Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Babylon 5: 'The Deconstruction of Falling Stars' (4x22)

‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars’ reminds me of Buffy’s fourth season finale, ‘Restless.’ Both episodes follow what would be a standard season finale, resolving all the season’s arcs and leaving you wonder where else there is to go. Both episodes feature four separate segments that take place outside the show’s standard narrative reality, giving us further insight into the characters and their world.

The basic conceit of the episode is something that only Babylon 5 could do. Virtually no other show in history has as fully realized a universe as this one, a universe with a million years of history. Just the idea of going a million years into the future is difficult to conceive, but JMS pulls it off, and does a lot of interesting thematic stuff along the way.

Most TV writers are character people, interested in lives and personal journey. Some are plot people, JMS is odd in that I think he’s primarily a thematic writer. He’s most interested in big ideas and concepts, and most of the show’s character arcs exist as a way to illuminate the larger themes he has in mind. That’s why an episode like this works here where it probably wouldn’t work on any other show. I wouldn’t be particularly interested in hearing what the inhabitants of the Buffyverse have to say about her and her crew a million years in the future because the show is about the real people, not the perception of them. Here, the characters are involved in such large scale conflict, it makes sense to step back and consider their place in history.

The first segment is fairly standard stuff for this series, showing the new ISN at work. JMS captures the contentious dialogue of pundits fairly well, though they all speak at about double the speed he has his characters here talking. If there’s one issue I have with his depiction of the news, it’s that it’s very leisurely paced, I’d imagine in 200 years, the screen will be covered in graphics, flashing ten different kinds of information at us at all times. But, that would probably be annoying and distract from the points he’s trying to make, so I can see why he wouldn’t use it.

Already, there’s some skepticism about Sheridan, with people calling him a criminal, not a hero. That comes to the fore one hundred years hence, as we watch an academic roundtable about Sheridan and Delenn. This sequence is a fairly harsh critique of academia and the way they deconstruct national myths. I can sympathize with a lot of JMS’s point, I think it’s impossible to view figures from the past by today’s standards of morality. You can say that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves as a way to win the Civil War, that anyone would have in his situation, but still, he did it, and that’s why he’s a national hero.

I think one of JMS’s critical thematic concerns is the idea that the individual can exert control over history. He completely disagrees with the idea that things just sort of happen, which the academic woman asserts. For him, it is individuals who stand up that turn the tide. Having seen the events of the series, we know that it was Sheridan’s bold decision to go after Clark that saved Earth. The resistance didn’t just happen, he made it. The juxtaposition of academic opinion with what we know is emphasized by the return of Delenn, now very old, who defends Sheridan’s reputation.

The impression I got is that Sheridan became something of a mythological figure, and people assume that no one man could do all he did. Now, you could argue that JMS has built up Sheridan too much, and the fact that they’re calling his achievements inconceivable is a reflection of his poor writing. But, I think it’s more a reflection of academic skepticism. Ultimately, you have to believe in something, and if you’re constantly deconstructing mythology, you can lose sight of the purpose it serves. Figures like Delenn and Sheridan inspire people, the reality of who they are is secondary to that. This is a central Grant Morrison/Alan Moore idea, the notion that fictional constructions can exert great control over our world, essentially become gods. Sheridan the myth is separate from Sheridan the man, the reality is long gone. The reason Delenn returns is that she knows the best way to protect Sheridan’s memory is to ensure that his reputation as a powerful fighter for good remains. That memory is his immortality, much like she tells Lennier in ‘Rising Star,’ that by remembering Marcus, they preserve his life.

This sequence also gives us some teasers about season five. They will try to start a Psi Corps colony on Babylon 5, leading to disastrous results. The most interesting hint is the discussion of Sheridan’s death. There is a myth arisen around it, and we found out later that he is purported to have ascended in body out of this world. The academics write it off as a myth, but I would assume this refers to him having joined the first ones beyond the rim. If I had to guess, I would say that Lorien, and possibly Kosh, come back and escort him off into the beyond.

Next up we jump to 2732, where things are not looking good for Earth. One could read the episode as a cynical piece, as we watch the reality of what happened continually distorted, Sheridan’s image disparaged and the alliance fail, plunging Earth into a new dark age. Is all that our heroes do in vain if it ultimately leads to this? Not exactly, the show has always been concerned with cycles, the way that changes shift and reoccur, the Shadows recede then return. It shall always be so, new darkness arises to replace the Shadows, a human darkness, for within each of us, there is the same capacity for order and chaos found in our forefathers.

The 2732 stuff is tough to watch, as our characters’ images are warped to serve the ends of a corrupt Earth government. What it shows is that the story of Babylon 5 still has power all these years later, that Sheridan and Delenn linger as figures in cultural mythology even after their bodies and souls have moved on. The impression I got is that the holographs are artificial intelligence simulations of the people they represent, at first programmed to mimic them exactly, but gradually warped as time passes.

One of the things this episode raises is the way that history will be perceived in a world where everything is recorded. In the past ten years alone, the internet has become the greatest repository of knowledge in human history. In the future, if historians want to know how people felt about major events, like a 9/11, as it was happening, they need only go through old pages. Now, history on the internet is transient, pages remade and lost, but once things settle down, and archiving becomes a serious project, we will be able to return to any moment and re-experience it as it was. That completely changes the discipline of history and alters the notion of past and present. On top of that, there’s all the video records of historical events, never again will the past be a mystery to be discovered only through artifacts buried in dirt and rock.

Or at least it won’t be until there’s a major societal collapse, as happens at the end of the 2732 section. It’s disturbing to see Sheridan turned into the mouthpiece of a fascist government, the mission they started in ‘Intersections in Real Time’ finally complete. The sequence raises a lot of questions about the nature of artificial intelligence and the manipulation of identity in a world with technology like this. Once you’re dead, they could manipulate your image to any purpose, we’ve already seen this to some extent with ads that resurrect the dead to sell a product, is there any greater way to destroy cultural mythology than to co-opt its imagery? Ultimately, Garibaldi’s true self shines through and the experiment backfires, but it’s not enough. I found this sequence a bit long, I felt like we got the point but it kept going. Part of that may have just been the discomforting nature of the world it explored, I did not want to spend time there.

My favorite section of the episode was the 3262 sequence, as we see a world plunged into a new dark age. The parallels to the middle ages are obvious, the way that monks there tried to preserve the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans until society was ready to begin again. The sequence is full of interesting thematic stuff. I suppose it’s inevitable that our society eventually fall into another dark age. We’ve been going strong for a long time, and perhaps we will make it to the stars before it happens, but we came perilously close to mutual destruction during the Cold War, all it takes is one leader crazy enough and we’ll be in a post apocalyptic world like this one. JMS may have laid it on a bit thick with the old school monk outfits, but other than that, this sequence was all great.

Even after the burn, the figures of Babylon 5 linger on in cultural mythology. Sheridan has become a Christ figure, having died, been resurrected and raised up into heaven. Delenn and Ivanova linger as well. Over the course of the episode, we’ve witnessed the way that ordinary people are transformed into mythological figures with the power of gods. Because the stories about him have persisted so long, Sheridan has become much more than just the man he was, he’s become a symbol of freedom and resistance, of hope for the people locked in a corrupt government. This is the closest humans can come to immortality.

The rangers have also become figures in cultural mythology, like the Vorlons were to the characters back in the present. They move around Earth secretly, bringing pieces of technology and culture to help us along the way. I’m not sure what else is going on out in space at the moment, but presumably many of the races still survive, the Minbari and many humans having become like the first ones were, helping us along, but not giving us everything. Humanity must learn from its sins, linger in the destruction until it can resolve the internal issues that destroyed their society in the first place. After that rehabilitation, they will be stronger, ready to return to the stars in peace.

For these people, the reality of Babylon 5 is so far from them that it seems like another world, a false one. But, it is the faith in their dream that matters. Faith is what gives stories power, what gives life power. If we believe that we can do more, then we will be able to do more. As JMS says, “Faith manages.” While the episode presents some dark turns for humanity, what is constant is the desire to move forward. Even under the most oppressive conditions, there is always someone looking to the stars, channeling the spirit of Sheridan and his crew far into the future.

It always baffles me that period pieces are considered high culture while science fiction is low culture. I suppose it reflects a general societal trend to value nostalgia and tradition over the future. But, works like Babylon 5 are critical because they explore and present a model for humanity’s future. In this episode, we see history on a grand scale, our own and an imagined one reflected back at us, and see that is the belief in good and progress that endures. This is an important episode, and perhaps more than any other in the series, gives us a sense of the individual’s position within the whole of human existence. As the ISN montage makes clear, Sheridan was not born a hero, he grew into that role and his actions echo, inspiring humanity a thousand years into the future. We too can do the same, that to me is the core of the episode, the idea that the individual can make a difference.

JMS connects this to the act of making the series when he gives his fuck you dedication to those who thought he wouldn’t make it. For him, the mission was to tell his story, he has done so despite much belief to the contrary. He never gave up, and it is perhaps the fifth season pickup that inspired him to write this episode. In the Lurker’s Guide, you can see him considering the show’s place in TV history and its future viewers, much like Sheridan and Delenn ponder their place in the overall journey of humanity. This series of reviews is testament to the fact that the show still has power ten years later, and that it’s if anything even more relevant than when originally broadcast.

The episode concludes one million years into the future. I can think of only one other man who could write something a million years in the future, and that’s Grant Morrison. He has that same embrace of the fantastic, of the potential of humanity to become immortal through action and change, and the image of a human as pure energy is something that Grant could certainly embrace.

The one million sequence takes place against the backdrop of the sun going nova and wiping out Earth. Apparently, it is Sheridan’s story that has endured and must be preserved after the planet is gone. It will be carried with this man off into the stars.

The new human has much in common with the Vorlons. We can assume that the humans have adopted their role, and are shepherding the new races through their struggles. Perhaps it is the fact that Sheridan was the one who brought about the third age that his image continues. He was the last to see the first ones, the first model of a new humanity. Shifting between human form, and energy ball form, the man enters an encounter suit, then jets off for the stars, leaving behind an exploding sun.

The message of this final sequence seems to be we must go to the stars or face the loss of everything we have ever had, something that Sinclair said back in season one. It is this journey that grants us immortality, and we know that Sheridan’s will be carried on, will endure in this new age. I got a 2001 vibe from this sequence, the idea that humanity has grown beyond its cradle, Earth, and is now ready to accept adulthood among the stars. I would have loved for a more extended sequence of the sun tearing through Earth rendered in beautiful new CG, stretching on for five or ten minutes, but there wasn’t time for that. As I said before, JMS is more interested in the thematic point, and that was well conveyed.

I’ve never seen another work of fiction like this episode, rarely do you encounter a work with the scope or thematic depth that this holds. It recognizes the deep flaws and destructive tendencies of humanity, but ultimately celebrates our capacity for good and forward progress. While I have issues with the show from time to time, I love it because it can create episodes like this, that are more challenging and intellectually rewarding than virtually anything else on television.

As I said before, it baffles me that a work like this isn’t valued by society. JMS is using science fiction to ponder the whole of human history and map us a new road to the stars, but we remain frustratingly tied to the here and now. But, somewhere, there is a John Sheridan out there, waiting to guide us forward, to unite in peace on Earth and explore out into the stars. It is our destiny, and though we may go face obstacles on the way, eventually we will get there.

Next in the Babylon 5 blog series, I'll probably do a general post wrapping up season four, then watch 'In the Beginning' and review that, then move on to season five. And finally, this post is dedicated to everyone who thought I wouldn't be able to review every episode of the series. Faith manages, people, faith manages.


crossoverman said...

And now you know what Jason Ironheart meant when he said "See you in a million years"! Because he was the first human to reach that level of conciousness - and it would take humanity that long to evolve to that point. Another reference to a million years hence is made in Season Five.

"Deconstruction" is an amazing piece of television, though I had never thought to compare it to "Restless" before - particularly the way it is constructed in four separate pieces. Great call!

I don't think there's anything else to add because your review is quite comprehensive. It's an amazing hour - just incredible to see how detailed JMS' plan is.

Season Five stumbles a bit but I cut JMS some slack for having to restart the arc almost from a standing position. But - in a way - the final year is denouement to the whole series anyway.

Season One - Introduction
Season Two - Rising action
Season Three - Conflict
Season Four - Resolution
Season Five - Denouement

With "Sleeping in Light" being an epilogue to all that has come before.

RAB said...

This story makes me think of this episode. Taking a legendary and venerated historical figure and putting invented words into his mouth that endorse fascism and go against everything the real person actually believed? Only imaginable by a science fiction writer...or on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Patrick said...

That story is ridiculous, it's hard to believe that an actual congressman would say something like that, but it seems like pretty much anything goes for Bush and his crew. The same sort of retrohistory we see in that 2762 sequence is what we got with the swift boat commercials in the last election, a total warping of the facts to suit one group's specific agenda.