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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Babylon 5 - The Complete Fifth Season
Babylon 5 - The Complete Fifth Season
Warner Bros. // Unrated // April 13, 2004
List Price: $99.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted May 4, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

I'm a huge fan of Babylon 5. Just read my reviews of Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, and Season 4 if you've forgotten just how fantastic this ground-breaking science fiction series is. When B5 was originally airing, I'd tape each episode and watch it at least twice before the next one aired. I'd check out the Lurker's Guide, puzzle over the "unanswered questions," and eagerly await how the story would unfold.

With that in mind, it's difficult for me to approach reviewing Season 5. Fans of the show are familiar with the trials and tribulations that series creator J. Michael Straczynski went through first just to get B5 produced at all, and then to get it through its planned 5-year run. At one point, all concerned thought that the show would be forced to end prematurely, and so Season 4 wraps up a lot of the major story lines and provides a final episode with a nice sense of closure.

But there was a Season 5, after all. So how is it? When I first saw the Season 5 episodes, I hated them. Hated them, I say, with a passion. This was not the Babylon 5 I knew and loved, but a travesty of it. In fact, I bailed out on it, unwilling to see my favorite series going through the motions like that. So I had my misgivings when it came to reviewing the set... was it really as horrible as I remembered? In truth, no.

Season 5 isn't the Babylon 5 it used to be, for a number of reasons. The new captain is adequate at best; some of the recurring characters no longer ring quite true (the new camaraderie between Londo and G'Kar is simply inconsistent with their history); and after the Shadow War, the Earth civil war, and the culmination of the Narn-Centauri conflict, there doesn't seem to be as much dramatic energy in the remaining story arcs. But it's not terrible, with one notable exception.

What's that exception? Well, there's one particular episode, "Day of the Dead," that manages to strike all the worst notes of the entire series. There are two story lines in this episode: one deals with a mysterious "Day of the Dead" celebration that has some strange effects on the members of the crew; the other involves the comedy team of "Rebo and Zooty" (played by Penn and Teller). The latter storyline is entirely comedic... and as I've had occasion to remark on in past reviews, comedy is the one thing that Babylon 5 has never, ever handled well. Whenever B5 tries to go for deliberate laughs, it falls on its face, creating scenes that are painfully bad, especially in contrast to the excellent drama of the rest of the show. Here we get that at its worst. It's hard to explain how one episode could have such a negative effect on my perception of the entire season, but the truth is, it really is awful; frankly, I recommend skipping over it entirely.

Once we leave aside truly awful episodes like "Day of the Dead" (and its close counterpart, the contrived "A View from the Gallery"), Season 5 is revealed to be reasonably entertaining after all. It does take a relatively long while to get going in the right direction, but when it does get moving, the content isn't bad. Not as good as the earlier seasons, but not bad.

One thing that's quite clear is that Season 5 was targeted toward a viewing audience who had not seen any of the previous seasons. There are many episodes that are patently designed to fill in background information, like "The Corps Is Mother, the Corps Is Father" (clearly intended to inform the new viewer about the Psi Corps), and the scripts are full of "As you know, Bob"-style references to back-story from the previous seasons, like Garibaldi's alcoholism. This isn't a glaring flaw, per se, but it does reduce the amount of time that the story can spend on moving forward and building on the past, which has always been one of B5's great strengths.

Overall, Season 5 has a distinctly more episodic feel than earlier seasons. In fact, in many ways it feels similar to Season 1, except that the stories aren't as good, and there's none of the feeling that the foundation is being laid for great things later in the series. Quite a few episodes are self-contained "emergency of the week" stories, like "No Compromises," "Learning Curve," and even "Meditations on the Abyss." Taken in the larger context of science fiction television, these are solid episodes; it's just that in the context of B5's brilliant larger story arcs, they're disappointing.

Fortunately, two larger story arcs are developed in Season 5. First of all, the "telepath situation" takes center stage, as a group of rogue telepaths led by an idealistic and charismatic leader named Byron form a colony on the station. In a well-handled part of this story, Lyta Alexander finds that her past experiences on Babylon 5 give her a great deal of sympathy for Byron's cause. Much of this story arc is handled in the first part of the season, with episodes like "Strange Relations," "Secrets of the Soul," "In the Kingdom of the Blind," "A Tragedy of Telepaths," and "Phoenix Rising," but the general tension between telepaths and "mundanes" continues to escalate throughout the season.

One of the strengths of Season 5 is its nuanced portrayal of the telepaths, particularly focusing on their strong sense of community identity. Their passionate belief in their own identity as special, rare, even "chosen" people raises the question of the delicate balance between individuality and conformity. Should they try to fit in? What place do they really have in the "mundane" world? Is their sense of isolation and discrimination real, or a product of their own disdain for normals? Is the Psi Corps really wrong, or does it serve an essential purpose in regulating telepaths and protecting normals? Psi Cop Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig), one of my favorite secondary characters, gets a lot of screen time in Season 5, and puts it to great use: he's always been much more than a clear-cut "bad guy," and here we see even more how he's a real human being who may be more in the right than the B5 crew want to admit.

The other key story arc involves the new Alliance coming under a great deal of stress, as an unknown enemy continues to attack ships from a variety of Alliance worlds, creating discord and a growing discontent with Sheridan and Delenn's handling of the situation. At the same time, strange things are afoot on Centauri Prime, as Londo, now the emperor-elect, discovers that there are deadly forces operating behind the scenes. This latter part of the story is particularly interesting, as it builds on the foreshadowing of earlier seasons.

While the pacing of the overall season is slower than other seasons, and the tension doesn't get cranked up like it was in comparable parts of Season 3 or Season 4, the last eight episodes of the season finally leave behind the "stand-alone episode" feel of the early part of the season, and moves into a continuing development of the main story threads that have been introduced and developed in Season 5. It's worth sticking around for.

The DVD

Babylon 5: The Complete Fifth Season is a six-DVD set, packaged in the same attractive manner as the earlier seasons. The DVDs are held in hard plastic "pages" that are bound into a "book," and the whole thing slides into a glossy paperboard slipcover.

Video

Babylon 5 is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. (The show was framed with both the 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 ratios in mind, so both are "correct," but to my eye the widescreen ratio does better justice to the filmlike imagery of the series.) The image quality in Season 5 is roughly comparable to what we got in Season 4. Some dirt and print flaws appear in the image, mainly in the first few minutes of each episode; apart from that, the transfer is reasonably clean, and seems mostly free of grain. Shots that involve CGI or blue-screen effects do show a greater degree of blurriness than the wholly live-action shots, but fortunately it's not as obtrusive as the first few seasons. Colors and contrast are handled well; overall, Season 5 offers a solid if not perfect viewing experience.

Audio

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack offers an enjoyable listening experience. The dialogue is crisp and clean, and the special effects are nicely balanced with the rest of the track to provide an immersive audio environment. My one disappointment with the sound for Season 5 is that the theme music is different: the fantastic themes of the first four seasons have been replaced by blander ones. In fact, my first thought was that the composer of the original theme music had left the show, but in fact Christopher Franke did Season 5's music as well as the first four seasons, so it was clearly an artistic choice, for some reason. It's not bad, but it's not up to the standard of the music for the earlier seasons (which is ironically in keeping with the quality of Season 5 as a whole).

Extras

The main special features on Season 5 are several audio commentary tracks for three episodes. On Disc 5, we get a commentary for "Movements of Fire and Shadow" by Bruce Boxleitner, Peter Jurasik, Patricia Tallman, and Tracy Scoggins, and one for "The Fall of Centauri Prime" by J. Michael Straczynski. On Disc 6, "Sleeping in Light" has a commentary by Straczynski.

Apart from the commentaries, several short featurettes are included as well. Disc 1 has a seven-minute introduction to the season by Straczynski; the balance of the featurettes and other special features are on Disc 6. "Digital Tomorrow" is an interesting 5-minute piece on the use of CGI for Babylon 5; "Beyond Babylon 5" is a seven-minute piece that takes a look at the wider B5 universe, including fans, conventions, and books. A section of "Additional and Extended Scenes" offers three scenes from "Sleeping in Light," running five minutes; the scenes can be selected individually or viewed with a "play all" feature.

The "Universe of Babylon 5" section follows the style of the previous seasons, offering background information on various aspects of the Babylon 5 world, from characters to key story elements. These contain spoilers, so don't read them until you've seen the whole season. (Of course, after you've seen the whole season, there's no particular point in reading these files...). This section also contains a three-minute gag reel.

Lastly, the special features finish up with text biographies of Straczynski and executive producer Douglas Netter.

Final thoughts

Season 5 of Babylon 5 has a different feel to it than the earlier seasons; given just how fantastic the first four seasons of the show were, it's practically inevitable that this change was one for the worse. However, if you come into this final season with realistic expectations, Season 5 does end up offering a nice package of science fiction entertainment, especially once the main story arcs start getting more screen time. This isn't a set of episodes to watch and re-watch like those in Seasons 2, 3 and 4, but overall I'd suggest to Babylon 5 fans that Season 5 is worth picking up. Recommended.

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