Babylonia!

If you’re new to the book club, links to the previous episodes can be found here.

This week, it’s Season 2, Episode 21: Comes the Inquisitor

It’s difficult to discuss this show without occasionally wanting to discuss the next one (or the one after that, or the one after that), or referring to the pilot.

If you want to discuss something with a major plot point: please rot13 it. That’s a simple encryption that will allow the folks who want to avoid spoilers to avoid them and allow the people who want to argue them to argue them. Hey, if you use Firefox, there’s a simple plug-in that makes this as easy as highlighting text.

Everyone sitting comfortably? Then onward!

We open with G’Kar doing the only thing he can do in his present circumstances: rabble-rouse. He denounces the Centauri in the Zokolo, but he gets no love from the humans listening.

Meanwhile, Delenn is having a corridor meeting with Kosh. Kosh, in a rare moment of linguistic clarity tells her that an Inquisitor has been dispatched to test her. When Delenn asks who it is, Kosh goes back to being cryptic.

While Delenn fills Sheridan in, G’Kar meets with an arms dealer. They exchange pleasantries and threats.

Up at Ops a Vorlon ship arrives at the station and it’s passenger is – human. The anachronistically-dressed man names himself Sebastian. Sebastian wants to get down to business, but Sheridan has questions. Sebastian sneers a bit, paraphrases A Few Good Men, says he’s from Victorian London. It would seem the Vorlons have a longer reach than we realized.

On the topic of long reaches, Garibaldi has heard about G’Kar’s arms purchases and takes a carrot-and-stick approach to keeping B5 out of it. The stick is a threat to not pass weapons through B5, but the carrot is a secure alternative.

But now it’s Inqusition time – after all everyone expects the Vorlon Inquisition. Here’s the deal – Delenn wears shock brackets and if she answers badly or demurs on a question she gets shocked. She can take the bracelets off at any time – but that counts as conceding.

Sebastian has one question for Delenn – Who are you? She gives her name and title, but Sebastian doesn’t care about those things he wants to know who she is to herself not what she presents to others. This causes her some consternation. As far as Sebastian is concerned this is only going to end one of two ways: Delenn will concede or her pride will lead her to die rather than relent.

We cut to Vir, who is a little harried and gets into an elevator with G’Kar. Vir tries to apologise for recent events but G’Kar points out (rather vividly) that Vir can’t.

Back at the Inquisition Delenn and Sebastian debate the subject of destiny. Delenn believes we are all placed where we are meant to be, while Sebastian sees this as self-serving bias. He asks Delenn if she has ever had doubts and she admits that sometimes she does. This the first thing Sebastian has reacted to positively during this episode and possibly ever.

G’Kar is having some leadership problems. The other Narn aren’t so sure he’s up to the task of running a resistance network. They set him a test and he accepts.

Sebastian has moved on to the subject of sanity – he sees Delenn as defective product and demands she be a good Minbari and conform. She refuses, saying he is nothing but a broken thing that tries to bring everyone down to his level. This seems to strike a nerve and he tortures her some more.

G’Kar goes to Sheridan and Garibaldi for help in getting a message to Narn. Sheridan tells Garibaldi to put the Rangers on it. After all, why have a clandestine force and not use it?

Lennier finds Delenn crumpled on the ground. She tells him to go, which he does. In fact he goes to Sheridan and tells him what is going on. Sheridan confronts Sebastian, but it doesn’t go well. Now it’s Sheridan’s turn and Sebastian turns to the subject of sacrifice. Delenn says that she would give her life to save life, without fame or glory. This is the answer Sebastin has been waiting for and he lets them leave.

The whole experience has left Sheridan in a pensive mood, he asks Ivanova to use Space Google to find out more on Sebastian, based on the little information he has tendered.

It seems the Rangers came through because G’Kar gets his message. This mollifies the Narn and they now back him to lead the resistance.

Sheridan and Sebastian have a last conversation. It would appear that Sebastian disappeared the day after the last of Jack the Ripper’s murders. You see, he believed he had been chosen to purge the corruption of London. But the Vorlons showed him he was wrong. In the subsequent 400 years they have used him to weed out other people making the same mistake until he could finally locate one needle in the universe’s largest haystack. He knows all too well what it means to think you have a destiny, and what it costs you when you are wrong. Now he has finally found what he was looking for, he hopes he can finally die.

I find this a fascinating episode because of how it treats the concept of The Chosen One. First off, the Vorlons are too canny to assume that everyone currently in place is up to the task. Imagine you were in charge of a really important IT project, but the only people you can hire to do the actual work were Visigoths. You’d expend a goodly amount of effort ensuring those were the best Visigoths you could get, instead of just accepting whoever they thought was best for the job. And Delenn’s case is even worse because A) there’s a way bigger gap between Vorlons and Minbari than us an Visigoths and B) Delenn has been rejected by her own people, so not even the Visigoths think she’s any good.

Secondly, this is the first episode that gives us any real insight into the Vorlons. In fact in may ways, we know more about the Shadows than we do the Vorlons, even though we haven’t heard a Shadow speak and have had no more than a brief look at a couple of them. The reason for this disparity is that Kosh is utterly inscrutable, but we have gained an understanding of the Shadows from their chosen agent – Mr. Mordin.

Sebastian is Mr. Mordin’s Vorlon counterpart – a human agent that interacts with the young races of the galaxy in ways their respective client species find difficult and/or irritating. The similarities and differences between these men say a lot about their masters. Mordin’s job is to give people things – to recruit unwitting allies by offering them illicit power. But Sebastian doesn’t give – he takes away. His role is to act as Devil’s Advocate, in the classical sense of the Catholic advocatus diaboli, only he tests would-be saints while they are still alive. He confronts those who believe they have a grand destiny before them, and shows them why they are wrong. A false Chosen One could be a disaster, and Sebastian’s job is to weed them out.

There are also similarities between Sebastian and Mordin – in the exercise of their duty they are diligent, focused and utterly ruthless. As much as the Shadows have been painted the Bad Guys here, Sebastian is at least as bad as Mordin is. They are also both conscripts to their respective causes – it appears neither side has much use for personal autonomy. They also both lead by asking people one question. The Shadows want to know what you want, the Vorlons want to know who you are. Neither party explains themselves, but it seems to me they are trying to discover people’s intrinsic motivators – the things that drive you internally. I get the impression that neither party really understands the younger races, which is probably why they are using proxies in the first place.

Tune in next week, when I will be covering the season final – The Fall of Night. In the meanwhile, what do you think Sebastian meant by “Who are you?” and how would you have answered?

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16 thoughts on “Babylonia!

  1. This is one of my favorites.

    As I recall in the elevator scene, after Vir tries to apolgize, J’Kar cuts his hand so the blood drips onto the floor and says “dead, dead, dead, dead, dead…” and some more I don’t recall. Best rebuttal ever.

    As for the test with Sheriden and Delen, “you are willing to give you life, in the darkness, for another, where no one can see. No fame, not remembered, forgotten.” That’s a hero.

    As to the Vorlon–they’ve been on earth. Surely they have had more than just one visit to pick up Sebastion. No, they’ve been there for a long time. It’s the only conclusion. Remember this episode when we get to the part where we see what Vorlon’s look like. Remember what Kosh said if anyone saw his true form: everyone would recognize him.

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  2. I get the impression that neither party really understands the younger races, which is probably why they are using proxies in the first place.

    This is a plot point that has led to many a discussion among my nerdclan.

    It’s interesting to see how it boils down. You basically have three camps.

    The first camp are the ones who think that aliens would really be alien and have a hard time really accepting the premise of any sf show because even the most inscrutable aliens are still recognizably weird. Their position is generally “if aliens exist we have no real way to know if we would even be able to recognize that they were beings, they’d be so different from us” They have a point.

    The second camp finds the “Elder Race – Younger Race” stories like B5 particularly interesting, and they really fixate on the idea that the Elder Races are typically more advanced than we are, technologically… but they really aren’t necessarily more advanced than we are, spiritually or philosophically. I *think* this is due to a natural inclination to believe that the Universe/morality is a particularly ineffable problem, and that the sorts of struggles humanity has with morality and spirituality are actually transcendent sorts of problems that will continue to vex us well after we’re the youngest of the younger races, and well past the point where we’re the Eldest of the Elder.

    The last camp gets annoyed at the “Elder Race – Younger Race” stories because hey, what the hell, you’re telling me a race that had spaceflight before humans existed hasn’t learned **anything** in the last million years?

    I have noticed a tendency that the folks who are particularly religious typically wind up in the second camp. The ones who are particularly empirical wind up in the first. The ones who are particularly progressive wind up in the last and the ones who are particularly conservative wind up in the second.

    All of the mushy middle are all over the place, so I don’t know that this says anything generalizable. Maybe we should poll the book club.

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    • A useful distinction I think, The best piece of fiction I’ve read in camp 1 is Eleizer Yudkowsky’s Three Worlds Collide. Yudkowsky made a real effort to make the aliens as alien (yet coherent) as possible).

      I guess my issue with camps 2 vs. 3 is that the aliens might have made moral progress, but given their minds are alien, there’s no guarantee that their morality would look anything like ours, but I guess that just marks me as a Camp 1 kind of guy.

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    • Patrick,
      I understand the 1st — and sympathize. I still think there’s a chance that we’ll learn about a comprehensible alien race, before we blow ourselves to bits.

      I liked Brin’s take on older and younger races — the older ones essentially engineering the younger ones.

      If that’s not going on, then I think it’s reasonable to suppose that most aliens didn’t achieve spaceflight, let alone FTL.

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    • ” I *think* this is due to a natural inclination to believe that the Universe/morality is a particularly ineffable problem, and that the sorts of struggles humanity has with morality and spirituality are actually transcendent sorts of problems that will continue to vex us well after we’re the youngest of the younger races, and well past the point where we’re the Eldest of the Elder.”

      There’s another way of interpreting the Elder – Younger dynamic: humanity is special, and any seeming intractable problem requires human beings to solve.

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  3. Delenn’s psychoanalysis of Sebastian was spot-on. It’s one of her better moments, being able to deconstruct her interrogator that well whilst being tortured.

    I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the Vorlons’ metric for deterring who is a legit “chosen one”. Basing it on a person’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for another, in circumstances where they would receive no glory or fame or achieve any larger goal than the other person’s survival, is a good way to weed out the megalomaniacs. (Although if Kosh had been paying attention, I think Delenn passed that test back in “Confessions and Lamentations”, when she walked into a plague area knowing she might die if the disease changed, without even having the ability to save anyone, merely to offer them comfort as they died.)

    But it’s pretty clear that by now Sheridan and Delenn are in love. And a person being willing to give up their lives to save a person they’re in love with means something different than being willing to give up their life to save just anyone. All it tells you is that they love that specific person very, very much. It could also mean that if they have to choose between that person’s life and the lives of hundreds, they would choose the former. (This is, to reference another galaxy, my thought on why the Jedi are forbidden personal attachment. Part of the obligation of being a Jedi is that you can’t prioritize the life of one person over another purely based on how close that person is to you. I think that given a direct choice with no other options Anakin would have been willing to die to save Padmé’s life, but he was also willing for a lot of other people to die so that he could [he hoped] save Padmé’s life.)

    For that reason, “Confessions and Lamentations” was arguably a better display of Delenn’s capacity for humble self-sacrifice than this episode.

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    • It bothers me too, but for almost the opposite reasons. Valuing one life and a million the same is an inexcusable failure to multiply. I don’t want people with that particular flaw in their decision-making process making life-or-death decisions.

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      • I don’t think the test amounts to “valuing one life and a million the same”. Rather, it’s a sign of humility – showing that the person trusts that if they die, the universe will find someone else to take up the fight against the Shadows. It’s a rejection of the conceited view that “I’m the only one who can win this war, so it’s all right if other people die to keep me alive”.

        Delenn sacrificing herself only endangers herself, not millions.

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      • James,
        I’d consider sacrificing thousands of lives to save one. But it would need one hell of a justification. (“In ten years, I can save half the world”, or somesuch).

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  4. “As much as the Shadows have been painted the Bad Guys here, Sebastian is at least as bad as Mordin is.”

    Guvf vf gur xrl gb zr. Onpx jura V jngpurq guvf gur svefg gvzr, vg jnf gur svefg puvax va gur natryvp nezbe bs gur Ibeybaf. Vs gurl jbhyq hfr Wnpx gur Evccre nf na ntrag, ubj tbbq ner gurl ernyyl? Guvf bs pbhefr vf cebirq bhg bire gur frevrf, ohg V nyjnlf ybbx ng guvf rcvfbqr nf gur svefg fgrc va gung qverpgvba. V xabj fbzr gnyx nobhg Qrngujnyxre orvat gur svefg, ohg V ivrj gung bar qvssreragyl.

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    • Gung’f jul vg qvqa’g dhvgr jbex sbe zr. N frevny xvyyre gbeghevat lbhe urebrf – ng zbzragf, jvgubhg nal pnhfr? Gung’f gbb urnil-unaqrq sbe zr. Gur shaal guvat vf, V qvqa’g ernyvmr vg ng gur gvzr – jura gur fubj jnf bevtvanyyl nvevat, V’q zvffrq fbzr cnegf bs n svefg-frnfba rcvfbqr, naq gubhtug gung Ibeybaf bppnfvbanyyl ngr crbcyr. Gung npghnyyl znqr gurz zber zbenyyl vagrerfgvat guna guvf rcvfbqr qvq ba erjngpuvat.

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      • V fgvyy svaq gurz vagrerfgvat orpnhfr bs gur jubyr Pbageby if Punbf gung vf tbvat ba jvgu gur Ibeybaf naq Funqbjf. V yvxr ubj rira gur Pbageby pna or nf rivy naq fpnel nf Punbf.

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