I'm a huge fan of Babylon 5. The series' groundbreaking style
of storytelling, featuring complex story arcs unfolding across
multiple seasons, was ideally suited to the exciting science-fiction
plots that series creator J. Michael Straczynski dreamed up. The
Narn-Centauri conflict. The Shadow War. The Earth civil war. The
major alien races were complex and well-developed, with clearly
different cultures and attitudes, and even a great deal of internal
variation. The individual characters were similarly well-rounded,
with their own agendas and their own (often very different) ideas of
what was right and wrong... and because of the continuing story arcs,
what happened to the characters in each episode actually mattered.
If you've glanced at the rating and recommendation I've given for
Babylon 5: The Movie Collection, you may be wondering why,
given the praise I've just lavished on the show, this set gets such
low marks. Let me tell you, I didn't expect it either, until I'd
finished watching all five TV-movies included here. The quality
starts high, with the excellent "The Gathering" and "In
the Beginning," but it swiftly heads
downward with the remaining three films. Let's take a look at each
Babylon 5's 90-minute pilot episode is the star of the set.
Although the first episode of Season
1 starts off the show perfectly well on its own, "The
Gathering" is a great way to start B5 off with a bang.
For one thing, its storyline, involving an assassination attempt on
the Vorlon Ambassador while on B5, will become essential to other
parts of the larger story arc. For another, it's just an extremely
well-told story, with an intriguing plot, plenty of mysterious
elements, and a cast of fascinating characters whom we want to find
out more about. We know that there are layers upon layers of intrigue
here, tantalizing us with the stories that remain to be told... In
short, "The Gathering" is very much in the storytelling
style of B5's first four seasons, which means it's great fun.
While "The Gathering" sets the stage for the events that
would take place during B5's five-year story arc, "In the
Beginning" takes us further back to a time before the Babylon
stations were even built... when the devastating Earth-Minbari war
was not yet on the horizon. The film tells a fascinating story of the
"early days" while also revealing fascinating hidden
aspects to events that we've already heard about in the B5
episodes... like the importance of Sinclair to the Minbari, or the
role that the Centauri played in the Earth-Minbari war. It's nicely
done, both in the main story and in the frame story, where Londo
narrates the events that we see.
This movie was made after the fourth
season of B5, and should under no circumstances be watched
until you've seen those episodes, because a great many things are
revealed in "In the Beginning" that would spoil the
mysteries of the earlier seasons.
"The Gathering" and "In the Beginning" are
available in a single-disc release, as well as in the Movie
Collection. That's a very good thing, since while the first two
films are worth owning, the last three are not.
And now we get to the weaker movies. The best thing I can say about
"Thirdspace" is that it's forgettable. The premise of the
story, which is set between the fourth
seasons, is that B5 discovers an ancient alien artifact that seems to
be a gateway into a realm beyond hyperspace: "thirdspace."
Things start going haywire, though, when the artifact begins to
telepathically affect people on B5; it seems to be nastier than
anyone expected. Chaos ensues. Oh my, will B5 be destroyed, or will
the crew manage to save it at the last minute? The plot is hokey,
contrived, and padded, and there's utterly no dramatic tension here,
despite valiant attempts to create it; the film just strikes all the
wrong notes, and in the end it's just silly and weak.
River of Souls
Taking place approximately concurrently with the fifth
season, "The River of Souls" is, like "Thirdspace,"
also silly and weak. An archaeologist working for Edgars Industries
steals a mysterious artifact that turns out to belong to the Soul
Hunters; as the story develops, it turns out that the souls inside
this globe are angry at their imprisonment and eager to get revenge,
even if it means destroying the station and everyone on it. Martin
Sheen does an interesting turn as the central Soul Hunter character,
but really, there's nothing that can save "The River of Souls"
from being a pretentious, silly mess. Various attempts at humor,
centered around the sub-plot of a holographic brothel on the station,
fall flat; B5 has never handled "light" material
well in the past, and it certainly doesn't do so now. But even the
dramatic material is poorly handled, in large part due to a lousy
script that includes a lot of unnecessary expository padding.
Call to Arms
If "Thirdspace" and "The River of Souls" are
forgettable, "A Call to Arms" is not. Unfortunately. The
reason it's memorable is because it's actively awful. In fact, it's
so flat-out bad that after I finished watching it, I went back and
double-checked the credits, thinking that maybe Straczynski had not
been involved with it. (No, he was responsible for this mess.) Set
several years after the end of Season
5, "A Call to Arms" has President Sheridan getting a
dream vision that reveals that the allies of the Shadows are about to
attack Earth... and of course, he's the only one who can stop them.
(The end is clearly a set-up for the television series featuring the
Rangers.) The movie really doesn't feel like B5 at all: it
feels like the setting and characters were handed over to someone
else to do a story with... someone who had no idea what B5 was
about, or what its strengths were. There is absolutely no redeeming
value to this film whatsoever. The plot is weak to begin with, but
it's also full of holes. The battle tactics are childishly
simplistic. The characters don't act like themselves. And the script
is, in truth, beyond bad.
There's one thing that "Thirdspace," "The River of
Souls," and "A Call to Arms" have in common (other
than weak plots and lame writing): crappy special effects. I'm
actually not referring to the transfer here, but to the quality of
the special effects themselves, and to the cinematography of the
special-effects scenes. In the original series and in the first two
films, all the space battle sequences are truly impressive and exciting to watch. In contrast, the scenes with ships in combat in
the third movies, especially "A Call to Arms," are
decidedly lackluster: confusing, poorly done, and uninteresting to
watch. Considering that Straczynski and
company would presumably have had more, rather than less, time to
make these shots, compared to the original series, their poor quality
Babylon 5: The Movie Collection is a five-DVD set, with one disc for each film. It's packaged in the same style
as the season sets: in a "book" with hard plastic pages,
fitting into a glossy paperboard slipcase. An insert booklet with an
introduction by Straczynski and chapter information on each film is
"The Gathering" is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect
ratio; all the other films appear in their original widescreen 1.85:1
aspect ratio, and are anamorphically enhanced.
Overall, the image quality ranges from passable to reasonably good.
The prints appear to be in good condition, with only a few flaws
making their way into the image; in this way, all the films look
better than the first season of B5. Noise and grain are
persistent in darker scenes throughout the films, especially in "The
Gathering"; likewise, a tendency for the image to be decidedly
soft and fuzzy in special-effects or long-distance shots is common to
all the films.
I did a side-by-side comparison of "The Gathering" and "In
the Beginning" between this release and their release in the
single-disc version, and as far as I can tell, they're the same video
All five films are presented with a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, which means
that "The Gathering" and "In the Beginning" get
an upgrade from the Dolby 2.0 track in the earlier release. For the
first two films, a comparison of the two versions indicates that the
5.1 soundtrack does provide a better audio experience, but not
overwhelmingly so. There's more of an immersive quality to the sound,
and possibly a touch more depth to the overall sound, but it's not a
For the three more recent films, the soundtrack offers a satisfactory
but not really exceptional listening experience. The dialogue and
effects are usually clear and crisp, but the sound mix doesn't really
heighten the "big" sequences like the space battles as much
as it could have. (Then again, those sequences were fairly lame to
begin with.) The music is balanced reasonably well, but especially in
the last film, it's not the same rousing B5 score from the series.
The Movie Collection has been released with a reasonable set
of extras, as each film has a short introduction from J. Michael
Straczynski and others involved with the film, as well as a
commentary track. Each introduction runs about four minutes, and
basically touches on general issues regarding the inspiration for,
and making of, that movie. Although they're described as
introductions, I'd suggest that viewers watch them after the fact, to
avoid any potential spoilers.
The commentaries are as follows:
"The Gathering": J. Michael Straczynski and production
designer John Iacovelli.
"In the Beginning": Straczynski and director Michael Vejar.
director Jesús Salvador Treviño
and actors Bruce Boxleitner, Jeff Conaway, Stephen Furst, and
"River of Souls": Straczynski, director Janet Greek, and
actor Tracy Scoggins.
"A Call to Arms": Straczynski and director Michael Vejar.
Lastly, there's also an 8-minute featurette on the final DVD, called
"Babylon 5: Creating the Future." Straczynski and
others involved with the series discuss the creative issues involved
with creating a realistic future. It's mildly interesting but doesn't
go that much in depth.
first two Babylon 5 movies, "The Gathering" and "In
the Beginning," are great stuff, and should be included in the
collection of any B5 fan. That's not in question. However, the
three other movies included in this set ("Thirdspace," "The
River of Souls," and "A Call to Arms") range from
forgettable at best to actively awful at worst. I cannot recommend
even wasting your time, let alone your money, on those three films.
fact that "The Gathering" and "In the Beginning"
have new 5.1 soundtracks as well as commentary tracks makes the Movie
Collection at least a little bit appealing for B5 fans; on the
other hand, I'm not sure it's worth paying for the dead weight of the
other three films in order to get the upgrade. If you're really dying
to hear the commentaries for the first two films, maybe it's worth
checking out the Movie Collection.
you're indifferent to the commentaries, I'd suggest that you skip the
Movie Collection and buy the single-disc release that contains
"The Gathering" and "In the Beginning" instead.
That way you'll be able to get the two good movies and you won't
waste either your money or your viewing time on the three duds. With
the special features in mind, the
Movie Collection squeaks by with a grudging "rent it"
that's really a "skip it" for most viewers.