Thursday 4 January 2018

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (1993)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Piloted January / February 1993

Launched twenty-five years ago this month, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ST:DS9) was a spin-off from the successful Star Trek: The Next Generation Series (ST:TNG), running for seven seasons until 1999. Set on board a second-hand space station on the fringes of Federation space, DS9 was a more gritty and complex show than TNG ever was. Using the advantage of the large fixed sets that the station setting allowed, DS9 was less reliant on the "planet of the week" approach that TNG had. And also unlike TNG, DS9 was a show of conflicts and war ending up in the epic struggle between the Federation and the seemingly unstoppable Dominion.

But that wasn't the only space station-based science fiction show that you could watch. Piloting in February 1993 was Babylon 5 (B5). Set in its own unique timeline, Babylon 5 also stood out because it was designed from the start to have a five-year story arc compared to Star Trek's traditional self-contained episodes. Babylon 5 introduced pioneering CGI animation and groundbreaking alien prosthetics, running for five seasons from 1994 to 1988 and then followed by a number of feature films.

DS9 was created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller for Paramount, B5 by J. Michael Straczynski for Warner Brothers. There was some intense rivalry between fans of the two shows, but less so between the two shows themselves. B5 itself was created as a sort of antithesis of ST:TNG, striving to create more consistency between episodes (so that a solution for a problem one week could also be a solution another week, and not forgotten as so often happened with TNG) and it also strove to break some of the cliches (in B5 the cute kid almost always dies). DS9 on the other hand showed that not all the Federation was a futuristic utopia, and the integrity of the Federation itself was not assured.
Babylon 5

There were some striking similarities - both DS9 and B5 were originally under the direction of a Commander (not a Captain) in the form of Benjamin Sisko and Jeffrey Sinclair respectively, both of whom had question marks hanging over their careers. Both series feature a fight against an enemy that might be unbeatable (the Dominion and the Shadows). Both series explored moral ambiguities, betrayal, politics and diplomacy. Both series acquired a kick-ass ship to protect them (the USS Defiant and White Star). Oh yes, and both space stations had a number. But on top of that, Walter Koenig (from the original Star Trek series) plays a major role, and even Majel Barrett (wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) had a small role. The argument of who might have borrowed what ideas from whom has rumbled on for decades.

But anyway - what of gadgets? Well, the biggest gadget in either show was the Babylon 5 space station, with the statistics spelled out in the series one opening sequence -  5 miles long, weighing 2.5 million tons and with a population of 250,000 humans and non-humans. Designed and built by Earth in the mid-23rd century it lacked artificial gravity, so Babylon 5 featured rotating sections. Shuttles and other small ships could enter the station directly and dock inside the hangars, and the station also had dorsal launch tubes for its Starfury fighters, plus an impressive defense grid that could take on a cruiser-class enemy ship.

Deep Space 9 was much smaller, reportedly about a mile long but weighing 10.1 million tons. Spacecraft had to dock on the outside. The station's armaments were complemented by deflector shields, and it could house up to 7000 people. As with all Star Trek series, the principles of artificial gravity had been long ago mastered. Originally known as Terok Nor when it was built by the Cardassians in the mid-24th century, DS9 was quite unlike anything else the Federation operated.

Both of these shows were made in a golden age of TV space opera. Twenty-five years later mainstream television has largely abandoned this format. Perhaps it's time will come again? Maybe we won't have to wait until the 23rd century to find out.

Image credits: iTunes [1] [2]

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