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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

On angels, elves and Vorlons

Over the past few weeks, we have parsed two Lord of the Rings movies and one Star Trek movie in search of insights into what fantasy/sci-fi movies might offer us regarding the current world situation. Since these movies deal with heroes and villains, we can amuse ourselves with seeing how the good guys deal with the bad guys in the celluloid world.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not going to abandon any discussion of special-effects-laden sci-fi sagas without dragging Babylon 5 into the mix. And that’s what I’m doing now.

Now, the joy of watching Babylon 5 lies in watching its complex story unfold and being surprised by all the twists and turns. Therefore, I have to urge you to read no further unless and until you have actually watched all five years’ worth of episodes and made-for-TV movies in the series. This is because I am going to have lay out some of the deepest plot turns in the series to make my points. Besides, if you haven’t watched this series, then you won’t find this epistle very interesting anyway.

Okay, now that it’s just us B5 devotees here (anybody there?), let me remind you that the ultimate story of Babylon 5, like Star Trek and virtually all science fiction, is really about the evolution and destiny of the human race. In Star Trek, this evolution is mainly technological although, as discussed last time, there was also a theme of humanity becoming more “civilized” and eliminating war, prejudice and even hard cash. It’s probably not inaccurate to say that Star Trek forecasts a socialist utopia for planet earth.

In the B5 universe, by contrast, mankind really hasn’t changed very much. There is still crime, violence, political corruption, and a danger of totalitarianism. But the B5 story jumps ahead a few times to let us know that humanity will eventually evolve to a higher plane before the earth is destroyed by a supernova, and humans will stride the galaxy more or less like gods. In this respect, the forerunners of the humans are the old races, most of which have gone off “beyond the rim,” a sort of twilight place that seems akin to Valhalla in the Norse legends. A couple of the old races have stuck around, however, and this is what sets B5’s story in motion. On one hand, there are the frustratingly cryptic Vorlons, who have limited interaction with the younger races. On the other hand, there are the mysteriously menacing Shadows, who seem to be nothing but a source of fear.

In the course of the story, it is revealed that these two older races have stayed behind to help the younger ones evolve. But they have widely diverging philosophies of how best to accomplish this. The Vorlons think the best way is to encourage the various younger races to cooperate with each other and create strength through diversity. It turns out that the Vorlons, in their occasional appearances among the younger races, are the reality behind what the humans call angels. The Shadows, on the other hand, feel the best way to make the younger races stronger is through competition and that the best way to accomplish this is to set them to fighting one another. Humanity is seen to reach a new level (the proclaimed “third age of mankind”) when it realizes that it has to follow neither of these paths but can follow its own way, no longer needing the older races’ guidance/interference. The Vorlons and the Shadows then journey off to join their brethren beyond the rim, and the younger races are left on their own. Interestingly, by the time they have left—and not before the younger races have nearly been destroyed by the outbreak of war between the Vorlons and the Shadows—it has been demonstrated that the “angelic” Vorlons are in many ways no better the dark Shadows.

One way to read the Vorlons-versus-Shadows story is as an allegory for how an evolved humanity shakes off religion. Another way is to put a political interpretation on it, and see the Vorlons as espousing politics of the left and the Shadows practicing politics of the right. Was the creator of B5, J. Michael Straczynski, thinking this way? And, if so, was the rejection of the two extremes some sort of endorsement for “third way” politics, as espoused by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair? Since Straczynski shares his views freely on the Internet, we know that he, personally, has supported Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency for years, although in the 2000 primary he became quite excited about the Republican candidacy of John McCain. We also know that he has no time whatsoever for George W. Bush.

Does this mean that his writings must necessarily be read so that they support ideas of the Democratic party or at least of “moderates” like McCain? As I’ve said a few times, sometimes a work of literature has a meaning that is bigger than even the author had contemplated. It is interesting to know what Staczynski personally believes, and it may even prove helpful in interpreting his work, but it doesn’t necessarily preordain the messages in his literature. After all, like all writers, he has drawn on themes and motifs that have existed in literature for ages, so in a way part of what he is doing is merely passing down ancient cultural memories. For example, the older races leaving the galaxy to travel beyond the rim is not too far off in literary terms from the elves leaving Middle-earth for the west in The Lord of the Rings.

And just as Tolkien had a theme of older, more powerful races leaving men and other younger races to continue on their own (a motif seen in practically every culture’s mythology), he also had a theme of the younger races needing to clean up their houses politically—with men sorting things out in Rohan and Gondor and the Hobbits tossing out the rascals who had come to dominate the Shire. By the same token, B5 has this theme as well, in the story of a corrupt president taking control of the earth government and trampling freedoms. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of B5 devotees have been drawing parallels between that storyline and what has been going on in America in the wake of 9/11. More on that next time. Unless I get distracted by a certain film festival in Seattle.

-S.L., 27 February 2003

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