Revisiting BABYLON 5: Soul Mates

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Neale Monks returns to Babylon 5...

In my first look at Babylon 5 I argued that while the show itself might look a bit dated in places, a lot of what it did was driven by carefully crafted character arcs that let us see the big story unfold gradually through the actions of the lead characters across a full five seasons of episodes. But this isn’t to say that all characters arcs and plot lines worked. Some fell flat for one reason or another, and Season 2 episode ‘Soul Mates’ is a good example of where this happened. More importantly, it’s also a good episode to try and understand why series creator J. Michael Straczynski couldn’t always realise his lofty vision of a five-season epic with a definite beginning, middle and end.

A game of two halves
Nonetheless, not all Babylon 5 episodes were written as arc-heavy pieces of the overall epic Straczynski was trying to tell. During the first two seasons especially, a lot of episodes were traditional free-standing stories that casual viewers could enjoy even if they hadn’t seen the series before. Such ‘arc-lite’ episodes are the sort of thing Star Trek: The Next Generation had done for years, often to great effect. ‘Darmok’ for example is a classic piece of Star Trek, despite introducing an entirely new alien species that we’ll never see again.

At first viewing, ‘Soul Mates’ comes across precisely and absolutely as this sort of free-standing episode because neither of its two storylines leads to anything else in the series. Understood this way, this episode is simply a fair-to-middling non-arc episode with two storylines that don’t seem to go anywhere beyond this one hour slice of Babylon 5: the arrival of a former telepath on the space station, and the relationship between Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari and his three disagreeable wives. But viewing the episode in this way may be misleading, and understanding its flaws as well as its strengths tells us a lot about the series as a whole.

The Mollari plot for sure was probably meant to be whimsical B-plot filler. At most it tells us a little more about Mollari (as always ably played by Peter Jurassik) and thanks to his co-stars the whole thing works nicely and never gets dulls, even after repeated viewing. A lot of the credit goes to Jane Carr, who plays one of Mollari’s three wives, the acerbic but fundamentally decent Timov. All three wives are interesting characters though, and since none of them ever reappear in the show again, we could safely throw all three of them into a basket labelled ‘guest stars’ and move on without giving them any further thought.

In truth it’s the apparent A-plot that causes problems with this episode. The visiting telepath, or more precisely, former telepath, is one Matt Stoner (Keith Szarabajka) who happens to be the ex-husband of the space station’s resident telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson). Stoner arrival doesn’t seem to be a coincidence though, and when he offers Talia the chance to give up her telepathic ability, we’re meant to see this as A Big Deal rather than the throwaway problem of the week to fill up sixty minutes of television time. Yet this never really pans out, for reasons we’ll come to shortly.

The Corp is Mother, the Corp is Father
Before looking at the Talia Winters storyline in the context of Babylon 5, it’s important to look at how the show treated telepathy. It’s implied that while some alien races evolved telepathy naturally, humans at least had it genetically engineered into them, or at least enhanced, by a paternalistic race known as the Vorlons. Human society dealt with the appearance of telepaths among a small proportion of their number by forcing them into an organisation called Psi Corp, the intent of which was to ensure that their telepathic gifts weren’t abused in such a way that normal human society was undermined. Telepaths could then be hired out by Psi Corp to participate in specific activities such as ensuring the honesty of negotiations, and Talia Winters is one such ‘commercial telepath’, and the only human telepath on the space station.

Behind its benign facade though, Psi Corp is in fact a fascistic organisation obsessed with ensuring the safety and superiority of telepaths above that of non-telepaths (which the Corp call ‘mundanes’). The level of control that Psi Corp extends over its members is virtually total, from telling them what clothes they should wear through to choosing their marriage partners with a view to selectively breeding stronger telepaths. Some of this is touched on in ‘Soul Mates’, ensuring that we should understand that Stoner’s offer to remove Talia’s telepathy is not a gimmick but a truly tempting offer. Removed from Psi Corp she’d be free to enjoy a normal life like that of any other human.

However, Stoner is written as a duplicitous, conniving sort of person, and initially at least we don’t really know to what degree his offer is genuine. The irritating self assurance of the man is something Szarabajka portrays well throughout the episode, even when it’s revealed that he hasn’t precisely given up his telepathic gifts, and probably isn’t entirely free of the Psi Corp. It’s hard not to want to slap him around a few times, something station security chief Garibaldi clearly wants to do. The problem with the Stoner/Talia storyline is that it just isn’t very interesting. Perhaps it’s Thompson’s rather wooden portrayal of Talia Winters that weakens the story, or the fact she’s a relatively poorly defined characters compared to some of the other female leads, notably Ivanova, but a lot of the time it’s hard to care what happens to her. But I’d argue that the key to Talia’s failure to gel with the viewer is a combination of confused writing and a succession of storylines that go nowhere.

Straczynski’s trapdoors
Series creator Straczynski supposedly had the whole Babylon 5 story mapped out before he even began filming the show. His intention was to write a novel for television, written across five seasons, with characters growing and changing as things happened to them. He was a realist though as well as an optimist, and he’s repeatedly explained how he scattered ‘trapdoors’ throughout the episodes that could be used to quickly remove or replace a character if he needed to.

Andrea Thompson decided to leave the show at the end of Season 2, for reasons that haven’t been entirely clear. The usual explanation is that she wasn’t happy with how little her character had been used, needed the work, and so opted to jump to another serial, NYPD Blue, where she’d be able to play a bigger role more consistently. So pretty much out of nowhere Talia was revealed to be a sleeper agent and thrown off the station. To be fair, this trapdoor might have been set up in an episode called ‘Deathwalker’ in Season 1, where she took part in a series of bizarre exchanges with a curious cyborg working for Vorlon ambassador Kosh. While very much the secondary storyline in this episode, we do get the impression that Kosh knows that Talia isn’t what she seems, that something is trapped inside her, and that he may need to deal with that in the future.

It’s tantalising stuff, and by no means the only strange Talia-centric storyline that’s set up in Season 1 but never referred to again. There’s ‘Mind War’, which ends with Talia discovering that she’s been given the ability to move objects with her thoughts, albeit only small objects and very small distances. Telekinesis of this sort is stated to be extremely rare among human telepaths, and half of those who have this gift are clinically insane, making Talia unusual even by telepath standards. In short, there are instances throughout Seasons 1 and 2 where it’s pretty obvious Straczynski was building Talia up into a more powerful protagonist that her official telepathic rating would suggest, but like her apparently sexual relationship with Susan Ivanova none of this really gets off the ground.

So while Stoner’s appearance should interest the viewer and get them thinking about choosing between telepathic gifts and personal freedom, the throwaway nature of so many Talia storylines weakens the drama. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Talia-side of the episode: We just don’t care; she’s always been a bit of a damp squib, never really fulfilling the potential suggested by some of the earlier storylines.

Famine, pestilence and death…
Whereas the Talia Winters plot is a bit dull, the Mollari storyline is entertaining from start to finish. It swings into action with Vir Cotto, Mollari’s chief aide, and one of the most likeable (and decent) characters on the show. Initially portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, he’s certainly played for laughs in this episode. Hopelessly outmatched by the first of Mollari’s wives to arrive, Timov, he’s featured in one or two good scenes and as always is well worth watching.

Mollari’s three wives are supposed to represent famine, pestilence and death, Straczynski further implying that Mollari himself represents war. At this point in the show that’s more or less a prefiguring statement rather than an accurate description, but there’s no denying that his character arc gets increasingly bloodier over time. That is, of course, the tragedy of Londo Mollari. While likeable in many ways, he’s above all a Centauri patriot longing for the old days of their empire, and such patriotism easily turns into a willingness to re-assert their dominance over neighbouring worlds. This is something we’ll come back to in later seasons as Mollari’s character transitions from ambition to regret and ultimately self-sacrifice, though always acting with the honest intention of a patriot who wants to see his people succeed.

The gist of this story is essentially that Mollari has been granted permission to get rid of two of his three wives. What follows are several rounds of sniping and seduction as two of his wives, Daggair (Lois Nettleton) and Mariel (Blair Valk), try to put down each other (and Timov) while trying to regain Mollari’s favour (and hold onto their share of his substantial personal wealth). Timov will have none of this, and continues to act with studied hostility towards not just her rivals but Mollari as well. Complicating things is an attempt on Mollari’s life, apparently engineered by one of his wives. If he dies before he can divorce them, then they’d keep their money and status. The twist though comes through the treatment required to save Mollari’s life, which requires a substantial and immediate blood transfusion from a compatible donor. This is of course Timov, who despite loathing everything about her husband doesn’t want to see him die, even if that means she risks being divorced. Mollari is unconscious so doesn’t know what’s going on around him, and she asks Doctor Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs) not to tell him she helped to save Mollari’s life. Upright and principled to the core, she doesn’t want to have to deal with his false gratitude afterwards. We don’t see a lot of Centauri acting out of anything other than self interest, which makes her actions in the Medlab even more remarkable.

Elsewhere on Babylon 5
There’s a mildly amusing tertiary plot that spans a couple of scenes across this episode, involving Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) and the always watchable Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian). At the end of Season 1 Delenn entered a cocoon of sorts, emerging early on in Season 2 as a more humanised Minbari. Ostensibly to become a better bridge between humans and Minbari, there’s a bit more to her transformation than that, as starts to becomes clear in the Season 3 two-parter ‘War Without End’. Anyway, since Minbari don’t have hair, in her transformed state Delenn isn’t quite sure what to do with the hair she’s got, her normal Minbari approach having reduced it to a frizzy mess. Ivanova helps out, explaining about such mysterious things as shampoo, which eventually leads Delenn to ask about these unusual cramps she’s been feeling…

Babylon 5 always gave the impression of being made on a tight budget, and by modern standards the sets look rather stagey. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth looking at though, and there’s a couple in this episode worth noting. The first is the museum exhibit, which is cleverly built around the theme of 20th century Earth, allowing the set designers to just dump a bunch of contemporary knickknacks around the room and have the actors study them intently. But the best set of the episode is surely the one used for Mollari’s party, with its wonderfully understated giant picture of Mollari himself gazing down regally at the guests. This matches up so well with what we know about Mollari’s personality that we can overlook the small size of the set and the fact the priceless antiques look like they’ve come from yard sales. All shows depend to some degree on suspension of disbelief, but it was the genius of Babylon 5 that, more often than not, the quality of the stories and characters keep the show well worth watching, even today.

Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted sandworms.

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