"It was the year of fire... the year of destruction...
the year we took back what was ours. It was the year of rebirth... the year of
great sadness... the year of pain... and the year of joy. It was a new age. It
was the end of history. It was the year everything changed. The year is 2261.
The place: Babylon 5." For viewers who have been following Babylon
5 from its first season (and with
its fantastic continuous storyline, that's the way to watch B5), the opening voiceover for the credits of Season 4
is extraordinarily stirring. And the fact that the voiceover in
the opening credits is shared among the cast highlights the fact that Babylon
5 has a true ensemble cast, with many different characters and story
threads interwoven into one dramatic tapestry. In Season 4, appropriately
titled "No Surrender, No Retreat," many of these storylines come to
an explosive climax, leaving other parts of the story to take on a larger role
in the rest of Season 4.
Season 3 left us at
a critical point in B5, in several plot threads. Sheridan, drawn by his
own personal demons as well as the need to defeat the Shadows, has gone to
Z'ha'dum... and vanished. So too has Mr. Garibaldi. Babylon 5 has seceded from
Earthgov, and now stands nearly alone in the fight against the Shadows. Only
the Rangers, with Marcus as their representative on B5, and the Minbari, with
their gift of the White Star, seem ready and willing to help. Londo Mollari
seems to have turned his back on the potential for redemption, while G'Kar has
had a philosophical revelation of his own.
The beauty of Babylon 5,
as viewers well know, is that each episode touches on several plot threads,
developing them bit by bit as the season progresses. When a plot thread comes
to a climax in a particular episode, it's all the more effective because it has
been painstakingly foreshadowed and developed up to that point. Take an episode
like "Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?", which weaves together several
crucial story threads involving the fates of Sheridan, Garibaldi, and G'Kar and
takes each of them to a new level.
Since the different plot
threads of B5 develop over the course of many episodes, the result when
one of them comes to the boiling point is extremely powerful. The story
involving Ambassador Mollari is a case in point. In the first three episodes of
the season, we see Londo and Vir drawn deeper and deeper in to back-stabbing
Centauri politics and the deal-making behind the throne of the Emperor. Then,
as G'Kar becomes drawn into this portion of the story, we get some of the
episodes that have stayed most firmly in my mind: "Falling Toward
Apotheosis," "The Long Night," and "Into the Fire."
While the story involving Sheridan, Delenn, and the station is perhaps more
explosive, I think a good case could be made for the Centauri-Narn plot thread
of Season 4 as the most dramatically effective and powerful of the season (and
perhaps even of the series as a whole).
The pacing of Season 4 is a bit
odd, and for good reason. As Season 4 got underway, there was no assurance that
it would be renewed for a fifth season, which would have really thrown a monkey
wrench in the works, as B5 was envisioned as a five-year story arc from
the very beginning. Babylon 5's creator, J. Michael Straczynski, dealt
with this by bringing many of the show's main story arcs to a conclusion in
Season 4, so that the story would have been (at least mostly) completed even if
it didn't get a fifth season. As it happened, B5 had a fifth year after
all, but we can still see the effects: both Season 4 and 5 developed
differently than was originally planned.
Most notably we see the effects
of the "fast-forwarding" in the treatment of the conflict with the
Shadows. The Shadow War, which has been developing over the course of two full
seasons, is wrapped up in the first quarter of Season 4. Certainly those six
episodes are fantastic, with a tremendous punch and intensity; this is the part
of Season 4 that's most memorable. Still, the ending in "Into the
Fire" does feel a bit abrupt, though I won't elaborate on that: I don't
want to give anything away for those (lucky!) viewers who are watching Babylon
5 for the first time.
After that, Babylon 5
shifts gears and focuses on the Mars situation and Babylon 5's relationship
with Earth, which remains decidedly shaky. There are some excellent stories
here, but I'd be lying if I said they weren't a bit of a letdown after the
intensity of the Shadow-Vorlon conflict and its revelations, and the explosive
events on Centauri Prime.
Fortunately, some plot threads
that have been on the sidelines for much of the series now start being
developed and then mature into gripping stories of their own. The Mars Colony
has been a background story element throughout the first three seasons of B5:
the rebellion there has on several occasions influenced events on B5, but it
hasn't been a prime concern. Now, in "Atonement," Marcus and Dr.
Franklin are sent to Mars, beginning a story line there that will develop
through three following episodes as a main story, and continue to be
significant in episodes further down the line as well. Garibaldi (always one of
my favorite characters) develops in a new direction in episodes like
"Conflicts of Interest," and the suave and very dangerous Psi Cop,
Bester, has a key role to play as well... The result is another of the most
exciting episodes of Season 4, "The Face of the Enemy."
The closing episodes of Season
4 bring us back to the conflict between Earth and Babylon . "No Surrender,
No Retreat" is one of the best late-season episodes, ratcheting up the
tension in the conflict between Earth and Babylon 5; "Between the Darkness
and the Light," "Endgame," and "Rising Star" set up a
miniature story arc and resolve it fairly quickly. Again, these are well-done
episodes, but they're in the shadow of better episodes, and with the fairly
rapid development (unlike the more evenly paced Mars story thread) there's not
as much opportunity for the development of dramatic tension.
The finale of Season 4,
"The Deconstruction of Falling Stars," is a peculiar episode: it's a
"retrospective" of Babylon 5's history from 100, 500, 1,000, and
1,000,000 years in the future. As such, it effectively wraps up the Babylon
5 story and foreshadows (one could say "spoils") many of the
events in Season 5. It also provides a very definitive stopping point for
Babylon 5 viewers: Season 5 is essentially an "extra" season, as all
the most powerful story threads that we've been following have been wrapped up,
most of them very effectively indeed. The one remaining thread that Season 4
leaves unfinished is, interestingly, the one story thread that has been a
constant in one way or another from the very first season: the telepath
Babylon 5: Season 4 is
packaged in the same style as the earlier seasons: a "book" of hard
plastic pages holding the six DVDs, bound by a cardboard spine and cover. This
fits into a glossy paper slipcase that's reasonably attractive. The packaging
isn't as durable as the impressive Deep Space Nine sets, but it's nicely
done and should hold up well to repeat viewings.
Babylon 5: Season 4 is
presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio; the
show was framed with both the widescreen and the 1.33:1 aspect ratios in mind,
so both are "correct," but the framing does look more filmlike here,
and I think viewers will agree that B5 looks best in widescreen. In
terms of image quality, Season 4 looks about the same as Season 3, perhaps a
tad better: that is, it looks reasonably good, but the quality is uneven. When
it looks good, which is reasonably often, the image is extremely good, looking
sharp and clear. However, at times the picture appears softer and shows grain,
and even within a single scene we may see the image quality vary, which of
course calls attention to the unevenness of the image.
Additionally, any scene with
computer-generated images is of a lower image quality than others, because the
CGI was all originally made for the 1.33:1 aspect ratio: for the anamorphic
widescreen transfer on the DVD, all scenes with CGI in them had to be zoomed in
on and cropped, resulting in a blurry, lower-resolution image (and the original
CGI masters are no longer in existence to be re-rendered). It's not as extreme
as in the first season, but it's noticeable.
While the image quality isn't
all that a Babylon 5 fan would ask for, it's still reasonably good. The
image overall is quite clean, and free of the print flaws that plagued the
first two seasons on DVD. Colors are natural-looking, and contrast is handled
well throughout the season in a variety of very challenging lighting
situations. All in all, it's a decent transfer and almost certainly the best
we'll see of this show.
Babylon 5 continues to
have excellent sound quality in its fourth season. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack
offers a moderate but enjoyable surround experience, and it carries the
dialogue very well. The sound is always clear, crisp, and easy to understand,
and the music always sounds great and is well balanced with the rest of the
Special features are present on
three of the six DVDs. Of most note are the episode commentary tracks. On Disc
1 we get a commentary track for "Falling Toward Apotheosis" from cast
members Bruce Boxleitner, Jerry Doyle, Peter Jurasik, and Patricia Tallman.
Disc 5 has a commentary track for "The Face of the Enemy" by
Straczynski and director Mike Vejar, and Disc 6 finishes up with a commentary
track for "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" by J. Michael
A few other special features
appear on the set. On Disc 1, we get a six-minute introduction to Season 4 from
series creator J. Michael Straczynski; this is less worthwhile than you might
think, because it contains a lot of clips from the upcoming season, so you
won't want to spoil the season's events by watching it before you finish the
set... and afterwards, there's not much point in watching an introduction.
On Disc 6, we get the balance
of the special features. There's a five-minute featurette called
"Celestial Sounds" on the making of the music of Babylon 5,
and the portentously titled "'No Surrender, No Retreat' DVD Suite,"
which is just a seven-minute music video, with the B5 score played over
a montage of clips from Season 4. "The Universe of B5" offers its
usual assortment of background trivia on some of the characters and key places
and events of the season, along with a short gag reel. Lastly, we get
biographies of executive producer Douglas Netter and executive producer/writer
J. Michael Straczynski.
Each disc also contains
previews for the episodes on that disc.
If you've been following Babylon
5 as it progresses through the third season (and if you haven't, well then,
go start at the beginning with Season 1!) then
Season 4 is just what you've been waiting for. It's a little more uneven than
the incredible Season
3, but that's a small matter in a season that has so much to offer: the
conclusion of the Shadow War, gripping events on Centauri Prime, and a renewed
intensity of the plot threads dealing with Babylon 5's relationship with Earth
and the Mars Resistance. Babylon 5 is at the forefront of outstanding
storytelling in science fiction, with great characters and a gripping set of
interlocking story arcs; this is a season that's not to be missed. Highly