There are a few patient zeroes for proving serialized storytelling on TV viable. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, and the so-called “golden era” of TV aren’t possible without a few under-the-radar precedents. Different critics will point to different examples, but when it comes to science fiction and fantasy shows, that list gets a lot smaller. Some might say Buffy’s interconnected season-long arcs are the most influential, while Trekkies tend to lean heavily on the innovation and risk-taking of Deep Space Nine’s serialization in later seasons. In fact, one prominent DS9 podcast — The Rules of Acquisition — has effectively argued that DS9 created the foundation for all contemporary TV that followed. And then there’s The X-Files.
All of these examples are valid because, clearly, in the late 1990s, there was a vortex swirling that led to a revitalization of TV conventions that was most noticeable in genre shows. Buffy and DS9 probably deserve equal credit, but in terms of its influence on science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, the series that is (sometimes) overlooked is Babylon 5. By July 1994, Babylon was wrapping up its first season, and the future of science fiction on TV would never be the same…
In retrospect, Babylon 5 made Star Trek better in the 1990s. Like Paul McCartney being inspired by the Beach Boys in the ‘60s, Babylon 5 was the scrappy ‘90s sci-fi underdog that, in a roundabout way, inspired the best of Trek to be better. Here’s why…
Did Deep Space Nine rip-off Babylon 5? (Or vice versa?)
If you were watching sci-fi TV in the ‘90s, you probably had at least an argument about whether or not the two TV shows about people living on a space station were ripping off each other. I had an ill-informed one with my dad in 1995. My dad claimed he thought it was clear that Deep Space Nine (which premiered on January 3rd, 1993) had ripped-off Babylon 5 (which premiered on January 26th, 1994), and I claimed the reverse. Neither of us was right, but it’s easy to see why fans we’re so perplexed at the time. Here’s the list:
- Both shows featured a cast of humans living with aliens on a space station, trying to work out various peace deals.
- Both had no-nonsense female first officers, Kira on DS9, Ivanova on B5 (though in the B5 pilot episode, “The Gathering,” the first officer was Laurel Takashima, played by Tamlyn Tomita, who very recently turned up on Star Trek: Picard.)
- In the first season, both had lead characters who were “Commanders” not “Captains.”
- Both of these Commanders (Sisko and Sinclair) were veterans of major battles/wars, and their characters were (initially) defined by this experience.
- Both space stations were positioned next to a strategic portal through space; the Wormhole in DS9 and a major JumpGate in B5.
- And finally, both shows expected the viewer to have watched some, if not all, of the previous episodes in order to know what was going on. Again, in the ‘90s, this was not common for any TV.
So, what’s the deal? Well, as Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has gone-on record saying many, many times: “Were Pillar and Berman [DS9 creators] aware of B5 at any time? No. Of that, I am also confident. The only question in my mind is to what degree did the development people steer them?”
Babylon 5 had been in development since 1987, but there’s not really any reason to believe that camp Star Trek was super-interested in ripping off a space station show and using it for its own purposes. So, the theory floated by JMS and others is basically this: Because B5 had been pitched to Paramount before landing with Warner Bros, it’s feasible that Paramount Studio executives encouraged the DS9 team to use various elements from the B5 pitch without telling them about the existence of B5. There’s also one rumor that states that Warner and Paramount were planning on launching a joint network in the early ‘90s, and that from a studio-level point-of-view, at some point in time, Babylon 5 and DS9 WERE THE SAME SHOW, even if the people making the shows were unaware of that. That last one is pretty out-there, and also hasn’t been publicly verified, so, there’s a good bet it might not be accurate.
Bottom line: Today, most consider the similarities between B5 and DS9 to be superficial and mostly coincidental. It’s water under the space bridge, Wormhole or Jumpgate. And yet, there are more concrete connections.
The Babylon 5 + Star Trek connections
In front of the camera, Babylon 5 had a few obvious Star Trek connections. The recurring villain Alfred Bester (named after the famous SF novelist) was played by Walter Koenig, best known to Trekkies as Pavel Chekov. Patricia Tallman, who played telepath Lyta Alexander on B5, was a familiar stunt performer on The Next Generation and DS9 (often doubling for Gates McFadden, Nana Visitor, and Terry Farrell ) and also appeared in notable episodes like “Starship Mine.” On top of that, at the height of the rivalry between B5 and Star Trek, Majel Barret — the first lady of Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s widow — guest-starred in the 1996 Babylon 5 episode “Point of No Return.” She played a character named Lady Morella, the widow of the Emperor of the planet Centauri Prime. This cameo was a calculated move on the part of B5 creator JMS and Barret. Basically, the goal here was to send a message to all fandoms: Be cool.
Behind-the-scenes, there were a few more big Star Trek connections. Harlan Ellison was a “Creative Consultant” for Babylon 5 and Trekkies obviously know his mega-famous Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever.” And, JMS himself was also a big Trekkie. But we’ll get to that.
How Babylon 5 (maybe) made Trek writing better in the ‘90s
Okay. So, there’s no reason to believe that Deep Space Nine ripped-off Babylon 5 in the ‘90s, but that doesn’t mean Deep Space Nine and Voyager weren’t made better by the existence of some friendly competition. Documentaries like What We Left Behind make it clear that DS9 had its own agenda, separate and apart, from, well, pretty much anything. That said, DS9 didn’t start out as a serialized show. Those big story arcs came later. Babylon 5 on the other hand, did start out serialized, which when you consider that most seasons were 22 episodes long, that’s really saying something. DS9 always had ongoing storylines, but the heavy serialization — the types of back-to-back story arcs that happened during the Dominion War — happened years after the show got off the ground. Did Babylon 5 give the writers’ room of DS9 the confidence to go this route? Most would probably say no. And yet, B5’s serialization was its signature. With DS9, the serialization became its signature eventually.
Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard Nimoy, directed the most pivotal episode of Babylon 5, the 1996 season 3 finale, “Z’ ha’dum.” These days, this kind of thing happens all the time — Jonathan Frakes directs episodes of Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville in the same year. But back in 1996, this kind of thing was more shocking. It’s not provable, but with so many Star Trek people working on Babylon 5, it feels unlikely that the writers and producers never watched the show. Because if they had, it seems like they would have been fired-up.
How Babylon 5 saved Star Trek’s special effects in the ‘90s
In the early 1990s, real sci-fi on TV didn’t use CGI. If you wanted to do spaceships, you used models. Even the sci-fi epic seaQuest DSV got away with heavy CGI use because, in essence, the ships were half-hidden underwater. But not Babylon 5. From 1994 onward, everything about the series was CGI. Initially, the VFX company that provided these effects was a company called Foundation Imaging. Because B5 had a budget of roughly a third of a Trek series of that era, CGI effects were the only way to survive. You might not think the CGI on B5 looks that realistic now, but you have to put it in context. Outside of maybe The Last Starfighter, nobody had really dared to do outer space ship VFX with anything other than models. B5 proved it could be done. The series also pioneered virtual sets, a practice that every single sci-fi show benefits from to this day.
But this isn’t an instance of Star Trek noticing someone doing CGI and thinking that it was a good idea. Foundation Imaging literally became a part of the Star Trek franchise in 1996. After 1995, Warner Bros decided to create the CGI for Babylon 5 in-house, which left Foundation Imaging in trouble. Luckily in 1996, the company started doing CGI for Star Trek: Voyager, which led to a longtime association with the Trek franchise. Up until 1996, for spaceship exteriors, Trek almost always used models. But that started to change after Foundation Imaging began working on Voyager. Though another VFX company — Digital Muse — did a bunch of DS9’s effects, Foundation Imaging was eventually needed on DS9 as well. Remember the greatest spaceship battle in all of DS9? Yep, that’s (mostly) Foundation Imaging.
In “Sacrifice of Angels,” the scope of the starship battle was too big for models to be used, and the workload too large for Digital Muse to handle alone. And so, Foundation was responsible for the epic moment in which the USS Defiant breaks through the Dominion lines. For most DS9 fans, this exact scene defines why the series is legit awesome. And, the truth is, if Babylon 5 hadn’t employed Foundation Imaging, if Babylon 5 hadn’t relied on CGI effects, the Defiant might not have flown like that. Everyone knows great VFX can’t save a bad sci-fi movie or TV series. But, in the late 90s, it was also true that bad VFX could prevent great sci-fi from being accepted. If Trek hadn’t slowly made the switch to CGI, it’s hard to believe Voyager would have continued to be exciting. Without Babylon 5 and Foundation, you can forget “Year of Hell.”
How Babylon 5’s creator predicted a Star Trek reboot
In 2005, after the cancelation of Enterprise was announced, JMS and Bryce Zabel co-authored a treatment for a possible reboot of Star Trek. This outline wasn’t done because anyone asked them to. It was done out of love for Star Trek. The basic concept was, at the time, fairly radical — do an entire reboot of Star Trek, in fact, the pitch was called Star Trek: Re-Boot the Universe. The idea was to give a new origin story for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the TOS crew. JMS used examples from his work in comic books: Fans can accept that this happens in a different universe. Sound familiar?
By 2009, the entire trajectory of Star Trek was redefined by the first J.J. Abrams reboot movie, which, superficially, is what JMS and Zabel pitched. True, the current Star Trek renaissance has gone away from the reboot universe. But, the viability for big-budget, cinematic Star Trek probably couldn’t have happened without the reboots. Again, we can’t prove that the JMS/Zabel pitch inspired Paramount to do their own reboot, but just like there may have been some synergy between DS9 and B5, the basic pitch is just too similar to ignore.
Babylon 5 was a not a Star Trek rip-off, but it did take place in the 23rd Century, and like the classic Trek, featured heroic human starship captains and their alien allies teaming-up to save the galaxy. In a sense, there was a retro-feeling to all of Babylon 5 that probably reminded ‘90s Trekkies more of TOS than of TNG or DS9. Throw Walter Koenig and Harlan Ellison into the mix, and B5 was like a tribute band for Star Trek: The Original Series. These days, fans of The Orville make similar comparisons between that series and the TNG heyday of the ‘90s. The difference, of course, is that B5 was created by J. Michael Straczynski, a guy who cut his teeth literally creating the scripts for your favorite ‘80s cartoons; from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to The Real Ghostbusters. In short, Straczynski was someone who understood what sci-fi TV was in the ‘90s, and he knew its limitations. When he set out to make B5 he clearly did it with a lot of love for Star Trek.
JMS hired Star Trek actors for Babylon 5. He attempted to bridge the divide between Trek fandoms and the B5 fandoms. He even dreamed up a way to bring Trek back from the dead after it was seemingly canceled in 2005. J. Michael Straczynski maybe never formally wrote for Star Trek, but without him, and without Babylon 5, the world of Trek would have been much, much darker.