Sunday, 14 January 2018

SF&F Questions: Did Deep Space Nine rip off Babylon 5?

In our latest SF&F Question we address one of the biggest controversies in the history of science fiction television: did Star Trek: Deep Space Nine rip off its contemporary and "rival"space station show Babylon 5?

The Basics
Deep Space Nine was the second spin-off television series based on Star Trek. It ran for seven seasons and 178 episodes, debuting on 3 January 1993 and concluding on 2 June 1999.

Babylon 5 was an original science fiction television series which ran for five seasons and 110 episodes, along with an additional six TV movies and its own spin-off show which ran for half a season. It debuted on 22 February 1993 with a stand-alone pilot movie. Season 1 proper debuted on 26 January 1994 and the show concluded on 25 November 1998.

Both shows are set on enormous space stations, which the series is named after. Deep Space Nine is set on a space station near the planet Bajor, which is recovering from forty years of military occupation by the ruthless Cardassian Union. The United Federation of Planets and its space exploration wing, Starfleet, are called in to help run the station and advise the Bajorans on the rebuilding of their world.

Babylon 5's space station (which is considerably larger than DS9) is a sort-of United Nations in space, where representatives from five major governments and dozens of smaller ones meet to discuss important interstellar affairs. The impetus to build the station came from a devastating war between the Earth Alliance and Minbari Federation that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and destabilised the galaxy.

The contention, made directly by Babylon 5's creator and executive producer J. Michael Straczynski at the time, was that Deep Space Nine had ripped off Babylon 5's concepts and ideas, from the broad idea of setting the show on a space station to some specific elements such as having a shapeshifting character (the Minbari assassin in B5's pilot was originally an actual shapeshifting alien) and the presence of an interstellar "gateway" near the station (the wormhole in DS9's case, the jump gate in B5's case).

Wait, Babylon 5 started after DS9. How can it have ripped it off?
It's true that DS9 aired its pilot episode, Emissary, six weeks before B5 aired its pilot, The Gathering, and took a lot longer to get its first season proper on air. In fact, DS9 was halfway through its second season before B5 could begin airing its first. However, this does not tell the full story of the two shows' development; Babylon 5 was created, conceived and outlined almost five years before DS9 was commissioned.

J. Michael Straczynski came up with the idea for Babylon 5 in 1986 or 1987; he seeded a mention of the name into Final Stand, one of his episodes for Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which aired on 4 October 1987. He developed the Babylon 5 series bible around this time and wrote a pilot script (an early but still-recognisable version of The Gathering), plus a full set of 22 episode outlines for a full season of the show. Concept artist Peter Ledger also provided paintings of the titular space station and its crew. This package was shopped around CBS, ABC and HBO in 1988 to no avail.

In early 1989 Straczynski and his prospective production partners, Douglas Netter and John Copeland, received a boost when they met Evan Thompson, the head of a group of local stations called Chris Craft. Syndication - where a show is sold direct to lots of local TV stations rather than one of the big national networks - was experiencing a renaissance thanks to the success of Paramount Television's Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had launched in September 1987) and Chris Craft was interested in lining up a new show for the syndication market. Babylon 5 fit the bill, they felt, and they hoped a new science fiction show would do similar numbers to Star Trek for them.
To this end Thompson took the Babylon 5 project directly to Paramount Television. He presented them with the pilot script, the 22 additional episode outlines, the outline of a serialised five-year story arc and the detailed production notes which suggested that the show could be made for less money than TNG. Paramount sat on the notes for about eight to nine months and the producers he spoke to were enthusiastic about the project, but Paramount's senior management felt that having a second science fiction/space opera show set in a completely different universe would be too confusing and would cannibalise the Star Trek audience. By the end of 1989 they had formally passed on the B5 project and Thompson was given back the notes, scripts and outlines.

Eventually Babylon 5 found a home at Warner Brothers and their new Prime-Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), an alliance of syndicated stations. The show was formerly announced as being in development in the summer of `1991. Two months later, Paramount Television announced that they were developing a spin-off from Star Trek: The Next Generation, called Star Trek: Deep Space IX (later changed to Deep Space Nine after too many people wrote in asking what a "Deep Space Ix" was) that would be set on a large space station. Straczynski was not slow in calling foul and reminding people that Paramount had had the story notes for Babylon 5 for almost a year and could have cribbed whatever notes that'd wanted from them.

Okay, that sounds pretty plausible actually. So what is Paramount's side of the story?
Paramount's side of the story is pretty straightforward: they themselves didn't come up with the basic notion of DS9. Instead it came in with a new executive to the network who did not have prior access to any internal documents related to the 1989 Babylon 5 proposal.

Backtracking a little: despite risible critical notices, the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation had done gangbusters for Paramount in terms of ratings and therefore advertising profitability. With the third season of TNG, including its epic Borg cliffhanger episode, The Best of Both Worlds, improving the show's critical and commercial success, they wanted to exploit this by developing more shows in the same setting. However, executive producers Rick Berman and Michael Pillar weren't sure how to approach this and, with TNG being a time-consuming show, they put these ideas on the backburner.

The situation changed in 1991. Brandon Tartikoff, one of the most feted and respected television executives in Hollywood, had departed NBC after fourteen years. During his time at the network he had displayed a canny eye for gauging what would work and what wouldn't, making such far-reaching decisions as renewing Cheers and Seinfeld even after the first few seasons of each show brought in terrible ratings and being rewarded when they both became the biggest shows on television. He was also involved in the creation of The Cosby Show, Miami Vice and The Golden Girls, all of which became immense successes despite Hollywood wisdom being set against them.
Tartikoff was asked to join Paramount Television, which was in the doldrums and needed some firing up. Tartikoff accepted the job and arrived in the post of chairman with one firm idea already in place: a new Star Trek television series. One of his first actions was to summon Berman and Piller to his office (they were terrified that he was going to cancel TNG) and presented them with a concept he'd already developed: if the original Star Trek series and TNG were both "Wagon Train to the stars" - a reference to a 1957-65 Western TV show about pioneers exploring the American West - than he wanted the new show to be "The Rifleman in space", a reference to a 1958-63 TV series focusing on a widowed sheriff trying to keep the peace in a fractious frontier town whilst also raising his young son. The new Star Trek show would therefore not be set on a starship but a starbase, one of the planetary bases frequently visited in both Star Trek series, and the show would deal with the problems of being stationary in possibly hostile surroundings rather than being able to roar off at the end of each week's adventure.

Piller and Berman ran with the idea - possibly a bit more literally than Tartikoff had expected - by proposing that a Starfleet base had been set up on a planet recently under hostile alien occupation, with a newly-widowed Starfleet officer assigned to command the base with his son. The officer's wife had been killed by the Borg in the Battle of Wolf 359 and he was suffering issues related to that event. They decided the occupying aliens would be the Cardassians - introduced in the then-recently-aired TNG episode The Wounded - and created the planet Bajor and its spiritual inhabitants as the planet in question. They also mused on using a stable wormhole (an idea introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 and further expanded on in the TNG episode The Price, which had aired in November 1989) as a way of revitalising Bajor's economy and introducing strife with the Cardassians, who'd abandoned the planet before the wormhole was discovered.

However, they ran into problems just a couple of weeks later when costing the show. One of the appeals of doing the project was having regular location filming to make the show feel less claustrophobic than TNG and give it a very different look. The problem is that regular location filming would have meant either almost doubling the budget beyond TNG (at that point already the most expensive TV show on the air) or spending many episodes indoors without going outside, which seemed pointless. They decided that moving the show onto a space station made more sense: starbases were established as also being space stations in the original show and having the show set in space would allow for the exploration and space battles that viewers had come to expect. It also allowed them to have outings to other planets (Bajor or new worlds in the Gamma Quadrant beyond the wormhole) or stay on the station as budgets required. Indeed, the show's first official announcement poster indicated they would be using the already-established Spacedock design from the movie Star Trek III for the space station, but they later decided that using a Cardassian station would be more interesting.

Paramount's defences to the charge of ripping off Babylon 5, therefore, are that 1) the person who came up with the basic idea of DS9 hadn't been working at Paramount previously and arrived with the concept already in place before he'd seen any documents; 2) the B5 documents were all returned to Evan Thompson before 1989 was over and no copies were made (and indeed, it would been legally dubious to do so); 3) the original concept was for a planetary base and was only moved to a space station for budgetary reasons; and 4) that many of the concepts used in DS9, including the wormhole and even the original space station design, predated B5's original genesis by years.

More common sense arguments can also be made: a space opera TV show is going to be either set on a spaceship, a space station or a planet, and with Star Trek already having a starship-set show on the air and with the planet option eliminated by budgetary requirements, a space station was the only setting left.

Right. So what about the shapeshifting alien?
Straczynski's original 1987 The Gathering draft had a shapeshifting alien trying to kill Ambassador Kosh and being defeated. Visual effects limitations would have required this alien to have shifted form with some kind of blurry effect or even off-screen. It should be noted that this alien was only ever intended to appear in the pilot episode.

Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, was pretty much ordered by Paramount to include a shapeshifting alien to cash in on the craze for "morphing". This CG technology had been pioneered by the 1988 movie The Abyss by James Cameron but had exploded in the public consciousness with Cameron's film Terminator 2: Judgement Day, released in July 1991. The T-1000 android's ability to shift shape was accomplished by cutting-edge computer technology and it led to an insane craze for both TV shows and films to use the same software (as well as music videos, such as Michael Jackson's "Black or White"). Paramount wanted a shapeshifting alien as a regular character on DS9 to cash in on this craze, not because an unused TV outline from two years earlier had such a character as a one-off villain.

Okay, that sounds pretty convincing from their perspective. So why is this explanation not more widely known?

J. Michael Straczynski was a pioneer in the use of the Internet for discussing his work and his TV shows: he was sitting on chat groups as early as 1990 talking about the series. Most people in the United States didn't even know what the Internet was until circa 1995 and the Star Trek team were slow to start using the Internet as a means of communicating with fans. As a result, the full story of the creation of Deep Space Nine and Brandon Tartikoff's involvement was not publicly known until the publication of The Deep Space Nine Companion in 2000. Tartikoff himself passed away in 1997 and Michael Piller in 2005, so neither are still with us to comment on the situation. On the other hand, Straczynski was discussing it loudly and publicly from 1991 onwards, so his version of events became dominant in the media.

It should be noted that, many years later, Straczynski also withdrew his suggestion that DS9 ripped off B5, saying that he did not believe Rick Berman nor Michael Piller (whom Straczynski knew) would knowingly rip off another writer's material. He left open the idea that a Paramount executive may have "steered" some discussion with material from his notes, but no evidence for this has ever been produced.

Okay, but did the shows have an impact on one another during production and transmission?
This is clearer. For example, the Cardassians were supposed to have a clandestine intelligence agency known as the "Grey Order", introduced in Season 2 of DS9. One of the production staff pointed out that Babylon 5 had a "Grey Council" (the rulers of the Minbari Federation) and the Cardassian name was changed to "Obsidian Order" to avoid any confusion.

Ron Thornton, the creator of Babylon 5's cutting-edge CGI, also claimed in 1996 that the introduction of the White Star (a warship the B5 crew could use to get around in) was directly inspired by the introduction of the USS Defiant on DS9 a full year earlier, a claim furiously denied by Straczynski who pointed out that the show simply needed a ship bigger than the standard fighters and shuttles to take the fight to the enemy. It should be noted that the relationship between B5's producers and its CGI team at Foundation Imaging was breaking down at this point, so it's unclear if Thornton's comment was meant seriously or in jest (and Ron Thornton passed away in 2016, making it difficult to clarify further).

The acrimony between the two shows resulted in furious flame wars between their respective fandoms on the Internet, becoming notable enough that Straczynski dialled down his criticisms of DS9. This thawing of tensions may have also been down to the fact that Straczynski was good friends with Jeri Taylor, executive producer on Star Trek: Voyager, and wanted to cool things down. To this end he also convinced Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (Number One, Nurse Chapel, Lwaxana Troi and various Federation computer voices on multiple Star Trek shows) to guest star on Babylon 5 during its third season.

Answer: Deep Space Nine did not rip off Babylon 5, despite the fortuitous timing and some very superficial surface similarities which do not withstand detailed scrutiny. A spin-off from the very successful Next Generation was a natural progression for the franchise and a space station setting was a logical extrapolation once a planetary setting was ruled out. There is also no evidence Paramount made (highly unethical, if not illegal) copies of the B5 notes or passed these onto the DS9 producers, and the charge was later withdrawn by B5's executive producer.

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Dave Ellis said...

Would you say the later seasons of DS9 ( the Worf years if you will) were influenced by B5 with the introduction of more long multi-episode stories? I reckon they brought the best out in each other which was the start of the serialised story telling we see today.

Ed Rybicki said...

I enjoyed both Babylon 5 and the LATER DS9 for the same reason: multi episode story arcs wit a background in vast galactic political intrigues. I am sure the later DS9 was influenced by B5 in this regard; it was obvious how good this was at keeping people's interest. And it's why The Expanse is doing s well right now.

Anonymous said...

Patricia Tallman (actress on B5) claims there was a lawsuit against Paramount over this very issue. Any truth to this, because I couldn't find any mention of this anywhere. If so, I guess it would add some credibility to the claim.

Adam Whitehead said...

No. Straczynski has said himself there was never any kind of formal legal action against Paramount. He couldn't do it (he couldn't afford it and Warner Brothers owned the property) and Warner Brothers were not interested in pursuing such a case as it was impossible to even remotely prove.