"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 situation.
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 track.
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 Straczynski.
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 recommended.