Our last, best hope…

I’ve been working my way through a box set of Babylon 5’s second series over the last couple of weeks. After a shaky and often clunky first season I came to love this show. Sure it had it’s fair share of occasional misfire episodes or cheesy acting – what long-running show doesn’t? – but it also had some fantastic actors – notably Peter Jurasik and his on-screen foil Andreas Katsulas.

From what originally seemed like a classical comedy duo pairing they grew through laughter, tragedy and fire. Londo watching the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, with Jurasik bringing a convincing portrayal of self-soubt and self-loathing at where the events he wrought – that he thought he wanted – have brought him to. Kastulas’s J’Kar standing in the council chambers after his planet has been forced to surrender after millions of civilian deaths. Slow, softly he stands before he leaves the chambers and makes a fantastically eloquent speech on the irrepressible nature of freedom. Shiver down the spine material.

Like a lot of fans one of the things I most admired about the show and JM Stracsyknski’s writing was the way he layered his stories, weaving in multiple character narratives into an ongoing, years-long narrative. Watching a concentrated run of the series like this gives you a better feeling for the developing story and actually increased my admiration for his craft – the way small, almost inconsequential characters or happenings could return much later and prove to be of vital importance was just remarkable, especially in SF TV where most shows prefer standalone episodes so more viewers can tune in any time. A developing storyline through many seasons requires a certain commitment from the viewer – it is, in some ways, more akin to reading a long book. It also requires the producers to show faith in their audience and treat them as if they have some intelligence – not something most television makers in these days of constant ‘live reality’ shows have ever displayed.

However there was something else, watching all of this unfolding tale in retrospect. Something new. Season 2 is where things start to go wrong. Bad things are happening out on the distant Rim, the Narn and Centauri are manoeuvred into a terrible war by unknown agents. The new Earth president may well have assassinated his predecessor and is whipping up fears of alien races to bolster his own position, curtailing civil liberties in the name of homeland security, establishing a Ministry of Peace to enforce this while citizens who criticise the government on any issue – even taxes – are branded as alien sympathisers, seditionists and a threat to planetary security. Does any of this sound dreadfully familiar to what’s been going on since 9-11, especially in the United States? A president who is on power on a possibly illegal mandate, savage curtailments of civil liberties ‘for the greater good’ and whipping up one people against others who are different… The scene where the Centauri use weapons of mass destruction to destroy Narn cities from orbit also has too many recent similarities for comfort, especially when US and our own UK forces used the likes of cluster bombs – classed as WMDs by the UN because of the collateral damage they cause to innocents – in areas where we knew there were civilians.

I know JM obviously didn’t plan these similarities – it’s coincidence; it’s what I now read into the text because of what I’ve been exposed to since the original viewing. But that is the very essence of good writing – that a tale will have echoes which means something to each time and generation. It’s why certain old tales like the Iliad repeat in one form or another for eternity. Even in more recent works it happens. As well as Bab 5 I re-read Alan Moore’s excellent V for Vendetta last year. The totalitarian Britain it portrayed was, for a few years, very much of the era in which it was written. It was still a damned good tale, but it had a flavour of the Thatcher/Reagan 80s to it which kind of dated it. Now it seems more relevant than ever. Everything comes around and the more things change the more they stay the same. Thankfully we always seem to have good artists to speak on the subjects which matter. It’s just a pity most of us don’t learn from them.