My first encounter with J. Michael Straczynski was at my local library - in short, a copy of The Complete Guide to Scriptwriting that I would often check out and read, feeding my dreams of becoming a writer. (Yeah, and right now, I'm a social service/substance abuse monkey boy. Go figure). My goal in this post is neither to bury nor praise JMS - just provide a light critique.
Anyway, I've been making my way (via NetFlix) through Crusade, JMS's follow up to Babylon 5. Although I never was a rabid/fervent Babylon 5 fan, I enjoyed it. (In fact, I have seasons 4 and 5 lined up in my queue - thanks to a move to Oregon based on a really dysfunctional relationship, I missed the bulk of it, and really want to see how it ends). However, in reading/viewing much of JMS' work, including Supreme Power and Jeremiah, I wanted to just address some...well, concerns that I have about his work. (And don't get me started on the Gwen Stacy/Normal Osborn debacle...)
1) Arc: One of JMS' comments about Crusade was that it had - again - a five year arc. Now, this is a cool idea - spreading your plot over a series of episodes - however, B5 handled it with a light touch its first season, allowing us to gradually become introduced to our main characters. In Crusade, however, it seems incomplete, almost as if the concept wasn't strong enough to last on its own. Despite network interference, JMS could have sold a solid series of episodes within the common framework; now, all we have is an incomplete series. Even Firefly, which had an "arc", was able to tell self-contained stories (and, within its run, have a sequel to one episode)
(And this approach doesn't work too well in comics - I mean, Supreme Power told in 14 issues a story that normally might have taken one to six issues, proof that a tool that works in one medium probably might not pass muster in another)
2) Foreshadowing: This may contradict what I just said, but the foreshadowing on Crusade is light, but almost overwhelms the main narrative thrust. (Contrast this to Jeremiah, where the foreshadowing is caked on heavier than that slimy cheese on a St. Louis-style pizza). Again, Crusade suffers slightly because of it. Yes, you want to indicate what may happen, but do you really need to be blatant about it?
3) Nods to the Audience: Ok, the episode "Visitors Down the Street" contains slight digs at both The X-Files' and Star Trek's philosophies, and Supreme Power # 1 contains an ironic use of Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind"...but this can be a little wearing at times. The difference between satire and parody is the difference between champagne and a boilermaker.
(And on a related note - yes, you want to pay homage to your influences, but did you really have to rip off the Liberator from Blake's 7? And give it the same weapon as Star Blazers Again, as Nigel Tufnel would say, fine line between clever and stupid)
4) Where's the Wonder?: Both B5 and Crusade promote the idea that we go out into space because one day, humanity won't exist, and so we explore to meet others and to "leave our mark" on the universe..
Look at any decent science fiction television show - Star Trek, Doctor Who, Blake's Seven - heck, even Quantum Leap had a sense of "going where no one has ever been before", of moving out of your comfort zone, of learning what it means to be human by viewing ourselves through those who are not...but "hey, we're out here to insure we're remembered when we die?" It seems....you fill in the adjective.
Is Crusade worth watching? Yes it is - it's a great example of a missed opportunity, of how a narrow-minded network killed something with potential before it could be launched...but also of how a writer could have strengthened his work by avoiding his usual pitfalls.