“It was the year of fire; the year of destruction; the year we took back what was ours”
“It was the year of rebirth; the year of great sadness; the year of pain and a year of joy”
“It was a new age; it was the end of history; it was the year everything changed.”
“The year was 2261; the place – Babylon 5”
We might well be entering dark times of overpopulation, degraded natural and manmade envornments, and climate instability. We might not have leaders unsuited to the task. What we do have is a story containing many of the tools required to navigate perilous times. I refer of course to Babylon 5, the sci-fi epic of the 1990’s.
I participate in our local Transition movement which aims to re-localise our economy so that it might be more resilient against things such as oil scarcity. In the Transistion movement we are no strangers to the idea of storytelling as an important toolkit to change perceptions and help reconnect people with their local environment. Part of this is to reawaken people to the concept of a natural world that rejects human attempts at control – for which the best we can hope for is to influence it. Much of our Transition storytelling – the blogs I read at least – is therefore based on folk tales. This is important because a lot of important local survival strategies are incorporated within such stories. The disadvantage is that the the self proclaimed “rationalists” can see “olde-world” folk tales coming a mile off and start dissing them accordingly.
Babylon 5 by contrast is affirms faith in Western values (although honour, attempting to do the right thing even at personal cost and so forth are looking a little dated now). They wear uniform on duty and have all the trappings of futuristic technology as it was seen in the 1990’s – so you get space travel but no Twitter.
That being said, Babylon 5 has folklore and spirituality by the bucketloads. In addition to the different alien races, many of which are what 1990’s electronic act the KLF would call “justified and ancient” with godlike power, there are a fair few magical creatures. There is prayer and ceremony.
The themes for a good morality tale are all there. Power and its (mis)use. Actions and consequences. The value of religion. Strength of character. The striking thing about the series is to the extent almost all the main cast of Babylon 5 are fundamentally flawed. As indeed is the space station itself: far from a utopian society many of its residents are down on their luck and obliged to dwell in slums known as “down below”.
The main arc of the story follows the station at the nexus of an ideological battle between two powerful ancient races who wish to guide the younger races (of which Humanity is just one). One believes strength comes from order and discipline whilst the other favours Darwinian struggle. Within this broader theme, we witness the war of attrition between the Centari and the Naan, the progressive descent of Earthgov into fascism by a narcissistic and increasingly totalitarian president (yes – really!)
I think it is high time for somebody to re-master the series so it appeals to a modern generation. Some of the interior scenes have a low rent charm. With the advances in computer generated graphics that have occurred since the original series was made it ought to be possible to greatly improve the space scenes.
No Green Worlds
Whilst I enjoy the series both in terms of the story and the setting there is a distinct lack of “green”. True, there is the internal parkland in the cavernous interior of the station extending the length of its axis, although this is a rather trite vision of “the environment” as something that is to be set aside and protected, rather than something that supports and shapes life. That function is clearly the role of the industrial technology that powers the space station. Despite the prominent solar panels outside the station, numerous reference is made of the fusion reactor, for instance.
Even the local planet appears to be barren of life on the outside but whose interior is occupied by a “great machine” – a set of systems which augments the senses and the will of its living operator over space and time. This industrial artefact therefore becomes symbiotically linked with a character friendly to the station and thereafter offers its protection to the station.
If Babylon 5 is the star of the eponymous TV programme is, as a mothership, literally the matriarch of the show, offering hospitality and organisation for the various races in the series the Great Machine of Epsilon 3 might be its male partner, with its physically more powerful infrastructure and its role as somewhat aloof protector to the orbiting space station.
A universe of Wonder
Returning to the Transition movement’s need for an untamed natural environment for it’s stories, the role of an enchanted space is fulfilled by Space itself. Whilst I really wish for a re-enchantment of nature it is pretty hard to do so on Earth as things stand due to there being few places where mystery can lurk, especially in the crowded British Isles.
One of the strengths of a good space opera is that it’s a lot easier to suspend your disbelief when you’re working in a zero-g environment. Putting the enchantment and superstition in space (perhaps in the charge of alien races) is perhaps a good way to introduce folk tales without rejection out of hand by the “rationalists”.