Sunday, July 25, 2010

Closing Pandora and Her Box

Crusade, of course and obviously, was to have been a series about leftover Shadow tech, potent enough in its construction but rendered even more destructive in the hands of younger races that had no conceptualization of either its handling or implementation. The Drakh attack on Earth with the now-infamous techno-virus is the most obvious and immediate manifestation of this theme, but there are several more layers that would have echoed across the show’s five seasons: the Excalibur crew’s discovery of EarthForce’s deep-rooted and long-lived hybrid Shadow fleet (and, it turns out in unproduced teleplays, army) and the revelation that the techno-mages, themselves a product of the Shadows from the previous Great War, one thousand years ago, refuse to come out of hiding until all other remaining Shadow technology has been completely eradicated.

As pervasive as all these are, perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most enigmatic, strain of this leitmotif is none other than the Apocalypse Box – “perhaps” because, unlike nearly every other (known) element from Crusade’s thirteen produced episodes, series creator and showrunner Joe Michael Stracyznski has never divulged either his intentions with or the backstory behind the mysterious, mischievous item. The supposition that it is, indeed, leftover Shadow tech is, of course, merely that: a hypothesis. (Another holds that the Boxes are shells for ancient alien entities, as directly seen in “The Path of Sorrows” and alluded to many times over throughout Babylon 5’s run.) But the evidence – other than the aforementioned collection of other, Shadow-related story threads – strongly points in this direction.

The Box is obviously sentient, and it just as obviously has its own agenda: the information it provides and the advice it proffers to its owners are just as likely to be erroneous as factual, misleading as valid, though how this ultimately plays into its larger goal(s) is entirely unknown (unless, of course, its ultimate design is chaos, the raison d’etre of the Shadows). Only six Apocalypse Boxes are in existence, with the other five possessing dead owners and residing in unknown locations, which points either to a home culture that was afraid or otherwise unable to produce more or a weeding out from constant conflict or warfare. Though largely unknown to Earth and the other younger races, the ubiquitous techno-mage Galen is certainly aware of their existence and, when alerted to one’s presence aboard the Excalibur in the unproduced scripts, is sufficiently horrified to want to dispose of it immediately, possibly in accordance with his order’s post-Shadow War, seek-and-destroy mission.

But the most telling clues are in the immediate episodes that were neither shot nor written. As a result of being fatally wounded in the first season finale, the proposed second season premiere would have opened with Captain Matthew Gideon’s consciousness being transferred to the Apocalypse Box (in a nice touch of foreshadowing, all throughout the first season, the Box’s voice, distorted and unrecognizable, would have slowly revealed itself to be Gary Cole’s, the actor who portrayed Gideon) while his body was being tended to or, even, regrown, presumably by Galen. After being “trapped,” as Straczynski has said, in the Box for a while – most likely two or three episodes, thereby perfectly mirroring Mr. Garibaldi’s mortal injury and improbable recovery at the hands of esoteric alien technology in the opening of the second season of B5 – Gideon’s wayward spirit would have found its way back home, and the rest of the series, to some degree or another, would have followed Gideon’s attempts to not only make sense of the incident – and the Apocalypse Box itself – but to also reconcile the transformation with his cauterized ethical structure.

And it is in this character arc that the Shadows, the techno-mages, the Apocalypse Boxes, and the technology betwixt them all not only truly comes into focus, but is also condensed into an emotional core, to be absorbed and felt by the audience in addition to being analyzed and contemplated – just as the endless and epic conflict between the Vorlons and the Shadows is embodied by the life of John Sheridan (it is by no error that Babylon 5 ends quietly and resolutely with the passing of this one man after so many others had come and gone). Gideon has been traumatized twice over by misappropriated Shadow tech: the attack that wiped out the Cerberus, killing his 300 shipmates and friends, and, of course, the Drakh invasion of Earth, intended to annihilate all of humanity; it is no wonder, then, that he reacts so viscerally to the revelation of Galen’s magical technology, even going so far as to ban his friend from the Excalibur (occurring, once again, in the unfilmed teleplays). To progress from this point of hatred to the very real possibility, at show’s end, of Gideon becoming a techno-mage himself – as strongly hinted at in the Crusade writers’ bible – would require quite a long and winding road, one which would be greatly facilitated, both literally and figuratively, by his existential stay within the Box.

Were the Apocalypse Boxes directly fashioned, or encountered and subsequently adapted, by the Shadows, to function like the Drakh Entire or their mighty fleet of unstoppable ships? Or were they like the techno-mages, an off-shoot that ultimately decided to make something more of their tech that incites them to violence and inspires them to chaos? (The Shadows never foresaw their intended foot soldiers transforming themselves into agents of wonder and magic, and they certainly never imagined that tools intended to decimate life could instead be used to repair and restore it.) That answer, unfortunately, will remain elusive as long as Straczynski opts to keep his mouth closed; but Matthew Gideon, the loose-talking, play-the-long-odds-no-matter-the-personal-cost captain, has been irrevocably unmasked as the quintessential mythological hero, the protagonist who has to become the enemy himself to understand – even forgive – them, who makes the Other the Same, who learns how to love that which is hated.

“Who do you serve?” and “Who do you trust?” are, thus, ultimately answered by “Myself” – and that myself is encompassing of the technological as well as the biological, the many as well as the one.

This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:

The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
January 2010

The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
February 2010

Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
May 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
August 2010

Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
November 2010

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010

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