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mygif

I kind of feel like why try it? Because it’s never been done has never been a big reason for me.

And the fact he switched things up in season 4 suggests he wasn’t that dedicated to it

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Mitchell Hundred said on April 7th, 2013 at 9:58 pm

First of all, The Wire.

Second of all, I would argue that Babylon 5‘s pre-planned storyline was the source of the show’s weaknesses, not its strength. Because JMS had a specific vision of where the show was going, he was much more susceptible to the vagaries of fate and had to retcon away certain plot developments/characters if an actor wanted to leave before the story dictated it necessary. It just came across as really sloppy to me when I was watching the show.
Plus the fact that it was his vision meant that of course he had to write most of the episodes, and so all his weaknesses in that department are quite evident. The only TV program I’ve seen that successfully executed that kind of meticulous pre-planning was Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a) it was only three seasons long and b) it was animated, making it less susceptible to the problems that might plague a live-action show.

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mygif

Speaking as someone who did catch B5 in its original run, and acknowledging that the 4th-5th season suffered from cast changes and irregular studio/network support and schedules; I managed to not get fooled by LOST, BSG, HEROES, or the rest. Because I saw it done right the first time and could tell when show-runners didn’t care or weren’t able to deliver the goods.

OTOH, EUREKA, WAREHOUSE 13, and some others don’t really try to be full myth arcs. They’re procedural+soap opera, like Law & Order or HOUSE, or but with Magic and/or SCIENCE! instead of Law or Medicine as the excuse to tell the same story every week.

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mygif

Part of the change is just the change of the times, I suspect. When you have no idea if your season is going to be greenlit for the second half of the first season, never mind multiple seasons, then why put the energy into planning ahead for things that will probably never happen?

Babylon 5 is still some of the best TV ever. Even with the fifth season the way it was.

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The first half of season 5 is really bad, but it doesn’t retroactively ruin previous episodes since season 4 effectively wrapped the two major story lines. Do stick around for the last half of S5, it isn’t amazing but the show works out some of its problems and starts being enjoyable again.

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I’d agree The Wire comes closest to being an enclosed narrative with its impressive character interaction and development and focus on a singular point – the War on Drugs is failing, miserably – but among sci-fi/fantasy geek shows the closest to mind would be Deep Space Nine, which didn’t start off with a true focus but gained one by picking up on the beginning, long slog, and messy end of the Dominion War (the purist fans were horrified that Gene’s vision of a peaceful future was ruined, but DS9 show-runners recognized that the cycle of human history even in the future would see some conflict sooner or later).

Personally I wasn’t a huge fan of B5: I was too enthralled with X-Files at the moment and couldn’t obsess elsewhere. I also saw at the time JMS’s over-reliance on earlier myths – did we need to bring in Arthurian legends into this? – as rather juvenile, although I did see how it paid off in the end with “Deconstruction of Falling Stars” demonstrating how myths do define humanity.

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mygif

can you show me anyone who’s done this better?

The Wire. Avatar: The Last Airbender.

For that matter? Seasons Five through Seven of DS9. The Dominion War arc is more coherent and better-constructed overall than the Shadow War arc, even if the Shadow War is more interesting and has better individual episodes and climaxes.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender. Only ran 3 seasons, but they were three strong-ass seasons that tell a more coherent, unified story than any other tv show I’ve ever seen.

The Wire is the best dramatic television show in the history of the medium, but they do stick the landing.

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mygif

I would argue that DS9 did, though it took a longer, slower, subtler path through it, and suffered from Ron Moore’s inability to end anything properly long before BSG did (“Hey, I think I’ll run off and be a god now! Bye honey!”) If only that finale had been 30 minutes shorter.

Also, there have been some…observations over the years about the similarities between B5 and DS9, and the fact that B5 was pitched to Paramount before DS9 was in development.

Stargate did do the comprehensive story arc. They just don’t get credit for it because they had the sense to let a story run its course and then start a new one. That show had…I think three complete story arcs, if you squint a bit at the TV movies they used to cap off the series after the cancellation. SGU tried harder to do it, but died too early.

Once Upon A Time is trying now, and did pretty well over its first season, but the jury’s still out. I’m not certain that the show has a constrained arc in mind.

The 4400 would have done it, if they’d been given the final season they were promised.

Justice League, and that whole era of animated DCU deserves a mention, even though it wasn’t a single plot. In a similar vein, I suspect Star Wars: Clone Wars has an end game in mind, but is treading water in the mean time.

I haven’t seen The Wire, but I’ve heard enough about it that it has to be considered a contender.

On B5: remember that the Season 4 finale is actually Season 5’s first episode; while it’s a perfectly good episode that manages to be a fitting “end of season” moment without spoiling any of the actual story, it was shot in a hurry, and it looks like it. Season 5 has its ups and downs, but the telepath story arc and the Neil Gaiaman episode are worth all the awkward moments. Also, Sleeping In Light, the series finale, will tear your heart out of your chest, ponder it for a moment, and then slowly eat it while you watch. I first watched that episode home alone, on my birthday, with the phone out because I couldn’t pay the bill and no car because I was still sharing one with my ex-girlfriend. It’s a wonder I made it through to the next day.

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mygif

Both iterations of Avatar. The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret. Eastbound And Down.

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Rich Uncle Bloodmoney said on April 7th, 2013 at 10:54 pm

I’d also put in a word for the sadly truncated Carnivale, or at least my imaginary actually perfect version of it. Knowing there was a whole predeveloped six-season arc did a lot to justify the pacing oddities.

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Andrew Foley said on April 7th, 2013 at 11:13 pm

I’m tempted to say the first five seasons of Supernatural, which is where series creator Eric Kripke clearly intended the story he was telling with the characters to end, holds together just as well and is as entertaining as B5 ever was. But the truth is, while it seems to me I enjoyed B5s2 and onward and pretty much all of Supernatural s1-5 as I watched them, I haven’t seen either in ages, and my memory isn’t awesome.

Also, it’s a bit of an apples to oranges thing, subject matter wise, but then, so’s The Wire.

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mygif

I suspect Star Wars: Clone Wars has an end game in mind, but is treading water in the mean time.

If by ‘treading water’ you mean ‘was cancelled’ then sure.

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mygif

Well, we can’t really judge it until it’s done, but Breaking Bad is shaping up for one hell of an ending. So far it has done an excellent job of moving the plot forward relentlessly. Maybe it’s a bit easier to do when the whole show is pretty much a character study of one person, though.

As for the Wire, as much as I love that show, I can’t really agree with it as an exemplar of the unified arc. There was definitely a narrative strand connecting the seasons, but each season was designed to function as a self-contained arc. In fact, the more I think about it, the less it fits. The second season deals with a criminal empire completely distinct from the first season, and its events are hardly mentioned again after the season finale. Season three completes the arc of the season one antagonists. Season four illustrates perfectly how the damage sustained in school makes children ready for the broken, hopeless community outside by damaging them, but it’s less a continuation and more a lateral exploration. And I don’t really have much good to say about season 5, although it does feature the closest thing to the conclusion of an arc that lasted the whole series, in the form of Bubbles’ ending.

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mygif

Well hell. Last I’d heard Clone Wars was just figured to move to the Disney Channel. Feh.

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It stands up better, when compared against what else has been done on TV (both at the same time and since), than it does compared against what it was supposed to accomplish.

Sometimes changes forced upon the show by the real world harmed it (the rush to wrap up almost all the important plots by the end of S4 did leave S5 without enough material to properly supply interesting plot to the episodes that ended up getting bought and aired). And sometimes those changes forced by the real world helped (if you read Joe’s notes, posted online after the whole series was done, about what his original intentions for the story were, it’s clear that on balance, even with the unevenness of S5, the story that aired was better than the story that was planned). Season 1 was almost as hit-or-miss as Season 5.

B5 pushed the limits of what was then believed to be possible on television. In some ways, it pushed beyond what _still_ appears to be possible on television, simply because TV writers never have enough power to control things, to do all the cool stuff they’d like to. It can hold its own competitively against the overwhelming majority of what’s fresh and new today, almost 20 years later and with the full benefit of hindsight on all the lessons it had to teach about how to do (and also how not to do) long-term stories on TV. And it’s aged better than ANY of its contemporaries.

That, I think, is an epitaph any show would be proud to claim.

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Voodoo Ben said on April 8th, 2013 at 1:39 am

If SUPERNATURAL had ended when ot was supposed too, it would bitch slap B5 like a red-headed stepchild.

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Life on Mars (UK) did a perfectly fine job of telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but it was only 16 episodes long, so it hardly counts. Super Dimension Fortress Macross was a single 36-episode season.

And it’s only fair to mention that, even judged against the overall quality of the series, Wiseguy did a terrible job of concluding its overall 3-season arc – to say nothing of the ill-advised 4th “season” without the title character.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Oh, and Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated is doing a really good job with its ongoing arc plot (albeit only over two seasons).

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Aussiesmurf said on April 8th, 2013 at 3:47 am

Don’t laugh – Season 1 of Murder One in the 90s had a great extended story-line of one-season, back in the days when even two-episode story-ars were frowned upon.

A few people have mentioned the Wire, but really, it could have ended at the end of each season and been thematically satisfying. I’m a bit torn, because seasons 1-3 is really a complete story-arc, but season 4 is arguably the best-crafted season of all.

I think the West Wing gets some credit for covering the entire span of a Presidency and maintain some (at least) dramatic cohesion.

If Futurama had ended after four seasons (or even after the fifth season / movies) I would have said that it told an interesting story.

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mygif

I don’t think anybody here heard of it but Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It’s an anime based on a scifi novel.

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Hasn’t Doctor Who actually done it several times….in the ‘classic’ series as well as the two showrunner eras of RTD and Moffat to date?

I think what you’re actually looking at is the demand of American television studios for multi-episode seasons that will bring in advertizers/syndication. Shows from other countries don’t have that problem. BS5 is hardly a Tolkienist monomyth. There’s an overarching plot but I think the rare execution of that in this instance is more to do with the vagaries of American television.

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AussieSmurf is right to add West Wing into the mix. And Murder One was audacious in its attempt to tell a full season storyarc (even though it seemed to perform an ass-pull by giving us the murderer as someone we only saw for, what, 5 minutes total?).

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mygif

There’s one other show to consider in terms of prolonged narrative: The Fugitive (60s version).

While it still had its episodic nature, it still carried the underlying premise of “Wrongfully convicted man hunting the one-armed man who may have killed his wife” and tried to at least maintain some build-up. Over the seasons Kimble was slowly able to convince Gerard there was a One-Armed Man so that by the final season – where they began to set up for a then-unheard-of final episode – they could wrap things up as cleanly as possible.

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I’m going to propose Dragonball Z as a did it better television show that dealt with a serialized story and multi year plan. When you watch it all together it holds up pretty well, eapecially if you ignore the sequel aeries and movies. Just the show, by itself, is a pretty good multi-arc story.

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Mitchell Hundred said on April 8th, 2013 at 9:06 am

A few people have mentioned The Wire, but really, it could have ended at the end of each season and been thematically satisfying.

Yes, but they still used the storylines from each individual season to build on the next, creating an overarching narrative that transcended any one section.

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mygif

I’m surprised no one has mentioned The Shield.

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As long as we’re talking cartoons, the 90s show Gargoyles had a pretty far-reaching, ongoing thread, especially if you ignore the last season.

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I would note that if we were allowed to extend to this to non-western animation, I could cite a ton of anime series that nailed the ‘long ongoing series plotline that comes to a satisfying resolution’ thing.

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drmedula said on April 8th, 2013 at 12:40 pm

OBVIOUSLY “The Shield”.
And with one episode to go, it’s a little bit too early to pass final judgement on SPARTACUS… but ask again next week.
(For what it’s worth, the last episode of CLONE WARS does resolve the show’s major continuity issue very well… and it’s been hinted that there WILL be a little bit more coming that will wrap up the other loose ends).

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Legend of the Galactic Heroes

I have that sitting on my hard drive, awaiting the day when I find the resolution to watch 110 half-hour episodes of 80’s anime.

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hatgirlstargazer said on April 8th, 2013 at 2:40 pm

It seems to me that those who would call B5’s experiment in multiple-season arcs a “failure” because of the troubles in the last season to a season and a half are being far too critical. Yes, the series ultimately fell a bit short of the original five-year plan, and the last season suffered quite a bit as a result (as a teen at the time I struggled to stay interested in the 5th season; I agree that the quality dropped distressingly). However, this doesn’t change the way that seasons 2 through 4 are some of the best dramatic television yet aired, in large part because of the degree to which the long-term plan succeeded. Three amazing seasons, one good season, and one disappointing season does not a failure make in my book.

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NewtypeS3 said on April 8th, 2013 at 4:59 pm

While not having seen B5 before (which I intend to at least sample at some point), I cannot comment on the quality of the series.

That said, when it comes to overarching plots over TV shows that I’ve seen that were planned out to some effect, I can only recommend (or mention) the following:

-Avatar: The Last Airbender, for every reason said above.
-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s final seasons count in this respect as well, even thought most of the seasons leading up to the Dominion War are more along the lines of the earlier episodic-based Star Treks.
-West Wing and ER both are solid examples, I feel, at least when you look for character development more and less for major storylines in plot.

I have to give serious props to the DCAU, as mentioned above, just for retaining a coherent universe over an insane amount of time for television in general, to say nothing of Children’s Television.

I also think it’s unfair to list anime that have had a rather absurdly large book to draw content from. Certainly, translating a book or comic/manga to the small screen still takes a rather large effort, but it feels like apples and oranges.
That said, to include those…

-Dragonball/Z works great as an example. An anime that ran from… what, 1986 to 1996 or so with overarching and massive storylines. Bonus points for beginning as episodic before ramping up into large story arcs.

-JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. While the anime just began this year, the creators have already unveiled season 2. While the story does not focus on the main characters (invariably nicknamed ‘JoJo’) for nearly as long as most TV shows do, the story moves across decades (and even centuries) as it tells a tale that’s over 70 volumes long now in book form.

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mygif

JJBA is many things, but it’s not terribly coherent among its parts. There’s nothing connecting parts 5 and 6, for example, and the main connection between parts 1 and 3 includes a major plot hole. Part 2 builds on the lore of part 1, but those developments largely disappear by part 3. Part 6 includes some very interesting callbacks to part 3, but its resolution is really only satisfying in terms of the part itself. And most of part 4’s characters aren’t seen again – there’s not even an epilogue in the style of part 2 or part 7. It’s hard to be more descriptive without spoiling things, sorry.

I’d rather credit JJBA with inspiring One Piece, which does world building, foreshadowing, and callbacks much more smoothly over an immense number of chapters. There’s some terrific world building going on right now in the manga, I think.

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mygif

It’s a bit obscure but the “Roswell Conspiracies” cartoon- which was a blend of X-Files and X-Com- had a two season arc which was built up from the very first episodes, and had smaller arcs concerning various characters and villains. I think nearly every episode had some sort of pay-off down the line.

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@NewtypeS3
I also think it’s unfair to list anime that have had a rather absurdly large book to draw content from.

I mentioned LoGH because John gave GoT as an example. But I agree with you, it’s unfair to compare LoGH with episodic television :)

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mygif

If you skip, or struggle through, the first dozen or so episodes of Jericho you get a pretty good multi-episode arc as a reward.

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I try not to judge B5’s last season too harshly because of the problems and conditions JMS had to face. When you consider that then his being able to put together a decent fifth season at all is admirable.

Overall season five is forgettable and you can pretty much skip it all save for the very last episode, which is a pretty awesome ending to the series as a whole.

Murder One? I loved that first season. If you are going to have a show about a murder trial then yeah, it makes perfect sense to have it play out over twenty two or so episodes.

DS9? Over rated. Always has been, always will be.

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Moses Moore said on April 8th, 2013 at 11:36 pm

I knew I’d see some mention of Japanese episodic teevee in here. I remember when Harmony Gold’s imported and chopped up three seasons of show to form what was called “Robotech”, and the kids/teens watching it were blown away by the idea of serial storytelling with an overarching narrative and advancing plot.

But what Japanese anime doesn’t do is the multi-season stories. They tell amazing stories that arc over 12 or 24 or 36 episodes, but these are meant to begin and end inside a year (the original SDF Macross story was broadcast from October 1982 to June 1983). Babylon 5 tried to keep it together for multiple years, with the same story that was seeded in year one being relevant in year five.

Hell — I’m having a hard time thinking of any comic books from DC or Marvel that tried to tell a single cohesive story over five years. Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles,” maybe? Wait, “Transmetropolitan” is a very good example. But not any of the cash-cow titles, nosireebob.

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mygif

Moses, meet One Piece. One Piece, Moses. Its 580+ episodes of coherent story say hi.

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mygif

Just reading some of the comments, I would definitely agree that anime has some of the longest cohesive stories on TV.

There are many anime that run much longer arcs than one year (or season), but most come from manga that has been written for decades. They already have a dedicated fan base so there is little chance of cancellation. The only problems in pacing come when the anime catches up the the manga and they have to add (sometimes terrible) filler or extend scenes to a snail’s pace.

Examples above would be Dragon Ball and One Piece (though it hasn’t ended yet). I watch One Piece every week, and was shocked when bit-part character from episode 31 later appeared in episode 386! Also worth noting that both these shows have allowed the characters to age and grow, not a common thing in animation (even in anime).

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mygif

It’s in its infancy as yet, but here’s my prediction: Once Upon A Time.

Could hardly be a more different show from Bab 5, and I’m not saying the show itself is flawless, but it’s great to for once watch something that actually clearly has an arc, and where you see the fruition of seeds that were planted over a season ago that you _know_ couldn’t simply have been made up as the writers went along. Is their end-game complete in their minds? Hard to say. But they are clearly thinking far further ahead than just the end of the season, and it shows.

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socraticsilence said on April 9th, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Mitchell Hundred–

Two things, first the Wire needs to be excluded from these discussion as it essentially answers almost all extant “why don’t TV shows do this” questions, and secondly, the Wire tells a multiperspective story and metanarrative better but not a long form story– it is by its very grounded brilliance incapable of telling such a story.

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mygif

I was a huge B5 fan for a while, when it was first on the air. I stopped watching sometime around season three, or maybe partway into season four, or something like that (it’s been a long time). I just got tired of it. And when I went back, years later, and tried to watch it again, I thought it was almost unwatchable. Many of the actors were mediocre, and some were plain terrible, the dialogue was often stilted or silly, and many plot developments seem ham-fisted or unbelievable.

More on point, the pacing was terrible all along. A big reason I stopped watching it the first time was that I just got bored waiting for something to happen. I lost count of how many episodes went by with the same basic plot: this time, on B5, something sinister is going on out on the outer rim, and maybe you’ll find out something more about it, next time, on B5. And then, once things finally started to happen, I lost count of the number of episodes in which the big, climactic moment was yet another speech by Sheridan and Delenn about how they all needed to stand together, and not yield, and never give in, or give up, or shut up. Honestly, I felt that the entire story JMS wanted to tell could have fit neatly into three season. Instead, he decided to drag it out to five, and we all know how that turned out.

Anyway, as far as shows doing a big, multi-season saga well, I thought The Shield did a good job. Not a perfect one, mind you, but still, a very good one. Homeland is only two seasons into its run, and who knows what will happen in future seasons, or how many more seasons there will be, but so far, I would say that it has been close to perfection with what is clearly a multi-season saga.

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mygif

Joining this conversation late, but I generally agree with Mitchell Hundred. While Babylon 5 definitely deserves respect for setting up and delivering a multi-year storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, it also demonstrates some of the problems with having a story that rigidly defined. Most notably, the fact that characters drop out of the show and are replaced by new characters who are *exactly the same*. Hell, some of the best stuff in the show was stuff JMS had to come up with to compensate for cast changes–having Sinclair found the Rangers, for instance, played out way more interestingly because it had to happen mostly offscreen.

I think Seavey is being unfair to Buffy, a show that clearly had a plan but demonstrated the value of flexibility. There was obviously a three-year arc, at least, in place when the show started; Dark Willow is set up as far back as S2; The First pretty much has “Final Boss” stamped on its forehead from the moment it first appears in S3; and so on. Obviously the writers were winging some stuff, particularly with character deaths (having to replace Kendra with Faith, NOT killing Spike, etc.) but that just allowed them to focus on the stuff that worked and tinker with the stuff that wasn’t. Of course, this was also a function of having multiple writers bouncing ideas around and critiquing each other, as opposed to a single guy who just plowed ahead with what he wanted to do. (DS9 is an even better reflection of this–there was some log-term planning there too, but a lot of it was played by ear, and the results were generally more satisfying than B5.)

This is probably going to sound completely unfair, but I’m of the opinion that simply sitting down and writing a 5-year-plan for a show isn’t actually that impressive IN AND OF ITSELF. The narrative has to actually be *good*, too, and Babylon 5’s was…generally kind of mediocre. There are a few bright spots, but it rarely did the kind of setup-payoff or twist that makes a serialized show really impressive. I mean, sure, we see the inklings of fascism creeping into human society as early as the first season, but is there anything about that storyline that plays out in a surprising or unique or even insightful manner? Earth starts to hint towards becoming cartoon fascists; then they become cartoon fascists. Then the good guys beat them. That whole storyline in particular felt was ham-handed, audience-flattering and unchallenging, and the fact that it happened across four seasons didn’t make it better than something that happened in a single episode. (The PsiCorps stuff was more interesting, again, because it seemed like they felt the need to suddenly shift gears when they realized they had TWO sinister power-grabbing conspiracies on the boil.)

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