I too was no big fan of season one, after a couple of episodes when it debuted, I tuned out; it was too derivative of Star Trek and Straczynski had yet to find B5's unique and astounding voice.
Season Four is a stunner, bringing two wars to conclusion, raising heros from the dead, a wicked conclusion to Bester's most fiendish plot (in his defense, he was fighting for his freedom and his life). As always, "The Demolished Man" joke is a great one--and if you don't get it, you need to learn a LOT more about sf!
Once again, the writing is amazing, the direction tight, the CG splendid--the explosions finally stop looking like bad video games from 1985--and the acting, well, the "torture" ep--that's all I'll say--should have one a certain actor an Emmy. But...we know he didn't. I'm afraid the same fate awaits Peter Jackson, et al, on Feb 29th.
This season also contains my fav ep of all time, "Deconstruction of Falling Stars." Another ep that deserved an Emmy. I can't say enough in it's praise. B5 can no longer be labelled at ST's ... little brother: it's an equal in every sense.
The cast commentary is hilarious. You can tell that these are people (Boxleitner, Christian, Tallman, etc) who genuinely like each other and the camraderie and friendship is still there, six years after it all ended. Straz's three ep commentaries are interesting, but I wish that one of the actors or ep directors could have been present to discuss the eps; Staz's voice, contrary to his pen, can be monotone and a little somnolent, but, once fully awake, what he says IS interesting.
This review of the serious still says everything that I feel needs to be said. It goes straight to the heart of the B5 series and the real core.
J. Michael Straczynski and Robert B. Parker (of Spenser fame) have both achieved the same thing with very different subject matters and in very different media: they have made the moral choices of their characters the primary, indeed, almost the SOLE focus of the action. Straczynski's task is probably that much the harder because, unlike the novel, he can only graphically illustrate his characters' inner worlds. The result is triumph; presenting something so rare on TV: real people.
Yes, as in the Parker novels, there is plenty of violence. Also there is no downplaying certain characters' relish of the test of battle and their love of soldiering. Straczynski has a real respect for the military and does not let his correct skepticism of government (even if does repeat the McCarthy myth on a commentary track) spill over into disrespect for those who put their bodies where "the metal hit the meat." His use spectacular special effects only enhances.
The ground breaking CG had one real drawback: B-5 explosions simply don't look real. I guess they just didn't have the processor power to simulate them on their budget. Even now fire is said to be impossible to model and thus its creation is more the work of artist than artisan-something the insane schedule of network drama simply doesn't allow.
Both series place characters--whatever the literary allusion--in situation where they have choose between expedience and principle. Straczynski does a superb job of dropping his characters--ones obviously very beloved to him--into horrible situation in which they die or undergo the most dreadful pain and loss. Then there are those, like Mr. Morden, Mr. Bester nice "Demolish Man" joke), and "President" Clark who clearly took the road of expedience. Straczynski shows, graphically, the very real consequences of their actions not only for themselves but for billions of other humans and aliens.
The main theme was taken from an old Poul Anderson novel whose name eludes me. He pictured a war between vastly powerful species whose mere existence was outside human comprehension but who used humans and others as proxies in their never ending struggle. Redux the Shadows and Vorlons--who turn out to be as amoral as the Shadows when crossed.
As with the Spenser novels, Babylon 5 rises far above genre to achieve what is so utterly rare in any historical era: art. They both show us the recesses of the heart, the secret places we hide from everyone else. We are also shown the devastating consequences of moral failure or necessity. In a hundred years B-5 will still resonate in a way my beloved Star Trek never can. Star Trek, you see, is fantasy, the way the world ought to be. Babylon 5, unfortunately, is the way the future WILL be.