Babylon!

Hi everyone! We’ve been away for a while, but we’re getting towards some of the best episodes Babylon 5 has to offer, so it’s worth getting restarted. We’re on the fourth episode of Season 3.

We open to Sheridan and Brother Theo playing chess and discussing religion, while Ivanova and another monk watch. Theo wins, and introduces Brother Edward, who makes some form of crystal or glass artwork and prefers giving them away rather than selling them.

Meanwhile, Lyta Alexander has returned to the station aboard a Vorlon ship. Cut to opening credits. (Lyta is a telepath on the run from the Psi Corps who came to the station last season and revealed Talia’s buried, treacherous personality.)

Talia explains how she managed to get to Vorlon space. She hazarded her life to contact them, and at the last minute they responded, and brought her to their homeworld. She’s back on the station to work for Kosh, who can protect her from the Psi Corps. Everyone is creeped out by this development.

Meanwhile, Brother Edward is discussing data processing services from a client, and finds a mysterious black rose with his bag.

Delenn shows up in Garibaldi’s office to request increased security for a Minbari trade delegation, and they watch a news broadcast describing a serial killer being sentenced to ‘death of personality’. This is pretty obviously an introduction to the concept (as well as for illustrating the difference between Garibaldi’s and Delenn’s perspectives). Death of personality is a full mindwipe, destroying all a person’s memories and personality, and replacing them with a new, good, altruistic personality that will serve society for the rest of their lives.

It’s supposedly more ‘humane’ than the death penalty, but I find it far worse and more disturbing. Free will is what makes us people. Take away free will and we’re just automatons, walking around. I oppose the death penalty, but I’d prefer the death penalty, that lets someone die as themselves (even if ‘themself’ is a truly abhorrent person), to turning them into someone else by force. It’s a denial of the essence of what makes us sapient beings.

Garibaldi, being a bloody-minded security type, dislikes it for the more mundane reason that he doesn’t find it vengeful enough. Delenn replies with ‘an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’. “No,” says Garibaldi, “just the bad guys”. Garibaldi has a very simple morality.

Franklin’s medical check-up of Lyta finds that she’s not only healthy, she’s healthier than when she left, and some chronic conditions have resolved themselves.

Brother Edward finds a wall reading “death walks among you”, but when he return with Garibaldi, the words are gone.

Londo accosts Lyta and she rebuffs him. He threatens to expose her to the Psi Corps. She provides a truly epic threat in response: to plant a nightmare in his head so deep it could never be removed , so he would spend every night for the rest of his life screaming. “Who’d notice?” Londo says to himself ruefully.

Between this and mindwipes, you get a good sense of why telepaths can scare the hell out of people. Corps or no Corps, that’s a lot of power to do things that awake our most visceral fears.

Brother Edward interviews Delenn about Minbari religious beliefs. They believe the universe is conscious and searching for meaning through manifesting in sapient beings. Delenn asks Brother Edward about the core of his beliefs. Edward speaks of Jesus Christ spending the night before his crucifixion in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading with God to take this cup from him, to spare him from dying. He chose to stay, and willingly sacrifice himself to atone for the sins of mankind. Edward says he wonders if he would have had the courage to stay.

As Edward leaves the elevator on his way back to his quarters, a Centauri ruins into him. After the Centauri leaves, he hears screaming and pleas for help, and the works “Hey Charlie” and “you killed her”, and sees “death walks among you” again. He finds himself running through water, hears dogs and sirens, and stumbles across a body with a black rose in its mouth. In his memories, he sees himself with a black rose and a knife in his hand. Frightened, he speaks to Brother Theo. He also has the computer cross-reference the things he’s seen. What would be a fairly simple Google search in 2014 apparently takes four hours in 2260, although this can perhaps be rationalized by there being far more information available that can be searched.

Brother Theo comes to Captain Sheridan about the problem. At this point, given the prior content of the episode, it’s quite clear that Brother Edward is someone whose previous identity was subjected to death of personality. Theo asks Sheridan to look into the issue and find out what’s going on before Theo does.

Garibaldi says the lab found no trace of blood on the wall where Edward saw the letters. But Brother Edward’s analysis finds that he was once serial killer Charles Dexter (do I spy a Lovecraft reference?), also known as the Black Rose Killer. Garibaldi gets back to Sheridan with the same information. After the mindwipe Dexter was caught in a fire and presumed dead, which explain why nobody ran across this information before.

Edward is tormented by the discovery that he was a monster. He feels that the mindwipe deprived him of the opportunity for confession and atonement. Theo assures him that God can forgive his sins even if Edward does not remember them, but Edward is not comforted.

Garibaldi finds that Brother Edward wasn’t hallucinating – the words and voices were real, which means that someone is after him, seeking revenge. They deduce that the Centauri he ran into was a telepath, who broke the mindwipe. They find the telepath and, predictably, use Lyta to get the information on Edward’s location from him.

Edward, praying, waits for the people who have hunted him – the families of his victims. Only one man among them still wants to kill him. When Sheridan, Garibaldi, and Theo get there, they find Brother Edward tied to a cross, bloody, with a knife stuck in his back. “Forgive them,” Brother Edward says. Now he knows he had the courage to stay at his Gethsemane, dying for his own sins (or those of his previous personality). He is afraid he cannot be forgiven, and Theo assures him that God will forgive.

Sheridan and Theo discuss justice, revenge, and forgiveness. Edward’s murderer enters as Brother Malcolm, a new member of the order whom Theo specifically requested. Theo reminds Sheridan that “forgiveness is a hard thing, but something ever to strive for”. Sheridan shakes hands with Brother Malcolm.

In the episode’s ending, Lyta stands in Kosh’s quarters. His encounter suit is open, and a glowing light flows between it and her eyes and mouth.

As I see it, there are two issues at the core of this episode. One is the ethics surrounding the death of personality. What justice does it provide to the criminal? To the victims? Is it less or more cruel than the death penalty? I’ve already given my thoughts on this, but I’m curious as to what others think.

The other issue is telepathy. Between the ability to delete someone’s entire being and memories, Lyta’s threat to Londo, and Lyta’s implied ability to utterly destroy the mind of the Centauri telepath she scans, it’s easy to see why people would be frightened of telepaths, whether in the Psi Corps or out of it.

albeit a bit roughly
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17 thoughts on “Babylon!

  1. As I see it, there are two issues at the core of this episode. One is the ethics surrounding the death of personality. What justice does it provide to the criminal? To the victims? Is it less or more cruel than the death penalty? I’ve already given my thoughts on this, but I’m curious as to what others think.

    It’s unclear from the way they present it in this episode. Although your objection regarding freewill is an acceptable objection, and I agree it could be a problem, it’s not entirely clear from the way they present it in this episode how much of your personality is actually “killed”. Inherent in the analysis is the question of nature v. nurture; you couldn’t get a different personality out the other end of nurture didn’t play an enormous part. To that extent, if nurture is the root cause of the evil persona, removing that is not necessarily removing the core of the person.

    I suspect that how most people feel about this is tied pretty tightly to how they think of free will and how they think of the construct of personality.

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    • Let’s say that you could take someone criminal and turn them into a good person. Someone who sees nothing wrong with robbing, say…

      If you could use some process to turn them into hardworking Protestant Ethic kinda people, why shouldn’t you?

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      • I think if such a process were available, many or most captured criminals would freely choose* to undergo it, if the alternative was lengthy confinement/death or other harsh punishment.

        “You say I can spend the rest of my healthy years locked in a room, or get The Treatment and be home** by dinner? Sign me up!”

        *Yes, I am aware that that “freely choose” is a bit of an odd phrase, when the leverage society would hold over them would be some other draconian punishment as an alternative; but I think that is the way it would shake out; and having that “choice” presented to the criminal would quell most people’s qualms.

        **Yes, I am ALSO aware that the “person” who goes home, wouldn’t be the person who left there. The whole thing seems like a sort of ‘reincarnation’ – you die and get another shot to do better, but it’s not “you” doing better (except there *is* some seed or essence that *is*; and we hope that seed will grow straight and true instead of twisted and stunted this time).

        I mean, what’s crueler? Locking someone up for life, or ‘rebooting’ them, and letting them have a fresh start?

        Which would you choose, if it were presented to you that way?

        Maybe I want to escape this life of guilt and shame anyway. Try again.

        I can see that being a pretty appealing notion to some people; particularly if the alternatives are harsh.

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      • I mean, what’s crueler? Locking someone up for life, or ‘rebooting’ them, and letting them have a fresh start?

        I’d not choose to be rebooted. Can’t think of anything worse, actually. I’d rather stay in prison, at least when viewing it from afar in this hypothetical.

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      • There’s a classic [1] SF detective novel by Alfred Bester called The Demolished Man, in which we’re told over and over that the killer, if caught, is facing “demolition”. We don’t know quite what that is, but it sounds pretty awful. We learn at the end of the book that it means his personality is torn down and rebuilt to remove its criminal aspects. Afterward, he’ll be released, and it’s likely that the same strengths that had made him a highly successful criminal would make him successful at other things. The characters then go on to say (in a way that makes it clear this is a 50s SF novel() “It’s a good thing we’re not living in the backwards 20th Century. Back then, they would have just killed him.”

        It’s clear that this is supposed to be an unexpectedly happy ending, and I think that the consensus back then was that psychiatry would advance, just like the other medical sciences, and someday it would be able to heal sick minds in the same way that a doctor can set a broken leg.

        1. In both senses: famous and brilliant.

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      • Bester’s first two novels (TDM and The Stars My Destination) are two of the best SF books ever written. He was also an amazing writer of short stories. I cannot recommend him highly enough.

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    • I’d say the attachment to “free will” is epistemic at root, and that personality is viewed as property. So the degree to which free will is valued is based on the epistemic attachment to the idea of its existence (subjectively speaking, which is strong, incontrovertible seems to me, no one will deny this) and that personality is the property of the being in whom that personality is realized.

      Which answers Jaybird’s question, I think. And free will drops out. As it always does. It’s an epistemological necessity even if not a metaphysical reality.

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  2. My favorite scene in this episode is when Brother Edward’s killer is shown to Sheridan after the Death of Personality. Sheridan has this look of both revulsion and horror. Repulsed because he knows what this slime did and is not walking around free and then horrified because the guy is completely different from what he was.

    I also have multiple feelings about the death of personality, but I think it comes mostly from believing that you can never really get rid of the original personality. I would be afraid of it resurfacing. As for which is worse, death or DoP, I think it is about the same. If the old personality cannot come back then that person IS as dead as if they put him in the chair and flipped the switch. I think people get hung up on the whole soul/spirit aspect with this and that DoP is messing with it.

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    • One of the things that I thought was cool about Babylon 5 is that they have to deal with stuff like their communicators getting only two (or fewer) bars in certain parts of the building. It’s the freakin’ future and cell phones still don’t work.

      Why shouldn’t futuristic punishments be any different? Sure, they’re sold as “this will do wonderous thing that is so much less barbaric than what we used to do: (describe 21st Century punishments here)” but, at the end of the day, it works approximately as well/poorly as anything else.

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      • While I agree, it’s actually worse than that. Imagine how this technology could be misused. A totalitarian government could do horrible things with mindwipes, especially if they could change your personality without erasing your memories.

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      • I do not get this. Dead is dead. Once I am no more, I could care less what is done with my body. Now, for the real world that is buried, cremated, etc. But I would not care if my body was reanimated and put to good use, I am still dead.

        I still think it comes back to people thinking there is something left of the real person in the body that bugs them.

        James K, I think there are plenty of things in B5 that would scare me for a totalitarian government to misuse. Mind wiping would just be one arrow in that quiver.

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  3. You know, I think it’s kind of important that even when Edward’s blocks are undone, he doesn’t revert to what he was before. He just wants to face his punishment. So maybe it’s not quite as horrifying as it otherwise seems.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure you meant to begin Paragraph 4 with “Lyta” rather than “Talia”, even though I quite understand the confusion.

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