A sci-fi battle for the ages begins again!
Welcome back to Fan’s TV Face-off! In TV Face-off we take two thematically similar television characters (or series) and run them through a side-by-side comparison and award one of the contestants a single point for having an edge in each category. In the event of a tie, each side gets half a point.
This year marked the 20th Anniversary of two legendary sci-fi shows: Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Before the rise of original programming on cable (and even before UPN and The WB came along), syndication was a viable way to produce TV shows that could find an audience without being on one of the major broadcast networks. Star Trek: The Next Generation proved to be a huge hit for Paramount; which ordered Deep Space Nine as a spinoff series, with Rick Berman and Michael Piller as the creators.
Warner Bros. had its own sci-fi TV property in the form of Babylon 5; which was the creation and passion of J. Michael Straczynski. Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shared their names with space stations of great strategic importance within their respective shows. At the time, setting a show on a space station was considered highly unusual. And the two Star Trek series that came after Deep Space Nine both went back to using spaceships as the primary focus of the action.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine debuted in January 1993 and the pilot episode of Babylon 5 aired a month later. However, Straczynski noted that he had pitched Babylon 5 to Paramount TV in 1989 and he alleged that Paramount may have used his Babylon 5 presentation to steer the development of Deep Space Nine.
Whether that happened or not, the similarities between Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were very striking. Neither show was an exact clone of the other. But over time, Deep Space Nine seemed to incorporate a greater serialization and it embraced ongoing storylines… which Babylon 5 had been doing from the start. Even the series finales of both shows share some disturbingly similar elements.
To the surprise of no one, there was quite a rivalry between the hardcore fans of Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. That was probably more intense for the people who followed the respective shows than it was for the creative people behind-the-scenes. Star Trek legend Majel Barrett-Roddenberry even guest starred in a pivotal episode of Babylon 5 in part to demonstrate good will between the respective franchises.
It’s lonely out in space, and both Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine have been overshadowed in the decade plus since they ended. But fans who grew up with those shows remember them. Considering that there are currently no space-based TV shows on the air, the mid-90s were a golden age for sci-fi television.
In honor of two of my personal favorite shows, this week’s TV Face-off pits Babylon 5 against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one more time. And there will be a winner.
No Surrender, No Retreat
The first leader of Babylon 5, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) initially came across as a little wooden and his character was very slowly revealed during the first season. The late O’Hare was a capable performer and he did his best to make Sinclair a compelling character.
But it was the season 2 introduction of Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) that galvanized Babylon 5. Sheridan proved to the right leading character for Babylon 5 as Boxleitner got to portray a man who could be more than just the stock hero. Sheridan’s character arc allowed him to change and grow over the course of the series. When O’Hare returned for a guest appearance in the third season, he seemed noticeably more relaxed in the role of Sinclair. By that time, the audience had been fully invested in Sheridan’s character and Sinclair’s absence made the fans appreciate him as well.
On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Avery Brooks’ Commander Benjamin Sisko went through a similar transformation. In the early days of Deep Space Nine, Sisko seemed a little stiff and one note. But over time, the writers played to Brooks’ strengths while fleshing out Sisko’s character. By the time that Sisko was promoted to Captain, he had become a compelling character as well. In a rarity for Star Trek, Sisko was allowed to be less than perfect and he even compromised his morals to trick the Romulans into joining the Federation’s side in the Dominion War.
Sheridan also went to some dark places during his journey and Boxleitner was great in the role. However, Brooks brought a little bit more passion to Sisko and thus he narrowly takes the category for Deep Space Nine.
EDGE: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Call To Arms
As a franchise, Star Trek is known for bringing together strong ensemble casts. Deep Space Nine was no exception. Among the cast, the most notable characters beyond Sisko himself may have been René Auberjonois as the shapeshifter, Odo and Armin Shimerman as Quark, the Ferengi bartender whose character could be played for both laughs and drama. Alexander Siddig’s Dr. Julian Bashir also enjoyed some great character development late in the series after it was revealed that he had a thematic connection to one of the great Star Trek villains.
Nana Visitor had terrific intensity as Kira Nerys, the former freedom fighter/terrorist who initially clashed with Sisko before forming a deep friendship with him. Andrew J. Robinson was also a standout as the shady Cardassian tailor, Elim Garak. I’ve never understood why Robinson was never upped to a series regular. Garak almost always walked away with any scene that he was in.
And I don’t mean to downplay the other performers on the show, including Terry Farrell, Colm Meaney, Michael Dorn, Max Grodénchik, Aron Eisenberg and any of the other recurring cast. There were no weak links in that cast.
Babylon 5 also had a very large and talented cast. Foremost among them were the late Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar and Peter Jurasik as Londo; a pair of feuding alien ambassadors whose dramatic character arcs helped make Babylon 5 an unforgettable experience. Mira Furlan was also amazing as Delenn, the Mimbari ambassador who became the defacto female lead of the series.
Jerry Doyle brought some comedy and pathos to Babylon 5’s Security Chief, Michael Garibaldi and the late Richard Biggs got to show off his dramatic chops in the third season, as his character, Dr. Stephen Franklin struggled to overcome his addiction. As for Claudia Christian, she got to play Susan Ivanova, the first officer of Babylon 5 who was every bit as formidable as her colleagues… if not more. Ivanova was also one of the first female characters in sci-fi television history to fall in love with another woman. It was a subtle story, but it was clearly there from the beginning.
As with Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 had no weak links in the cast. Bill Mumy, Jason Carter, Patricia Tallman, Stephen Furst and Jeff Conaway were all entertaining performers on the show. And then was Ed Wasser’s Morden, one of the most deliciously evil villains on any TV series. Of course Morden didn’t view himself as evil and Wasser was never a series regular. But Morden demanded attention whenever he showed up. Star Trek veteran Walter Koenig also had a recurring role on Babylon 5 as the shady Psi-Cop, Bester.
It is a very tough call to choose between these two casts, but I’m going with Babylon 5 for a specific reason. The way that B5 used its main characters to explore various alien cultures was very fascinating. Deep Space Nine also did that for the Bajorans, the Klingons and the Ferengi, although the Ferengi culture was mostly played for laughs as a parody of modern materialism.
The alien cultures of Babylon 5 didn’t exist as objects of mockery. And thanks to some strong performances from the cast, they became very believable.
EDGE: Babylon 5
Far Beyond The Stars
When pitching Babylon 5 to Hollywood executives and to sci-fi fans, Straczynski often referred to it as a five season novel for television. Keep in mind, this was largely unheard of in TV dramas outside of soap operas at the time. The thinking was that episodes of dramas needed to be relatively interchangeable for syndication purposes. The original Star Trek was a good example of a high concept sci-fi show that could be aired in almost any order.
By taking the novel approach, Straczynski ensured that Babylon 5 would have to be aired in order for it to make sense. This also allowed Straczynski to gradually develop his entire cast while slowly unveiling the larger designs of his story. Small moments in early episodes often paid off big time in later seasons as Straczynski laid out the groundwork for a devastating interstellar war.
For the first few seasons, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was just like its predecessors. There was continuity between the episodes, but the serialized elements were fairly limited. During the fourth season, that began to change as the Deep Space Nine creative team embraced serialization as the show began its Dominion War storyline.
Did the Deep Space Nine team go in that direction because Babylon 5 did it first? It’s hard to definitively say one way or the other. However, those later season episodes of Deep Space Nine were some of the best Star Trek stories ever created. So if there’s even a chance that Babylon 5 helped spark this revolution, then it deserves the nod here for going first.
EDGE: Babylon 5
The Coming of Shadows
The major arc of Babylon 5 was The Shadow War, as a mysterious and powerful alien race (known to the other races as The Shadows) slowly manipulated the galaxy into a chaotic war and pitted alien races against each other before attacking all sides.
The Shadows first appeared as early as the midway point of the first season of Babylon 5. And it was their actions that kicked off the impressive character arcs of Londo and G’Kar while giving nearly every major character something significant at stake in the war against the Shadows. For Sheridan, that meant uncovering the Shadows’ link to the death of his wife. And for Delenn, it meant defying her leaders in a desperate attempt to get the alien races ready to defend themselves.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had a similar slow burn for the Dominion War as it hinted at the Dominion’s existence during the second season before finally introducing them. Eventually we learned that the Dominion was ruled by a race of shape-shifters called the Founders; who turned out to be the same species as Odo.
The Dominion as a whole proved to be a great foil for Starfleet and the familiar alien races including the Klingons, the Romulans and even the Cardassians who sided with the Dominion only to find themselves as little more than slaves in their empire.
That storyline was Star Trek’s first true epic and it produced some great episodes over the course of Deep Space Nine. Ronald D. Moore was one of DS9’s primary writers during that era and he went on to oversee the Battlestar Galactica reboot at Syfy that pushed sci-fi TV to even greater heights.
The Shadow War wasn’t without its faults, but it was a stronger story than The Dominion War primarily because Straczynski didn’t have to make it up as he went along. It was always the plan. Babylon 5 had the occasional creative hiccup, but it took its story from start to finish. Straczynski also took it upon himself to write 92 episodes out of Babylon 5’s 110 episode run. That achievement alone demands recognition.
EDGE: Babylon 5
The influence of Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was felt in some of the shows that followed, including Farscape, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate: Universe. Arguably, B5 and DS9 also helped pave the way serialized genre shows like Alias, Lost and Fringe.
Which is why it’s disheartening to see that both Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine have slipped off of the general public’s radar. That was why a recent joke in Breaking Bad revolved around a character who spent three hours “talking about something called Babylon 5.” Somebody on the Breaking Bad writing staff obviously loved that show, but the Babylon 5 reference probably flew over the heads of the majority of the audience.
Both Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are available for streaming, but Deep Space Nine is available on more services. However, neither show appears to be currently syndicated on American TV; which is a shame.
As a franchise, Star Trek is still alive in movie theaters, although a new TV series doesn’t seem to be in the cards. For Babylon 5, there’s an outside chance that a movie may happen some day. But a TV revival seems less likely.
Someday, someone may have the urge to reboot Babylon 5 and tell the same story over again. But the beauty of Babylon 5 is that it is already complete. Straczynski told his story and it doesn’t have to be rehashed. Babylon 5 may be sleeping now, but it merely awaits a new audience to discover it.
EDGE: Babylon 5
With a score of 4 to 1, Babylon 5 has defeated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in TV Face-off!
But this is a democracy and there’s a rematch happening in our poll below. So Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 fans, it’s up to you now! Which series is the best?