RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “Soul Hunter” (Season 1, Episode 2)

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This episode is more linear than the previous one, and doesn’t feel quite as ‘in the middle of a busy world’ as the previous one did. It’s still pretty good, though the lack of a subplot makes it feel a bit more like “The entire world came to a stop while we were doing this” than they intended. Still, there’s some neat bits hid in the cracks, and some seeds that’ll germinate later on.

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A wrecked unidentified alien ship comes tumbling out of the jump gate, and will whack into B5 if not stopped. Sinclair takes a fighter out, and is able to grapple the thing, and pull it away mere moments before impact. Inside they find a new kind of humanoid alien with a jujube impacted in his forehead. Delenn freaks the heck out when she sees him, identifying him as a “Shag toth” or “Soul Hunter.” She immediately attempts to kill him, but this doesn’t work well. These are immortal aliens who are drawn to death. They have the ability to capture and preserve souls at the moment of death - not all souls, just the ones they find that are worthy - “Thinkers, leaders, poets, blessed lunatics” - and that’s that.

The soul hunter recognizes Delenn as someone he met before, during his failed attempt to save the soul of Dukhat, the Minbari leader. He also recognizes her as more than she’s letting on, a “Satide.” “Why is a glorious leader of the Grey Council pretending to be an ambassador?” She runs off before her cover is blown. The soul hunter escapes from Medlab, and goes scampering about the station trying to find her.

Meanwhile, *another* Soul Hunter arrives at the station, explaining that the other guy is nuts. “He was always fragile.” He was sent out to capture Dukhat’s soul, but failed, and went into sort of a slump where he kept blowing every mission he was sent on. He snapped, and decided to kill people and take their souls, rather than risk losing him. Since then, the other Soul Hunters have been attempting to capture him - they nearly got him last time, which is why his ship was so damaged - but he got away.

Using the 2nd Soul Hunter’s death-sensing abilities, and assuming it’s Delenn’s death they’re sensing, Sinclair tracks them to a typically shabby part of down below, where he gets involved in a gunfight with the guy. He releases the souls from the guy’s collection - these are little glowing levitating orbs - and these fly over to him and block him from doing anything. He seems scared, as if only realizing now that they hate him for what he’s done to them. Sinclair whips the Soul Catching Machine around, and kills the Soul Hunter with it.

Despite massive bloodloss, Delenn is fine. As she comes around she says, rather messianicaly, “I knew you would come! We were right about you!” and passes out before she can say more. Having heard the word “Satide” from the Soul Hunter earlier, Sinclair does a search to find out what it means, and realizes Delenn is more than she seems.

Sinclair tells the second soul hunter to tell the others there’s a new sheriff in graveyard town, and their kind ain’t welcome here no more. He says he’ll pass that along. Meanwhile, Delenn has taken the first soul hunter’s collection, and is breaking the orbs, releasing the souls trapped within.

The end.

OBSERVATIONS

Doctor Stephen Franklin joins the cast at the start of this episode. Based on what Susan said about him, he’s mildly famous in medical circles, or maybe she’s just a doctor groupie. It’s also apparent that he and Sinclair are friends, and knew each other previously, though they haven’t seen each other for a few years. This is never really expanded on, but I have a theory: The Backstory for Dr. Kyle said that he and Sinclair’s Dad were friends. When his dad died, Kyle more-or-less raised Sinclair himself, or so I’ve been told. He’d have provided a window into the commander’s life that no one else could match. I suspect Franklin’s earlier friendship was probably an attempt to salvage some of this backstory, but it appears to have been quickly dropped.

In any event, Dr. Kyle gets a name check: Franklin says he saw him at the transfer point off Io. This means he must have left the station pretty recently, perhaps just a week before. Kyle was heading back to earth to take the post of “Head of Xenobiology” for President Santiago, which we’re told is a new post, created to deal with the large number of aliens that were emigrating to earth. This “Immigration” thing is a neat threat that is more-or-less dropped from here on out. We’re told there are aliens living on earth, but it never goes too far. Pity. In any event, they’d hoped that Dr. Kyle would be a recurring character on the show, but that never materialized.

And why did Kyle leave the cast? I don’t know for sure, but the story I’d heard most often was that Johnny Sekka had a really hard time with the technical jargon and some have said he had a hard time wrapping his brain ‘round the concept of the show, which makes it hard to perform. Neither of these may be true, but I would have liked to have seen him again. I always liked Johnny Sekka.

This episode marks the first appearance and mention of “Downbelow,” the bad side of town. This is where the poor people and the criminal element reside. We’ll find out more about it as it goes along, but this was one of those things that was refreshing about this show: the absence of utopia. Even three hundred years from now, even in a bright shiny new space station, there’s always a slum.

We also see a paupers “Burial in space.” When a lurker family in down below can’t afford to have the body shipped home, the station disposes of it by putting it in a coffin and shooting it into the sun.

Ivonova: “From the stars we come and to the stars we return. We do hereby commit this body to the depths of space.” [There’s silence for a moment while Ivonova appears to be praying]
Franklin: “It’s all so brief, isn’t it? Human life span is just about a hundred years, and yet just as you seem to be figuring it out, it’s over.”
Ivonova: “It doesn’t matter. Even if we lived two hundred years, it wouldn’t change anything.”
Franklin: “You’re a cynic?”
Ivonova: “I’m a Russian. We know about such things.”

“Nagrath the Fixer,” a big alien insect is introduced in this episode. He’s the guy you see to make connections. Need information? Need to know who’s sleeping with who? Need a ticket out of town, no questions asked? Need money laundered? He’s your boy. Or bug. Or whatever. Initially intended as a generic humanoid alien, the creature ship whipped this one together on their own initiative. Among the amazingly minor blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em background characters, I forgot to mention “The French Chick.” She’s got the job of reciting any information the characters in the control room need to know. She’s in both last week and this week’s eps.

Londo, G’kar, and Kosh are all completely absent this week.

The scene of the Starfury grabbing the soul hunter ship with a claw was pretty neat. The script called for this to be a magnetic tractor beamy kind of thing, but the CGI team suggested a claw would be more in keeping with the low-tech non-magical aspects of the show, and more interesting to see, so the scene was rewritten.

Dukhat, we’re told, was the greatest of the Minbari leaders. In order to stop the Soul Hunter from ‘saving him’ they built a wall of bodies. Evidently a big fight. Delenn was there. Why was Delenn there? We’ll find out more about this later on. The Soul Hunter blames this all on humans, “Your fault, your war,” he tells Sinclair. This scene has some hidden meaning. The soul hunter says that the death of Dukhat “Was when it all started to go wrong,” and context implies he’s talking about himself, but in fact that was a pivotal event in the lives of a lot of characters, and much of this show is dealing with consequences that began unraveling from that event.

While on the subject of things with more than one level of meaning, I wasn’t kidding when I said Delenn’s declaration of faith in Sinclair seems vaguely messianic.

The station’s defensive capabilities are first mentioned in this episode.

The Medlab has probably the only well-designed airlock in the history of televised science fiction.

“Minbari. Cold. Bloodless. Look in their eyes and see only mirrors, an infinity of reflection.”

Speaking of Blood, Franklin says that much loss would have killed a human, “That explains why they fought so well in the war.” Interesting that this implies a still-low level of biological knowledge about them. Frankly, B5 is probably the first place to have a lot of human/minbari interaction apart from the battlefield.

The Minbari religion believes in reincarnation. If this process is interrupted, then it means each subsequent generation will be ’less’ (numerically, morally, physically, and spiritually) than the one before it, a phrase that will be revisited in more detail later, then abruptly dropped. The Soul Hunters do not. This presents an interesting moral dilemma: If Delenn is right, then by freeing the souls, she’s doing them a service. If, however, Delenn is wrong, then she’s murdering these people. The show deliberately refuses to take sides in that, and the final scene (Well-filmed) can be taken as either heartwarming or chilling, depending on your disposition.

In any event, the Soul Hunters are vaguely vampiric, and I really really really really really like the idea of vampires as a kind of monastic order preserving knowledge. They’ve even got the pointy teeth, but then so do the Centauri.

Jeffrey “Deathwish” Sinclair puts himself pointlessly in harms’ way twice in this ep, and once in the pilot. He was in danger last week as well, but it was more ‘in the line of duty,’ whereas he’s just daring fate on these other occasions.

The Soul Hunter got a glimpse of something Delenn was planning. What was it? We *will* find out. What did he mean when he told Sinclair “They’re using you?”

There’s a neat scene where the soul hunter says he’s been to earth, and begins to haltingly speak English, as though he hasn’t done it in centuries. Morgan Shepard plays the role great, and his voice has just the right level of creepy and imposing. So when was he on earth, and why? (“I bet Albert Einstein is in one of those globes,” one of my kids said)

Editing and directing were still a little bit choppy, with some minor continuity errors (for instance, Delenn’s feet in the close ups don’t match what her body is doing, and the tone of several scenes changes rapidly within a scene owing to multiple takes and little cohesion. Very nice seen of the Soul Hunter waking up, though. Creepy eyes. Music was better than last week, but still pretty weak. That’s always been my biggest beef with this series: the score is bland at best.

“You will feel as though you are falling, but I will be there to catch you.” Jumping and falling and catching are cycles of language that recur again and again in this series, in at least one scene with very great import.

The aliens in the alien sector all know what a soul hunter is, and are afraid, but no humans appear to have ever heard of them before.

Last week we found that the Sinclairs have been pilots since the 1930s. This week we see a very 1930s-looking “Sinclair Aircraft Corporation” logo in Jeff’s quarters.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Good question. Social Conservatives will be put off by a whole bunch of stuff: reincarnation, vampires as a public service, etc. There’s also a vague and possibly unintentional suggestion of missionary work here, and that the souls saved by Christians may not want to be. But to be honest, I’m not convinced that’s there. I’ve watched this ep with VERY religious people who didn’t notice that at all, and I’ve watched it with Atheists who likewise don’t notice it. So if that was what the author had in mind, it didn’t connect. Instead, I think it’s about what it appears to be about: the question of life after death, which is at root a matter of faith.

Beyond that, there’s Susan praying quietly during the funeral, and her comments about how humans are messed up enough to blow life no matter how long it is, both of which play out very conservatively.

So if you can take it in the spirit with which it was intended, I think conservatives will guardedly like this one.

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