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Sunday, 1 May 2016

Babylon 5 1-02: Soul Hunter

Episode:2|Writer:J. Michael Straczynski|Air Date:02-Feb-1994

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, it's perhaps the absolute low point of Babylon 5! I can't really express just how terrible Soul Hunter is, mostly because I haven't seen it in years and I can barely remember it. Maybe it's not actually that bad! I suppose I'll have to watch it again to know.

Here's a pointless fact for you: B5 season 1 was filmed almost entirely out of order for whatever reason, so an episode's production number rarely ever matches up with its episode number. But Soul Hunter was both the second episode shot and the second one aired. The first episode filmed after the pilot movie was Infection, which may actually be worse than this, so it's amazing the actors had any enthusiasm left by episode 3.

Like before there'll be SPOILERS for the episode and everything that aired before it, but I won't spoil a thing about what's to come. Except that the series gets better, I promise.



The episode begins with a huge ball-shaped starliner dropping a shuttle off at Babylon 5 station. She looks like someone shoved a giant freighter into the front of B5's docking bay hard enough to bend it inwards, so I'm guessing she's one of our ships. Also she's called the Asimov, so that's another clue. If you'd like to get your name on a starship 200 years from now, becoming a famous science fiction author's probably your best bet.

I figured this was an establishing shot, but it's still going, following the shuttle into the docking bay. I guess whoever's coming aboard is a big deal.

Hey it's Doctor Stephen Franklin, arriving an episode late! So now this and Deep Space Nine both have a cocky young Chief Medical Officer. Seems that Dr. Kyle from The Gathering has been promoted to work with President Santiago (they need him with all the aliens migrating to Earth these days), so Dr. Franklin will be running the show's medical plots from now on.

All through this conversation they’ve got extras walking up and down behind the actors showing off the latest space fashions. In front of the actors too, it’s kind of distracting.

Suddenly Commander Sinclair gets a call from his hand telling him that there's a disturbance in the jumpgate.

By the time Sinclair has reached C&C his staff knows enough to know that they have no idea what’s coming at them from hyperspace. It’s an unknown ship with a frequency, silhouette and stardrive unlike anything Earthforce has seen before.

Whatever it is it's out of control... and on a collision course straight for the station! Cut to credits.


ACT ONE.


Sinclair decides that as the best Starfury pilot with a deathwish on the station, he should be the one that goes out alone to pull the damaged alien ship out of its collision course.

The station could just blast it into space confetti with the defence grid. But nothing ruins a first contact situation quite like shooting the alien before you contact them, so Sinclair tells a miserable looking Ivanova to hold off until the last moment. Still, she gets to yell orders at people and open the gun ports just in case, so she’s probably happy on the inside.

Now we get the most dramatic claw machine sequence in a sci-fi series, as Sinclair coordinates his Starfury’s vectors to match the alien ship’s spin and grapple on to it. He's got just 1 minute 30 seconds to grab it, so I guess they must have brought the jumpgate closer since Ambassador Kosh's two hour trip to the station in The Gathering. (It can't be moving faster than Kosh's ship else the Starfury wouldn't be able to keep up.)

Of course Sinclair fails on his first two attempts for the sake of manufacturing tension. I blame his Starfury though; he picked a default boring one without his emblem painted on the top, so no wonder he’s a little off his game. With ten seconds until impact, Sinclair makes his final attempt... hey I should get out my stopwatch for this.
00s - Earthforce Officer: “Ten seconds”
01s - Sinclair: “If I don’t get it on the next pass you’ll have to destroy it.”
03s - Ivanova: “Understood”
04s - Ivanova: “Stand by defence grid. Prepare to fire on my mark, not a second before!”
14s - The claw extends for the final attempt.
16s - Sinclair has the ship!
17s - He fires thrusters to slow it down and bring it over to the docking bay.
Just in the nick of time!

Seems like it was going to hit the Starfury launch bays, so he could’ve just waited in the dock with the bay doors open and let the ship come to him without all that dramatic flying around and spinning. Though that'd would've meant more explosions and death when they connected.

By the way, this scene apparently came about due a suggestion from visual effects artist Ron Thornton, who wanted to show off how replicating real physics could make the CGI space scenes more interesting than Star Trek-style model shots. Writer JMS originally just wanted to give the station tractor beams.

Sinclair rushes over to Medlab to see the wounded alien pilot, but word's apparently already gotten out as Ambassador Delenn intercepts him along the way. No don't stop and chat right in front of the distracting background extras, they're really distracting!

If it was one of the other ambassadors Sinclair could expect a rant about how he risked all of their lives on his reckless stunt, but Delenn’s merely curious and wants to offer her help in identifying the occupant. It’s funny, the station was created in the wake of the terrible Earth-Minbari War to help prevent a second one, but the Minbari ambassador already seems even more committed to peace than Sinclair is.

Which is why it’s a bit of a shock when she starts yelling "SHAK TOT!", lifts Garibaldi’s pistol out of his holster and becomes the second ambassador to try to murder an alien this season.

Fortunately Sinclair manages to wrestle the gun out of her super-strong Minbari hands and prevent Garibaldi having to fill out paperwork explaining how his own gun was used to kill an unconscious patient. Delenn does manage to identify him for them though, explaining that he's called a Soul Hunter, because his people literally hunt for literal souls. And she'd very much like them to “Put it back in the ship, shoot it into space, fire it into the sun!”

Damn Delenn!

Later, in Ambassador Londo Mollari’s quarters, Delenn explains that... oh hang on I think this is supposed to be Sinclair’s quarters this time. I’m genuinely clueless about this, as they haven’t given me much furniture to work with.

Anyway she apologises for her murderous behaviour, explaining to Sinclair that all Minbari are taught from a young age to be careful or a Soul Hunter will come in the night and steal their soul. The aliens can sense death and they like to collect high value souls from high profile people. She’s changed her tone from ‘throw him into the sun’ to ‘send him away’ though, so maybe there’s hope for everyone to be friends at the end of this after all!


ACT TWO.


Cut to Downbelow, the slums of the station, where the homeless lurkers hang around in tattered rags and gather to watch this guy fleece idiots out of money with the classic three-cup shell game. It’s 2258, how do they not know it's a con by now?

You know, I think this might be the first appearance of Downbelow in the series, which means I get to mention that producer JMS was very active on the internet at the time, and lurkers are actually named after lurkers on newsgroups, who keep out of sight and never get involved in anything.

The weird thing about this scene, is that it's presented like the unconscious Soul Hunter is aware of what’s happening as he’s lying in the Isolab.

Things soon turn nasty for the man with the scam and he grabs the cash and runs for life, which pulls the Soul Hunter out of his nap and to his feet. Doc Franklin is understandably unnerved and wants a translation team down in Medlab, especially when the alien starts mooing like a cow.

Actually he’s just working his way up to saying “No, I have been to your world.” There’s no universal translators in Babylon 5, everyone really is speaking English to each other, and it seems this guy speaks the language too. He’s just a little rusty.

Hey, I don't hear you cancelling that translation team doc.

And the guy got stabbed.

In Midnight on the Firing Line it’s revealed that the Centauri believe they see their own eventual death in precognitive dreams. The Soul Hunter can do one better, sensing other people’s deaths coming before the event, and he sure does like to talk about it.
“It comes. It comes. Quick flash, the deep blue of pain, dull muffled, slower now.”
The lurker's not quite dead yet though, and the Soul Hunter continues his commentary as security discovers him and gets him carried off to Medlab.

“Closer now, over your shoulder. It comes, the transition. A shadow. The long exhalation of the spirit. Can you see it healer, can you see it?”
The man under the Soul Hunter makeup is veteran actor W. Morgan Sheppard, who's well qualified for the role considering he's done good work in practically everything. He’s been acting since the 60s and has 180 credits on IMDb. He nearly got the role of Ambassador G'Kar in fact, and it's no shame to lose out to Andreas Katsulas. But he's fighting a losing battle this time, as the character's written to be so unbearable that Franklin orders the Isolab speakers muted so he doesn't have to hear him speak.

Oh, and the lurker dies.

Sinclair confronts the Soul Hunter, asking him who he is and what damaged his ship, but the alien ignores him and starts chanting. Dude, just take Delenn's advice and fire him into the sun already. There’s another 20 minutes of the episode left to go, wouldn’t it be better if he wasn’t in them?

The Commander takes a different approach, saying “I don’t blame him. Who wants to admit to being a thief?” The Soul Hunter takes the obvious bait and starts ranting about being a preserver of souls in his usual overly poetic way. We learn that he's not overly keen on the Minbari either, as they keep stopping him from snatching their souls. He missed out on the greatest prize of all during the Earth-Minbari War, their leader Dukat.

Oh sorry, that's Duhkat with a 'h'. No relation to Gul Dukat from Deep Space Nine (pictured above, kind of), though it's one more thing to add to the long list of similarities and coincidences.

Dr. Franklin a rational man and thinks all this talk of souls is nonsense, and the Soul Hunter agrees! “Ridiculous yes, so let me go.”

All the other aliens on board are freaking out about him though, so Sinclair has to keep him isolated in the Isolab until his ship has been repaired and he’s fit to travel. Which might take a while seeing as it's an alien vessel running on technology humanity has never encountered before. They can't even look up where to order new parts.

Over in C&C, Ivanova's handling the funeral for the dead lurker. His family can't afford to have his body shipped back to Earth though, so someone is finally getting fired into the sun this episode!

The Babylon 5 crew may all be noble humans with the best intentions, but they don't get a say in where the station's budget goes, so there's nothing they can do when people get stuck on board without the money to leave. That's one of the ways Babylon 5 differentiates itself from Star Trek: people screw up and poverty's still going strong.

Still the station's a cylinder, so the folks down in Downbelow get most of the windows, if they can find them under all the trash. The best window on the station's taken by Ivanova though. In fact I think she took it from the Death Star.

Now it’s Ambassador Delenn’s turn to inflict another conversation with the Soul Hunter on us, as she drops by to ask him where he keeps his collection of souls. He wants to hold onto them as he believes he's saving them from death, she wants to free them as she believes they'll be reborn. These two aren't ever going to be friends.

He actually recognises her though, to their mutual surprise. She's one of the people who stopped him from getting Duhkat's soul! “They called you Satai Delenn of the Grey Council,” he recalls. “What is one of the great leaders of the Minbari doing here playing ambassador?”

And just like that he drops a major reveal midway through an apparently throwaway second episode. The Gathering hinted that Delenn had an agenda, but it turns out that she's secretly part of the Minbari's ruling council and has been since during the Earth-Minbari War!


ACT THREE.


Now that he knows that an important soul is on board, the Soul Hunter has a mission. He pulls the sick prisoner trick to break out of the Isolab and makes his way through the station to a... smoky corridor somewhere.

I’m not sure where he is, but these guys with the huge rubber heads and wireless headphones aren't giving him any hassle. He yells “HA!” at them and they can’t step aside fast enough.

He’s meeting with a giant praying mantis man! Oh shit, this episode just took a turn for the awesome.

The Soul Hunter wants a map of all the secret routes around the station, and praying mantis man is apparently the guy who can get him one. I’m really struggling to take any of this seriously right now (and I’ve seen Farscape so I'm comfortable with muppets in my sci-fi), but it’s nice to see the Soul Hunter out and about instead of stuck in Isolab trying to be poetic and creepy.

And it turns out I spoke too soon, as he walks right up to the camera to be mysterious some more. The direction in this episode is definitely getting a bit... stagey at times.

Meanwhile, in the Death Star, the crew learn about a second unscheduled jump gate activation. It’s a second Soul Hunter, and he would like docking clearance as someone on the station is definitely about to die! Sinclair asks him who he’s here to see and doesn’t really get the answer he wanted to hear. “I’m here to see you Commander and quickly, before it’s too late.”

There's something that's always bothered me about C&C: it's closer to the zero G docking bay than the outside of the cylinder, so shouldn't it have really low gravity? I suppose that would explain the spring in Ivanova's step... if she wasn't actually a dour pessimistic Russian who likes shouting at people.

Meanwhile Soul Hunter #1's managed to break into Delenn's apartment by ringing the doorbell. She didn't ask who it was or check a camera, she just said "Come," and the door automatically opened to let him in!

Hey I recognise those neon tubes from earlier when she was chatting to Sinclair, so that scene must have happened in her quarters too! So there's one mystery solved.

I love the station's weird scissor doors by the way. They must have been terrifying for the actors, but it makes sense to have a door that automatically falls shut in a power cut when you're in the vacuum of space.

Turns out that Soul Hunter #2 was being needlessly vague for the sake of drama earlier. He didn't sense Sinclair's imminent death, he just wants his help to track down Soul Hunter #1. He reveals that the other Soul Hunter isn't eccentric because he's an alien, he's eccentric because he's a lunatic serial killer who snapped during the Earth-Minbari War and switched to pre-emptive soul recovery. Soul Hunter #2 shot holes in his spaceship to catch him, but he escaped through hyperspace and ended up here.

Hang on, we've gotten a good look at both Soul Hunters now, and neither of them look like this guy on my DVD:

They've taken a photo of Martin Sheen's Soul Hunter (Soul Hunter #3) from the River of Souls movie and printed it on the first season 1 disc! That was what he was up to the year before The West Wing by the way, if you're curious. Deadwood's Ian McShane was in that movie as well, it was a tragic waste of talent.

ACT FOUR.


Anyway, Soul Hunter #1 has dragged Delenn into one of the crap parts of the station, and he’s gotten a contraption set up down here to bleed her dry from an artery in her leg and capture her soul just as she dies a peaceful death. The others have no idea where to look, but there's no point trying to save her anyway, as Soul Hunter #2 can sense her imminent death and he's never wrong.

But Sinclair has an idea! If the Soul Hunter can sense her death, then he should be able to lead them to her! Or better yet, vaguely point at his location on a map.

“Quickly here!” Soul Hunter #2 exclaims, pointing at a map of the station. The five mile long rotating cylindrical station. Really didn’t narrow it down there mate.

The security officers run off like they know where they're going, but the alien who flew all this way to capture the rogue Soul Hunter decides he'd rather just hang around by the map for a bit. Sure he's got a super power the lets him home in on the soon to be deceased and he’s better at it the more important the victim is, but if he goes along then Sinclair can't run off alone and do his Captain Kirk thing!

Damn, how the hell did Soul Hunter #1 manage to sneak that giant soul sucking apparatus off his ship with security after him?

Delenn’s close enough to death now for Soul Hunter #1 to catch a glimpse of her soul, appearing as a face in this snow globe. “You would plan such a thing?” he says, reading her thoughts. “You would DO such a thing? Incredible.”

Okay okay, I get it! She’s got a secret agenda to be revealed in future episodes (if she survives). You don’t need to keep tormenting us with vague hints.

The security teams have split up and are searching all levels, but of course Commander Sinclair is the one to eventually stumble upon Delenn, on his own. As the leading man, that is his privilege. Though it only earns his stunt double a punch to the gut.

I can tell they didn’t film many takes of this fight, because if they had they would’ve picked one where the wall didn’t wobble behind them.

“Why do you fight for her? Don’t you understand? She is Satai!” he yells, as he picks the Commander up by his throat with one hand. “I have seen her soul, they’re using you!” Again with the hints!

But Sinclair manages to turn the tide when the Soul Hunter makes the mistake of throwing him next to his bag of captured soul globes. Sinclair opens the bag, perhaps planning to threaten his balls, but they hover away and buzz around the Soul Hunter's head!

Seriously, this is exactly what happens. It's even better when you consider that his cheesy soul balls all contain great leaders, thinkers and poets. It's all very degrading.

While this event is happening, Delenn finally loses enough blood to activate the soul ray and it begins to draw out her soul. I guess Soul Hunter #2 was right about the inevitable death.

He just got the wrong victim, as Sinclair spins the ray around and shoots the Soul Hunter with it.

I’m sure there was technically another direction he could’ve pointed that thing so that it wouldn’t have hit anyone, but when you're fighting an unhinged super-strong soul stealing serial killer it's best not to take chance. Especially as if Delenn dies on an Earth Alliance station under Sinclair’s protection they could be looking at Earth-Minbari War II.

Oh hey, she’s still bleeding to death isn’t she? It’s fine though, as they cut to a scene where she’s lying in Medbay, stable. She's still a little out of it though, as she whispers "We were right about you." to Sinclair. Yeah okay lady, just add it to the pile of clues.

Later Sinclair decides to check the internet and look up the word the Soul Hunter used, ‘Satai’, and discovers you don't get much higher in rank in Minbari government. It's like they secretly sent their vice president over to be an ambassador. So now he’s on the same page as us, knowing she’s an important figure with an agenda, but not what it is

Also damn, he’s the commander of the biggest diplomatic outpost in the galaxy, and he never thought to research how the Minbari government works? The information's definitely there to find, he just looked it up!


ACT FIVE.


And the episode ends with Satai Delenn of the Grey Council cracking open the Soul Hunter's stash of soul globes. So… I guess souls are definitely real in the B5 universe then? We just don't know what happens to them after they're set free.


CONCLUSION

SHAK TOT! SHAK TOT!!! Shoot it into space, fire it into the sun!

Actually Soul Hunter wasn't really that bad. The only thing that really lets the episode down is the acting, direction, writing and lack of budget. Actually that's not fair, as there were elements that worked in it, and I enjoyed the moments the Soul Hunter wasn't on screen. Plus a man in a praying mantis costume turned up out of nowhere halfway through!

There’s absolutely zero Londo, G’Kar, Kosh or Talia in this episode, but that gives Ambassador Delenn some screen time and a chance to show she can be an unstable gun-wielding maniac with the best of them. And yet somehow actress Mira Furlan manages to make her character a bastion of wisdom and compassion even after a scene where she’s yelling that they should fire someone into the sun (I guess she was vindicated on that one by the end). Plus the episode straight up says that she’s lying about who she is and she's part of a conspiracy with plans for Sinclair, but she still comes off as sympathetic instead of sinister in the end, when she's crushing soul receptacles with her bare hands.

Speaking of the souls, magic floating spirit globes and precognitive death sensing powers seem really out of place in this grounded universe, with its rotational gravity and spaceship physics, and I'd be happier without them. Then again the series has already established that the Centauri believe they can see their own death in a dream and telepaths are a proven fact, so they're not that far out from the established reality. Plus it's only episode two, so JMS is still building the foundations and setting up the rules, giving his audience the correct calibration for their suspension of disbelief. If you're going to introduce soul balls, season 1's the time to do it.

In fact the series is wasting no time setting things up, as I didn't expect Delenn's secret identity to be revealed this soon. So now we know that Delenn's planning something, she's watching Sinclair, they're using him, they were right about him, and he's got a hole in his mind. Unfortunately this means the episode expands the universe and sets up plot for later, making it kind of important, which is the last thing you’d want a bad episode to be.

But like I said, I found it tolerable enough. The series gets worse, I promise.


Babylon 5 will return in two weeks with Born to the Purple. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'll be watching Deep Space Nine episode 3, A Man Alone.

Please take all your feedback and opinions, and place them into the message box provided.

8 comments:

  1. Have you considered doing an article on the mobile suit gundam movie trilogy? There is a show and an abridged film trilogy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hate saying no... but no. I've got absolutely no problem with writing about anime and cartoons, but unless I stumble across a pile of discs for cheap or it's streaming for free, I don't see a Gundam article happening.

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  2. Babylon 5 had a fondness for introducing people with screaming assaults. It's a bit much for a show that's half about politics but then the other half is about blowing up planets and the like so can't complain.

    But hold on, these people have a way to throw things into the sun?! If I was taking half the crap they do, I'd be addicted to using that in a week.

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    Replies
    1. Well they don't really THROW the lurker's body into the sun, more like gently release the coffin into space from a shuttle. It'll get there eventually, but there's faster and more satisfying ways to resolve problems!

      Trouble is they can't use them because they're the last best hope for peace, not the last best hope for fun.

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  3. The Asimov looks suspiciously like the front bit of (SPOILER) Babylon 4 (END SPOILER)

    As I recall Mantis Man was too expensive and complicated a special effect and so he didn't appear after the first series. Alas.

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    Replies
    1. Hey, that would explain where the thing disappeared to. It took off to have space adventures of its own, ferrying people to and from B5.

      Also I always assumed that Mantis Man vanished because the series eventually developed self respect (or they decided he didn't match the tone). He would've fit right in on Farscape though.

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  4. Ah, nice tidbit about Mantis Man. The original pilot cut has a whole lot more Muppet Men, I always found it jarring that one made it through into the series proper considering the rest were (rightly) disposed of when the pilot was recut in 98 or so.

    I know B5 was low budget (and JMS actually wore coming in significantly under budget as a badge of honour when really, really the series was crying out for every cent it could get to be spent on it) but Mantis Man is a godawful effect, even by 90s standards. He has a run in with Garibaldi in a later episode (I don't think that spoils anything) and its full credit to the variable acting talents of Jerry Doyle that he leaves the scene with any dignity remaining.

    I'm currently halfway through Season One on a rewatch and its actually better than I remember (having not seen it since 2001), but the DVDs do immersion some disservice. A surprising number of B5s 'metal' door frames are visibly timber joinery with cracks in the paint where the corners meet. 2.5 million tonnes of spinning metal indeed...

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    Replies
    1. I can live with the sets looking rushed (I mean the station WAS constructed on the cheap), but it really bothers me when they did nothing to hide the fact that it sounds like wood as well. Every time I hear those wooden floors creak it kicks me out of the illusion.

      Delete