In an effort to get more into my space sci-fi nerd roots, I've begun watching online episodes of the show Babylon 5. Apparently it's something like a soap opera set in outer space, on a huge station named, what else, Babylon 5. That's kind of different from what I had thought it was, but honestly I'm enjoying it.
The show does something I like: it dares to ask and explore deeply philosophical questions. I'm on about episode seven right now and it's touched on things like religion and the ethics of telepathy already. It seems like xenophobia toward aliens is going to be a prevalent part of the series later on.
Episode two of the series, "Soul Hunter," is particularly mind-screwey. There is an old wives' tale among the alien race called the Minbari that if you're bad, someone from a race called the Soul Hunters will snatch your soul and prevent you from entering the Minbari afterlife. In this episode, a person from the Soul Hunter species arrives on the station, much to the fright of the Minbari ambassador there. But things are hardly as black-and-white as it seems. Soul Hunters are drawn by death. They can sense it. They believe themselves to be doing a noble duty, where they absorb the souls of dying people who are gifted in some way - intelligent, creative, crafty, and so on - and store them in little round capsules, where they can interact with the soul and preserve what made them special.
However, the Soul Hunter that comes to Babylon 5 is somewhat insane. Instead of letting the death happen by itself, he's trying to cause the death - in this case, of the Minbari ambassador herself. But his insanity ends up being his own doom, as the souls seemingly turn on him in a moment of weakness.
What makes this episode so intriguing is that there are big questions raised, but never answered. Were those really souls in the capsules, or some other form of energy? Maybe they are not really souls, just electro-chemical signals and patterns. Are the Soul Hunters really bad for wanting to preserve those who were special during their lifetime? Do the souls of the Minbari really go to some kind of afterlife, or do they just cease to exist in the absence of a body? Did the encapsuled souls turn on their possessor because he was a madman who needed to be stopped, or because they were experiencing some kind of emotional anguish by being denied passage to their afterlives? There is no clear right and wrong here.
The ending of this episode is the clincher. After the madman is neutralized, the Minbari lady gets possession of the capsules. She is shown euphorically breaking open the capsules, releasing what appeared to be actual souls. Yet as we've already established, there is no concrete answer to whether there is any kind of afterlife. So as she releases the souls, she could very well be killing the greatest minds in history, under the mistaken belief she is giving them eternal peace!
I'm watching the show at a rate of about one episode a day. The first few episodes had cheesy acting, but it's starting to pull itself together. With five seasons of storyline and seven movies, I think I'm going to like this. I know the series itself will be a pleasure to watch, I hope I can say the same about the movies.