Warner Bros. // 1997 // 950 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // February 20th, 2004
"Well, if we lose, there is no 'then what,' and if we win, what next? We're still renegades. I don't think there's anybody left on this side of the galactic core that we haven't already honked off. We can't go home. Sometimes, I don't know which scares me more, winning or losing." -- Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle)
Next time, listen to the Vorlon, stupid. When he tells you that if you go to Z'ha'dum, you will die, it is not a bloody metaphor. Now the Shadows are running riot through the galaxy. Earth is in the hands of a xenophobic tyrant. Your television network is about to fold and take your show with it. And you are dead. Welcome to the year 2261.
How do you plan to fix this mess, smart guy?
Blame it on the WB. After four seasons pushing Babylon 5 as part of its syndicated network PTEN (Prime Time Entertainment Network), Warner Brothers was ready to close up shop. After all, there was now a real network to support, anchored on local stations and ready to challenge the big boys. This meant that any shows circulated on PTEN were doomed.
So, even with solid ratings and a reputation as the only science fiction show since Star Trek to make it through three seasons, Babylon 5 was in trouble. Never mind that J. Michael Straczynski had promised fans a carefully developed five-year story. Never mind that the series had already scored one Hugo Award (for "The Coming of Shadows") and was due this season for a second one (for the stunning "Severed Dreams"). He would have to wrap things up in year four. This meant compressing the series' two major storylines -- the Shadow War and the rescue of Earth from its tyrannical government -- into fewer episodes. Subplots needed to be pushed aside or left underdeveloped. The story needed closure.
The fourth season of the series follows the show's two major epic storylines to their ultimate conclusions. The first third of the season picks up the Shadow War at its most sinister stage. John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) has died at Z'ha'dum, as predicted by the Vorlon Kosh. Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) has disappeared, kidnapped by a Shadow vessel the same day as Sheridan's death, then handed over to -- well, that would be telling. On Centauri Prime, mad Emperor Cartagia (Wortham Krimmer) is trying to outdo Caligula, hoping to fulfill his ambitions of godhood by turning the planet over to Shadow forces and their flunkie, Morden (Ed Wasser), in anticipation of his eventual apotheosis. Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) must coddle the emperor in order to keep his head attached, but he can do little to help his rival, Narn Ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), who quickly finds himself in the clutches of the Centauri authorities while out searching for the missing Garibaldi. The alien governments, lost without guidance, are easy prey for the Shadows. In short, things look very bad for our heroes.
Did I mention that Sheridan is dead? Yes, he does start off the season that way, but he quickly feels much better. And so our heroes march inexorably toward the climax of the Shadow War and a massive, if somewhat talky, battle in episode six, "Into the Fire." With that little piece of business out of the way, Sheridan and company can turn their attention toward Earth.
The tyranny of President Clark has, by season four, forced Earth into complete isolation, its government infiltrated by Psi Corp and Shadow agents. Babylon 5 is no longer a part of the Earth Alliance, and government forces step up the pressure to destroy the rebellion. Of course, other players in this game (Bester and the sinister Psi Corps, for instance) have their own agendas. Being a hero is never an easy thing, is it? For the final dozen or so episodes of the season, JMS juggles three major plotlines: a civil war among the Minbari, Michael Garibaldi's betrayal of his friends, and the struggle to free Earth from Clark's rule. In the first, Mira Furlan takes the spotlight as the Minbari religious and warrior castes vie for authority. Here, Delenn does what she is best at: furrowing her brows and making everyone feel terribly guilty at their lack of honor. The third storyline follows Sheridan's characteristically brilliant strategy for defeating Clark's forces. Few dramatic television shows have had a lead character so unapologetically intelligent -- and backed up that intelligence with intricate plotting that does not talk down to the audience. Indeed, the entire fourth season is dubbed "No Surrender, No Retreat," after the episode in which Sheridan demonstrates his tactical skill during the space battle for Proxima 3. This battle is almost as good as the classic third-season episode "Severed Dreams" (still the best space battle ever shown in a television series), lacking only that episode's moral ambiguity (but replacing it with righteous anger).
Where the fourth season of Babylon 5 suffers, bringing it only slightly lower than the previous season -- although certainly not by any means anticlimactic -- is in its pacing. Certain storylines feel compromised by the need to squeeze so much plot into a single season. Straczynski's original plan was to stretch out the battle for Earth a bit longer, to leave the characters' fates (particularly Sheridan and Garibaldi, who both undergo major trauma late in the season) hanging until season five. Garibaldi's trials in particular get solved much too quickly in the last few episodes.
The real irony is that, after packing up the major plotlines in season four, the show was picked up for its fifth season by PTEN's in-house cable rival, TNT. JMS had already shot the series finale, "Sleeping in Light," with the main cast. Now he had to shelve it, recall the actors in a hurry, and slap together an outline for the fifth season that could take advantage of some of the dangling loose ends always left over in a story of such scale as Babylon 5. In the rush to sign all the actors back up, Claudia Christian (who plays Susan Ivanova) was left behind (and accounts differ as to whose fault this was). As to the other problems with season five -- well, we will just have to look at those another time.
Claudia Christian's presence is sorely missed from the hastily written "new" season closer, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars." JMS relies on his background in theater to concoct a stagy, overly talky look at the impact of our heroes on future generations. On his commentary track for the episode, he is rather coy about Christian's whereabouts and, as usual, tends to avoid behind-the-scenes tales. In between repeating plot points, he does offer a few tantalizing hints about subplots still left unexplored in the series and some of the Babylon 5 philosophy. JMS turns in a livelier commentary on the pivotal "Face of the Enemy," teaming with director Michael Vejar to chat about the logistical aspects of shooting such an ambitious series.
But, of course, the best commentary track, as Babylon 5 fans know by now, comes from the actors. Bruce Boxleitner and Jerry Doyle are back, teasing one another mercilessly, and this time they are joined by Patricia Tallman and Peter Jurasik. These cast tracks get funnier every season. So what is the deal with the dent in Jerry Doyle's head, anyway?
In our discussion of the season two set, I criticized the mediocre video quality of Warner Brothers' six-disc package. This time out, things seem to have improved. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite acceptable, particularly during the special-effects-laden action sequences. Disc six rounds out the extras with a featurette on composer Christopher Franke and his difficult task of creating an original score for every episode of the series. We are also treated to a suite of Franke's music set to clips from the fourth season. The usual "Universe of Babylon 5" segments are present, as well as a gag reel (not an Easter egg this time; that distinction goes to a graphics demo reel of the show's titular space station).
If it seems as if we have less to say about season four of the finest science fiction show on television, it is only because we have said so much already. We are also so deep in the twists and turns of the story that to say too much -- hell, to even give you episode summaries -- would spoil all the surprises. Suffice it to say that on Babylon 5, you can never tell exactly who your friends are, what your enemies want, or what you are capable of doing in order to win the fight. Look for allies to betray the cause and the bad guys to show their true colors. And look for a major character to die tragically. But you sort of knew all this would happen: JMS never stages any victories on this show that are not tinged with a little tragedy. To say more would spoil all the fun.
Besides, if you have already watched the first three seasons, you are obligated (and there will probably soon be a law) to follow Straczynski's story to its fiery climax. While the fifth season has its flaws, Season four is an admirable successor to the show's already stellar reputation. Go and buy it now, before we send the Psi Corps to your house to, um, convince you.
This court orders President Clark and the Shadows to surrender to authorities immediately. John Sheridan and his rebels are released and commended.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic ((1.77:1 to be exact))
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 950 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introduction to Season Four
* Commentary by JMS on "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars"
* Commentary by JMS and Michael Vejar on "Face of the Enemy"
* Cast Commentary on "Falling Toward Apotheosis"
* "Celestial Sounds"
* "No Surrender, No Retreat" DVD Suite
* The Universe of Babylon 5 Data Files
* Gag Reel
* Episode Trailers
* Official Site
* The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5