B-5 v. DS9: The Paramount conspiracy against J. Michael Straczynski

During the early 1990s, if I remembered correctly, I watched two science fiction television series on syndication on two different networks – perhaps on other nights of the same week.  One was a spin-off series from an earlier show in a polar opposite premise and setting than its predecessors, including the cinematic features within the same continuity during the same period and its predecessors from decades ago – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  In the other corner, it was an original series created with an eerily similar premise to DS9 and different as the focus on diplomacy and politics was even more massive than the former – Babylon 5.  While both shows featured a fictional space station as a backdrop, commanding officers became a mythical messiah character who battled against alien beings from destroying the galaxy and have some form of fictional FTL gateway for traveling beyond the boundaries of the respective stations.  Perhaps I am a bit of a “Johnny come lately” with this topic that has its rumor mill running for almost three decades, but did the producers of DS9 plagiarize the original concepts developed by the creator of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski, or both series shared similar stories and went their separate ways? Honestly, I think each show has its own merits of existence. Whatever the rumor be damned as all I care about is whether they entertain me with their best of abilities, so I didn’t care about the supposed allegation so much.  Regardless of what happened between Straczynski and the studio behind DS9, Paramount Studios, they got me hooked for all the seasons broadcasted on syndication.

In case if you wonder why I emphasized the word syndication so much, here’s the truth: I didn’t have cable during that period, as I stated before in my “Monday Night Wars” article, so I missed the final season of B-5 until it hit Amazon Prime a while back, much like WCW on WWE Network. At my first glance at both series, I have already noticed that the difference between the two series almost immediately despite the similar backdrop of the two space stations and the backgrounds of the two commanding officers – let alone with race and the mid-series change of the latter. Without saying much, the first scene in DS9 featured the devastation of the Battle of Wolf 359, with Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, who had played a ”secondary protagonist” character called Hawk before being cast to this series. “The Best of Both Worlds,” a two-part episode from the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation Third Season, told the story of how Borg assimilated Jean-Luc Picard into Locutus of Borg and steered into a battle of survival, which Wolf 359 was part of the defensive line for the Federation of Planets and Starfleet. It was where we met our protagonist facing down the ominous threat of the Borg and found out how Benjamin Sisko became a single father of Jake Sisko. What many viewers (myself included) would not have initially recognized that there is a social commentary mixed into that scenes regarding the social complexity of single parenthood, as well as the long-term hardships that came with it, and it has since hit home with me as I inadvertently caused one from my previous, and thus far, the only relationship I had from almost a score (twenty years) ago in China. The Siskos later reassigned to an abandoned refinery turned space station called Terok Not. Whereas on B5 (short form of Babylon 5), the two commanding officers (the actor who portrayed the first captain Jeffrey Sinclair, the late Michael O’Hare, left the show at the end of the first season due to mental health issues that I later found out in my research, and was only available as a special guest star in one or two episodes later in the series as a related character to Sinclair, was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner, who played John Sheridan, in relief of Sinclair) took charge of the titular space station which was a brand new structure. Brooks, meanwhile, lasted for the entirety of the show’s seven-year existence, with only one of the supporting cast, Terry Ferrell, who played Jadzia Dax, was replaced at the end of the sixth season by Nicole DeBoer. She portrayed Jadzia’s replacement, Ezri Dax, in the final season. By contrast, B-5 barely demonstrated the Earth-Minbari War from either the silhouette or via series of dialogues between actors instead of having the full scale of the actual battle on screen. Despite that, Sheridan’s lifespan was much longer than Sisko as the former had become the President of the Interstellar Alliance while the latter would instead sacrifice his life in the immediate aftermath of the Cardassian War as he had the showdown with Gul Dukat at Bajor

Then, if that wasn’t enough, what if I told you that Paramount Studios wanted some forms of another franchise to further differentiate from B5 by adding a bar on the space station, only to add on with another one later in the series? Yes, DS9 had added in the space version of “Cheers,” which was also produced by Paramount lots when this series began its production with NBC airing. However, to my limited knowledge or even with my recollection, I don’t recall there was a bar on the set of B5 in existence, although some form of commissary was around the background somewhere, let alone with the running gag of having a variation of a patron named Norm hanging out on virtually every episode as a sidebar. While the character Vir Cotter, played by the late Stephen Furst, tried its utmost infusing comedy into the drama, but DS9 had that realm beat hands down with two of their own, the insufferable duo of Quark (played by Armin Shimerman) and Odo (played by the late René Auberjonois) outdid each other with various antics and shenanigans despite its harsh tones in the latter seasons of the series.

Meanwhile, another significant contrast between the two series involved the home planet of the commanding officers as Sisko’s Earth and Starfleet were still intact after the battle with the Borg. In contrast, the Earth for Sheridan and Sinclair was still in reconstruction after the war that I mentioned above and barely initiated the diplomatic relations between worlds across space. What B5 had down well while DS9 barely made a dent upon was democracy vs. autocracy, which mirrors our political climate for the last dozen years ago with the improbable rise of Donald Trump and the return of the far-right movement within American politics, as well as how propaganda corrupted the media like a fiddle.  DS9, meanwhile, had a few antagonists and villains. Still, none of them included Gul Dukat and Admiral Leyton in various degrees, with Dukat most of all, could have measured with President Clark, who had slowly evolved from a charismatic leader to a bloodthirsty, maniacal, and psychotic president who craved absolute power and was willing to sacrifice all of the Earth’s inhabitants and whoever else stood between to satisfy his insane ambitions, which included his “scorched earth” policy to eradicate every human living on Earth during his downfall.  However, Dukat was more insidious than Clark. He thought of himself as a hero rather than his true villainry despite his seemingly gleeful appearance, only for him to show his true color when he joined the Dominion fleet to invade the Alpha Quadrant.

As for female second-in-commands, Kira Nerys also had Elizabeth Lochley, and Susan Ivanova beaten, considering Nana Visitor, like Brooks and most casts (sans Ferrell), lasted for the entire saga. In contrast, Claudia Christian lasted only four seasons while guest-starred in the fifth, with Tracy Scoggins, who had a guest appearance on another quasi-sci-fi show called “The Highlander – the Series,” joined the main cast replacing Christian; besides, Kira’s backstory was thoroughly established in the series, to the extent of exploring her traumatic past.  Ivanova was a bit too straight-laced, while Lochley was too short for character development.  As for the chief medical officers were concerned, Stephen Franklin (played by the late Richard Biggs) had a slight edge as he is much more sarcastic than Julian Bashir (played by Alexander Siddig) throughout the run. Still, the latter slowly turned cynical by B5’s seventh season after a series of encounters with the secretive espionage faction called Section 31.  Speaking of secretive organizations, B-5 trumped (no puns intended) DS9 by a country mile with the likes of Psi-Cops, the Shadows, and even President Clark’s loyal faction within the Earth Alliance, and have they done more than its shares of damages among themselves or what? On the other hand, the Dominion War was, above else, had also reached its own Richter’s scale as the entire Alpha Quadrant was at risk of destroying its own.  However, the most critical difference between the two space stations was that DS9 has never been declared as an independent state throughout the series, whereas B-5 did so towards the end of the fourth season amid the Shadows War. In terms of the warring species, both series handled the diplomatic delicacy and tensions rather skillfully. However, I could have argued that there was more depth in the chamber development on DS9.  

Before I could start addressing the elephant in the room, may you allow me to throw in a disclaimer before having people accused me of ”thumping Bible on their throats for the 4000th time, so here’s a verse from the Scriptures for your reflection on this universal truth:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Book of Ecclesiastes 1:9 (Old Testament)

The main reason why I brought it up has to do with the elephant in the room: the Paramount conspiracy theory, according to J. Michael Straczynski. If this does sound familiar, that’s because it is on the same level as the WCW conspiracy theory against Chris Jericho during his time in WCW in 1998, and the familiarity that I have previously written about conspiracy theories at large. So, I must have read about this topic from a while back, and recently, a YouTube channel has also discussed the above matters in the commentary. Here’s what I feel about it in the quotation mentioned above. Quoting another dialogue that I remembered from “Beast Wars: Transformers”: “change is often enough, ” Here’s the problem with that conspiracy which, to be honest, that’s what life has always been, regardless of how many times we try to outdo ourselves or someone else, it’s still going back full circle at the end. Hollywood and every entertainment industry worldwide are trying to make movies with the same emotional spectrum that everyone has experienced before and since, and we, as human beings, could do only do so much in the range of our familiarity as best as we possibly could. Remember how did professional wrestling’s Monday Night Wars come about? Because one person was persistent in holding the belief that his brand was superior to the establishment. He then embarked on an endless journey with someone else within his organization who flipped the script on him and left with nothing in the end. While there were elements that may have seemed to be similar in naked eyes, both sides, in truth, were telling space dramas with some parts would instead become the focal points as time went on. That isn’t to say that both studios didn’t work hard on the respective projects, but the approach may differ.

I don’t care about who did what around the Hollywood backlots because I’d only been watching Star Trek: TNG from the middle of the third season when this whole conspiracy theory entered the room. However, I am shocked and dismayed that it still has legs long after both shows have ended. Unlike the notorious favoritism towards Scuderia Ferrari known as “Ferrari International Assistance” (played in a pun with the french name for the  International Automobile Federation, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), which was well known and well-documented case of motorsport history on favoritism for decades due to their unfathomed veto power that they still have to this day, as well as any penalties levied against team’s competitors for most of the Formula One’s competitive history, such as the controversial banning of ground effects during midseason or controversial penalties on the likes of Lotus and McLaren even though Ferrari drivers had instigated the affairs in question, the “alleged” conspiracy committed by Paramount against Straczynski was largely, at best, considered as hearsay, if not utter nonsense at worst.  The flip side surrounding my conspiracy theories originated from the simple fact that I had already been targeted and assaults by then-classmates in my school all those years ago, but Stracynzski’s case is more of an issue towards how Hollywood scythed movie and television scripts daily, especially when two similar projects make their pitch towards the studio’s executives who oversee the presentation and determine which can be workable in the long term.  Perhaps he was too fed with the studio system due to the screwjobs that he felt screwed by both Paramount and WB that his resentment led to this theory, for all I know.  Another factor that went against JMS was the tendency of the studio heads siding with the familiarity and being conservative than pushing for innovation. This also draws another familiar comparison with profesional wrestling’s Monday Night Wars between WWE and WCW.  

One must be wondering about the connection between WCW and Babylon 5; the answer is that they were both owned by Time Warner and its predecessor, Turner Broadcasting, both of which once owned by Ted Turner.  When DS9 first premiered on a syndicated network like KBHK (now renamed KBCW) in San Francisco, instead of airing on their soon-to-be network UPN (United Paramount Network), the ancestral root of Paramount Network, its competition was the Prime Time Entertainment Network, which was a joint venture between WB Domestic Television and Chris-Craft Industries. Though WB would merge with Turner Broadcasting by 1998, Time Warner was the main stakeholder of the B-5 project; ironically, this battle was one of the last, if not the final great television rating war in syndication; even WWE couldn’t resist the lure from the influence of cable television and slowly eased their transitions to USA Network, home of Monday Night RAW, with Wrestling Challenge ended in August 1995.  Both PTEN and DS9 aired on KBHK, which was under the banner of “United Television,” on consecutive nights due of the channel was owned by Chris-Craft Industries. Unfortunately, this created a massive conflict between WB and Paramount when the company, under the stewardship of BHC Communications, when BHC and Paramount opted for a joint venture in creating UPN and essentially forced PTEN out of the weeknight rotation, if I am not mistaken, and instead airing UPN and Paramount-related program like DS9.  B-5 struggled afloat as best as possible under such agreement for a long while, while DS9 stayed strong until B-5 bidding farewell to syndication when TNT picked up the fifth and final season.  On paper, the partnership between Babylonian Productions, Straczynski’s company, with Warner Brothers seemed smooth, except when it wasn’t.  The first handicap began when WB didn’t hire all of the actors at the same time; this caused severe headaches for the likes of Straczynski and his fellow writers like the late D.C. Fontana, one of the original scriptwriters for the original Star Trek TV show back in the 1960s, to make a five-year plot much harder; then pay issues incurred due to unavailability with some other actors and led to specific cost overrun by paying extra on certain scenes that they weren’t initially part of, lastly, when WB opted to shut down PTEN while they were plotting to launch WB Network, leaving the planned fifth season in doubt, and Straczynski wasn’t too happy about that development as he refused to shortchange the audience and felt rushed, and that wasn’t until TNT picked up the fifth season.  Unfortunately, for those who have lived by watching syndicated shows like myself, that decision left me with a cliffhanger while watching the entirety of DS9 since I didn’t have cable television until September 2004.  Also, due to issues related to the aspect ratio that were used during filming, and the mastering blunders made by WB for domestic home video release by using PAL (Phase Alternating Line) instead of NTSC (National Television System Committee), the quality was not in the best and WB subsequently balked the domestic release until decades after on Amazon Prime, which further infuriated JMS furthermore.

Lastly, it would be a shame if I haven’t mentioned a common theme within the article by not addressing the passing of the names of those noted above, particularly with the cast of Babylon 5 who have suffered the extraordinary toll over the last three decades, Jerry Doyle and Jeff Conaway, who had portrayed station security chiefs Michael Garibaldi and Zack Allen respectively, Biggs, O’Hare, Furst, Andreas Katsulas, who played G’Kar, a Romulan commander on TNG, and the one-armed killer Skytes in the movie “The Fugitive,” which coincidentally produced by Warner Bros., and Efram Zimbalist Jr., who played the business leader on Mars, William Edgars, as well as voice acting in “Batman: The Animated Series” as Alfred Pennyworth, and not even scriptwriter DC Fontana, who had also assisted JMS writing several episodes of B-5, passed away about a year ago. Coincidentally, Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg, who played the first Ferrengi Starfleet Officer, Nog, also passed away around the same period as Fontana and the main contributor the show, Michael Piller, passed away on November 1, 1995, after a long battle with cancer.

While I doubt that Paramount had intentionally screwed him over, there are, however, that many of the diehard Babylon 5 fandoms still have some misgivings, if not downright hatred towards Star Trek fans for refusing to acknowledge such deception, to the point that they wish more misery and failures towards their perceived rivals. Only God knows the whole truth about what had transpired from decades ago. I have no intention to pass judgment on this conspiracy theory, except that we should be content with what had presented on television and appreciate their efforts in bringing the best possible stories for this generation. We should remember that storytelling has been around since the dawn of time itself, let alone the entire duration of human civilization. Verbal and physical violence won’t change anything that has been done before. While I understand that a ton of heat is coming in my direction, some of you may not agree with my take; however, be civil when you present your argument to prove that I was incorrect. One thing for sure, though, the conspiracy theory is one strange relationship between Time Warner and Paramount, as well as their parent companies, AT&T and CBS Viacom.