At the end of my review for Midnight on the Firing Line, I noted that the only reason I was giving the episode a "9" instead of a "10" was that I knew there was much better to come from this series.
Soul Hunter is NOT one of the episodes I was referring to.
When a badly-damaged ship of unknown origin comes out of the jumpgate, Commander Sinclair insists on bringing the ship into the station. When its pilot is brought to the station's medlab to recover, Ambassador Delenn identifies the alien as a Soul Hunter, a race dedicated to taking souls at the moment of death and storing them.
Delenn begs Sinclair to send the Soul Hunter away... something Sinclair feels inclined to do, particularly after Dr. Franklin sees evidence that the strange alien truly can feel the approach of death. But when the Soul Hunter and Delenn come face-to-face, and the Soul Hunter recognizes her for who she really is, the situation takes an altogether more sinister turn.
There are many interesting ideas in Soul Hunter. You have to extend some credit to this fledgling science-fiction series: it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to tackle questions such as that of the immortal soul in what was, after all, only the series' second regular episode. To mix in questions of perspective (both the Soul Hunters and the Minbari believe they are right, and the episode never comes out to say who is right and who is wrong) proves in itself that J. Michael Straczynski's series had ambitions beyond being the next Star Trek.
W. Morgan Sheppard delivers a very strong guest performance - the series' best guest performance to date (admittedly, not too stirring an accolade this early in its run) - as the Soul Hunter. Sheppard has tremendous screen presence. When the camera reveals the Hunter suddenly standing, eyes wide open, at the glass to the isolab, it is a moment that makes you jump. And Sheppard is so magnetic that, as the scene progresses, you still can't take your eyes off him... even long after the initial shock wears off.
Mira Furlan was given very little to do in Midnight on the Firing Line, and was largely relegated to being "inscrutable" in her scenes in The Gathering. Here, she is finally given some meat. Her performance is every bit as good as Sheppard's, from her shock and outrage when she recognizes the Soul Hunter, to her blistering confrontation with him in the isolab. This is the episode that makes it clear that Furlan's performance in this series is going to be something special.
The episode also does a good job of delivering a lot of arc information without letting that information overpower the plot. In retrospect, Season One does a great job of building the Sinclair/Minbari mystery, teasing it at a sufficient pace to keep it intriguing and to promise answers. This episode is instrumental in advancing that plot, with the Soul Hunter's wonderment as he looks into Delenn's soul and exclaims, "You would do such a thing?" His later words to Sinclair help to give the Commander some important information about Delenn.
Finally, this is the episode that introduces Dr. Stephen Franklin as Babylon 5's new chief medical officer. Richard Biggs is clearly finding the character at this point, and some of his readings are slightly forced. However, Biggs gets one really fine moment, as he talks with Ivanova during a "burial at sea" about the nature of life and death; to his credit, he makes the most of the scene. The character's best episodes are yet to come, but at least there's early reason to believe that he will be a strong addition. Nice to get a mention of Dr. Kyle in there, as well.
The ideas behind the episode are interesting. I like and respect the fact that the episode never fully "chooses a side" between Delenn and the Soul Hunters in general. To Delenn, the Soul Hunters are blocking the souls of the dead from being reborn into the next generation; to the Soul Hunters, their actions are saving the souls of the dead from oblivion.
Unfortunately, the entire philosophical aspect of the show crumbles at about the halfway mark, when this particular Soul Hunter is revealed to essentially be a murderous sociopath. From the point where the Soul Hunter forces his way out of Medlab to the ending confrontation, the episode becomes much more predictable than it had been and much less interesting.
"I can rip your soul from your body!" the Soul Hunter screams at Delenn near the episode's climax. But he won't do it, because "the soul is damaged," he says; he might as well say (in his best Dr. Evil voice) that "I won't do that, because then Commander Sinclair won't have time to run in here and rescue you." A rescue that entails Sinclair finding Delenn and the crazy alien all too easily (apparently, Soul Hunters are drawn to the location of imminent death... on a map!). Then, upon finding them, Sinclair's plan (if I can call it that) consists of turning the Soul Hunter's soul-sucking doohickey around to point at the Soul Hunter, then standing back and watching... while not doing a thing to disconnect Delenn from the equally convoluted mechanical device that is, presumably, still draining her life's blood. Or are we to take it that turning the soul-sucking doohickey around suddenly stops the blood-draining McGuffin gizmo? I half-expected Garibaldi to ask Sinclair how he did it, and for Sinclair to say he "reversed the polarity."
I suspect this episode preceded Midnight on the Firing Line in production. The performances of the regulars, apart from the sublime Mira Furlan, are quite a bit weaker here than in Midnight. O'Hare, in particular, has stretches where it sounds like he's just reciting his lines rather than believing in them. Even Jerry Doyle's Garibaldi doesn't do much to enliven his scenes this time out.
Some interesting ideas and good early arc movement, but the central plot is too weak for me to consider this anything but a weak episode overall.