Mark Watches ‘Babylon 5’: The River of Souls

In the Babylon 5 film “The River of Souls,” Garibaldi’s business dealings bring about chaos on the station. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Babylon 5.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of consent, sex work, and mental illness.

All right, friends, WE ARE HERE! I’ve made it to the first of the post-series films, though I don’t actually know if this aired after the show was done or during it? I’m guessing it had to air after the series finale because… well, it clearly takes place after “Objects at Rest.” We know that Sheridan has settled on Minbar with Delenn, and both Garibaldi and Dr. Franklin are gone. Regardless, there was one major reason I enjoyed this episode: it truly addressed how fucked up the Soul Hunters are. Which isn’t to suggest that the show never knew that? Clearly, JMS had written this species knowing that we’d all be terribly uncomfortable with what they did.

But this movie examines that. And it does so through both Ian McShane and Martin Sheen? HOLY SHIT, WHAT. Are the other films going to have guest actors this amazing? Because the two of them certainly helped elevate this film, which had the feeling of just a more bloated episode. It’s not a bad thing, but I can’t say anything more than the run time made this feel like a movie, you know? Anyway, I don’t think that’s all that interesting to discuss because I really want to dig into the Soul Hunter culture, as well as that other subplot for… reasons. LET’S GO.

The Mistake

So, the obvious starting place for me is that the Soul Hunters are despised and hated for a reason: their “noble” mission is very much theft to pretty much every other culture. It’s been a while since they’d been on the show, but their return here is so much more detailed than I expected. And that’s a good thing! I didn’t initially figure out what that gallery was that Dr. Bryson had discovered, and I assumed this episode was going to focus on the Minbari. But there are two real character studies that unfold on either side of this: there’s Dr. Bryson, who is obsessed with the notion of immortality. His discovery of the vessel with the Ralga souls triggers a real intense reaction, one that is based on this obsession of his. It’s an issue of perspective and why he’s so easily manipulated by the souls inside of the vessel. (Which I kept calling the “glowing melon ball” because THAT’S WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE.) He saw their existence as proof that life could continue forever. But at what cost? What sort of quality of life did those souls have while encased in that vessel? Dr. Bryson couldn’t conceive of that, though; it wasn’t even on his radar. All he saw in them was a means to an end, which is ironic, given that many of the souls also saw him as a means to an end. In this case: revenge at any cost. 

In that sense, Dr. Bryson fills a very particular role in this story, and it’s an archetype we’ve probably all seen at least once. He’s the arrogant, obsessed archaeologist (replace with scientist or researcher or whatever) who continually makes bad decisions that negatively affect themselves and practically everyone around them because they can’t just STOP. There were so many points in which Bryson could have… not done this!!! Like maybe when that soul was crying out in anguish and telling him to leave them alone!!! Perhaps that was the time!!! 

So, we’ve got this messy, absurd archaeologist who is unleashing souls on the station, all of whom are eager to get revenge on anyone because they’ve been trapped in a glowing melon ball for TEN THOUSAND YEARS. And literally, it’s anyone they come across. Some guy dies for HITTING A PHONE. Or communicator. You know what I mean! Another is just… sexiled??? Is that what we can call that scene in the holobrothel? Because he basically got sexiled from his own holo fantasy. There’s not much sense to the escaped souls beyond rage, but I feel like that was the point. How are they supposed to do anything but lash out at anyone they encounter? 

The point being: once that vessel makes it to Babylon 5, it’s not long before the unnamed Soul Hunter played by MARTIN SHEEN arrives, and that’s the second character study here. We get a Soul Hunter—and a “young one” at that, which is vital to the story—who arrives on the station, ready to reclaim this vessel. And to him, this all makes sense: the vessel was stolen from a gallery of whispers that the Soul Hunters had, and thus, they needed to get it back. Easy! Very simple, just a case of stolen property, everything will be fine—

EXCEPT IT WON’T. Because in their initial dealings with this Soul Hunter, the staff interrogates him, and it’s the first of a number of scenes in which this cultural practice is called into question. If these people were going to die anyway, is it immoral to “capture” their souls and preserve them? Does that deny them the chance to move on, or is it moral to allow those lives to exist for as long as possible? Does the universe suffer from having these lives snuffed out forever or is that just the way things should be? And is it fair to “trap” souls as the Soul Hunters do without ever consulting them about what they want?

That last question—posed in a different form by Zack Allan—is honestly what ends up undermining and collapsing this whole belief system. So it’s intentional that he’s the character who believes in heaven; it allowed him to think about these souls in a different way. What if his soul was trapped in a vessel and he couldn’t pass on to heaven? That would be the most immoral act imaginable! Lochley herself plays a large role in how this unfolds, too, and its her connection with the Soul Hunter that helps him to question his upbringing. And it might be weird to say that, but I feel like making him a “younger” Soul Hunter was intentional, too! It’s often the youth who question the systems of their elders, and once Lochley enters the vessel herself and gives the truth of the Ralger to the Soul Hunter, how can he not challenge what he knew?

Well, the truth is that it’s very easy not to when beliefs and faith override reality. And in this case, the Soul Hunters do not believe that they made a mistake with the Ralga. That’s not what they do! And that damning, terribly circular logic of it all is ENRAGING. That’s the whole problem! You can’t believe you don’t make mistakes and use that as a justification for any alleged mistake. THAT’S NOT HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS. It’s telling to me, though, that Zack’s point unravels this so quickly. If the Soul Hunters had just consulted the Ralga before imprisoning them, they would have discovered that they weren’t dying, but evolving. EVOLVING. SO THEY WERE STILL 100% ALIVE IN THAT VESSEL AND TRAPPED FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS. Hi, I can’t get over how messed up that is. And the solution here is one of empathy and intent, and I liked that the script didn’t fix things in an instant. The Soul Hunters have to do YEARS of work to make things up to the Ralga. Plus, we don’t even know how they might change their entire culture. That’s not for this movie to answer, though. That’s something the Soul Hunters need to examine and interrogate, but I do hope that they stop taking souls in the meantime. IT’S AWFUL.

The Holobrothel

If I squint at this episode, I can kinda see the reason why the holobrothel exists as a means of addressing the notion of souls and bodies and humanity. I have appreciated that this show doesn’t present a sanitized version of life. Babylon 5 had crime, an underworld, drug use, and sex work. So I’m glad we get to see these aspects on the show! And there is an interesting conversation to be had about consent and free expression when it comes to holograms. Is it legal to produce an exact likeness of another person for the purpose that Mayhew does here? If no actual bodies or people are harmed with the holobrothel, is there a moral reason to object to the place? I don’t know that this script necessarily answers any of the questions that it brings up. Even in the case of Captain Lochley, who is repeatedly sexualized with the use of her holo avatar, the script seems to be equally condemning this and ogling her at the same time. It’s super uncomfortable! Plus, there’s the whole subplot with Mayhew using a sleezy lawyer to attempt to sue the station, and the whole thing felt real damn weird. Like, I get that the holograms provided some plot help, but if you take out the holobrothel story line, is this episode made worse? I would not say so.

And look, I did like that we got another canonical mention of queerness, but why wouldn’t we see someone taking a woman into one of the holochambers? Why is that part spoken and related to us, but we have to see all the dudes utilizing the holobrothel? GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.

All in all, this was pretty great! I still can’t get over Martin Sheen AND Ian McShane in the same movie??? I was NOT ready.

The video for “The River of Souls” can be downloaded here for $1.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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