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.

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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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

 

 

[1] 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.

 

[2] 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.

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87 thoughts on “Why Babylon 5 is the Best — and Worst — Television Science Fiction Show Ever Made

  1. Todd,
    You make a good point. As I recall, Straczynski, wrote the five year story arc and pitched to the networks. It’s a very good concept and the story lines (broadly) are very compelling. Indeed there is some crap episodes, but I think that the individual shows got better, in general, as the series aged. A few of the elements I loved:

    The good vs evil story that was upended at the conclusion of the Shadow Wars, and the Earth “holy war” that followed.
    The Technomages
    The Narn/Centari war-the moral delimas and sacrafices incurred by the Narn
    The idea of “The First Ones” and their place in the galaxy.
    The “Redemption” of Londo.

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    • The fun thing about Straczynski though, is the more you would talk with him, the more he would change the story. It was a dynamic, growing thing in his head — an editor could bring up a point “well, what about…” and that might completely change the rest of the show.

      Straczynski wrote more like a gamer, with multiple plots that could be threaded together naturally — or removed, if needed.

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  2. Creating elaborate detailed universes that are fully described is hard. So is writing moving prose with above average plotting and characterization. Doing both is nearly impossible. Narnia works better as a literary phenomena. Lewis wrote much more delightful prose than Tolkien.

    I think one reason why sci fi and other genre fiction generally does not get its due was that so many writers ignored prose and characterization for so long.

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    • I think it’s because so many of the kids taken with the lazer guns were engineers, and it’s difficult to find someone who’s both good with science and writing. The Literary SciFi crowd didn’t seem (from what I’ve read) to be terribly focused on the science.

      Now that there are more psych people in the field, you’re getting better characterization. [Gerrold had a fantastic piece on psychology from ages upon ages ago, definitely worth the read, all the moreso because it has two endings.]

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  3. Regarding GoT, my Todd, the way that the show writers are wobbling off script even now during their interpetation of some of GRRM’s strongest book in the series suggests that they will likely be very ready to apply considerable editing/altering when things start sprawling out into horrible bloat.

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    • If Martin can’t stick the landing, the show’s writers won’t be able to either. Oh, sure, they can do substitutions… in the Middle. But the End? If the end isn’t good enough (and Martin’s obvious stalling seems to suggest he’s not confident — as well he shouldn’t be! few writers do well without a quality editor nearby).

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  4. I think the reason why American TV does not do arcs well is that the business aspect wants popular shows to go for as long as possible. If the goose is still laying golden eggs, you don’t kill it. This comes to the detriment of how good a show is though.

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    • I’ve also heard that even though 100 is the magic number, they know that certain shows are likely to have better ratings than others (everybody loves the Friends episode where that thing happens!) *AND* that syndicated shows that need you to have watched the last 4 episodes tend to do better than shows that you can just sit down, turn on, and turn your brain off (see any procedural).

      (The shows that strike me as doing the best at this are the newish USA shows where they devote 40 minutes to The Drama This Week and 5 minutes The Drama This Season. Burn Notice being the perfect example.)

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      • Burn Notice had a bit of a weird problem in that the seasonal arcs were sometimes completely unconnected to what was going on in the episode, so those five minutes, usually at the very end of the show, often seemed rather forced.

        Especially when sometimes it was some guy ‘I’ll talk to some people, get back to you about that’ at the end of one episode, and at the end of the next episode he does, indeed, get back to them. Ooo, slowly doling out information, how exciting…I mean, how boring.

        I often found myself thinking ‘Perhaps we should spend 20 minutes on arc stuff on this every four episodes instead of five minutes every episode’.

        Sometimes TV gets a little forced-arc-y. I mean, I like seasonal arcs, but sometimes they seem to think that every episode must somehow touch on the arc, and no episodes till the last (And maybe the first) episode can do too much arc stuff. It’s not butter, the arc doesn’t have to be spread evenly over the season.

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      • Ah. Yeah, that’s a consideration I forget about. I watch TV different than most people. I *watch a show*. From start to end. If I have watched a certain episode of a TV show, I almost certainly am going to watch the next episode.

        There are a few out there that can’t quite hold my interest, like Bones, I and I keep getting back episodes waiting while I choose to watch Robot Chicken or some other rerun of a show I’ve already see.

        And some shows I’ve actually dropped (Breaking Bad, if you can believe it, halfway through the first season.) So not every single show.

        But most of the time, I will go from the start to the end. If I start, I will finish.

        I guess presenting an open question, like they did on Burn Notice, and always having more answers promised next week, is good to keeping normal people interested, though. Or to cause binge watching. So I can see why they do it even though it’s a little annoying.

        But I stand by my statement it often seemed forced the way the arc was distributed on Burn Notice. While admitted that such a distribution was probably a good idea, viewerwise. ;)

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  5. If you want to see a fantastic universe read Perdido Street Station by Mieville. Its got his wonderful prose and a world to lose yourself in.

    ST:TOS succeeds for some of the reasons you say B5 does. Yeah Shatner has these…odd….pauses that people have been making fun of for years and is in general a giant slab of ham. But there are times when “bad” or odd acting just seems like a unique character not an actor doing a poor job. Kirk’s speechifying wasn’t Shatner being bombastic it was Kirk being who he was for better or worse. The same thing with every new planet being clearly a sound stage or SoCal, they were just weird/odd/different enough to maintain suspension of disbelief to build a cool universe. You could see through them if you wanted to, but you were drawn in enough that you didn’t have to.

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    • TOS was alternately good or bad, depending on who was writing and editing.
      The new Dr. Who (Russel T. Davies Edition) seems to go the same way… (although
      I’m actually wondering if everyone whose stories are being used is actually getting royalties — please don’t quote me on this question. it’s just a question.)

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      • I wonder whether it was actually Lucas who made the original trilogy. Everything else he put his hand to sucked.

        Eh, it’s more mixed than that.

        Lucas only directed ep IV out of the original trilogy. For Empire and RoJ he was smart enough to bring in other directors (though he was obviously heavily, heavily involved).

        American Graffiti and THX-1138 were both pretty good, and he directed those.

        And as a writer/producer on the first three Indy movies, he deserves some credit there (I like all three, never saw the fourth).

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      • Again, I haven’t seen Doom in years, but I don’t recall what was so wrong with Short Round.

        I *suppose* you could say he’s an uncomfortable Asian stereotype, but he’s not the butt of the joke like Long Duk Dong – Short Round is on the ball, keeping Indy honest (“you cheat big!”) and on-track (“no time for love!”).

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    • I find the episodes of Star Trek: TOS that I’ve seen to be ridiculously bad: the acting, the silly plots, the terrible visual effects.

      The Next Generation has some amazing episodes; it doesn’t have an overall arc in the way that Babylon 5 has, and many other individual episodes are bad, so I don’t like it as well as B5 – but there’s a strong argument that at it’s best, it’s as good as B5’s best. And I love the idealism of it. I love having a main character whose default reaction to a possible danger is not to immediately start shooting at it. I love that reasonable and clever negotiation is frequently the answer to problems.

      After I spent the length of two X-Men movies repeatedly calling Patrick Stewart a sanctimonious ass, Picard made me a huge fan of him.

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      • Part of that was budget constraints (Borg episodes were ridiculously expensive) but the result was an overall feeling of the Federation’s attitude (personified in Picard) being “We can throw a punch, and we will if you push us, but we’d rather exchange college students and be good neighbors.” That attitude was so effective it got the Klingons to ally with the Federation (well, until they didn’t anymore).

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  6. How you can praise Peter Jurasik without also invoking Andreas Katsulas is astonishing to me. Most of the praiseworthy Jurasik scenes were ones he performed with Katsulas. From an acting perspective, the two of them were the clear linchpins of the entire series: together or separate, they both gave incredible performances.

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  7. I loved this post.

    While I basically agree with everything you said, I would caution that fans who DO read for the world-building rarely think of the books they love as wooden and clichéd at the writing or character level. I am one of those rare both/and fans you almost never meet, and also someone who does reader’s advisory for (part of) a living, and the thing we most often talk about in this area professionally is appeal factors. Nancy Pearl calls ’em doorways. So we ask what appeals to a particular reader about a particular writing style, rather than whether it is “well-written,” which is only a useful term if you know the tastes of the person making the statement. Readers often enjoy the “voice” of the main character enough to think of him/her as a “good character”, or of the writing as a selling point, whether the writing is particularly skillful-by-English-major terms or not. (I actually feel that way about Qvothe, or Harry Dresden, or even the walking, talking caricature that is Drizzt do’ Urden – I don’t really care that they are utter cliches because I am so damn charmed by them. Cliched as they are, those characters are part of why I love the books they are in.)

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    • Jim Butcher has turned “Rule of Cool”, “Rule of Awesome”, and “Crowning Moment of Funny and/or Awesome” into a career.

      And I cheerfully give him money for it. Although there are people that do it better, some for free. (The nice fellow who wrote the Mass Effect/Exalted crossover “Glorious Shotgun Princess”, for instance…which I would pay good money, RIGHT THIS SECOND, to own as a video game.)

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    • I am also one of those both/and fans, at least for books. I go through phases where I want to be challenged by writers, and then phases where I want to just have fun. (Brain candy is my phrase of choose for there books.)

      For movies and TV, though, it’s a lot less so. The other night I started watching the movie SWAT because it was on and I was wanting brain candy, but even though I just wanted brain candy — and it had a terrific cast — I just couldn’t get through it because of the script. Watching it was like slogging through mud.

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  8. Tod,

    I think you have it right, and remember well getting swept up by B5, back in the day. I’m not sure if I’d get on the ride again, as my tastes have changed so much, and I’ve gotten spoiled by all the girl-power shows available, which ring stronger in my heart.

    But yeah, amazing show. Hasn’t quite been matched.

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  9. I guess you haven’t watched Deep Space Nine. For me it’s the best Star Trek tv show hands down. It does a very good job with long story arcs and actually is compared to B5 quite often.

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  10. When it comes to this stuff, I am always reminded of the CS Lewis essay an experiment in criticism.

    CS Lewis divided readers into two camps. He called them literary readers and non-literary readers and basically concluded that literary readers were reading for the prose, the writing, the playing with language and non-literary readers were reading for the sensation, plot, etc. The non-literary readers liked the short hand of clichéd sentences like “his blood ran cold.” Stuff that would make a literary reader howl, sneer and attack. This was not meant negatively.

    I see myself as being a literary reader. Most if not all of the fiction I read counts as literary fiction including the SF and Fantasy I read. I don’t have time for massive series like A Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan but I do love the real world magnum opuses like A Dance to The Music of Time by Anthony Powell or Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. For world-building, I like the more is less genre. Edith Wharton describes everything you need to know about the world of the characters in a few paragraphs at the opening of The Age of Innocence. Hesse does the same with his description of Mariabonn cloister at the start of Narcissus and Goldmund. As does Giorgio Basani in The Garden of the Finzi Continis and John Williams in Stoner, Fitzgerald in Gatsby, John Iriving in the Hotel New Hampshire, etc. Pages and pages of mythologizing and world building bore me. I also find that the pseudo-formal speech in a lot of SF and Fantasy comes of as pompous but hardcore SF and Fantasy fans seem to lap it up.

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    • Saul,
      I find Martin’s work to have some really poetic turns of phrase. I’m currently reading The Red Badge of Courage, and it’s surprisingly bland and plain.(Then again, Steinbeck’s prose, who I quite liked, has all the beauty of a sword. It’s plain, and sharp, and deadly).

      I have a short story that I very, very badly want to read… but it’s gone now. I wonder whether you’d have called it literary or non-literary, because it was an intricate puzzlebox of a story.

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    • I read for the prose and writing (as well as the characters), and I love The Lord of the Rings specifically because of its writing style. There’s something about the way Tolkien pairs the almost comic style he uses to write about hobbits and the Shire with the mythic tone of everything else that I find incredibly appealing. He gives a lot of background on Middle-earth, but he knows to leave some past things obscure to create a stronger sense of history and myth and the unknown.

      The only other thing in fantasy I’ve found that comes close to that level of writing, stylistically, is A Wizard of Earthsea (but none of LeGuin’s other works).

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  11. Tod,
    I’m currently a little over halfway through A Feast for Crows, and I’m having deja vu from Star Wars episode II–when the hell is he going to move the story forward? I’m also irritated by his terrible writing. Suddenly, it seems, he hit upon giving ages a “three and ten” instead of “thirteen” and decided it was such a cool trick it had to be repeated endlessly. The same with “much and more.” I’ve hated Martin’s writing since the first page of the first book, what with his juvenile fascination with alliterative names. Who among us can’t help but snigger at “Brand the Builder?” Good thing the guy wasn’t named Chuck.

    I’ll make it through, but everytime I see the blurb that says Martin spent years in Hollywood writing scripts that didn’t sell, I get a sense that I know why.

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  12. I love the Blacklist, specifically because of Spader. That show would be nearly un-watchable if it wasn’t for the fact that he plays the over-the-top mastermind so deliciously.

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  13. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas are two of the best actors ever in a SF series. And B5 is so over the heads of most people, they cannot even grasp it. I have Zero interest in Breaking Bad, I really couldn’t care less about it. B5 should have won many more Emmy’s and it is a pity it didn’t.

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  14. Babylon 5 was a great series for its time and as a former president of the Amiga Users Club I loved that Ron used networks of Amigas for all the special effects /long/ before other TV shows were doing full on CGI.

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  15. As someone who still can’t force himself through Feast for Crows after several tries,

    Interesting. I disliked AFfC on the first reading, but it really grew on me the second time. I’m currently rereading ADwD, which I hated the first time, and while it’s still very slow in spots, it really does have a narrative drive that escaped me before. I’m feeling much more optimistic about the series than I was a few weeks ago.

    Of course, that’s assuming the sixth book actually starts to resolve some of the existing storylines rather than adding yet more. Though I predict that there’s going to be a new one set in the Westerlands, because that’s the one part of Westeros we haven’t seen yet.

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  16. Considering the quality-level of the special effects, I suspect Babylon 5 couldn’t afford to hire better actors. Although I think Andreas Katsulas, and to a lesser level Claudia Christian, do a good job as well. The actor for an upcoming character in Season 3 is also fine, although I may be biased by him being ridiculously good-looking.

    The story arc of B5 was amazing, especially when you realize that they had to make at least three major changes that would have derailed any other show. It’s extremely impressive that Strazynski worked out ahead of time how he could modify the plot to compensate for the departure of any of the major actors from the show.

    (On a Game of Thrones note: I’m been less impressed with each successive season, although that may be partly because the novelty is wearing off, but based on Weiss and Benioff’s statements that they want the series to be 7 seasons long at most, and based on the limits to how long the audience will tolerate dragging out Dany’s Meereen arc, and based on the inclusion of some material from books 4 and 5 already in Season 4, I expect us to be at, near, or past the end of both AFFC and A Dance with Dragons by the end of Season 5. So it won’t drag as much, and they can cut a lot of the extraneous material.)

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  17. I spent a LOT of time prowling the usenet mailing lists with JMS in the late 90s and spent a fair amount of time with fan communities like The First Ones, and I have to admit I’ve gotten LESS impressed with B5 the longer I spent listening to the background chatter. The over-acting and terrible effects were fine, even if they haven’t aged well. It’s the…well sometimes JMS is too cheeky. He’s a comic book author and it shows when it comes to the over the top homages and in-jokes.

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  18. I guess I need to try watching an episode. I have absolutely no idea what this show is about.

    I am all caught up on every other series except House of Cards and Sherlock. Still waiting real time for the next episodes of Orphan Black, De Vinci’s Demons and GOT.

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  19. In terms of world building I’ve always loved writers like Steven Erikson and Stephen Brust who do such a fun job of creating huge intricate worlds, but then just showing rather than telling by working within the limits of character perspectives.

    In general The Malazan Book of the Fallen has always felt to me one of the few series that does both the actual prose writing and the world building really well. It is, of course, super long, but it’s also one of the few series that’s actually completed despite spanning 10 humongous volumes.

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  20. Also in terms of sci-fi I think Tod’s thesis only holds if you restrict to western live-action TV shows. Animated shows in Japan featuring giant robots has often had very good combinations of writing and plotting and scale.

    For example: The Universal Century related Mobile Suit Gundam and its many many spinoffs basically plots 50 years of conflict with a very detailed fictional universe combined with well scripted series. It’s true that not all of the series were shining beacons of greatness, but the great majority are well plotted with good character arcs and a character fatality rate that, frankly, makes George RR Martin seem like an amateur.

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