Tag: Freud

Babylon 5: Sheridan’s Dream

In 2002 I created a review website around the actor Christopher Walken, which was also home to some of my writings on science fiction television. I have decided to let this site lapse as it has been languishing for years without updates. I will be reposting some of its content on this blog.

I originally wrote the piece below in 1997 as a favour to a friend, delivering it as a somewhat tongue in cheek talk at a Babylon 5 convention, in the days before the virtual mainstreaming of media fandom. Babylon 5 is an American science fiction TV series set on a space station and featuring political and territorial conflicts between humans and other species. The series ran from 1994 to 1998.


I will begin by assuming that as avid viewers of the science fiction series Babylon 5 you are all familiar with Commander Sheridan’s dream which is deployed in all its surreal and hitchcockian glory in the third season of the series. In this short article I propose to offer an in depth and definitive interpretation of this symbolic fest.

There are three types of dream interpretation: the traditional psychic and spiritual method, variants of which have been practised by most cultures. In this tradition, dreams are divided into a number of categories, including the prophetic, the predictive, past lives and allegorical. Sheridan’s dream is clearly of the prophetic kind – a foretelling of future destiny and a warning.

The second type of dream interpretation is more modern: this is the Freudian or psychoanalytic method which reduces dream to a pathology, to a revelation of that which has been suppressed and is struggling to emerge as a symptom. In this tradition, a dream does no more than point to a medical and psychological condition. The third type of dream interpretation – also modern – is an uneasy amalgam of the first two methods. This is Jung’s analysis of a collective unconscious, the manifestation of a universal symbolic imaginary. I will ignore these two latecomers in the field of dream interpretation and concentrate solely on the first, which if it lacks the spurious precision of modern science, accumulates the insights of generations lost in the mists of time.

Finally, to get down to the nitty gritty. As I have mentioned Sheridan’s dream is clearly a warning and a prophecy. I will begin by concentrating on the appearance of the birds. There is a crow or raven on Ivanova’s shoulder and an eagle or falcon on Garibaldi’s. The identity of the bird in the latter case has been the subject of some controversy – some viewers perceiving Garibaldi’s bird as a dove. Rather than choosing the wimpy sentimental dove, however, I prefer to see the strong predatory form of an eagle.

Both the crow and the eagle can have multiple meanings in a dream. A crow in Celtic mythology is the messenger who flies between the twilight world of death and this life. To dream of seeing a crow betokens misfortune and grief and in combination with Ivanova’s hushing sound there is a clear warning of betrayal, that enemies will be plotting behind the commander’s back. It is also a warning that he stands in dire need of aid and council. The Irish hero Culchulain died betrayed and strapped to a post in battle with a crow perched on his shoulder. There is a warning that a similar fate awaits Sheridan. The fact that the crow sits on the shoulder of his second in command is significant – someone in his own camp will betray him after he has ignored all the indications that such betrayal was imminent.

The eagle implies that Sheridan will soar far above the ordinary world, struggling fiercely to attain lofty ambitions. It also means that he will make a long voyage to distant and unknown planets in his search for knowledge and wisdom. The eagle is also a sign that he will overcome his enemies and achieve all his dreams. But one must not forget the predatory nature of both the eagle and the crow. The crow feeds off death and the eagle cruelly snatches life at its strongest. The conjunction of the eagle and the crow means that Sheridan will indeed conquer and throw off the trammels of worldly existence but only through death, grief and betrayal and the loss of all that he holds most dear.

The conjunction of the eagle and crow is interesting at another level. The crow represents Celtic Britain and the eagle, America. This is a clear reference to the earlier appearance in the series of King Arthur (in the form of Michael York) or even Jack the Ripper, that English harbinger of death, on what is largely an American space station. And to stray briefly into the arena of Jungian interpretation, it could also be a reference to the American war of independence during which the English and Americans fought – this would clearly be an event deeply rooted in Sheridan’s ancestral memory.

To turn to Kosh’s remarks: their significance is rather obvious. When he intones the phrase ‘you have always been here’ he is talking on a number of levels. First of all, he is referring to a hidden spiritual level of Sheridan’s psyche which has hitherto remained dormant but has nonetheless always been there. And of course it is standard doctrine in writings about the psychic realm that one is more susceptible to prophecy and spiritual insight when the conscious mind is stilled in sleep or unconsciousness. As is written in one of the standard texts: ‘A dream is an event transpiring in that world belonging to the mind when the objective senses have withdrawn into rest or oblivion. Then the spiritual man is living alone in the future or ahead of objective life and consequently lives man’s future first, developing conditions in a way that enable waking man to shape his actions by warnings, so as to make life a perfect existence’. Sheridan’s case is a perfect illustration of this. But Kosh’s statement is perhaps more prophetic than this. When he says ‘you have always been here’ the backdrop is clearly the space station Babylon 5. Sheridan has been destined since the beginning of time to make a messianic stand on Babylon 5 and he has also done some time travelling in the process.

The mystical and faintly Eastern sound of wind chimes or bells that appears in the dream further indicates spiritual attainment and the need to ward off the evils of death and betrayal. The chimes are also a call to spiritual purity. This sound combined with the appearance of the figure standing in judgement means that Sheridan must undertake a journey of spiritual purification where he will be judged according to his merits. He may be found wanting. The figure standing in judgment is also a clear evocation of ‘Q’ the powerful alien being who acts as judge and jury in the first and last episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Babylon 5 would not be complete without a Q figure, no matter how brief his appearance. In fact, this scene could well presage Q’s future appearance in the series. After all, for Q there are no physical boundaries or impossibilities. A transmigration from Star Trek to Babylon 5 is quite within his capability and no doubt he could consort closely with Bester as a kindred spirit in the latter series.

But to move to the next point: the statement ‘you are the hand’ is also clear in its meaning. Ivanova neglects to complete the phrase which in its entirety should read ‘you are the hand of God’ thus completing the link to Islamic and Arabic prophetic traditions. Sheridan is the instrument of Allah, the instrument of a cosmic destiny. As for the man in between , this is both a reference to Lorian and Sheridan himself. Sheridan must encounter both himself and Lorian in between the tick and the tock of eternity, in between life and death, in between the material and spiritual worlds. ‘Between’ has always indicated that twilight zone of possibilities, of openness to mysterious and other worlds. ‘The man in between’ is also the man in between what was and what will be. More tenuously perhaps, ‘the man in between’ is also Q, an entity who, as I have clearly shown, exists in the twilight zone between two series – Star Trek and Babylon 5.

The veiled woman is again a sign that Sheridan will be betrayed and maligned by apparent friends. The mourning veil denotes further grief, distress and trouble, the dark purple lips indicate the vampiric kiss of death. In sum, the whole dream is loaded with dark portents of gloom, betrayal and death but there is also hope that out of this darkness will come victory and spiritual enlightenment.

For another interpretation of this dream sequence see The Lurker’s guide to Babylon 5.

Inception (2010)

My rating: ****
imdb link

I have no doubt that Inception will prove a bonanza for all those analytic philosophers churning out edited collections on analytic philosophy and popular culture over at Open Court. Let me propose a workable alternative title for the film to start them off: Descartes and Freud. The Final Showdown. Or, for those of a Foucauldian persuasion working with other publishers, I might suggest Dream and Existence: The Movie, or even My Body, This Paper, This Fire, Redux. But before anybody gets too enthusiastic, we are talking strictly Freud and Descartes 101 here, for beginners. Thus we have Descartes’ famous meditation on dreaming, madness and doubt and some rather unsophisticated references to repression, guilt and the unconscious id – with a nod to Jung thrown in.

But for all that, Inception is a highly watchable action film with an intellectual edge in the same vein as The Matrix. The premise is that a vaguely defined technology allows people to visit the dreams of others in order to discover their secrets. A much more difficult process allows dream visitors to plant a new idea in the head of the dreamer. The technology and those who use it are deliberately left rather vague which allows the focus to be placed firmly on the more interesting end result of the process rather than in the techniques of getting there.

It is quite a novel experience watching a mainstream Hollywood action thriller that requires concentration to focus on all the simultaneous levels of action taking place – dreams within dreams within dreams. But it is the sort of intellectual concentration that one brings to solving puzzles – puzzles such as labyrinths which feature quite heavily in the film. And of course the character in the film who designs the labyrinths is named Ariadne. But we are not talking Borgesian complexities here. If it is a welcome change to have something to think about in an action thriller it is not the sort of intellectual focus that is associated with altering one’s experience of the world.

If in The Matrix, the question is how we distinguish between ‘reality’ and the illusion of ‘virtual reality’ (Plato’s cave), Inception gets back to classic Cartesian roots. How do I know that I am not dreaming? Just for the record here is Descartes’ classic passage on dreaming from his Meditations 1

How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

As he notes, there is actually no way of distinguishing between the waking and sleeping states when one is experiencing them, yet the premise in Inception is that it is possible to carry around a small physical object of one’s choice which allows one somehow to distinguish between dream and wakefulness. It is hard to see how this can work as one can dream anything at all – there are no external guarantees (apart from God, according to Descartes at least). The other problem in the film is that the dreams in the film, even if they are designed to some extent for the dreamer by the visitors, unfurl in a fairly logical fashion, which as most people know is not how dreams work. There are also various other plot difficulties – but perhaps these have been planted deliberately to provoke the viewer – I certainly hope so.

Attempts are made to give the film an emotional core along lines that evoke The Forbidden Planet and even Solaris. There are also some resonances with Vincent Ward’s 1998 film What Dreams May Come which I won’t reveal in the interests of not including spoilers. But unfortunately the film is badly let down by the casting and performance of Leonardo diCaprio as the central character. Where the writing indicates a complex, intelligent, grief stricken individual struggling with his own demons, what we get instead is bland and self assured. The right casting and direction (intense closeups) would have made the difference between a spectacular action film which poses interesting intellectual puzzles, and a film which went to the next level with a real emotional punch. An opportunity sadly missed.

But quibbles aside, the set action pieces in this film are impeccable with some fabulous special effects and good acting from the supporting cast. The soundscapes and music – particularly in a dream which takes place around a snowy fortress – are very effective as well.

In any case I will look forward to seeing an Open Court publication appearing some time in the near future…

Not much later… (15th August).

It has come to my notice (thanks Stuart!) that Blackwell has already put out a call for abstracts on Inception and Philosophy to be edited by David Kyle Johnson in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. If you are interested, Dr. Johnson’s contact details are on his webpage.

There is already some interesting reflection around the film. For a Deleuzian interpretation of Inception see the Cineosis blog. There is also a most interesting article by Ian Alan Paul in Senses of Cinema on the indetermincy of both subject and object in Inception. This article also makes passing reference to Deleuze.

The Singing Detective (2007)

Glen Creeber, The Singing Detective, London: BFI TV Classics, 2007.
My rating: ***

The Singing Detective (Bfi TV Classics) The Singing Detective by Glen Creeber

Television doesn’t always age well, but Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective more than twenty years later is still just as riveting and confronting. I saw the series when it originally aired in 1986 and was completely fascinated, even if I didn’t entirely understand it. Watching it at this remove, I have a better insight into what’s going on and the fascination remains.

It reminds me – as it did when I last saw it – of one of my favourite films, Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence. In this film, as in The Singing Detective, a seriously ill writer (played by John Gielgud) imagines a novel to keep himself sane and to distract himself from the pain. As in the later series, The Singing Detective, the narrative is fractured and layered and often interlaced with surrealist elements. The story is also continually interrupted by and affected by the real life plight of the author. Music is likewise centrally important.

The author of this BFI TV Classic book on The Singing Detective, Glen Creeber, notes that Resnais became a huge fan of Dennis Potter’s work and dedicated a film to him after his death: On connaît la chanson. There are many similarities between Renais’ approach and Potter’s, but the former has a lighter touch: a subtle humour and amusement pervades much of his work.

Creeber provides an interesting account of the series and makes the essential point that a television series is always a collaborative effort and it was not only Potter who made the series what it was. The director, Jon Amiel, who had a background as a script editor, insisted that Potter’s first draft of the series needed considerable changes. The actors – in particular Michael Gambon and Patrick Malahide were also crucial to the success of the series as was the incidental music in addition to the songs chosen by Potter.

Another interesting observation is Creeber’s report that Potter summarised the series as the invitation by Christ to the sick man in the gospels to ‘Pick up his bed and walk’.

Creeber’s treatment of The Singing Detective gives it a more recognisably ‘film studies’ treatment than do the authors of the BFI TV classics books on Doctor Who and Star Trek, making the book more skewed towards a purely academic audience. But arguably this is the type of audience The Singing Detective attracts in any case. One minor quibble I did have with his approach however is his reliance on Freudian and psychoanalytic approaches – but this might be just prejudice on my part as one could argue that the source material readily lends itself to this kind of treatment.