inclusion in stories is almost always accompanied by discussion and debate about whether they are real and, if so, what they are. There is no doubt that the Soul Hunters were capturing something but whether it is some extracorporeal life force or just a recording of the personality of the subject is never resolved. JMS himself pointedly refused to say one way or another in discussions of Soul Hunter (see his archived usenet postings in the Lurker's Guide where he says he doesn't want to give answers but pose questions and inspire discussion).

Three views of the concept of the soul are presented in Soul Hunter:
No soul, just a personality as a function of the brain (Franklin)
Immortal, reincarnatable souls (Minbari)
Souls that die with the body unless preserved (Soul Hunters)

That something resembling the original personality of the subject is recorded by the Soul Hunters is really not proven until River of Souls. What that something is is never revealed.

The Minbari Grey Council reached some conclusions about souls, specifically Minbari souls and their reincarnation, based on what happened to Sinclair in the missing 24 hours. Their conclusions were based on a flawed assumption so we still can't know the truth.

#64 ::: R. Emrys ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2011, 09:15 PM:

Believers was the point at which I started to relax and trust the show. Because the ending is something that would never have happened on Star Trek, and humans were not always going to be right, and actions were going to have consequences. (I like Trek, which was my first fandom, but I do keep track of the Not Star Trek point in any televised SF these days.)

Given that, the parents belief could well be based on something accurate. it could even, for their species if not others, be literally true. More investigation is needed.

That had never occurred to me until this discussion. We have strong evidence for the existence of souls in the B5 universe--along with precognition and time travel--and evidence that they don't work the same for every species. Eep.

#65 ::: Madeley ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 10:14 AM:

[Spoilers for later B5 episodes and, er, JMS' Spider-man run]

I don't think we can say for certain that souls are real things within the B5 universe. I think JMS was careful to offer both a spiritual explanation and a scientific explanation, if only implicitly, whenever the issue of souls come up. As mentioned previously in this thread, Soul Hunters may only be brain-scanning folk at the moment of their deaths. The Minbari may be finding traces of human DNA in their people due to Sinclair's arrival in the past, and then extrapolating the whole soul thing.

The dual explanation is certainly one of JMS' themes. He caused controversy during his Spider-man run by suggesting the possibility that it wasn't a radioactive spider bite on its own that gave Peter Parker his powers, but his selection by a mystical force to become a spider-totem. Curiously, spider-fandom took this as an outright rejection by JMS of Spider-man's origin, even as he also emphasised the 'Scientific' (ho ho) aspect of the origin. Late on in the run, a character says to Peter Parker (I forget the exact wording) that from his culture's point of view, every evening a monster consumes the sun, and every morning the sun is reborn. On the other hand, night and day are also created by the planet revolving. When Parker asks which story is true, the character asks him in turn, why can't they both be?

Later on in the B5, Franklin is open enough (with a news crew of all people) to talk of a traumatic airlock accident in his childhood where he saw a friend die. As to why Dr. Franklin made the decision he did, I think psychologically he was unable to make a different one.

#66 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 10:23 AM:

When Parker asks which story is true, the character asks him in turn, why can't they both be?

People seem to have a huge problem with that, and generally turn it into non-overlapping magisteria, which it isn't.

#67 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 11:55 AM:

Beth @61 et al. I don't think Shon's parents could tell he was soulless, per se. I think they were resigned to his death, had been told that nothing could be done and, when confronted with a healthy child, came to the correct conclusion that Dr. Franklin had pulled a no-no and were horrified.

#68 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 12:01 PM:

Beth @61 et al. I don't think Shon's parents could tell he was soulless, per se. I think they were resigned to his death, had been told that nothing could be done and, when confronted with a healthy child, came to the correct conclusion that Dr. Franklin had pulled a no-no and were horrified.

#69 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 02:02 PM:

Eric (67/68): That's how I interpreted it, as well. To my mind, that makes it more interesting, because it preserves the ambiguity.

#70 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 03:16 PM:

But in the context of the episode, Shon's choices were 1) die and go to Heaven-analogue; 2) live as a demon; 3) agree with the aliens that everything he has ever been taught is wrong, and stay with the aliens, cut off from everyone he loves. There's no way that Shon, as presented, would have picked option 3.

Social rejection is more survivable than adolescents tend to think; which is why we don't just let them hang themselves whenever they are socially rejected on Earth. (Not *pleasant*, mind you. But survivable. Even in the B5 universe, I think one thing you can say about death is that you're not going to get better.) Although we're uncertain about the existence and nature of the afterlife, we tend to take a skeptical view of the claim that dying now is preferable, and for good reasons, too.

...Come to think of it, there's perfectly good Earth-based analogies for people who, in their adolescence, are horrified to discover something about themselves that means they are likely to be rejected by their family and society on religious grounds. I'd like to think that most people here react to that situation by condemning the morality of the rejectors and/or trying to make a new home for the outcasts, not by saying that adolescents in that situation should choose death if they find it preferable to life as a pariah.

Anyway, in the context of the episode, Shon had no choices. His parents killed him, or had you forgotten that part? We don't know whether he would have chosen to live as an exile, or commit suicide later, or even track down and try to kill Franklin for what he had done to him.

#71 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2011, 03:34 PM:

chris @70:

If you're truly incapable of seeing that episode from any perspective but the one, it's clear that no one will be able to explain it to you. I'm surprised; usually you're not so tripped up by your own circumstance that you can't make the leap into another's headspace.

I'm sorry this episode has got so far under your skin. I'm sorry for whatever it is in your life or your past that's done that to you.

Maybe you could wait for the next post, on setting, instead of getting quite so wrought up about this one episode?

#72 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 11:55 AM:

chris actually has a reasonable point: the episode does take a rather radical turn into nightmare territory when you discover that the parents have taken their son away and murdered him.
If they'd just, say, abandoned him on the station - "that's no longer our son, dispose of it" - then it's much more possible to be on their side, for all the reasons abi's outlined. But given what they do - the only conclusion I think you can come to is "Franklin did the wrong thing, but the parents are killers."
They killed a sentient being; soul or not, the boy was sentient, and they didn't think he deserved to live. That's murder.

#73 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 12:31 PM:

Ajay @72 To play Devil's Advocate: if the child is old enough to give consent (or withold it) for medical procedures, isn't he old enough to consent to assisted suicide?

#74 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 02:23 PM:

@73: But he isn't. Unless I'm misremembering the episode, we don't see him making any decision that isn't just whatever his parents say. That's a clear indication of a lack of independent capacity for decisionmaking, regardless of his chronological age or whatever pace of development is normal for his species, etc.

That's also why I have a hard time accepting interpretations of the episode that claim Shon is making decisions based on his own views about the universe. He clearly isn't; he's repeating his parents' views and decisions. That's an ethical can of worms even for decisions well short of "I would like to die now, please".

Making decisions on another's behalf -- particularly a child -- entails an obligation to decide in the other's best interest and when the proxy decisionmaker is unwilling or incapable of doing that, other authority -- or failing that, anyone with the ability -- *needs* to step in, to prevent a horrible result. That's the perspective I see this episode from because the episode is (for me) emotionally dominated by the horrible result which actually happens at the end of the episode. It's a breach of parental duty which is either tragic, monstrous, or both, but even if you think the parents are sincere, I can't get around the fact that their sincerity *killed their child*.

It's Abraham without the last-minute intervention. Is someone going to show up and defend Abraham, too? In my view, Abraham failed a moral test when he refused to defy his god to defend his child. The parents in this episode, likewise.

#75 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 02:47 PM:

chris @74: Actually, it's interesting that you bring up Abraham, as I recall JMS having some rather scathing things to say about a "loving" god that would do that to one of his loyal creations.

#76 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 03:22 PM:

chris, #74: In my view, Abraham failed a moral test when he refused to defy his god to defend his child.

Same here. I never could understand why that incident was presented as something to be proud of. Of course, a lot of the Old Testament version of God pings my "abusive parent" alarms anyhow.

#77 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 03:39 PM:

I have certainly read interpretations of that passage that say that Abraham failed the test; the real answer was, "Wait, what kind of a God are you, again?"

But it's not parallel.

From Shon's parents' perspective*, Franklin killed their son, killed him more profoundly than the death of his body would have done. Because Franklin released his soul before they had a chance to sing it home.

Then, adding to the harm, he left the soulless shell, which they called a demon, still around for them to sort out. I don't know what they think a demon can do, but it was scary enough that they drew knives on sight.

From a human perspective, this is completely backwards, clearly. But the story isn't about how humans are always right, and all the aliens will fall into line with our self-evident correctness. It's about how we break each other's mental models even when we all mean well, and how much damage that can cause.

It's a hard episode to watch if you think that they're the bad guys here. But trust me, it's even harder if you can enter into their perspective enough to see that, from the inside, there are no bad guys to be angry at.

-----
* as far as I can see from a careful watching of the episode

#78 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 04:04 PM:

No, still not buying that one, sorry. If your religion says it's ok to kill an unthreatening,iinnocent sentient creature because you think it's a demon, then your religion is evil. what if they had killed their son because he had argued with them and their religion says that disrespectful children deserve to die?

#79 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 04:12 PM:

chris @ 74: we don't see him making any decision that isn't just whatever his parents say. That's a clear indication of a lack of independent capacity for decisionmaking

This doesn't work for me as an evaluation standard, based on my own experience (I've known twelve-year-olds who were perfectly capable of independent decisionmaking, even though they did agree with their parents on most things, and two-year-olds who disagreed with their parents about everything but were clearly not capable of independent decisionmaking). However,

I have a hard time accepting interpretations of the episode that claim Shon is making decisions based on his own views about the universe. He clearly isn't; he's repeating his parents' views and decisions.

and it's been too long since I've seen the episode to be able to speak about that.

Making decisions on another's behalf -- particularly a child -- entails an obligation to decide in the other's best interest and when the proxy decisionmaker is unwilling or incapable of doing that, other authority -- or failing that, anyone with the ability -- *needs* to step in, to prevent a horrible result.

Yes. This is (as I see it) the conflict at the heart of the episode. Shon's parents are, to the best of their knowledge and ability, making a decision in Shon's best interest. Dr. Franklin is, to the best of his knowledge and ability, making a decision in Shon's best interest.

We cannot, based on what is presented to us in the story, say that Shon's parents were not trying to act in his best interest. We can disagree that the choice they made is the best choice, but based on what JMS chose to present to us, we cannot say that Shon's parents are "unwilling or incapable" of deciding in his best interest.

It reminds me of my husband's capsule summary of Octavia Butler's work: "Everything's irretrievably screwed up, there's no way to escape it by going over or around or underneath or through, and there are no good choices. So now what are you going to do?"

ajay @ 78: If your religion says it's ok to kill an unthreatening,iinnocent sentient creature because you think it's a demon

But that's not what their religion says. There would be no reason to kill "an unthreatening, innocent sentient creature". They're not looking at "an unthreatening, innocent sentient creature". They're looking at a soulless demon, and although JMS didn't go into much detail about what that meant, it's probably safe to say that demons are neither unthreatening nor innocent.

(Incidentally, a number of people in this discussion have made statements along the line of "killing a sentient creature is murder." Unless all the people saying that are committed ethical vegans, it would seem more accurate to say "killing a sapient creature is murder.")

#80 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2011, 04:13 PM:

It's a difficult episode, no question. Not everyone wants to step that far outside of the human perspective. Not even as a thought exercise.

I think you miss something in not doing so, personally, even though what you're missing is another of the "so many ways to hurt," that Franklin refers to at the end of the episode.

#81 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 04:53 AM:

But that's not what their religion says. There would be no reason to kill "an unthreatening, innocent sentient creature". They're not looking at "an unthreatening, innocent sentient creature".

Well, yes they are. It's just sitting there. It's unarmed, it's not making any threatening moves, it hasn't harmed anyone. They may think it's no longer their son; they may think it's no longer even a member of their species; but it's still obviously an unthreatening, innocent sentient creature.

If they'd just walked onto the station and shot Talia Winters because their religion said "all blonde women are demons and must die", how would their action be morally different?

#82 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 05:02 AM:

ajay @81: it's the species gap that's different. "all humans are demons" is a misunderstanding; "all of us who have been cut in the thoracic cavity are demons" MIGHT be a misunderstanding but, but we (as viewers, or as humans on the station) don't have enough information to say one way or the other.

#83 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 05:53 AM:

82: not sure the species gap makes any difference. If we're accepting that they might be right about their son, despite the absence of any detectable evidence, why not accept that they have somehow detected Ms Winters' similarly concealed demonic nature?

Furthermore, even if we accept arguendo that they're right - that cutting into the thoracic cavity somehow releases the soul and turns a person into a demon, whatever that is - don't demons deserve a fair trial before being killed? Since when did Babylon 5 stand for killing sentient beings on sight just because they belong to a species you don't like? "But we know they are evil and threatening!" isn't an argument you'd accept if it was a Narn using it about a Centauri he'd just killed, and he'd have a hell of a lot more justification.

(Lexica: fair point, but I think "sentient" is commonly used in B5 to mean "sapient".)

#84 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 05:59 AM:

I mean, good grief. Take Franklin and his actions out of the equation for a moment and look at the scenario this way: security interrupts an apparent infanticide attempt by a visiting alien couple. The couple explain to Sinclair that their child has developed a rash on his face; according to their religion, a rash on the face means the child has been replaced by a demon which must be killed.
What does Sinclair do?

This sort of scenario is just as "ripped from the headlines", by the way. Every couple of months you see reports of parents beating their child to death in an attempted exorcism.

#85 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 08:14 AM:

ajay #84: security interrupts an apparent infanticide attempt by a visiting alien couple.

And would your reasoning change at all if the alien infant resembled a Giger facehugger rather than a humanoid tween?


#86 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 08:14 AM:

If they'd just walked onto the station and shot Talia Winters because their religion said "all blonde women are demons and must die", how would their action be morally different?

I'm not sure if it was covered well in any of the episodes, but JMS addressed this issue in one of his usenet posts archived at the Lurkers' Guide:

"When a species on the station acts against one of their own kind in a particular way, and no other species is affected, they are judged by the laws that apply to their own species and culture. In their culture, what they did is not a crime, so they received no punishment. Had they done this to a human, then yes, they would have been charged with murder."

Without such a provision, it would be difficult (as Sinclair does say repeatedly) for Babylon 5 to maintain the neutrality and the appearance of neutrality it needs to perform its function.

#87 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 08:47 AM:

Three observations from my most recent watch of "Believers":

1. Several people in this discussion have said: "What if it's really true that something bad happens to Shon's people when they're punctured? Franklin should have investigated further." He does, or rather Dr Sanchez does while he's trying to get permission for the surgery. Immediately before he cuts Shon open, he asks her if she's turned up anything, and she replies in the negative.

2. Shon's parents don't kill the demon because they think it poses a threat. They kill it because it's an incomplete, suffering thing, and death is a kindess. "Do not grieve," Thara tells Franklin. "This was only a shell. There was nothing to do but to end the pain of the shell."

3. Shon goes calmly with his parents when they take him from Medlab to send him on the Great Journey. When Franklin catches up with them in their quarters, there is no sign of a struggle there either. (What you make of this of course depends on whether you assume Shon understood, any more than Franklin initially did, what the Great Journey entailed.)

#88 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 08:50 AM:

me @ #87: Thara tells Franklin

Excuse me, M'Ola tells Franklin. Not that it materially affects the point, but it's good to have the details straight.

#89 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 09:23 AM:

chris@70: Sheridan *does* get better from death. (Classic hero's journey kind of stuff, of course).

#90 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 10:18 AM:

If they'd just walked onto the station and shot Talia Winters because their religion said "all blonde women are demons and must die", how would their action be morally different?

Or more plausibly, "all telepaths are demons"; given how dangerous telepaths can actually be in the B5 universe, I'm surprised there aren't more belief systems that believe that. In fact, there'd probably be some *humans* who interpreted telepaths as witches in league with the Devil, based on human belief systems that already exist.

Furthermore, even if we accept arguendo that they're right - that cutting into the thoracic cavity somehow releases the soul and turns a person into a demon, whatever that is - don't demons deserve a fair trial before being killed? Since when did Babylon 5 stand for killing sentient beings on sight just because they belong to a species you don't like? "But we know they are evil and threatening!" isn't an argument you'd accept if it was a Narn using it about a Centauri he'd just killed, and he'd have a hell of a lot more justification.

And this argument works just as well for prejudice against telepaths, too -- they really are very dangerous if they choose to be, and some are quite untrustworthy, but does that mean they should be categorically killed on sight?

The fact that members of this species whose thoracic cavity has been cut are anathematized, indeed demonized, by that species' religion (or at least the sect the parents belong to) is not a reason to deny the "demons" sentients' (sapients') rights; it's a reason to *protect* them from the bigotry of their fellows. (That is, of course, if you accept that such a change has happened at all, notwithstanding the lack of evidence for it.) And that goes double for a child otherwise helpless against his parents.

What is a demon, that thou art unmindful of him? (Or, why is a soul so important, if he can walk and talk and behave normally without one? If the operation had put Shon into an irreversible coma for no reason explainable by Franklin, that would certainly vindicate the parents' concerns; but it didn't.)

If we're accepting that they might be right about their son, despite the absence of any detectable evidence, why not accept that they have somehow detected Ms Winters' similarly concealed demonic nature?

I think the argument is supposed to be that they know their own species better than we do (but there's no reason to similarly trust their judgment of a human).

But religions of any kind aren't known for getting the facts right; it would be a very different episode if a doctor of that species warned Franklin of the dangerous psychological side effects of thoracic-cavity punctures in that species and presented evidence to back up that warning (and Franklin might have chosen not to operate in that case).

After all, if that species really do turn into soulless demons under certain conditions and soulless demons really do act differently from normal members of the species, then there *would* be evidence of it known to that species, which they would be perfectly capable of presenting if they chose. The fact that that isn't happening (and Franklin does research the question and come up empty) calls one or both premises into question.

#91 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 10:55 AM:

Shorter me: to accept on faith the parents' decision is not just to take on faith that Shon will turn into a demon, but that it is right to kill the resulting demon on sight, notwithstanding the fact that it not only resembles a child but actually was one yesterday; which is an awful lot to take on faith when the stakes are the life of a child, especially in light of some religions' history of declaring innocent people demons and demanding that they be killed on sight.

This doesn't require that the parents be consciously plotting murder; I don't think they are, exactly. But they're tragically misguided in a way that is leading them to kill another sentient/sapient being and that's why they ought to have been stopped, even if their intentions were good given what they believed.

#92 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 11:10 AM:

And would your reasoning change at all if the alien infant resembled a Giger facehugger rather than a humanoid tween?

Yes, because a) not obviously sentient b) not obviously unthreatening.

86: fair enough, that's Word of God on the legal question. Doesn't address the moral point though.

#93 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 01:50 PM:

re 91 and a variety of others: Chris's point here goes back to the point I made back in #3 about universals. If you believe in a single morality that covers all sorts of creature, and you do not believe the claim made by Shon's parents, then it is extremely easy to construct a moral imperative that Franklin did what was right. And furthermore, to the degree that Franklin's moral system is able to overcome the compulsion to respect the practices of others, it doesn't even need to resort to universal principles.

There is another little moral puzzle here, by the way: since there is an element of falsehood in the "going on a great journey" statement, to whom exactly are they lying? They are lying to Franklin, because they are trying to mislead him into thinking that he wouldn't find their intent to be malign. But are they lying to Shon? The most obvious reading is that they are trying to mislead "him" in the same manner as they mislead Franklin, but the question then arises, if the "him" is a demon, why is there a need to mislead it?

#94 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 02:03 PM:

Ajay #92: (1) Consider that a human infant is not necessarily "obviously sentient". For that matter, the Giger facehugger was in fact the infant form of a species which was certainly pretty intelligent, and possibly sentient. (At least once, one explicitly applied a "tit for tat" retaliation against someone who had been holding them captive.)

(2) And if that "facehugger" is clearly targeted toward members of its own species? (I'm thinking nasty reproductive patterns here.)

chris #90: The point is that other species can have very different values, up to and including standards for competency, and the relative merits of death over demonism/dishonor/failure/etc. Suppose some other species started getting pushy about our sexual habits/restrictions, or our current reluctance to outright kill even serious criminals?

#95 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 02:04 PM:

C Wingate @93:

If Franklin realized from the B5 equivalent of Wikipedia that the robe his parents brought Shon was for the journey into death, how would someone raised in the culture miss it? Shon knew.

#96 ::: James Moar ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 02:51 PM:

the B5 equivalent of Wikipedia

Pretty good site, if you stay out of the Drazi Green/Purple edit wars.

#97 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 02:56 PM:

Is "Believers" available for viewing on the web?

#98 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 05:03 PM:

Serge: It's streaming on Netflix, if that helps any.

#99 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 08:40 PM:

Jacque... Duh! Thanks.

#100 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2011, 08:27 AM:

re 95: Ah, you're right; I had forgotten that detail. We're still left with the question of who is this Shon who knows.

#101 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2011, 11:19 AM:

C. Wingate @ #93: There is another little moral puzzle here, by the way: since there is an element of falsehood in the "going on a great journey" statement, to whom exactly are they lying? They are lying to Franklin, because they are trying to mislead him into thinking that he wouldn't find their intent to be malign.

I'm not sure it's clear they were attempting to deceive anybody. They don't say "a great journey", they say "the Great Journey", which subsequent dialogue shows is an established term in their culture. It might not even have occurred to them that Franklin might not know what it meant.

(For that matter, it might not even have occurred to them that they might need to mislead Franklin. I can picture them assuming, from their position in a culture where their actions are the obviously correct response to the situation, that Franklin will now understand what he has done and what must be done - just as Franklin assumed they would understand his actions.)

#102 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 04:03 PM:

I'm warming to the series: these were both good episodes. I enjoyed the one which followed, Survivors. It was good to finally get some sense of who Garibaldi is/was.

I'm finding Sinclair difficult to warm to. At one point I found myself shouting at him for being so damned smug when he was able to manipulate someone -- I don't recall who -- into doing something. That's intriguing: he's not simply a hero.

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