The Most Pivotal Sci-Fi Show of All Time Was Almost Murdered by Star Trek

The first, best hope for sci-fi serialization had a tough road to the screen.

The space station Babylon 5 in 'Babylon 5.'
Warner Bros
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In the beginning, Babylon 5 was almost murdered by Star Trek. Back in 1987, the same year Star Trek: The Next Generation brought space-based sci-fi back to mainstream TV, writer J. Michael Straczynski took his pitch for a sci-fi “novel for television” to studios and networks.

Today, Straczynski is best known for co-writing the first Thor movie in 2011 and co-creating Sense8 with the Wachowskis. But in 1987, his big credits were writing for Masters of the Universe and being a story editor on The Real Ghostbusters. His pitch for Babylon 5 was a unique and radical departure.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, serialized TV didn’t really exist outside of soap operas. But on Jan. 26, 1994, the first episode of Babylon 5 debuted and insisted on a new kind of viewing habit: Fans had to catch nearly every episode to understand the story, which was set to last for five years. Today, this kind of sprawling sci-fi epic is much more common, from The Expanse to Foundation and For All Mankind, and even the contemporary Star Trek and Star Wars series like Discovery and Andor. But 30 years ago, the concept and format of Babylon 5 were a revolution that almost didn’t happen.

In 1987, Straczynski was working with producers Douglass Netter and John Copeland on a live-action kids’ sci-fi series called Captain Power, a glorified toy commercial for Mattel. Everyone wanted to do something better, and Straczynski pitchedCasablanca in space.” The idea was to do a serious sci-fi epic set on a pivotal space station at a crossroads between various alien governments. This way the show could be big and small at the same time, telling an epic story while being made on a reduced budget compared to its sci-fi rivals.

In the 1990s, an average episode of B5 was completed for around $600,000, whereas Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine generally had a budget of $1.3 million per episode. Babylon 5 used a production plan created by Copeland, drawing on experience from Captain Power, to pinch pennies without sacrificing ambition. The biggest cost Copeland cut? Visual effects. Unlike almost every other sci-fi series at the time, B5 used CGI for all of its spaceships and space stations, and many of its aliens. While Star Trek shows were still building models, Babylon 5 saved a ton of money by digitally rendering its universe.

Deep Space Nine was seen as a step-sibling to Babylon 5.


Because Babylon 5 was pitched in 1987, the same year The Next Generation appeared, there has long been a belief that the next Trek spinoff, 1993’s Deep Space Nine, was a rip-off. Before landing at Warner Bros., Straczynski and his crew did pitch B5 to Paramount. By 1993, Deep Space Nine debuted its premiere episode, while that year also saw the pilot movie for Babylon 5, “The Gathering.” So by 1994, when Babylon 5 truly got underway with its first real episode, “Midnight on the Firing Line,” it was easy for sci-fi fans to believe B5 ripped off DS9, not the other way around.

Did the Star Trek camp rip off Babylon 5? Maaaybe, but there’s no smoking phaser. Because B5 was pitched to Paramount before being acquired by Warner Bros., there is evidence that some studio suits encouraged Deep Space Nine producers Rick Berman and Michael Pillar to borrow elements from Babylon 5 for the DS9 pilot without telling them where those ideas came from.

Here’s why it’s fishy. Both shows take place on pivotal space stations, both feature Commanders (not Captains, initially) who have a mysterious connection to an alien race, and both were focused on said space station keeping the peace in that part of the galaxy. Back in 1992, Straczynski said: “Were Pillar and Berman aware of B5 at any time? No. Of that, I am also confident. The only question in my mind is to what degree did the development people steer them?”

Ultimately, the two shows became very different, but the specter of Star Trek loomed over B5. There is also evidence that Paramount and Warner Bros. were considering launching a joint network, which wouldn’t have had room for two space station sci-fi shows.

Our human and alien heroes.

Warner Bros. Television

On top of all of this, the very idea of Star Trek made selling Babylon 5 difficult. Before convincing Warner Bros. to do Babylon 5, Straczynski, Netter, and Copeland were repeatedly told that Star Trek was a unique phenomenon and didn’t represent a greater hunger for space-based sci-fi. As Straczynski said in the 1998 Jane Killick nonfiction Babylon 5 book Signs and Portents: “The general sense in Hollywood [at the time] is that there’s only an audience for Star Trek; that if there truly were an audience for SF, Star Trek would have bred more science fiction shows.”

There were, of course, other science fiction shows set in space between 1969 and 1994, but none of America’s space-based sci-fi shows lasted very long. Even a cult classic like the 1978 Battlestar Galactica was only on for one season, partly because it was way too expensive to make. Babylon 5 proved there was an appetite, and most non-Star Trek space shows owe a debt of gratitude to B5 today.

If you return to the first episode, “Midnight on the Firing Line,” you’ll see much of what made the show great. The debut artfully sets up several series storylines, some of which aren’t resolved for two more seasons and one of which isn’t fully explained until the finale. Babylon 5’s scrappy production values may be jarring for modern audiences. But if you can look beyond the aesthetics, the drama, ambition, and heart of this little space station that could are still as powerful as ever.

Babylon 5 is streaming on Tubi. Plus, here’s the Inverse hack to watching just five episodes to get a sense of the entire show.

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