Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Sunday, 21 January 2018

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 11-12

D11: Lines of Communication
Airdates: 28 April 1997 (US), 2 October 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Number One (Marjorie Monaghan), Phillipe (Paolo Seganti), Forell (G.W. Stevens), ISN Reporter (Carolyn Barkin), Emissary (Jean-Luc Martin)

Date: Within a few days of the previous episode.

Plot:    Forell, a member of the Minbari religious caste, arrives on Babylon 5 with disturbing news for Delenn. The Norsai, a peaceful, agrarian race living on the borders of Minbari space, have come under attack from unknown aliens. The Pak’ma’ra are also believed to have suffered raids. Delenn decides to take a taskforce of White Star ships out to investigate.

On Mars a hotel is bombed by elements of the Resistance working without the permission of the high command. Number One disciplines her supporters and Franklin and Marcus meet with the other rebels, offering Babylon 5’s full support. In return the rebels are not to hit civilian targets and are to keep a low profile until a plan for removing Clark and liberating Mars and Proxima III is fully worked out. In return, they will ensure that Mars is given its independence from Earth once President Clark has been removed from office.

The White Star taskforce reaches Norsai space and encounters a group of alien warships. Forell pulls a gun on Delenn and forces the White Stars to follow the alien vessels to their mothership. An alien shuttle docks with the White Star and a strange, humanoid creature who seems to shimmer in and out of existence comes on board. It identifies itself as a Drakh, although it refuses to disclose whether that’s its name or the name of its species (Delenn correctly identifies it as the species). Forell tells Delenn that events on Minbar are spiralling out of control. The warrior caste has evicted the entire population of a mixed-caste city and taken it over for themselves. The Minbari populace had to walk several hundred miles to the nearest city through freezing conditions and more than half of them died, including members of Forell’s family. The warriors are taking more and more power for themselves on Minbar and the religious caste is starting to oppose them. Forell fears that civil war may engulf the Minbari. He has contacted these aliens, the Drakh, and plans to ally them to the religious caste, even though Minbari do not use outsiders to settle inside affairs. Delenn agrees to further talks with the Drakh, but when the Drakh disclose that their homeworld was recently destroyed Lennier becomes disturbed and manages to warn Delenn that the Drakh may be the Shadow servants they saw fleeing Z’ha’dum several months ago (D7). Unfortunately, Forell mentions Delenn’s name, a name the Drakh recognise. Once the Drakh ambassador has returned to his ship the other Drakh fighters target the White Stars with their weapons. Thanks to some impressive manoeuvres the White Stars manage to escape to hyperspace, but Forell is killed in the battle. After effecting minor repairs, the White Stars return to normal space and destroy the Drakh fleet.

Sheridan, increasingly tired of ISN propaganda directed against Babylon 5, begins renovating the War Room with a new idea in mind. He plans to set up a rival news service, “The Voice of the Resistance”, with Ivanova as its main anchor. Ivanova isn’t thrilled about the idea but agrees to take part after her success in updating allied ships on enemy fleet movements during the Shadow War (D4-D5). Delenn arrives back on the station and tells Sheridan that there are troubles on her homeworld. She will be leaving for a while and hopes this time apart will also give Sheridan the resolve to deal with the situation on Earth. They have one last dinner together before she departs for Minbar.


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

BABYLON 5: Season 4, Episodes 9-10

D9: Atonement
Airdates: 24 February 1997 (US), 18 September 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Tony Dow
Cast: Dukhat (Reiner Schone), Callenn (Brian Carpenter), Morann (Robin Atkin Downes)

Date: This episode does not take place long after D8. There are extensive flashbacks to the early 2240s and mid-August 2245.

Plot:    Delenn receives a summons to Minbar by her clan and is compelled to obey. She and Sheridan spend the third of their nights together where the female watches and the male sleeps, before slipping away to the customs bay. Lennier intercepts her there and insists on accompanying her to the homeworld.

Marcus and Franklin are given new orders by Sheridan. Since Earth is playing dirty in its attempts to discredit the station (D7, D8), they have to do the same. He is sending Marcus and Franklin to make contact with the Mars Resistance and make whatever arrangements necessary to secure an alliance. Because of the blockade at certain jump gates, they’re going to have to go the long way around and won’t reach Mars for two weeks. They agree to the mission and set off.

Delenn arrives on Minbar for a meeting with the clan elders, represented by Callenn. They have grave doubts about her decision to take Sheridan as a mate, despite the fact that she is partly human. They want to know her reasons are pure and have arranged the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a holographic imaging chamber whereby the candidate, having taken drugs beforehand enhancing their mental powers, projects his or her thoughts and memories into the air for all to see. During Delenn’s first visit to the Dreaming she sees herself as a young acolyte some twenty years ago. She is assigned to watch over Dukhat during his own Dreaming. Intrigued by her wisdom and intelligence in one so young, he takes her into the Grey Council itself and tells her that the Council is divided over whether or not to make contact with a race known as the humans, who apparently the Centauri have had dealings with for some time. The warriors fear the military threat of the humans, the religious caste dislike of the idea of being exposed to alien belief systems and the workers are opposed to cheap imports at the expense of Minbari labour. Delenn asks about simple curiosity and Dukhat agrees that just being curious is a good reason in itself to contact other worlds, but the Council refuses to consider the idea. Dukhat makes Delenn his aide in return for embarrassing her before the Council. Over the next few years Delenn grows under Dukhat’s tutelage and is eventually elevated to the rank of the Council. When she swears the oath before the Triluminary, it glows. Dukhat goes to talk to her afterwards, but is interrupted by an alarm signal. The Minbari vessels have encountered an alien fleet approaching their space. Delenn confirms they are human warships, having studied Centauri reports. Morann, a warrior caste representative, tells them their gunports are open in the warriors’ tradition of showing respect to an enemy. Dukhat angrily tells them to stand down but the Earth ships open fire, convinced the Minbari are about to fire themselves. During the exchange Dukhat is killed and the Council becomes deadlocked about whether it was an accident or an act of hostility. Delenn, filled with grief and rage, breaks the deadlock by ordering the destruction of humanity.

Lennier is shocked and realises that the other Minbari will believe that Delenn is marrying Sheridan out of guilt for giving the order that broke the Council’s deadlock and began three years of bitter warfare, although he is sure that is not the case. Callenn announces that the Dreaming is over and tells them they will rest for the night and inform them of what they have discovered in the morning. But, in the night, Delenn suddenly realises that Dukhat was trying to say something to her when he died. She re-enters the Dreaming with Lennier and Callenn and they hear Dukhat’s last words, which Delenn herself did not hear at the time: “You are a child of Valen.” Afterwards Lennier raids the archives and confirms Dukhat’s words. Delenn, as hundreds of thousands if not millions of other Minbari, is a descendant of Valen himself. Since Valen was partly human, that means Delenn was partly human even before her transformation. It also means that most of the Minbari species has some trace of human DNA in their genetics, the true meaning of the humans and Minbari sharing the two sides of one soul. If the “purity” of the Minbari race hasn’t existed for a thousand years, then how can that purity be tainted by any children Delenn might have with Sheridan? Callenn admits that this knowledge has been kept secret for fear of confusing and dividing the Minbari race. They decide on a cover story, that Delenn is offering herself to the humans to further the spiritual bond between their species and as a sacrifice to the humans for their losses during the Earth-Minbari War, in the same way pre-Valen Minbari would marry the son and daughter of the two sides in a war to reunite themselves. Delenn is satisfied and heads back to Babylon 5.



The Paramount Network has cancelled epic fantasy show The Shannara Chronicles after two seasons.

The TV series, based on the fantasy novels by Terry Brooks, debuted on MTV in 2016 before moving to Spike for its second season last year. Spike has been rebranded the Paramount Network, which is inheriting many of Spike's shows but not Shannara. The fantasy show featured extensive visual effects and location shooting in New Zealand, so was on the expensive side. With the second season (which, by looks alone, had already had a significant budget cut) bringing in only 500,000 viewers even after time-shifted and online viewings were factored in, it's unsurprising that Paramount was unwilling to move forwards with a third season.

The producers, Sonar Entertainment, may choose to shop the show to other channels, but the indifferent audience reaction, poor ratings and relatively high price tag make this unlikely.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles was mediocre, but had flashes of good fun and had some good performances from the likes of Manu Bennett and Ivana Baquero. The second season (I've seen about half of it so far) was unfortunately notably inferior, looking considerably cheaper with much less story focus and spending too much time on the show's wooden lead.

Shannara follows Legend of the Seeker and Camelot into premature retirement and serves as a reminder to networks that if you want to build on Game of Thrones' success, you really need strong source material and writers who know what they're doing, not just deep wallets.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Ten Classic DOCTOR WHO Serials

This is a reprint of an article from 2011, a Gratuitous List before I came up with the name.

So you've watched and enjoyed the new Doctor Who and want to dive into the morass of the original series. But you're hesitant because it's an old series (the first episode aired just over 54 years ago!) and there's 700 episodes to catch up on, not to mention that many of the early stories are incomplete. Here's a handy list of ten classic Doctor Who stories which I thoroughly recommend to anyone intrigued by the original series.

Also note that this list is in chronological order, not any order of merit.

An Unearthly Child (episode 1 only)
23 November 1963, Season 1
Written by Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber

Doctor Who's first episode was broadcast on Saturday, 23 November 1963, and was almost completely ignored due to events that had transpired just a day earlier in Dallas, Texas. The episode was subsequently repeated a week later, where it got more attention. This episode revolves around two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who become concerned over the behaviour of one of their students, Susan Foreman. They decide to talk to Susan's guardian, her grandfather, only to discover that the address she gave the school is for a junkyard, the only notable feature of which is a police telephone box...

This first episode of Doctor Who is talky and tense, with the Doctor (played with a stern, authoritative air by William Hartnell) shown to be an ambiguous figure as he tries to work out what he's going to do about these two teachers who have stumbled upon the secret of the TARDIS. The rest of the four-part story is dull as dishwater (the Doctor and his companions become involved in a dispute between two opposing tribes of cavemen and inadvertently end up giving them the secret of fire), but this first episode is a chillingly effective opener to the series.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth
21 November-26 December 1964, Season 2
Written by Terry Nation

Doctor Who's opening story may have not been a great success, but its second turned it into must-see TV. The Daleks introduced the Doctor's most enduring foes and triggered the phenomenon of 'Dalekmania', which swept across the UK for much of 1964-66. This second Dalek serial saw the BBC respond to the success of the series by giving it a ramped-up budget, allowing generous amounts of location shooting in London. The premise is extremely simple: the Doctor and his companions arrive on Earth in the mid-22nd Century to find it under Dalek occupation. The team are split up among several different groups of prisoners, quislings and rebels and undertake separate adventures until their paths cross again for the epic showdown. By the standards of the time, this is a big story, well-paced (unlike most of the contemporary six-episode or longer serials, which are glacial by modern standards) with a large cast and some great set-pieces. The story also introduces some enduring ideas, such as the notion of a black-cased Dalek Supreme and the pain the Doctor experiences when one of his companions departs (here even moreso, as it's his granddaughter Susan who elects to remain behind on post-occupation Earth), ideas that even the new series has continued to mine.

The War Games
19 April-21 June 1969, Season 6
Written by Malcolm Hulke

Making a pick for the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, is difficult as his surviving stories tend towards the cheesy (most notably the so-bad-it's-glorious The Dominators, in which two aliens try to conquer a planet with the help of impractical shoulder pads and some very dumb robot servants). Basically it came down between The War Games and Tomb of the Cybermen, and Tomb has to lose out due to the astonishingly bad acting of quite a few of the supporting cast (though the Cybermen waking from their tombs of ice is still a haunting image).

The War Games is a long, long story, weighing in at 10 episodes, but the four-hour length just about works due to a shift in focus every few episodes. The first few episodes see the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe arriving on Earth during WWI and get involved in various shenanigans on the Western Front. However, it is eventually revealed that they are really on a planet divided into historical timezones where unknowingly-kidnapped soldiers from different periods of Earth history fight it out whilst aliens study them. After exploring a couple of the zones, the story takes an unexpected turn when we discover that the aliens' time travel technology is the creation of the War Chief, an exile from the Doctor's home planet. As the Doctor and the War Chief face off, it becomes clear that the War Chief is a pawn for the leader of the aliens, the War Lord (a formidable performance by British character actor Philip Madoc, who brings 100% deadly earnestness to the role). Where the story succeeds is that it throws the Doctor for a loop every time he thinks he's solved the crisis, with the War Lord shown to be a remorseless foe who may be more than a match for the Doctor. Patrick Troughton, always a strong actor as the Doctor, is tested more than in any other story and rises to the occasion, showing the Second Doctor becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate as the crisis escalates. Eventually, the Doctor's resolve to defeat the War Lord cracks and he calls in his own people, the hitherto enigmatic (and unnamed) Time Lords, to sort it out for him!

This then leads us into the extremely different and hugely revelatory final episode, in which the Time Lords, having dealt with the threat of the War Lord, now bring the Doctor to trial for his crimes of interfering in the affairs of other planets. The Doctor puts on an impassioned defence of his desire to fight evil and injustice wherever it may be found, which doesn't seem to move the emotionless Time Lords...until they read out the verdict, in which it appears that the Doctor's arguments have indeed swayed them, and he is exiled to Earth in the 20th Century. A rather grim final episode with an ending that is rather mixed in its outcome: the Doctor survives, but he loses his companions and (temporarily) the use of the TARDIS, and sets up a very loose story arc that unfolds over the next three seasons. Fans remain divided to this day on the morality of the Time Lords killing the Second Doctor by forcing him to regenerate as well.

Day of the Daleks
1-22 January 1972, Season 9
Written by Louis Marks

Day of the Daleks is a clever story as it's one of the vanishingly few times the original series dealt with temporal paradoxes (Steven Moffat used the temporal paradox story idea more times in his first two seasons in charge than in the entirety of the original series, for example). The Doctor, now played as more of an action hero by Jon Pertwee, is highly confused to find that Earth in the 22nd Century is again under the rule of the Daleks (since he defeated them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth) and learns that time-travel has resulted in the creation of an alternate future. Ironically, it's not the Daleks' fault, but rather that of the well-meaning rebels who are trying to stop them. The story is a tense affair as the Doctor tries to repair the timeline in the future, but in the present UNIT are put on alert by the apparently-imminent outbreak of World War III. Aubrey Woods gives the main human villain, the Controller, a sense of depth as he is shown to be ravaged by guilt for his actions as a collaborator of the Daleks, whilst Doctor Who gains a new race of villains with the entertainingly dumb Ogrons (footsoldiers of the Daleks). Crucially, the Daleks are not overused and are kept in the background throughout, Machiavellian masterminds rather than easily-defeated soldiers.

The Sea Devils
26 February-1 April 1972, Season 9
Written by Malcolm Hulke

One of the best things about the Pertwee Era was the relationship between the Doctor and his arch-nemesis, the Master, played in this incarnation by Roger Delgado. The Doctor and the Master here are portrayed as the alien equivalent of Sherlock and Moriarty, well-matched opponents who both hate and respect one another. The Sea Devils opens with the Master in prison and the Doctor paying a visit to the apparently reformed villain, but unsurprisingly the Master is soon revealed to be up to his old tricks. This time, he's in cahoots with the Sea Devils, an off-shoot of the Silurians (the original inhabitants of Earth who are in stasis far below the planet's surface, awaiting the chance to return; they most recently appeared with Matt Smith last year), who are planning to conquer the Earth etc. A lot of the story is rather forgettable, to be honest, but it's the game of cat and mouse between the Doctor and the Master which is most fascinating, especially when it escalates to a literal fencing match between the two (here enhanced with lightsabre effects because...why not?).

The Ark in Space
25 January-15 February 1975, Season 12
Written by Robert Holmes

In 1974 Tom Baker took over the role of the Doctor, bringing an element of demented insanity to the role that, in later seasons, took over the show to its detriment. Early on, however, Baker delivered a series of iconic performances where his humour, intelligence and dramatic skills were kept in balance. The Ark in Space is a perfect example of this, as the Doctor's comic early exasperation with new companion Harry Sullivan gives way to probably his finest speech about why he likes hanging around human beings so much (a speech so iconic even the new series has referenced it) upon viewing the thousands of humans in cryostasis on an immense space station:
"Homo sapiens, what an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds! They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. Now here they are out among the stars waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable."
Later on, things go a bit Alien as parasitical lifeforms attach themselves to the sleeping humans and turn them into ferocious monsters. Ignoring the fact that the alien grubs are clearly covered in green-painted bubble-warp, this was probably the scariest and most horrifying episode of Doctor Who to this time, marking the beginning of a period when Who was frequently criticised for being too disturbing for children to watch. But overall this is a well-written, dramatic and slightly disturbing story.

Genesis of the Daleks
8 March-12 April 1975, Season 12
Written by Terry Nation

After another period in which the Daleks had been heavily over-used, the production team decided to rest them for a while. But before they bowed out, Dalek creator Terry Nation decided to write a story exploring the creation and origin of the Daleks. He introduced their creator, the crippled, insane scientist Davros, and had the Doctor face an ethical dilemma as he is ordered by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks at the moment of their creation (this move was later retconned as the opening salvo in the Time War). The Doctor thus spends the serial agonising over the morality of genocide even as the humanoid Kaleds and Thals slaughter one another with shocking abandon. Nation uses Nazi imagery to further make it clear that Davros and the Kaleds are Not Nice People, though the violent Thals hardly come out of it any better. This is Doctor Who at its most morally murky, but also at its most dramatic and watchable. A terrific story in which, again, the Daleks are purposefully kept off-camera as much as possible to make their appearances more memorable and powerful.

City of Death
29 September-20 October 1979, Season 17
Written by Douglas Adams*

City of Death may be the single most totally-bonkers story in the history of the series. Written by Douglas 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Adams and filmed partially on location in Paris with a totally random cameo by John Cleese and Tom Baker's comedic skills being fully unleashed, City of Death is an unabashed joy from start to finish. Baker has some golden lines ("What a delightful butler, he's so violent!") and the plot is bananas (an exploding alien spaceship half a billion years ago splits its pilot into several incarnations scattered through Earth's history), but a key element here is Julian Glover (most recently seen as Pycelle in Game of Thrones) giving a steely, well-judged performance as the main villain. Boundlessly inventive and propelled by palpable cast enthusiasm, this is Doctor Who at its funniest and most entertaining.

The Caves of Androzani
8-16 March 1984, Season 21
Written by Robert Holmes

Peter Davison's sojourn as the Fifth Doctor comes to an end in a remarkably grim and 'different' Doctor Who story. Directed by Graeme Harper (the only director of the original series invited back for the new one) and written by the ever-reliable Robert Holmes (he also wrote The Ark in Space), this story pits the Doctor and Peri against the disfigured and violent Sharaz Jek (a blistering, intense performance by Christopher Gable). However, the situation is complicated by political machinations between Jek's allies and enemies, and frankly none of the characters come out of the situation very well. With its cast of fully-realised characters (each of whom has a fully-fleshed out motivation for what he's doing), this is Doctor Who at its best-written and darkest. It also features one of the best regenerations of them all, with Peter Davison's Doctor having to will himself through a difficult rebirth, egged on by visions of his past companions and threatened by images of his greatest enemy, the Master. The final scene, of the new Doctor Colin Baker rather threateningly saying that change has come, "Not a moment too soon," promises more than subsequent stories deliver, however.

Remembrance of the Daleks
5-25 October 1988, Season 25
Written by Ben Aaronovitch**

A tricky choice, since Remembrance does feature some of the weakest guest stars of Sylvester McCoy's admittedly difficult era, but Ben Aaronovitch's script is very strong and it's certainly one of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories. It brings us full circle back to the events of An Unearthly Child, being set just a few days after the Doctor, his granddaughter and two teachers vanished from Earth in late 1963, and we discover exactly why the Doctor was on Earth in the first place: to recover the Hand of Omega, an immensely powerful artifact capable of manipulating stars. No less than two factions of Daleks are also on the trail, and as they get closer to the device this results in some epic battles on the streets of London (the fact that the other three serials of Season 25 look like they had a combined budget of 25p is probably explained by this), most notably when the ludicrously over-powered Special Weapons Dalek is deployed which can take out streets full of enemy Daleks with a single shot.

But beyond the fireworks, it's McCoy's performance as the Doctor as a grand chess-master, orchestrating events from behind the scenes and manipulating others - even his companion Ace - into doing what he wants which really stands out. This is one of the few times in the original show's history that the Doctor himself sets in motion the events of the story rather than being reactive to it, and that simple change elevates the story to a new level, as does its raising of normally-ignored issues like racism in 1960s London. Stories like this one hint at the directions that the new Doctor Who would take on its return in 2005, dealing with threats lurking in suburbia as well as among the stars.

* Yes, that Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently books (and City of Death strongly inspired some elements in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency).

** Yes, that Ben Aaronovitch, the author of the Rivers of London fantasy series.

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Wertzone Classics: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a monster-hunter who defends humanity from monstrous and supernatural threats. He has also has a habit of getting involved with the affairs of kings, mages and emperors. Reeling from the recovery of his missing memories, Geralt is caught up in grand events once more when the Nilfgaardian Empire invades the Northern Kingdom for the third time. He is commissioned by the Emperor to find his missing daughter, Ciri, who was also Geralt’s ward for some years. Geralt’s trail will lead through the war-torn no-man’s land of Velen, in Temaria, to the free city of Novigrad and the southern reaches of Redania beyond. His path will also take him to the Skellige Isles, the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen and the beautiful Nilfgaardian vassal state of Toussaint, before he can save Ciri and defeat his former allies turned enemies, the spectral Wild Hunt.

The Witcher 3 is a game that wears many hats. It is the third and concluding game in a trilogy that began with 2007’s The Witcher and continued with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011), wrapping up lingering storylines and character arcs from both former games. It is a character-focused, story-heavy game which aspires to the very best of BioWare but it’s set in a vast open world that owes more than a nod to the likes of Bethesda and Rockstar. It is also a direct sequel to Andrzej Sapkowski’s five-volume Witcher novel series: the prior two games were more side-stories to that saga, with Geralt’s missing memories allowing them to stand alone, but this one directly deals with fall-out from the books and reintroduces characters from them. And on top of all of that it aspires to be a game that completely stands alone on its own two feet, with familiarity with neither the prior games nor novels required to enjoy it.

Somehow, it not only achieves those ambitions but utterly trounces them, deploying the kind of confidence, verve and ambition that you’d be forgiven had completely disappeared from modern video game design. It is, quite comfortably, one of the greatest video games of the last decade and the finest computer role-playing game since the release of Planescape: Torment last century.

Given that the previous two games in the series were both somewhat mediocre (both having a great atmosphere and some good character work undercut by awful pacing, inconsistent writing, repetitive fetch-quests and truly terrible combat), it’s quite remarkable that CD Projekt Red was able to pull this off. But they have, and with considerable style.

The Witcher 3 is a roleplaying game where you play as Geralt. Unlike other RPGs you can’t create your own character, but you can certainly guide Geralt’s development, both mechanically – you can favour a combat-heavy approach or one more based around magic or alchemy – and also in terms of personality, by getting Geralt to be more heroic or ambivalent in his response to requests for help and in the (very) frequent morally complex decisions he has to make. At any one time Geralt will have a main storyline quest to follow, related initially to the hunt for Ciri and later for the need to confront the Wild Hunt, and a large number of other objectives. These take the form of side-quests, story-rich missions which are unrelated to the Ciri situation; witcher contracts, where Geralt has to track down a monster, identify its weaknesses and dispatch it; and treasure hunts, where Geralt has to find large stashes of gold or high-value equipment based on information and maps he has found in the world. There are also a massive host of other past-times, including fight-fighting matches and horse races, and location objectives, such as liberating a village from bandits or destroying monster nests. There is never a shortage of anything to do in the game.

So far, so Skyrim. But the key difference between The Witcher 3 and Bethesda’s mega-RPG is in terms of the importance of character and narrative. These elements are usually under-developed in Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, which instead want to give you as much freedom as possible to do the things you want, which is (or so it’s always been explained) not compatible with a complex, rich narrative which gives you lots of choices on how things unfold. That was already a dubious excuse (as exemplified by what Obsidian did with Fallout: New Vegas, using Bethesda’s own engine to embarrass them with that game’s narrative richness and malleability) but The Witcher 3 sets it on fire. The Witcher 3 has the freedom of Bethesda’s finest but combines it with an incredible depth of story and character. The characters – both Sapkowski-originated or those new to the games – are all complex, multi-layered individuals. Even merchants and one-off village bumpkins who provide intel on a monster attack are usually given a memorable character tic which sets them apart from everyone else. They’re veritable fonts of information, sources of new quests but also most of them are just plain fun to talk to.

For example, the character of Dijkstra comes across initially as a boorish thug, but (even if you haven’t read the books) you’ll quickly discover him to be a quick-witted, deceptively shrewd operator who has some personal affection for Geralt which quickly vanishes the second he thinks you’re working against his interests. The Duchess of Toussaint is a pleasant and intelligent young woman who has worked with Geralt before and is flexible when it comes to matters of the heart or in dealing with isolated incidents, but the second she thinks her duchy is in danger she becomes a steely, determined ruler capable of remarkable ruthlessness. The Witcher 3 is never interested in serving up caricatures or one-note villains, there’s also a motive for what people do and there’s always multiple ways of dealing with them.

In this sense The Witcher 3 encourages players to role-play. For example, Geralt has multiple romantic options in the game but the two primary ones are Yennefer and Triss. For those who’ve read the books, they know that Yennefer is the love of Geralt’s life and it makes sense for them to end up together. For those that haven’t but have played the video games, they will be far more familiar with Triss and may prefer to see Geralt end up with the character they’ve come to know quite well over two previous games spanning 70-odd hours. However, there’s also the fact that Triss did take advantage of Geralt’s amnesia to seduce him and kept him unaware of his prior feelings for Yennefer. This is something that you can make into either a big problem – Triss manipulated Geralt for her own ends – or accept as an unfortunate consequence of an emotionally difficult situation.

This element of choice pervades every moment of the game. Every now and then the game will pause and explain how Geralt’s actions from hours earlier have led to a significant shift in the game’s storyline or status quo, with everything from the destiny of characters to the fate of entire nations hinging on Geralt’s decisions. The game doesn’t judge things, though. As long as Geralt and Ciri are still breathing, the game will continue and events will unfold as they will, even if Geralt makes mistakes and catastrophe results.

Mechanically, the game is a vast improvement over its predecessors. Combat is much-improved, being reactive, intelligent and reasonably fair (although those easily frustrated are directed towards the easier difficulty levels). Intelligent use of swordplay, magic, potions, oils and bombs will see most foes dispatched. It’s worthwhile reading the in-game bestiary to get more information on particular creatures’ weaknesses and also using your “Witcher Senses” to pick up environmental clues to the nature of the creature, as well as tracking enemies across distances. As you level up, you can improve your magical skills which has applications both in and out of combat (such as using your mental manipulation Sign to positively impact on conversations). Later on, you can also gain mutations which dramatically improve your character’s powers, as well as glyphs and wards to further improve your weapons. The game keeps Geralt in a constantly escalating spiral of getting better weapons and armour, although you can also pursue treasure hunt side-quests to get even stronger gear.

The story and character depth, which can see even minor quests evolve into lengthy, epic, multi-hour stories packed with incident, sharp dialogue and dark humour, is certainly the main appeal of the game, whilst the mechanical competence of the gameplay certainly keeps things ticking over. The freedom of the world and the quality of its presentation is another key factor. Unlike say Skyrim, The Witcher 3 isn’t one massive open world. Instead, it’s divided into four distinct, large maps (White Orchard, Velen/Novigrad, Skellige and Toussaint), each with its own character and atmosphere.

Combined, the world space of the game is about twice that of Skyrim, and far denser in terms of quests, points of interests and optional activities. Graphically, the game is stunning. There’s some amazing lighting effects with, easily, the best sunsets and sunrises ever seen in a game. The environments are remarkable, with Novigrad and Beauclair (the main city in Toussaint) fighting for the title of the finest, most convincing fantasy city ever seen in a video game. The dungeons vary from small caves to sprawling, multi-level complexes, whilst massive castles, underwater environments and even quest-specific sojourns to a fairyland and the surface of another planet are included. The Witcher 3 is a visually rich and inventive game which never loses the ability to surprise the player with the diversity of its locations. Even more pleasing, exploring the world is never once slowed by a loading screen (apart from a brief pop-up as you move between the four maps) as you seamlessly pass from exteriors into interiors to subterranean caverns without slowing down. Bethesda’s Creation Engine is left looking especially decrepit at this point by comparison.

The game also has a plethora of monsters to fight, ranging from poison-spewing plants to incorporeal spectres, enormous royal wyverns, sentient killer trees and various giant arachnids. The game’s bestiary ends up being huge, with it never seeming to run out of new creatures to throw into a fight. Character graphics can be a little bit more hit and miss, with major NPCs looking fantastic and minor ones being far less detailed.

Other weaknesses in the game are notable only for their slightness. Geralt isn’t the most nimble-footed character and finely adjusting his position on a ledge can be quite clunky, although this is very rarely an issue. The Skellige Isles map is also slightly underwhelming in its scale. The massive, snow-capped mountains feel like they’re 1:5000 scale models, with what appears to be a massive, towering peak in the distance turning out to be moderate hill about thirty feet away that you can run up in five seconds flat. The other maps are all brilliant, but the illusion that CDPR is trying to sell you in Skellige is too easy to see through. Another weakness is that the war story, the conflict between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms, feels somewhat underdeveloped and the resolutions are, for the most part, superficial and not entirely logical.

The other issue is one that really will vary by player: the game may be too much for some people. It took me 88 hours to complete the main storyline and that for both expansions (Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, both included with the Game of the Year Edition), all of the Witcher Contracts and Treasure Hunts and most of the side-quests. But the maps are still plastered in “points of interest”, monster nests, occupied towns and unexplored caves. A thorough, exhaustive play-through could easily take two to three times as long. Conversely, those less concerned with not seeing everything the game can offer could get through it in maybe 50 hours if they focused on the main storyline and a few important, character-focused side-quests. These side-quests are particularly important as they allow you to assemble a crack team of badasses who will come to your aid in a major battle towards the end of the game. The more people you help out, the likelier you will survive and get the best possible outcome. This mechanic is not even spelled out in the game, unlike say Mass Effect 2’s comparable “loyalty missions” idea. It just develops naturally as events unfold. But there’s a huge amount of characters, moving parts and storylines to keep track of during this game.

But the game is so good that none of the criticisms feel relevant. It’s often very funny. The tone of the game can shift from bleak, grimdark nihilism (say during the ending of the harrowing, emotionally raw Bloody Baron storyline) to outright comedy (such as Geralt having to guide a randy ghost through one last party without letting anyone else know what’s going on) to genuine romance on the spin of a dime. It’s a game that knows when to engage in bleakness and when to let the wine and good times flow. There’s a strong sense of compassion, friendship and family to the game which few other video games have ever genuinely engaged with (probably the closest is the Mass Effect trilogy, but even that falls short of the genuine warmth that permeates The Witcher 3’s character relations). The somewhat pervy nature of Geralt’s relationship with women in the first game – which allowed you to collect cards of your sexual conquests – has been replaced by something more egalitarian in this game and more rooted in genuine romantic relationships (Geralt’s face when a woman treats him the way he treated women in the first game is particularly amusing). Attempts to try to play the field and bed every woman in the game can still be made, but this time around there’s consequences. This isn’t to say that the franchise has completely escaped its pervy roots – almost every female character has a plunging neckline, bare midriff or both, occasionally lampshaded in dialogue – but it’s certainly pushed back on it, even allowing you to control the (arguably) more powerful and capable character of Ciri in short but numerous sequences as you learn more about what she’s been up to.

Reviewing The Witcher 3 is a bit like trying to review a 30-book fantasy series in one go: there’s so much in this game that it’s frankly impossible. After 2,400 words I still haven’t mentioned the absolutely outstanding voice acting (apart from the actress who plays Ciri, who doesn’t quite nail it); the Crones, three of the creepiest villains ever seen in video games; the vast numbers of homages to other properties (everything from Game of Thrones to Skyrim to Police Squad!); the elaborate tourney sequence; Roach, your teleporting demon horse; your dilapidated house which you can rebuild slowly; and the full scope of the immense supporting cast, such as your genteel vampire who is overly fond of exposition to a minor demigod named “Johnny” to a dwarven bank manager to a persecuted shapeshifter called Dudu (which for some reason nobody brings up as being hilarious). There is so much here that the game will have you coming back for months, if not years, to try to track down that last missing quest or find that last monster lair.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (*****) is monstrously ambitious, epic on a scale none of its rivals (not even Dragon Age: Inquisition or Skyrim) can match and packed with genuinely well-written, witty and morally complex storylines. It is the foremost gaming achievement of this generation and it throws down a gauntlet to its rivals that I will be shocked if anyone can match it. It also raises the bar very, very high for CDPR’s own successor game in a totally different genre, Cyberpunk 2077. But after playing this game I am much more confident they can pull it off. The Witcher 3 is available (with its brilliant expansions) now for PC (Steam, GoG), X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA). 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Episodes

After seeing this list of the ten best BSG episodes which had some "interesting" choices (the #1 choice, Unfinished Business, is frankly one of the weakest episodes of the series and started the show's most diabolical subplot, the Love Quadrangle of Doom), I thought I'd offer up my own list.

The stories are not presented in any kind of order because the level of quality between these episodes is pretty close, so I'd rather celebrate these episodes rather than get into an argument about rankings. Also, due to BSG's high level of serialisation, it was sometimes a bit of a judgement call on what was a stand-alone episode and what was a multi-part story.

Season 1, Episode 1

The first episode of the series proper (after the pilot mini-series) is possibly its finest single hour. A taut, claustrophobic episode which sees the Cylons appear every 33 minutes without fail. The crew, only able to grab micronaps, are run to the edge of exhaustion as they push themselves and their ships to breaking point as they try to stay one step ahead of the Cylons, who are their most faceless, their most relentless and their most terrifying in this episode. Eventually a solution is found, but it requires an immense sacrifice of lives, a decision that goes on to have ramifications through the rest of the series.

This episode also strongly influenced the Star Wars movie The Last Jedi, which borrows some of its plot structure and ideas; writer-director Rian Johnson is a big fan of the second incarnation of BSG. The difference is that 33 is the far stronger piece, its shorter running time and much greater character focus giving the story much more weight than the Star Wars movie.

Pegasus/Resurrection Ship
Season 2, Episodes 10-12

Season 2 of BSG threw a massive curveball at audiences halfway through its second season: a second, much larger and more powerful battlestar shows up and its commanding officer, Admiral Cain, takes command of the fleet. Commander Adama's initial relief at not having to take the big decisions any more turns to disquiet and then disgust as he learns that Cain kept her crew safe by being far more ruthless than he was, summarily executing officers who questioned her authority and mandating the physical and mental abuse of Cylon POWs. As the two battlestars prepare for a massive assault on a Cylon resurrection ship, the two COs find themselves contemplating severe measures to keep the other ship in line.

The result is a tense game of psychological cat and mouse, with Michelle Forbes absolutely outstanding in the role of Admiral Cain. The three-part story also plays fair by showing why Cain made the decisions she did (even better exemplified in the later TV movie Razor) and her more ruthless attitude is shown to have some benefits, although it is also shown at having severe drawbacks. The three-parter has what might also be Bear McCreary's best work on the show's score, with "Prelude to War" and "Roslin & Adama" being arguably the single finest pieces he created for the show. I also have to mention Tricia Helfer's outstanding work as both Six and Gina, the tortured Cylon POW, and James Callis bringing a surprisingly human amount of compassion to the role of Baltar as he tries to help them both. Plus we get an impressive space battle as well.

Season 2, Episode 18

For the first time in late Season 2, the show reoriented itself as a drama about the Cylons, artificial intelligences who gained freedom from the creators who brutally enslaved them and then took their revenge. The episode follows Caprica Six and Boomer as they try (badly) to readjust to life in Cylon society after spending years infiltrating the humans, with Eight (a flawless Lucy Lawless) acting as their mentor, only to quickly turn on them when it becomes clear that they've been "corrupted" by human values.

The result is another game of psychological cat-and-mouse as Six and Boomer realise what Eight is up to and work together to overcome her and bring a different kind of message to the Cylons, that they can work and live with humans after all. What could have been a throwaway experimental episode ends up as the catalyst for the biggest change in the show's premise and paradigm to date.

Kobol's Last Gleaming
Season 1, Episodes 12-13

The Season 1 BSG finale is a masterclass in how to take the story pieces that have been put in place slowly over the previous dozen episodes and use them to tell a gripping, intense story that works on an action level (a Cylon basestar needs to be destroyed after it shoots down a Colonial survey team, leaving them stranded on a planetary surface) as well as a character-based one, with Adama and Roslin's simmering, season-long political strife erupting in open conflict with Lee not sure which way to jump.

The story also follows a second storyline back on Caprica, as Helo and Starbuck are finally reunited and Starbuck gets into an old-fashioned throwdown with Six. And just when you think the story can't get any better we get that gutshot of an ending which is still shocking a decade and a half later. Arguably, this was the story where BSG proved it had the legs to run for many years and tell a lot of different stories.

Season 3, Episodes 3-4

The "New Caprica" story arc was always a little muddled - its use of Iraq War and War on Terror imagery always felt a bit more sensationalist than actually trying to say anything of value about those conflicts - but as a story it was much more gripping. The resolution of that story in Exodus can be accused of contrivance (far more people escape from New Caprica than is realistic) but it's nevertheless fantastic.

First off, we have the "atmo-drop", probably the most satisfying, "Hell yeah!" moment out of the entire show. This is followed by the mother of all space battles which is barely survived by our heroes (not really "won"). We then have the character-based drama, with the most heartbreaking scene in the entire series as Tigh confronts his wife over her betrayal of the resistance, and later on his return to Galactica in what should be his moment of triumph, only for Adama to realise his friend is an utterly broken and shattered man and it will be some time before he even starts to recover. McCreary's score and the CGI team also absolutely kill it.

Exodus, Part 2 is also arguably the end of the show's golden age, when every episode (okay, apart from Black Market and Sacrifice) had been good-to-excellent and the show had been constantly inventive, thought-provoking and intelligent. After this episode, things got a fair bit inconsistent, although it was still capable of producing occasionally outstanding episodes.

Revelations/Sometimes a Great Notion
Season 4, Episodes 10-11

For a while it looked like BSG was going to be cancelled halfway through its fourth season, mainly due to the 2008 Writer's Guild of America Strike halting filming. It was touch and go but eventually SyFy okayed them finishing the season off. Which is both good - without it we wouldn't have gotten the mutiny arc - and bad, as most of the rest of the season was weak and the series finale was muddled, confused and incoherent in terms of character, plot and theme. If the series had been cancelled, than Sometimes a Great Notion, the final episode shot before the break, would have been the series finale. If it had been, BSG would probably be talked about now as the greatest (if bleakest) SF series ever made.

The mid-season two-parter is a tense, taut affair. The identities of the Final Five Cylons have been flushed out into the open, the rebel Cylons and their erstwhile human allies are at loggerheads over the fate of the Five and Starbuck is on the verge of discovering the location of Earth. In the Revelations cliffhanger the day is saved and Earth, which our protagonists have been looking for for four years and rested all their hopes and dreams in, is finally located...only for it to turn out to be a blasted, nuked-out ruin. The second part somehow goes even darker, with widespread despair gripping the fleet, one of the main characters choosing to commit suicide (literally blowing her brains out rather than face yet another search for a new home, in possibly the show's single most shocking and unexpected death) and a series of shocking discoveries about the planet, the Thirteenth Colony and the Cylons rocking our very understanding of what the hell the show is even about. There's also some dark humour to be mined by seeing the supposedly enigmatic and wise Leoben being confronted by a genuinely bizarre mystery and promptly freaking out.

Dark, bleak and grim, but also hauntingly atmosphere and beautifully-shot, if this had been the ending, we'd still be talking about the show in awe-inspired tones even now. Sadly, the finale undoes a lot of the power of this story.

Flesh and Bone
Season 1, Episode 8

BSG was always good at psychological drama and mind-games, and its most powerful relationship in this vein was always between the Cylon Leoben Conoy and Starbuck. It started in Flesh and Bone, an early episode which throws a bit of a curveball at the viewer as the Cylon agent is less interested in killing everyone than he is in gaining Starbuck's understanding. The result is that we learn a lot more about Starbuck and come to understand that she is a fundamentally flawed, broken human being but also one who is capable of changing her mind and her outlook. It's also an under-appreciated moment in Roslin's character development, when we see her true, resolute steel for the first time as she ruthlessly (and perhaps a bit too easily) makes a decision that supposedly strong and morally compromised Starbuck cannot.

The episode also marks the start of the Leoben/Starbuck dynamic that is explored in an even more messed-up fashion in the New Caprica arc and finally resolves in Sometimes a Great Notion, when Leoben finally discovers the true mystery and the puzzle he's been searching for all along...and is so disturbed by it he runs away. Flesh and Bone is the moment BSG confirmed that this story of pragmatic survival and political compromise was also going to have a surrealist and spiritual element to it as well.

The Oath/Blood on the Scales
Season 4, Episodes 13-14

By Season 4's mid-point, BSG had fallen a bit too much in love with its bizarre, religious and spiritual side and its complex and self-contradictory mythology. This two-part story sees the "little people" of the fleet having enough of the mystical mumbo-jumbo and snap (with about half the viewers nodding in approval), staging an armed uprising with several main characters joining the mutiny. The result is a story that would have felt at home in Season 1 or 2, with lots of tough moral decisions, interpersonal conflict and some strong action sequences.

It also works very well because the mutineers have a point: giving succour to the Cylon rebels was always going to be an unpopular choice (they did help kill over 20 billion human beings, after all), the impact of the trauma on New Caprica and the discovery of the destruction of Earth had not been properly processed and Roslin was somehow on her second term despite never being elected (and losing the only election she ever stood in).

The two-parter does have a few weaknesses, such as some very out-of-character behaviour for Tom Zarak (to Richard Hatch's fully-justified and vocal displeasure) and a resolution that may have been satisfying on an action level but did nothing to address the core and real concerns of the people who backed the mutiny. But otherwise this late-run BSG episode escapes the mediocrity that plagued the show's endgame and gave us a great throwback to the early running of the show.

Lay Down Your Burdens
Season 2, Episodes 19-20

The BSG Season 2 finale does a lot of great things. It brings on board the mighty Dean Stockwell as the effective Cylon leader John Cavil. It has a great action story as Starbuck leads a rescue mission back to Caprica to save Sam Anders and his rebel group. It also has an effective subplot as the PTSD-suffering Cylon ex-POW Gina has to decide how she is going to take revenge on the people who mentally and sexually abused her for months.

There's a lot going on even before the fleet discovers the inhabitable planet of New Caprica, hidden inside a nebula. The fleet is in the middle of an election campaign, with President Roslin expected to comfortably curb-stomp Gaius Baltar. But the discovery of New Caprica and Baltar's insistence that they could settle on New Caprica and take a break from their relentless stress and toil throws the campaign into an uproar, with several characters considering the morality of rigging the election to ensure the "right" person wins.

BSG was always at its best when it mixed religion, politics, action and character development, and in this story it throws everything into the blender. What comes out is one of the show's most memorable moments, when it jumps forward one year in an instant and shows the catastrophic consequences of our characters' decisions before ending on the mother of all cliffhangers.

TV Movie (airing between Seasons 3 and 4)

It was a toss-up here between Razor and the original mini-series, which did a great job of setting up the show's premise and introducing this band of crazy, messed-up people (humans and androids both). However, the mini is perhaps a little overlong and isn't quite up to the standards that came later on. Razor, on the other hand, works on quite a few levels.

It's a stand-alone story focusing on the new character of Kendra Shaw (a great performance by Stephanie Jacobson). Flashbacks show her joining the crew of the Pegasus just before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies. We see events previously only alluded to in dialogue occurring in real-time and we learn more about Cain, Gina and the other crewmembers on Pegasus, along with plenty of space battles and personal combat. There's also a present-day story following the Galactica and Pegasus as they try to track down an ancient Cylon vessel from the First Cylon War that is posing a threat to the fleet.

There's also a great shout-out to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, when we get to meet the original Cylons and see the original baseships and Raiders in action. Neo-BSG always had an awkward relationshp with its much cheesier and less-accomplished forebear, so it's good to see them acknowledging the debt and inspiration from the original show here (even if it does prove that preventing the robotic Cylons from talking was a great move).

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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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