Why Babylon 5 is the Best — and Worst — Television Science Fiction Show Ever Made
Here’s a leadoff sentence sure to make a few fanboy heads explode: Science fiction fans can generally be divided into two camps, those that judge works on the universes they create and those that judge them on everything else.
A good example of this can be found in two books I was given about four years ago: Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, and China Miéville’s The City & The City. Since then, I have met many fans who rave about each, but few who rave about both. This is not surprising.
The Name of the Wind is the first volume of the yet-to-be-completed Kingskiller Chronicles, and for those science fiction fans who curry favor to writers of complex universes it is a surely a marvel. It’s a sweeping epic that takes place in multiple fictional lands. Rothfuss’s narrative includes these lands’ mythologies, legends, songs, poetry and history. It has scores of characters, almost all described in meticulous detail. The plotting is both impressively detailed and obviously well thought out (foreshadowing plays a fairly major role in the series thus far). As universe creation goes, the Kingskiller Chronicles is nothing short of remarkable.
However, it largely fails on most other counts. The writing, while descriptive, is wooden. The characters are not people so much as they are clichés. The protagonist, for example, is penniless pauper who grows up to be the bestest-ever wizard-warrior-academic-musician-poet-lover-magician-storyteller-assassin-theif who has a loyal minority sidekick. The plot moves along quickly, but does so largely on unimaginative coincidences. And for all of the originality in the universe he has created, when telling a story in this universe Rothfuss seems to have taken a variety of other successful books — Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Earthsea, Star Wars, and several others — and stapled them all together to create the kind of re-hashed story where the reader always knows what’s going to happen a few chapters before it does.
Miéville’s The City & The City sits on the opposite end of this sci-fi/fantasy spectrum. The setting, though clearly fictional, is obviously meant to be a grey, post-Soviet eastern-block city. That city’s one fantastical feature — it brings to life the theoretical physics multi-universe notion that more than one object can occupy the same space — is constantly hinted at more than it is ever fully explained. Where Rothfuss fills his canvas with a Where’s-Waldo-mural level of detail, Miéville sketches a bare pencil outline and leaves the reader’s imagination to do most of his work for him. Similarly, Miéville’s book succeeds where Rothfuss’s fails: The writing is both clever and highly original. Miéville couples a cold-war-era noir murder mystery with Kafka-esque surrealism and theoretical physics, and by doing so creates a critique of how modernism rewards us for ignoring that which greatly and negatively effects others but not ourselves.
Judged on its own fan’s merits, each book is quite brilliant — and judged on the other’s, each is quite terrible. And, as I said, while I know may sci-fi/fantasy fans who profess the brilliance of one, I know of almost none who profess the brilliance of both. As I said: Two kinds of fans.
Which brings me to Babylon 5.
I’ve been re-watching the series for the first time since the mid-90s, thanks to the Mindless Diversions Babylonia! book club. And now that I’m a season-and-a-half in, what I’ve concluded is this: Depending upon which kind of science fiction/fantasy fan you are, Babylon 5 is either the greatest television science fiction show of all time, or it is the worst.
Even though a few friends had recommended it, I did not watch B5 when it first premiered. The first episode I ever watched was midway through its second season, and as it turned out it was one of the best in the entire series. (For those interested, Katherine just recapped that episode here.) I was hooked.
And then, I was bait-and-switched.
What I had taken as the moral complexity of the main character in that episode — the character, essentially a marshall-law commander of a city in space, suspends a suspect’s civil rights for personal and emotional reasons — was rarely if ever seen again after that episode. (I now wonder if the writers even intended it be complex, or if I wasn’t supposed to be rooting for his abuse of power because he was clearly a Good Guy going after a Bad Guy.) Indeed, individual scripts for B5 often sound like they were written for a Saved By The Bell audience.
The casting department frequently hired bad, out of work soap opera actors to be “special guest stars” — and those were usually the best actors on any given episode. The one main cast actors that regularly did shine, Peter Jusalik, did so by being a delightfully over-the-top ham. The actor that played the lead character in B5’s first season might actually be the worst lead actor for a TV series of all time.
The episodic pacing was almost always terrible. In different episodes, you would see characters rifle through their lines to get a scene done in X minutes; in others, you would see them have long, weird pauses in between lines for the same reason. As I’ve noted before in my own Babylonia! recaps, it’s hard to watch the show and not have a sense that no one working on it gave much of a crap about how any particular episode turned out.
And yet despite all of that, I found B5 utterly compelling — so much so that I watched it until the end of its run. Where it failed so miserably on the episodic and production level, it shown brilliantly with its overarching story and the universe it created.
Like the world created by Patrick Rothfuss, the universe of B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski crafted is nothing short of remarkable. The cultures, mythologies, religions, politics, and even tiny idiosyncrasies of multiple worlds are carefully laid out throughout the series. While singular episode storylines are poorly and clumsily plotted, the meta-story B5 tells is utterly meticulous and utterly seamless. The actions and motivations of B5’s individual characters often seem cliché and unrealistic, but the actions and motivations of its individual worlds are nuanced, electric, and completely believable.
And then there’s this: When you watch B5 — all of B5 — you never once have the sense that they are making it up as they go along. Having already seen the entire series, watching it a second time with Babylonia! has been a revelation. Tiny lines peppered here and there in its very first episodes foreshadow events whose storylines don’t even begin until the second or third seasons. What’s more, when I watch the series for a second time it becomes obvious that when Straczynski threw in one of those (at first) seemingly throw away lines, he knew exactly what he was doing. And make no mistake: that’s no small trick. In fact, it’s pretty fishing astounding.
Prior to Breaking Bad, has there ever been another television drama with a multi-season, long-arc story that worked so seamlessly from start to finish? Certainly not in the sci-fi genre. The X-Files played so close-to-the-chest with what was really happening behind the scenes that most of us were fooled for while, but after about five or six seasons it all began to fall apart. Lost, as so many TV critics like to say, “got lost” after a promising start. So too did the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The Star Treks were more devoted to single episodes than they were to story arcs. Every season of the Whedonverse did arcs amazingly, but each season was clearly meant to stand on its own. When all is said and done, Game of Thrones might eventually accomplish this feat, but that HBO juggernaut has the LOTR advantage of having already been written by someone else as a set of novels. For the moment, B5 stands alone in this TV sci-fi accomplishment despite the fact that so many others have tried.
That, then, is Babyling 5 in a nutshell: The best — and worst — science fiction series ever.
Me personally, I’m hoping that some producer who knows how to actually hire quality writers, actors, and directors reboots the damn thing.
 That ham-torch is currently being carried by James Spader in NBC’s The Blacklist, which I love for exactly this reason. If you love B5 scenes that have Lando Molari in them, you should really be watching The Blacklist.
 As someone who still can’t force himself through Feast for Crows after several tries, I’m not yet convinced that GOT is going to succeed.