Straczynski as a cultural functionary in Babylon 5
By: Mark Lachniet
The role of the storyteller is to entertain, to educate, and sometimes to heal. Through stories, people express themselves, and seek understanding. Stories mark our changes through the years in terms of the values and beliefs that we hold. Stories are also fluid and dynamic; they become both reflections of, and influences to, social and political circumstance and change. Good fiction captures the imagination and opens vistas of perspective, allowing the recipient to reflect upon the multitudinous possibilities of life. Good Speculative Fiction takes this process a step further by framing the issues of the day in a far-off place where they can be dealt with unhindered by the controversial charge held in their cultural and personal form. As such, fiction and Science Fiction are focal points for the study of the human experience. We must ask ourselves how we relate to a story, and what it says about society as a whole. Babylon 5 is a television story that requires this sort of reflection. Within Babylon 5, we find a new iteration of the perennial questions of "who are we", "what do we want" and "why are we here." It is through this modern incarnation that questions about the nature of the human experience can more easily become part of our collective consciousness and lead to increased understanding of the issues that confront us. J. Michael Straczynski, through the story of Babylon 5 has done exactly this. By way of a three-pronged manipulation of content, presentation, and storyteller / story-receiver interaction, Straczynski has redefined the medium of television science fiction and made it a more powerful tool for conveying his message. Straczynski's message is that people can make a difference and take "personal responsibility" (Straczynski, Atheism) for changing the world in which we live. This sentiment is poignantly demonstrated in Intersections in Real Time when Sheridan refuses to submit to the brainwashing of his interrogator.
By way of a finely crafted television series, Straczynski draws the reader into a story replete with ethical issues and dilemmas. Stories like Babylon 5 are a potent method of transmitting information about our culture. Through stories, we learn about our history and what has shaped our selves and our world. The storyteller has a hard job - he deals with important issues concerning the human condition. In writing Babylon 5, Straczynski has continued this tradition of cultural transmission and education, and adapted its form, content and presentation for a modern age. First and foremost, Straczynski uses imagery, themes, history, and mythic elements that are common to the human experience. By utilizing these elements, he is able to both refer back to larger questions concerning humanity and also to frame the issues of the show in a context which is more easily understood. For example, by utilizing themes of xenophobism between alien cultures, Straczynski is able to make a poignant commentary about modern human society's own racist tendencies. Straczynski also manipulates the presentation of Babylon 5 to augment his message. The computer graphics, powerful soundtracks, and cinematography add to the overall dramatic effect of the story, and draw the viewer into a world that is enticing not only from a thematic but also a sensory perspective. Lastly, Straczynski has redefined the traditional one-way transmission of information inherent in the television media by his interaction with viewers on the Internet. In this way, the viewing public has direct access to the source of the story, and in some cases even affected change within the story (Lurker’s, what effect have fans had)
Straczynski makes use of many mythic images and metaphors in Babylon 5. When a work makes use of elements drawn from the well of the collective unconscious, it takes on a mythic quality of its own. By incorporating elements of our existing mythic cannon such as the hero's quest, the idea of the "First Ones" (Lurker’s, Babylon 5 Universe), and the plunge into the abyss, Babylon 5 becomes a mythic tale itself. In a sense, Babylon 5 is an adaptation of older mythic ideas into a modern context. As Straczynski explained in an on-line posting, Babylon 5 "taps into all the myths and archetypes that have been with us for all of recorded history, and much of its oral history. Where B5 gets into this area is in trying to look at the kinds of myths and epics that have gone before, and finding not the specifics, but the themes which are universal" (Straczynski, Army). Straczynski places this function in a historical perspective in an article for Foundation:
One of the most visible elements in use in the show is that of the hero's quest. Joseph Campbell describes the hero's quest as both a deed in which "the hero performs a courageous act in battle or saves a life" and as a "spiritual deed" in which hero "learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message" (152). The actions of John Sheridan, captain of Babylon 5, follow precisely this course. In a corporeal sense, Sheridan must sacrifice himself by jumping from an un-survivable height into a dark abyss in order to destroy a major stronghold of the enemy on the planet of Z'Ha'Dum. After this "courageous act", Sheridan is able to return to the station with a message of how the war at hand can be won. This plot thread is strongly reminiscent of Orpheus descending into the underworld. Indeed, it was exactly this tale that was "in the back of [Straczynski's] head when [he] was blocking out that part of the story" (Straczynski, Underworld). Sheridan, through confronting death, is able to come back with the "spiritual power and knowledge" (Kirkby, The Journey Downwards) necessary to succeed in his quest. The symbolism of this act resonates with other mythological stories, such as the fall of the Christian angels into hell, Dante’s descent into hell, Ulysses and his visit with the spirits of the dead, Jesus' descent into hell and Gandalf’s fall into the pits of Khazad-Dum in Tolkien (Kirkby, The Journey Downwards). With these mythic parallels in mind, the viewer can more easily make sense of the underlying plot in the story. In addition, the mythic resonance draws the viewer into the story by providing a recognizable parallel to which he might be accustomed. As always, Straczynski uses this story device to impart his messages. In this case, the message is that of "personal sacrifice for a cause" (Straczynski, Midpoint).
Another mythic element that is strongly utilized in Babylon 5 is that of the "First Ones." Within the Babylon 5 universe, the "First Ones" are ancient alien species who are far more advanced and powerful than the humans and their peers. The two most thoroughly explored races of "First Ones" are the seemingly angelic Vorlons and the demonic Shadows. In many polytheistic cultures, a pantheon of deities exists that parallel the group of "First Ones." In Greek Mythology, there are Zeus and the gods of Olympus. In Norse Mythology, Odin and the gods of Valhalla reign supreme. In post-Judaic monotheistic religions, there are the Angels of heaven and the devils of Hell which are strongly likened to the Vorlons and Shadows in Babylon 5. It is with the monotheistically relevant metaphors that the Vorlons and Shadows in Babylon 5 are linked as caretakers and shepherds of the younger races. While once the "First Ones" existed in cooperation with each other to nurture the younger races, they have since gone astray and corrupted their original caretaker roles. Because of this, the younger races (Humans, Minbari, etc.) find themselves caught in a struggle between the forces of order and chaos. The forces of order are represented by the Vorlons, who believe that evolution should come through order and discipline. The forces of chaos are represented by the Shadows, who believe that evolution is best served through war, conflict and natural selection. The similarities to Christianity are clear and present, except that in this case the forces of order are God and the angels of heaven, while the forces of chaos are Satan and the devils in hell. The Christian metaphorical connection is even further strengthened in the episode entitled The Fall of Night when it is discovered that most of the lesser races had been conditioned to see the Vorlons in their corporeal forms as avatars of whatever belief system they hold. Another commonly understood metaphor for this plot device can be found in the Yin and Yang of Taoism. In the Taoist belief system, the Yin and Yang are two opposite but equal parts of the whole. They form the two primal elements from which all things are formed - dark and light, order and chaos, male and female. With the metaphor of the Yin/Yang in mind, the viewer has a frame of reference that can be used to examine the actions and motivations of the "First Ones" within the story. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, this polar cosmology is found in the Babylonian creation myths. According to Straczynski, this idea that "the universe was born in the conflict between order and chaos" is "part of the reason [he] decided to name [the] the show after Babylon" (Straczynski, Ethics in Writing).
Another theme in Babylon 5 that is common in human history is the idea of becoming godlike. Many human cultures have examples of this theme of attaining mystical power, from the godhood of the Mayan emperor, to the mystical powers of Jesus Christ, or the sorcery of Merlin. Humans have been fascinated with their presumably untapped mystical powers. An example of this that is found in both human culture and in the Babylon 5 universe is that of telepathy. In Babylon 5, many of the younger races (and presumably all of the older races) have developed telepathy. Telepaths have existed in almost every alien species in the story. As it later turns out, this telepathy is in fact the result of genetic manipulation by the older races. The idea that Arthur C. Clarke stated best when he said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (Clarke, 36) is found throughout Babylon 5. Indeed, the seemingly mystical powers of the "First Ones" are in fact no more than technologies more advanced than our own. This mystical perception by less technologically advanced cultures idea can be seen in recent history in examples such as the reception of Europeans (and their firearms) by indigenous populations in the Americas and Africa. In the Babylon 5 universe, even humans, through the use of technology, can attain near-magical qualities. In the episode entitled The Geometry of Shadows, a group of beings known as "Technomages" have turned advanced technology into a kind of wizardry, and attained power far above that of normals.
If indeed mastery of these technologies is the inevitable evolutionary product of humanity, Straczynski gives us yet another example in The Deconstruction of Falling Stars. In this episode, the viewer is presented with a "glimpse forward" into the distant future of humanity, in which humans have learned to shed their physical bodies and exist as beings of energy. In this episode, the message of human evolution is made clear in a recording left just before the Earth’s sun goes nova. This idea that humanity will eventually attain what we would now call "godhood" is found in several cosmologies and mythic traditions, from the theory of progressive reincarnation in the east to the theosophical attainment of enlightenment espoused by Helen Blavatsky (McDavid, 1). Straczynski uses these metaphoric ideals of evolution, magic, and technology to convey his message that people can make a difference. In an online posting, Straczynski states that:
This quest for enlightenment is also fortified in Babylon 5 by another metaphor commonly understood by the western viewer - that of the quest for the "Holy Grail". The Grail, historically the chalice from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, has been written about since the twelfth century (Matthews, 1). Through time, the Grail has become less literal and more metaphorical, coming to represent the quest for spiritual enlightenment. In A Late Delivery from Avalon, Straczynski explores this metaphor - once again for the purpose of imparting his message of personal choice. In the episode, a war veteran who was ordered to fire on a Minbari warship in a first-contact situation appears on the station believing that he is King Arthur. Seeking to cope with the horror of his past choices, he has abandoned his previous identity as soldier and believes himself to truly be King Arthur. This episode is particularly frank in its treatment of personal choice. Did the gunner have a choice when he was ordered to fire on the Minbari cruiser? Could he have refused to fire and thereby averted the death of millions of living beings, or would he have been charged with insubordination? And, in the final analysis, can he ever know what might have been if he had chosen not to fire? In this example, the choice to fire on the Minbari warship clearly has consequences, both personal and psychological (in the form of his neurosis) and for Earth itself because of the war that would follow.
In the episode entitled Grail, the metaphor of the Grail Quest is utilized once again. In this example, a "true seeker" known as Aldous appears on the station, searching for the Grail. Though scoffed at by the humans on the station, the Minbari find his quest for the Grail (and by metaphorical extension, enlightenment) admirable. As Aldous points out, all of the places left on Earth where the Grail might exist have been searched, and he must take his quest to the stars. Again, Straczynski makes use of a commonly understood mythic reference to draw the reader into his story. The idea that humanity's quest for enlightenment must move from the planet Earth and out into the universe is consistent with the recurring theme of human evolution in Babylon 5.
The mythic elements in Babylon 5 are useful for more than simply understanding the plot. Rather, they are a means by which a viewer can come to understand himself by reckoning mythic metaphors with his own life. Joseph Campbell once stated that "one of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit" (1). That is to say, popular culture has replaced much of the philosophical thought and meaningful metaphors that were in the minds of our ancestors with work, technology, and other externally referential things. Campbell explains that:
Storytellers do far more than simply regurgitate cultural images and metaphors. Rather, each good storyteller expresses these deeply rooted metaphors and images of the world around them as a natural result of the creative process. Many storytellers, Straczynski included, have been accused of liberating material from other works. It is tempting to recognize similarities or allusions in a work and attribute it to imitation. However, these elements are common to our stories because they are common to the human experience. On the other hand, that which is part of our experience is not always part of our mythic tradition. When we experience a dissonance between the world around us and the traditions and values of our mythological framework, confusion occurs. Campbell would maintain that the evidence of this is everywhere: in failed marriages, in the dissolution of the family unit (Campbell, 6) in our disenfranchised youth (Campbell 9), and in numerous other examples. At the very least, by not having a mythological context in which to place our experiences, we have one less tool of self-understanding. Through Babylon 5, modern viewers can examine the archetypal themes that are relevant to them, and perhaps learn something of both their own psyche and the nature of humanity.
Numerous episodes of Babylon 5 provide the opportunity to question our culture, our history and our present. Straczynski is a writer who professes a desire to "engender discussion on the issues raised" (Straczynski, Great Show) in his series. He is interested in provoking his viewers to think. One of the strongest messages about humanity that Straczynski makes is that "our capacity for greatness is as substantial as our capacity for evil" (Straczynski, Deathwalker). In particular, Straczynski points out that "at some point in our lives, we have to make a baseline decision about whether our actions will be ethical, or convenient … do we do right, or do we do wrong?" (Straczynski, Story Arc). In other words, what is moral, and what is just? To pose this question, Straczynski fashions episodes that deal with these specific issues relevant to human nature.
In Infection, the issues of racism and genocide are examined. In this episode, an ancient artifact is discovered and brought to the station. Soon, the artifact comes alive and possesses its handler. The man and machine merge, and the machine's program begins to operate: destroy all non-Ikarrans. As is later discovered, the Ikarrans were an alien species obsessed with racial purity. In an attempt to cleanse the gene pool, several of these biological machines were created to destroy anything that was not "Pure Ikarran". Over time, these machines fulfilled their task of enforcing the "myth" of racial purity by destroying every Ikarran man, woman and child. Unfortunately, it was discovered that there was no such thing as a "pure" Ikarran, and the species was wiped out by their own machines. The parallels to Nazi Germany and other ethnic wars in this episode are striking.
Babylon 5 also addresses the movement from sovereign political units to a global community. Technology is drastically changing our social identity. Throughout the human experience, we have been moving from small social units towards increasingly larger ones. While once our tribe, our village, or our feudal manor defined us, we now live in a world where commonality is defined by more than geographic locality. The system of telephones, satellites, and fiber optic cables that we have established by means of our technology make it so. The Internet is the primary manifestation of this. The definition of what makes a community has changed. There are few places on this earth anymore where a person cannot, with sufficient money, connect to this community. Humans are simply not that far away from one another any more. Metaphorically speaking, we are linked together by the technologies of the information age. Literally speaking, we have expanded our homesteads and habitated areas to our borders as populations have grown. In Babylon 5, Straczynski exemplifies this movement by providing an example of human society that is bounded not by the planet Earth, but by optional membership in a group known as the "Earth Alliance."
Also addressed in Babylon 5 is the movement from the oral tradition to mass media. The media are now the main forms of transmission for cultural history and identity. While in the oral tradition the tribal griot or priest might be responsible for this transmission, and thus the perceived culture, we now have television and the Internet. Reckoning the old ways with the new is a challenge for western society. In Babylon 5, Straczynski also gives us an example of the successful integration of the old and new in the Minbari. Their religion is rich with the stories and traditions of their ancestors like Valen. Still, they have successfully maintained and integrated the old myths with the technological universe around them, and drawn strength from it
Another issue that is addressed in Babylon 5 is that of medical ethics. In the episode entitled Believers, the issue of an individual's right to choose life and death is addressed. In this episode, the resident physician on the station, Dr. Franklin, must choose between letting a child die, or disobeying the customs and wishes of her parents by performing surgery on her. In the end, Franklin performs the surgery against the family's wishes, and temporarily saves her life. Unexpectedly to Franklin, the parents (who now believe that their daughter has no soul) kill her as their custom dictates. The parallels to the issues of "right to life" and assisted suicide are clear.
There are numerous other examples of contemporary issues that are framed within the Science Fiction context of Babylon 5. For example, the ethics of melding technology with human beings are explored in the episode Endgame. In another episode, labor practices such as those as embodied by the "Rush Law" in By Any Means Necessary, have resonance with issues faced to this day. There are simply more examples of this cultural function in Babylon 5 than this author can address in a short work. Not surprisingly, the cultural issues such as those mentioned above did not exist when our ancient myth-making ancestors created legends. They simply could not have foretold the world in which we now live. Consequently, the myths of old do not always provide a model by which modern viewers can understand their own lives in relation to these issues. If Campbell is correct that myths are a necessary tool to understand our culture and ourselves then modern society is now in dissonance with its mythic tradition.
What is needed, then, is a modern myth. To create a modern myth, the storyteller must examine cultural beliefs and ideas to see if they still work. By re-assessing the assumptions and metaphors of the past, modifying them, and putting them into a current context, Straczynski provides new myths for the age. These myths are important because they reflect a new social circumstance. The storyteller must re-work the myths and metaphors of the past and create something that is relevant and modern. In so doing, he may affect his audience, and eventually affect society itself. Gary Snyder said this best in his compilation entitled "The Real Work" when he talks about the idea of the poet (storyteller) as the "detritus consumer" of culture.
Babylon 5 is unlike other television shows. It is not simply a one way transmission of information from a far away author. Through the Internet, Straczynski comes to the people. He participates in the dialog about his own work. Americans live in a world in which we are used to passively receiving televised information. If the metaphor for regular television is the couch, then the dominant metaphor in Babylon 5 is the round-table. Granted, this round table is digital, chaotic, and has thousands of people seated at it. At this table, the viewer has the opportunity to question, to interpret, and to complain to the source of the story. This attention to detail has not gone unnoticed by the cast. In this discourse, the viewer has returned somewhat to the campfire, and has access to the storyteller. This is significant, because it involves all interested and capable parties in the process of re-writing our myths.
Through its rich multimedia experience, Babylon 5 draws in a diverse group of viewers to its messages. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences proposes that people have seven distinct types of "intelligence" (Gardner, 17). These intelligences are labeled as musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. According to this theory, some people function best through language, others through music or inter-personal interaction, and others through physical kinesthetic activity or some other form. Babylon 5 appeals to each of these types of intelligence. For those who are strong in musical intelligence, the soundtrack by Christopher Franke is captivating and powerful. For those of the bodily-kinesthetic preference, the frequent action scenes and hand-to-hand melees may be attractive. For the logical-mathematical, the deduction necessary to piece together the constantly forshadowed sub-plots might be stimulating. For those of a linguistic bent, the deep and well developed dialog, especially as exemplified by G’kar, would be intriguing. For those who have a strong spatial intelligence, the life-like three-dimensional space combat scenes would hold an appeal. Viewers with strong inter-personal intelligence might like the varied and tumultuous relationships of the protagonists. Lastly, for those with a strong intrapersonal, the constant quest for self-understanding in the show should resonate with the viewer. In all, Babylon 5 is all the more effective because it appeals to the various facets of human intelligence.
Through its sensory richness, Babylon 5 allows people with varied interpretive skills to participate in the story. Perhaps the most striking example of this is in the episode entitled And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place. In this episode, the conniving Lord Refa is brutally beaten by Narns in time with a jubilant gospel song. This multimedia experience greatly augments the story. The episode deals with hatred and fear, as well as truth and beauty through on-screen transitions between a gospel church service and the scene of the murder. The sensory richness seizes the viewers attention, and while it has it, imparts a spoonful of mythic and moral meaning.
In a world where our attention is focused increasingly outward, Babylon 5 allows even those viewers with a short attention span a chance to participate. By means of the "holographic style" (or overlapping episodic plots), the viewer can watch a long plot over time in short bursts of activity. With this story arc, viewers accustomed to the fast-paced style of MTv have a chance at participating in the show. On the other end of the spectrum, however, Babylon 5 is also successful because people with classical training immediately recognize the epic qualities of the story. Such people can look deeply into the plot, reckon it with other great works, and make sense of the reference, symbolism, and imagery contained within. In a sense, Babylon 5 appeals to both ends of the spectrum. It is crafted to engage the gamut of western society in order to convey it's mythic message.
Babylon 5 is an important work. It deals with both mythic and contemporary issues in a way that is meaningful. It forces the viewer to ask himself what technology has done for humanity. Has it changed our nature? Has it made us better? Are we more kind to our fellow man? Straczynski deconstructs technology as a solution to our problems. It may change the landscape of our lives, but it will never solve our problems. At the same time, Babylon 5 is a modern and technological manifestation of our mythic history. It gives us metaphors that contemporary culture can make use of. It renews and strengthens the bond with our past, and provides a mythic context that we can use to understand our own lives. Most importantly, it raises the important issues of human evolution and personal responsibility - the potential for an individual to make a difference. In this way, Babylon 5 is more than a simple television show, but rather a step forward in human evolution. In the final analysis, as in The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, humanity will move a little bit further along its path towards enlightenment. Perhaps in writing Babylon 5, Straczynski is helping to fulfill the prophecy he has created. As is suggested in A late deliver from Avalon the grail is still out there.
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