Babylon 5 Rewatch: “Believers”

Written by David Gerrold
Directed by Richard Compton
Season 1, Episode 10
Production episode 105
Original air date: April 27, 1994

It was the dawn of the third age… An Onteen boy named Shon is in Medlab, being treated by Franklin. He’s been having trouble breathing, and his parents, M’Ola and Tharg, are at their wits’ end. Franklin and Dr. Maya Hernandez explain that there’s blockage in his air sac, and it can be removed with a simple surgical procedure. M’Ola and Tharg immediately balk and say they will go elsewhere. It turns out that the Onteen believe that the soul lives inside the thoracic region, and to cut open a person like a food animal will let the soul loose.

Ivanova reports to Sinclair that the starliner Asimov has suffered a breakdown in the midst of space in which raiders have been sighted. Sinclair has her send Garibaldi to investigate, but Ivanova goes on an epic rant about how stir crazy she’s going, and Sinclair has her go instead.

Franklin and Hernandez patiently (ahem) explain the surgical procedure and how simple it is, but M’Ola and Tharg understand the science. However, Franklin and Hernandez don’t understand the religion. They will not condemn Shon to a life without a soul. Franklin then proposes an alternate, non-invasive treatment that has less of a chance of working, to which the parents agree.

Hernandez criticizes Franklin for going along with the parents’ nonsense, and Franklin says he’s just buying time until the parents come around and see that surgery is the only way to save their son.

Credit: Warner Bros. Television

Franklin gives Shon what he calls a glopet egg from the planet Placebo. It’s truly a bit of industrial goo that glows and which he has molded into the shape of an egg, but Franklin tells Shon that he has to hold onto it and care for it, which gives him a nice distraction while he is treated.

While meeting with Sinclair and Garibaldi, Franklin asks if Sinclair can use his authority to force the parents to allow Shon to be treated. Sinclair says he doesn’t want to set the precedent, but Franklin counters that the precedent has already been set when Sinclair had Franklin’s predecessor Kyle operate on Kosh after the ambassador was poisoned. Sinclair asks him to find another way.

Unfortunately, the alternate treatment doesn’t work, and Franklin once again tries to convince M’Ola and Tharg to consent to the surgery, and once again they refuse. Franklin threatens to bring Sinclair into it, and the Onteen call his bluff. Franklin makes the request, and M’Ola and Tharg also go to the commander and beg him to not allow the procedure. Sinclair says he’ll make a decision in twenty-four hours.

Expecting that Sinclair will side with his fellow human, the Onteen go to the other ambassadors on the station, but G’Kar, Mollari, Delenn, and Kosh all refuse to get involved for their own reasons.

Sinclair, meanwhile, does the one thing nobody’s done up until now: asked Shon what he wants. Shon says that he doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t want the operation, either, as he does not wish to lose his soul. (Shon also admits to Sinclair that he knows full well that the “egg” is just industrial goo, but he asks Sinclair not to tell Franklin that he figured it out.)

Reluctantly, Sinclair refuses to grant Franklin’s request. He can’t override the Onteen beliefs in order to satisfy his own. Franklin decides to go ahead with the surgery anyhow. It’s successful. M’Ola and Tharg are outraged, as is Sinclair, while Franklin is smugly pleased with himself that he saved a child’s life.

Ivanova and her wingman manage to escort the Asimov back to B5 while fending off raiders.

Ivanova in spacesuit in a scene from Babylon 5: Believers
Credit: Warner Bros. Television

Shon is discharged, and a subdued M’Ola and Tharg take him away in what they call a “traveling robe” used for a “great journey.” Because he doesn’t understand euphemisms, apparently—unusual for a doctor—Franklin assumes this is for the ride home. Hernandez, however, has been doing research on the Onteen and shows him that the traveling robe is for the journey to the afterlife. He runs to the Onteen quarters only to find that they’ve killed Shon now that he has no soul.

Franklin offers Sinclair his resignation, which Sinclair doesn’t accept because Richard Biggs is in the opening credits.

Nothing’s the same anymore. Sinclair argues very eloquently for not imposing his or Franklin’s beliefs on Shon and his parents, and also for the fact that there should be more to life than just whether or not someone has a pulse.

Ivanova is God. Ivanova goes on at great length about how stir crazy she’s going working in CinC all the time, her not-very-subtle way of asking Sinclair if she can go rescue the Asimov please.

If you value your lives, be somewhere else. Delenn refuses to involve herself in the Onteen’s affair, as they do not like it when others interfere in their religion (possibly a reference to the soul hunters?).

In the glorious days of the Centauri Republic… Mollari refuses to help the Onteen because it isn’t in the budget. This is at once appalling and also truly the most realistic of the four refusals the Onteen get from the B5 ambassadors.

Though it take a thousand years, we will be free. G’Kar’s refusal to help the Onteen boils down to their answer to his question of, “What’s in it for the Narn?” which is pretty much not a damn thing. G’Kar says he never even heard of the Onteen until they came aboard.

The Shadowy Vorlons. The Onteen think that Kosh’s experiences of being operated on without his consent means he’ll be sympathetic to their cause. They are hilariously incorrect.

Two Onteen parents sit at their son's deathbed, surrounded by candles, in a scene from Babylon 5: Believers
Credit: Warner Bros. Television

Welcome aboard. Silvana Gallardo makes her one and only appearance as Hernandez, while the Onteen are played by Tricia O’Neil (M’Ola), Stephen Lee (Tharg), and Jonathan Charles Kaplan (Shon). Plus Ardwight Chamberlain is back from last time as the voice of Kosh; he’ll be back in “Signs and Portents.” O’Neil—who is probably best known in genre circles as Enterprise-C Captain Rachel Garrett in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”—will return in the movie In the Beginning as the Earth Alliance President.

Trivial matters. This episode was written by David Gerrold, probably best known for writing the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which is generally at or near the top of lists of the best Trek episodes. Gerrold is also an award-winning prose writer, having won both a Hugo and Nebula Award for his novelette “The Martian Child.”

Gerrold put in a reference to his own works here, as the mentions of the Shakespeare Corporation and pfingle eggs are from Gerrold’s novels Under the Eye of God and Covenant of Justice.

The concept for the episode was creator J. Michael Straczynski’s, and he assigned it to Gerrold, at least in part because Gerrold was a single parent with an adopted son who was, at the time, ten years old. Straczynski also wrote the Ivanova B-plot.

This is Hernandez’s only appearance after being mentioned twice before, in “Infection” and “And the Sky Full of Stars” (and she’ll be mentioned again in “Objects in Motion”).

The Asimov is, obviously, named after the famous and influential science fiction author and scientist Dr. Isaac Asimov.

Sinclair ordered Kosh to be operated on against his wishes in “The Gathering.”

The echoes of all of our conversations.

“The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.”

—Kosh being all metaphorical and stuff.

Sinclair and Franklin sit together in a scene from Babylon 5: Believers
Credit: Warner Bros. Television

The name of the place is Babylon 5. “Life has to be more than just a pulse beat.” Full disclosure: the writer of this episode, David Gerrold, is a friend and colleague of your humble rewatcher. Most recently, my wife Wrenn Simms and I co-edited and co-published an anthology called The Four ???? of the Apocalypse, to which Gerrold contributed a story.

At least, I hope we’re still friends after he reads this, because I have to admit to being a bit disappointed with this episode on rewatch. Mind you, it’s still very powerful and thought-provoking, with a wonderfully nasty ending, but I have two problems with it.

The first is a simple one of an inability to predict the future: seeing Franklin use a scalpel to cut open Shon’s chest probably seemed reasonable in 1994, but in 2024 we already have way less invasive ways of operating on people. Indeed, there are plenty of procedures that involve using existing openings in the body to put in the tools that will be used in the surgery, and that’s just thirty years after this episode was aired, much less the three hundred that it’s supposed to be in the future.

Still, that’s minor, and not really the point. The Onteen are fictional, so even if the surgical procedures are less invasive than slicing open the skin, one can adjust the religious beliefs in question to make the surgery not be an option.

The other problem is a bigger one, to wit, that of consent. Specifically, that of Shon. I know that in our culture, at least, children under eighteen don’t have a full set of rights, and there is also precedent for the government interceding to save a child’s life when the parents won’t do everything possible.

But I still can’t get my mind around the fact that, not only do M’Ola and Tharg refuse the procedure, but Shon himself says he doesn’t want it. I have a real problem with the government stepping in to force a medical procedure—any medical procedure—on someone. And Shon is fully aware of what’s happening—hell, he’s cogent enough to see through Franklin’s “glopet egg” thing—and doesn’t sound in any way coerced or hesitant in his lack of desire to lose his soul.

Sinclair, at least, realizes this, and Gerrold’s script serves the commander well, as it feels like he’s the only one behaving rationally. Certainly more than his medical officers are, as I spent the entire episode wanting to smack both Franklin and Hernandez. Yes, they have a fervent desire to save the child’s life, and that’s important, but it’s mainly important because a) they come from a culture that values the life of a child even more than that of an adult and b) they are dedicated to healing. But that doesn’t give Franklin the right to play god—even though he himself thinks that. Franklin says that every patient who comes through Medlab’s door wants him to play god, and if he has that responsibility, then he wants the power, too. Except for one thing: this patient very explicitly did not ask him to do that.

I felt like the script desperately wanted us to see that there were no right answers, and while there aren’t, there are wrong answers, and Franklin’s was wrong every single time. That’s brought into sharp relief at the end when Hernandez shows him the cultural database on the Onteen and the real meaning of the travelling robe, which indicates that he did no such research prior to that. He couldn’t even be bothered to learn all he could about the Onteen, he just went ahead and assumed he was right when, by their lights, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Michael O’Hare gives one of his best performances here, and you can always count on Tricia O’Neil to bring depth to a guest role, something she made a career out of. I also loved how Claudia Christian delivered Ivanova’s rant to get Sinclair to let her out of the house, so to speak, though the rest of that B-plot went absolutely nowhere interesting, and was such obvious filler that nobody even bothered to show its climax and resolution.

Now that I’ve written several hundred words criticizing this episode, I actually feel more positive about it than I did when I started. There’s a lot of meat here, and while the execution doesn’t always land, it doesn’t back away from anything, either. And that really is a powerful ending. In fact, the only flaw in the ending is that Franklin should have resigned, and failing that, been fired—and either way, also been disciplined by the Earth Alliance medical authorities.

Next week: “Survivors.” icon-paragraph-end

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