February 21, 2009

Indigenous faiths in Babylon 5

A review of The Parliament of Dreams, the fifth episode of the first season of the sci-fi show Babylon 5:

"Babylon 5" The Parliament of Dreams (1994)One of television's finest moments, 27 December 2007

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

During the first half of the first season of B5, the series faced a challenge of introducing viewers to a rather involved and intricate story line which would bridge the entire series, while also needing to create interesting self-contained episodes to attract new viewers. "The Parliament of Dreams" met both challenges head on.

In this story line, B5 is to be the location of a week long festival celebrating and teaching about the dominant religious and spiritual beliefs of all the races attendant on the station. Viewers are introduced to the solemn and ritualistic practices of the Minbari, and the as-expected festivals of excess practiced by the Centauri. Commander Sinclair is faced with the almost impossible task of creating a demonstration of the dominant religious belief of Earth. How to choose? The episode culminates with the key characters awaiting the arrival of Commander Sinclair so he can enlighten them about the dominant belief for humans--they wait somewhat impatiently until he arrives and leads them into a long corridor where it would seem dozens upon dozens of humans stand in a line which extends beyond the camera view. He leads the group of key characters to the first person in line and begins...

"This is Mr. Harris. He's an atheist. Father Cresanti, a Roman Catholic. Mr. Hayakawa, a Zen Buddhist. Mr. Rashid, a Moslem. Mr. Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew. Running Elk, of the Oglala Sioux faith. Father Papapoulous, a Greek Orthodox. Ogigi-ko, of the Ebo tribe. Machukiak, a Yup'ik Eskimo. Sawa, of the Jivaro tribe. Isnakuma, a Bantu. Ms. Chang, a Taoist. Mr. Blacksmith, an aborigine. Ms. Yamamoto, a Shinto. Ms. Naijo, a Maori. Mr. Gold, a Hindu. Ms. Nakuma...."

If you watch no other episode of Babylon 5, go out of your way to watch this one. If the closing scene does not make you tear up with pride and hope for mankind's future--nothing ever will.
Comment:  One of television's finest moments? Not.

Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate conveyor belt...Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker...Hawkeye Pierce finally leaving the MASH 4077...Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor doing the word association test...these are some of TV's finest moments. The scene from Babylon 5 doesn't make my top 10, 100, or 1,000 list.

It may be one of the best scenes in Babylon 5's first eight episodes, which are all I've watched so far. But that's not saying much. The first four episodes played like second-rate Deep Space Nine, which itself was second-rate Star Trek. It took another four episodes to suggest B5 might be better than the watchable but uninspiring DS9.

Needless to day, the ending didn't make me tear up with pride and hope for mankind's future either. Sorry, sorry.

If you want an inspiring message about humanity's future, try a random episode of the original Star Trek. Kirk's triumph over the Gamesters of Triskelion, for instance, when he inspires Shahna the thrall to dream of the stars. That moved me more than this ending did.

Pluses and minuses

Still, it was a good moment. On the plus side, it started with atheism, a belief system that rarely gets mentioned on TV. Of the remaining 15 faiths mentioned, eight were mainstream religions and seven were indigenous religions. The latter group of believers included three Native Americans, two Africans, an Australian, and a New Zealander.

In terms of recognizing human diversity, that's one of the best statements ever. It would be hard to find a more diverse group on TV than those 16 people.

On the minus side, the Orthodox Jew was too prominent and the Hindu wasn't nearly prominent enough. If Christianity had two representatives, Islam should've had two representatives (e.g., Sunni and Shiite) also. And the lineup awkwardly mixed religious and ethnic types. The indigenous people could've been Christians, Muslims, or members of other faiths.

When Sinclair said he'd show the others Earth's dominant belief, I wondered where the show was going with this. At first, I thought it might use the ending of Arthur C. Clarke's History Lesson. In this short story, alien scientists decide that a Mickey Mouse cartoon is the greatest expression of human culture.

Then I thought it might go with a TV commercial (e.g., "I'd like to buy the world a Coke") or the song "God Bless America," which would suggest the dominance of American-led globalism and commercialism. Given that B5's main characters are white American types (even the supposedly Russian Ivanova), this would've been fitting. Like most TV science fiction, B5's future is dominated by white Americans.

How the aliens reacted

The actual outcome was probably better, but it may have left the alien observers puzzled. "I thought you were going to show us Earth's dominant belief. Which one is it?"

Using any handy computer device, the aliens could've discovered which religions were dominant. "Oh, so Christianity is no. 1 and Islam is no. 2. I guess the other religions are subsets of the main religions? Or are they the religions of Earth's vassal states? Are these people here to show their obeisance to their religious overlords?"

To solve this little problem, Sinclair could've said he was showing them what Earth people believe, not Earth's dominant belief. Then the ending would've worked perfectly.

Anyway, nice going, J. Michael Straczynski. Give yourself an A-/B+ for your effort.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

Below:  Two great moments in TV history.


Elton said...

I always thought that the point was that earth's dominate belief system was diversity and tolerance.

Unknown said...

"Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate conveyor belt...Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker...Hawkeye Pierce finally leaving the MASH 4077...Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor doing the word association test...these are some of TV's finest moments."

What the f*ck? No mention of The Wire? What the hell's wrong with you?

Unknown said...

Oh and to hell with bab5 it's an overrated show; Firefly (may it rest in peace) is an example of superb scifi television. It's just that I like a tv show that doesn't prattle on about childish utopian ideals and how we should all just get along (world peace is political pornography).

dmarks said...

I thought DS9 was first-rate Star Trek: I thought that B5 spun its wheels a bit in the first season, but really got into gear in the 2nd and 3rd.

Rob said...

Yes, I understood what the point was supposed to be, Elton. But I explained why it might not have been clear to observers.

The original Star Trek was first-rate Star Trek. Everything else was second- or third-rate, in my opinion.

What the hell's wrong with your attitude, Stephen? Must you turn so many of my postings into confrontations?

One, my comment was about great TV moments, not great TV shows. Two different things.

Two, I watched a few episodes of The Wire but couldn't get into it. But I recognize that critics consider it a great show.

Three, I regularly watch such critically acclaimed shows as The Sopranos, The Shield, Six Feet Under, Dexter, and Mad Men (on DVD, that is). If you think I Love Lucy is the deepest show I've ever seen, you're sadly mistaken.

Four, I agree that Firefly (along with Battlestar Galactica) is about the best sci-fi show ever. I'd mention it here if it had a Native aspect.

As usual, you presumed things about me and ended up making yourself look bad. Oh, well. At least you proved that you're the problem here, not me.

Rob said...

A message via e-mail:

Dear Rob,

I liked B-5 a lot more than you did as a whole, and I appreciated your analysis of Parliament of Dreams--you're right it would have made more sense to have Sinclair showing the aliens Earth's beliefs, period.

Appreciatively Yours,