I suspect this is something a lot of people already knew--people who watched the show when they were older than 15, the age I was when I became a fan, and people who have gone back to it in the intervening years. More than anything else, Babylon 5 is a show for teenagers. The overblown dialogue, the broad humor, the melodramatic plots, the frequent monologues and speeches, and just in general the show's palpable sense of its own profundity must have been irresistible to the teenage set--to viewers looking for something grand and inspiring who weren't too interested in, or capable of, noticing the bad writing and obvious plotting. Who but a teenager, after all, could watch an EarthGov representative, who has just negotiated a non-aggression treaty with the patently evil Centauri, blissfully announce that "we will finally have peace in our time" without rolling their eyes? Who else would put up with entire paragraphs from 1984 being turned into dialogue for Night Watch representatives?
Come back to the show ten years later, however, with a bit more experience under your belt and with the genre television landscape having undergone a profound change (one that Babylon 5 was at least partly responsible for) and the whole thing looks rather pathetic. When I went looking for negative opinions about B5 I naturally started with that pithy curmudgeon of genre television, Andrew Rilstone, but sadly he went the succinct route. He did, however, point me towards this intriguing critique of the series by Nick Eden (written near the end of the fourth season):
The problem is that there is a single mind driving the entire show. That single mind, belonging to J. Michael Straczynski, is thinking up every idea, overseeing all the production and writing every script. And that single mind isn't up to it. The single mind that should be providing creative vision to the show is doing everything. The single mind is trying to see both the fine detail and the big picture at the same time, and as we all know, trying to do that means you don't get to do either very well and you get a splitting headache out of it.Which, when I come to think of it, is fairly accurate. Take "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum", one of the most important episodes in the second season--Sheridan discovers the connection between Morden and his wife, and Delenn and Kosh are forced to reveal to him the upcoming conflict with the Shadows. In the episode's final act, Sheridan is faced with a dilemma: if he releases Morden, he might lose his only chance of discovering exactly what happened to his wife, but keeping Morden in prison might cause the Shadows to attack sooner than they had planned, before the army of light can marshall their forces and mount a defense.
What's actually happened is that the big picture dominates everything, drives every episode, every sub-plot, but at the same time there hasn't been enough time to make that big picture work when you get down to the detail. A conventional writing arrangement probably does things better - if the single guiding intellect is able to just get on and guide then he's got the time to make sure that the stories being told by the individual writers work as stories and fit into the bit picture.
But that's not how it goes on Babylon 5, because everything's being done by one man. One man who lacks either the time, the ability or the vision to see any single episode of Babylon 5 as anything more than a tiny segment of a five year story. He doesn't see stories, or characters, just pawns that are part of a greater whole. Individual characters are routinely sacrificed because the Plot demands that they go and do something, never mind that it doesn't fit with what they were doing a couple of weeks ago. Episodes don't have beginnings or middles or ends. They are just scenes in a tapestry. If you've not been watching from the start then you'd better not risk starting now. There are no jumping on points, only "bugger this for a game of soldiers, I'm going to bed" points.
Sheridan's choice to release Morden is a pivotal moment for the character--by doing so, he is committing himself to the fight against the Shadows and making the first of many painful sacrifices to that cause. It's a decision reached with the help of a history lesson: as Sheridan tells Zack, during WWII Churchill chose not to evacuate a city he knew was about to be bombed by the Germans in order not to reveal that the Allies had cracked the German codes. If we're to believe Straczynski, Sheridan's situation parallels Churchill's--both men were forced to make a painful sacrifice in order to ensure the greater good. But, of course, the two situations aren't even remotely comparable. Churchill was forced to choose between the certain death of thousands of his citizens if he didn't order the evacuation and the possible subjugation of his entire country if the Germans changed their codes and the Allies lost the war. Sheridan is forced to choose between personal vengeance and the fate of the entire galaxy. Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice. In other words, Sheridan makes one of the most important choices of his life because he's a bad historian, and the fact that Straczynski expects us not to notice this--the fact that he seems not to have noticed it himself--indicates a sloppiness in his writing that tracks with Eden's view of him as a big picture man who can't, or won't, erect a proper foundation for the towers in his mind.
Or take Londo Molari, one of the most important characters on the show. According to Straczynski, Londo is a tragic figure--motivated by the desire to see his people regain their place as a major galactic power, Londo gives the Shadows a foothold on his planet and in its government, and soon finds himself in over his head as they begin setting up his species for a massive fall. And I'm sorry, but that's not what's showing up on screen. The Londo we see is a horrible person, who knowingly does horrible things for reasons which are, OK, vaguely honorable** but still not a sufficient excuse, and his exploitation by the Shadows can only be explained by his having the political instincts of a stunned wombat, which is plainly not the case. Londo is a mass of contradictions--one moment he's cringing at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, and the next he's congratulating Vir for personally orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Narns (in reality, Vir has smuggled the Narns to safety, a grave disappointment to Londo)--which in the real world would suggest not a complicated personality but a sociopathic one, but in Londo's case is yet more evidence of a lack of attention to detail on the writer's part.
But I think it's giving Straczynski too much credit to suggest that there was something inherently wrong with the way Babylon 5's production was organized--to suggest, in other words, that any other person, working under the same restrictions as Straczynski, would have produced sup-bar work. Because J. Michael Straczynski is not only a talentless hack, he's a talentless hack who truly believes himself to be God's gift to the writing profession (go read some of his comments on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5--just pick an episode at random. I dare you not to come away from them feeling that Straczynski has an ego the size of China). In almost every respect, Straczynski failed Babylon 5.
He failed as a writer of dialogue. His humorous scenes were as wooden and posed as an episode of Gilligan's Island, his dramatic scenes invariably descended into monologues, and both were as far from realistic as it's possible to get. He failed as a director--apart from the CGI battles, B5 had a static, lifeless look. It's probably not fair to blame him for the show's paltry effects budget and for working at the very forefront of CGI (although some of the Vorlon ships look like they belong in a screen-saver), but he certainly failed to make Babylon 5 look like a real place--inside and out, it was textureless. He failed in his casting decisions***, and, having cast his actors, he failed to give them believable character arcs or decent direction****.
If I hate the show so much, why did I love it ten years ago, and why have I breezed through it again now, constantly eager for the next installment of the story? Why does the fifth season make me so angry if I think so little of the previous four? For all its many failures, there is something to Babylon 5. I can't put my finger on it--maybe it's just that unearned sense of profundity, getting to me as thoroughly now as it did when I was a callow teenager--but I care about this world. I may be cracking snarky comments every five minutes, but when it comes down to it, and the music swells and the heroes strike their pose and the lovers are reunited, I'm touched, and I want more. I can't stand any of the parts, but I still love the whole.
Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe Babylon 5 is like a piece of marching music--you know you're being manipulated, but the drums bypass your brain and head straight for your stomach and your legs and your heart. Maybe, in the midst of all the crap he poured into that show, Straczynski concealed a heart of gold without even knowing how he did it.
It occurred to me recently that, in about 20 years, I'm going to start seeing revivals and reimaginings of shows that were seminal to my adolescence. Farscape: The Next Generation, the new Friends, a gritty, realistic X-Files. Maybe, in much the same way that Ronald D. Moore has extracted the beating heart of something as campy as the original Battlestar Galactica and transplanted it into a better, smarter body, someone will come around one day who can take whatever it was about Babylon 5 that worked, the core of the story that's still bringing me back, and give it the treatment that J. Michael Straczynski couldn't.
It was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows. We deserved better, but I can't quite write it off.
UPDATE: Some more thoughts about the end of the fourth season.
* Fifth season? What is this fifth season of which you speak? Oh, you mean the fifth season in which Ivanova was dumped and replaced by Cat from Lois and Clark, who just happened to be Sheridan's heretofore unheard-of first wife? The fifth season in which Lyta acted like a complete ninny over some over-bred, long-haired Marcus-wannabe? The fifth season in which G'Kar finally made the transition from fascinating would-be saint to bloviating bore, who couldn't give you the time of day without making a speech out of it? The fifth season in which Garibaldi, still traumatized from having been mind-raped in the previous season, crawled back into the bottle and none of his so-called friends even noticed? The fifth season in which Lennier went from an interesting, multi-layered character to your standard best friend who loses the female lead to the virile male lead, and because he is an intellectual and a weakling, uses violence inappropriately (of course intellectuals can't be trusted to use violence responsibly) to get revenge, just so that he could redeem himself by dying nobly in the 'David meets the Drakh' arc which we're never going to see because it happens fifteen years in the frikking future? That fifth season? Never happened.
** Inasmuch as "the Narns have offended my sense of racial pride and therefore they should be subjugated, oppressed, killed off by the thousands, humiliated, and generally made to suffer" can be considered an honorable motive.
*** Although, admittedly, it would have been a rare thespian who could have made something watchable out of Straczynski's dialogue--only Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik consistently managed to weave gold out of the straw they were given--let's not forget that this is the man who thought Michael O'Hare could carry an entire series on his back.
**** My personal favorite is the Ivanova/Talia relationship. I'm willing to stipulate that between the beginning of the first season and the end of the second season, when Talia's dormant spy personality was activated, overriding her own, these two developed a friendship. But a romantic relationship? Where the hell did that come from, and how are we supposed to buy it when the two actresses look as if they're making small talk in the DMV line?