On the DS9 / Babylon 5 Controversy

Note: It’s been a long time since I’ve watched B5, and I’m keeping an open mind. If you want to nitpick or bring up new evidence, please do so in the comments, I’d be happy to edit and expand the discussion.

On Reddit recently, I was defending my favorite of the Treks, DS9, against a horde of Babylon 5 fans that argued that Paramount ripped the entire premise of DS9 from material that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) tried to sell to them long before DS9 was ever announced.

Do I believe that Paramount would be that unscrupulous? Absolutely. They’re a studio, and in the history of movies and TV I’m sure you can find plenty of other examples of assholish behavior. Personally, that seems like legal grounds to sue the shit out of Paramount, but JMS apparently didn’t want to taint either show with legal action. That doesn’t seem very businesslike, but hey. I can’t fault the guy for wanting to have more sci-fi on TV rather than less.

I’ve watched Babylon 5. I enjoyed it. I am not a conspiracy theorist however so I decided to look at the supposed mirror-like similarities between the shows and determine what I thought myself.

Summary

The first thing I wanted was a concise list of the similarities. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve watched B5 so while I remember the grand sweep of things, the details are little hazy. The best summation is a list I found in the IMDB FAQ for B5 and it goes a little something like this.

  • Babylon 5 involves a space station beside an artificial hyperspace jumpgate. Deep Space Nine involves a space station beside an artificial wormhole.
  • Both shows had human captains who would end up becoming figures of religious significance to a local race. Benjamin Sisko would become the Bajoran Emissary while Sinclair was Valen.
  • Both shows involved humans working alongside a recent enemy race: the Minbari in Babylon 5 and the Klingons in Deep Space Nine (although the friendly nature of the Klingons was established in Star Trek: The Next Generation)
  • Both shows would introduce a small, powerful, first of its kind warship at similar points in their third season: The Defiant on Deep Space Nine and the White Star on Babylon 5
  • Both shows featured female seconds in command who were hot tempered: Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine and Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5
  • Both shows featured doctors who had strained relations with their fathers and who were hiding secrets: Julian Bashir’s genetic modification on Deep Space Nine and Stephen Franklin’s involvement with the underground and his stim addiction on Babylon 5
  • Both shows involved combat against mysterious foes who seemed much more powerful than the protagonists: The Dominion on Deep Space Nine and the Shadows on Babylon 5
  • In addition there are several names which appear in both shows such as Lyta/Leeta and Dukhat/Dukat..

Let’s get cracking.

The premise

Babylon 5 involves a space station beside an artificial hyperspace jumpgate. Deep Space Nine involves a space station beside an artificial wormhole.

This seems to be the most damning evidence that the premise of DS9 was ripped off. On the face of it, these are very similar. However, if you break it down, I’d argue that these are genre pieces.

Set on a space station. It seems suspicious that JMS would pitch B5 to Paramount and then, 4 years later, when B5 got the greenlight elsewhere, suddenly there would be a new Trek set on a space station. However, this ignores one fact and that’s that not only are space stations totally average in sci-fi and in fact are mentioned endlessly in TOS and TNG, but also that the human race has actually (in reality) put a number of space stations in orbit around earth. The Russian Mir space station was put up in 1986, three years before JMS’s pitch, and 7 years before DS9 started to air. It’s unsurprising then that TV sci-fi, especially in two franchises set in our future rather than in some alternate reality like Star Wars, would choose a space station. JMS chose it for B5 because it acts as a semi-neutral diplomatic area, DS9 chose it because it was a different take on a universe that had already had two shows about cruising the galaxy.

Set by a [transportation device]. This seems like a stronger argument than it’s base setting. Jump gates and worm holes? Basically the same thing, right? No… not really. In B5 jump gates are the mechanism for ships to enter hyperspace. They’re like highway on and off ramps and standard ships have to use the jump gate network to cross vast distances. Trek already had something like this, warp speed. The wormhole is different, it’s a one-of-a-kind link between two points in space that are vast distances apart.

This doesn’t address the core issues though. Regardless of technology, there’s still some transit feature next to the space station. But really, isn’t that an obvious device for both shows? B5 requires a jumpgate because otherwise it wouldn’t be very useful as a space station in a world where ships have to use them to cross large distances. In the same way, DS9′s story requires the wormhole because without it, it’s just one of a hundred different Federation space stations and not a very integral or interesting one at that. It’s one of the oldest literary devices in the book to have a trade point, a port, a bridge, a mountain pass in the setting because it gives a reason for exotic people and items to show up. In military stories, it gives a tactical weight to the setting. In short, nobody should be surprised that this is part of the base setting for either show.

What’s being left out. There are a lot of omissions in the setting that are left out of this argument as well. Like the fact that B5 was constructed by and for Earth, where DS9 was taken after the occupation of Bajor. Or that B5 is a node on an already known (locally, at least) network, where the wormhole basically puts DS9 on the frontier of an entire new and unexplored quadrant.

Most importantly though, the premise of DS9 from episode one is still exploration, albeit in a different way than previous Trek. It explores philosophy (Distant Voices, Life Support et. al) religion (Bajoran episodes, of which there are many) in addition to planets (ala Meridian, Paradise, Children of Time, etc. as well as introducing Trill, Ferenginar and New Sydney on screen). It takes two full seasons before the main antagonist, the Dominion, is even seen and almost another three seasons before the main conflict begins. At it’s core DS9 is still solidly in the one-off paradigm of TNG for its first 5 seasons, and even the longest Dominion War arc is only a handful of episodes long.

To B5′s credit, it’s the origin of the highly serialized sci-fi that would fit right in today, in the age of the DVR when all modern drama is serial as well. The story, as such, is also serial and has much more to do with the continuing machinations between the races on B5, Earth, Mars, Earthforce, Psi Corps and eventually the Shadows than it does with any sort of exploration. That’s not a criticism, it’s a fact. Where DS9 is more like a collection of short stories with the same characters but vastly different topics and tones, B5 is closer to a coherent novel with complex factions and subterfuge.

It’s here in the story, not the setting, is where the premise of shows must differentiate themselves. If you don’t believe that, then every modern hospital drama is a rip-off of ER, every cop show is a rip off of Hill Street Blues, etc. etc.

The religious undertone

Both shows had human captains who would end up becoming figures of religious significance to a local race. Benjamin Sisko would become the Bajoran Emissary while Sinclair was Valen.


First of all, the Minbari are not a “local race” except in the fact that they have residents on B5 – a human station -, but I’ll ignore that part.

Second, while Sisko as The Emissary is definitely religious, I don’t remember Valen ever being established as anything but a badass historical figure. I suppose the “Minbari not of Minbari” metamorphosis thing can be interpreted as miraculous, and there is the time travel but that could be equally attributed to science fiction as divinity. I won’t hinge my argument on that though, especially since I might just not remember.

The real crux here is that, while B5 does make use of religion occasionally, it’s not a consistent component of the overall story. The example that’s given here (Sinclair being Valen) isn’t even hinted at until the third season of B5 (episode 3×16, War Without End pt 1.) at which point Sinclair is not the (or even a) main character. It also didn’t air until May 13th, 1996. DS9 established Sisko as the Emissary in the first episode, which aired almost 3.5 years before then on January 3rd, 1993.

B5 fans might argue that JMS is just a genius and that this was his plan all along and part of his foolish disclosure to evil Paramount but I find that highly unlikely.

Even if the above doesn’t sway your opinion

It’s clear that each series has a vastly different approach to religion and again, that’s what matters more than a silly bullet point. DS9 is constantly expounding on Bajoran religion, Sisko being the Emissary is an integral part of the show. What with the orbs, the festivals, the vedics, the kais, virtually all of Kira’s back story, the Prophets and their role in the Dominion War, the Pah Wraiths and their cult. Even Dax’s death at the hands of a Wraith. DS9 spends a lot of on-screen time getting into the minutiae of Bajoran religion. In B5, religion takes a pivotal role by weaving it through the plot through Sinclair/Valen and prophecy as motivation instead of persistent set dressing, as exodist points out in the comments.

Working with former enemies

Both shows involved humans working alongside a recent enemy race: the Minbari in Babylon 5 and the Klingons in Deep Space Nine (although the friendly nature of the Klingons was established in Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Personally I don’t think this holds water for the same reason the bullet states. When DS9 started, the Klingons had been established as an ally for 5 years of TNG (and closer to 25 in-universe). If we take into account that the Klingons don’t start playing a major role until Season 4, then it’s even longer. The previous state of enmity isn’t even referenced in DS9 because it’s unnecessary.

Later, there’s a time when the Klingons and the Federation are at war again (thanks to the Founders), but that’s the nature of politics in drama and a separate case than working with a long-established enemy.

New armaments

Both shows would introduce a small, powerful, first of its kind warship at similar points in their third season: The Defiant on Deep Space Nine and the White Star on Babylon 5

First, the “third season” is misleading. DS9′s Defiant showed up in the third season premiere, on September 26th, 1994. The White Star class showed up (as far as I can tell from the wiki and the bullet) in the B5 third season premiere a year later on November 6th, 1995 although I guess the B5 fans can argue once again about JMS’s possible omniscience and subsequent foolhardiness in the Paramount office.

Anyway, a year after the Defiant, the White Star comes out with the ability to create a jumpgate at any point to get to hyperspace… sounds a bit like warp speed to me. Who’s copying who again? =P

In all seriousness this argument doesn’t hold weight for one reason: it’s an obvious necessity. Both shows are set on (relatively) stationary space stations, both shows have a looming threat (we’ll discuss farther down) so is it really a surprise that both shows introduce a new badass heavy fighter-type ship? Absolutely not. The main characters have to leave the station and do some ass kicking. It’s as simple as that.

But why a new ship, in either case? Because there’s a new threat that has to be answered with better, more agile hardware. In B5 human ships were a joke compared to the massive Minbari ships which in turn were a joke compared to the massive Shadows. In DS9, sure they could’ve used a Galaxy class ship but those were exploration, science and defense ships with massive crews. The Defiant, as Sisko says, is a ship with one purpose: war. It’s fast and it packs a punch.

Female First Officer

Both shows featured female seconds in command who were hot tempered: Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine and Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5

No way! A 90s show with a strong female that doesn’t take any shit? And she’s close to the top of the hierarchy? Amazing. Forget the fact that Kira was essentially a guerilla terrorist shortly before the show began, and Ivanova was a figher pilot because, you know, that might actually differentiate them. This is more a result of out-of-universe culture shifting than anything in-universe in my opinion.

Dr. daddy issues

Both shows featured doctors who had strained relations with their fathers and who were hiding secrets: Julian Bashir’s genetic modification on Deep Space Nine and Stephen Franklin’s involvement with the underground and his stim addiction on Babylon 5

Seriously? Let’s break it down.

Both stations have doctors. That should have obvious reasoning on both sides.

Both characters have issues with their fathers… okay, but not only is that tangential to their overall story, it’s not uncommon in reality and it’s quite common in TV. Franklin’s father was a strict general, Bashir’s parents illegally genetically modified him as a child, Ivanova has an issue with her telepathic mother that committed suicide, Kira has an issue with her mom who was a traitorous comfort girl to the Cardassians, Quark has an issue with his mother because she’s so progressive, it goes on and on. The reason that people on TV have a lot of family issues is that it’s a familiar dynamic to every person in the human race. As such, I’m ignoring the father issues as too common.

Both characters have secrets. That is so vague as to be meaningless. Especially since on B5 practically everyone has secrets, that’s the sort of show it is. Again, not a criticism, in fact having flawed characters instead of Trek-ish ideologues is to it’s credit. However, if Bashir didn’t have a secret, then Kira would and the previous bullet would’ve been “tough female second in command with secrets” because Ivanova’s mom’s telepathy secret. If not Kira, then Worf would have secret and then it would be a parallel to Garibaldi’s secret Italian food addiction (or his dark period). The point is that two analogous characters having secrets isn’t a big deal. You know what other doctor has daddy issues and secrets? Dr. House. If I watched a lot of the other medical shows I could probably come up with other characters too but I basically despise them.

Now, if the secrets were in any way similar perhaps there’d be more to this argument but they’re totally different. Bashir’s secret is his genetic status, given to him against his will, that nonetheless allows him to perform superhuman feats of intellect. Franklin’s secret is his underground dealings and stim addiction. They’re completely unrelated and, on top of it, form episodes in the series that are vastly different. Bashir gets discovered and it brings up classic Trek philosophy of how we’d deal with genetic engineered humans, whether he deserves to retain his commission, who gets punished. Later, his genetically modified state is used when Section 31 shows interest in him, and also in a couple of (rather tiresome) episodes where he attempts to communicate with some genetically engineered misfits. Franklin’s secret stim usage causes him to resign the medlab, go on “walkabout” and return with new insight, a clear disgrace and redemption arc, a self-discovery.

The primary foes

Both shows involved combat against mysterious foes who seemed much more powerful than the protagonists: The Dominion on Deep Space Nine and the Shadows on Babylon 5

Once again, this is such a common trope throughout all literature that it’s almost not worth discussing. An existential threat to you and your way of life is the essence of drama. That’s why you watch 300, or Battlestar Galactica, or disaster movies like Armageddon, or Aliens, or Independence Day, or a slew of other shows and movies. You want to see the underdog defeat the big bad guy, especially when the underdog is your planet or species. This same sort of conflict shows up in each of the previous Trek series (the Borg, the Q, the Armageddon Machine). More generically, this sort of story shows up everywhere from Animal House (misfits band together to save their frat house from being destroyed) to Rocky.

As I’ve tried to point out in many of the previous blocks, it’s the execution that matters, not the surface trope level similarities and the Dominion and the Shadows are not similar at all except in their relative power to the protagonists.

The Dominion is much more straightforward foe. They have a massive standing force of ships and soldiers. They have an empire on the other side of the wormhole with a strict and known hierarchy. They encompass hundreds of worlds and races. In many ways the Dominion is a despotic version of the Federation, a parallel that I don’t think was used enough in DS9. Their great power comes from sheer resources rather than ultra-advanced technology beyond that of their enemy. Their motivation to attack the protagonists comes from the desire for conquest.

The Shadows, on the other hand, are an ancient race of beings that emerge every 1000 years to cull the weak races through bloodshed and thus form a sort of natural selection pressure. They have bizarre organic advanced technology but are somehow vulnerable to telepathy. They are the flip side to the Vorlon, a race with the goal of nurturing races to survive the shadow wars.

There are some similarities in their execution. Like their unsurprising use of cunning to undermine their foes, or their intense desire to exterminate the protagonists and… I guess their ability to cloak themselves? But none of these are specific enough to call one a copy of the other.

Names

In addition there are several names which appear in both shows such as Lyta/Leeta and Dukhat/Dukat..

Give me a break. Ask yourself this. If DS9 was really going to rip off B5, don’t you think they’d have the smarts to change the names?

Ugh. Leeta (DS9) and Dukhat (B5) are minor characters, in vastly different roles from their counterparts. In a context in which we’re not trying to paint DS9 as a rip-off, these might even be considered homage but as evidence of plagiarism they’re about as weak as it gets.

Conclusion

Look, I’m a fan of both series. None of the above should seem like a criticism of B5 itself. It’s a solid show and it was well written for the most part. It’s also got a totally different dynamic, arc, and execution than DS9.

I’ll admit that DS9 is my favorite Trek and thus it might seem like I have a dog in this fight, and I do, but I’m not trying to make the argument that DS9 is better, just that it’s not a rip-off. There are too many good writers that worked on the show and wrote too many good episodes (without analogues in the whole of B5) to dismiss them as plagiarists.

I’m all for fan theories, but this one just seems petty. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of the disappointment that B5 fans (myself included) feel about the fact that it got jerked around during production. I could see some people creating this theory because there is a seed of truth (JMS presenting B5 to Paramount before DS9 was in the works) and, if it were true, it would mean that Babylon 5 would’ve been just as successful as DS9 if it had the same level of backing.

In the end, I’ve found no argument that this theory is true except for some TVTropes level generic similarities. Even if I admit that it’s possible that Paramount guided the creation of DS9 with JMS’ manuscript in its back pocket, there’s no evidence (even JMS can’t tell for sure), and that’s still no reason each show can’t be original where it really matters: the story. The actual execution.

That said, maybe I’m missing some key point or piece of evidence. Maybe I’ve ignored parts of the show that are relevant. If that’s true, put it in the comments and we can continue discussion! I am open minded and convinceable if given the proof.

9 thoughts on “On the DS9 / Babylon 5 Controversy

  1. “The real crux here is that, while B5 does make use of religion occasionally, it’s not a consistent component of the overall story.”
    What!? it has been a long time since you watched B5! Religion was of utmost significance! Membari believed their souls were being re-incarnated into human bodies, that is why the warn ended and b5 existed at all. This happened because of Sinclair’s transformation into a membari.
    In addition there were many episodes in the show that focused on religion, there was one where all races demonstrated their beliefs, for humans sinclair introduced them to a religion figure for each religion, like 100 “holy” people.
    The vorlons disguised themselves as religious beings, every race that looks on a vorlon sees something akin to an angel.
    Ivoniva has issues completing a religious rite after her father dies, sinclare tells her it is important for her to do it and helps make it happen when a rabbi visits the station.
    I could go on!

    1. oops, I also meant to mention I am a fan of both shows. It would not surprise me if DS9 started as paramount saying “Hey we can do a space-station sci-fi too” but they are different enough that I do not call one a rip-off. My previous comment was just to point out that when you addressed religion I nearly fell backwords in my chair because in my opinion you got it very wrong, it is very central to b5… that said I don’t think it adds any weight to the rip-off argument.

    2. You’re right, it’s there. I remember the 100 holy people episode, the Vorlon angels, and Ivanova’s rite. Even Franklin was a Foundationist, and Garibaldi was ex-Catholic. The points you bring up are flavor, character development, race development for Minbari and Vorlon, but they are *not* integral plot points. This is why I said it’s not a “consistent component of the overall story”

      As I mentioned above, in DS9 Sisko being the Emissary functions as a driving force throughout the entirety of the show from premiere to finale.

      1. The minbari did not destroy earth, they surrendered. That was a huge question and driving point. The reason they surrendered was religious, that sinclair, whom they obducted, had the soul of valen, their religious figure. The reason b5 existed was because of this.

        Without the religous figure of valen the entire show falls apart. No surrender, no more earth, etc. No more missing babylon 4. The vorlons appear to minbari as valen, so that’s gone… the rangers, created to serve ‘the one’ (the one who was, the one who is, and the one who will be) as prophesized by valen.

        Sinclair as valen was a prophet, his prophesy dictated minbari civilization both before and during the show.

  2. One point that you overlooked : both the Founders (ds9) and the Vorlons (b5) genetically manipulated younger races to view them as gods/angels and only untouched races could perceive their flaws.

    That is a significant plot device. So a ripoff? Likely. How it was explored and resolved was different however. The Vorlons vs Shadows starts off as a Good vs Evil scenario but evolves beyond that when the stakes are raised & whole planets get destroyed over ideaology.

    DS9 took an approach more based on Abrahamic tropes. They stuck with the good guy vs bad guys theme including fade to white prophets a la Battlestar Galactica angels (classic series) and Fire for the Pah Wraiths.

    B5 had the Shadow war thread woven throughout the entire plot of the show but resolved the conflict early leading to conflicts based on the mess left over. DS9 did not resolve the conflict until the last episode & IMHO phoned it in with a CGI fist-fight.

    The best way to tell if an idea was stolen from a pitch is to look at the ending. Ws it well thought out or obviously tacked on? (The Matrix is a wonderful example)

    So if you want to point at a cribbed plot point that’s a fairly large one.

  3. For me, DS9 ripped off B5. Why? Check the number of stories of the ripping off of scripts and ideas submitted to hollywood and other agencies, and the scripts rejected.
    This is the world we live in, and anyone telling me it does not happen, is probably blind.

    Besides all that, i can only watch Star Trek(any of them) in little pieces before i get bored, yet i can sit down on a free weekend and watch a complete series 1/2/3/4 (5 not so much) all in one go.

    As you probably guess, B5 to me is far superior to ANY of the trek series. To me, Trek is made for children, while B5 is made for grown-ups.

    This is not to disrespect anyone, it is just my opinion, based on the enjoyment i get from B5 and the boredom i get from Trek.

  4. The superficial comparisons miss the most significant similarity, both shows introduced long arc storytelling that spanned a season or at a time when all American television was episodic. Nobody believed audiences were patient or loyal enough to stick with a story that covered seasons.

    The basic morality structures also significantly break from the norm in ways that are too similar to be dismissed as coincidence. At the time, science fiction was squeaky clean, humans were the good guys, period. Both shows introduce a more complex and nuanced world where there aren’t a lot of easy answers. To give but one example of the simon-simple world Scifi audiences were accustomed to, in season one, fanboys piously discussed Ivanova breaking regs to grow coffee beans in hydroponics. (One can only assume their heads exploded by the end of season three at the lates5.)

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