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 come.
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 action sequences.
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 noticeable.
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.