"As a culture, we have come adrift and are searching for guideposts to the next five years, the next 10 years, the next millennium," J. Michael Straczynski says. He is the creator, writer, and executive producer of the award-winning syndicated science-fiction show "Babylon 5," now in its fourth season.
Much of today's literature, he believes, fails to explore large mythic themes that create these guideposts. "The mainstream literary establishment has walked away from the mythmakers', the storytellers' obligation to point to the horizon and tell us where we are going," he says. And he believes that "science fiction is the only genre dealing with the issues of the future and our place in it."
Deciding to walk the talk, Mr. Straczynski created a television show probing these mythic themes.
Babylon 5 is a large cylinder-shaped space station five miles long. Its rotation provides gravity through centrifugal force similar to the mysterious ship found in Arthur C. Clarke's novel "Rendezvous With Rama." Like Rama, Babylon 5 contains buildings and meadows inside its rotating hull.
A city of 250,000, Babylon 5 hosts many different kinds of alien species who live and interact among one another. Like a United Nations in space, it offers a place of neutrality, where aliens and humans communicate their desires and needs in a galaxy of expanding commerce, discovery, and war.
His show attracts millions of viewers, Straczynski says in an interview, because it explores the big questions such as "who are we, where are we going, why are we here, and what should we as a people be doing to create the future?"
With these questions, he "examines the role of spirituality in a technological culture; the nature and extent of revenge; what is the nature of the soul and how is it formed; the fundamental importance of choice, consequence, and responsibility for those choices in a society that tells you that you have no choices, that consequences don't matter, and that we don't have to act responsibly."
Using these themes, he placed his characters in situations that eventually led to the Great War of the Third Age of Mankind. By the middle of the fourth season, the war ended, and the characters are now dealing with its aftermath.
"The depth of research embedded in the story is fascinating," remarks Farah Mendlesohn, a lecturer in American history at the University College of Ripon and York St. John in England. She writes about early American science-fiction magazines and is the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction.
"Season 2 in particular seemed to be following very closely the breakdown of the League of Nations in the inter-war years," she explains, "and while Straczynski says that the Yugoslav crisis helped shape his ideas, he clearly also knows political history of the 1930s."
When it comes to television writing, Straczynski is in a class by himself. He is the only person in the history of the medium to write all the scripts for two seasons of a one-hour dramatic television show (not to mention 75 percent of the first two seasons).
His vision has been recognized with several awards. "B5" won the top science-fiction award last year, the Hugo (beating out "Star Trek," "Apollo 13," and "Twelve Monkeys"). More recently, it earned the E Pluribis Unum award for the best dramatic television series that addresses "fundamental social values in a positive manner," as well as the Space Frontier Foundation Award for Best Vision of the Future.
Straczynski's "B5" has become the science-fiction show to watch - from the rocket labs of NASA to a coming scholarly conference in Britain. Straczynski feels a little miffed, though. He believes too many critics spurn TV as a nonliterary medium - a notion he at once agrees with, yet wants to challenge.
"I think that TV storytelling is generally devalued or undervalued by the critical press and by literary critics," he explains, adding, "And for the most part, maybe they've been accurate."
"In the television genre," he says, writers "generally only think in terms of this week and next week." Traditionally, television series depict a cast of characters thrown into the midst of a one-hour story, and, in the following week, they're placed in a new story.
In contrast, "B5" is more comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien's multivolume epic, "The Lord of the Rings," wherein each season is one volume of a large saga. Essentially, Straczynski ended up writing a novel for television - a telenovel. This kind of literary television allows him to develop evolving characters and "set up plot threads that may take years to pay off," he says.
Ultimately, Straczynski believes that when viewers understand how television shows are made, then "viewers can demand better TV."
* TNT will begin rebroadcasting the series next January. A TV movie will open it, with another capping off the run. Both movies are written by Straczynski.