Claudia Christian as Lt. Cmdr. Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5: Soul Hunter

Babylon 5 Rewatch: “Soul Hunter”

“Soul Hunter”
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Jim Johnston
Season 1, Episode 2
Production episode 102
Original air date: February 2, 1994

It was the dawn of the third age… Dr. Stephen Franklin reports on board, replacing Kyle, who is now working for the newly reelected President of Earth Alliance. His first patient is the sole occupant of a badly damaged ship that comes unexpectedly through the jump gate. Sinclair manages to wrangle the ship with a Starfury and a grappling line before it crashes into the station.

The sole occupant is an alien none of the Earth Alliance personnel recognize. Franklin works on him in the iso-lab where the atmosphere has been tailored to his needs. Delenn, however, recognizes him as a Soul Hunter, who is apparently the Minbari equivalent of the boogeyman. According to Delenn—who urges Sinclair to kill the Soul Hunter right there in the medbay—Soul Hunters are vultures who are attracted to death. They steal souls right at the moment of death. To Minbari, this is awful, as they believe that Minbari souls are melded together and reborn in the future.

The Soul Hunter—let’s call him “Rufus,” mostly because constantly typing “the Soul Hunter” to refer to him is annoying—wakes up at the same time that a shell-game grifter in downbelow is found out, chased down, and murdered. Rufus announces that he can sense the man’s impending death, and later Sinclair determines that Rufus woke up at the exact time of the grifter’s death.

Rufus then sits up and starts meditating and chanting, ignoring Sinclair’s questions—right up until Sinclair accuses him of being a thief. Rufus angrily retorts that his people preserve souls, they don’t steal them. They wish to preserve the great beings of society. The Minbari hate the Soul Hunters because they tried to save the soul of Dukhat, the great Minbari leader whose death precipitated the Earth-Minbari War. Sinclair informs Rufus that he must remain in the isolab until his ship is repaired, at which point he’s to leave the station.

After Franklin does the autopsy of the grifter, he and Ivanova supervise his body being cast out into space, as his family can’t afford to have him shipped home.

Claudia Christian as Lt. Cmdr. Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5: Soul Hunter

Delenn visits the medlab. She tells Rufus that she’ll tear his ship apart to find his collection of souls and free any Minbari souls she finds. Rufus tells her that he recognizes her as a Satai from the Grey Council, who was there when Dukhat died, and he wonders why she’s playing at being an ambassador when she’s so much more.

Rufus escapes, injuring one of Garibaldi’s security people in the process. A second Soul Hunter ship—this one intact—comes through the jumpgate. The second Soul Hunter—let’s call him Xavier—says that he’s here for Rufus, who is apparently deeply disturbed. After failing to preserve Dukhat’s soul, Rufus went a bit binky-bonkers, and is now killing people in order to preserve their souls. This is a violation of Soul Hunter law, and Xavier is here to arrest Rufus. Xavier is the one who damaged Rufus’ ship.

Rufus goes to N’Garath, a criminal kingpin in downbelow, who sells Rufus a level-five clearance that enables him to find and access Delenn’s quarters, all the better to kidnap her with.

Aided by Xavier, Sinclair, Garibaldi, and the security force search for Delenn. Xavier is able to sense Delenn’s impending death in a particular section, and, because he’s listed first in the opening credits, it’s Sinclair who finds Rufus and Delenn, the latter being slowly bled to death so that she’ll die semi-naturally and Rufus can take her soul.

Sinclair is able to stop Rufus by turning his soul-sucking machine on him, which kills him. Delenn is brought to the medlab, where she recovers, and Xavier departs, with Sinclair making it clear that Soul Hunters are not welcome on B5.

After she recovers, Delenn takes Rufus’ collection of souls and breaks the globes, releasing the souls.

W. Morgan Sheppard as the Soul Hunter in Babylon 5: Soul Hunter.

Nothing’s the same anymore. Delenn’s line about how they (meaning the Minbari, or possibly the Grey Council) were right about Sinclair is another hint, along with the “hole in his mind” mentioned in “The Gathering,” that he’s important to the Minbari for some reason.

Ivanova is God. Ivanova’s deadpan and pessimism are both on full display in her interactions with Franklin.

The household god of frustration. Garibaldi’s security guard who is watching Rufus falls for the sick-prisoner trick and gets his ass kicked and his weapon taken, which probably got him fired.

If you value your lives, be somewhere else. Delenn’s response to the presence of a Soul Hunter is to try to shoot him and to generally act batshit. We also get someone else who figures out that she’s part of the Grey Council, and just like G’Kar in “The Gathering,” she tries to kill him (though she did that part first…).

Looking ahead. Rufus sees what Delenn has planned for the future and is horrified. Delenn says before losing consciousness that the Minbari were right about Sinclair, the meaning of which will become clear before long…

Welcome aboard. The late great W. Morgan Sheppard plays Rufus, while John Snyder plays Xavier. Sheppard will return in “The Long, Twilight Struggle” in season 2 as a Narn warleader.

Trivial matters. This episode is Richard Biggs’ first appearance as Franklin. Though they are listed in the opening credits, we still have yet to see Bill Mumy or Caitlin Brown as, respectively, Lennier and Na’Toth.

This is the first mention of Dukhat, the great Minbari leader, whom we will later learn was Delenn’s mentor. It’s established that Dukhat’s death is what got the Earth-Minbari War started.

The echoes of all of our conversations.

“Typical human lifespan is almost a hundred years, but it’s barely a second compared to what’s out there. It wouldn’t be so bad if life didn’t take so long to figure out. Seems you just start to get it right, and then—it’s over.” 

“Doesn’t matter. If we live two hundred years, we’d still be human—we’d still make the same mistakes.”

“You’re a pessimist.”

“I’m Russian, Doctor.”

Franklin and Ivanova discussing philosophy.

W. Morgan Sheppard as the Soul Hunter in Babylon 5: Soul Hunter.

The name of the place is Babylon 5. “The soul ends with death unless we act to preserve it.” Thirty years ago, I watched the first season of B5 and was not all that impressed. I don’t remember specifics, but I remember in particular finding each of the first two episodes to be awful.

On this rewatch, I actually really liked “Midnight on the Firing Line,” but “Soul Hunter” is, if anything, worse than I remember.

Part of what I dislike about the episode relates not so much to the episode itself, but the pre-show hype that B5 had online. Creator J. Michael Straczynski spent a great deal of time promoting the show in advance of its debut on the various online bulletin boards of the era, particularly GEnie and CompuServe, and one of the things that he said would be the hallmark of the show was that it would that it would be scientifically accurate, unlike most other screen science fiction.

And then we get this episode, which starts with a damaged ship coming through the jump gate that, somehow, is on a collision course for B5. At this point, my disbelief needs the Heimlich maneuver, because, as Douglas Adams reminded us, space is big—really big. There’s no reason for the jump gate to be all that close to the station. In fact, it makes sense for there to be a certain distance for safety reasons. Yet somehow, this badly damaged ship winds up on a collision course with the station—which is, in astronomical terms, incredibly tiny—and it’s so close that Sinclair is barely able to grapple it in time (after missing twice) to keep it from crashing.

After that, we get the entire concept of Soul Hunters, which is exactly the kind of fantastical thing that Straczynski was supposed to be avoiding. True, we’ve already got telepathy, which is equally fanciful, but the use of telepathy in science fiction is pretty well established, from Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (which, as we’ll see, is a huge influence on the use of telepathy in B5)to Professor X and Jean Grey of the X-Men to the Ghosts in the StarCraft game, so one can forgive it a bit more readily.

But this episode presents the swiping and storing of souls as a real thing that Rufus does. Now, you can argue that it isn’t really what he’s doing—but he’s doing something. His soul-sucking vacuum cleaner enables him to see something in Delenn, so it obviously functions on some level. (Also, does he really need to carry that big-ass soul-sucking vacuum cleaner around every time he does this? Is that really practical?) Heck, the whole idea of “sensing death” is pretty much nonsense, too.

There’s some fun foreshadowing of the connection between Sinclair and the Minbari and of Delenn’s true purpose, and nobody ever went wrong casting W. Morgan Sheppard, but these are very minor good points in an episode that is just awful. It doesn’t help that there’s no sign of Andreas Katsulas or Peter Jurasik, and an episode without G’Kar and Mollari doesn’t bear thinking about.

Next week: “Born to the Purple.” icon-paragraph-end

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