It has now been 20 years since the pilot episode of Babylon 5 aired. This show was frustrating, exhilarating, preposterous, and profound. The dialog ranged from the insipid to the divine, the acting could be often wooden but a few of the cast were brilliant. But it had something no one had ever really tried before, a long, well-written story arc that had an actual end in sight and the ride was damn well worth it.
Star Trek Deep Space Nine was similar and in some respects better, especially in terms of actors and dialog. But DS9’s story arc was flimsier and not nearly as grand. B5’s creator, J. Michael Straczyinsky, had a master plan for something the equal of a great space opera, the kind of science fiction that only existed in books. And he came so painfully close to pulling it off.
There have been other shows since that tried to reach as far. Ronald Moore’s remake of Battlestar Galactica was great the first two seasons but then it became apparent that they were making it up as they went along, something JMS did not do. Joss Whedon’s Firefly was smaller in scope but the world building, numerous plot lines, and extremely engaging characters promised multiple rewards. That is until Fox sabotaged it. The Stargate series were lighter in tone but they became damn good at pulling off multiple episode arcs. The Clone Wars series is great, and far better than the Star Wars prequels but it is an animated series and despite a worthy attempt, doesn’t quite carry the weight it could.
I wonder when we’ll see someone go for broke again in a space opera series. SyFy has neither the will nor the budget, the broadcast networks are hopeless (Fox had the real thing in Firefly but they screwed the pooch), and there’s been nothing new from the “quality” cable channels (HBO, FX, AMC, Showtime, etc.). It would take money or someone that can do animation or CGI within a budget, and a showrunner with an understanding of the genre and a long term plot in mind, or a book they could harness to it.
JMS has been writing comics and I don’t see him returning to TV any time soon. Joss Whedon has become Master of the Marvel Universe and will now be making movies until the end of time. Ronald Moore is working on a new SyFy series but it’s not going to be set in outer space. It looks like we need a new champion or heroine to take up the gauntlet. I just worry that no one in television has the combination of smarts and ambition to pull it off. And the world is poorer for it.