Five Things Learned From BABYLON 5

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Neale Monks finds some real world lessons in Babylon 5.

All the best science fiction uses imaginary worlds to convey messages about the real world. Isaac Asimov showed how advances in science would affect human society, most famously in the field of robotics. John Wyndham was more interested in how humanity depended on science, often asking what would happen if the technological advances we take for granted were suddenly taken away. Gene Roddenberry used Star Trek to tell morality tales of the sort that were popular in medieval Europe, while Ron Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica explored American politics and society, post-9/11.

Babylon 5 was very much science fiction as modern mythology. Even the title of the show was a direct link with the myths of ancient Babylon, a system of beliefs curiously bereft of notions of good and evil and instead centred on the struggles of the gods to maintain order against the chaos of the universe at large. Of course this clue wasn’t laid bare until about halfway through the series when it became clear that the “good guys” weren’t all that good after all, and the “bad guys” were, in their way, trying to help us.

What makes myths special is that even though they may be fictional, they still manage to tell us timeless truths. In the Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles becomes a symbol of the destructiveness of angry vengeance, while the English outlaw Robin Hood remains the archetypal example of someone who breaks the law to promote justice.

It doesn’t matter if these characters are real or not, because it is the symbolism not the biography that is significant. The brilliance of Stracynzski is his creation of characters that are not just believable and engaging, but archetypal personalities that remain as powerful and inspirational now as they were when Babylon 5 was first broadcast twenty years ago.

What do you want?
Signs and Portents, Season 1

More than anything else, Babylon 5 is about choices. Londo Mollari, in particular, makes bad choices; as he observes late in the series, “When we first met, I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all.”

Essentially Londo’s mistake was to accept power without working for it; in short, he didn’t deserve it. In the Babylon 5 universe, nothing worthwhile comes without effort and sacrifice. Those who appear to be handing you power and wealth do it to manipulate you, not to elevate you. The ones who become truly great are those who are prepared to give up everything, even their lives, for the causes they believe in, and so become inspirational leaders.

The Shadows give him power, but they can’t make Londo respected, loved, trusted, or admired; in the end is he is either feared or despised, and loses virtually every shred of the friendship and love he enjoyed at the start of the series. Without these things, Londo finally realises that power is really nothing at all.

In our own world, it is all too easy to look enviously at those with riches, power and fame. But Stracynzski’s message is crystal clear: be very careful what you wish for. Londo was given his wish, but it brings him no joy. Quite the reverse in fact; the only times we see Londo happy is in Season 1 where he may seem to be an old-fashioned, laughably irrelevant figure, but at least he had got to enjoy wine, women and song. Wealth and influence may seem attractive, but Stracynzski reminds us that what really matters are happiness, love and friendship. Critically—these things can’t be bestowed on you by others; you have to work at them yourself.

If you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the work becomes corrupt, impure, and ultimately self-destructive.
Comes the Inquisitor, Season 2

One of the most powerful concepts in mythology is that motives are as important as actions. Simply fighting isn’t enough: you have to be fighting for something. If you’re a leader sending your soldiers to their deaths, you have to have the moral authority to do that.

Stracynzski argues that a worthy leader must be prepared to give it all up, to die, unknown and unmourned, simply to save the life of another. Giving all of this his signature Babylon 5 twist, Stracynzski has the key line delivered by none other than Jack the Ripper: No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame. For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know, or see.

So Delenn is tested by the Inquisitor, and in being found willing to make this sacrifice, she proves that she is the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

What makes this episode so powerful is the light it casts on recent military operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. There’s no question Saddam Hussein was a bad person: he was cruel, brutal and corrupt. Removing him was the right thing, but was it done for the right reasons? Were our leaders acting out of altruism and with a true nobility of spirit? Or were they doing the right thing for the wrong reasons: for political, commercial and strategic gains? We know our leaders are willing to send our fellow citizens off to their deaths, but would they be quite so prepared to lay down their own lives, unheard and unseen, to save the life of a stranger?

No moral ambiguity, no hopeless battle against ancient and overwhelming forces. They were the bad guys, we were the good guys, and they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the floor.
A Late Delivery from Avalon, Season 3

This odd little episode seems at first not to have very much to do with the rest of the Babylon 5 narrative. It’s distinctly non-arc in many ways, and while adding a little detail to the back-story of the Earth-Minbari war, it doesn’t substantially advance any of the main plot threads.

But in terms of defining Stracynzski’s concept of what Babylon 5 is all about, this episode is rather important. Just for a moment the characters have the chance to be simple heroes fighting injustice. We know who the good guys are, we know who the bad guys are, and as G’Kar so elegantly puts it, the bad guys made a very satisfying thump when they hit the floor.

For the rest of the show there isn’t this clear-cut distinction between heroes and villains. We may not want the Shadows to win but Stracynzski makes it clear that their aims, if not their motives, have merits. And so it is with the Vorlons, Psi Corps, Edgars Industries, the Minbari Warrior Caste and so on: each has its own aims and motives, and while ethically questionable in various ways, describing what they’re doing as outright evil is difficult, if not impossible.

By hammering home the point that simple cases of good versus evil are rare, Stracynzski reminds viewers that things as trite as the “Axis of Evil” don’t really make sense. Such ideas might be fine for children’s stories where the heroes are radiantly good and the enemies despicably evil, but in the real world things tend to be shades of grey. It’s no good joining a faction and leaving it at that: choices need to be made every day and motives must be continually appraised. In this episode G’Kar gets a moment where nothing is more complex than ensuring that the bad guys are beaten into submission; for the rest of the series Stracynzski has G’Kar struggle with the competing forces of self-interest, fear, history, and hope.

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little and the ground is not fertile, and nothing can grow there. Too much, the best of us is washed away.
Objects in Motion, Season 5

The importance of past events, whether the life of a single person or the history of an entire people, is something Babylon 5 portrays critically but sympathetically.

All four of the major races, humans, Minbari, Narns, and Centauri, are defined in part by the historical events that led them to the Babylon 5 space station. The motives of the lead characters are further defined by historical events as well, often tragic and painful ones. G’Kar experienced the brutality of the Centauri occupation of his world and watched his father being executed. Londo has seen his people decay from a position of power and is frustrated by the weakness of his government. Sinclair is deeply scarred by his experience of the Earth-Minbari war, and Delenn was in part responsible for the genocidal war that almost led to the destruction of humanity.

But Stracynzski makes it clear that while we cannot ignore the past, we cannot allow it to direct the future. Just because you suffered in the past doesn’t give you the right to cause suffering in return.

The Narns only recover their freedom when they put aside their desire for revenge and become willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of all sentient beings, not just their own. By contrast, when EarthGov tries to protect itself from another catastrophic war, humanity allows itself to be manipulated by the Shadows, and end up being ruled by a fascist state. To move forwards, one must be reconciled with the past but not governed by it.

You’re wrong, Mollari. Whether it was me or my world, whether it was a total stranger or your worst enemy, you were a witness! It doesn’t matter if they stopped. It doesn't matter if they’d listen. You had an obligation to speak out!
The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari, Season 5

These words delivered by G’Kar to a dying Londo Mollari crystallise one of the obligations of all thinking people: to not stay silent in the presence of evil. Mollari watched G’Kar being whipped to within an inch of his life, but said nothing. He stood aboard a starship and watched it destroy all the cities on Narn, killing millions of people in the process, and said nothing. Even if he couldn’t have changed things, he should have spoken out against them, but he chose not to.

Through G’Kar, Stracynzski argues it isn’t enough for a soldier to ignore a war crime by saying that he is following orders. It isn’t acceptable for a lawyer to instruct his client to obey the letter of the law while skirting its intent. It isn’t enough to mind our own business when we see a child being bullied or a hungry man picking through a trashcan for scraps.

The practicalities of politics and the forces of market economics aren’t an excuse for injustice and suffering. Turning a blind eye to what is wrong in our world doesn't prevent those things from happening. When we are witnesses to something, we should admit it, and try to change it. This is perhaps the most difficult of all Stracynzski’s lessons because it is the one that requires us to confront our own natural behaviours day by day.

It’s a timely lesson. There’s much in this world that needs fixing: a messed up environment, economies that seem lurch from crisis to crisis and politicians who seem to care more about looking good than doing good, it’s hard to know where to start. But as Stracynzski likes to say, “Faith manages.”

Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted sandworms.

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