Monday, January 31, 2011

In BABYLON's Shadow

For Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, it was a fighter pilot squadron that he was CO of, all of whose members perished in the final days of the Earth-Minbari War. For Captain John J. Sheridan, it was his (second) wife, who had died rather mysteriously on a rather mysterious trip out to the Rim. For Captain Elizabeth Lochley, it was her closest friend and fellow drug companion, whose death caused her to sober up and enlist in the military. For Captain Matthew Gideon, it was the ship whose destruction made him the sole surviving member of a crew of 348.

To say that there is a variation on a theme is not only an understatement, it’s also technically incorrect, for a theme requires one fundamental characteristic that is shared by all participants or explorations, as opposed to merely repeating the same item by rote; what series creator and showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski did here was create a pattern that he obsessively, almost slavishly followed time and again throughout the 123 episodes of Babylon 5 and Crusade. Beyond the commanding officers, there’s also Mr. Garibaldi, who left behind the love of his life to follow Sinclair to Babylon 5; or Marcus Cole, who only joined the Rangers so as to honor – and grieve for – his deceased brother; or Galen, whose lover was murdered by his former friend and fellow techno-mage; or, even, Mr. Morden, whose recently dead family members allowed him to be lured to the dark side that is the Shadows (a plot twist fashioned by Jeanne Cavelos as opposed to Straczynski himself but which fits perfectly within the latter’s mythos). And these are just the characters that have the death of a loved one located in their backstory, as opposed to seeing it unfold during the course of the series proper (such as Susan Ivanova or Londo Mollari or Lyta Alexander or many, many others).

But there is more than just recycled backstories; character names, personality archetypes, and even entire lines of dialogue (all of which are most egregiously on display in the Legend of the Rangers telefilm) are reused and otherwise revisited, making the more-common-than-is-statistically-possible gout of guilt and death among the casts’ ranks pale in comparison. And it’s not just within the realm of characterization that the same material is mined again and again – plot, too, falls victim to JMS’s backwards-glancing pen, as a summation of the two Babylonian series easily attests to. B5 follows a group of EarthForce officers attempting to maintain peace within the galaxy, although their efforts are ultimately undermined by a corrupt government back home and the eruption of an interstellar war all around them. Their mission changes to winning the war (which, in turn, ends up winning the peace) – even if the price is to break away from the Earth Alliance and set up shop as an independent port of call. Crusade follows a group of EarthForce officers on their quest to find a cure for a bio-genetic nano-virus, a journey which uncovers classified – and illegal – weapons programs and other sordid details whose secrecy EarthGov prizes even more than the survival of Earth herself. The Excalibur crew, as such, becomes renegades, turning their back against their home in order to clear their good names, which have been muddied in a cover-up campaign by the higher-ups. While the sweep of the Rangers story still remains unknown, one can rest assured that it would follow much the same arc.

(Joe Straczynski’s re-appropriating of various narrative components for later stories, it should be noted, is not limited to the Babylon 5 pantheon: the comic book miniseries Midnight Nation – not to be confused with The Book of Lost Souls, another JMS-scripted comic that features a nearly identical premise and collection of themes – follows a protagonist named David Grey who becomes a member of the “lost people” and ends up meeting a future version of himself in a time-loop paradox by story’s end; Jeremiah, the only non-Babylon television series to be helmed by the writer, not only operates on a five-year storyline and features characters named Ezekiel and, unsurprisingly, Jeremiah, but it is also set 15 years after a viral outbreak. The list goes on to encompass novels, audiodramas, and films, as well.)

All of this, however, skirts the biggest issue of them all. The storyteller’s conceit of lifting from – or is that paying homage to? – other tales is most prominently on display not in the transference from one JMS property to another, but in the very construction of his most famous creation itself: in ways both big and small, blatant and subtle, B5 is merely a reimagining of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series of books, The Lord of the Rings. “Merely” is an exaggeration, as it takes a great deal of skill and craftsmanship – both of which Stracyznski (obviously) possesses in droves – to translate medieval fantasy to futuristic sci-fi. But from a cyclical darkness that can never be defeated, only temporarily held back; a group of Rangers designed to prowl the wilderness and to know all that is to be known; an army of light racing against time to prepare for the looming battle; a First One who has communion with all subsequent lifeforms; shadowy creatures that emit a piercing, blood-curdling scream as they flit by; ancient races, eager to avoid the coming darkness, passing on to lands unknown; and characters and/or locations that possess the names Galen and Lorien, among others, the TV show owes more than just a debt to Middle-earth and its inhabitants – it owes its very shape, scale, and structure. This is the repurposing to rule them all.

It is also the revelation to humble them all. For, at the end of the day, despite his many achievements and inventiveness, his quantitative output and qualitative meditations, Joe Michael Straczynski is simply a human being.

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

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 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


Ipsilon said...

Why does it strike me that you wrote this piece because you just realized what you said in the last sentence? :)

msunyata said...

No... I wrote it because none of my interviewees have gotten back to me as of yet.