L. Neil Smith's

Number 24, March 15, 1997.

The Ministry of Truth, Part II

By Vin Suprynowicz

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         Last time, we were discussing Episode 408 of the syndicated science fiction television series "Babylon 5," now entering its fourth season.
         "The Illusion of Truth" was written (like seven-eighths of the shows) by series creator Joe Straczynski.
         In the episode in question, a TV news crew from Earth arrives unannounced at the breakaway space station, seeking to film a report which will "get your side of things" across to the viewers back home on an increasingly totalitarian, news-managed 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, we didn't have any big crises while they were here. ... What can they do to us?"
         Tuning in to the evening broadcast from Interstellar Network News, they find out ... in spades ... as they witness rearranged footage from the station intercut with new footage of their interviewer asking different questions to give completely new meaning to their answers, and even a ready-made 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 sympathy-for-your-kidnappers phenomenon which the good doctor has dubbed for the occasion "Minbari War Syndrome."
         I asked series creator J. Michael Straczynski if he just dreamed this up, or if he sees our own major broadcast media heading irrevocably down this same road.
         "On the political side, what we've tried to do over the last couple of years is show the process by which a democracy, however flawed, can fight against totalitarianism," Straczynski explained March 3 from his production office in an abandoned warehouse in Southern California's Sun Valley.
         "Usually you come into a fascist science fiction series with them already in place. We want to show the slippery slope. ... We've tracked it from the assassination of President Santiago in the very first season, to the establishment of Night Watch, the establishment of the MInistry of Truth, to the takeover of the media, the establishment of a fascist state.
         "When they see this going on, what is the role of the citizen, of the soldier? That's the kind of question we're examining. For an army to work you have to follow orders, there has to be a chain of command. But what do you if the order is immoral? When Sheriden secedes from Earth he is in effect committing an act of treason. So the question is, when is that justified?
         "Before what was in essence a totalitarian takeover the media had some bias, but nowhere like as bad as we see now. We wanted to show how easily they can manipulate facts and data to make things appear the way they want them to."
         A temptation to present the government-endorsed angle to which our own news media increasingly succumb?
         "There have some charges that the media misuses quotes to throw candidates in a bad light. But the charges come from both sides, that Rush Limbaugh takes things out of context to make the liberals look bad, too. So it's a matter of degree."
         I asked Straczynski why the "Babylon 5" universe seems so much more anti-authoritarian than that of the "Star Trek" clones.
         "The Star Trek universe as it is portrayed currently is one that is bereft of human flaws and frailties; they seem to have leached out all the qualities that give us all our more independent nature. The cohesiveness of the characters, it seems like they're all just pumped out by the same machine. To the extent that they have pursuits or interests it's all perfectly safe and incidental; they drink Earl Grey tea or they listen to Shakespeare.
         "In Babylon 5, of course, the characters are just plain nuts. They're fractured; they're flawed. Our goal is to show the power of the individual to change the world ... and beyond that.
         "We're all taught from a very early age that you can't fight city hall, that you can't change things. Well in fact the world is being changed every day. In this show, the theme is choices, consequences and responsibility. That you can and make must choices in your life, and then taking the responsibility for those consequences. ...
         "We have been called on occasion a moral show, and in fact we ain't. What we is, is an ethical show. My job isn't to make a point for or against corporations, individual rights, religion, ... our job isn't to tell you what to think, but to honestly portray both sides of an issue, ... political question, social questions, religious questions. ...
         "We got to the death penalty once or twice in the course of the show. ... They have substituted the death of personality, they wipe your memory clean and then they reprogram you to serve society, so you will believe you want to serve the community you harmed. So the first question is, is that better politically or morally than the death penalty? Here's a Catholic priest who's been doing good works, helping people, but then he begins to remember, discovers that he used to be someone else, that he was a mass murderer whose memory was wiped. ..."
         "That was an excellent episode. It starred the treacherous mentat from 'Dune' --"
         "Yes, that's Brad Dourif, a fine actor.
         "So the question there was, where does forgiveness end or begin? How does he repent his sins if he doesn't know what they were? These are the kinds of questions television doesn't often get into.
         "The problem with television overall -- I'll be killed for saying this -- is it has too many trivial answers and not near enough damn good questions. The question always is, will they defuse the bomb in time? The answer is: It's always the green wire, never the blue wire.
         "The real questions are: who are we, where are we, how did we get here, and where are we going?" Because it deals with such sterner stuff, Straczynski figures, "Babylon 5 appeals to a very wide political landscape, conservatives, liberals, Libertarians. ...
         "We've lost the sense that we were going somewhere. Remember a time in this country when there were 'kitchens of the future?' We wanted to know where we were going and when we were going to get there. But we stumbled with the Kennedy assassination and we stumbled with Vietnam, and if you stumble too many times you take your eyes off the horizon and look at your feet. Science fiction's job is to take people's eyes and put them back on the horizon. ... We need to look to our ancestors, who say to us 'make it so our lives had meaning,' and then we need to look to our descendents and build for the future. ...
         "Don't 'Just say no.' Just say yes: Say yes to creating something."
         Peruse the far corners of your local television guide. Set your VCR if necessary, but locate "Babylon 5." If you find the conventions of science fiction infantile, pretend the guys with the spots on their heads are Chinese, or Palestinian ... or Branch Davidian.
         Like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, whether J. Michael Straczynski's "Babylon 5" prospers or succumbs may have wider significance than even he realizes.
         For the alternative is, I fear ... the Interstellar Network News.

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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