The Mythic Well V
I was most surprised to learn recently that the main inspiration for Babylon 5 is the cult BBC science fiction series, Blake's 7. What? Not Arthurian legend? Apparently not - because while the source for this extraordinary piece of information was actually Gareth Thomas, who played the title role in the first two seasons of Blake's 7, he revealed that this fact had been imparted to him by no less than J. Michael Straczynski himself. Now while I've never claimed to be an expert in the works of Tolkien, nor anything other than a dabbler in the multiplicity of languages he invented, I should tell you right up front that I'm exceedingly familiar with Blake's 7 - in fact, I've forgotten more about this series than most fans ever knew in the first place. We're talking serious knowledge here.
Thus, I find it very odd that since Straczynski has repeatedly maintained that B5 is a kind of Rorschach test in which we see the mythic form with which we're most familiar, that I never saw any aspects of Blake's 7 until they were pointed out, but on the other hand was able to find a veritable plethora of allusions to The Lord of The Rings, a work with which I was not well acquainted. I'd started reading it once many years ago, but never finished it then. Of course, I've got around to it now - I decided I had to stop annoying my Tolkien-literate friends and colleagues with basic questions about plot and character.
Anyway, to get back to Blake's 7 - having consulted with various friends who are also well-acquainted with both B5 and B7 and having looked at various comments by Straczynski and others, I can find six reasonable points of correspondence between the two series. Six.
The first two involve ship shapes. The Drazi warbird - the Sunhawk - is apparently a tribute to Blake's 7 Liberator. Now I've always thought the Drazi ship looked more like a fiery hornet, but yes, they're vaguely the same design. Vaguely. Another tribute to the Liberator is the alien probe which appears in the episode, A Day In The Strife. Again, there's a faint resemblance, though I'm still more inclined to view the design of the probe as closer to a Vorlon ship remodelled in an art deco or art nouveau style. However I'm prepared to concede that these things are in the eye of the beholder.
It's a pity that these two allusions aren't as overt as the nods to The Prisoner littered throughout the series (Mindwar, And The Sky Full of Stars, Signs And Portents, Illusion of Truth and Intersections In Real Time to name only the ones that hit you fair between the eyes), but I don't suppose we can expect everything to be unsubtle.
The next four points of correspondence involve plotlines:
- The B5 episode, Survivors, (by Marc Scott Zicree, heavily edited by Larry diTillio and Joe Straczynski) is similar in some respects to the B7 episode, Countdown (by Terry Nation). Liana Kemmer appears unexpectedly out of Garibaldi's past much as Del Grant appears unexpectedly out of Avon's past. Kemmer blames Garibaldi for the death of her father, Grant blames Avon for the death of his sister. The way the recriminations are played out in each episode is entirely different, though both stories have remarkably similar endings. A bomb is about to explode and the countdown sequence is terminated with exactly one second to spare. Both sides subsequently reconcile.
- The B5 episode, Z'Ha'Dum (by Joe Straczynski) is similar in some respects to the B7 episode, Terminal (by Terry Nation). Both are the final episodes of their respective third seasons. In Z'Ha'Dum, Sheridan chooses to go to a planet where he is almost certain a trap awaits him. Likewise in Terminal, Avon chooses to go to a planet where he is almost certain a trap awaits him. Both Sheridan and Avon manoeuvre to try to ensure that none of their associates will be involved or harmed by their actions. Both have illuminating discussions with the person who lured them into the trap. Both make the decision to sacrifice their lives to the greater good. In both stories, a semi-organic spaceship of incredibly advanced design is destroyed: in B5, the White Star and in B7, the Liberator.
- Also in Z'Ha'Dum, Sheridan discovers his wife, Anna, whom he believed dead, is still very much in the land of the living. In Rumours of Death (by Chris Boucher), Avon discovers that his lover, Anna, whom he believed dead is still alive. Neither B5's Anna nor B7's Anna is the person they once were, or at least seemed to be.
- Please see footnote[[*].
Now, despite the obvious parallels between Survivors and Countdown, I still lean heavily towards the notion that while the framing story is Blake's 7, the actual canvas is painted from a Tolkien original.
In "The Mythic Well IV", I pointed out that the Silmarils, the light-enclosing star jewels of Tolkien's story collection, The Silmarillion, do have a point of comparison in B5, but in an abstract sense. By a strange quirk of language, an association between Silmaril and telepathy can be found. Now the next correspondence is not quite at the same level of abstraction, but it's still a significant transformation: in Lotr, there is a Morgul knife (whose poison worked its way through the victim's system always seeking the heart) which in B5 is analogous to alcohol. The original title of Survivors was A Knife In The Shadows, and I feel obliged to point out that, once you get a handle on the mental substitution of alcohol for Morgul knife, there are a number of remarkable echoes between this episode and A Knife In The Dark, which just happens to be the title of a chapter in The Lord of The Rings. But I guess that must be pure coincidence since, as we've now been informed, the primary inspiration for B5 is Blake's 7.
Oh, really? Now, I don't particularly like to cast aspersions and I particularly don't like to be suspicious on the basis of something that's not there, rather than something that is. But I'm going to, anyway. Let me very briefly go off on a tangent before I get back to this point. I've heard it said that there's only seven plots and a limited number of variations on them. Tolkien in his wider body of writings covered just about every conceivable one of those. So, I suppose that, at first sight, it seems reasonable that Straczynski should utter his famous lines about same mythic well, same traditional archetypes and so on. However, there's a problem. Tolkien, as far as I can see (and I stand to be corrected here), actually missed touching down on one or two literary devices. One of the very few ideas he failed to utilise lies at the heart of Blake's 7. It is inconceivable to me that anyone modelling their writing on Terry Nation's creation would omit this peculiar aspect. It's not just crucial, it is a defining difference between B7 and other media sf. And while Babylon 5 remains without this element, I reserve the right to be completely skeptical that it contains any but the most peripheral B7 inspiration. I continue to think that for the best description of B5 you can't go past Straczynski's words that it's "not Lord of The Rings with the serial numbers filed off". No, not one has been filed off.
In Professor Tolkien's prolific writings, he had stories of the ideal hero, the tragic hero, the flawed hero, the hidden hero, but not once did he pen a tale about an anti-hero. On the other hand, while Blake's 7 isn't about the anti-hero to start with, it certainly is long before the end.
If there is anything that in ten words or less describes the gulf between Tolkien's writings and Blake's 7, it's simply this: one has an anti-hero, the other doesn't. Like Lotr, B7 is a quest story. It actually has several quests: in the second season, the quest for Star One; in the third season, the quest for Blake; in the fourth season, the quest to find the best defence against the Federation (even if occasionally that meant a good offence). Since there's no quest in B5, I'm surprised it's supposed to derive its inspiration from B7. Since there's no anti-hero in B5, my surprise turns to outright suspicion.
But surely B5 has an anti-hero? Well, I suppose we could stretch a point and -- -- no, not even then. Londo possibly comes closest but his motivations are never ambiguous enough to qualify him in the role. Morden might have taken on the mantle, but we never get to hear his motives from his own lips. Thus the lasting impression he leaves is that of a villain, deservedly given his comeuppance. There is absolutely no one in B5 who is like Roger Zelazny's Corwin of Amber or like Avon of Blake's 7, the mercilessly witty and cynical character who spends three seasons flirting with villainy only to show his true colours when the chips are finally down. Until Terminal, it's never clear whether Avon's integrity or his pragmatism will win out. However, in that episode, he at last makes the choice between good and evil and, being the complete individualist he is, it's not so much that he chooses the side of good as he rejects the side of oppression and evil.
The long-term consequences on his psyche of events in Terminal eventually culminate in tragedy in the last episode of the entire series, which ends with the death of Blake and a shoot-out in which it appears almost the entire cast is killed. The final electrifying image is of Avon, gun raised, surrounded by thirteen armed troopers about to fire. Fans tend to believe he survived, but how likely is it that a baker's dozen of professional soldiers are going to miss at point-blank range? Over the course of the series, Avon progresses from anti-hero to flawed, tragic hero. He starts as a criminal and ends up making repeated unsuccessful attempts to organise the rebel alliance.
Sebastian in B5's Comes The Inquisitor is impressed by Delenn's willingness to die alone, in the dark, forsaking honour and glory to embrace, if necessary, anonymity and apparent futility. If that impresses him, he should meet Avon. While Avon never had an interest in glory and couldn't care less what people thought of him, he was very protective of two things - his honour and his own skin. He is prepared to sacrifice both in Terminal. In an calculated display of acting mad, bad and dangerous to know, Avon threatens his companions' lives. It transpires that he is of the belief that if he behaves ruthlessly and psychotically enough, the others will leave him alone and will abandon him if he forces the decision on them. However, the mutual ties prove too strong and his plan to protect the crew fails when they follow him into the trap.
I've gone into some detail here to illustrate that, while Z'Ha'Dum does have some overtones of Terminal, it also has major differences. I would also like to point out that Straczynski himself has never compared the episodes: indeed, in talking about Z'Ha'Dum he has mentioned the legend of Orpheus and the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil - neither of which negates what I have already said about the similarities with tale of Beren and Luthien. This is Tolkien's story of the human hero who desires to wed a half-Elven princess against her family's wishes. Beren visits hell to steal a jewel from the devil's crown (makes you wonder if Lorien's crown is made of iron, doesn't it?) and there loses his right hand to the wolf, much as Sheridan loses his right hand man to the Shadows. Beren's storyline continues into the fourth season until it almost seamlessly segues into the tale of Turin Turambar, the ill-fated hero of another story in The Silmarillion. Turin's life descends into a real downward spiral after he was mesmerised upon looking into the eyes of a dragon. Turin goes from place to place helping people. By the time he comes to himself and recovers from his mental immobility, he's made several disastrous decisions about what direction he should head and lost the one woman it was prophesied could save him from his fate. He's known as Mormegil, the black sword, from the weapon he carries and Gorthol from the dragon helm he wears. Dragon helm, eh? Well now, what could that be transformed into? And what would you do with the friend who gave it to you? Assuming that you recognised him as a friend and not an enemy, of course? Kill him? Mind you, with friends like Bester, who needs enemies? I won't tell you the final fate of Turin after he dies as it's detailed in The Book of Lost Tales, because that'd be a really heavy spoiler for the only truly enjoyable bit in the somewhat lacklustre Deconstruction of Falling Stars : the scene with the holographic Garibaldi five hundred years in the future.
But let's leave the works of Tolkien for a moment and return to space. There are six points of comparison between B5 and B7. Hardly a huge quantity over the space of nearly one hundred episodes. Tell you what. I might have missed one or two. Let's err on the side of generosity and assume I somehow missed 90% of them. Let's say there's really sixty points of comparison. I don't really think this is likely, but what the heck. Even if there are sixty, that's still much less than 10% of the points of comparison it's possible to find between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Babylon 5. The Minbari language and the Minbari themselves alone provide over five hundred direct parallels with the Elvish languages and the elves. Blake's 7? The Prisoner? Star Wars? Dune? The works of Alfred Bester? Oh yes, they're there, no doubt about it - especially The Prisoner - but they're cosmetics. Fans have also noted, besides elements from these series and stories, echoes of World War II, the Bible, the Koran and the Kennedy conspiracy. And all I can say is that it'd be amazingly odd if they didn't. Tolkien was an intensely religious man who interwove biblical themes into his writings, which being contemporaneous with the Second World War, could hardly fail to reflect some aspects of it. As for the Kennedy conspiracy, I remarked on it in Part I of this series.
I was going to look this time at the parallels between the Centauri and the orcs of Mirkwood, but due to some queries I've received, I'm going to burden you with something much more difficult - the points (note the plural) of comparison to Z'Ha'Dum.
[[*] Don't read this footnote if you want to avoid late fourth season spoilers. Political events in B7 pave the way for Servalan, the military commander of Earth Forces, to mount a coup with the help of her allies in Space Command. Taking control, she becomes President of the Federation. Political events in B5 lead Sheridan, the military captain in charge of the space station, Babylon 5, to enact a... Oh, but why spoil it? - I'll let you guess the rest.