Who Are You, and What Do You Want?
One of my favorite all-time SF TV shows is not Star Trek, and hasn’t been for years (Wrath of Khan is a movie). Instead, it is an odd, often nearly-canceled series about a space station that is at a crossroads between empires, Babylon 5.
Yes, it was idealistic – the station was supposed to provide “diplomatic” solutions. Yet Michael J Straczynski was far too clever to write anything anywhere near as utopian as Rodenberry wished for, and got in ST:NG.
Leaving aside the utter awesomeness of the space battles in episodes like Severed Dreams where Earth attempts to retake a seceding station, and many other great moments that rely on the well-played characters, the show was unique in having an ongoing story arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Events in season 2, for example, had an impact in seasons three and four.
One of the main themes in the show though was the two warring elder races. From infogalactic:
The conflict between two unimaginably powerful older races, the Vorlons and the Shadows, is represented as a battle between two competing ideologies, each seeking to turn the humans and the other younger races to their beliefs. The Vorlons represent an authoritarian philosophy: you will do what we tell you to, because we tell you to do it. The Vorlon question, “Who are you?” focuses on identity as a catalyst for shaping personal goals; the intention is not to solicit a “correct” answer, but to “tear down the artifices we construct around ourselves until we’re left facing ourselves, not our roles.” The Shadows represent another authoritarian philosophy cloaked in a disguise of evolution through fire (as shown in the episode in which Sheridan goes to Z’ha’dum and when he refuses to cooperate, Justin tells him: “But we do what we’re told… and so will you!”), of sowing the seeds of conflict in order to engender progress. The question the Shadows ask is “What do you want?” In contrast to the Vorlons, they place personal desire and ambition first, using it to shape identity, encouraging conflict between groups who choose to serve their own glory or profit. The representation of order and chaos was informed by the Babylonian myth that the universe was born in the conflict between both.
Anyone familiar with Jordan Peterson’s work, especially anyone who’s listened to or watched his Maps of Meaning lectures, will find the above damned familiar. They also would not be surprised to discover that, per Strazynski, the theme is played out such that neither question is sufficient.
This makes sense. Both are authoritarian. One is order, and awareness of what one is in and of themselves, the other is chaos, and desire. Incidentally, the traits are actually two different axes.
How order leads to authoritarianism is easy to figure out. How chaos does – well – ever dealt with an addict? Their life is chaos, and inflicts the same on everyone around them. With nothing to channel that chaos, they are slaves to their desires. The shadows offer people the illusion of choice, getting what they want, until, drunk with power, compromised, they cannot give it up, and serve their masters.
I find the other dichotomy more interesting. Knowing oneself is great, but if one desires nothing, has no ambitions, wants nothing, one will never act – and the Vorlons rarely, if ever, acted. Our wants though, I already mentioned addiction. If we follow the whim of the moment without order and logos imposed on it, without discipline, we never build anything.
It also relates to the framing problem. Purpose and goals are necessary to act, to even be able to classify the things in our environment. A yardstick can also be a convenient thing-to-get-stuff-out-I-dropped-behind-the-desk, depending on your needs and wants of the moment.
Knowing who you are helps guide those needs – do they really serve your goals, and are they in tune with who you are?
I’ll have to go back and watch the damn series over again, now that I’ve caught up on Peterson.
Update: You can see some of what I’m talking about just in this compilation of intros. Yes, Bruce “Tron” Boxleitner took over as the captain in season two, while the first season’s captain made later, separate appearances. The also rushed the original 5-year arc to a close at season four out of cancellation fears, resulting in season 5 being somewhat disjointed – I’ve never bothered finishing it.