I'm a huge fan of Babylon 5. Just read my reviews of 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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
but overall I'd suggest to Babylon 5 fans that Season 5 is
worth picking up. Recommended.