Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 at 25 - How these shows challenged sci-fi television
This year, two sci-fi greats are celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversaries. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 were seen as black sheeps of the sci-fi genre, both of which gained cult following over the years and introduced narrative arcs that were hugely influential on television that followed. Rather unfairly, they are seen as relatively carbon copies of each other - two space station-based shows that has the unfortunate timing of airing at the same time. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 are both unique in their own ways, while their similarities are often their strengths, not their weaknesses.
Part of the dismissal of these shows as being copies comes from the fact that Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski pitched the show to Paramount prior to it being picked up by Warner Bros and many fans feel that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ripped off Straczynski's ideas in its concept. Ironically, he was approached by Paramount to become a producer of the Star Trek: Enterprise, which he declined, before pitching a new Star Trek TV reboot series with Bryce Zabel that was ultimately rejected. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made its season one debut with The Emissary on the 3rd January 1993, while Babylon 5 pilot The Gathering followed shortly after on the 22nd February. But despite this awareness of the show, there is no real evidence that Paramount developed Straczynski's in all but name.
The fact is, that setting these shows on space stations lends them to a particular form of storytelling where similarities will naturally lie. The space stations of Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 are communities, where the core crews are surrounded by friends, families, co-workers and a whole host of recurring visitors and inhabitants. On a more traditional spaceship-based premise, you can focus more squarely on a core set of characters as they explore a new region of space and come across new characters and planets weeks on week. But where the setting is stationary, the crews are more likely to come across the same people each episode, encounter recurring themes, ideas and beliefs.
And by setting these stations not just in a solely human community, both characters could explore completely original characters, alien in spirit and body, This led to alien characters as completely absorbing as their human counterparts, characters that didn't even need to fit in the 'good' category.
Babylon 5 was perhaps the most successful in the creation of legendary characters Londo and G'Kar, played by the phenomenal Peter Jurasik and the late, great Andreas Katsulas. These two characters flitted between allies and villains and had fully-fledged relationships and story arcs outside of the core 'crew' of Earthforce. Their story was on par with a great Shakespearean tragedy, dealing with the temptation of power, death, war, greed, suffering and ultimately peace; over the course of the five years they were indeed the heart of the show, becoming deeply bitter enemies to strong allies, before tragedy once again tore them apart. I could write a whole article on these characters alone.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had something similar, though somewhat less prominent in Cardassians Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) and Garak (Andrew Robinson). Two deeply distrustful characters, the first became a shady villain, turned ally and them betrayed everyone in his alliance with the Dominion. But even then, his story wasn't over, suffering great loss over the death of his daughter before becoming an even greater threat and dark mirror to lead character Sisko in the end. Garak meanwhile, began as a spy and antagonist and ended up one of the biggest allies in the final war that consumed the final seasons.
Many of the greatest characters in television, let alone sci-fi, can be found in these shows. Some are similar; the fierce, strong women in Ivanova and Kira to the duplicitous enemies hiding behind a mask of society Bester and Kai Win.
Even the lead characters arguably go through the greatest journey of virtually any lead in sci-fi show; Ben Sisko begins as a tortured single father trying to find belief in his Starfleet career to spiritual hero and military commander. In Babylon 5 those paths were even greater; original commander Jeffrey Sinclair started as a war hero and unwilling diplomat before literally transforming into an alien and legendary figure that changed the direction of the galaxy. His second season replacement Sheridan also went from 'by the book' Captain to a figurehead in a rebellion against his own people, general in a war against two terrifying alien enemies and President of an Interstellar Alliance.
Characters are at the heart of these shows, more perhaps than any other. Most sci-fi shows - from The X Files to Star Trek: The Next Generation never saw their central characters change as much as they did on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. These were were seven and five-year epics respectively, each a chapter in an unfolding story. Straczynski's forward planning was revolutionary, developing long-running arc structures that had rarely been bettered. Shows like The X-Files built their mythology piece by piece over time, but these were scattered loosely between standalone stories. In Babylon 5, even those early stories had relevance later on; the alien healing device from a seemingly throway season one episode became the device that saved Garibaldi in season two and saw Marcus sacrifice his life to save Ivanova in season four.
Everything had a purpose; of course it could all come crashing down if the show was cancelled or a key cast member left. But this was perhaps where Straczynski was the most clever. He created trapdoors for 'characters', meaning that if one key role left, the path their story was taking could be picked up by another. When Michael O'Hare departed the show after only one season (only later revealed as a tragic, crippling mental illness following his death in 2012), the showrunner brought in the charismatic Bruce Boxleitner to play replacement captain John Sheridan, a man who fulfilled the role of turning against the corruption of Earth and leading Babylon 5 in the war against the Shadows. O'Hare managed to return in season three to fulfil his role as Valen, while Sheridan was given a different spiritual journey in the finale Sleeping In Light.
Patricia Tallman's Lyta was always supposed to the play super-evolved telepath in the war against the Shadows, experiencing an 'awakening' when delving into Kosh's mind in the pilot. When she didn't return for the series, Andrea Thompson replaced her as telepath Talia Winters, a woman who developed her powers thanks to a gift from an old friend who had in turn faced telepath experimentation. But when Thompson decided to leave, Straczynski switched the roles again, bringing original telepath Lyta back for the rest of the run. And when Claudia Christian, whose Ivanova was a latent telepath, didn't return for the final season to play out her role in the story of telepath Byron, Lyta took her place. It was a very clever piece of planning, one that left the core stories intact; only the threat of cancellation resulted in the Earth war wrapping up in season four, meaning that he final season lost some of the impetus of the previous couple of years.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine wasn't quite so intricately planned, mainly because no one character's story was as integral to the plot. Perhaps if Avery Brooks had left the show as Captain Benjamin Sisko, the show might have suffered - given his role as Emissary of the Prophets - but the show would have still found a way to continue without any other character. What people struggle to reconcile are the ways in which the shows took similar paths; both stations became central players in galactic wars, both dealt with the darker side of Earth (Clark and Psi Corps, Section 31), both gained a ship in season three (the White Star, the Defiant - though these really allowed the shows to explore the wider, galactic premise of the emerging storylines). And it is hard to tell whether any show was significantly influenced by the other. Given Straczynski's mapped out five year story arc, you would assume Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took elements of Babylon 5 and incorporated into their own story, but it may be that the unique setting of these shows naturally gravitated down the same path.
In the end, it doesn't matter; there were enough unique differences to make them special in their own right. I've talked about the Shadows and the narrative arcs of Babylon 5, the latter of which may have influenced arc-based shows like Lost. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was also hugely influential in its own right. We might marvel at how Star Trek: Discovery has brought a fresh perspective on the long-running Star Trek franchise, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine got there first. It showed that the franchise didn't just have to dwell on the sunny utopia of the Federation. The fact that the greatest threat this galactic community has ever faced was presented in this shows, put a torch light on what was truly at stake. It was easy for the Enterprise-D to travel the galaxy in relative peace. But the crew f Deep Space Nine fought desperately to keep it that way.
And it also brought great depth the various alien races as well as the Federation itself. It continued the good work of Star Trek: The Next Generation by building on Klingon society, but also brought depth to the pathetic Ferengi, exploring their culture of greed and power in a nuanced manner. It turned the Cardassians from an aggressive regime into a secretive, manipulative and ultimately tragic race, while not being afraid to show the Bajorans as more than just victims. But it also shined a light on the darker side of humanity; from the aforementioned Section 31 with its shadowy machinations to a Federation military coup almost transpiring in season four. It proved that the humans of Star Trek weren't all the sometimes bland, and often sunny personas of the TNG era but a multi-faceted people - just as humanity is today. The show wasn't afraid to dig deeper into the motivations of its people and show that people could make mistakes or do something that wasn't always pure. It is why episode like season six's 'In The Pale Moonlight' are still regarded so highly.
Both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 were hugely influential as sci-fi television dramas. It brought darker, grittier storytelling that led to shows likes the darker, grittier reimagining of Battlestar Galactica and showed that long-running narrative arcs could be accessible in television (the aforementioned Lost being a prime example, though that in turn introduced a number of much lesser contemporaries). But most importantly, it gave audiences strong, well-developed characters and absorbing storytelling and it is perhaps why they are so strongly regarded now.