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Stuart Hannabuss has five questions for Mr Morden.
Even the simplest questions we ask ourselves can imply the deepest meanings and the direst consequences. The ‘how’ of the ways things work or the ‘why’ of the way things are crowd through the busy day for us all. Often there are no answers – or at least they are provisional, tentative, provocative, or unsatisfying. The questions we ask ourselves about past actions, present dilemmas, future plans are sometimes fleeting, sometime recurring; sometimes products of a stream of consciousness, other times the outcome of focused attention. They seem contained within our selves until we express them in words or action. Then others get involved, and they ask questions too, so that things get interactive and performative, and we become accountable and even transparent. We act knowing we are actors. We cannot hide from self-knowledge.
What Do You Want?
Two of the recurring questions we ask ourselves are what we want, and what we want to be. Implicit in them is what we believe we already are, and also what we think we might become instead.
We acknowledge that we have needs (like food and love) and wants (power and influence, youth and beauty perhaps, and more food and love). We know, too, that there are things we should want, shaped by the roles we know we have to play socially say as parents, or by moral or religious frameworks about mutual responsibility and environmental stewardship.
We know that some of things we might want we cannot have, or shouldn’t be given, such as absolute power over others, or some scarce resource that if we had it, would cause many others to be dangerously deprived. We ask whether we have a right to be happy while others are not, or why we should live while others die. Yet we know that, if push came to shove, we would try to live even while others died. Most of us, at least. This classic collision of self-interest and altruism is the crux of moral philosophy.
Babylon 5 stills © Warner Bros. Television
Mr Morden’s Question
So it is that when four characters in the television sci-fi series Babylon 5 are asked ‘What do you want?’ by the suave, enigmatic and alarmingly well-connected Mr Morden, the question really hits home. Their answers reveal their fears and yearnings, their very identities as moral agents, and indeed determine the story arc of the entire epic.
Putting things in context, Babylon 5 was first broadcast in the 1990s and was a science fiction saga about a spaceship five miles long, on which humans and representatives of a variety of alien species interacted in increasingly tangled ways. Drawing on the Babylonian myths of a world created out of the dynamic between good and evil, the series explored themes of war and peace, duty and personal desire, free will and obsession.
Character shapes destiny for all the players as their decisions determine events both inside their minds and outside in the cosmos. I hope it is not too grand to suggest that the show’s concerns are teleological, deontological, and axiological (ie, to do with goals, obligations, and values/beliefs).
Within the universe of this show there are new races (humans and exotically-costumed aliens) and there are old races which lurk unseen, clutching on to power. Tensions abound: the humans and Minbari have recently concluded a brutal war, the Narns and Centauri are careering towards mutual destruction, while the Vorlons and Shadows are light and dark versions of unbending tyranny.
Science fiction has often been scorned, sometimes deservedly. Yet, in the hands of writers such as Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, the genre has been a laboratory for moral and philosophical inquiry. So it is here with Babylon 5 and Mr Morden’s question, which is “What do you want?”
The four characters of whom he asks it are G’Kar the Narn ambassador (played by Andreas Katsulas), Londo Molari the Centauri ambassador (Peter Jurasik), Londo’s deputy, Vir (Stephen Furst), and the Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan). Their responses not only reveal their true character and shape the way the plot unfolds, but also shed light on how we ourselves might respond if asked the same question. Or even if it occurred to us to ask it of ourselves.
Mr Morden must be nice: he drinks tea
Answers to the Question
Mr Morden’s question ‘What do you want?’ strikes home easily with both G’Kar and Londo, for each is driven by hatred for the other and by a lust for revenge. A long legacy of war and prejudice exists between their two races which seemingly only enslavement or total destruction can resolve. Their answers are full disclosures, transparent and stark: what I hate I destroy; what is different should feel pain and then die; what I want is complete power. It is a Faustian pact for both, for the Shadows manipulate them into compliance, each believing the other at fault (the Shadows work below the radar). Their ultimate destiny is literally to destroy each other.
Vir and Delenn respond more thoughtfully. Vir is knowing but sceptical, conscious of the dangers of getting what you ask for. Delenn possesses second sight and appreciation of her history. Both reject Mr Morden’s offer – of trusting their destiny to a force that seems to offer everything they’ve ever dreamed of – knowing that the world is not like that, and realising that their moral integrity is being tested.
Questions about the Question
J. Michael Straczinski, the creator of Babylon 5, explores many religious and philosophical dilemmas in the series. The Temptation of Christ in the Bible springs to mind here. Naturally, he presents and explores these issues through story and character, yet it is usually clear what moral and intellectual questions are being raised. They concern ourselves and, for instance, how we might respond to Mr Morden’s questionable offer. How do we respond, in fact, if and when we ask it of ourselves, or if someone else asks us? And so we move into the valuable philosophical realm of questions about questions.
For many of us there would be the issue of trust. Can I trust myself to deal with this honestly and realistically, not just expediently or in terms of mere wishes and daydreams? Can I trust the person making the offer enough to disclose to them something so personal, so close to the bone?
Once over that hurdle, what should I say? Do I want to give a good impression, hide a shameful truth about myself, disclose a childish fantasy? If I answer the question asked, what might my answer imply about my beliefs and values, and are these socially acceptable or antisocial, reactionary, selfish? If I say, do I want to have or do something (like winning the lottery or having sex with lots of beautiful people) or to be free from something (like ageing or financial insecurity or political interference)? What about the future, when I shall probably not think or feel as I do now? My circumstances and hopes will inevitably change as I myself change.
Me and my Shadows
Questions for the Questioner
It is not enough to reflect, however subtly, on the impact of Mr Morden’s question either on the characters in Babylon 5 or on ourselves. We don’t even need to be philosophers to recognise that ‘What do you want?’ is a core existential question. Wanting and needing, obligation and self-interest, harm and consequences, nature and nurture, past and future, values and beliefs – they are all there.
As a result, I would suggest five questions are worth raising with Mr Morden. Of course, we will have to set aside our knowledge as viewers that, for all his beguiling human form, Morden represents evil forces – think Screwtape, Machiavelli, Stalin, and the Devil in one debonair package – or resist the temptation to warn the characters to guard their tongues. Now we are set to confront Morden face to face.
Our first question has to be ‘ Why do you ask me what I want?’ You might get a circular answer: ‘Because I would really like to know’; or an insincerely plausible answer: ‘Because I like you and want to help you’. But then – he would say that, wouldn’t he! Is there a hidden agenda? Does this offer come with strings? What motivates it? People don’t generally offer help unless they expect something back. Let’s hear what you have to say, Mr Morden – and then I can judge for myself.
Our second question should be ‘Who do you represent?’ We know from advertising and marketing that people who ask you questions like ‘What do you want?’ are likely to want to sell you something or get you to join something or change your opinions about something. Everything comes with something. Morden speaks only of “the people I represent”, never spelling out who exactly they might be. He is phishing and scamming: don’t fall for his sweet talk.
The third question is a time-tested one: ‘How long will it be before I realise the consequences of telling you what I want?’ We know from hard experience that the future exposes the errors of decisions we make in the present, and we are continually trying to correct past mistakes. Wishes have consequences, as human beings have found from Faust to Edith Nesbit’s children who meet the Psammead. Implied in that is the subsidiary query – what happens if I want to change my mind? With the Shadows, there is no going back. Like Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings, we enter a world where moral choices and their outcomes are ineluctable.
With our fourth question we should turn to the issue of truth: ‘How can you assure me that what you say is true and not a lie?’ Are you on the up-and-up, as we might say. But beyond that, is it possible to know whether any offer to give someone ‘whatever they want’ can feasibly be delivered? This is not some small loan, after all, but an eschatological point of no return, after which nothing will ever be the same again. Vir sees through Morden’s spurious claims to honest altruism and rejects his offer. He also foresees Morden’s own destruction by his puppet-masters.
Our final question needs to probe into the nature of reality itself. Science fiction, like religion itself, inhabits border-lands between the real and the unreal, and its replicants and avatars have become commonplace features of virtual reality. So it is only right to ask Mr Morden how real he really is and believes he is: “What is the nature of your existence, Mr Morden?”
His innocent question is leading and loaded. His manner evokes distrust. His claim to be able to give you whatever you want is unnervingly open-ended. To offer anything or everything you might ever want, or what above all you want at the time, implausibly suggests the omniscience and omnipresence of a Creator. Where, then, does Mr Morden come from and is he truly and reliably human, as he seems?
Later in the series we learn that in fact Mr Morden is a dead human artificially resurrected by the Shadows to serve as their agent. We also come to know that Shadow presences stand invisibly beside him in all his encounters. Which all sounds a little creepy. Is it fanciful for us to imagine an aura of evil around some people? After all, we often speak of evil when for instance dreadful murders take place, even if we’re not religious.
We ask ourselves questions about the future all the time: will I, can I, should I? When we do so, we confront ourselves with versions of Mr Morden’s question. We want to be free to, and free from; we must balance wants and needs, duty and self-interest, morality and expediency; what we think, and what we know we are.
Philosophy and the social sciences have equipped us with a battery of ologies to deal with questions about questions: teleology, deontology, axiology, eschatology, ontology, and others. Even though Babylon 5 is science fiction, Mr Morden’s question is very real. And we all might some time meet a real Mr Morden, with his ‘so good there must be a catch’ offer, so we all need to be ready with some good questions.
© Dr Stuart Hannabuss 2022
Stuart Hannabuss has been a Humanist chaplain and is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland.