I watched both back during their original run. I felt they were both watchable, but then again, I'm not very partisan like that. I watched both DS9 & VOY first-run and enjoyed both and felt each had strengths & weaknesses. I'm not sure how much is many people just being very all-or-nothing vs. there being a very purist but very vocal minority loving their show and hating the main rival. Maybe a lot of people did watch both, but are silent because they don't get so worked up about it.
I felt Babylon 5 had the better plot overall and, even in spite of some pitfalls and boring times (hello Telepath Arc), was overall handled better over the entire series. DS9 was very enjoyable overall, but had some crap (the Klingon detour war. Like a meal of candy, some episodes were very enjoyable upon viewing that episode ["The Way of the Warrior"] but it was a needless detour from all the key players in DS9 (Season 5 on, the Klingons settled into their proper place as a B-tier supporting race in the fight). They were able to salvage it though by weaving it back into the Dominion ("Apocalypse Rising" was very cool).
Other pitfalls were a horrible stretch (funnily enough, also in Spring 1998) and ... hard to explain, the 10-part final chapter, while good, it did kill the energy in the rest of the season (like dead ground around a large tree. Everything got tied into the final arc with not too much able to be done early) along with some crappy eps (but some very good ones too). The Romulans remained bit players in how they were shown unfortunately. B5 had fewer pitfalls, perhaps because so much did plug into greater arcs and things kept moving. I didn't mind the Ferengi episodes at all, BTW (except for "Profit and Lace" & "Ferengi Love Songs").
Of course, there was a downside to B5... very high rate of reruns
. 22 episodes a year opened up a block of 3rd-runs. DS9's 26 episode season made for much less waiting between new episodes. Then there was B5's ABSOLUTELY SCREWY & STUPID
- Holding back the last few episodes totally killed the momentum that was building up and the chance for some spectacular cliffhangers (e.g. "Z'ha'dum", though "Endgame" would have made for a MUCH better finale than "Intersections in Real Time"). DS9 did this right. They had some great finales that while not cliffhangers like TNG or Voyager, they left a big dangling plot point ("The Jem 'Hadar", "The Adversary", "Broken Link", "Call to Arms" especially).
- Do people know key episodes like "Babylon Squared" & "Chrysalis" only aired once and didn't reair for nearly 3 1/2 years, meaning viewers who joined later had no idea what had happened/couldn't get caught up? The show aired on PTEN's system, which was on a calendar year schedule. B5 tried to transition to a tv-season schedule but got stuck in an awkward in-between position. With many spots for 3rd reruns, especially in 1996, they could have easily picked out the key eps to bring newer viewers up to date.
- But hey, TNT did some stupid things too- "Sleeping in Light" aired the night before Thanksgiving, a night that ratings of other sci-fi shows (I've seen Voyager's numbers along with other shows) take a slight to big hit. I haven't seen B5's Season 5 ratings though. "Sleeping in Light" might be the best series finale to get the smallest audience.
I also think B5 is a bit 'drier', which makes it easier to burn out on as opposed to DS9 (heck, Star Trek as a whole) that remains rather fresh even after extensive viewing. Some of that might be the one downside to serialization (higher interest the first time around at the cost of lower interest other times around, especially after a 2nd viewing to notice the things one missed), some of it is style. B5's style just has something about it that makes it... yeah, it's kind of hard to describe it in words.
* Cast (and Commander):
I felt DS9 had the better cast. Even though Babylon 5 had by far the best actors/characters out of both- Londo & G'Kar, overall DS9's cast was more interesting.
Sheridan was better in any given episode than Sinclair (he did shine at times, but yes, overall he was wooden) but he did come off too much like a hothead. Sisko, especially Season 3+ (and at times in Season 2) was a much more interesting captain.
Ivanova was kind of 'catty' to not get censored here and her tragic past fell flat/didn't seem to connect, whereas Kira did seem like a former militant with an edge who grew up in a nasty occupation (but was readily adapting to turning into an administrator and leaving the guerrilla warfare behind).
Garibaldi was a good character to watch but Odo's character (not to mention his feuding with Quark) and story were far more interesting. A number of Odo's episodes were among the best standalones in the series. Zack very much came off as a background kind of character.
Bashir was far more interesting than Franklin, even ignoring his plot twist and even going beyond his O'Brien friendship dynamic. Franklin just filled the doctor role with not much memorable to do outside the sickbay besides his turn at the descent & redemption rebound that most B5 characters got.
O'Brien was very enjoyable to watch. He was the down to earth everyone and a skilled engineer. B5 didn't have anyone like him (not even a quartermaster or maintenance chief who could have been involved in fixing the station after battles, getting the weapons ready, like imagine a chief engineer melded with a chief tactical officer). Then there's the guilty pleasure, the screw with O'Brien episodes.
Delenn became a pretty good character, good even if she was below Londo & G'Kar in coolness and great story arcs (she got some good scenes though). I did like having Bill Mumy (Lennier) around even if it was a thankless role just to give Delenn another Minbari to talk to. Vir I didn't care for (too much of a bumbling idiot, though the idea of a pure-hearted Centauri amongst an entire retinue of schemers & connivers was good). Marcus came off as a bit of an arrogant bastard, an awkward Frankenstein of flippant loose cannon and singularly devoted adherent. Never cared for Talia. She seemed like
. Lyta was much better. But all of these couldn't match up with Jadzia Dax (well, pre-Season 5 Dax), Quark, Martok, Garak, Rom. Jake was kind of parallel in stature to Lennier.
I voted for both. Each had their strength and weaknesses. The Dominion were interesting, particularly in how it was set up. Reclusive leaders considered gods or myths by everyone beneath them, genetically engineered soldiers, genetically engineered bureaucrats. Though in keeping it simple, they did sacrifice depth (missing the huge opportunity to bring in the Hunters from "Captive Pursuit" who were the most interesting people pre-"The Jem'Hadar") and we didn't see too much of other races under the Dominion, especially after they were introduced ("Starship Down" comes to mind) so the Dominion did have some abstractness, with it not being clear how member worlds saw it and who they thought was really in charge. The Jem 'Hadar were quite memorable in many episodes, with many sides being presented of what could easily
have been a 1-D race of tough cannon fodder, generic white orcs.
The Shadows had awesome
ships and "Z'ha'dum" was cool (using Sheridan's wife to get to him, the old human (Justin?) explaining things), but they were rarely-seen CGI creatures. That was by design. It kept them shadowy & mythical, but it also made them closer to the generic ancient race reawakened to cause chaos 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 years later. Order vs. Chaos was cool, though there was some disbelief (like a race that old wouldn't mentally mature, both of them) and the First Ones, the idea was cool as 'third parties' but they weren't really fleshed out at all, just these cool mysterious races to try and find, then throw at the enemy like pretty fireworks. The late Season 3- early Season 4 run was excellent though, but the Centauri Cartagia storyline overshadowed the storytelling (though the Shadow-Vorlon War certainly stole all the action).
Really, the Shadows, all we saw were impersonal shadow ships (parallel the Jem'Hadar, but more befitting your generic horde) and Shadow agents/bureaucrats (parallel the Vorta). With Odo & the Female Founder, we got a good understanding of the top race in the villainous entity, but with the Shadows, it was just invisible boogeyman that believe in social darwinism. The Dominion also felt more realistic, like one could kind of imagine a geopolitical entity like that as opposed to the more fantasy/RPG/Tolkienesque ancient evil/hidden civilization singularly driven by an ideology. I love RPGs and it was cool the first time around, but I've been able to appreciate the Dominion story more on 2nd... nth go-arounds.
On the 2nd tier, DS9 still beat B5. The Cardassians were depicted with great depth and complexity in the series. We saw quite a few people, different sides in many episodes, not just Dukat but episodes like "Second Skin", "Tribunal", Garak & the Obsidian Order, et al, and later Dumar. They came off as having more depth than the knee-jerk stock noble warriors the Minbari Warrior Caste or the Clark Earth dictatorship that was more a distant threat than anything. We never really saw much outside of insinuations with Nightwatch; it was just reactionary military types allowing for a civil war space battle to be shown. I loved those episodes in Season 4, but because Earth was effectively to viewers seen as much as what goes on inside North Korea, it was a more abstract threat than real save for the military skirmishes in deep space ("Endgame" is among my top few favorite sci-fi episodes of all time though, easily beating out its VOY, X-Files, SG-1 namesakes). It could have put a human face on the enemy, make up for the Shadows' greatest weakness in storytelling, but Clark might as well have been a Shadow, heck, same goes for any in his regime, like the parallel SS beyond their own one cameo (yeah, they had a big role in that episode, but in the big picture of the series, it was figuratively a cameo, like the Streib [alien Grays who abducted Sheridan]).
Back to Minbar. It may have served Delenn's point that the Worker Caste was invisible and the real builders behind the other castes, but it made them an abstract as well. They should have been introduced to the viewers with some episode showcasing them, like in Season 1 or so. It just seemed like a race filled with a Church-like entity and a bunch of holy warriors with elements of military resentment of civilian-leadership giving the orders. It came off like just an attempted military coup mixed in with an inter-Church schism more than a civil war stemming from an extremely imbalanced society in how it was presented.
I will say that Centauri intrigue was very well done though, mad Emperor Cartagia, the overwhelmed, paranoid little Regent, schemers like Lord Refa. I think the Centauri were the villains with the most depth in B5, better than Earth, Minbar, or the Shadows. Londo's dealings with 'the devil' (Vir's crowning moment of awesome scene), and the payback from the 'imps' that succeeded the 'devils' and the Centauri Season 5 arc were very well plotted. I think of all the big war/villain arcs (Shadow, Minbar, Earth, Centauri), it was the one with the fewest downsides or weakpoints.