In the thirteenth episode of the fifth season of Babylon 5, Bester tracks down a murderer. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Babylon 5.
Trigger Warning: For talk of ableism, racism, consent
There’s an aspect to this episode that totally knocks it out of the park, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it drops the ball on other fronts. On the surface, there’s a brilliance to giving us an entire script from the point of view of the Psi Corps. Indeed, it’s a perspective we’ve lacked, and for the most part, it provides us with the context we need to truly get how anyone ever decides to work for an organization that has always seemed villainous. Certainly this can’t be the case even for the members of the Corps, right? So what do they see in this place? Does it provide for telepaths as if they are members of the same family, or is even that line bullshit, too?
The truth is a lot more complicated than that, but putting us in the shoes of two wide-eyed, eager recruits at least helped me understand some of what telepaths see in the Psi Corps. If you’re seeing messages like OBEY and THE CORPS IS MOTHER, THE CORPS IS FATHER on the walls every single day of your life, they can easily slide into the background. They aren’t creepy attempts at brainwashing and conditioning; they’re just casual reminders of what the family stands for. So, when Lauren and Chen meet Bester, it’s not a fearful confrontation. No, to them, this man is a hero, a storied warrior who has the best interests of telepaths in mind. No matter what happens here—no matter how often they see evidence that maybe things are not what they are told they are—they both view Bester through this lens. It’s horrifying, isn’t it? They practically worship him, and he does nothing to encourage them not to see him that way. He eats it up; he uses humor to make sure these kids see him as human; he assures them over and over again that they are special, that mundanes will never understand them and will always view them as the enemy.
And it’s not like he’s entirely divorced from reality, which makes this all the more difficult to stomach. There are plenty of characters with a bias against telepaths on this show, and let the whole Telepath War stand as evidence of that. But that doesn’t excuse what Bester does with this reality or what he does to other people. Thus, we get an unnerving portrait of loyalty. Lauren and Chen are desperate to prove themselves to Bester, to get closer to him, to win his approval. That’s surely a factor in Chen’s decision to break into Drake’s quarters in the hopes of catching him. Lauren herself also seems unable to view anything Bester does with a critical eye and takes steps even further, propositioning him for… what? A chance to get closer? To advance? Because she actually finds him attractive? Y’all, all those scenes were TOO FUCKING MUCH, but my take was that Bester encourages and delights in people deferring to him as they do. This is what he wants! He wants to manipulate people into feeling like he’s their one true ally. Hell, look at what he did to Byron!
But there’s another huge aspect to this episode that is impossible to ignore. The insight into the Psi Corps? Fantastic. Riveting. Immensely creepy. The story of Drake? Shockingly shallow and underdeveloped, with an ableist plot twist made even more offensive because it does not seem to want to engage with it beyond giving it to us. But let me start here: Babylon 5 is unfortunately one of the whitest shows I’ve ever seen. I had hoped that there’d be more diversity in the casting, and while there have been some non-white secondary and tertiary parts over the years, the show is still like 95% white. That means when the show does have a character aside from Dr. Franklin in a story, what they’re used for is important. In this season, we’ve had two Black characters who’ve gotten more than one line of dialogue. There was that one dude in Byron’s group, who ended up being one of the telepaths who longed for violence against the Psi Corps. In this episode, Drake is… a telepath who has uncontrollable violent urges. Not just that, but he’s got a mental illness, and he kills people because of that mental illness because…. I don’t know? Literally, we never find out why he kills anyone except for the faulty notion that Drake’s other personality “told” him to.
That is… well, that’s certainly something, isn’t it? Drake is given no real sympathy, and after the reveal of his multiple personality disorder, there is no significant time spent from his point of view. Is he going to be fine? Will he be treated properly or is he just going to be executed? Like, I get that the Corps is supposed to be a pseudo-fascist organization, so they do bad things. But that doesn’t erase the optics of having one of the very, very few Black characters uncontrollably, murderously violent because they’re mentally ill. For a show that examines its characters with such depth and complexity, it felt unbearably lazy to be given this doubly-whammy of a stereotype with no examination whatsoever. On top of that, there’s also the fact that of the two recruits, only the non-white one dies, and does so horribly. Intentional? Oh, I don’t think so at all. I’m guessing that the characters were written first, then the casting happened, and it’s just an unfortunate side effect.
So, yeah. I’m not a huge fan of this episode, though it could have been so much better if it hadn’t relied on such bad tropes.
The video for “The Corps is Mother, The Corps is Father” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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