What makes something alien? And how can we create something wholly alien when we create from such terrestrial experiences? It is absolutely true to say that we write what we know, and no fantasy or sci-fi can create something utterly beyond our knowledge and comprehension because… well how would we write it? Can the viewer or reader invest emotionally in an alien that conforms to nothing terrestrial? To say nothing on the subject of makeup and special effects budgets.
Babylon 5 does it’s very best to give us something that did not and could not evolve on Earth, with signifying factors that make them something strange and different, but we are left with characters that we can love as someone with whom we share common ground, or loathe for showing us our worst facets. Here are some of the biggest players that make up the cast:
Here is a empire in decline. The Centauri Republic once dominated a large chunk of the galaxy, enslaving and exterminating species as they expanded, but their empire went the way of so many others as the powers that be grew complacent on their victories and now falls into decadence and decline. Outwardly they look identical to humans, aside from the slightly exaggerated canines and brow ridges, but the differences are greatly exaggerated on the cellular, organic and ~cough~ genital levels.
The most distinctive element of Centari appearance is the tall plume of hair that the high-ups use to denote authority, but take in the details of fashion and culture that echo their dying empire. Napoleonic, Russian and British tailoring among many of the male nobles, Ottoman and Parthian heavier on women, and Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian brought together for the architechture, and a little even seeps into the ship designs.
The Centauri are most like us of any of the others, blending our history, painting a sad picture that I will go into detail in another article.
A race of former slaves, for much of Babylon 5 the Narn people are defined almost exclusively by their hatred of the Centauri who kept them shackled for centuries. Narn look the most alien, and anyone would be forgiven for thinking them reptiles for their smooth, mottled skin and the vivarium-like decor of their living spaces; in fact they have more in common with marsupials from a biological perspective.
As the series wends on we learn how deeply spiritual the Narn can be, religions based upon prophets and philosophy, much akin to Buddhists despite their militaristic temperament. They are pragmatic, not given to great ornamentation, and even the occasional act of hedonism is approached in a direct and forthright manner. Bonds between families are strong, perhaps stronger than even a human could appreciate, and respect is hard-earned but absolute.
Biologically the Minbari are all much the same, hairless with bone plating surrounding the back and sides of the head, but otherwise broadly humanoid. Culturally however, this is a tale of thee peoples:
The religious caste are the bulk of what we see amongst the Minbari, the diplomats, philosophers and cultural leaders are all trained in the academies and temples of the caste. History and ritual are central to the way of life so that every aspect of life is shown proper deference, respect, and appreciation.
The warrior caste are similarly concerned with tradition, but their primary focus is on the safety and security of the minbari people. It was the warrior caste who almost drove humanity to extinction, before the religious caste ordered hostilities brought to an abrupt end, and this has driven a wedge between the divided species that has grown wider as the warriors come to see the religious caste as the new threat to Minbar.
Forgotten amongst the squabbles of church and military are the worker caste, who craft incredible cities of crystal, build advanced engines of war, and undertake those tasks that the others do not interest themselves in. The workers are the ones who have made the minbari the most advanced of the major races, and yet they go unrecognised until Spoilers by the way they are eventually given a majority share in the governing body, the Grey Council.
The League of Non-Aligned Worlds
And here we come to those not involved in the main story, but they are not without their curious elements and histories of their own. They are the less advanced, or less sociable of races, who join in galactic diplomacy as it is in their best interest to remain connected, leaving them with less of a say in the B5 diplomatic council, but they still have the capacity to throw some weight around while remaining politically neutral as a collective whole. Here are a few of the favourites:
Drazi – Numerous, slightly dim, but very proud. The drazi are most memorable for their political system of dividing themselves randomly into two factions (Green and Purple) and then fight to the death to see which faction will rule.
pak’ma’ra – Cephalopod, highly toxic, and carrion feeders, the pak’ma’ra are often forgotten and ignored by other races which actually makes them ideal spies. Their culture and language is radically different to ours, so we know little about them, but there are those rare moments when they gather privately to sing, apparently the most beautiful sound in the galaxy.
Gaim – Amongst the most distinctive of the League, the gaim breathe methane so are forced to wear encounter-suits when dealing with others. As a hive-insect, they think and act as a single, great organism, with drones engineered by their all-powerful queens.
All of the above fall very deeply into familiar territory in some form or another. Budget tends to limit us to bipedal humanoids in live-action sci-fi and fantasy, but have we really come so far? Even in new and emerging works we still see the same old stuff. Guardians of the Galaxy, Valerian, Mass Effect, most species obey the template, divide into male and female, record data via some form of alphabet, sleep, eat, blink… It may all seem like the obvious answer to us, but who knows what solutions an alien intelligence might come to.
What of a culture based on smell, or texture? How would a sentient being who has never touched solid ground except to feed perceive a biped? How could we communicate with a species with no sense of individuality? Babylon 5 has offered us a beautiful cast of aliens who allow us to explore facets of humanity through disbelieving eyes, but in their way they each mirror us in some way because we can only write what we know. It may sound like a complaint – and perhaps for now it is – but the characters born of these races offer some incredibly rich storylines that could not have been expressed any other way.
There are other races, ones that are far further removed from what we might find familiar but they too follow our own experience in their way.
More on those next week.