The Ministry of Truth, Part I
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
As the syndicated Warner Bros. science fiction TV show enters its fourth season (it's planned for five), I have become a belated adherent of J. Michael Straczynski's "Babylon 5."
For 30 years, the benchmarks of televised sci-fi have been the spinoffs of the late Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek," the best of which was "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Performers like Patrick Stewart (the voice of 73 percent of all the car commercials on television, I'm pretty sure) and Gates McFadden could actually make you believe Jean-Luc Picard and Beverly Crusher had some history. Michelle Forbes made a really sullen Bajoran, not at all sure which side she favored when ordered by Star Fleet to infiltrate the resistance fighters of her own race. And then, just occasionally, there was an hour that struck a perfect tone, like the wistful tale of the dying culture that spent its last energies mastering space travel so it could send into the frozen void one thing to be remembered by ... a simple flute.
The "Deep Space 9" spinoff has some bright moments, what with the religion of the Bajoran being based on an hallucinogenic sacrament (the Orbs of the Prophets). I've even warmed on occasion to Nana Visitor's bubbly enthusiasm as Kira Nerys ... though I remain convinced the part was written for Ms. Forbes, whose sullen Ro Laren would have lent the show more of the dark and brooding air that seems to have been intended ... a la Ridley Scott's "Alien."
But inevitably, a universe concocted for us during the administration of Lyndon Johnson must wear at the edges, irrevocably betraying its socialist/utopian roots.
In all four "Star Trek" series, the good guys represent the shadowy "United Federation of Planets," headquartered in San Francisco (historical birthplace of the U.N.) to which aspiring cultures have to "apply for admission," based on their having "matured" to the point where, so far as I can determine, no more than one government is tolerated per planet, and all have agreed to foreswear money, salaries, arms dealing, or eating meat, in favor of the fair and equal sharing of the reconstituted soy protein that pours forth in endless profusion from the omnipresent "replicators."
Now, this Ivory Tower future does seem to be breaking down a bit in the last two spinoffs, where folks do wager "replicator rations" (rations?!) at the D'abo tables, and some smuggling (what? a lingering demand for commerce?) is occasionally acknowledged. But only rarely does the slightest qualm surface over the fact that, to be "admitted to the federation," the planet Bajor will apparently be expected to "integrate its militia into Star Fleet."
Compare such status-quo worship of centralized authority to the Hugo Award-winning "Babylon 5," where the commanders have recently seceded from Earth after the home planet's takeover by a totalitarian regime, providing us with a set of heroes routinely referred to by the earth government as "seditious traitors."
After a stumbling start (let's not talk about Claudia Christian's blessedly-abandoned Russian accent), the show seems to have hit its stride while I wasn't looking, attracting such guest players as Brad Dourif and Walter Koenig (where have we seen him before?) in addition to such able regulars as Mira Furlan, Andreas Katsulas, Jerry Doyle, Patricia Tallman and -- I'm not making this up -- Little Billy Mumy of "Lost in Space."
(In the "weird trivia" department, fans will recall that the late Mr. Roddenberry pitched "Star Trek" to CBS before finding it a warm spaceport over at NBC/Desilu. CBS executives grilled him exhaustively about how the "Star Trek" creator planned to finesse the need for an expensive special-effects spaceship-landing on a new planet each week -- "Beam me down, Scotty" -- but finally said "No thanks," took their purloined expertise, and gambled their wad on ... "Lost in Space," a sort of "Gilligan's Island" in aluminum foil, better known in some circles as "Lassie's Mom Goes to Mars."
Skip forward 25 years, and "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski reports he pitched his series to Paramount more than a year and half before the inheritors of the Roddenberry franchise gave birth to "Deep Space 9," which curiously -- and without attribution -- seems to share the Straczynski concept of a space station manned by sundry races floating in the dark reaches of neutral space. ...)
But even if I realized "Babylon 5" was making political progress, nothing prepared me for the episode that aired in my market on Feb. 22, 1997 (as a syndicated show, "Bab5" is aired when local stations see fit ... often in such ratings abysses as weekend afternoons.)
Episode 408, "The Illusion of Truth," was written (like most) by creator Joe Straczynski, and directed for the first time by a cast member. (Stephen Furst, who played in "Animal House," has directed several independent children's films, and now plays the second-ranking alien in Babylon 5's delegation from the planet Centauri, a costume designer's nightmare vision of the mid-19th century court of the Two Sicilies.)
In the episode in question, a TV news crew from Earth arrives unannounced on the station, seeking to film a report which will "get your side of things" across to the viewers back on Earth.
Despite initial skepticism, the commanders of the breakaway station agree to be interviewed, reassuring each other that "We kept anything we said down to short, declarative sentences to make it harder to quote us out of context. ... What can they do to us?"
Tuning in to Interstellar Network News, they find out ... in spades.
In a virtually perfect simulacrum of one of our contemporary newscasts, our smug, oh-so-sincere newscasters (Jeff Griggs and Diana Morgan, the latter near-android in her lockjawed perfection) bring us political prisoners confessing to their anti-government activities on cue, and advise the citizenry of the latest Martian War developments:
"President Clark announced today that Earthforce troops have now reclaimed 75 percent of the colony which broke away in an act of sedition 259 days ago. ... To celebrate this latest victory against the tyranny of a fanatical few who have endangered the lives of our citizens, Clark proclaimed today a planetary holiday. Curfew has been extended a full two hours, until 9 p.m. EST, so go out and enjoy!"
Next up it's the turn of the Babylon 5 crew to be eviscerated, complete with re-shot footage of their interviewer asking different questions to give completely new meaning to their answers, and even a ready-made white-haired medical expert who modestly demurs from his office at Harvard Medical School, "I don't like to make long-distance diagnoses," whereupon he proceeds to do just that, explaining that Babylon 5 leader John Sheriden (Bruce Boxleitner) is obviously mentally ill, suffering a new version of the old sympathy-for-your-kidnappers phenomenon which the good doctor has dubbed for the occasion "Minbari War Syndrome."
The flawless precision of this little exercise left me pacing like a caged cat. The "Illusion of Truth" episode of "Babylon 5" should be required viewing by every college class studying the ethics of journalism (if the subject hasn't already been deleted in favor of "Negotiating Your Network Contract,") as well as every convention of professional journalists, Libertarians, and other interested parties who can lay hands on a tape.
(No, you can't get one from Warner TV, at least not until the series is released to home video: I asked.)
Next time: Straczynski speaks.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.
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