One thing I’ve noticed about many sci-fi fans (myself included) is that we have a hard time letting go of the past, and we want to constantly relive the glory days of our favorite shows. But no matter how hard we try, you can never quite experience the same excitement, the same sense of awe, as you did when you fell in love with a story for the first time. Like other, more obvious, forms of love, something new can never live up to an imagined ideal viewed through a nostalgic lens.
Examples of this abound: The hard-core fans desperate for a return of their “classic favorite,” whether it be the original Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, or more recent examples like Firefly or Farscape. In each of these cases, the resurrected story may not bear as much resemblance to the original as some fans would like. I tried to keep this in mind as I sat down to watch Voices in the Dark, the first installment of Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. Because I knew that no matter how much I loved Babylon 5 itself, returning to that universe after so much time could easily become as awkward as returning home to live with your parents after being away for many years.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Voices in the Dark. Quite the opposite; I found it to be a worthy continuation of the Babylon 5 franchise (for, despite JMS’s many protestations, that is precisely what it has become). Like the series itself, the two “minisodes” that make up this story are thoughtful, dramatic, though a bit heavy on the philosophy, and most importantly, topical.
I’ve tried to focus on the good and bad parts of Voices in the Dark based on its own merits, but at the same time, because it is explicitly a continuing story set in a well-established universe, it would be nearly impossible to not compare it to its predecessors.
The first chapter of Voices in the Dark is a story that, strangely, both plays to the Babylon 5 universe’s greatest strengths, and simultaneously cheapens those strengths. Throughout the series proper, there were many episodes that asked questions about religion, faith, and spirituality. JMS (who, ironically, is an atheist) took a pluralistic view of the universe when it came to religion. His answer to the question of religion is that there is no single answer.
On Babylon 5, Human beliefs were placed on equal footing with Minbari spirituality, Centauri polytheism, and Narn prophecies. None were ever presented as the true or only answer. Many characters would look to other cultures to fill in their own gaps in knowledge or belief. Even the Catholic monks who lived on the station for a while had settled there for the express purpose of learning more about their own religion by exploring the other, alien “faces and names of God.”
Therefore, it seems a bit of a throwback to resort to one of the most familiar and even clichéd aspects of any Human religion: demonic possession. Not only is it an obvious tool to create a suspenseful and threatening story, but it also seems to disrupt the balance of Human and alien religions by “validating” (so to speak) a key tenet of Christianity: the Devil. By essentially “proving” the existence of the Devil, it seems that Human religion has been given precedence over the others, because it is based more on factual beings and events. It takes some of the mystery and faith away from religion.
The episode’s focus on Human religion, though, is hardly an invalidation of its story. Quite the contrary; I can certainly accept that the choice of context allows the viewer to bring a lot more of their own background knowledge to the story, saving plenty of time that would otherwise be needed for exposition. (See my comments above about living up to expectations.) And the mystery that is explored in this chapter is certainly a powerful one.
Once the initial exposition is out of the way, the key question is simple: assuming that the being in question truly is the Devil, how should he be cast out of the body that he is possessing? When? And the best question: Should he even be cast out at all?
This is where “Over Here” really hits its stride, and also where it really returns to classic B5 themes: making dark decisions, and exploring the consequences of those decisions. How would people react to the news of a real, true-to-life demon straight out of Biblical myth? But even darker, could the demon even possibly be used to promote religion on Earth once again?
All this, of course, assumes that the demon is even telling the truth in the first place, which is a dubious assumption at best. In classic demonic style (from Lucifer himself all the way to the sinister Cylon Leoben), he mixes truths in with his lies, making the decision that much harder. Just how can you spot the nuggets of truth among all the lies?
Even more chilling was the almost Faustian dilemma presented to Father Cassidy. Because as dark as the demon’s semi-truthful story was, the prospect of using him to rekindle religious beliefs in Humanity. Cassidy’s offhand joke about using the demon as a recruitment tool became a terrifyingly real possibility, and all the more so because it’s so obvious that it it’s a twisted temptation.
Naturally, everything works out in the end.
Captain Lochley manages to find the inconsistencies in the demon’s story, and foils his plan to escape his prison in a fairly standard denouement. Here again, old strengths and weaknesses come into play. Lochley was never one of my favorite characters; certainly Tracy Scoggins had a tough time playing catch-up for a new character in a show’s fifth season. But despite the attempts to insert some character development by dredging up her lapsed religious past, it feels as if Lochley’s part could easily have been filled by any random character; Zack Allen, if he was around, or even David Corwin. She just happened to be the biggest-name character available, in the most convenient position (as commander of the station) for the plot.
Ultimately, “Over Here” is a procedural, not character-driven, drama, that uses the rich Babylon 5 universe and its deep philosophical themes to its great advantage. Like many episodes past, it asks excellent, even profound, questions, and like many classic science fiction stories, uses its setting to present the kinds of scenarios that could never be addressed on Earth. Despite its shortcomings, the first chapter of Voices in the Dark is a decent and welcome return to the wonderful universe of majesty and terror that is Babylon 5.
The review of Voices in the Dark will continue in my next posting.