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The Norbury Agreement

Introduction

This is a statement intended to attempt to put an end to terrorist attacks by B5 fans on Star Trek fans and retaliatory strikes by Star Trek loyalists on B5 fans 1 (Click on the footnote reference to be taken to the footnotes). The goals of this statement are:
  1. To identify the causes of this long running dispute.
  2. To explode some of the myths behind the allegedly 'objective' arguments put forward by each side to support their viewpoint.
  3. To provide a mechanism for reconciliation between these two apparently irreconcilable camps.
Each of these three points will be dealt with in turn.

Causes

Cognitive Dissonance

On careful examination and analysis of several hundred Usenet and bulletin board posts by members of both camps, it seems almost unavoidable that the primary cause of this battle is cognitive dissonance. This mental state, first identified by Bruner and Postman 2, appears to result from the brain's natural tendency to interpret sensory information in terms of prior information.

In a classic experiment, subjects were shown playing cards that were anomalous e.g. a jack of hearts printed in black and not red. In the experiment, the subjects were not only unable to identify the anomalous cards, but even when shown the cards for prolonged periods of time they could not see the problem. One subject complained that there was something not quite right but he couldn't put his finger on what it was.

Evidence that the nature of the B5-Star Trek dispute involves cognitive dissonance is based on the marked resemblance between comments made by the protagonists with other individuals under the influence of cognitive dissonance such as pro-lifers confronted with abortion and scientists presented with evidence that contradicts their own scientific paradigm.

The situation has almost certainly not been helped by J. Michael Stracynski's public assertions that his fans are more intelligent than other fans 3, or that his show has 'obviously been successful' in influencing other shows. Regardless of any objective basis for such comments, the result has been a greater animosity between the two camps 4.

The matter has probably not been aided by the angels of mercy who attempt to resolve 'flame wars' by asserting everyone's individual right to a unique viewpoint. Regardless of the philosophical merit of relativism, such a view does nothing to resolve the root cause of the cognitive dissonance and can, at best, defer the ideological clashes. This is clearly evidenced in the tendency for such debates to reoccur, often between the same individuals, time and time again.

Confirmation Bias

Another psychological phenomena which makes this arena dangerously unstable is confirmation bias. In research, confirmation bias causes researchers to only pay attention to those results which confirm their hypotheses and to ignore those that contradict them 5. This leads rise to the well known phenomena of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The net result from the point of view of TV series is that once a show has committed sins against ones expectations or tastes, it becomes progressively harder for the show to 'redeem' itself. The more these relative offences are performed by the shows, the worse the problem becomes.

Evidence for this can be garnered through simple surveys of people's changing attitudes to sci fi shows. Those that never liked, or came to dislike, Star Trek: The Next Generation generally never tried, or only briefly experimented with, the subsequent shows. Similarly, many who took a dislike to Babylon 5 during it's opening season frequently refused to consider the possibility that it might improve in subsequent seasons.

The matter is compounded by cognitive dissonance again. Communities of fans tend to gravitate towards one show or another, perhaps because this is a strategy best suited to reducing cognitive dissonance. Of course, disagreements still arise, but an analysis of groups of friends clearly demonstrates clusterings of opinions as the individual is influenced by (as well as influencing) the group. The result of cross-propagation between isolated groups sometimes offsets this problem, but not with any guaranteed degree of success.

Fallacious Logic

A cornerstone of much of the mud slinging and territorial posturing has been a handful of assertions which, on analysis, are shown to be extremely suspicious or, at best, relativistic.

1. Babylon 5 copied Such-and-such/Star Trek steals from Babylon 5

This argument, often espoused (in the latter sense especially, it seems, by J. Michael Stracynski), is impossible to justify. It assumes that a particular show (or concept, or idea) can be shown as atomic, and not derived from previous ideas. This is clearly fallacious, since any piece of work can be broken down into its sources and originality, where it occurs, is in the nature of how the sources our combined, and not by some blinding flash of inspiration, springing into being fully formed like Athena from Zeus.

For example, Babylon 5 has been 'accused' of being nothing more than a rip off of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars 6. Putting aside whether or not this claim has merit, both these sources are in turn derived from other sources. The Lord of the Rings was an affectionate reworking of The Ring of the Nibelung, whilst Star Wars is an expert fusion of E.E.Doc Smith's Lensman sequence and Akira Kurosawa's Kakushi Toride no San Akunin 7.

Star Wars is a particularly good example, since it is an acknowledged masterwork and the Lensman series is viewed more as an enduring piece of pulp sci-fi rather than a true classic. It also shows the idea that the quality of a piece of work is independent to its originality. Indeed, it suggests that originality is not, and perhaps should not, be a measure of greatness.

Similarly, Star Trek's format is not as ground breaking as some would have you believe. It is almost undeniable that Gene Roddenbery was years ahead of his time in dealing with issues of sexual and racial equality. However, outside of this guiding vision (which has to some extent been inevitably lost in the later Star Trek series which, like B5, rarely push into new philosophical ground) the show is essentially just another science fiction show in format. Most of the radical technology proposed arose as a result of dramatic necessity - transporters, for example, sprang from the expense of building a shuttlecraft prop. The technical explanations arrived some twenty years later.

Claims that Star Trek has stolen ideas from Babylon 5 are as irrelevant as the idea that Babylon 5 has stolen from Star Trek: unless one can objectively identify the sources of both ideas, one cannot eliminate the more likely possibility that the ideas have arisen independently. Chronological superiority does not lend moral high ground: Wallace discovered natural selection as well as Darwin, he just didn't get published in time 8. Such independent discoveries are so widespread that it is scarcely considered surprising any more.

2. Babylon 5 Actors Can't Act/Star Trek Actors Can't Act

It is often claimed that the quality of acting in Babylon 5 is inferior to that in Star Trek. Such observations are usually targetted at individual actors, and individual Star Trek actors often receive the same criticism. However, it is easy to show that attitudes to actors is a matter of personal preference. If you look at any TV show, you will not see real life but a style of acting. Some of these styles appeal to some people and not others and to single out individuals seems somewhat arbitrary in light of this fact.

As evidence, you need only look at what was considered acceptable (even talented) acting ten, twenty or forty years ago. A careful analysis shows that whilst some acting styles/formats have survived, others now seem hackneyed or inferior. Such changes are an inevitable process in social development, and we would be well to consider how hackneyed or clichéd the acting styles of some our currently favourite actors may seem in ten, twenty or forty years time.

Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of those actors who have a more objective acting problem: lack of expressivity or emotional range, for instance. On the one hand, it is easy to attack Denise Crosby (Star Trek: The Next Generation's and ample bosomed Tasha Yar) or Michael O'Hare (Babylon 5's original log, Jeffery Sinclair). But on the other hand, there are people who in reality act as emotionally stunted or artificial as these people. Can we truly objectively criticise acting at all? I leave this point open for discussion.

3. Babylon 5 is Hard Sci fi/Star Trek is Hard Sci fi

This is rarely expressed in the latter form, but the nature of the argument is fallacious in either case. Hard Science is a form of science fiction in which the writers refuse to step outside of the bounds of current theory. Regardless of how enjoyable the style may or may not be to an individual, Hard Sci fi is not and cannot be superior to another form of science fiction in and of itself.

There are two points to address here. The first is the simple observation that neither show can be considered Hard Sci fi. To single out one point, Babylon 5 invents hyperspace technology and Star Trek postulates matter to energy transformations, both of which violate current scientific beliefs. The fact that Star Trek postulates possible explanations for their technology in terms of current theories is irrelevant to the quality of the show, in exactly the same way that Babylon 5's decision to use established ideas from existing science fiction sources is irrelevant.

The argument often seems to rest on the idea that Babylon 5 is Hard Sci fi because its invented concepts are established in the science fiction canon whilst many of Star Trek's are unique to the show. But such a point is irrelevant. This may make it easier for people to accept Babylon 5's science, but it is no more 'accurate' than the technology in Star Trek: both are driven by needs of dramatic necessity, not of scientific realism.

This leads on to the second, and possibly more interesting, point. Why should Hard Sci fi be superior to other forms? This seems to rest on the idea that modern scientific thinking will prevail and hence is true, but this is neither likely nor expected. Rather, we expect that many of our current concepts in science will, at certain points in the future, be overturned and replaced with paradigms that model behaviour more accurately 9.

Newton's laws of gravitation, once considered the be all and end all of the world of gravity, were superceded by Einstein's general theory of relativity only this century. But that doesn't make Einstein's work 'true'. We already know that it will eventually be superceded, since it is incompatible with quantum theory and hence at some point a new paradigm will be required to rationalise the two scientific systems 10.

In the light of this, Hard Sci fi cannot be seen as more 'true', only easier to accept in the light of modern science. And since the essence of a good science fiction show lies in the enjoyment of the show, it is that enjoyment that we should judge and not how it fits to our views of the universe 11.

4. Babylon 5 Plots are more Intricate/Star Trek plots are more Intricate

Both B5 and the four Star Trek shows are based on different formats. In Babylon 5, individual plots often take second chair to longer arcs. In Star Trek, each show is required to stand alone 12. Long term arcs may be present, but they must by the nature of the format take a second chair. You may prefer one approach over the other, but this is a matter of preference.

To those who do not like the Babylon 5 approach, the series can seem slow and repetitive. This is again the nature of the format: not every viewer watches the show every week, and TV audiences have a remarkably short attention span. It therefore becomes necessary to reiterate and repeat foreshadowings for the benefit of the audience.

To those who do not like the Star Trek approach, the plots seem artificially episodic and too arbitrarily self contained. Again, this is the nature of the format. Star Trek shows are designed to be watched by both regular and semi-regular viewers, and are constrained as to how much long term development can be introduced as a consequence.

A related view is that Babylon 5 is superior because its story was plotted out in advance. But it has been necessary for that plan to be modified because the nature of television precludes such an approach. Stracynski has been forced (often very creatively) to modify his original plan to work around changes in actors, for example 13. It is this very kind of problem that has made Television producers reluctant to commit to such long term plans.

But it is difficult to see why having an approximately fixed plan differs from letting the plan develop as the series progresses. The static approach has its advantages and disadvantages just as the dynamic approach has, and to claim superiority of the former is to suggest that a Mills & Boons romance is inherently superior to Joyce's Ulysses. As ever, we should judge the results more than the intentions.

Similar problems emerge when you consider Babylon 5's willingness to engage in a battle or Star Trek's willingness to explore personal themes. Depending on your preferences, either may seem stilted, artificial or tedious. Those that are disappointed when Star Trek avoids starting a fight are presumably not the same people who are bored when Babylon 5 pursues one for no apparent reason. Likewise, those who loathe the more personal Star Trek episodes are presumably not the same people who complain of cardboard characters in Babylon 5.

In summary, criticisms of a show's format cannot be considered objective when opinions are so divided into such clearly demarked camps. We should aim to identify these defining opinions or presumptions rather than assuming the intellectual or moral high ground.

5. Stracynski has ruined Babylon 5/Berman has ruined Star Trek

The argument against such a view is simple: it presupposes that the show has been ruined. Since an analysis of statistically correlated ratings for the shows demonstrates that those that chose to vote believe each show has improved, and since audiences still exist for the shows, we can say with some confidence that the shows have not been ruined. With the precept reduced to an opinion, the conclusion is equally relative.

An argument, for instance, that the writing in Babylon 5 has become increasingly stale since Stracynski started writing all the episodes falls down if you do not find what Stracynski has been writing stale. Obviously you can state this as a reason for why you do not like Babylon 5, if you have found it to be true, but that does not make it a criticism of the show, per se.

Similarly, a complaint that such-and-such a Star Trek show has become increasingly more soapesque presupposes both that being soapesque is negative and overlooks the obvious point that soaps remain the most popular shows on television in most countries 14. In fact, the distinction between soap and drama is increasingly muddied, and if an objective analysis reveals a dizzying array of definitions for what constitutes a soap 15.

6. The Majority/Minority Mandate

Star Trek fans are wont to point to the popularity of Star Trek over Babylon 5 (over 10 times as many viewers, based on consideration of a single series) as evidence of superiority. But Babylon 5 fans would equally point to the fewer number of viewers as evidence of the more discerning nature of Babylon 5 fans. In both cases, evidence that could be used in one of two ways is used to demonstrate whichever point reinforces the person's belief system, and the conclusions are hence questionable.

We can say, with some confidence, that the Star Trek shows are more popular than Babylon 5, but this need not be evidence for superiority. Similarly, is amusing to point to fewer fans as evidence of discernment. Are the most unpopular shows watched by the most discerning audience? Furthermore, if you take this view, the rising viewership of Babylon 5 would imply that it was falling in quality!

Claims (generally by Babylon 5 fans) that their show's viewership is made up 'true sci fi fans' is curious, and reminds one of a religious cult claiming that theirs is the true god. Any statistical analysis will show a large number of sci fi fans in both camps, and those fans disagree as to which other shows are great sci fi shows just as much as the two camps disagree with each other! We can only conclude that a 'true sci fi fan' is one who shares your opinion on whichever point you happen to be arguing at any point in time. Senator McCarthy would be proud.

7. Ex-Star Trek fans turned Babylon 5 Evangelist

An accusation levelled by some Star Trek fans against the more vocal Babylon 5 fans that they have been converted to a new religion which they then preach to all and sundry may well be valid. But it is not clear how this differs from a die-hard Star Trek fan who chooses to keep with his or her original religion and preach that to the exclusion of all others. And despite the popular view, people defect from Babylon 5 to Star Trek with some frequency so to place the blame on one camp seems quite irrelevant.

The problem here is the failure to recognise that belief systems are not absolute but relative systems built on fundamentally different precepts. If we spent more time exploring the differences in those precepts and less time tub-thumping we might identify those differences of opinion that underpin each camps belief system and learn something more about the nature of human psychology.

Reconciliation

From considering the above examples of the arguments used by the different camps, you may be thinking that relativism is the only solution to this apparently intractable problem. But resorting to the view that there are 'different strokes for different folks' fails to resolve the underlying cognitive dissonance that is the root of the conflict and hence only postpones the problem. The arguments will reoccur until both parties can see and accept the fundamental world view that underpins this furious gulf.

It is my suggestion that the best course for reconciliation rests in the following steps:

  1. Accepting that any show with an audience has some value, even it is not pleasing to us.
  2. Recognising where our behaviour is influenced or driven by cognitive dissonance and seeking to identify and hence resolve those differences.
  3. Listening to the views of both sides in order to identify which aspects of the shows are causes for disagreement and hence for cognitive dissonance.
  4. Acknowledging that these aspects are subject to an entirely relative interpretation, and hence what seems a fatal flaw to one camp may be irrelevant or a strength to others. We can even identify which is the case for each aspect in individual cases.
  5. Learning to see the core differences in opinions as the nature of the problem, and not the supposed stupidity, naivety or inferiority of those whose values on these points differ.

Of course, this plan is optimistic. People are reluctant to take in new information, and enjoy a little territorial pissing perhaps a little too much. However, I would like to think there is as much ground for rigourous, adversarial debate in the root causes of the conflict as there is in the pointless posturing and sabre rattling that we are currently having to endure.

Perhaps mankind needs to identify an enemy too much, and the mistakes of the past are doomed to be the mistakes of the future. I hope not, and since I insist on believing that sci fi fans are by their nature intelligent, I would like to think that at least some progress can be made. I do not believe a solution lies in just 'agreeing to differ' - if we do not at least identify those areas where we disagree, I cannot see how we can hope to put the squabbling behind us.

I would like to think that all sci fi fans would have a vested interest in the success of all sci fi shows. TV producers have been reluctant to support the genre, and every show that succeeds is good news for anyone who cares about the science fiction. I may have lost faith in Babylon 5 personally, but I saw it through four of its five seasons and I will certainly try Crusade: The Babylon Project when it comes out. Similarly, despite being highly negative towards Star Trek: Voyager from its inception, I have kept dipping into it and have been pleasantly surprised at its progress relative to my own tastes.

It's an old cliché, but together we stand, divided we fall. The less time we spend fighting each other, the more time we have to help the programme makers improve their product. In the end, we all stand to benefit. I hope that at least a few of the readers who have made it through this somewhat overlong essay will appreciate what I'm saying, and if not, enjoy your skirmishing all the same.

In the spirit of reconciliation,

Spiral Lobster



Footnotes:

1 I feel the need to explain why I have written the B5 fans in the terrorist roles. This is based on the foundation for the metaphor: terrorists are defined as such by the larger nation they choose to attack. Hence, in this case, the B5 fans are the terrorists and the Star Trek fans are the oppressors. Feel free to translate this metaphor into more neutral terms if you wish.

2 See 'On the Perception of Incongruity: A Problem', Journal of Personality, Bruner and Postman, 1949. Or, if you don't have a University Library in your house, try chapter 16 of the easier to acquire The Conscious Universe, Dean Radin, 1997

3 Stracynski claims that Star Trek fans have an average IQ of 152, whilst B5 fans have an IQ of 170. Whether or not this statistically unlikely claim is true (and I know of no evidence on which such a conclusion can be drawn) this fails to note that IQ is a rather limited measure of intelligence. Indeed people with high IQ scores are more likely to be socially inept or limited in other manners, and IQ is not (by itself) a measure of success or intelligence. For a more complete discussion, see the book EQ by some author or other.

4 I know of no equivalent behaviour amongst the Paramount staff, although rivalry between different Star Trek shows is well documented, and it is perhaps more of a tribute to Paramount's ever vigilant legal department that we do not know of such external views.

5 See Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development, Robert Rosenthal, 1968 or the aforementioned The Conscious Universe.

6 It is interesting to note that one of Stracynski's most evident inspirations, the work of H.P. Lovecraft, is rarely mentioned, despite the fact that Stracynski himself is obviously aware of the influence and delights in including characters named after Lovecraft's: e.g. Charles Dexter (c.f. Charles Dexter Ward from The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward).

7 The Hidden Fortress.

8Indeed, it was seeing that Wallace was about to pre-empt him that prompted Darwin to publish The Origin of Species.

9 See The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, T.S. Kuhn, 1970.

10 Both general relativity and quantum theory make startlingly accurate predictions about the universe, as all good scientific theories should. But they cannot be reconciled with each other at this point in time, in part because quantum theory is well formed mathematically but largely not understood conceptually.

11 In particular because, despite what many people believe, there is no single, agreed view of the state of current science. Ask a hundred different scientists and you will get a hundred subtly (or not so subtly!) different answers.

12 It is probably wise to consider two and three part stories as single shows for this purpose.

13 Note also how Babylon 5's original five-year arc was resolved in four years when it looked as if a fifth series was unlikely.

14 You may be tempted to say that this popularity is evidence of inferiority. But Star Wars is the most popular film of all time: is it then inferior?

15 If you are British, you can explore this by asking everyone you know to define which of the following shows are soaps: Brookside, thirtysomething, The Bill, Casualty, This Life. You will probably learn a little about the philosophy of language if you ask people what they consider constitutes a soap, and a lot about relativism when you consider those people for whom the (apparent) quality of the show is a defining feature.