Today is K’s birthday. Happy Birthday, K! Yesterday, K’s father and brother came by to pay tribute, and she raked in the goods. One of those goods was Season 2 of Babylon 5, which I ended up watching six episodes of while convalescing on the couch. Garden tomatoes and yummy sweet-basil pesto pasta with grapefruit juice to wash it down. Die cold germs, die!

If you haven’t ever watched the show, in a nutshell Babylon 5 (or B5 for short) is a science fiction show based around a space station, built in “neutral space” as a diplomatic meeting point for the star-faring “races” of the galaxy. The five major military powers, of which the human race is a member, and the numerous minor military powers, known as the “league of non-aligned worlds” (or pawns of the other imperialistic powers in diplomatic-speak) scheme and plot with or against one another in a series of intrigues and, occasionally, settle their differences with violent means. The show has an ensemble cast, made up of the usual assortment of military and governmental main characters, with a host of supporting characters drawn from the civilian side for variety. The main plot revolves around the reappearance of an old military power (called “the shadows”, also known as the generic “bad invaders”) and its attempts to dominate and subjugate everybody else.

Watching the show, I can’t help but analyze its particulars in light of where I’m at these days. K got Season 1 for Christmas, so we watched that right in the midst of the beginning of the year in a different mindset then we are in now. Crumbs, this year’s been pretty intense stuff, what with the move and both our work transformations. I’ll have to go back and watch the season again and see what my brain currents think of it now.

What struck me about Season 2, and the show in general, is what a mixed bag it is for me now. A lot of things still hold up for me, and a lot of the episodes are wonderful escapism. I never get tired of the attempt at a moral center, as ham-fisted as it sometimes. The dialogue moves me despite being obvious exposition-train (choo-choo!) in places. The special effects are at times poor, but I don’t care. They do what they’re supposed to do. There’s a lot the show gets right, and so I don’t mind the flaws so much. It delivers.

But two things bugged me, and I’m musing over how those things fit in with the rest of the show.

The first thing is the diversity meter. At times, the show gives me a variety of points of view and a good mix of characters from different backgrounds. But there are moments where I find myself looking at a disguised version of the all-white power bloc known as “the homo sapiens club”. You have all sorts of exotic and interesting aliens in outer space, but the majority of the action centers around the “human” team and their challenges. That’s when the diversity meter starts making a warbling noise and I go, “Now what’s all this then?”

That “human” team in B5 is the station general crew, and it’s a reasonably diverse bunch of characters. There’s the chief medical officer, Dr. Stephen Franklin, a black “foundationist” (a particular belief system in the B5 world) with a strong will. You have the chief of security, Michael Garibaldi, an ex-catholic and recovering alcoholic from an Italian background. There’s second-in-command Susan Ivanova, a strong female character from a Jewish and Russian background. And the commander of the station, John Sheridan, your generic hero white guy. It’s a reasonable mix of people with different points of view, both with strengths and weaknesses. Totally good to go.

The “human” team doesn’t exclude the aliens by any means, and as the series progresses the cooperation between humans and aliens increases (in response to the outside, overwhelming threat posed by “the shadows”). The aliens have their own impressive story lines and are necessary to the success of the “team”. But I can’t help but feel there’s something to the decision to make the “human” team the core of the series’ point-of-view. At the end, it’s clear that the aliens are all on the decline and it’s the humans who are going to be the dominant decision-makers in the future, now that the “bad” Earth government has been disposed of. The Minbari are going to throw their chips in with the humans, the Narn and Centauri are spent, the uppity Drazi have been foiled, and the Vorlons and “shadows” are out of the picture. That leaves the humans as the dominant military power, I’m sorry, “rangers”, watching over everyone with a blue gemstone brooch instead of a Nightwatch armband.

The second thing is a trait that’s starting to get on my nerves in science fiction shows, what I call the “authority privilege”. That’s where the majority of the important decision-making and story development is reserved for military and governmental characters. Civilians get a supporting role or a guest-star appearance as a plot enabler if they even show up at all. It’s okay, though, because these authorities are “the good people”, or they are “the effective people”. But I have to say, I found the secondary or supporting characters more interesting precisely because they were lower on the totem pole. They were more limited, and thus more “humanized”.

B5 is cool in that there are at least some characters that represent working class, ordinary people with no positions of authority. There’s even an episode devoted exclusively to a pair of maintenance guys and their everyday schedule keeping the station running. The show doesn’t shy away from real issues – the dockworker strike, the Mars independence rebellion, and the ongoing portrayal of the destitute downbelow of the station tackle a lot of things worth thinking about. I may be unfair to single out B5 in this post as a culprit, especially since other shows like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica are much worse offenders, but it’s where I decided to meditate on the issue as it relates to my enjoyment of shows in general.

I realize it’s hard to have people like plumbers or checkout counter clerks have any kind of influence on a story involving interplanetary wars and imperial intrigue. There’s no way any “average person” is going to be able to command the resources of say, Head of Security, or Narn Ambassador. The fighter pilot Warren Keffer or security guard Zack Allan are probably as low on the scale as you could get and still have a viable connection to the main storyline. The fact that B5 did it at all is a good thing, but I’d like to see more. It can be done, and it should be done more. A true ensemble would have a majority of average people and a minority of power brokers, I think.

What I’d like shows in general, and SF shows in particular, to do is move away from a “the only people who get to matter are the elites and their butlers” syndrome. Yeah, I can easily envision class hierarchy existing way into the future. Even Star Trek was a pyramid system, for all the professions that they had “eliminated aggression, crime and want” (probably by subjugating everyone to “da uniform with a comlink” model of good citizenship). Just like I’m tired of seeing “whitey” get to be the guys who get the best rayguns and make all the cool decisions most of the time, I’m tired of seeing “the master” get to assign seats and make people walk the plank without any visible input or relationship to the people they supposedly are assuming the horrible burden of “real showers and ungrateful complaints” for.