It's the last of the Babylon stations, all alone in the
night, serving as the last chance for peace between a myriad of alien races:
humans, Centauri, Narn, Minbari, and countless other spacefaring peoples.
Welcome to the universe envisioned by J. Michael Straczynski: a remarkably
detailed and realistic one, set a little over two hundred years in the future.
Humans have discovered that we're not alone in the galaxy; war has shaken the
foundations of Earth society, and a tentative peace, ten years old at the start
of the story, has led to hope for a successful future among the stars. But it's
a terrifying world out there, and there are signs and portents that it's not
going to be smooth sailing ahead.
Babylon 5 is the result of one man's vision of a
science fiction show that would transcend the stereotyped boundaries of the
genre on television. It would be as scientifically accurate as possible; it
would have the best writing from the top science fiction storytellers; it would
break new ground in both content and visual effects. Perhaps most dramatically,
it would break free of the constraints of episodic television, developing one
long story arc over the course of its run. Straczynski's vision took five years
just to come to fruition, but the result was incredible: a series that took
itself seriously both as drama and as science fiction, and excelled at both.
If you've followed Babylon 5 on television, you
already know what it's like. If you haven't seen it before, and want to know
what's great about it, the real question is "where to begin?" One of the key
elements of the show is its rich and complex plot. Created from the beginning
to follow a five-year story arc, with plot twists and developments planned from
the very beginning, Babylon 5 is a show that offers tremendous depth and
complexity in its story. As I watched the Season 1 episodes again on DVD, I was
struck by how the myriad details of any episode would all come to have great
significance later on down the line. What would be a throwaway line, background
filler, or unimportant character development on a lesser show is, in Babylon
5, part of an intricate web of story and character that builds from the
very first episode onward. To give just a handful of examples from the first
episode: the election of the new Earth president, Londo Molari's dream of his
death twenty years in the future, and Susan Ivanova's reason for disliking
telepaths are all seemingly minor elements that, on the second viewing, resound
with depth and importance for what comes of them down the line.
Another strong point for Babylon 5 is that the
characters truly grow and change over the course of the series; some of the
events that unfold are truly earth-shattering, and their effects on the
characters are no less so. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains to be
found here, but there are plenty of rich, complex characters with their own
motivations, many of which are hidden at first. Take, for instance, the
antagonistic pair of Londo Molari and G'Kar, both of whom develop in startling
yet completely believable ways over the course of the series. One of the
reasons that Babylon 5 is so rewatchable is that it's so fascinating to
retrace the evolution of the characters with the foreknowledge of what's to
Season 1 of Babylon 5 is somewhat less explosive than
subsequent seasons, in large part because the foundations are being laid before
the fireworks really start. However, even when there are no major plot
developments, each episode is both entertaining on its own merits and contributes
something valuable to the overall story arc, whether it's insight into critical
characters like Sinclair, Londo, or Delenn, or setting the stage for action
with the tense situation between the Narn and Centauri, the mysterious nature
of the Minbari, the introduction of the Psi Corps (and Psi Cops), or portents
of danger coming from unexpected sources. Toward the middle of Season 1, things
also start to bubble in earnest, with outstanding episodes like "Signs and
Portents" and "Chrysalis," both of which come with commentary tracks from
Straczynski as part of the special features, and others like "Babylon Squared,"
and "And the Sky Full of Stars."
The Season 1 boxed set contains the full 22 episodes from
Season 1, but it doesn't contain the actual pilot for the show. "The
Gathering," a 90-minute pilot movie, introduced Babylon 5 and some of its major
characters a year before the show itself appeared. Warner chose to release a
separate DVD with "The Gathering" along with another feature-length piece, "In
the Beginning," which appeared between the fourth and fifth seasons of the
show. Since the pilot movie had already been released, it appears Warner chose
not to duplicate it on the Season 1 set; in any case, it's not necessary to
have seen it beforehand.
The first episode of Season 1, "Midnight on the Firing
Line," opens with a bang and takes viewers right into the heart of the action.
Many of the major players and several of the major plot threads are introduced
right away, which might be a bit overwhelming for first-time viewers, but
there's no reason to worry: the storyline does settle down to develop these
various elements in depth. The subsequent episodes also introduce some of the
significant secondary characters one by one, making it easy to gradually get to
know the large and interesting cast.
I know that there are a lot of Babylon 5 fans who are
going to be very disappointed by the information in this section. Babylon 5
has been released in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced;
this was the original aspect ratio that Straczynski used when filming the live
The computer-generated (CGI) footage is highly problematic,
and for a very simple reason. While the live action footage was originally
filmed in a widescreen aspect ratio, the CGI shots were rendered directly for
the 4:3 aspect ratio. Instead of re-rendering the CGI footage for the new
aspect ratio, Warner chose to crop and zoom in to the existing 4:3 CGI image.
The result is that any scene with CGI in it looks distinctly blockier and less
detailed than equivalent live-action footage: more like VHS than anything I'd
expect on DVD. In addition, all the CGI scenes show major aliasing artifacts (a
very noticeable shimmering effect) because of the mismatch between the rendered
computer graphics and the screen's resolution. These artifacts could have been
avoided by re-rendering the CGI shots for the new aspect ratio, or if the
initial image had been rendered at a higher resolution to begin with.
Unfortunately, Babylon 5 makes extensive use of CGI throughout both
exterior and interior shots, so the lower image quality of this footage is very
Apart from the CGI issue, the image quality overall is
extremely variable. Some scenes that look absolutely sterling, and would get
4.5 stars if rated by themselves: clean, free of edge enhancement, good
contrast, the works. However, much of the footage ranges from lackluster to
poor. There's a great deal of variation in the image quality even of individual
shots in the same scene; some are extremely noisy and grainy, while a moment
later the image is crystal-clear again. The earlier episodes in the set also
have a surprisingly large number of print flaws visible throughout the image,
ranging from small specks to large, distracting scratches and dirt.
Fortunately, the print flaws diminish in number and size as the series
progresses, though noise remains an issue at times.
Despite being a die-hard widescreen enthusiast, I honestly
would have preferred Babylon 5 to have been released on DVD in its 4:3
aspect ratio. We'll just have to wait and hope that the subsequent seasons look
better than Season 1.
Babylon 5 has been re-rendered in Dolby 5.1, but all
in all, it sounds more like a 2.0 track. The sound is fairly flat and
definitely focused in the center channels; there's barely any use of the side
channels even in scenes where it would be obvious to do so. Dialogue is clear,
though not especially rich-sounding, and the theme music is handled well,
always staying in the correct balance with other parts of the soundtrack.
There's a reasonably good selection of special features for
the Season 1 set of Babylon 5. Most noteworthy are commentary tracks
from Straczynski for two of the episodes, "Signs and Portents" and "Chrysalis,"
and two medium-length documentaries. "The Making of Babylon 5" is hosted by
Walter Koenig (who plays Bester on the show) and runs 19 minutes; "Back to
Babylon 5" runs 12 minutes. Both offer interviews with cast and crew
interspersed with representative clips from the episodes. Disc one contains a
brief video introduction from J. Michael Straczynski for the DVD edition; it
also has text filmography notes on him and the producer. Each of the episodes
also comes with its own preview.
A section titled "The Universe of Babylon 5" is of
mild interest at best: it's basically an assemblage of clips with a narrative
voiceover, arranged as a "station tour," "personnel files" about each
character, and "tech files" about the various ships that appear in the series.
The menus are very attractive, with an easy-to-read and
easy-to-navigate set of choices backed by a subtly animated image. The
packaging of the set is merely adequate; it would be nice if companies would
stop feeling the need to re-invent the wheel for each new boxed set. The six
discs of the set are held in hard plastic "pages" bound into a compact
cardboard "book", which in turn slides into a glossy paper slipcase. I had some
trouble with the discs coming off their spindles too easily, and the cardboard
spine started showing signs of coming apart after only a moderate amount of
handling. I would really much have preferred the set to be packaged in
individual keepcases in a slipcase, like the outstanding and practical
packaging of Stargate SG-1. For one thing, individual keepcases make it
a lot more convenient to take out just one disc at a time, or to lend portions
of the set to friends.
Babylon 5 is a high-water mark of science fiction
storytelling, in an entirely different vein from a series like Star Trek.
It's serious, intelligent drama that treats the viewer, and the story, with
respect, making for a program with a great deal of substance. Since Season 1 is
the starting point of a continuous storyline, both Babylon 5 fans and
new viewers will want to pick up this set as the essential starting point for
the series. The major problems are with the video quality, so my hope is Warner
will address these issues for subsequent seasons; a transfer with re-rendered
CGI would be ideal. We'll have to wait and see; in the meanwhile, I'm glad to
at last be able to sit back and enjoy the fantastic story that opens up in Babylon
5: Season 1's episodes.