Babylon 5 Complete Series Blu-ray Review

Per FTC obligations: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this post. The opinions I share are my own.


THE SHOW

Babylon 5 was a groundbreaking Science Fiction TV series that ran from 1994 through 1998 and basically introduced the world of serialized television to the concept of telling a story with a five-year arc – a defined beginning, middle, and end. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series spent each season covering a year of story, from 2257 to 2262, and centered on the crew of the Babylon 5 space station – a hub of diplomacy, commerce, and intrigue in the outer regions of space where five hostile federations struggled to find peace. Enter ancient evil in the form of the mysterious Shadows and the launch of interstellar war. With dangers coming from all angles, Babylon 5 was the last, best hope for peace.

That didn’t exactly work out both in-narrative and in real life. The first season was a bit of a struggle (to make and to watch, honestly) as Straczynski kept the format more traditional, seeding overarching plot elements here and there, but concentrating on building an audience. Even the actors struggled early on, as sometimes motivations for actions, dialogue, or even entire scenes were kept under wraps, so as not to give away potential future events.

Thanks to this foresight, over the course of its five-year run, nearly every character achieved an impressive level of complexity and evolved more than any other TV characters I can think of, with world building on a scale that sometimes boggled the mind. Straczynski embraced both science fiction conventions as well as addressing and including mythological and religious elements. That’s not to mention the treatment of social issues like drug addiction, sexual orientation, and the impact of war on both the soldiers and the civilians involved.

The central theme, however, was the struggles between Order and Chaos (as represented by the ancient races The Vorlons and the Shadows) and authoritarianism vs. free will. What begins as a crossroads of political intrigue, petty crime, and attempts to maintain peace between interstellar species transforms into a war for the survival of all civilization and then becomes a tale of civil wars on multiple fronts before finally drawing to a grand conclusion that is totally satisfying even as it lays seeds for potential future storytelling.

Babylon 5 expanded the scope of its story with a comic series from DC in 1994, short stories and novels first published by Dell Publishing in 1995 that were overseen by Straczynski, another set of novels published starting in 1997 by Del Rey, also with Straczynski’s guidance, role-playing games, and ultimately five feature-length TV movies by TNT and a spin-off series, Crusade (that unfortunately only lasted 13 episodes). In 2002 the Sci-Fi Channel premiered a new telefilm, The Legend of the Rangers, intended to launch a new series, but it wasn’t picked up. Then in 2007 the first of a planned trilogy of straight-to-DVD short stories called The Lost Tales was released by Warner Home Video, however funding issues killed the project and it was never completed.

Recently, Straczynski announced he would be producing a reboot of Babylon 5, developed by Warner Bros. Television for The CW but there hasn’t been much news since. Just this year, Straczynski and Warner Bros. Animation released Babylon 5: The Road Home, a full-length animated film featuring most of the surviving cast members returning to voice their characters.


ORIGINS and CAST

The series was a precursor to the similarly staged Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which strangely went into development shortly after Straczynski pitched the series to Paramount where the show was rejected. And while DS9 is a quality Star Trek series (my personal favorite of the franchise), their stories were ultimately very different, despite the superficial similarities in concept, with Babylon 5 edging out DS9 in terms of ambition and execution, if not in paranoia and galaxy-spanning wars.

Straczynski set a record, writing 92 of the 110 episodes (including all 44 episodes of Seasons Three and Four), but other noted science fiction and fantasy authors as well as notable Star Trek writers contributed scripts, including Peter David, Neil Gaiman, Kathryn M. Drennan, D. C. Fontana, and David Gerrold. Babylon 5 also had science fiction author extraordinaire and general lovable curmudgeon Harlan Ellison on board as creative consultant to make sure the show never veered too far into schmaltz. Ellison also received story credit for two episodes.  

The series began with Michael O’Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Claudia Christian as Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, Jerry Doyle as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, Richard Biggs as Doctor Stephen Franklin, Andrea Thompson as Psi-Corp telepath Talia Winters, Mira Furlan as the Minbari ambassador Delenn, Andreas Katsulas as Narn embassador G’Kar, and Peter Jurasik as Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari. In season two, after a mental health scare, O’Hare was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan (although O’Hare would return in later seasons in spectacular fashion), and after season two, due to creative disagreements, Andrea Thompson was replaced by Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander.

The cast was rounded out by Stephen Furst as Vir Cotto, aide to Ambassador Mollari, Bill Mumy as Lennier, aide to Ambassador Delenn, and eventually, Jeff Conaway as sergeant Zack Allan, Jason Carter as Ranger Marcus Cole, and Tracy Scoggins as Captain Elizabeth Lochley, the new station commander after Boxleitner’s Captain Sheridan resigns. We also got occasional appearances from Star Trek’s Walter Koenig as the shady Alfred Bester, senior officer of Earth’s Psi-Corps.

And if you pay attention, J. Michael Straczynski even makes an inspired acting appearance in the season finale.


PRODUCTION

Babylon 5 was a bold experiment in serialized television storytelling. Having the five-year plan in mind before production even began was probably the main reason that the series is still hailed to this day as one of the best Science Fiction series ever produced. It wasn’t easy going, though, as with practically every season, there was the question of whether or not the show would be picked up for the next year or if the cast would be able to keep working.

Because of this, Straczynski worked elements into the storytelling that would give potential outs for each of the main characters if they needed to be replaced. And when it looked like they weren’t going to be able to get their full five seasons, Season Four was altered into a potential series ending run. They even went so far as to film a series finale, taking place twenty years after the conclusion of Season Four before they got word that a Fifth and final season was greenlit. This led to a quickly put together new Season Four finale that ended up being one of my favorite episodes of the entire production, as we jump hundreds of years into the future to see the ramifications of the Babylon 5 station and our heroes. The already filmed series finale was then held off and served as the true series finale, capping off Season Five.

When Babylon 5 went into production, Straczynski, anticipating the emergence of HDTV, shot the series in widescreen 16:9, then cropped the images for 4:3 for the standard television format of the time. He also eschewed the traditional use of models with supplemental CG enhancement, choosing to go full computer graphics with all of the spaceship rendering, the station itself in exterior shots, as well as all of the space battles (of which there were plenty). However, due to budgetary restraints – which came up continuously over the five-year production – the full CG elements were only shot at 4:3 format. Which means that before Babylon 5’s initial home video release, everything looked uniform when it aired. However, the DVD release opted to go with the widescreen format, which caused inconsistencies as the CG sections needed to be zoomed in to make the 16:9 format, resulting in some pretty poor looking CG sections, that wouldn’t be remedied until 2020 when the series was remastered for airing on HBO Max, iTunes, and Amazon Prime Video.

Christopher Franke composed the score for all five seasons, orchestrating and mixing all the music, ultimately releasing a total of 24 episode and three television film soundtracks under Franke’s record label Sonic Images Records.


THE BLU-RAY RELEASE

The 2020 remaster is essentially what we get with this first time on Blu-ray release. They used the original negatives for the live-action filmed elements and algorithmically upscaled the CG elements to HD resolution and then reset the whole thing in the original 4:3 format of its original broadcast.

Which means that this 30th Anniversary release of Babylon 5 on Blu-ray is without a doubt the best the show has ever looked. And while there were some issues with the original digital release (missing scenes, hiccups in the formatting, and some other minor quibbles) all of these seem to have been addressed and fixed for the Blu-rays. And with an American price point of $99.99, we get our money’s worth.

For the series itself.

The packaging, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. Rather than give us individual season cases like the DVD release, cost-cutting has led to Warner Bros. opting for a single block case. On the plus side, this entire series now takes up as much shelf space as one of the original release DVD seasons, but the actual folders holding the discs are on the cheaper side, not really very sturdy, and for some reason they decided to not mount them in the case so the entire block of 21 Blu-ray discs is removable from its case.

There are no extras at all – although they do include the pilot film The Gathering and call it a Special Feature – but lost are all of the commentary tracks and extras from the DVD releases.

Aesthetically, everything about the packaging is a step down from those DVDs, from the menus, the cover art (which doesn’t actually feature the Babylon 5 space station???), and the individual Blu-ray discs themselves, which are all the same plain black rather than breaking up each season with a separate color to make distinguishing them easier. Even the menu screens are the same image for every season. The episodes are listed on the inside of the slipcover, but there is no designation anywhere about which discs the episodes are included on.

So what we’ve got here is the entire 110 episode run of Babylon 5 with the pilot movie in 4:3 HD as god intended. But it is so bare bones that I can’t imagine it still selling at the $99.99 price point for more than a year. Amazon already has it selling for $92 and that’s going to just drop. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it selling for $50-60 next Christmas as a flash sale. I have a feeling that, depending on sales of this package, we might get the individual seasons released in the future, possibly in deluxe formats that include all of the lost extra materials and if we’re lucky, the other five Babylon 5 movies.

The series is currently streaming the HD remaster on The Roku Channel and Tubi if you want to save your money for now. That said, I highly recommend picking this up in a physical format since we can’t rely on digital streaming services to make this, or anything, available indefinitely.


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