The Burden of Dreams

In the first season of Babylon 5 Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova, a Russian Jew, is sitting Shiva for her recently deceased father. One of the memories she shares is that he was skeptical of space exploration, believing that humans needed to learn to exist peacefully on earth first. I was already more or less on board with the show, but this – that the writing made room in the story’s universe for people like me – solidified my loyalty. I have always struggled with space things in fiction. In real life, too. The new Mars rover landing a few months ago did not make me feel anything, much less the exuberant tears people on my twitter timeline reported to be crying. My biggest reaction was insecurity over not being the kind of girl who cries about space. 

I keep a short list in my head of “space things for people who don’t like space.” Planetes. Royal Space Force: the Wings of Honnêamise, that one episode of The Crown where Prince Phillip gets really obsessed with the moon landing and ends up finding God, Joan D. Vinge’s multigenerational NTR saga The Snow Queen. Only one of these spends most of its time IN space, so Babylon 5 is just about the spaciest I’ve ever gotten. Part of this is because I’m dumb and don’t understand any of the science and technology details that tends to go in space narratives. I often don’t care how things work, and I worry that reflects very poorly on me. I’m philosophical but not mechanical, mathematical, or spatially skilled. My head may be in the clouds but my thoughts are inward and earthbound. For years people recommended the space trash collecting anime Planetes because of its “scientific accuracy” which is just about the most boring way to pitch a story about hubris and human connection and love. (I would argue Planetes ultimately points out in its text the limitations a lot of die hard sff junkies have about what a space story should be but that’s another topic).

I am a dark romantic and space is for romantic optimists and idealists. Ivanova’s dad and I agree that space is getting ahead of things. The dream of space is one that hinges on the best of humanity, and frankly I don’t see us getting there, not anytime soon or for long enough. Lurking in my inability to participate in Mars rover jubilation is the thought of “we don’t deserve this.” By the way, I still don’t know the difference between a rover and a lander. Too often for me, I feel like science fiction narratives are utopian and operate on the assumption that the audience shares the belief that space exploration is de facto good and noble. This falls flat for me. Frankly I’m uninterested in worlds where some form of utopia has already been achieved; that assures me that I, like the intrepid heroes, am smart and morally correct to believe in their goals. Babylon 5 certainly has a few characters who believe in the inherent nobility of expansion and exploration but like almost every worldview depicted in the series, these characters don’t get off without their assumptions challenged, often painfully. 

Of all the entries in my personal canon of space stories, Royal Space Force is the most important, and a spiritual predecessor to some things I love about B5. The good guys (inasmuch as they are the guys we happen to be following) don’t exactly believe in utopia, but they believe that out of the brokenness of humanity can rise something beautiful. Space exploration is explicitly tied to the spiritual and emotional welfare of humans. The big joke of the movie is that the eponymous Space Force has never been to space because even the launch of an unmanned shuttle has never been successfully accomplished. Shirotsugh Lhadatt, our everyman, joins this laughingstock of an operation against a backdrop of poverty, armed conflict, and government corruption. He’s not especially smart, talented, or good. He enters the RSF because his grades disqualify him from becoming a navy pilot. When the film reaches its climax and he makes it into space, the point is that he’s representing the best, worst, and banal middleground that mankind has to offer. To call Lhadatt a “flawed hero” honestly might be giving him too much credit. He slacks off, fucks around, and in the scene that makes this movie hard to recommend to a lot of people, sexually assaults the young woman who has been a moral and spiritual beacon to him. He’s A Guy who does a lot of nothing, one horrible thing, and then a remarkable thing by finally becoming the man to go to space. His dispatch (in which he poignantly chooses to omit his own name) to earth is more religious than scientific:

Can anyone hear me? I’m the first man in space. If you look up, well, maybe you’ll see it. Or at least please listen. We’ve left the oceans and climbed above the mountains. I’m flying. We’ve found the untouched realm of God. You have to look now, it’s your only chance. Nothing is here yet, not even air or water to ruin. Soon the next man will follow to touch it, and another, and in all the rush we may again destroy it. Maybe our killing comes from the madness of being confined? Please listen! There’s no more reason to kill because we don’t have any more borders now! Can anyone hear me? If you can hear me, then pray. The humblest of all things, the most noble. Pray for each step you take. Make a path that’s safe so those who follow shall never stumble. Dear God, please give us Your mercy. Mercy for we are lost. Forgive the irresponsible, the trivial men who beg You from the dark for the forgiveness of Your light.

His mission comes right on the heels of his attempted assault. His victim, a poor street preacher named Riquinni, forgives him in the way that forgiveness can also be a firmly shut door. It is Riquinni that first makes Lhadatt believe in the idea of space travel as a way to foster peace. So when Lhadatt makes his prayerful monologue, he is aware that he is an unworthy ambassador for the cause. Humanity needs mercy, and he specifically needs mercy for his very real and recent crime. The world now far below him is still at war. Both his life and humanity’s future, on earth in the stars, is dependent on grace. And the thing about grace – it’s always unearned, because it is so beyond what we could deserve. Somewhere in the past few years I magpie’d lines from 19th century poet Johann Peter Lange for my own personal religious canon: “no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it” and “no height so lofty that grace cannot lift the sinner to it.” I’ve always been fixated on the descent, and certainly Lhadatt needs that grace to meet him in the pit of his own wrongs. But Royal Space Force is the first thing that’s made me realize that you need the other half, too. 

It’s not impossible to imagine the world, or at least the ideological landscape, of Babylon 5 growing out of Royal Space Force’s. The opening credits of the first season say that the station (which is called Babylon 5 lol I guess I didn’t mention this detail) is humanity’s “last, best hope for peace.” Earth is a decade out from a major war with the Minbari, a technologically advanced, usually fairly zen race of aliens. Unlike something like Star Trek (or what I understand Star Trek to be from osmosing bits along the way), Babylon 5 (the station) is not a symbol of the optimism of discovery, but a bid for restoration after humanity has already seen the dark side of space travel. The honest statement of desperation in those opening credits endeared me to the show, and “last, best hope” is a phrase that gets repeated a lot. In fact, phrases from the credits become diegetic a lot. It’s cute. I think Babylon 5 has too much Important Speech for some, but I like it, as someone who peppers the way I talk with unmerited gravitas sometimes. Damn but we really are all alone in the night. 

Like the station itself, a lot of passengers on Babylon 5 are broken works-in-progress. There are traumatized war veterans from the Earth-Minbari war on both sides, namely the station’s commander Jeffrey Sinclair. And the station’s second commander, John Sheridan (they didn’t have to change any monogrammed items!). Michael O’Hare was only on the show as Sinclair for Season 1, and he’s easily overshadowed by Bruce Boxleitner’s more dynamic, funnier Commander Sheridan, but I like him. He’s very far from being A Guy and is in fact the opposite of A Guy as a character type. He’s one of a few, and perhaps the biggest, characters burdened with great destiny. O’Hare’s portrayal of Sinclair as a man who is troubled, traumatized, and maybe just too aware that he’s meant to serve a purpose to have any real fun grew on me. The quiet sadness and ultimate nobility of Sinclair as a man plucked by fate is very affecting, especially as a contrast to Sheridan’s story, who fights more to forge his own destiny. On the Minbari side is Delenn, the ambassador whose sagely disposition betrays uncertainty and guilt. She is the character who is the most into the concept of capital D Destiny, and the utter seriousness with which she devotes herself to that idea works since her way of being in the world is just one of many in the cast. There is enough groundedness in Babylon 5 to make room for a few characters whose journeys are portentous and mythic. People on this show also like to say “portents” more than I’ve heard anyone in real life use it. 

The most Lhadatt-ish human on Babylon 5 is probably security chief Michael Garibaldi. The extent to which the actor Jerry Doyle could believably be in middle management in any mid-size city or one of my sister’s friend’s husbands really works for the characterization. Garibaldi is traumatized, too, but by personal demons, and he is burdened but not by destiny. His very human flaw of cynical distrust makes him both great at his job and frequently a miserable person. The best Garibaldi-centric episodes and character moments understand that he has a certain Bogartesque vibe; a lost soul of a noir detective. I’m not sure I want to see a reboot, but if there must be one I think Matthew Rhys would make a great Garibaldi. 

Just imagine a slightly less disastrous remake flavor Perry Mason

In season 4, hard-boiled Garibaldi becomes text when he splits off from the rest of the group to become a private investigator. His most ambitious character episode takes place on Mars, Babylon 5’s version of the cold, unforgiving noir city (you think it would be Babylon 5 itself but no) and is bookended by Garibaldi’s wry, bleak narration. I don’t “like” Garibaldi, but I appreciate the inclusion of a person who sucks in some big ways. It’s weird to watch him in 2021. He’s a cop who makes too many jokes about shoving people out of airlocks. It works, though, for the feeling of Babylon 5 as a real place – a community with people who don’t all agree, a workplace where you just can’t talk politics with that one guy.

Humans and Minbari are not the only factions with a fraught history on the station. Among the many alien races on Babylon 5 are the Centauri. As a concept, Centauri culture is a hodgepodge of European imperialist politics and aesthetics. Most of them speak in accents that wobble inconsistently between something like French, Scottish, and Dracula. All of them are living in an opera. I think it’s a unique challenge for science fiction that includes alien races to pull off intelligent beings who seem to truly act and think differently from humans. The Centauri are a weak point for this in Babylon 5 because they are, if anything, more human than human. But I think it’s interesting to have a race of aliens that are basically playing out what we now regard as very dramatic sweeps of human history (the Napoleonic era, the decline of the Czars, etc). A lot of the Centauri are pompous assholes but amid the opulence, treachery, and scenes of very I, CLAVDIVS acting is some greatness (or I, CLAVDIVS level greatness if you please). Their ambassador, Londo Mollari, is maybe Babylon 5’s best character. Nobody is prouder to be  Centauri (a “patriot” he calls himself, a loaded concept in universe and in real life, 2021). His earlier season rantings about restoring the greatness of his people are elitist and usually racist, but he is also pitiable in that way that almost every villain in Rurouni Kenshin is pitiable because they are displaced and don’t have anything except the memories of a glory that is already gone from this world. He is a man burdened with great destiny who has spent a lot of years in resentment of his own assumption that he is just A Guy, which is a dangerous combination. He is complicit in atrocious things to which he does a lot of “but me, A Guy, could not have done all that, surely.” Redemption requires that he both humble himself and recognize that he already has the power and influence to sway the world. 

No, I was not prepared for the characters who look like this to be the most well written and heartbreaking in the entire series

Londo’s rival, G’Kar, is the ambassador of the Narn, an alien race that was conquered by the Centauri in the not so distant past. The Narn are sort of reptilian humanoids in full prosthetics, but they are the other big alien race that are ultimately hyper-human. If the human characters on the show are well, humans, I feel like the Centauri and Narn are like Greek myths; the gods acting out stories where human valor and folly are writ larger than life. Unlike Londo, you get the sense that G’Kar has never had a day free of feeling burdened by purpose and that it might do him some good to have fun. As the son of enslaved parents, G’Kar has followed the calling to liberate and lead his people since childhood. By the time the Narn-Centauri conflict reaches its peak, there is an irony in both Londo and G’Kar having what they at one time wanted. G’Kar has his chance for bloody vengeance and Londo is publicly recognized as a powerful player in Centauri politics. But G’Kar has already soured on the cycle of war and had a personal and spiritual reckoning towards peace, like a one man prefigurative politics. Londo’s power only brings him paranoia and extreme isolation. I hate using this word because nerds ruined it, but I would call Londo and G’Kar’s relationship epic in that truly mythic way. Londo and G’Kar’s shaky path towards forgiveness reminds me of Lhadatt’s prayer in that the forgiveness in question is not only within one relationship, but for sins that are far, far too great for one person to atone for.

Actually, let me just plot everyone on a spectrum real quick.

If you use the horseshoe principle, then the guy in the one episode who thinks he’s King Arthur is both

Most of the other humans are Guys. Susan Ivanova being a deadpan, nose to the grindstone career military officer brings balance to the Babylon 5 leadership, since both her superiors end up being fated for great and mysterious things. But she has her own hard and fast principles, so while the changes she undergoes are smaller, they are important and moving because we understand how huge of a deal it is for her to budge on anything. The station’s doctor, Stephen Franklin, is a little further down the spectrum not because of actual destiny, but because of his personal disposition. He is the only human character who belongs to a speculative religion, Foundationalism, which is really just a codified “spiritual, not religious.” Marcus, a gentle nerd and member of an elite cross-cultural squadron known as the Rangers, is definitely here to support anyone else’s journey to their great destiny but you get the sense he doesn’t expect one of his own. I do find his attachment to myths and fairy tales touching, considering his background as a person of British descent born on an outer colony with little connection to his actual earth culture. Somewhere in the middle are the ambassadorial attaches, Vir for Londo and Lennier for Delenn. They are both guided by high purposes but grounded in humility, and both perfect for their respective boss. Vir, originally a bumbling, comedic presence, is often Londo’s greatest moral compass. Soft Spoken and faithful, Lennier is utterly devoted to Delenn, especially when she most risks losing herself in her devotion to the greater good. 

Meet me in the food court in 30 minutes if you want to plan a genocide

I want to back quite a ways up – to the title of the show, its opening credits, and Royal Space Force, among other things. Babylon 5 exists because the first four stations in the Babylon Project met with disaster or even disappeared shortly after going online. One failure is understandable. Einmal ist keinmal. A few more tries to get the kinks wired out and learn from your mistakes makes sense. I’ve always maintained that second marriages are extremely romantic. Whether the first one ended in tragedy or a slow descent into disconnection and contempt, anyone getting married again is doing so knowing the ways it can go horribly wrong. That we can believe in the life shattering power of love enough to do it anyway is a beautiful thing. So I see the same argument for the Babylon Project. A center of diplomacy and commerce for disparate, and in some cases antagonistic, species is a lofty dream to just give up on. But after three explosions and a freak disappearance, spending trillions on one more chance starts to seem crazy. Babylon 5 being the “last, best hope” is not only ideological but financial. It’s never stated outright, but we feel implicitly that if it fails, another Babylon will not be funded. 

It’s also not stated outright how many times the lonely pioneers of Royal Space Force have designed or built rockets that didn’t perform. By the time Lhadatt’s class joins, there is little cause for optimism and the scientists who have kept the RSF going are old men, unfit to participate in their dream in the way that inspired them to dream it in the first place. That Babylon 5 goes online and stays online, and that Lhadatt actually makes it into space, are unlikely – almost miraculous – achievements. But even in the face of these triumphs, there remains the unavoidable fact that a “dream given form” always has a crack or a chasm between the dream and the form. In Royal Space Force, the dream of Lhadatt’s prayer already acknowledges its inevitable failures. And as my husband pointed out, it’s completely up in the air (sorry) as to whether or not he ever comes down again. 

Babylon 5, centuries past the level of Royal Space Force’s world, has if not a more ideologically complex dream, certainly a more logistically and politically complex one. It’s a symbol of peace, a bridge between species and cultures, a fully equipped military vessel, an avatar of Earth but a center of diplomacy, a residence, an airport, and a shopping mall. The (ok, very relative) simplicity of “just get a man into space” has an emotional, ideological, and spiritual purity that Babylon 5 can’t afford. 

One of the earliest scenes of Royal Space Force, and one of the most mind blowingly dazzling pieces of aesthetic establishment in animation, sees Lhadatt and co. in a combination night market/red light district. This is where Riquinni hands out her pamphlets, and is used throughout the movie as a worldly contrast to both her religion and the dream of space travel. The explosion of neon lights, of course, obscures the stars. On Babylon 5, the glare of conspicuous consumption has made it to space along with mankind. The purity of the project’s intentions is necessarily corrupted by the station being a money making venture. In one episode that was probably bad but I thought was cute, the Earth government suggests that Babylon 5 start selling official merchandise to boost lagging profits. My first thought was: there is no fucking way it wouldn’t already have a gift shop! Second: I want a Babylon 5 teddy bear. The comedy got a little too zany, with official crew action figures and masks based on alien species, but I found it unrealistic that Sheridan and co. would turn up their noses at hats, mugs, and t-shirts. Every airport sells souvenirs! In many other instances, the show and the characters within it don’t lean away from the fact that Babylon 5 is a mall. 

The American Dream given form 

Last year, an incomprehensibly huge mall opened in New Jersey. It was a controversial, seemingly cursed endeavor that underwent multiple redesigns and was stuck in construction hell for years. The American Dream Mall ultimately ended up shaped not unlike Babylon 5. And when I call Babylon 5 a mall, it’s not derogatory. I was born in the early 90s. Obviously I have achingly fond feelings about malls. If I still lived in New Jersey, you bet I would visit American Dream. The mall includes not only shopping and dining, but a waterpark, skating rink, indoor ski slope, and more. Instead of products and experiences being separate, why not put them all together? The website advertises “the excitement of making memories again.” I’m not doing great at tying this to Babylon 5. I guess what I’m thinking about is that ideas so often become products and products try to be ideological. Any mall in 2021 is a pointer for a complex web of associations and emotions about Malls. The “making memories again” line is clearly referring to the hope of a post-COVID American experience, but probably also calling out to people who can be moved, consciously or not, by the idea of a mall day. On Babylon 5, nobody is alive to remember the glory of the late 20th century mall. Nobody has come to a place in their life where the idea of a LaGuardia airport bar is nostalgic. People watching Babylon 5 as it aired might have thought the food court – sorry, the Zocalo – was dorky; just contemporary consumerism in space. Molly watching Babylon 5 20+ years later is like, “if 90s consumerism was in space, I might be more into space.” It’s something I find so charming about Babylon 5; that a grandiose, overstuffed, messy vision of the future is not sleek and utopian but still has comforting, mundane, and kind of dorky shit in it. The strict delineation between the stars and the polluting neon lights we see in Royal Space Force can’t last. The descendents of Lhadatt’s world will have corrupted, monetized space, too. 

So where does that leave the pure dream of space on Babylon 5? It’s on a mural in the casino. Rather, the synthesis of the optimism of space travel and intergalactic diplomacy and corporate interests is perfectly encapsulated in the mural in the casino. Sadly I haven’t been able to find a good image of the full thing (please hit me up if you do!) As best I can make it out, it’s a painting that depicts various types of human transportation and industry – trains, planes, automobiles, giant robots? Like a much stupider version of Royal Space Force’s ending montage, it represents the sweeping history of human innovation and cooperation, expressly tying it to the crowning glory of those drives – the station reading this the mural is on. It’s the kind of harmless corporate art that might be in Port Authority or the lobby of a high-rise of indeterminate purpose. On Babylon 5, it also happens to be in the room most optimized for exploiting visitors for money. When you bring a beautiful idea into a marketplace, we often end up with the cracked kettle of mediocre art (while we long to make music that moves the stars). 

All of this doesn’t mean the better angels of our nature can’t make an appearance in a casino or a glorified airport bar. The tragically amputated first attempt at a reconciliation between G’Kar and Londo, one of the most emotionally weighty scenes at that point in the series, happens in the Zocalo bar. An employee, in the joint’s cheesy uniform of an earth map-printed vest, might have caught a snippet of this conversation that would shortly have intergalactic consequences. Secret meetings go down in the seedy sector’s dive bar. Another flagrant money maker on Babylon 5, a strip club featuring interspecies dancers, is important to Londo’s character arc in a way that stretches to the final season. It’s a little like the city center of Royal Space Force. You can lose yourself to goofing off and dissipation, or you can find God. In both stories, the noblest of goals and impulses – exploration, inner peace, humility in the face of the universe’s vast unknowability – dwell most purely in the state of nature. And men pollute nature, blot out the stars with neon lights, shopping malls, or simply our own egos. But when we give our dreams a form, we have to accept that the form is going to be perceived and enjoyed by broken people who don’t deserve it. Because really, each other is all we have. If we wait on deservedness, we’ll be waiting forever. Sharing our dreams anyway might be the easiest way for humans to reflect grace, the most superhuman of virtues.

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