The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Dream Given Form...

You'll notice that while I am a huge geek, one thing I have not discussed on here are any major science fiction franchises. I love science fiction when it's done right. I adore it. But science fiction is like sushi, unless it's prepared with enough attention and care, it will make you sick.

"Star Trek" and "Star Wars" are the McDonald's and Burger King of science fiction. They can often be quite delicious, but they're never really high quality. Sure "Trek" has its occasional McRibs, and moments of brilliance, but they have been rare. "Star Wars" has only ever had one really good chapter in it's entire franchise, "The Empire Strikes Back." While the first movie is fun, another McRib, the other four movies in the franchise are crap. Well, other five movies if we count that really stupid CGI "Clone Wars" movie. When it comes to science fiction, I have always worshiped at the altar of what I consider to not only be the most brilliant science fiction series ever conceived for television, but one of the most brilliant series ever conceived at all.

Now you can see why I get shut out of a lot of nerd talks. ;)

"Babylon 5" was a brilliant piece of work. It was a true piece of art. The creative brainchild of one man who wanted to tell an epic story. The story of people who live in a tin can out in space in a world where empires rise and fall. A story where one man can make a difference and change the galaxy. A story about armies of light and soldiers of darkness. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story with a clear narrative where the subtext mattered just as much as the context. A story that was applicable to the times that came before us, the times we live in, and the times that are still to come.

J. Michael Straczynski recognized something that George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry never seemed to grasp. That science fiction is about exploring the human condition. That science fiction is about more than space ships, computers, lasers, and funny looking aliens. Because, well, even anthropology is a science. While Roddenberry was interested only in showing us his Atheistic-Socialist Utopia, and Lucas was interested in funny aliens and selling toys, Straczynski (hereafter referred to as JMS) was telling a story about us.

In "Babylon 5," we went to the stars and we took all of our problems with us. There is still poverty, even on Babylon 5. There is prejudice, fear, ambition, and all of the elements necessary for the rise of a fascist dictatorship to arise on Earth. This isn't the Galactic Empire, with its cackling Emperor and black clad Darth Vader, and officers who look like Nazis. These people are, very sadly, just like us. The everyman. What happens when the enemy is no longer the other, what if it's a former friend or co-worker. What happens when we are so afraid, that we allow our basic freedoms to be eroded because we think it will protect us? That concept scares me more than a Death Star ever could.

In "Star Trek," in less than three hundred years, humans have outgrown religion, prejudice, and even the desire for wealth. We have perfected. We work to better ourselves. It is through not quite as perfected alien races we deal with problems. Most of Trek's aliens exist as allegory for our lesser points. The Klingons representing our warlike behavior; the Romulans, our ambition; the Ferengi, our greed; the Cardassians, our attempts at genocide; and the Vulcans, our capacity to be cold towards one another. They are all very monolithic. The aliens in "Star Wars" are even less developed than that, and usually nothing more than an excuse to show off special effects, or cheap humor.

Religion is also an important theme of "Babylon 5." We as a species have not outgrown it, but at the same time, I have never seen another series handle religion with as much respect and even reverence as "Babylon 5" has. And the series was created and written by an Atheist. Humans still have their religious beliefs, and they are presented with the dignity and respect they deserve. Even the aliens are given respect, and their beliefs taken seriously. I like that.

This is not the case on "Babylon 5" where each species has a fully developed culture, different factions within their culture, even, gasp, different religious beliefs within their own species. They'll speak different languages, and some will work against each other. That's a lot more like real life, don't you think? Yes, the allegory is still there, but they are fleshed out and take on a life beyond that, and they feel as real as any of us.

I have many times sat on the sidelines when other nerds debates who the "best captain" is. Because I will never answer with Kirk or Picard. For me, the more interesting question would be "John Sheridan or Malcolm Reynolds" (FYI, it's Sheridan, but Mal is a close second). Don't get me wrong, Kirk and Picard are both great characters in their own rights, but they were pretty much the same people the last time we saw them as they were the first time we saw them. Kirk remains that adventurous, womanizing, heroic, space cowboy, while Picard already starts out as a wise, and enlightened man. The only actual character development Picard ever received was getting over his dislike of children (which removed his only real character flaw in the process), and his post traumatic stress disorder from his time as Locutus of Borg (TNG's best episode of all time, btw).

John Sheridan, on the other hand, starts out as an everyman being thrust into a job he didn't particularly want. While he seems happy and go-lucky, that is partly to mask his pain as a widower. He was already a war hero, having to deal diplomatically with aliens who hated him for the exact reason why he was a war hero, but I doubt he ever would have conceived of the destiny that lay before him the first time he set foot on Babylon 5.

Sheridan followed Joseph Campbell's hero's journey far better than Luke Skywalker ever did (Of course, Luke wasn't helped when George Lucas defanged the series after "Empire Strikes Back" so who knows what Gary Kurtz originally intended for him?), and truly had to rise to the occasion, and like all heroes, paid some steep, steep prices along the way. What Sheridan endured would break almost anybody, and almost broke him a few times. But, through all of this, even after becoming a larger than life figure, he still maintains his everyman aspect, and we never stop relating to him.

Of course, if I go through every character, this will be less a blog post, and more a novel. Because I've got a lot I can say about Delenn, Ivanova, Garibaldi, G'Kar, Londo Mollari, and everyone else who played a major part in the series.

The series is not perfect. As much as I love it, I re-watch it, and often think some of the actors could have been directed better at times. While I mostly think the casting is great, there have been a few cases of miscasting and bad direction here and there. Also, you can tell the series was made on a low budget, but that never bothered me. The story is powerful enough to make you overlook these few flaws.

It's always been a masterpiece for me, a series that always makes me feel like I'm learning something about the world around me as well as myself when I watch it. It makes me think and consider all possibilities, and does what science fiction has set out to do in its hey day. I never could get into "Farscape," or "Stargate." And, to this day Ron Moore's "Battlestar Galactica" has eluded me, but that will soon be rectified. The only other science fiction series that has even come close is "Firefly." But, overall, nothing has ever topped "Babylon 5" and I often feel as though I've been spoiled, because science fiction has to really impress me to be able to enjoy it.

But, whatever happens, "Babylon 5" has stuck with me for almost two decades now, and it was special. I once wrote a letter to JMS thanking him for the series, and telling him about how he has been one of my biggest inspirations, and he was kind enough to write back. His reply is one of my cherished possessions.

I can't think of a more adequate ending for this entry than the following.


  1. Watched most of Babylon 5 a few months ago (restricted time made it so that I only saw Day of the Dead and Sleeping in Light for S5), and I'll agree with what you said. While my SF preferences lean more toward Doctor Who than anything, B5 was a very enlightening experience and something we seldom see on TV nowadays.

  2. "For me, the more interesting question would be "John Sheridan or Malcolm Reynolds" (FYI, it's Sheridan, but Mal is a close second)."

    What, no love for Sinclair?

  3. Sinclair was not a captain now, was he? ;)