By Lee Karl Palo
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo – Babylon 5 and all its related characters are © Warner Bros.
FRIENDLY WARNING: If you haven’t seen the television show Babylon 5, the following contains spoilers.
This is a departure from the normal subject matter on this blog. As a Christian I enjoy science fiction, as well as reading different perspectives, including those of prominent atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche. J. Michael Straczynski has a great line in Babylon 5 that “Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”
What has the 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to do with a 20th Century television show Babylon 5? With the vast majority of television shows largely being the product of teams of writers, the idea that there could be a significant hidden theme in any TV series seems unlikely. However, in the case of Babylon 5, the show’s creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote 92 out of 110 episodes (including all of seasons three and four). At the very least that opens up the possibility that there could be such a theme. I first discovered the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Babylon 5 during the original airing of the show in the 1990s, specifically during the end of the third season, in the episode Z’ha’dum.
First it is important to state that I am in no way trying to diminish the originality of Straczynski’s Babylon 5. Nietzsche himself said that you repay a teacher badly if you only ever remain a student (see the end of the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, specifically section 3 of “On The Gift-Giving Virtue”). Nietzsche expected his sympathetic readers to critically engage with his thought and go their own way. It is my contention that J. Michael Straczynski has been influenced by Nietzsche, but there is much more to Babylon 5 than that.
One problem you can encounter in literature, film, and television is reading all kinds of meaning into a work that was never intended (see this article, for example). Is it reasonable to assume that J. Michael Straczynski may have been influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche? Straczynski studied philosophy at San Diego State University, graduating with a minor in the subject. He has also made it public knowledge that he is an atheist (see the “Back Page” article in the September 1998 issue of the Official Babylon 5 Magazine for his thoughts on being an atheist and writing about religion). It can easily be argued that Nietzsche is one of the most significant atheist philosophers of all time. Of course that doesn’t guarantee that J. Michael Straczynski is familiar with Nietzsche’s philosophy, only that it is plausible.
One other problem should be mentioned. Friedrich Nietzsche is easily one of the most misunderstood philosophers of all time. Walter Kaufmann wrote the book, “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist” at least in part to counteract many of the mistaken notions about Nietzsche in the English speaking world. In science-fiction television Nietzsche has been overtly referred to in “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.” Unfortunately, Andromeda perpetuates many myths and misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The best way to understand Nietzsche would be to read his works. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is one of his most important works, and is highly recommended. I would also suggest checking out “Ecce Homo” as it is kind of a “special features” book where Nietzsche talks about his process of writing his various other books, and offers plenty of additional insights into those books. Additionally, the Teaching Company offers a series of lectures entitled The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by two distinguished Nietzsche scholars Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Higgins that provide a great introduction to Nietzsche’s works while avoiding many of the common myths and misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Lastly, I am not proposing a one-to-one correspondence between themes and concepts in Nietzsche’s philosophy and those of Babylon 5. I intend to sketch out some Nietzschean themes in Babylon 5, but there could easily be more or less than what I will be discussing below. The best solution is for you to investigate these proposed similarities for yourself, to see how they resemble Nietzsche’s thought, and the way J. Michael Straczynski has developed those themes in his own creative directions.
Nietzschean Themes in Babylon 5
The central conflict of Babylon 5 is how the younger races (including humanity) get caught up in the polarizing conflict between two ancient alien races, the Vorlons and the Shadows. The Shadows represent an extreme morality of growth through chaos and conflict, which parallels Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian. By contrast, the Vorlons represent an extreme morality of order and obedience, which parallels Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian. Another way of looking at the conflict between the ideologies of the Shadows and the Vorlons is to describe it as the conflict of doing and being. The Shadows ask a question that promotes thought about doing: “What do you want?” To the Vorlons, the question to ask is one promoting thought about being: “Who are you?”
The character of Zarathustra was borrowed by Nietzsche from the historical founder of Zoroastrianism, which need to be differentiated from each other. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a fictional character modeled loosely on the historical Zarathustra. In Babylon 5 the character who best represents Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the ancient alien Lorien. Lorien is the oldest immortal sentient being in the universe. Superficially, both characters, Lorien and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, have spent a long time in caves pondering philosophical themes. What makes the connection solid between Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Lorien is how the characters are related to a common theme. Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo (“Why I am a Destiny” section 3), reveals what he meant by using Zarathustra as a protagonist. The Zarathustra of history understood the world to be a conflict between the supernatural forces of good and the supernatural forces of evil. To Nietzsche it would make sense for Zarathustra to be the one to spot his own error of a supernatural moral order of things. Straczynski has the character of Lorien, who was the first to take on the role of shepherding younger alien races, repudiate what has become of the two ancient races (the Vorlons and the Shadows) who later took up that cause.
The character of John Sheridan is the primary hero of the story in Babylon 5, though he isn’t introduced until the second season. Sheridan replaces the initial hero Jeffrey Sinclair. However, an interesting development in the episode “War Without End Part 2” has the characters of John Sheridan, Jeffrey Sinclair, and Delenn said to be “The One” in a type of trinity. The characters are also related to each other. Jeffrey Sinclair is the ancestor of Delenn, Sinclair having travelled back in time at the conclusion of “War Without End Part 2.” Later on in the series John Sheridan gets married to Delenn.
John Sheridan has the task of resolving the conflict between the ideologies of the Vorlons and the Shadows. Sheridan goes to Z’ha’dum, the homeworld of the Shadows, to confront them. At Z’ha’dum he is told by those working with the Shadows the nature of their ideological conflict with the Vorlons, and asked to join them. He refuses in dramatic fashion, but in a surprising turn of events he is rescued by Lorien. Sheridan is changed by his encounter with Lorien, and he becomes the Nietzschean overman (also known as “superman,” or “übermensch”). In Nietzsche’s philosophy it is his Zarathustra who introduces the concept of the overman.
At this point, there is a problem with variant understandings of just what Nietzsche meant by “overman.” Unfortunately, many people understand the overman as a ruthless figure that will stop at nothing to achieve his or her ends. Straczynski has even given expression to this common misunderstanding of the overman in the episode “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars,” where a future holographic recreation of John Sheridan is reprogrammed to be such a ruthless figure (see also J. Michael Straczynski’s commentary track to the episode on the DVD release). To Nietzsche, the overman can go beyond simplistic notions of morality, “good” and “evil,” and make the difficult choices that need to be made. In this vein, after the Shadow War is over, John Sheridan makes choices outside of the either/or options the Vorlons and Shadows had presented. A prime example is with Sheridan’s choice to sacrifice telepaths that were surgically altered by the Shadows. Since the telepaths in question are not able to be restored to health, and they were programmed to merge with spacecraft machinery, Sheridan uses them to disable a fleet of ships. The sacrifice of the telepaths saves the lives of thousands of people.
Other Nietzschean Themes?
The main story of Babylon 5 revolves around the conflict with, and eventual rejection of, the extreme moralities of the Vorlons and the Shadows. Those two ancient Apollonian and Dionysian alien races are accompanied with angelic and demonic imagery in Babylon 5. Their rejection may also represent Nietzsche’s “death of God” (see The Gay Science Section 125 “The Madman”). The name “Babylon 5” is reminiscent of the influence the ancient Israelite Exile in Babylon had on its religious thought. Though still maintaining its uncompromising monotheism, Judaism would absorb some of the dualistic notions from Zoroastrianism such as angels, demons, and a Devil. Is the name “Babylon 5” an echo of Zoroastrian notions of good versus evil that Nietzsche has his Zarathustra reject?
Time travel is a staple of much of science-fiction. In the first season of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski has the episode “Babylon Squared” tell part of a time-travel story that is concluded in the episodes “War Without End Part One” and “War Without End Part Two” in the third season. Is this story a subtle nod to Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence? Jeffrey Sinclair discovers that he travelled back in time and became the Minbari religious leader Valen. In a sense he lives his life in a type of eternal recurrence, embracing the reality of forever choosing to make the same decisions.
So what is one to make of these parallels? It is possible that any fan may find more meaning and see more influences than the author intended. That may be the case here. Being a fan of both Nietzsche and Babylon 5, I see many more subtle Nietzschean themes than I have discussed here. So it makes sense that I would be open to seeing Nietzschean themes on occasion.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in a style that explored a lot of different issues, even taking some positions he didn’t necessarily agree with. Science fiction lends itself to exploring a wide variety of issues and positions, something that Babylon 5 did very well. Nietzsche was an atheist who had read the Bible, and knew it fairly well, even to the point of being familiar with some of the then current Biblical scholarship. Straczynski too is an atheist who has read the Bible. Nietzsche loved the Greek classics, and Straczynski has been influenced by them as well. In conclusion, I would say that if the parallels between Nietzsche’s thought and Babylon 5 are of my imagining, I would recommend reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche to J. Michael Straczynski, as I think he would certainly enjoy them (I am a former bookstore manager after all).
If you are interested in reading Friedrich Nietzsche, but don’t know where to begin, here are some suggestions. First, it would be best to approach Nietzsche’s works with a good guide. I wholeheartedly recommend Walter Kaufmann’s book (already mentioned) Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Even today Walter Kaufmann’s translations of Nietzsche’s works are pretty standard, and he has added footnotes in many places to help with some of the more obscure references Nietzsche makes (often contemporary cultural references). Additionally, the translations of R.J. Hollingdale are great. Also mentioned above, the Teaching Company series of lectures entitled The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Higgins provide a great introduction to Nietzsche’s works. Nietzsche’s style will put off some readers, but it is worth the effort in many places, and I have found it very rewarding.
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo