"It was the dawn of the
Third Age of Mankind... the year the great war came upon us all." This
evocative phrase, in the new opening credits voiceover for the second season of
Babylon 5, captures the anticipation, suspense, and drama that are waiting
for us as we embark upon a season appropriately, and ominously, named "The
Coming of Shadows."
As I commented in my review of Season 1, what makes
Babylon 5 really stand out is its storytelling. Creator and main writer
J. Michael Straczynski is telling one story, planned from the beginning to
develop over the course of five years; within that larger story are
interconnecting story arcs that span several seasons. As a result, Babylon 5
has the richness, depth, power, and complexity of a great novel; it's not like
anything else on television.
If you're used to "reset
button" style television shows in which everything must return to the
status quo at the end of the episode – for instance, however much I love Star
Trek, that series is a prime example – then Babylon 5 offers quite a
shock in this respect, especially now that the plot is really developing in
Season 2. Each episode is a piece of the larger story, and it moves that larger
story along; the events in an episode matter in the larger sense. That means
that in any given episode, major events can happen: events that will shape the
course of the season, or dramatically affect a character, or shed new light on
any number of mysteries.
From the large-scale plot to
the pacing of the individual episodes, Babylon 5 is an extremely
well-conceived and well-written show. What's more, it's an intelligent and
challenging one. Viewers are richly rewarded for paying attention and thinking
about what's going on: what happened last week, or last season, may very well
turn out to be of utmost importance as the plot develops. Season 2 starts out
with an excellent reminder of this, when the events of a first-season episode
turn out to be crucial in Dr. Franklin's attempt to save Garibaldi's life.
While Season 1 set the stage,
introduced the players, and got a few seemingly small events rolling, it's now,
in Season 2, that things really get explosive. Season 2 jumps into a tangled
weave of plot threads from the very beginning, clearly showing that we're in
for quite a ride. Since Babylon 5 is so intensely plot-driven, I'm
taking pains here to avoid spoilers. If you are watching the show for the first
time, you absolutely, positively do not want to have any of the fantastic plot
developments spoiled for you... and if you're watching it for a second (or
third, or fourth...) time, then a few hints will be enough to whet your
appetite for seeing the episodes again.
Commander Sinclair has been
mysteriously removed from his command of Babylon 5, and sent to Minbar as an
ambassador; indeed, strange things are afoot with the Minbari, as Ambassador
Delenn embarks on a perilous transformation in accordance with prophecy, and
the Minbari reveal something that they have previously kept hidden from the
humans... though they aren't telling the whole story. A new commander, Captain
Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) takes command, but with a past that's shadowed by
personal grief as well as by his infamy among the Minbari, who call him
"Star-Killer." Is he a pawn in some larger political game? Will he be
able to continue Babylon 5's mission?
Then there's the issue of Earth
President Santiago's death, which may have been foul play at the hands of a
conspiracy... but just how deep does that conspiracy go, and who can the
Babylon 5 crew really trust? The Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari is on the
ascendance after the destruction of the Narn colony in Season 1... but it seems
that Londo's relationship with the mysterious Mr. Morden is far from finished.
In fact, the events of Season 1 have only served to increase the tension in the
bitter rivalry between the Narn and Centauri empires. We also get developing
threads about the Psi Corps and the Mars colony tied in, with the return of the
Psi Cop Bester (Walter Koenig) as well as the telepath Lyta Alexander. And in
the background, we learn of the appearance of strange ships, ships that G'Kar
has a theory about...
I haven't mentioned any
specific episode titles so far, in part because the story threads are so
interwoven that it's difficult to pick out individual episodes to discuss and
in part because it's hard to talk about specific episodes without spoilers.
Season 2 has 22 episodes, and they're all good ones; even the more
"ordinary" episodes are very entertaining stories in their own right,
and serve to lay the groundwork for later high-tension episodes, both in terms
of plot developments and in terms of pacing and theme. I'll point out a few
highlights, and leave you to find out exactly why they're so important.
"The Coming of
Shadows" should tell you from its title alone that it's a momentous
episode... and trust me, it is. "All Alone in the Night" likewise
moves forward into deeply dramatic territory, involving Sheridan as well as
Delenn. Then there's "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum"... let's just say
that you'll be seeing more of Mr. Morden. "A Spider in the Web" and
"A Race Through Dark Places" showcase interesting developments among
the Psi Corps. "The Long, Twilight Struggle" brings certain events of
the Narn-Centauri struggle to a head. And "The Fall of Night" will
have you biting your nails for Season 3's release.
One of the rewards of repeat
viewing of Babylon 5 is that there's so much to be savored and
appreciated on a second viewing. A large part of the reason that Babylon 5
is so rewarding to repeat viewing is that Straczynski makes effective and
extensive use of foreshadowing. Small details in early episodes turn out to be
the first hints of major plot developments later, for instance; and in terms of
character development, an amazing amount of attention has been put to including
many subtle and revealing touches. One of my favorite examples of this is Londo
Mollari's hairstyle: pay attention to the different hairstyles of the Centauri,
and the changes that you see over the course of the series, and you will see a
completely consistent and yet completely subtle indication of Londo's status
and self-image. The first time through, there's so much excitement in the main
plot threads that they occupy all your attention; on subsequent viewings,
smaller details emerge, and the story grows richer and deeper as you see how
the different elements of the story work together for the overall effect.
Babylon 5: Season 2 is
packaged in a "book" of hard plastic pages with a cardboard spine and
covers, inside a glossy paperboard slipcase. This is a convenient packaging
method, as it allows easy access to all of the discs without the nuisance of
having to deal with an accordion-style fold-out case. While I'm not nuts about
the iridescent color scheme, it's a reasonably attractive package overall.
Viewers should be careful about not leaving the "book" open flat,
however: after repeated use, the cardboard spine tends to peel away from the
hard plastic pages. If you close the "book" after taking out a disc,
you shouldn't have any trouble.
I'm once again disappointed
with the image quality that Warner has provided in the transfer of Babylon 5:
Season 2. It's watchable, but it really doesn't look to me like there was much
care taken in preparing it for its DVD transfer. Babylon 5 is light-years ahead
of a show like Andromeda in quality, so why is it light-years
behind in image quality? Even Star Trek: The Next
Generation looks a lot better on DVD, and it's a few years older.
Babylon 5: Season 2 is
presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. While most viewers may
have seen the episodes broadcast in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the original
live-action filming was done with the widescreen aspect ratio in mind, and the
show was broadcast on the Science Fiction Channel in widescreen. Unfortunately,
the computer-generated images (CGI) used for special effects were rendered in
the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and had to be cropped in order to fit the widescreen
aspect ratio; because they were originally rendered for the 1.33:1 ratio, the
CGI scenes are of a lower resolution and suffer from being zoomed in on for the
wider ratio. Re-rendering the scenes would solve the problem, but Warner
appears either unable or unwilling to do so.
As with the first season, the
key word to describe the image quality overall (apart from the CGI) is "variable."
Some scenes are crystal-clear and natural looking, while many others are
extremely noisy and grainy. The overall noise level of all the episodes seems
to be higher than in Season 1, and a few scenes even show a slight brownish
tint. Print flaws are also very common; the earlier episodes are the worst
offenders, with the first episode being disgracefully dirty, but flaws are also
apparent in the print throughout the season. Some edge enhancement is present,
but nothing that really detracts from the image.
The problem with the CGI shots
is still in evidence, though slightly less so than in the first season. There
is still a noticeable drop in image quality whenever a special effect is used
or when a fade is used at the end of a scene: at these points, the image is
distinctly blockier and less detailed, which is particularly noticeable in long
shots. In the Season 2 footage, the difference in image quality isn't quite as
dramatic, and the aliasing artifacts aren't quite as noticeable.
Overall, then, there's no net
improvement in the image quality from Season 1 to Season 2. The CGI footage is
slightly better, but the print seems to be noisier on the whole. The set barely
squeaks through with an "average" mark of 2 and a half stars.
I was pleased overall with the
Dolby 5.1 soundtrack for Season 2; it offers a solid and enjoyable audio
experience. Dialogue is clear and always completely understandable, and the
overall sound is clean. Surround effects are used modestly but effectively, and
help to create the overall ambiance of the station.
The highlight of the special
features for Season 2 is the inclusion of three commentary tracks on key
episodes. J. Michael Straczynski provides a commentary for "In the Shadow
of Z'ha'dum" on Disc 4 as well as "The Fall of Night" on Disc 6.
Actors Bruce Boxleitner (Sheridan), Claudia Christian (Ivanova) and Jerry Doyle
(Garibaldi) provide a commentary for "The Coming of Shadows" on Disc
1 as well.
Several short featurettes
provide an insight into the making of the show. On the first disc is a
five-minute piece called "Introduction to 'The Coming of Shadows',"
with Straczynski offering his thoughts on the development of the overall story
arc as Babylon 5 progresses into its second season. The remainder of the
special features are on Disc 6, where we have the 13-minute "Building
Babylon: Blueprint of an Episode," where Straczynski and others discuss
the creation of a typical episode from start to finish. "Shadows and
Dreams: Honors of Babylon" is an eight-minute piece in which Straczynski
and other production staff discuss the awards won by Babylon 5, with an
emphasis on the Hugo Award, which was particularly important to Straczynski.
Also on Disc 6 is a section
called "The Universe of Babylon 5," which contains various
background details on the setting and characters of the show, divided into
sections on "Babylon 5 timeline," "Data files," "Tech
files," and "Personnel files." I found this to be fairly ho-hum
material, offering nothing of interest to most viewers. It's also particularly
annoying that the otherwise very straightforward menu doesn't provide a good
way to back out of these features. Trailers for each of the episodes can also
be seen, and are easily accessed through the episode selection menu.
If you want to see the very
best that science fiction has to offer, not to mention the best, most creative
storytelling that television has to offer, period, then Babylon 5 is a
must-see. Season 2 is where things really pick up and start to roll, so while I
strongly encourage viewers to also pick up Season 1, it's also
possible to start with Season 2... but don't wait any longer than that, or
you'll be missing out on some fantastic stuff. With its incredible storytelling
in Season 2, and a nail-biting story arc, the lackluster video quality is the
only thing preventing me from awarding a DVDTalk Collector's Series rating to
this set. As it is, Babylon 5: Season 2 is definitely highly