Nerds of the world rejoice, for our quavering voices have finally been heard - the first DVD box set of Babylon 5 is here, packed with enough geeky goodness to gobsmack us for hours and drive our girlfriends/boyfriends (those few of us who have 'em) utterly insane. And if they don't like it, tough. One must have one's priorities straight!
First impressions of B5 are that it's a poor man's Star Trek, replete with ridiculously hairstyled characters, rubber aliens, po-faced philosophising, cringeworthy comedy and substandard acting. And that's all true - to an extent - but there's so much more too...
B5 is a rarity in that it is essentially one continuous five year story with most of the episodes written by the one man; creator J. Michael Straczynski (henceforth referred to as JMS). This imbues the series with a level of focus, continuity and building action that other shows lack. To make the obvious comparison, most every episode of Star Trek starts and ends with no real character growth or plot development; there's rarely any real change, just the illusion of change. Compare the first and last season of Voyager for proof. By contrast, B5 seemed to totally reinvent itself every year.
The plot in a nutshell: Babylon 5 is a space station constructed by humans and several alien races (including the Minbari, Narns, Centauri and Vorlons) to serve as a diplomatic outpost in neutral space, where the races can discuss their differences without resorting to warfare. Recent conflicts between the humans and the Minbari, and the Narns and Centauri, have made such a place a necessity.
Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), along with Second-In-Command Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Security Chief Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) are charged with the smooth running of the station. But with the cheery yet constantly scheming Centauri Ambassador Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and the stern and equally cunning Narn Ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) to contend with - not to mention other assorted aliens, telepaths, intergalactic criminals, drug addicts, political machinations and miscellaneous cosmic phenomena - they're in for a busy five years.
The first season is weaker than the following three (we won't talk about the dire Season 5, produced with a gutted budget and allegedly catastrophic studio interference), but that's only because they're so good. The Shadow War story arc plays out over these four years, with the drama and tension escalating every season. It came to an abrupt (but still very cool) climax in Season 4 when it seemed as though the show wouldn't continue for the full five years due to dubious ratings.
It's ironic that a relatively low budget series with some very modest sets, unconvincing aliens and hammy acting could convey such an epic, wide-scale aura, but it did. The nifty (and ground-breaking, for the time) CGI special effects helped no end; B5 was the first series to make extensive use of Computer-Generated Imagery, and this was probably its biggest selling point at the time (Star Trek followed suit soon after).
Season 1 sets the scene for the arc, which sees an ancient and malevolent race of god-like aliens, the Shadows, return from their exile to wreak havoc upon the galaxy. Unlike in later seasons, most of these episodes are stand-alone stories, with only half-a-dozen contributing to the greater plot, although there are elements scattered throughout all of the shows that will have a subsequent impact - half of the fun in re-watching them is in picking up the nuances and hints that will later come into play.
The pilot movie-length episode, The Gathering, is not included in this package as it's available on another disc (along with prequel feature In the Beginning). So we're left with 22 episodes, the highlights of which are:
Midnight on the Firing Line: the first "proper" episode, wherein the Narn launch an unprovoked attack on a remote Centauri agricultural colony. A solid, dramatic introduction.
Mind War introduces the Psi Corps, a Gestapo-like league of human telepaths whose mission is to find and recruit other telepaths. Bester (played by Checkov himself, Walter Koenig) has come to B5 supposedly hunting a rogue telepath with evil intentions, but things are (of course) not as they seem...
And the Sky Full of Stars is a pivotal episode, in which Sinclair realises that he unknowingly played a key role in the end of the recent Earth-Minbari War, which finished when the enemy suddenly and inexplicably retreated when only minutes away from certain victory.
Signs and Portents introduces the Shadows and their human agent, Morden, in an effects-packed show wherein Londo strikes a bargain that results in the deaths of ten thousand Narns.
A Voice in the Wilderness is a two-parter that reveals that the supposedly uninhabited planet around which the station orbits is in fact the home of a heavily armed citadel with a big part to play in an upcoming interstellar drama.
Babylon Squared is a mind-bending time travel story wherein B5's predecessor, Babylon 4 (long since missing and presumedly destroyed), emerges from a timewarp.
The finale, Chrysalis, sees the Shadows return while Ambassador Delenn undergoes a profound change.
Originally broadcast in full-screen pan-and-scan, Babylon 5 is now presented for the first time in its intended format - 16:9 enhanced widescreen (1.78:1). But the news isn't all good. The show's groundbreaking CGI special effects still look great... the problem is, they don't look great. Huh? You see, the show was originally filmed in widescreen format - but the effects shots were made at 4:3. Re-formatting them for widescreen seems to have created an appalling amount of aliasing and shimmer.
Also, certain live-action shots with effects composited onto them have been obviously squashed into the new format, resulting in figures suddenly appearing extremely squat at irregular intervals. There's a distracting amount of grain in some shots as well as frequent film artefacts.
All in all, the video quality is disappointing, but considering the limitations of the source material, it's not a huge issue: a flawed widescreen presentation is preferable to a simple pan-and-scan transfer any day of the week.