Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Guest Post: The Baptism of Contemporary Science Fiction, by Declan Finn

Stephanie remarks: For many years, I've wanted to write an extended essay on the Catholic-friendly philosophical and spiritual undertones of Babylon 5, so when Declan sent this to me, I squealed like a little girl. One day, when I have more time, I will write an extended addendum; for now, please enjoy Declan's contribution!

While I have been both a cradle Catholic and a cradle geek, I can honestly say that the two rarely intersected for a good chunk of my life.  Most of the time, my thoughts on faith and science fiction consisted of wondering why the starship Enterprise was a naval vessel without a chaplain.
Then the year was 1993, and the name of the show was Babylon 5.

While never as big a hit as Star Trek, Babylon 5 – or simple B5, as fans call it – was one of the few science fiction shows that fought and won against the Star Trek franchise without being run over by the monolith.

But one thing that made it special was religion.

Originally, Babylon 5 had been easily dismissed as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 ripoff, even though the creator, Joseph Michael Straczynski (best known as simply JMS) had pitched Babylon 5 to paramount the year before Deep Space 9. Even my family were a little wary of it at first. It was fun, but nothing particularly special.

Then came the episode By Any Means Necessary. A subplot revolved around an alien ambassador trying to obtain an artifact necessary for his religious ritual. The ritual involved burning a plant in the sunlight that touched a particular mountain on a particular day. Since they're in space, the ambassador had to acquire the plant, and lead the ceremony at the same time as his people back home. When the station Commander finds a way to get the required plant, it was too late, the time had past. Until science fiction and faith collided. As the commander says:

What you forgot to take into account, is that sunlight also travels through space....The sunlight that touched the …. mountain 10 of your years ago, will reach this station in 12 hours …. But it's still the same sunlight.
The ambassador agrees, and comments, “Commander, you're a far more spiritual man than I give you credit for.”

The commander answers, “There are a couple of Jesuit teachers I know who might disagree with you.”

Welcome to Babylon 5, with the first openly Catholic commander in science fiction. My family was hooked.

Later on, in Season 2, there were two strong episodes that hit home. The first was called Comes the Inquisitor. The plot was simple: our heroes are in a war with an ancient enemy that make Sauron in Lord of the Rings look nice, and an alien ally known as the Vorlons want to make certain that one of our heroes, named Delenn, is in it for the right reasons. What are the wrong reasons? To be a hero! To be adulated! To be the leader of a holy crusade!

The theme of the episode was actually summarized by the T.S. Eliot poem “Murder in the Cathedral.” If you don't know the context, “Murder in the Cathedral” was about the last days of Thomas Beckett, and his final temptation is actually a suggestion that Beckett should embrace the glory or martyrdom.
To which Eliot has Becket reply:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

A line from the actual episode is: “If you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the work becomes corrupted, impure, and ultimately self-destructive.”

The antagonist for Comes the Inquisitor, named only “Sebastian” is only satisfied with Delenn when the Captain, Sheridan, comes charging in to the rescue, and is himself captured.  When Sebastian threatens to kill Delenn if she tries to save Sheridan, she dismisses his threat, saying that to save one life or a billion, it doesn't matter. If that doesn't have overtones of “He who saves one man saves the whole world,” I don't know what does.

Delenn going toe-to-toe with Sebastian really does look like it will end badly for her. However, Sebastian declares that they have passed his test.

How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame. For one person, in the dark...where no one will ever know...or see.

Yes. The punchline was John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Soon after, in the season two finale, The Fall of Night the Vorlons enter into the picture again.  For The Fall of Night, we see what they look like outside of their environmental suits – angels. They even look like different angels to different aliens.  It's revealed that Vorlons modified all aliens in order to make them see Vorlons as beings of light that correspond to their religions. The nice thing about this is that there are no implications that the Vorlons invented religion, but mimicked religions already in place.  It's a nice change of pace for science fiction, where the trend is to say that an advanced race created God.

The final bits that made Babylon 5 hit home with my faith came in season three.  A group of religious pilgrims arrive on the station. They're Dominicans. Yes, the Order of Preachers arrived on the station.
Okay, JMS insists they're Benedictines.. But their outfits are Dominican, which might be a costume error. Why are they on the station? Their leader, Brother Theo, explains:

To learn, and to teach. It says in the Bible that even the smallest sparrow does not fall, without God seeing it.  What then of all these other races from distant worlds? Would he abandon them … or reveal himself in some other way? God goes by many names. Perhaps some are alien sounding, different faces and histories, but all describing the same Creator We are here to learn all those names, in hopes of better understanding the one who is behind them....

When Theo says that he brought experts that are in much demand on earth, the station commander asks that, if they're in such demand, why are they on B5? “They also believe.”

Over time, Babylon 5 explored a lot of themes that, if not blatantly Catholic, were at least Judeo-Christian. There were themes of sin and redemption all over the place, though there were parts of it that were secular humanist in nature, and sometimes even straight up Judaic. Let's just say that several characters would have been helped had they simply had a confessor to go to.

Then there's Passing Through Gethsemane. In the world of B5, the death penalty has been largely replaced with “mindwiping,” and reprogramming a person to serve the community he harmed.
Enter an ethical dilemma where a serial killer has been mindwiped, and now serving in Br. Theo's group. When the families of his victims come for him, revealing who is was, he goes crazy, pondering how he can be forgiven when he doesn't even remember his sins. The answer to most of us is simple: in confession, we ask forgiveness for these and all our sins. But he was clearly going crazy at the time, so we'll forgive the character that slip.

By the end, one man kills the former murderer, and is himself mindwiped, and sent to join Br. Theo and company as “Brother Malcom.” When he tries to shake Sheridan's hand, Sheridan looks at him like a snake. Theo, however, explains:

You must forgive the captain, Malcolm. You interrupted his train of thought. I believe he was saying that forgiveness is a hard thing, but something every to be strived for....

At the end of the day, JMS describes himself as an atheist, that he was “born Catholic but it wore off.” Despite this, JMS may have written one of the most Catholic science fiction shows of this generation. He allowed religion into a genre that traditionally wouldn't touch faith with a ten-foot pole, or would blatantly reject it. It was nice to, at long last, find a piece of science fiction that would honestly practice the tolerance it preached, and would let this nerd carry his cross for the ride.


  1. I love B5 and DS9 for that very reason, they allowed religion to exist, let alone explored difficult real things in an imaginary setting. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, may have to fish out the DVDs.

  2. I am an atheist myself but this is a nicely written piece about my favourite tv show and it comprises what I like about religion from the outside. Thank you!