Babylon 5: Falling Toward Mythopoesis
Eleanor M. Farrell
Fans of intelligent science fiction media have quietly been discovering Babylon 5, a series with a unique approach to television storytelling. Creater J. Michael Straczynski has completely plotted out a 5-year story arc, which is now midway into its last season. Straczynski has recently set a television record by completely writing each of the scripts for the last fifty B5 episodes (even more by now...), and if that's a little crazy, it also indicates his dedication to maintaining a creative vision with cohesive structure and development.
What's most impressive about Babylon 5 is not the technical effects (mostly done using computer graphics -- the show doesn't have anything close to a Star Trek budget) or the futuristic toys, but the depth of mythic understructure in the creation of the cultures, human and alien, populating the B5 space station and its surrounding universe. These sometimes involve borrowed elements from our own past, culture and myths, from the obvious link with ancient Babylonian history to frequent literary and popular culture references. Characters in the Babylon 5 universe may quote Shakespeare and Dickens, but more often Tennyson or Yeats; and Biblical passages and references are frequently incorporated. The relationship of two characters, the Narn Ambassador G'Kar and his Centauri counterpart Londo Mollari, is molded in part -- but only in part! -- on the Greek myth of Cassandra and Agamemnon. A rather strange episode has a man who claims he is King Arthur arrive at the station, drawn to where he is most needed here and now. Although his real history and the reason for his obsessive quest are discovered, he still achieves personal peace by giving up his kingly responsibility (symbolized by the sword Excalibur) to the Lady of the Lake (personified by Delenn, the Minbari Ambassador). This leads to some intriguing speculation by two B5 personnel as to the possible identities of other Arthurian counterparts: the show's characters are themselves looking into their own myths.
The appearances of Tolkien references in B5 -- a homage by the show's creator -- are well-known even to people who don't watch the show. A narrated introduction beginning the first season episodes sets the scene as the "dawn of the third age of mankind." An underground network of Rangers (who wear "Isil'zha" -- pins with green stones) gather information during the long buildup to the war with an alien race called the Shadows. The Minbari are led by the Grey Council, made up of nine members. Captain John Sheridan journeys to Z'ha'dum, the gathering place of the enemy, although he is warned that if he does, he will die.
However, Babylon 5's plot is not a rehash of The Lord of the Rings, or, in fact, of any literary work, myth, or historical episode it references. It's an epic story, to be sure, with conflict, betrayal, defeats and victories, losses and joys, but it is its own story. The nods to our own cultural detritus are there to solidify the background for humans from Earth, now living among other races and surrounded by other stars; it is comforting to us as viewer to be reminded, through the show's human characters, that their history is ours. This connection is not easily accomplished in films of futuristic fiction, and it is the best works -- Blade Runner, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Brazil -- that take the time to fill in the background details. Babylon 5 is quite successful here.
Equally impressive is the careful thought which has gone into creating the alien races populating B5. The Minbari (led by Delenn,who has undergone a transformation to make herself partly human) are a very spiritual people, whose long history is a tapestry of prophecy. One of the best elements in the show has been the development of the story of Valen, the Minbari's spiritual leader whose prophecies and teachings have been passed down for a thousand years. A Valen quote is used in the Minbari "rebirth" ceremony:
Will you follow me into fire, into storm, into darkness, into death?
And the Nine said, Yes.
Then do this as testimony to the One who will follow,
who will bring death, couched in the promise of new life,
and renewal, disguised as defeat.
Another race, the Centauri, have female seers who prophecy visions of the future (or possible futures). The Narn have a holy text written by G'Quon, which G'Kar reads sometimes for comfort, but which also gave him historical insights into the coming conflict with the Shadows during the show's third season. Each of the alien races portrayed in Babylon 5 has a complex culture, which is sometimes explored and other times only casually dropped into the plot stew (sometimes with even more intriguing results). Some of the richest mythic resonances occur around the Vorlons, who are normally only seen in encounter suits and who are known for their brief and inscrutable comments to any question. When Kosh, the Vorlon Ambassador, leaves his encounter suit to rescue a falling Sheridan, he is seen by members of several races and is perceived differently by each of them -- in general, as the equivalent to what we Earthlings would term an angel. The Vorlons are one of the oldest races in the universe, and their influence on all history over the time of their existence has reached the level of deepest myth. Equally fascinating but largely unexplored (yet) is the symbiotic relationship of Draal, a Minbari, with the Great Machine on the planet Epsilon-3 around which Babylon 5 orbits.
Straczynski is well aware of the importance of myth to story, and the difficulties of making the process work. As he wrote in one of the electronic forums (reprinted on The Lurker's Guide web page): "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, the sense and the feel of it, which are intangible, and which is what makes doing an epic so hard. Either you feel the structure, or you don't; if you try to hammer it down into a formula, a step-by-step process, it turns to quicksilver in your hands and slips away."
David Bassom. The A to Z of Babylon 5. London: Boxtree Limited, 1996, ISBN 0-7522-0252-9, £8.99.
David Bassom. Creating Babylon 5. London: Boxtree Limited, 1996, ISBN 0-7522-0841-1, £13.99.
The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5: http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/lurker.html
The Babylon 5 History Page: http://www.math.washington.edu/~lking/b-five.html
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Mythprint
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