Nothing encapsulates the power of the epic science fiction series Babylon 5 better than its voiceover for the credits. In Season 3 it is Commander Ivanova who speaks: "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the Year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope... for victory."
Setting the traditional episodic format of television science fiction on its head, the five-year continuous story arc of Babylon 5 built up a fascinating and captivating story through Season 1 and Season 2. The Narn and Centauri at each others' throats... the lurking danger of the Shadows... the growing darkness in the Earth government... the unrest on the Mars colony... all these elements have been building up and sending off sparks. The question has been, what is going to blow first? It's for good reason that the season as a whole is titled "Point of No Return." There is no reset button on Babylon 5... and actions taken in the past are having the most dramatic of consequences.
Season 3 packs the most punch of any season of Babylon 5 so far... and that's saying a lot, given the series' strong start in Season 1 and escalating drama and tension in Season 2. In Season 3, several story lines come to the forefront, with events that have been picking up steam now coming to an explosive level. The political conflict back on Earth has resulted in increasing social repression even on the station, as we see in the appearance of the Night Watch organization; a string of tense episodes like "Messages from Earth," "Point of No Return," and "Severed Dreams" shift that story line into high gear. At the same time, the war with the Shadows goes from being a vaguely disturbing threat to a terrifying reality, in episodes like "Interludes and Examinations," the two-part "War Without End" that picks up on certain mysterious events from Season 1, and, of course, the season finale "Shadow Dancing" and "Z'ha'dum." It's a clear sign that Straczynski's techniques of foreshadowing and careful buildup are effective, when just the title of the final episode is chilling...
The focus may be on the Shadows and the troubles on Earth, but in the background, other storylines continue to develop. The Narn-Centauri war continues to build up pressure, with late-season episodes like "And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place" leaving us eager for Season 4. The continuing thread concerning the telepaths also finds its place into Season 3's episodes; in addition to the return of Lyta Alexander, we also see Psi Cop Bester (Walter Koenig) once again.
For this season, all 22 episodes were written by series creator J. Michael Straczynski: with so many plot threads being developed, along with others being foreshadowed for the future, this was the only way to manage all the material properly. Given the impressively high quality of the episodes throughout Season 3, this was an excellent decision on the part of the series creator.
Of course, not every single episode is up to Babylon 5's high standard: Season 3 does include "Grey 17 Is Missing," with a lamentable monster called a Zarg making an appearance. Straczynski himself has commented (as quoted in the Lurker's Guide to B5) that "I just have this constant desire to go to everyone's house and personally apologize..." Once you see the Zarg, you'll see why. But even in this episode, the other storyline interwoven with the Zarg storyline is handled satisfactorily, and as a whole it merely serves to underline just how good the rest of the episodes are.
On a more individual level, Babylon 5 continues to develop its characters very effectively: these are not static personalities, but real, changing people. I've always considered the duo of the Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and his nemesis, the Narn ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) as being the characters with perhaps the most depth in the series, and this is borne out as we see them each traveling his (perhaps foreordained) path. Another instance of character development is Dr. Franklin; while earlier seasons hinted at tensions beneath his professional demeanor, it's here that those tensions finally come to the boiling point, as we see in episodes like "Walkabout." The cast of "main characters" is slightly fluid, with various figures naturally moving into the limelight or out of it as the overall story arcs dictate: in Season 3, the characters of Zack Allen, the down-to-earth security officer, and Mr. Morden, the very shady "associate" of Ambassador Mollari, are brought more into the action. In Season 3, we are also introduced to several new characters who will prove to be important contributors to the story as it develops: Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman), who is not exactly new (having appeared in the pilot), and one of my favorite secondary characters, Marcus Cole (Jason Carter).
Season 3's powerful storylines draw extensively on the material presented in the first two seasons, both in plot and in character development, so for maximum enjoyment, viewers who are new to Babylon 5 should start with Season 1 or at most Season 2. But whatever you do, don't miss out completely! Babylon 5 is the cream of the crop of science fiction television. If you thought Season 2 was exciting... Season 3 is even better.
Babylon 5: Season 3 is packaged in the same stylish and generally user-friendly manner as the previous two seasons. The six DVDs in the set are packaged in a "book" whose hard plastic pages hold each disc, with the "book" fitting inside a glossy (and iridescent) paper slipcase. It's similar to the packaging of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, except that the spine of the "book" is paper rather than plastic, which does leave the B5 set open to wear and tear as the pages are turned. I do appreciate the compact packaging, which looks nice and takes up a surprisingly small amount of shelf space.
I am pleased to report that Babylon 5: Season 3 looks better than either of the preceding seasons; it doesn't reach the level of perfection that, as a fan, I'd ideally like to see, but it's good enough that I can sit back and enjoy it with no qualms. As with Seasons 1 and 2, all of Season 3's episodes are presented in anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen. The episodes were filmed with this aspect ratio in mind, so viewers of the DVD are seeing a more complete image than they saw in B5's original television broadcast (except for viewers who saw it on the Science Fiction Channel's widescreen broadcast).
It looks like Warner stepped in to perform the print restoration and cleaning that was lacking in the previous seasons. As far as I could tell, the image is completely free of print flaws: no scratches, blobs, dirt, lines, or any other distracting flaws. Even by itself, this is a notable improvement and one that I'm very happy to see. The computer-generated images (CGI) also look better on the whole. Scenes where CGI and live-action shots are combined, or follow one after another, show some blockiness but not as noticeably as before. The CGI-only shots, such as the station itself and spacecraft, also look better: sharper and brighter, with fewer flickering effects.
That's not to say that everything is as good as it could be. The image overall does show a substantial amount of noise and a touch of grain, especially in dimly lit shots, which of course reduces the amount of fine detail in the image. Edge enhancement is present, but kept within acceptable limits, and isn't as much of an issue as the noise.
All in all, Season 3's improved image quality is an extremely positive note for Babylon 5 and fans should breath a sigh of relief.
As with the earlier seasons, Babylon 5: Season 3 is presented in a nice Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. There's nothing to really knock you off your feet, so to speak, but the sound quality is excellent, with clear dialogue and a nice balance of music, voices, and effects. Some surround effects are used, which does add to the overall immersiveness of the viewing experience.
Special features can be found on discs 1, 3, 4, and 6 of the set.
Of most note are audio commentary tracks for three of the episodes: on disc 3, "Severed Dreams" has a commentary from series creator J. Michael Straczynski; on disc 4, "Interludes and Examinations" has a commentary from cast members Bruce Boxleitner, Jerry Doyle, Richard Biggs, and Ed Wasser; and the season finale, "Z'ha'dum," has a commentary from Straczynski.
Several interesting featurettes are also included. Disc 1 has a six-minute introduction to the season from Straczynski and others. Disc 6 has two short pieces on alien makeup, with comments from makeup effects artist John Vulich and others: "Behind the Masks: Creating the Aliens of Babylon 5" (eight minutes) and "Building a Better Narn" (seven minutes). "Designing Tomorrow: The Look of Babylon 5" is a ten-minute piece n the production and art design of the show, again featuring interviews with various artists and crew. These are interesting pieces that are sure to appeal to both long-time and new fans of the show.
Lastly, "The Universe of Babylon 5" is a section that offers text-based information on various aspects of the show's setting and back story: "Personnel Files," "Shadow Dossier," and "Data Files." Because of potential spoilers, these should not be looked at before you see all the episodes... and after you have seen all the episodes, there's not much point to reading this section.
Menus are clear and easy to navigate.
Babylon 5: Season 3 showcases the award-winning, ground-breaking science fiction series at the height of its powers, with creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski juggling a complex assortment of plots and characters, developing seeds that were planted in earlier seasons, and setting the stage for even more in the next season... all without missing a beat. Given that Warner has done a significantly better job for the video transfer, it's with no reservations whatsoever that I give Babylon 5: Season 3 DVDTalk's highest recommendation.