It’s the doldrums of summer. The Dark Knight Rises premiered this past Friday (Thoughts and prayers with the poor people of Aurora, CO who suffer through the tragedy). From here on out, summer is not likely to give us any new relevant material. I may have a piece later on about soccer’s transfer market. But writing about that is like writing about the colonoscopy you just had – no one enjoys it. The good TV shows are months away. There’s only baseball or outrage on my sports channels. And History moved “Ancient Aliens” far, far away and keeps shoehorning more “Average Joe in Shit Jobs” shows marathons.
So time to bring out one of these ideas I had in the back of my mind for the blog: a treatise on some of my favorite TV episodes ever. We’ll start with one of my favorites from the 1990s science-fiction show, Babylon 5.
In many ways, Babylon 5 was the little show that shouldn’t have worked out but did. It wasn’t based on a more famous property (like Star Trek). It didn’t have the backing of a major network (like Lost or Battlestar Galactica). It was always fighting for viewers, funding and support (often getting news that it would be renewed just days before the axe was set to fall). And yet, it managed to attract a following that grew and grew. The vision of TV writer J. Michael Straczynski, the show was his idea on how to create a massive space opera that didn’t necessarily cater to just kids or teens. He notoriously made it clear that there would be no robots, no cute kids or pets and no time travel in his show – and broke only one of those rules once. By Season 4, Straczynski was writing every one of the 22 episodes himself. He was juggling multiple storylines that touched on war, romance, corruption, history, betrayal and redemption.
“Intersections in Real Time” deals with all of that. And with none of it. And with more than that.
The episode is a departure from most space-operas and dramas in that there’s almost no special effects and no shots of space or laser guns or any of the traditional tropes. There’s two persons dressed as aliens and they appear only for a few minutes. The episode’s primary hook is two characters, in a dark room, talking. And yet, I consider it to be one of the best hours on television I have seen.
In the show’s plot, there’s a civil war between the tyrannical Earth government and the rebellious Babylon 5, led by Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner). Betrayed by one of his closest friends, Captain Sheridan is sent to a secret prison on the planet Mars. “Intersections in Real Time” deals with his imprisonment and torture at the hands of an interrogator; all in an effort to get him to “confess” his crimes and submit to the will of the Earth Alliance’s despot.
“My task is to make you decide to believe differently…and when that happens, the world will remake itself before your very eyes.”
The aforementioned interrogator, WIlliam (played greatly by character actor Raye Birk) presents the dilemma facing Sheridan and the thematic debate of the episode: is the truth fluid? Sheridan believes that the truth is solid – that what you hold true matters and remains true, regardless of what your circumstances are. But if the truth is fluid, then Sheridan can break from all his deeply-held beliefs in order to save his life. In order to break Sheridan down, William challenges everything he has come to believe – and doing so in a way that gives Sheridan no plausible way out. Has Sheridan been under the influence of others during his rebellion? If he was, he’s lost his control over his life and is a puppet. If he’s not under the influence of others, he’s detached from the world.
The episode intercuts this philosophical debates with William’s tactics to break Sheridan down. From tricking him with a corned beef sandwich to submitting him to light deprivation and sound torture, Sheridan is broken down physically in just about every aspect. But as William states, it’s all part of the process to get to Sheridan’s mind, to force him to “believe differently” and confess to his “crimes.” Why? So that Sheridan can become the “symbol of the preeminent truth of our times: that you cannot beat the system.”
Given everything that’s happened in the nearly 20 years since the show was released, it’s eerie to see concepts like secret government prisons with no chance at a tribunal or court, rendition, torture tactics and other “War on Terror” mainstays appear here. And that’s part of the point of the episode. Little is new. A lot of this has occurred before.
Straczysnki wrote that the most insidious of evils is the one represented by the interrogator, William. It’s the evil of the man “just doing his job” and detached from the pain and suffering he’s causing another human being. When you remove consequence from people towards one another, you find that many reduce the lives of others to nothing more than a occupational worry – a pain to be suffered from 9 AM to 5 PM and to be disregarded the moment Miller Time arrives. Pick any example from modern or classical history and you’ll find it there.
“Intersections in Real Time” is a wonderful episode that touches on ideas greater and more complex than many hour-long dramas mess with during their entire runs. It refuses to provide any easy answers to the questions presented and, by the end, nothing is better for the main characters. The episode forces you to see things from both perspectives, even as you mentally refuse to accept that William may be telling the “truth.” The philosophical debate and the context in which they are occurring should be all too familiar for us – even if we don’t have the answers either.