Warner Bros. // 1994 // 956 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // November 26th, 2002
"Science fiction has an obligation to point toward the horizon." -- J. Michael Straczynski
It was the dawn of the Third Age of American science fiction television. In the First Age, Tom Corbett and friends strapped on their rocket packs for daring adventures fighting bug-eyed monsters among the stars, but nobody took them very seriously. Then the Second Age arrived, and Star Trek gave us a vision of a utopian future where adventure sometimes took a back seat to ethics, and the aliens always turned out, in the end, to be just like us. No show successfully stood up to this juggernaut for years. The signs that the Second Age was drawing to a close came in the early 1990s, as Star Trek's next generation began to lose momentum.
But one daring group of people would soon change the playing field for science fiction television. This is their story...
I will be completely honest. When the pilot movie for Babylon 5 premiered in February, 1993, I was not much impressed. My best friend and I watched it, having heard the advance buzz about its makeup effects and CG spaceships, but found the whole exercise suffered from a cryptic plot and performances that could be best described as monotonal. Oh well, at least the sets were nice.
So when we heard that Babylon 5 was turning into a series, we thought we would give it a try for a few episodes, and when it proved as awful as we expected, we could safely skip the rest. But the show quickly grew on us. Unlike Star Trek: TNG, which had become repetitive and sentimental (or at least, those flaws had become more noticeable than usual), this new show promised actual character development and a sense of clear direction. We knew the stories that creator J. Michael Straczynski designed the show as a complete package: a five-year tale, structured novelistically, in which subplots would pay off and characters would actually change -- a rarity in dramatic television. Plus, the show offered alien cultures that were actually alien, and not just humans in funny makeup.
Babylon 5 delivered on its promises, and we stuck by it loyally for the rest of its epic tale. Looking back now at the first season, it is clear that JMS (as Straczynski would come to be known among fans) successfully develops the culture and characters of the Babylon 5 universe. Star Trek never had to deal with a strike among unionized dockworkers (as in the episode "By Any Means Necessary"). Neither did it have a regular slum for characters to lose themselves in (as Garibaldi does in "Survivors"). Alien religion and psychology was always window dressing on that series as well. And political maneuvering and conspiracies? On Babylon 5, these details are crucial to making the world seem lived-in. And the continuing subplots give the show a soap opera feel that pays off in dramatic turns down the road and a sense that every action has realistic repercussions.
Here is the first season in a nutshell: a decade after Earth nearly lost a brutal conflict with the enigmatic Minbari, a tenuous peace reigns in this corner of the galaxy. The flamboyant Centauri Republic is in decline, and its former colonial property, Narn, is beating the drums of war. In an effort to cool things down, Earth proposes a neutral zone in which the Babylon space station will serve as a trading center and negotiating table for the major powers and a coalition of unaligned worlds. Five miles long and home to over 250,000 inhabitants, the station will be a self-sustaining city -- with all the strengths (huge workforce) and weaknesses (high crime rate) of a planetbound city. Unfortunately, the project does not begin in the best light: the first three "Babylon" stations are destroyed by sabotage, and the fourth simply, well, vanishes. In 2257, Babylon 5 opens for business, the "last, best hope for peace," as the few remaining supporters proclaim. Its new commander, Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), is ill-equipped to handle a command this size. His security chief, Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), is a recovering alcoholic, and the rest of his staff seems a little shaky as well. In its first weeks of operation, a nasty incident involving the new Vorlon ambassador nearly sinks the project for good (an adventure chronicled in the pilot film, "The Gathering").
A year later, Babylon 5 has managed to survive intact. Sinclair now has a new exec (the cynical Susan Ivanova, played by Claudia Christian), a new doctor (Stephen Franklin, played by Richard Biggs), and a new commercial telepath, representing the fascistic Psi Corps (Talia Winters, played by Andrea Thompson). Together, they try to keep order among the squabbling ambassadors, control the crime rate, and generally keep things from blowing up.
The first episode, "Midnight on the Firing Line," comes out of the gate running. While the Narn and Centauri nearly go to war after a sneak Narn attack, Sinclair leads a fighter squadron against space pirates. The secret weapons of the cast, Andreas Katsulas as the intense G'Kar and Peter Jurasik as the slippery Londo Mollari, would have been mere guest stars on any other show. Or at least they would have remained secondary heavies, turning up periodically to start trouble for our human heroes. But G'Kar's gradual evolution over the course of the series, from vengeful to visionary over five years, paralleled with Londo's evolution from clownish to corrupt, are as important to the series as, well, the complex development of every other major character in the cast. Although elfin Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) does not play a central role in the opening episode, her part will become just as crucial to the mix as the series progresses.
If the first season has a major failing, it is that, relative to the later seasons, there is a clear sense that everyone involved in the show is just getting the hang of this space opera thing. The computer generated special effects, innovative at the time, look a bit rough (explosions in particular were pretty bad). And the cast, apart from Katsulas and Jurasik, tend to stumble as they get a feel for their characters. Michael O'Hare, for example, started out playing Sinclair rather stiffly. He warmed up to the part as the season progressed (although if I hear once more about his childhood with the Jesuits, I'll scream), but by then it was too late. Sinclair would leave the show under mysterious circumstances between seasons (ostensibly because O'Hare wanted to return to theater). Oddly, this worked out in the show's favor, since Sinclair would return later to fulfill his evolving role as a spiritual leader, while Bruce Boxleitner could come on board as Captain John Sheridan and take up the mantle of action hero (and romantic lead). The other regulars would get comfortable with their parts as their characters developed, and by the second season would all be turning in consistently strong performances.
O'Hare's departure was not the first instance where JMS had to retool subplots and character arcs to account for cast changes. Between the pilot film and the regular series, three major characters were cycled out, and parts of their character arcs were transferred to others. And more actors would leave or join up later in the series. The near constant turmoil in scheduling and cast did lead to a few loose ends in the series: Jason Ironheart's telepathic "gift" to Talia in "Mind War," for instance, or the King Arthur references that never ended up paying off (maybe they would have if the spin-off series Crusade had lasted). But generally, JMS was able to make fine use of the plot threads he set up this first season. Case in point: note how the double meaning of the Minbari ceremony in "The Parliament of Dreams" (one of the first moments in science fiction television where religion is taken seriously as a cultural institution) could have worked out whether Michael O'Hare had stayed with the show or not.
Of course, even a promising first season is likely to have its clunkers. Take "TKO," for example. Its "Rocky with aliens" storyline is easily the biggest disappointment until the rubber monster attack in third season's "Grey 17 Is Missing" (an episode JMS personally apologized to me for the week it aired). Other stories, like "Infection" (guest star David McCallum brings aboard dangerous alien technology) and "Believers" (the alien equivalent of Christian Scientists refuse medical treatment for their child), feel a bit like darker versions of Star Trek plots.
But the good episodes clearly outnumber the bad, and Babylon 5 has enough "classic" moments to make it clear that, once the show got over its growing pains, loyal fans would be paid back with some of the best science fiction on television. Walter Koenig jettisons his Pavel Chekhov persona for good as sinister Psi Cop Alfred Bester in "Mind War," creating one of the best recurring villains in science fiction television. The two-part "A Voice in the Wilderness" (with its homage to Forbidden Planet) and "Babylon Squared" (in which we learn part of the fate of Babylon 4) are tense adventure stories on their own -- plus they set up important plot points that would relate to Sinclair's fate later in the series. And the crucial "turning point" episodes, in which major plot threads are laid out, are strongly written. Indeed, "Signs and Portents" (an episode so important that the entire first season bears this title as well) and "Chrysalis" (the season cliffhanger) even feature bonus commentary tracks on this DVD set by JMS.
Straczynski's tracks ramble with entertaining stories, scene specific observations, and analysis of the show's storytelling techniques and structure. He addresses numerous topics, from production design to actors and characters. He even dismisses the alleged conflict between the show and Star Trek which has cropped up between hardcore fans of the two shows (Straczynski hired a number of creative people from the original show and Majel Roddenberry would guest star in a later season to put that rumor to rest once and for all). Sometimes he even makes jokes about the show's missteps, like the cheap looking Centauri hairpieces. There are plenty of spoilers: JMS expects that you are familiar with the five-year arc and can see how the clues set out in these episodes fit into place later on. Overall, these tracks are quite entertaining and feel altogether too short. I know JMS has plenty more stories than this. I expect he will be back to share them in future boxed sets.
Warner Brothers places all the other bonus features on Disc Six of this set. There are two behind the scenes featurettes. The first, "The Making of Babylon 5," runs about 19 minutes. Walter Koenig hosts this documentary, made during the first season, apparently produced (near as I can tell) to sell the show to affiliates. The cast and crew explain the premise and brag about the then-cutting edge CG effects. The second featurette, "Back to Babylon 5," is brand new. This slick, 13-minute overview looks at the show's history. Of the cast, only Biggs, Doyle, and Stephen Furst (who played Londo's assistant Vir, a great supporting character in his own right) show up, but a lot of information is crammed in at a frantic pace.
To help get newcomers up to speed, there is a "Universe of Babylon 5" overview, with "computer file" reports on key characters, technological innovations, and political and historical details. There is also a station tour to round out your basic working knowledge of the show. These entries are all relatively spoiler free as of the end of the first season (for instance, they mention the Shadows, a major enemy introduced in the first season, but do not reveal key information in future episodes). Overall, there is not a great deal of extra content, and it is a pity JMS could not squeeze in the great blooper reels that are so hard to find (not that I would know about such things). I hope that future sets will see more input from the rest of the creative team, like some cast interviews or demo special effects work from Douglas Netter's crew.
But in general, Warner Brothers has done right by Babylon 5 by releasing this show in complete season boxed sets, so that even newcomers can see the level of detail that went into holding this sprawling epic together. The show was one of the first dramatic television series shot in widescreen format, and these discs, six in all, are presented in crisp anamorphic transfers and remastered 5.1 soundtrack. Although the show was done on a television budget, and its technical limitations often show, it is still in pretty good shape after nearly a decade.
With 110 episodes, two Hugos, and an Emmy under its belt, Babylon 5 could easily be proud of simply surviving its five year story arc intact. But it has far more to be proud of. It opened the way for other science fiction shows to compete with the Star Trek franchise -- and even for Star Trek to compete with its own past (in the form of its Babylon 5-inspired spin-off Deep Space 9). With its deeply textured storyline, thoughtful writing, and strong characterizations -- not to mention some kick-ass space battles when the Shadows start turning up the heat -- the series bears repeating. While the first season may have its weaknesses, this is the first part of a five-part television novel. To miss it would be like skipping the first chapters of your favorite book. Start here, hang in for the fireworks, and you will not be disappointed.
Judgment is withheld against these characters as their ultimate fates will be decided later. JMS, cast, and crew are acquitted of all charges. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2002 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 956 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by JMS on "Signs and Portents" and "Chrysalis"
* "The Making of Babylon 5"
* "Back to Babylon 5"
* The Universe of Babylon 5 Data Files
* Episode Trailers
* Official Site
* The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5