On Media / Pop Culcha
April 23, 1998 / 27 Nissan, 5758

Susan Ivanova

Virtual reality?

We may be disappearing on Earth, but deep in television's sci-fi space, at least, Jews survive. What's more, they're credible characters, not simplistic stereotypes. New York writer Sande H. Zirlin takes a closer look.

"IT WAS THE DAWN of the third age of mankind ... it began in the Earth year 2257 with the founding of the last of the Babylon stations, located deep in neutral space. It was a port of call for refugees, smugglers, businessmen, diplomats and travellers from a hundred worlds. It could be a dangerous place, but we accepted the risk because Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace..."

So begins another episode of the television series, Babylon 5, a stunning piece of science fiction programming first conceived in the visionary mind of television writer, J. Michael Straczynski, in 1986. After an uphill battle of five years to find a company "that believed in the story enough to let us tell it," the series went on the air in the United States in the Fall of 1993 and reached around the world by the end of its first season. Currently, in America, it can be seen on cable's TNT network.

What makes Babylon 5 unique from a Jewish standpoint, is the presence of a primary character who is Jewish. A Jew who is not saddled with the stereotypical characteristics we so often see when we are portrayed on television.

That character is Commander Susan Ivanova, the space station's First Officer and second-in-command. It is said of her, she was born August 30, 2230 in St. Petersburg, Russia, joined the EarthForce in 2247 and graduated from Officer's Training School in the year 2249. Her first assignment was to an isolated Earth Alliance outpost on Jupiter's moon, Lo, in 2250; she was assigned to the Babylon 5 space station in the year 2257, as a Lieutenant Commander, and then appointed its First Officer, with the rank of Commander in the year 2159.

Ivanova is played by Claudia Christian, a versatile 31-year-old actress with a long list of movie and television credits to her name. Claudia brings to her character a winning smile and a caustic wit that becomes part of her character's persona - a no-nonsense combat pilot with an exemplary military record and the strong convictions to speak her mind when she deems it necessary. The two are perfectly suited for each other and this makes for a strong, characterization on the screen.

The Jewish presence on board Babylon 5 had already been established by the fifth episode of the first season, back in 1993. But it was done in a very "matter of fact" manner in an episode titled, "Parliament of Dreams."

In it, Judaism was one of the 14 Earth religions represented at a stationwide festival highlighting the various religious beliefs practiced on the space station. When Straczynski, serving as both the show's chief writer and executive producer, found himself in need of a second storyline for a later episode, he decided to centre it around Commander Ivanova and the death of her father back on Earth. It is in this particular episode, simply titled "TKO," we learn the full extent of Ivanova's Jewishness.

As the storyline unfolds, we find that Ivanova's father, Andrei Ivanov, a noted Russian scholar, has died after a long illness. She is troubled by his passing, but doesn't return home for his funeral, citing pressing work committments aboard the space station. And she manages to keep her emotions in check while in the pressence of her co-workers.

A short time later, a life-long friend of the family, Rabbi Yossel Koslov, played eloquently by veteran actor, Theodore Bikel, arrives at the station. He comes to console Ivanova and convince her that to achieve closure, she has to grieve for her father in the traditional way and sit Shiva. As the story within a story reaches its conclusion, Ivanova, with the help of Rabbi Koslov, comes to grips with her father's death, and grieves as Jews have grieved for nearly 6000 years.

If we as Jews are perceived by people as being what they see on television, then Stracrynski's Babylon 5 has done us a great service, not only in one particular episode. Or with one particular character; but in the overall concept of the show. A concept that "delves into the realities of people who have different philosophical beliefs and different religious beliefs."

As a Jew in the 20th century, it's reassuring to know that in at least one corner of the futuristic world of science fiction, we, as a people, continue to be. We have survived mankind's migration to the stars with our Jewish traditions and values still intact, and our beliefs firm.

On a television series that is seen all over the world (including Israel) by more than five million people every week, a strong, positive Jewish presence on a weekly basis, is a delight to behold; be it the sight of a serviceman acknowledging his Jewishness at a crowded festival; the nation's First Officer solemnly sitting Shiva for a father; a rabbi from Earth transversing the stars to council a member of his flock; seeing a government official from Earth named Ari Ben Zayn; watching the heroics of a visiting doctor named Laura Rosen; or listening to that very same First Officer volunteering to help the people of a conquered world escape total annihilation by issuing them falsified travel documents, in a veiled reference to the heroic work of Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, during WWII.

As Babylon 5's ground-breaking characterizations find their way into the media history books, we can only look forward to seeing more manifestations of Commander Ivanova's "Jewishness."


© 1998, Sande H. Zirlin