Monday, November 12, 2007

The Three-Edged Sword

(Warning: Babylon 5 spoilers in this entry. Although if you’re the sort who’s going to bitch and moan about spoilers for a TV show that went off the air, like, ten years ago, then I don’t know what to tell you.) One of the very first things we learn about the universe of Babylon 5 is that it takes place at the dawn of the third age of mankind. In fact, it’s the first sentence in the season one voiceover. At first it’s an enigma, a pretty turn of phrase, one of those science fiction things that places everything in a context that might not actually mean anything. The first three seasons of Babylon 5 center around the Shadow War, a continuation of a conflict that has gone on for thousands of years. The mysterious Shadows pop up out of their forbidding base at Za’Ha’Dum and ravage the galaxy, only to be stopped by a race supported by the Vorlons, an old, powerful race that is as mysterious in its own way as the Shadows. During the cycle of the war depicted in Babylon 5, however, Captain Sheridan learns something that none of the previous races ever have. The Vorlons and the Shadows are two sides of the same coin, old races using others to fight proxy wars and shape the galaxy according to their desires. Realizing this, as is often the case with J. Michael Straczynski’s work, Sheridan discovers that he now has a third option. In the continuing war between the Vorlons and the Shadows, the races stuck in the middle always thought they had two options: side with the Vorlons or side with the Shadows. It was, after all, a conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos. The options are binary in that world, and limited to who will be taken as master. Sheridan, however, ripped off the veil covering the eyes of the other races. The Shadows were not an ancient, implacable evil. The Vorlons were not paragons of unimpeachable virtue. Their methods and appearance might have been different and in opposition, but their end goals were the same. That realization opened Sheridan up to a third possibility. He convinced all of the races stuck in the middle to choose their own side. When that happened, Sheridan was able to end the Shadow War once and for all. As they returned to the station, Sheridan and Delenn had this conversation:
Sheridan: We’re all alone now, just the younger races. We can’t blame anyone else from now on. It’s a new age, Delenn, a third age. Delenn: Why third? Sheridan: We began in chaos, too primitive make our own decisions. Then we were manipulated from outside by forces that thought they knew what was best for us. Now we’re finally standing on our own. Lorien was right. It’s a great responsibility. This is ours now. Delenn: It’s strange. The galaxy seems somehow smaller, now that the first ones are gone forever. Sheridan: Feels like...the magic’s gone. Delenn: Not gone. Now we make our own magic. Now we create our own legends. Now we build the future. Now we stop-- Sheridan: Being afraid of shadows.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, if Star Wars and Star Trek occupy opposite ends of a mythological spectrum, Babylon 5 falls in the middle. Star Wars remains tied to the mythological construct of the special hero. The Jedi take a key role in the Republic, only the evil Empire is capable of deposing them, and even so it is run by a Dark Force user and a Jedi turned evil. Then, when it is time for the overthrow of the evil Empire, only a Jedi can actually do it. Star Trek, however, is too cold, too clinical to actually be completely believable. The Federation has no legends, nothing to aspire to beyond self improvement or the betterment of the group. While both of these are admirable goals, they are meaningless without benchmarks. In terms of human development, the legends that went before provide those benchmarks. No one in the later series really goes back, for instance, and discusses Captain Kirk in the same way an American today would speak of George Washington or an ancient Greek would have spoken of Perseus, a problem that is ultimately self-defeating. In the Star Wars universe, the common person might as well not aspire to stature equal to the Jedi, as it’s impossible to suddenly become one. In the Star Trek universe, the common person does not seem to have anyone to aspire to at all. Both are equally dangerous. The former invites a caste mentality, the latter lethargy and an inevitable decline. In reality, the myths we make and legends we admire should be neither walls to stop our progress nor quaint but useless trinkets to be left behind. They should, instead, be mileposts on our own journeys, luminaries to light the way towards progress and help us become even more than they ever were. This is the world of Babylon 5. Sheridan transcended those who came before. Rather than say that was enough, however, he rightly said that it was only the beginning. A new age had dawned. An age where the younger races have to make their own magic. An age where the younger races have to make their own myths. I tend to look at good science fiction as an allegory for the times the science fiction writer lives (or lived) in. I’ve seen enough of Straczynski’s work to believe that is exactly the case for Babylon 5 (and the radically different Jeremiah, which was an amazing show in its own right). Therefore, I tend to think that the beginning of the third age of mankind in John Sheridan’s universe has a lot to do with the state of things in our universe. So what does it mean for us? What does mythology have to do with the modern world? Up next: Mythology in the Third Age.

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