Today's post is about that impressive SF TV series, Babylon 5. While I reserve the right to write about anything I like, this is, after all, a book blog, so I'm going to go through some of the literary references in the show. The author, J.Michael Straszynski, is very well read, so it's not surprising he threw literature into the mix. He also describes it as a sort of novel, with each episode as a chapter.
If you're interested, there's a good Wikipedia article here. It mentions a lot of influences I hadn't known, including Babylonian creation myths, but I will only talk about books I've read.
And here they are: Tolkien - Lord Of The Rings and The Silmarillion, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, the Arthurian legends, via Thomas Malory, Walter Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz.
For those of you who have missed the show, here is the outline. The time is "the Third Age Of Man" - sounding familiar to Lord Of The Rings fans? For everyone else, it's about the same time as the Enterprise "no bloody A, B, C or D" is on its five year mission. But unlike the peaceful Federation with its missions of discovering strange new worlds, there are dark things happening on Earth, politically, which will eventually lead to war.
The space station Babylon 5 is the latest of five Babylon stations, two of which were destroyed and one of which went missing. This one, however, is ticking like clockwork, full of embassies and also ordinary people who have moved there for jobs. Each race has its own area, with an atmosphere and gravity suited to that race. If you go to an area where you can't breathe, you take a mask.
There are colourful characters of each major race, usually ambassadors. A few years ago, there was a war between Earth and Minbar, due totally to a cultural misunderstanding.(Whoops! You mean those open gun ports were a sign of respect?) But after Jeffrey Sinclair, the current commander of B5, was captured, the Minbari released him and surrendered without explanation, even though they were about to win. We do find out why a couple of seasons on. And no, I won't share. Watch.
There is one overarching story arc during the entire series, and when it ends we realise it was planned all along. Even though characters change, the thread is there.
I loved the characters, who grew and developed. Some of them died. In the original Trek TV series, as opposed to the films, nobody died. And that was fine with me. Star Trek TOS is one I love even better than B5, for different reasons, but B5 was much darker. The author of the hilarious "Trouble With Tribbles", David Gerrold, wrote a terribly dark story called "Believers". He wouldn't have tried it for Trek, which was much more optimistic. There were other Trek writers, including the amazing Dorothy Fontana. There was Neil Gaiman. But most of the episodes were by JMS so were consistent. Well, it was his universe, after all.
So, for the influences. We'll start with The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. In that one there was the inspiration for the Psi Corps of B5. In case you hadn't noticed, JMS named the Psi Corps head Alfred Bester, and he was played villainously by "Ensign Chekhov" that cheerful young Russian, Walter Koenig. The difference was that in The Demolished Man, the Esper's Guild were the good guys. Nobody was forced to join, though if you were a telepath you'd be stupid not to. In fact, there was high demand for training. In one scene the low-grade telepath receptionist is calling in her mind for the applicants to go through the door - and only one of them hears. There are problems, but nothing like the ones in B5, where the mother of main character Susan Ivanova was forced on to suppressant drugs when she refused to join the Psi Corps and committed suicide. Well, there is one embittered telepath who got kicked out and that does cause trouble...
A Canticle For Leibowitz is a novel set among monks at a time when the last people are going to the stars. There was a war centuries ago and someone found papers by some guy called Leibowitz and turned them into the basis for a religion. There are beautiful illuminated manuscript versions of the papers. A spaceship is being built for the last humans to leave.
The B5 episode "Deconstruction Of Falling Stars" features those monks, well after the Third Age Of Man, looking back, and goes forward into the future. It was the last episode of Season 4, and was written while they were still waiting to hear if there was going to be a Season 5. The actual last episode was made, just in case. But this might have been a suitable ending to the series.
The Arthurian legends feature in a number of episodes. An early episode features a Grail seeker - played, oddly, by that usual villain David Warner. Before the end of the episode he has adopted an apprentice, who takes his role at the end.
Then there is third season episode "A Late Delivery From Avalon" in which Michael York plays a man in chain mail and carrying a sword who arrives on the station claiming to be King Arthur, and starts doing good deeds, such as rescuing a poor woman who has been robbed by villainous street gangs(small as it is, B5 does have poor and rich sections and crime happens, hence the need for a security chief). In this he is helped by Narn Ambassador G'Kar, whom he knights.
Sorry, he isn't King Arthur, but something dreadful happened that he has wiped from his mind: he fired the first shot in the Battle Of The Line, which started the Earth Minbari war. It was intended to be like that scene in Malory where a knight draws a sword during peace talks to kill a snake and unintentionally starts the battle. Because it is so like that scene the man starts connecting everything in his life with the Arthurian legends. Our heroes work out that for him, every one of them plays a role in the legend. The only way for him to heal is to hand his sword to the Lady Of The Lake - but who is she? She is Minbari Ambassador Delenn - who, incidentally, fired the NEXT shot, after a mentor was killed. So, very appropriate!
If you haven't read Tolkien, or at least seen the three movies, or heard the story discussed even, hang your head in shame. I'm not going into detail. Look it up. Better still, read the book, one of the twentieth century's great classics.
But here are some bits of Tolkien loaded into B5. For starters, "Mordor where the shadows lie" is called Zahadum, as in "Khazad-Dum", a name for the Mines of Moria, where Gandalf falls to his doom. Well, his sort-of doom, anyway, because he comes back. And remembering that the land of Mordor is where the shadows lie, it's the base of operations of the Shadows, mysterious beings who are trying to take over. It even has its own Eye of Sauron.
The Shadow ships are definitely inspired by Tolkien's Nazghul, the Black Riders, and every bit as scary. They appear in clusters, spider-like in the night of space. Later, we learn that they have captured humans merged with them, unable to fight and useless even if you do capture their ship. It happens even to a woman loved by the bad guy, Bester, and you feel sorry for him in that episode. In Tolkien, the Riders were Ring Wraiths, former kings who had chosen this life by accepting the power of the Nine Rings.
Like Gandalf, John Sheridan, second Commander of the station, is warned not to go to Zahadum, but he goes anyway and, like Gandalf, falls - leaps, actually - to his doom in the abyss while destroying the Shadow base. He dies, but is restored to life by a terribly powerful being called - Lorien! Yes, like that Lorien, first the gardens of peace run for the benefit of Maiar and Valar, then Lothlorien, where the Lady Galadriel lives in her Elvish artist colony. Lorien tells him that the best he can offer him is twenty years of life. John goes home and gets on with it.
There are two groups of powerful beings who resemble Tolkien's Valar(gods)and Maiar(angels, including fallen ones. Gandalf is a Maia, but so is Sauron, who started as the sidekick of a more powerful being, Morgoth). The Shadows are one, the other is the Vorlons, who actually have an embassy on the station. You never get to see them outside their armour except when there is a huge emergency and then they appear to any religious or cultural group as their equivalent of angels.
Turns out these two groups were supposed to be looking after us, but had their own ideas of how to go about it and neither group did a very good job of it and did stuff up things among mortals. There's no homely Gandalf to be wise, but also the kind of guy you'd be happy to go to the pub with. Anyway, both groups are eventually told off like schoolchildren and ordered to piss off. And they do, beyond the galaxy rim, very much like the departure of the Elves to the Undying Lands.
Speaking of Elves, the Minbari are perfect candidates for the role. They even have a Grey Council(White Council anyone?). There's no question they're mortal, but they have Elvish wisdom and technical/craft abilities. And Ambassador Delenn, who eventually marries John Sheridan, is definitely an Elf maiden! Someone has compared the couple to Beren and Luthien, and I have to admit, Delenn is more like the tough Luthien, who goes to the realm of Morgoth to rescue her mortal lover, than Arwen, who sits embroidering through the whole War of the Ring, and still lives at home after 2000 years, unable to marry Aragorn till he has done certain feats because Dad says so - yeesh, who'd be an immortal on Middle-Earth? Oh, she's brave, no question about it, but not proactive like her ancestress, Luthien. Don't get her confused with film-Arwen, whose role was hugely expanded.
The Minbari also run the Rangers, a group very like Tolkien's Rangers of the North, but you don't have to be Minbari - or Numenorean - to join. A human Ranger, Marcus Cole, lives and works on B5 and serves Delenn, who is his leader.
John Sheridan, in the last episode, foreknows his death and goes back to Babylon 5, which is about to be decommissioned, then on to face his fate.
And guess what? He encounters Lorien and, like Frodo, he finds himself offered a place in the Undying Lands, or B5's version thereof. Poor Delenn is left behind to mourn him for the rest of her life, and I think here there is a fleeting hint of Arwen, although her people are still around and she's not wandering through now-empty Elven woods.
There are other influences, such as Frank Herbert's Dune, which I have read, but you can only do so much comparison. Go read the Wikipedia article!
So, what do you think?