The question of whether or not free will exists isn’t a light topic, but J. Michael Straczynski wasn’t afraid to tackle the big questions in his cult hit science fiction show, Babylon 5. Without making a blanket statement about the existence of free will, Straczynski comes at the topic from different angles, playing with our notions of cause and effect. In the traditional television narrative, the choices characters make create the future. In the world of Babylon 5, everything’s up in the air.
Keeping in line with the science fiction television genre, this is a show that isn’t afraid to challenge the beliefs of its viewers. Babylon 5 does this in many ways, but I believe that this show is at its best when it’s asking questions about the choices we make and whether we have choices at all.
Narrative paradigm theory, or narratology, is a framework used to analyze story by looking directly at the narrative and narrative structure. This is drawn from the idea that human beings experience life as a series of events and, therefore, storytellers communicate by laying out a series of events for their audience. According to narrative theory, narrative structure is a mean of communicating information by tapping into the natural ways in which we experience the world and process information.
“[Narrative] theory argues that each narrative has two parts: a story (historie), the content or chain of events (actions, happenings) plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of setting); and a discourse (discours), that is, the expression, the means by which the content is communicated” (Chatman 19). Aristotle, whose 330 BC book Poetics provides an early framework for narrative theory, thought that the story was the more important part of the narrative (O’Donnell 74). He said that “drama is defined by its shape, composition, manner of construction, and purpose” (O’Donnell 74). It follows from this assertion that Aristotle believed that story elements such as dialogue and character are secondary to the importance of the sequence of events, or plot. Additional elements of narrative structure originally described by Aristotle include the idea that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that characters or events that do not advance the story have no place within a narrative. These are concepts that should be very familiar to writers, and recognizable to everyone in their relationship to narrative.
A second early influence on the development of narrative theory is Vladimir Propp, by way of his 1928 book Morphology of the Folktale (O’Donnell 75). In fact, structural analysis can be said to have began with Propp’s work (Lwin 70). Propp claimed that all stories “contain the function of the lack and/or villainy” (O’Donnell 75). This is the idea that in the hero’s life, either the lack of something or the presence of a villain creates the narrative through disequilibrium. The hero wants to return to equilibrium, so he has to find what he’s lacking or defeat the villain. The hero’s desire for equilibrium is what moves the story forward. It is also important to note that Propp pioneered the theory that “a tale can be described according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to each other and to the whole” (Lwin 70).
In addition to examining how narrative is created through structure, narrative theory draws on the work of Carl Jung, detailing the importance of myth and archetype in story. These two concepts are somewhat intertwined, both stemming from the idea of the “collective unconscious,” an idea developed by Jung, who believed that certain mythical images were common to all people, as well as certain desires, urges, and fears (O’Donnell 84). When these mythic stories and archetypal characters appear in stories, they are immediately recognizable because they draw on the shared common experience of the human race. Identifying myth and archetype is an important element of narrative theory because it ties in directly to how we relate to narrative and draw connections between stories and our own lives.
Narrative theory has come under some criticism for “disregarding the content in search for the form” (Lwen 70). Additionally, it has been described as being too universalist. One critic of narrative theory has argued that “it tends to assume that the principles for one kind of narrative—typically Western—become the measure of all other kinds of narrative, particularly those that are non-Western” (Friedman 4). These are important concerns, and as narrative theory evolves from Aristotle’s original framework for narrative, modern notions of story and structure continue to be incorporated, creating a more accurate view of why narrative is important.
Narrative structure and the breakdown of the classic narrative arc play an essential role in what we take away from the story of Babylon 5. Building on the flexible platform of the science fiction genre, Straczynski has created a world where characters occasionally know more than they should. They see the future, whether through dreams or through the eyes of a seer. Time travel allows them to step into events from their own futures. Races with extraordinary powers can strip away elements of their personalities to modify their actions, or in some cases, control them outright. They are often pawns of greater powers, or pawns of “fate.” Through these kinds of unique narrative elements, Straczynski has eliminated the concept of a future that is constantly in flux — where our actions create the chain of events. His characters may be able to choose what they want for breakfast, but the major events of their lives are set. In this way, narrative structure has the power to take away free will and to create a deterministic world.
Before we talk about whether the characters of Babylon 5 have free will, I’d like to briefly tackle the question of free will as discussed by Augustine and Jason T. Eberl. This is not so much to address the question of whether free will exists as to point to two opinions on the topic as they relate to my paper.
In his “On Choice of Free Will,” Augustine argues that God’s knowledge of events to come does not strip us of our free will because God exists outside of time. God sees everything at once, even though the future is undetermined:
“God knows future events still undetermined…Now God knows such events not only in their causes but also as actual happenings. Though they happen one after another, God’s knowledge of them happening is not itself successive (like ours), but instantaneously whole. His knowledge, like his existence, is measured by eternity, which in one and the same instant encompasses all time; so his gaze is eternally focused on everything in time as on something present and known to him with certainty, even though it is future and undetermined in relation to its cause. “(Augustine 8 )
This idea can be applied to the seers in Babylon 5, who tell characters the outcome of events. They see everything at once, even though it’s still in flux and “undetermined in relation to its cause.” They don’t see the outcome of events, they see everything. In “‘You Cannot Escape Your Destiny’ (Or Can You?): Freedom and Predestination in the Skywalker Family,” Jason T. Eberl comes at the same problem in a different science fiction show:
“At least one individual in the Star Wars galaxy seems to have had a pretty clear idea of what lay ahead in the future: whoever wrote the Jedi prophecy that Anakin fulfilled when he, as Vader, killed Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. This visionary, at least in this case, had a “God’s-eye view” of the future and it’s this perspective that raises questions regarding Anakin’s freedom as well as our own.” (Eberl 5)
Eberl finds the “God’s-eye view” more problematic than Augustine, suggesting that the existence of someone who can see the future places our free will on unsteadier ground. When looking at these two statements regarding free will, the complexity of the subject becomes apparent. Rather than coming down on one side of the fence or the other, Straczynski has chosen to explore every possibility, creating a rich, dynamic world.
In the world of Babylon 5, characters are given warnings by people who have the ability see the outcomes of events before they have been set in motion, and yet these characters are still unable to make decisions to change the future. This casts the universe in a fatalistic light. The knowledge of things to come should give characters a chance to make better choices, but in Babylon 5, prophecies always come true.
Londo Mollari is the poster child for being a “victim of fate.” He starts his journey as a fun-loving, comic character with a good heart and good intentions, but dark prophesies and visions quickly outline a future that is setting him at the center of great tragedy and destruction. In this exchange between Londo and Elric, a “Technomage” whose race can see the future, Londo gets the first of many warnings that his life is about to take a dark turn:
“Well take this for what little it will profit you. As I look at you, Ambassador Mollari, I see a great hand reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds. The sounds of billions of people calling your name.”
“Your victims.” (Straczynski “The Geometry of Shadows”)
Londo is in the unique position of having almost endless warnings from gifted visionaries, but he always seems to be heading in the wrong direction — he’s a means to an end who watches helplessly as he destroys the universe without ever meaning to. Is he just that weak, or does he really not have a choice? The amount of predestined events in Mollari’s life suggests that he is a pawn in a greater plan, which he has no say in.
Let’s come back to Jason T. Eberl’s article on free will in the Star Wars universe for a moment: Eberl uses the concept of future-contingent propositions to assert that characters do in fact have free will in the Star Wars universe. He argues that “such propositions become true or false only when the event to which they refer occurs or fails to occur” (11). For example, if the prophesy that “Obi-Wan will die at Vader’s hands” is true, Obi Wan’s choice to allow Vader to kill him makes it true. The prophesy doesn’t cause the event.
Eberl is right that this may be how prophecy functions in the world we live in—that the assertion becomes true when events come to pass, or becomes false when they don’t—but he seems on more dubious ground when applying this idea to a story in the more mercurial world of science fiction. Perhaps in our own lives we can comfortably say that free will exists, but when examining stories about a group of people who change the course of the galaxy forever, prophecy becomes much more than a parlor trick. The evidence shows that some events in the saga of the Skywalker family were always going to happen, regardless of what the characters involved wanted or worked for. Some events are bigger than people in stories like this and I think that’s what makes this question so powerful.
Another free will challenging facet to the world of Babylon 5 is that characters are given glimpses of their tragic futures, through dreams and time travel, but again foreknowledge does not help them change the course of events. This is a bit similar to the argument I’m making above, but instead of “signs and portents”, what we’re looking at is trick plot devices like time travel and entire species who know how they will die. When characters see events in their own futures, which have unfavorable outcomes, this knowledge should give them the preparation and motivation to work towards more favorable outcomes, but foreknowledge doesn’t change the course of events. Once again, these characters cannot escape fate.
Several characters are given glimpses into their own futures in Babylon 5 through a variety of plot devices. For example, Londo Mollari’s people, the Centauri, can foresee their own deaths in dreams (Straczynski “Soul Hunter”). They all have these dreams and they always come true. Londo has always known that he will die with his hands wrapped around G’Kar’s throat and vice versa (Straczynski “Midnight on the Firing Line”). Even though these mortal enemies become incredibly close throughout the course of the show, there is no escaping this vision of the future — as we see, this is how they die. The way they get to where they’re going is variable, but the end is fixed. To give another example, John Sheridan is told that if he goes to Za’ha’dum, he will die, and even though he manages to cheat death by coming back to life, this doesn’t change the fact that he died at Za’ha’dum (Straczynski “Za’ha’dum”). Certain events are inescapable.
In a more straightforward depiction of the loss of free will, characters are frequently controlled like puppets by outside forces. This is a plot device that comes up again and again in Babylon 5. In addition to the many ways in which Babylon 5 characters are incapable of escaping fate, there are more concrete ways in which characters have their free will taken away — characters who often force others into taking actions against their will. I believe this is a more concrete metaphor for the lack of control these characters have over their own lives.
Notably, Londo Mollari has his free will taken away in a very tangible way by the end of the series. One could argue that his entire mythic arc is a gradual loss of free will, culminating in a foreshadowed event where he is physically taken over by a “Drakh” alien, which literally controls his every action (Straczynski “Za’ha’dum”). It seems to me that this is a metaphor for Londo Mollari’s entire life. This is Londo Mollari as a pawn and he sums it up best in this conversation with his one-time sworn enemy G’Kar:
“Isn’t it strange, G’Kar? When we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all. No choice at all.” (Straczynski “The Fall of Centauri Prime”)
In addition to Mollari’s mythic arc, there are several examples of characters in Babylon 5 losing control of their own actions. This is evident in two major story arcs concerning addiction – Doctor Franklin is addicted to stimulants (Straczynski “Walkabout”) and Michael Garibaldi is an alcoholic (Straczynski “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?”) – and many of the story arcs concerning telepaths, the strongest of which can physically control the actions of others. Two examples of telepaths controlling others are:
Lyta Alexander, the strongest telepath in the universe, forces another character to shoot himself (Straczynski “The Face of the Enemy”).
Alfred Bester alters Michael Garibaldi’s personality at a basic level, compelling him to betray John Sheridan and send him to certain death (Straczynski “The Face of the Enemy”).
These are just a few examples of how characters forcibly lose their free will at the hands of others in Babylon 5.
Babylon 5 is just one of the many socially conscious and progressive television shows that falls into the category of science fiction, but it is also unique in its audacity and the scope of its content. This is a show that attempts to do more than other shows of its time set out to do, and often succeeds. There are three main reasons why Babylon 5 is extraordinary, and in conclusion, I would suggest that these reasons are as follows:
Experimental Narrative Structure: Babylon 5 is easily the most thoughtfully plotted serialized television show to date. The intricate web of the story is simply masterful and it’s an achievement in television that hasn’t been matched by any show since. The unpredictable nature of the television industry makes this kind of storytelling a risk and Babylon 5’s unexpected cancellation and rescue by FX between seasons 4 and 5 produced major hiccups which demonstrate why hyper serialization can be problematic, but the sweeping five year story arcs are proof enough why it’s worth the risk.
J Michael Straczynski, Auteur: Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5 himself—giving him an unprecedented level of control over the content. This creates a show with a clear vision, which is seen through to the end. Recurring themes – such as free will and predestination – are apparent and expressed vividly through the eyes of one writer. It’s an interesting anomaly in the collaborative medium of television.
Themes: It’s important to look at Babylon 5 as a complex story, tackling universal themes of love and loss, light vs. dark, and free will vs. predestination. Like many science fiction shows, Babylon 5 is so much more than a space adventure. It tackles deep philosophical questions with intelligence and sensitivity. My paper looks at just one of the carefully considered themes in Babylon 5, a show which I think deserves recognition for its gutsy execution and thematic depth.
Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, translated by Anna S. Benjamin & L.H. Hackstaff. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Book III pg. 4. Qtd. in Eberl pg. 8.
Chatman, Seymour Benjamin. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978.
Eberl, Jason T. “‘You Cannot Escape Your Destiny’ (Or Can You?): Freedom and Predestination in the Skywalker Family.” Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine. Eds. Kevin S. Decker & Jason T. Eberl. Chicago: Carus Publishing Company, 2005. 3-15.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Towards a Transnational Turn in Narrative Theory: Literary Narratives, Traveling Tropes, and the Case of Virginia Woolf and the Tagores.” Narrative; Jan2011, Vol. 19 Issue 1, p1-32.
Lwin, Soe Marlar. “REVISITING A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF FOLKTALES: A MEANS TO AN END?” Buckingham Journal of Language & Linguistics; Sep2009, Vol. 2 Issue 1, p69-80.
O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007.
“The Face of the Enemy” Babylon 5, Season Four. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Mike Vejar. PTEN. 9 June 1997. DVD.
“The Fall of Centauri Prime” Babylon 5, Season Five. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Douglas E. Wise. TNT. 28 October 1998. DVD.
“The Geometry of Shadows” Babylon 5, Season Two. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Mike Vejar. PTEN. 16 November 1994. DVD.
“Midnight on the Firing Line” Babylon 5, Season One. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Richard Compton. PTEN. 26 January 1994. DVD.
“Soul Hunter” Babylon 5, Season One. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Jim Johnston. PTEN. 2 February 1994. DVD.
“Walkabout” Babylon 5, Season Three. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Kevin G. Cremin. PTEN. 30 September 1996. DVD.
“Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi” Babylon 5, Season Four. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Kevin James Dobson. PTEN. 11 November 1996. DVD.
“Za’ha’dum” Babylon 5, Season Three. Writ. J Michael Straczynski. Dir. Adam Nimoy. PTEN. 28 October 1996. DVD.