Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Classics: B5 3:22 - Z'ha'dum

Overall: 9.0

JMS' combination of epic action and philosophical rumination is not flawless, but it is still compelling all the same.

Plot Synopsis:

The Lurker's Guide has a summary here.

The Skinny:

Stephanie S.: This episode ends on one hell of a cliff-hanger, that's for sure. But clearly, JMS's primary goal in penning this episode was not to set up Sheridan's death and resurrection (oops - more Christian imagery!) -- rather, it was to frame the entire Shadow War as a battle between two influential - and often competing - streams of Western thought. Granted, JMS has stated that in formulating the order-chaos dichotomy between the Vorlons and the Shadows, he was primarily inspired by the Babylonian creation myths. But while that may be true on a conscious level, it is certainly quite uncanny how the philsophical debate between the Vorlons and the Shadows resembles the tensions present in our own times.

On the side of the Vorlons -- on the side of order -- we have both Islamic theocracy and socialism/communism. The former is concerned with controlling the sensual while the latter is concerned with controlling the economic, but the animating impulse is precisely the same in both cases. Whether you are a radical imam or a radical statist, you are motivated by the fear that liberty will result in widespread immorality and injustice. Thus, like the Vorlons, you seek to control - to socially engineer - your fellow human beings. You deny them the right to make certain choices because you know what is best for them. Meanwhile, on the side of the Shadows -- on the side of chaos -- we have the libertines and the Social Darwinists, for whom liberty is an absolute that rises above all other concerns. Like the Shadows, who "kick over all the ant hills" without plugging compassion into the equation, those who demand an inviolate right to do whatever they wish (in the name of "nature, red in tooth and claw") have declared war on the common good. They are no better than the Vorlonic busy-bodies who wish to force us to be moral.

How does JMS resolve this conflict? The text proposes a "balance" between order and chaos, but the subtext tells us that Christianity will bring about that balance. True, as a leftist and an atheist, JMS is never going to admit to said subtext. But as I've argued in several previous reviews, there's no question that the series' heroic characters are all moved by the Christian ideals of compassion, self-denial, and self-sacrifice. And by the way, for the most part, they don't need the Vorlons or anyone else to sit on their shoulders and play their consciences because those values they have borrowed from Christianity enable them to govern themselves.

I believe the errors of the Vorlons and the Shadows have become all the more tempting today because we have discounted Christianity's ability to hold together seemingly paradoxical notions. The Church declares, for example, that Jesus Christ was both 100% God and 100% man. In similar fashion, Christianity can encompass both liberty and community without tipping over to one side or the other because it gives men and women the means to be good without help from an intrusive government. Sheridan rejects the Shadows and their promises, but not because the Vorlons have told him what to think; he does so because of an inner spark which has been kindled by a culture steeped in unconscious Christian tradition. If we're not careful, we could lose that spark -- and consequently, our liberty will die as well.

SABR Matt: This show presents us with a personal...and a philosophical...view of the struggle to achieve balance between chaos and order, community belief and self determination. My sister has covered the important philosophical divide between the Shadows (Social Darwinists) and the Vorlons (Galactic communists rather like the Great Link on DS9). Unfortunately, neither of the elder races gets it right and she explains why above. I will deal with the internal struggle.

I think a big part of the reason that progressive movements are so attractive is that they give followers the illusion that they are a part of a noble struggle much greater than themselves without asking those followers to make personal (worldly) sacrifices. Here, John faces the choice between a life of ease helping a pack of Social Darwinists (with the tenuous promise that humanity will emerge stronger than before - perhaps the leading race in a new galactic order) in his own self-interest or sacrificing for a good that is not even tangible. He chooses neither order, nor chaos - neither self-interest nor abject surrender to the needs of the many. He chooses to strike at the very heart of one enemy while sacrificing his very life without any assurance that the alternative to the Shadows will be any better. This is the episode where the larger implications for Sheridan's character end - this is the conclusion of his personal journey (the destiny that JMS had in mind). The rest that follows, while still interesting, is somewhat less epic in scale.

It's even more impressive that John takes that leap of faith and attacks Z'ha'dum given that the Shadows do have a point. The Vorlons are no saints. It's not like he has the luxury of knowing who the good guys are here. He HAS been manipulated...his freedoms usurped, supposedly to serve the greater good, not that usurping freedom without choice is ever serving a greater good. His confrontation with Delenn during which she admits that she would not have told John about Anna if she were alive (because the galaxy couldn't afford to lose John to the Shadows on a fools quest to retrieve her from Z'ha'dum) makes perfectly clear how he feels about his life being predetermined and his choices limited by the Vorlons. And I don't blame him. Being shepherded along by someone who claims they know better than you...well that's rather the reason why the Tea Party movement in the US exists - many of us are tired of being told by big government what's best for us. The enemy of John's enemy is certainly not his friend in this case...his choice serves none of his masters nor his own interests...only the free people of the lower races.

Writing: 9.0 / 9.0

The exposition is delivered in a more interesting way than normal, and the stage is set for the end of the great war. There are, however, moments where the script feels a little too direct for our taste.

Acting: 8.5 / 8.5

The woman who played Anna and the gentleman who played Justin were, in our opinion, weak -- and, unfortunately, Bruce Boxlietner doesn't light the world on fire either despite a valiant effort. The rest of the regulars, however, are pretty darned good all around -- especially Mira Furlan.

Message: 9.5 / 9.5

As we discuss above, this episode is noteworthy mainly because it strikes a blow against the chief philosophical errors of our age and advocates for a balance mediated by Christian ethics (though that last bit is thoroughly unconscious).


SHERIDAN: You have no explanation. That's it? Ah, damn it, Delenn! I have always thought that you were holding out on me on a couple of things. I figured you had your reasons. But this? I mean, if you weren't sure - if there was even a chance of her being alive - why the hell didn't you tell me?
DELENN: Because you would've gone to Z'ha'dum after her! We couldn't allow that.
SHERIDAN: (sarcastic) You and Kosh -- you couldn't allow it. (He sits.) I trusted you, Delenn. I cared for you. I let myself start to love you. Do you know what that means? Do you know how hard that was for me? All along, a little part of me was still in love with Anna even though she was gone. I had to fight that part off every time I thought about you -- about -- about holding you -- about -- building a life for the two of us.
DELENN: John, you must believe me. I didn't know she was alive. We assumed that she had died with the rest of the crew of the Icarus - that only Morden has survived.
SHERIDAN: Had you known, would you have told me?
DELENN: It would depend. It would depend on what she had become. Z'ha'dum is the homeworld of the Shadows. No one leaves there the same as they arrived.
SHERIDAN: (coldly angry) You would've denied me the right to make that choice. How can you say that and expect me to ever trust you again? (OUCH.)

SHERIDAN, in his time-delayed message: Delenn. By the time you get this message, I will be at Z'ha'dum - with Anna. I can pretty much guess your reaction when you hear this, but I think it's the only way. When you and I were in the time rift with Babylon 4, for a moment, I jumped forward in time. We won the war, but Centauri Prime had been devastated. You said this future couldn't be changed. You also told me:
DELENN: Do not go to Z'ha'dum. Do you understand? Do not go to Z'ha'dum!
SHERIDAN: I began to wonder: What if that future happened because I listened to your warning and didn't go to Z'ha'dum? What if -- what if I could prevent the fall of Centauri Prime and end the Shadow War by going there? What I want is to stay alive -- to be with you. But you were right before. This is about more than what I want. So I'm going -- even though I know it's almost certainly a trap.

JUSTIN: You see, John, back a million years ago, there were forces prowling around the galaxy beyond anything that we could understand. And like anything else, most of them outgrew this little corner of the universe and headed off towards greener pastures. Now, two of them stayed behind. Shepherds, you might call them. They wanted to look after the younger races. Bring them around. Help them evolve into something better.
MORDEN: One of these was the Vorlons. The other was what you call the Shadows.
JUSTIN: The Vorlons are like your parents, I suppose. They want you to play nice, clean your room -- do it by the rules. I guess you could call them lords of order.
ANNA: The others - the ones who live here - believe that strength only comes from conflict. They want to release our potential, not bottle it up.
JUSTIN: It's really simple. You bring two sides together. They fight. A lot of them die. But those who survive are stronger, smarter, and better.
MORDEN: It's like knocking over an ant hill. Every generation gets stronger. The ant hill gets re-designed -- made better.
SHERIDAN: So that's what the Shadows do? Come out every thousand years and kick over all the ant hills? Start wars? Destroy entire races?
JUSTIN: A few get lost along the way, yes. And that's unfortunate. Don't think it was ever easy. But you can't let that get in the way of the dream. (Oh, snap. The Shadows are Darwinists.)

(And now to the video...)

(Ho-ly CRAP, isn't that awesome?)

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