No, I haven't forgotten about the TV movies, spin-offs, etc. However here I'm discussing the main TV series, although the nature of the story being told means I'll probably have to allow a certain amount of bleed.
On the upside, it's awesome in its ambition. It broke new ground with its five-year story arc and the introduction of emotional lives for its cast, only some of which has since been outdone by its successors. The character work doesn't look quite so remarkable now, but I remain dazzled by the scale of its future history. Babylon 5 is about the rise and fall of empires across thousands of years and our entire galaxy, giving the show a weight and momentum that as far as I know is still unmatched in its medium. You'd have to go to novels or historical texts like Gibbons's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to find anything comparable. Absolutely nothing can be taken as status quo in Babylon 5. Nothing and no-one has script immunity, up to and including the lives of our regulars and/or the existence of the galaxy's most powerful species.
On the downside is some abysmal acting and... no, basically it's the acting. I can live with the dated CGI and the fuzzy effects shots on my DVDs. The scripts are always at least fine and often a great deal better, but it's frustrating to see them regularly getting taken apart by planks and nobodies. For my money Joss Whedon showed a stronger grip on the basics of television production than J. Michael Straczynski, although Buffy was admittedly from a later era. JMS also had to endure the departure of important regulars, which in at least one case appears to have been due to the actor in question playing silly buggers in a play for more money. In an odd coincidence, incidentally, such problems tend to come from the actors playing humans, not aliens. The ambassadors are more interesting roles, are better played and make it through to the final season, with the exception of Na'Toth and Kosh.
The hero is of course Jeffrey Sinclair... whoops, sorry, John Sheridan. I wonder if those two also shared a middle initial of M? (Okay, I'm joking. Actually they both had the middle name of David, even though in later episodes Sheridan became John J. Sheridan.) Sinclair is played by the likeable but wooden Michael O'Hare, after which Bruce Boxleitner is a definite improvement and yet I was still oddly saddened by the handover. O'Hare's terrible, but he charmed me. I enjoyed his chemistry with Mira Furlann, for instance. However on the other hand, Claudia Christian is a joy and it really hurts the show when she's replaced with the competent but dull Tracey Scoggins. Scoggins and Richard Biggs (Dr Franklin) are both bland, albeit also doing nothing obviously wrong. Of the others, Jerry Doyle is very watchable as Garibaldi, but he's also clearly a limited actor who's basically playing himself and from time to time is out of his depth. Jason Carter (Marcus Cole) is pretty good. Walter Koenig (Bester) though is risibly miscast, clearly getting in on the back of Star Trek.
Of the aliens, though, most of them are solid. Furlann is gorgeous, Katsulas is the absolute star of the show and I have a lot of time for Bill Mumy (Lennier). The only one who could be argued to let the side down would be Peter Jurasik (Londo), who's great as both a selfish uncontrollable clown and a world-weary cynic, full of years and pain, but never really manages to be scary. Londo in full flow during the middle seasons should have been terrifying.
I'll go through the seasons in chronological order.
SEASON ONE: SIGNS AND PORTENTS (2258)
Babylon 5's early years take a bit of a beating in fan circles, but I really liked them. Admittedly I'm the kind of person who also likes season one of Angel, but I'd still defend these as genuinely strong. The story arc is as yet just rumblings, but it's fun to watch the gradual build up of mysteries and questions. Admittedly these are largely a bunch of one-off episodes in which the Babylon 5 staff have to deal with the day-to-day running of the station, bringing up matters which are often trivial or silly, but what's wrong with that? I like the cast, I believe in their world and I admire the wholeheartedness with which JMS is putting it all on the screen. The later seasons wouldn't have the same impact if we'd jumped straight into the galaxy-shaking wars without having had all this build-up.
At this early stage in the show's development, one's still tempted to see the interstellar powers in terms of real-world analogues. The humans would be a rather jaundiced view of America, the Minbari Japanese and the Centauri Russians. One loses this after a while as people's identities evolve and become less generic, but here it seemed fairly striking to me. What's more, I liked it. Londo is magnificent in his abandoned passion, cynicism and morbidly philosophical love of words. Susan Ivanova is also more strongly Russian than she would be later on, which adds a lot of flavour to the character. I'd go so far as to say that the character was written best in Season One, in which she's clearly the best human character in sight by light-years, nearly on a par with the alien ambassadors.
Having said all that, I've also seen Tolkien readings that would make, say, the Minbari elves. It's also worth pointing out that some episodes aren't an analogy for anything at all, but are simply exploring the Babylon 5 universe as a fascinating thing in its own right. What's more, they're correct in that.
The scripts can be a bit over-earnest. These are my feelings and I'm going to tell you in a speech! Er, yeah. This is the clunkiest year, with JMS only writing about half of the episodes, although I liked the refreshingly nasty ending to what had until then been a groanworthy episode 9. My only comment would be that they missed a chance to go even further. "Only food animals are punctured", eh? However for me, even the very worst of Season One is still for me an enjoyable show about a huge, richly realised world with a likeable cast who are good at their jobs and lots of highly varied problems to keep things varied. I particularly enjoy the worldbuilding, especially the hints of greater powers. Kosh adds so much to the show, while I love the hints of ancient mysterious scary things. "And whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957." Note that episode one (!) has Londo predicting his death in twenty years' time in a mutual throttling session with G'Kar, the full weight of which you won't fully understand until you've watched the entire series. One thing JMS adheres to with almost worrying fidelity is his prophecies of death.
Maybe I'm strange, but I've always found Bald Delenn sexy.
SEASON TWO: THE COMING OF SHADOWS (2259)
...or as I thought on first seeing Boxleitner, the coming of the chipmunk. JMS doesn't even try to hide the way that Sheridan's been cut-and-pasted into the scripts in place of Sinclair, with for instance Sheridan's wife Anna having disappeared on Z'ha'dum as a plot replacement for Sinclair's fiancee Catherine Sakai. I still think it would have been stronger had they been able to keep the same Commander all the way through.
As for the actors, this is where I became a Lennier fan. He doesn't get grandstanding speeches as do the ambassadors, but it's a detailed little performance with some nice subtleties. I like what he does with his physicality, for instance. Then there's Mr Morden. Didn't I mention Morden? He's the one genuinely inspired piece of casting in the show, he is.
SEASON THREE: POINT OF NO RETURN (2260)
JMS had already written most of Season Two, but this is where he takes over the writing chores completely. Every single episode. Good. This and the following season are Babylon 5 at the height of its powers, where you'll find the real meat of its story arc.
SEASON FOUR: NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT (2261)
This year is where I wasn't so wild about Jurasik's performance, although his story arc remains devastating even when the actor isn't powerful or intimidating. However the conclusion of the Shadow War astonished me, after which comes the only important story Babylon 5 ever told in the war against Earth and President Clark. JMS had always used his 23rd century Earth as a distorting mirror held up to modern America and here he uses it with little subtlety but thundering power. The lies, the bigotry, the self-justifying language, the thinly disguised Fox News... I can't imagine anyone watching this without having built up a powerful hatred for anyone who'd act or think like that. That's a story worth telling. The ISN episode with the hatchet job documentary turns out exactly as you thought it would, yet the results still make you angry by scraping so painfully close to reality.
It ebbs and flows, of course. Hilariously Dr Franklin gets a character arc in which he realises he doesn't have a personality. Bit late to spot that now. You'll also still have to watch out for pockets of bad acting, such as the leader of the Martian resistance. Yowzers. She'd greatly improved when she returned late in Season Five, thank goodness.
As everyone knows, JMS didn't know if he'd get his fifth year and so squashed the most important stuff into one overstuffed fourth season. Occasionally you can hear it creaking, but on the other hand this gave me the surprise of my life when what you'd expect to be a big end-of-season climax suddenly pops up one week out of nowhere. Did I just see what I think I saw? It really happened? Wow. This is where you'll find the full power of Babylon 5. I've never seen anything else that plays at this kind of level, neither on TV or in the movies. It feels as if you're watching history unfold.
However all this ends with a Happy Ever After that put me into diabetic shock. It's the US TV equivalent of an Oscar acceptance speech. You could almost read it as breaking the fourth wall and openly admitting that it's a fairy tale ending. G'Kar gets a personality patch as the author makes everyone loves everyone else and Sheridan and co. make the universe perfect. There's an attempted insulin save the following week with the fascinating and unique The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, but too late. The damage has been done.
SEASON FIVE: WHEEL OF FIRE (2262)
By "damage" of course, I mean "Season Five." Ooooh, I could talk for years about this one. It doesn't work, basically. On the one hand, in the beginning it feels so fresh as to be startling. A great swathe of names are dead, gone, sidelined and/or just won't be given enough to do. Delenn, I mean you. Of course freshness is good, but the problem with this year is that the new set-up isn't as good as what went before. Every single replacement is less interesting than the original, while they haven't even tried to find a substitute Kosh. Damn it, Kosh was awesome.
Why does JMS replace his trapdoored regulars with nearly identical cut-and-paste jobs, by the way? Lochley isn't an outright clone of Ivanova, but she brings nothing that Ivanova couldn't and can't compare with the backstory with Psi-Corp, Bester, etc. that would have made such a difference to her scenes. That's a missed opportunity, if you ask me. Oh, and I'm not wild about the new theme music either. However I did appreciate this year's experimental episodes, even when they tended not to quite work. You've got the occasionally annoying maintenance men (episode 4) followed by Penn & Teller in a poor cousin of Buffy's Conversations With Dead People (episode 8), although I liked The Corps is Mother, The Corps is Father.
Meanwhile the show's dynamic has lost focus by giving Sheridan an Interstellar Alliance to run on top of Babylon 5, making it impossible for the show to get back to its old level of day-to-day trivia. There's also a ghastly story arc in the season's first half involving the eminently punchable Byron. Wow, I hated this man. Admittedly he does reach a certain basic level of acting competence, unlike some, but he also turns what should have been a mesmerising character into an active annoyance. Oh, and you could tell a good story about whiny emo telepaths, but it might be a better idea to start with them actually facing serious shit before bringing them to Babylon 5. After that, a revelation from Lyta turns them into morons with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Eh? You're asking to be compensated for what's almost literally an Act of God and you're going to annoy me until you get it? On your bikes, losers.
Oh, and why does everyone hold confidential discussions in a council room with no door, so that anyone can eavesdrop? That happened time and again. Dumb.
Things pick up later on with some cool stuff and a war, but even so the entire cast has to turn into idiots circa episode 15 to make it happen. This final year of Babylon 5 is a show that's fundamentally broken, but I have to admit that I like the way it extends the greater story. It's nice to get more of the epic sweep of future history and see that despite appearances, war and evil hadn't been magically erased from the universe by that happy ending after all. I really like what happens to the Centauri, for instance.
Lyta, G'Kar and Londo come out best from Season Five. In particular either G'Kar or Londo on their own could justify the existence of the entire series. G'Kar is drool-inducingly wonderful, even if I was pissed off for a while about how they'd sold out his character at the end of Season Four. He and Londo are hilarious together, but at the same time both get huge, important character journeys. You could put them in every scene and it still wouldn't be enough. Lyta Alexander also becomes interesting this year, which is a shock that can only partly be explained by her getting some of the story arc material that would have gone to Claudia Christian. Then of course there's the story stuff, with war, tragedy, alien abduction imagery and some vile and even occasionally gross developments with Londo on Centauri Prime.
As the end approaches, the show becomes more aware of its own history. The concluding tone is more sombre than that of the Season Four celebratory orgy, thank goodness, and for the second year running they end with a story set far in the future. One day I'd love to do a chronological rewatch and hold back those two episodes until after all the spin-offs, movies and direct-to-DVD specials. Sleeping in Light was actually filmed as part of Season Four and then held back when JMS discovered that they were going to get a fifth year after all, which is why Ivanova returns instead of Lochley. Most of the dangling plot questions are resolved, although I don't remember learning the final fate of Lyta, Bester and the telepaths. I suspect JMS was leaving all that for Crusade
What I admire about this show is its weight. When these characters go off on one, the consequences will be felt across the length and breadth of the galaxy. (Maybe that's part of where JMS went wrong with Byron?) If you're wondering how this show stands up today, I'd say that the likes of Buffy or Farscape are better day-to-day examples of genre television than Babylon 5, but neither of them is even trying to get close to what Babylon 5 does best. Farscape for instance is cooler and sexier, with a cast of violent, irreverent badasses and a love of subverting SF cliches. I love it, I really do.
In comparison Babylon 5 creaks a little from time to time, but even today its story arcs make pretty much all the competition look like kiddies squabbling in the playground. Nothing else even comes close.