RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Confessions and Lamentations” (Season 2, Episode 18)

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Remember how last week was lame? Really lame? Like “Deep Space 9” lame? Well, as lame as that one was, this one promises to be even lamer, starting off as it does with ‘Generic Star Trek Peril Plot #7: Plauge On The Ship.” However, just to drive home how really, really badly Trek had been doing it in the ‘90s, B5 takes that inauspicious, overused, boring ol’ trope, and turns it into something magnificent. Really!

PLAY BY PLAY

A Markab dies in his quarters. The ranking Markab doctor on the station - Lazaren - does a ‘cause of death’ which seems plausible, but Dr. Franklin needs to concur. Given that there have been four Markab dead in a week, all from ‘natural causes,’ Franklin decides to look deeper, despite the irritation of Dr. Lazaren. He finds that all four are showing signs of some kind of heretofore unknown plague. Around the same time, a Markab freighter bound for the station goes overdue, so Ivonova sends Zeta Squadron out to look for it. They find the ship - and 200 Markab - dead. They tow it back. The Markab on the station refuse to let Sheridan’s people investigate until Franklin confronts Dr. Lazaren, and then it all comes out:

The disease is called “Draffa.” It’s named after an island on the Markab homeworld that was renowned for “Immoral excesses” (Inferred, but not stated to be sexual and deviant in nature). A plague showed up, and everyone on the island died. The disease didn’t spread beyond because of freak weather conditions that kept ships from sailing in or out. This was several centuries back, presumably before the Markab had much in the way of technology. The disease was taken by them to be a punishment from the gods, much the way many people to AIDS to be when it first showed up in the gay community in 1980 (Called “GRID” in those days: “Gay Related Infectious Disease.”). Over time “It became a way to frighten children - be good, or the Dark Angel will visit you and give you Draffa!” The disease is 100% fatal and 100% contagious. It started showing up a year ago, and given the stigma attached to it - “Draffa” is synonymous with immorality - people covered it up. Then people started sneaking away from homeworld, infecting the Markab colonies. By now it’s a full-on pandemic.

Franklin asks Lazaren why he didn’t tell him if he’d known about it for a year, and Lazaren says with real anguish that he was ordered not to. Franklin briefs Sheridan on the situation, and they quarrantine the station. No one knows if it can spread beyond the Markab themselves, or if it’s airborn, spread by touch, or what. Franklin puts the whole station medical staff to work, but they’re kinda’ cowardly and nobody wants to do the autopsies. Lazaren volunteers, and Franklin lets him go - grudgingly - because he knows more than anyone else on the station. Since theres’ only 24 hours from symptoms to death, they need to monitor someone in the very early stages as well, and it’s kind of an unstated assumption that Lazaren is sacrificing himself in the hopes they’ll learn something useful.

Meanwhile, riots break out on the station as people assume the Markab have doomed them all. Things get worse when Draffa jumps species, and Pak’ma’ra start turning up dead, too. The Markab decide to seal themselves up in an ‘isolation zone’ and pray and fast and stuff and hope the gods will forgive them. This is not put forward as a wise idea. Delenn and Lennier insist on going in and offering aid and comfort to the sick and dying. Sheridan grudgingly allows it, but he’s clearly not too happy about it. Delenn keeps bumping in to a little Markab girl, first when her father dies, later when she gets separated from her mom. There’s this great scene where she beams when the girl is reunited with her mother, and then her face just crashes when the little girl staggers and she realizes the kid is doomed. It’s very well acted. There’s a lot of really good acting in this ep.

Franklin is using Stims to stay awake and focused. Lazaren is fading fast. He overhears something Franklin says in a test, and says “The yellow cells might be the key…they…”
Franklin: “What did you say?”
Lazaren: [Long pause] “I’m sorry old friend, I’m afraid I can’t stay any longer. Please give my love to…” [Dies]. Franklin freaks out and smashes up the lab, then experiments with the Yellow Cells, and finds something that might help. Basically the disease doesn’t affect the organs themselves, it shuts them down from the brain by neutralizing neurotransmitters. Some species (Markab, Pak’Ma’Ra) use the same neurotransmitters, and others (Humans, Minbari, Narn, Centauri) don’t. Franklin makes 500 doses and then rushes to the isolation zone with Sheridan and others to start treatment. The hatch opens…

Everyone is dead. Everyone. 4000 Markab. Bodies everywhere, and in the middle of it, a plainly traumatized Lennier, who’s physically trying to shield Delenn from the awfulness of it in something like a hug, and failing. Delenn is in shock. Lennier walks her to the door, and she’s out of it.
Sheridan: “Is there anyone…”
Lennier shakes his head, crying, and looking horrified. As he moves past, Delenn gets out of his grip, and sees Sheridan. She takes a hesitant step towards him, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he holds out his arms, looking like he’s afraid she’s going to fall over. “John,“ she calls him for the first time ever. She pushes up against him, and breaks into sobs and silent screams that look genuinely painful.

ISN says the Markab are extinct. There might be a few left here and there, but the homewolrd and the colonies are dead, and their civilization is extinct. The death toll is 2 billion plus the population of the colonies. People in the bar start making jokes about it before the news report is even done. Someone says they think the Vorlons did it. Disgusted, Franklin walks off.

SUBPLOT A: Sheridan has dinner with Delenn and Lennier

SUBPLOT B: Keffer is told to knock of his hunt for the mysterious ship (A shadow ship) that he saw early on in the season.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Man, they must have blown the makeup budget for this ep! There must be close to a hundred folks in costume and this is not an easy prosthetic forehead/pointy ear dealie. It’s a full-head thing, completely covering the actor excepting the eyes. I mean, the Markab don’t even have noses!

The Markab have been on the show since Season 1, ep 1. This is their last-ever appearance. This is also the first appearance of the Gaim. We see one going up the stairs in the Zocalo.

Franklin mentioned knowing “A really good Markab doctor” in “Knives.” Presumably he was talking about Lazaren. How many could their really be on the station, with a total population of only about 5000 of their species?

Draffa is obviously supposed to be an analog to AIDS, given the moral/deviant aspect of it. Indeed, AIDS gets a name check, but what makes this episode thematically great is that the episode isn’t *really* about disease at all, but about fear. When Franklin goes on about fear, his extended example is the black plague, and not the more obvious current ones. He discusses how fear made the situation much worse, and goes on about it. That makes the episode more universal and less ‘topic-of-the-week,’ and that’s one of the two places where it really succeeds. AIDS as a topic was really pretty overdue in American SF by this point, actually. Away back in 1988 or 89, David Gerrold wrote a really good TNG episode called “Blood and Fire” on the subject, but then Gene Roddenberry homophobically wussed out and didn’t want to queer up his TV show, or maybe he just wanted to screw over Gerrold yet again. I don’t know the exact details. “Blood and Fire” was eventually made, after a fashion, for the Star Trek Phase II Fanfilm series, but I have to say the TNG script was much better than the filmed version. And I have to say, “Confessions and Lamentations” is better than “Blood and Fire.” I say that as a compliment.

The second area where this episode really succeeds is that they lose. They lose bigtime. A child dies. Two billion people die. An entire species is dead. The cure wasn’t even all that difficult, but in the end of the day everyone died. Because of fear. Remember a few months back when I talked about “Chrysalis,” the season 1 finale? Remember how I said that was jaw-dropping in that the good guys lost? This episode is just like that: you totally expect the happy ending, and it doesn’t come. Nowadays, that’s not so amazingly surprising, but in 1995, wow! No one had ever done anything like that before. There was always some hokey happy ending. B5: The show without the hokum. B5 is the show where the cute, innocent kid *DIES* in the end. They've done that twice now.

Man, are the Minbari OCD or what? It took Lennier two days to make Sheridan’s meal, during which time he went without sleep and had to stay ritually pure and do everything in the right order, lest he start over again from scratch. Then they had to do certain rituals *while* eating, lest Lennier have to start over again from scratch. Sheridan falling asleep during the mandatory meditation between mouthfuls was pretty funny.
Delenn: “Captain?”
Sheridan: [startling awake] “…and the nine and the one….what?”
Delenn: “you fell asleep.”
Sheridan: [Embarassed] “I wasn’t sleeping, I was…meditating.”
Lennier: “The noise you made [imitates snore] this is some kind of meditative chanting?”
Sheridan: [Suddenly annoyed] “I don’t snore!”

When he leaves, there’s some Minbari language dialog: Lennier says something that sounds pissy, Delenn says something, and then Lennier says something and looks dejected. There were supposed to be subtitles, but they decided to cut ‘em out. Here’s what they would have said:

Lennier: “He didn’t even TASTE my Flarn!”
Delenn: “Oh, relax, Lennier, your Flarn sucks anyway.”
Lennier: [A beat, sadly] “I know.”

Delenn mentions being lost as a little girl, and waiting in a temple for her parents to find her. She fell asleep and found a man telling her “No harm will come to one of my children in my house.” There’s a lot of speculation on this, including unsubstantiated rumors that it was Valen she saw. The actual real Valen. I tend to believe this was what JMS had in mind at the time, knowing what I know about the concept for “Babylon Prime.” Obviously it’s been retconned out of existence now. What I find surprising is that such a periscope would survive so long. I figured “Prime” had been completely jettisoned by this point, but I guess JMS was still figuring out exactly what he could salvage from it and shoehorn into B5. I’ll go into more detail after the middle of Season III.

Lots of good performances in this one. The brightest and best is someone called “Jim Norton” as Dr. Lazaren, who’s really pretty amazing. He gets an amazingly emotive performance, given that he’s working without a nose. His death is genuinely sad, his annoyance/relief at getting found out is very well done, and his decades-long friendship with Franklin is believable. I can’t find any other credits for the guy at IMDB, but man, he’s good.

Richard Biggs - not to speak ill of the dead or anything - is generally a merely ‘good enough’ actor, and sometimes his line readings seem all over the place (Maybe he‘s a happy guy? No, that doesn‘t work, let‘s try him as smart and quiet this week. Nope. Ok, maybe he‘s funny? No, not getting it either) , but in the last couple episodes he’s become more surly and misanthropic, and it suits him. His soliloquy in “Knives” didn’t work, but that was the writing. He played it well. In this episode, I really think he gives the best performance I’ve seen from him in the show, well above and beyond his normal range. It helps that he had Jim Norton to play off of, but he honestly seems to connect with what’s going on around him through the whole ep. “These people live or die because of me” hangs on everything he does.

Though Bill Mumy seldom has much to do on the show (It’s been four episodes since he’s even been on the show), he is always amazing and unsung. He’s a brilliant ’face actor’ as I call ’em, conveying a lot with expression. The Flarn dialog, for instance, works without knowing what they’re saying. The aghast way he carries himself, while trying to protect Delenn, is stunning. His pride at finding the little girl’s mother just makes you smile. Seriously, the guy is a marvel.

Mira Furlan has a couple great moments, and I like her dialog to Sheridan about how if she dies, the two of them will meet up again “In the place where no shadows fall.” Neat name for heaven!

Garibaldi hasn’t had much to do lately, and this ep is no different, but he’s got a great scene where he rescues a Markab being wailed on by some panicked humans. The Markab holds up his bloodied hand, for Garibaldi to help him get up, and we see Garibaldi think about it for a minute, then decide to do the right thing even though he’s clearly scared to touch the guy.

Seriously, guys, this is how you do a standalone episode!

PRINCIPLE CAST:
Sheridan, Ivonova, Garibaldi, Franklin, Keffer, Delenn, Lennier

Conspicuously absent:
Talia, Londo, Vir, G’kar, Na’Toth, Kosh, Corwin, Zac. Zack’s absence is a little surprising. There’s any number of places he could have fit in.

The Lurker’s Guide page on this ep is better than usual http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/guide/040.html

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

I would certainly hope so!

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