In engendering the universe of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski’s particular genius was to postulate a future in which human nature is the same, only more so. No benign, sexless, antiseptic cosmos for Straczynski. Port of call Babylon 5 is a smoky, dirty microcosm where one’s worst impulses were wont to run amuck. If the squeaky-clean Starship Enterprise gave you the heebie-jeebies, you’d feel right at home aboard Babylon 5, and nowhere are its themes more clear than the episode ‘The War Prayer’ (S1, Ep7).
The contemporaneity—indeed prescience—of Babylon 5 the series extended to everything from having the foresight to shoot in a 16:9 aspect ratio to predicting the renascence of totalitarianism on Earth. Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines are just a few of the nations that have re-embraced the yoke of authoritarianism, and even the United States is not immune, as recent events both unsubtle (the attempted fascist putsch of January 6, 2021) and insidious (voter suppression laws, election “police”) have proven.
Babylon 5 and the Evolving Face of Xenophobia
Babylon 5 was informed by a deep historical worldview and one of the saddest constants of history has been the demonization of immigrants, an Other who have always made convenient political whipping boys. American icon Benjamin Franklin, no less, fretted in 1750 over the intrusion of “swarthy” foreigners into the Colonies. Going Franklin one better, the United States Congress passed, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to target an ethnic group by name. Yankee idols like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were prominent anti-semites … and the beat goes on.
“One of the most important things about xenophobia is that it’s a shapeshifting, wily thing, just like racism,” University of Minnesota Regents Professor Erika Lee explained not long ago. “You think it’s gone away, and it comes back. It evolves so that even though one immigrant group finally gains acceptance, it can easily be applied to another.” (Speaking of shapeshifters, ‘The War Prayer’ has four.)
Lest you think xenophobia is a right-wing phenomenon, Lee adds, “There are lots of examples of liberal and progressive xenophobia and racism,” going on to cite the 1965 Immigration Act, which discriminated against non-Western countries. In sentiment that could apply to Babylon 5’s ‘The War Prayer’ (S1, Ep7), she told an interviewer, “Immigration is treated as a zero-sum game; new immigration is a threat to us already here.”
Nativism has also thrived on depicting immigrants as pox carriers, which was replayed recently with then-President Donald Trump deriding Covid-19 as “Kung-Flu,” a term taken up by white nationalists, prompting an upsurge in hate crimes against Asian Americans. “There should be a picture of a downcast young man in prison hospital garb, and, preferably, hand-cuffed,” wrote one conservative polemicist (we’ll refrain from linking to them). Fulminated another, “Uncontrolled mass immigration can really bring serious consequences and it sucks it’s taken a pandemic for [Americans] to realize that.”
We could cite still-uglier remarks but will spare you. Even closer to the paranoid concerns of Earth-Firsters in Babylon 5 is the White Replacement Theory. In this delusion, Caucasians are being systemically supplanted with dark-skinned Others, a rhetorical formulation espoused freely on mainstream outlets like Fox News, and the inspiration for mass killings in Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Texas, Buffalo, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the last one targeting history’s favorite scapegoat, Jews.
Don’t think this is an America-only contagion. Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban rose to power by demonizing immigrants, especially Roma, and Muslims. It’s also been the bread and butter of French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, and of his daughter and successor, Marine Le Pen. When Neo-Nazis rallied in Chemnitz, Germany, they beat up on any immigrant they could find, prompting a sympathetic politician to airily declare, “it’s normal for people to snap.”
One could fill at least one fat book with examples of officially condoned xenophobia throughout the ‘civilized world’ without even invoking the Other-baiting and -persecuting specters of Hitler and Mussolini. Need we go on? Perhaps not but Straczynski would surely say we have to try harder if our future selves are going to be better. Not incidentally, in one ‘War Prayer’ scene, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) seeks the help of Vorlon ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), whom he finds watching films of wars from Earth's history. Sinclair asks Kosh what he’s doing. “I am studying” is the cryptic response.
The Intriguing Plot Twists of Babylon 5’s ‘The War Prayer’
As with so many TV series, Babylon 5’s first year would be its rockiest, with writing, acting, and even makeup concepts still finding their footing. One particular stumbling block would be the arboreal O’Hare. Perhaps budgetary constraints dictated his hiring as Sinclair. What matters to us is that he’s weak and looks like desperation casting, a burden that will hobble the pilot (‘The Gathering’), ‘The War Prayer’ (S1, Ep7), and 21 other episodes.
‘The War Prayer’, scripted by Star Trek veteran D.C. Fontana (The Original Series episode ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday’ and The Next Generation episode ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, among many others), opens with the clang of a plot anvil. Delenn (Mira Furlan, herself a refugee from real-life oppression) is saying good night to the Minbari poetess Shaal Mayan (Nancy Lee Grahn). As soon as Delenn offers to escort Mayan to her quarters, and the latter refuses, we know that Something Bad is about to happen. Sure enough, Mayan finds herself stalked in a darkened corridor by a black-gloved, knife-wielding assailant, director Richard Compton’s nod to Italian giallo thrillers and their slashing serial killers.
Although she survives the attack, Mayan is stabbed in the viscera and branded on the forehead, as the assailant yells, “Stay away from Earth, freak!” When the kindly Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs) offers to remove this intended mark of shame, Mayan will gently refuse him, explaining, “It is a lesson—one that should not be forgotten.” As Straczynski says, “it becomes a badge of defiance.”
The brand is a conjoined male and female symbol, which could be interpreted as an assertion of human supremacy. Given that Delenn was originally conceptualized as a male character who transformed into a woman (both parts to be played by Furlan), there could also be a sexist connotation to the stigma as well.
Ironically, Mayan’s stabbing is followed by the Babylon 5 main title, with Sinclair intoning that the station was “the last, best hope for peace,” echoing Thomas Jefferson, who called America “the world’s best hope.” Except that Straczynski’s worldview is not an Ameri-centric one, as evinced by the richness of his cosmology, and as we shall see in ‘The War Prayer’, whose title is a callback to a 1904-5 anti-jingoism story by Mark Twain.
Security chief Michael Garibaldi reports to Sinclair that this is the sixth such attack in the station and it’s clearly the work of the Homeguard (“That brand is their calling card”). Its upsurge had been hinted at in the Babylon 5 episode ‘Infection’ (S1, Ep4), in which Franklin had remarked upon the rise of anti-alien hate groups on Earth—nothing comes out of the left field on Babylon 5.
Fontana adeptly weaves three seemingly unrelated plot threads together in ‘The War Prayer’, the second being the star-crossed love of fugitive Centauri youngsters Kiron Maray (Rodney Eastman) and Aria Tensus (Danica McKellar). The third is the return of Malcolm Biggs (Tristan Rogers), the former boyfriend of Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), “looking for something I’ve never forgotten” even after eight years. Ivanova politely gives Biggs the brush-off, while Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) is none too pleased with Vir Cotto (Stephen Furst) for having interceded on Kiron and Aria’s behalf. “You’re always saying the Centauri are an advanced race; you figure it out,” quips Sinclair to Mollari.
Kiron and Aria are both fleeing from arranged marriages on Centauri Prime, which angers and baffles Londo, who doesn’t understand why the two youngsters want to marry for love in defiance of 1,000 years of custom. As he later explains to Vir…
Love? Pah! Overrated. Here, look. These are my three wives: Pestilence, Famine, and Death. Do you think I married them for their personalities? Their personalities could shatter entire planets! They were arranged marriages, every one. But they worked out. Knowing that they were at home waiting for me is what keeps me here, 75 light years away.
Garibaldi, in the meantime, has detained Homeguard-supporting, racism-spouting Roberts (Michael Paul Chan). Roberts has been caught with a large knife, which he says he needs to defend himself from “some of the things that walk about this place.” Unfortunately for Garibaldi, the blood on the knife is not a DNA match for Meyan. Roberts will, however, get his comeuppance, when he is beaten senseless in a hallway by a pair of Drazi.
In the observation dome, Sinclair mulls over that cryptic, futile meeting with Kosh. The scene also serves as a massive retcon to cover the disappearances of pilot-movie characters Dr. Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) and telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman). The latter would return mid-series but Straczynski chooses this moment for some backpedaling:
Susan Ivanova: The Vorlons are very secretive. They don’t want anyone to know what they look like, what they breathe or how their biology works. Who knows how much of that suit is really necessary and how much is camouflage to keep us from seeing what’s really inside?
Jeffrey Sinclair: The only person who does know is Dr. Ben Kyle, who saved Kosh’s life. Since he’s bound by a doctor’s oath of confidentiality he never told me what he saw when he opened that encounter suit. Strangely enough, right after that, he was transferred to Earth to work directly with the President. And our first telepath, Lyta Alexander, the only member of the Psi Corps to scan a Vorlon, was transferred back a week later.
Susan Ivanova: Do you think there’s a connection?
Jeffrey Sinclair: I don’t know. Maybe.
And maybe not.
Over dinner with Biggs, Ivanova softens a bit toward Biggs, who discloses that he’s set up an office on Babylon 5 and “All I need is a few more clients.” He adds that he hoping Susan can help him with that, words that will take on a darker meaning later. Waiting for Vir, who has been charged by Londo with telling them to leave and submit to fate, Aria and Kiron are ambushed. Three black-clad, ninja-like assailants materialize seemingly from nowhere. Kiron is shot and Aria is stunned with a shock stick.
Racial Hostility and Political Tensions in Babylon 5’s ‘The War Prayer’
That same night, Sinclair and Garibaldi are summoned to the Zocalo, where G’Kar is channeling his inner Malcolm X, seizing on the latest two assaults to incite a multi-species mob:
G’Kar: We can no longer stand idly by while our brothers are slaughtered by these cowardly humans. We must fight back with any means at our disposal!
Jeffrey Sinclair: What seems to be the problem, Ambassador G’Kar?
G’Kar: Problem indeed! Eight non-humans brutally attacked in the space of two weeks! You have yet to make a single arrest.
Jeffrey Sinclair: We have a good lead in the latest incident.
G’Kar: Spare me your platitudes, Commander. You know very well why these crimes remain unsolved. It is because the perpetrators are human.
Garibaldi defuses the situation with his native wit, but the ensuing beatdown of Roberts indicates that the racial hostility is spiraling out of hand. An Ivanova/Biggs clinch is interrupted by news of the incident, while Londo and Vir try to console Arya, to no avail. Mayan intercedes on her behalf:
Londo Mollari: What can a Minbari know about Centauri feeling?
Shaal Mayan: Ambassador, I have traveled far and seen much, and what I have seen tells me that all sentient being are defined by their capacity and their need for love.
Londo Mollari: And she will learn to live without it.
Shaal Meyan: As you did?
Londo’s harsh attitude is more understandable when one recalls that, in the Babylon 5 episode ‘Born to the Purple’ (S1, Ep3), he was betrayed by a woman he allowed himself to love. It’s been a busy evening for Garibaldi, Sinclair, and Biggs. Thanks to a surveillance camera in Medlab (so much for doctor/patient confidentiality!), Garibaldi has discovered Biggs commiserating with Roberts over the “disgrace” visited upon him by the Drazi. Sounding an all-too-familiar note, Biggs peddles his insidious brand of violence to Roberts:
There are some of us who don’t like what’s happening here—alien ambassadors setting policy for humans. Alien workers taking jobs from human beings. Inhuman criminals preying on decent people like yourself. We want to put a stop to this and you can help us.
Sinclair seizes upon this an opportunity for himself and Ivanova (who throws away a rose Biggs had given her) to insinuate themselves with the Homeguard. Before we see Sinclair’s plan in action, Vir (Latin for “man”) has a word with Londo, beautifully scripted by Straczynski:
Vir Cotto: Kiron may die because our glorious tradition values wealth and power over love.
Londo Mollari: My shoes are too tight.
Vir Cotto: Sorry?
Londo Mollari: Something my father said. He was old, very old at the time. I went into his room and he was sitting alone in the dark, crying. So I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘My shoes are too tight but it doesn’t matter because I have forgotten how to dance.’ I never understood what that meant until now: My shoes are too tight and I have forgotten how to dance.
Vir Cotto: I don’t understand.
Londo Mollari: Nor should you.
At a diplomatic reception, Delenn introduces Sinclair to a visiting Minbari scientist, Mila Shar (Diane Adair). For the eavesdropping Biggs’ benefit, Sinclair makes some chauvinistic remarks and brushes off her concerns about safety. Delenn is appalled but Biggs is satisfied. “The only good alien is a dead alien,” Sinclair says to him, channeling General Philip Sheridan, who reportedly told a Native American leader, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Back in his quarters, reflecting on the Battle of the Line with unfeigned bitterness, Sinclair dangles the bait:
Jeffrey Sinclair: We won because the damn Minbari let us win. You know what that victory tasted like? Ashes.
Malcolm Biggs: You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that. There’s a movement back on Earth. It’s growing, gaining in support from people just like you.
Jeffrey Sinclair: So I’ve heard.
Malcolm Biggs: We want to put Earth back in the center of the universe—our universe. Get rid of alien influences. Get rid of aliens. Put Earth first. We must get back to our roots. Let humans be humans.
Biggs, himself dressed all in black now (a sartorial metaphor for revealing his true self), asks for “a small gesture” to put the non-human contingent on Babylon 5 “in their place.” It takes the form of Sinclair and Garibaldi dissembling before the diplomatic corps that the perpetrators of the recent crime spree have “fled to Earth” and the investigation is closed. The news does not go over well. (“This is bullshit!” cries one overenthusiastic background actor in an outtake.) But Biggs evidently liked what he heard over the grapevine, for he quickly summons Sinclair and Ivanova—unarmed—to a clandestine rendezvous with the Homeguard.
Before this can happen, Londo reveals to Kyron and Arya a byzantine scheme, based on an old custom, whereby they can have their cake (get married) and eat it too (return to Centauri Prime). “Children should be allowed to dance,” he says by way of explanation.
Government Collusion in Babylon 5’s ‘The War Prayer’
In Cargo Bay Five, Biggs summons four Homeguard confederates in their visibility-cloaking “black-light camouflage,” government issue. “We have friends everywhere,” one of the thugs says. Believing himself safe, Biggs reveals a “mass assassination” plot, to begin with the killings of Delenn, Mollari, G’Kar, and Kosh as the springboard to comparable murders on Earth. (He spits out the name of Kosh as though it were distasteful food.) Sinclair offers to let Biggs’ gang into the ambassadorial wing but the Homeguard wants a “loyalty test” from him. They drag forth Mila Shar and order Sinclair to “kill it. C’mon, Jeff.” Luckily, before Sinclair has to pull the trigger, Garibaldi arrives on the scene in force.
Once the Homeguard members have been caught, it is revealed that their optically misleading uniforms were actually developed by Earth Force and somehow made their way into the hands of Earth supremacists. Was Earth Force complicit or maybe even using Homeguard as a deniable means of testing the equipment? We’ve certainly heard much of late about white supremacists infiltrating the U.S. military or vice versa. The ranks of the January 6 terrorists were swelled with off-duty police officers. Does that make you feel safe?
Also, Earth Alliance President Luis Santiago had successfully run for reelection on a platform of “preserving Earth cultures in the face of growing non-Terran influences.” Maybe Santiago, like so many earlier political leaders, took a toxic leaf from the pages of history. He wouldn’t be the first. Mayan and two of the ambassadors reflect upon the spectacle of manacled Homeguard members being boarded onto a transport:
Delenn: Human ways are often unfathomable. But in time, one learns to live with them.
G’Kar: If one has an exceedingly strong constitution.
Biggs, led away in handcuffs, turns his venom on Ivanova:
Malcolm Biggs: I can’t believe you did this to me, Susan. What kind of a human are you, siding with them?
Susan Ivanova: I find many of these people to be more human than you and your kind. I don’t suppose you’d understand that.
Malcolm Biggs: I don’t know you anymore.
Susan Ivanova: I never knew you.
Many of us know him only too well.
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