Warner Bros. // 1998 // 950 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 24th, 2004
"I don't know why, or how, or where, but I can feel it to the very core of my being, Mr. Allan. This is where it begins to go badly for all of us." -- G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) to Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway)
They say that waging peace is harder than waging war. John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) would agree. No sooner has he set up shop as president of the new Interstellar Alliance, with his beloved wife Delenn (Mira Furlan) and her trusted assistant Lennier (Bill Mumy) than the wheel of fire starts turning again. Babylon 5 welcomes its tough new commander, Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins), who has little patience with the usual chaos. Stalwarts Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) and Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs), along with Security Chief Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), are still around though, ready for the next crisis.
But the Alliance may not survive its first turbulent year. First, a telepath war looms, with Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) on one side and the sardonic Psi-cop Bester (Walter Koenig) on the other. Then, Prime Minister (and presumptive emperor) Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), helped by his assistant Vir (Stephen Furst), must discover the truth about Centauri's increasingly belligerent behavior. And what is this about G'Kar becoming a holy prophet?
2262 is going to be a long year.
Although the title of the first episode is "No Compromises," the fifth and final season of J. Michael Straczynski's space opera Babylon 5 is an exercise in compromises. As we noted in our overview of the fourth season, the demise of Warner Brothers' "Prime Time Entertainment Network" forced Straczynski to wrap up his major storylines in a hurry. The awkwardness is sometimes apparent: Michael Garibaldi's fall and redemption takes place in only a couple of episodes; Sheridan's imprisonment by President Clark's corrupt government barely slows down his renegade fleet. In truth, JMS had intended these major plot turns to act as cliffhangers, so that the first part of Season Five would entail the end of the civil war on Earth and still give him time to head into the final act of what he continually told his fans was a "television novel."
Compromise #1: The impending cancellation of Babylon 5 obligated JMS to rush his ending. He even directed the series finale, "Sleeping in Light," himself and bid his characters (and cast members) adieu. Then, Warner Brothers' subsidiary TNT offered to pick up the show for its final season. Suddenly, JMS had to break out his story notes and figure out a way to pull things back together. First, he resigned the cast -- except for Claudia Christian, who played Susan Ivanova. Stories differ as to why Christian did not come back, but the most plausible involves a dispute over salary and the studio's deadline on restarting the series. In any case, Straczynski scrambled to prepare a new season closer for PTEN ("The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" -- see my comments on it elsewhere), whipped together a television movie about the Earth-Minbari War (In the Beginning), and tried to fill in the gaps in his outline.
First priority was to find a new station commander. Tracy Scoggins plays Captain Elizabeth Lochley, who, due to story constraints, does not get much to do over the course of the season. And in spite of her past relationship with Sheridan (hint hint), the two characters show no chemistry at all. JMS gives Lochley some interesting backstory in a couple of episodes ("Day of the Dead" and "The Wheel of Fire," particularly), but there is a sense that he feels a little regret at having to compromise (call this one Compromise #2) on her character. This explains why she turned up in a potentially pivotal role (that is, love interest) in Straczynski's Crusade later on. You can sense in nearly every scene she has over the course of Season Five what JMS wanted to do with Ivanova, whose relationships and backstory were already well established. Oh well.
But the more important compromise (#3) is what Straczynski had to construct to fill the first half of the season, in order to give the more crucial Centauri War storyline a chance to brew. The telepaths. What can I say about the telepaths? In principle, a storyline involving telepath refugees and the political fallout they create for Sheridan and the Alliance is a pretty good idea. It also gives JMS a chance to bring back the show's best villain, Psi-cop Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig). But like Sheridan's plan to give the telepath rebels sanctuary, the whole business goes terribly, terribly wrong.
And all the blame can be laid right at the feet of one man: Byron, leader of the renegade telepaths. I am sure Robin Atkin Downes is a nice guy off camera, but Byron is written as a simpering Harlequin cover model. He whines and throws tantrums like a spoiled third grader -- and this is the assessment of my wife, an elementary school counselor. He always seems surrounded by candles and echoes of the Mystic Moods orchestra (check out the end of "Strange Relations" for the most egregious example). On the plus side, his love affair with Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) gives strength to her previously underutilized character. On the negative side -- one of many negative sides to the Byron storyline -- you know exactly where he is headed in his rebellion against Psi Corps. You can smell him wearing a cologne called "Martyr" a light year away.
Byron is the petulant albatross around the neck of Season Five. He is pouty when pleased, smug even in the throes of tragic passion. He is a walking Morrissey song, without the black humor. And his collection of telepaths seems snatched from central casting's idea of Goth wannabes. Any tension the show tries to generate from the conflict between these "freedom fighters" and the domineering Psi Corps is mitigated by the fact that Byron is so utterly annoying that you want Bester to just hurry up and kill him already. So much for pathos. JMS does not help much by placing Bester's solo episode "The Corps Is Mother, The Corps Is Father" after Byron's story is wrapped up. Moving it earlier would have allowed us to understand more clearly why Byron's gang does not fit into the anal-retentive ranks of Psi Corps.
Straczynski does pepper the otherwise frustrating Byron episodes with some entertaining digressions. Harlan Ellison, after hanging around the set for four seasons kvetching, finally contributes -- nope, not an actual script! -- a story idea for "A View from the Gallery": Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in space. Neil Gaiman does actually turn in a script -- the first non-JMS penned episode since second season -- for the winning "Day of the Dead." Look for a witty turn by Penn and Teller in this one as legendary comic team Rebo and Zooty.
Once Byron is dead (oh, shut up about your spoilers -- you will thank me later), Season Five can finally get down to the real business at hand: the first major crisis for the young Interstellar Alliance. While Garibaldi combats his personal demons, the rest of the Babylon 5 crew races to stop a war with the Centauri. On Centauri Prime itself, Londo and G'Kar discover that those responsible for the coming war are -- well, to say any more would spoil the fun. This last major story arc of Babylon 5 shows the strengths of Straczynski's writing as clearly as the Byron story showed his weaknesses. All the key players are given plenty to do, but it all grows organically out of the situation. Victories are always tainted by tragedy, and while the climax does not seem quite as grand as the close of the two larger wars in the previous season, there is plenty of special effects devastation to go around. Plus, Straczynski uses the finale to lay the groundwork for future events in the Babylon 5 universe.
Indeed, the last few episodes of Season Five work more or less as epilogue, setting the various characters along the path toward their final fates, some of which we know from earlier series continuity (the deaths of Londo and G'Kar at each other's hands) and some of which remain ambiguous. Straczynski tends toward the lyrical here at the end, nowhere more so than in the series finale, "Sleeping in Light," which jumps 20 years into the future to give us our final glimpses of many of the characters (including Susan Ivanova, since Claudia Christian filmed her part for this episode at the end of Season Four, prior to her departure).
Curiously, JMS remarks in his commentary track for "Sleeping in Light" that this was "the last episode ever produced," which we all know is not true. But his slip is revealing: there is a sadness in his voice as the series closes, as if he is seeing off his most beloved child. He also provides commentary on "The Fall of Centauri Prime," the climactic episode of the final arc. Both commentary tracks suffer from the same problems as ones from previous seasons: Straczynski spends too much time reiterating plot points and not enough discussing behind-the-scenes details. Tellingly, he makes no mention of Byron whatsoever in either of his tracks.
Byron goes unmentioned in the cast commentary track on "Movements of Fire and Shadow" as well. Maybe everyone just wants to forget him. Patricia Tallman (whom you would think might appreciate her time in the spotlight with Byron), Bruce Boxleitner, Tracy Scoggins, and Peter Jurasik turn up this time out. As always, this is a fantastic addition to the set, with everyone teasing and laughing and carrying on.
Warner Brothers places most of the extras (apart from the commentaries and the season introduction) on Disc Six, as with prior sets. We get the usual datafiles, a blooper reel, some unfinished scenes from "Sleeping in Light," and an Easter egg clearing up the fate of Marcus Cole, the lovesick Ranger who perished last season saving Ivanova (which I suspect Straczynski now regrets). Two brief featurettes, one on the evolution of the show's computer graphics and another on the show's loyal fanbase, round out the extra features.
Given the change in networks and budget, the technical aspects of the show look pretty much the same as on previous season sets -- but with some new problems. While the compositing on the computer graphics has improved since the flawed earlier sets, the prints themselves are surprisingly scratched and nicked for a series less than a decade old. I noticed many flecks and flaws in the various episodes. Of course, given Warner Brothers' dismissive treatment of this potential franchise when it was on the air (and I will talk more about their meddling in Crusade when that series hits DVD), I am really not surprised that they have not kept their master copies in peak condition.
J. Michael Straczynski titled the final season of Babylon 5 "The Wheel of Fire," but if it shoots out fewer sparks than Seasons Three and Four, it is only because those near-perfect seasons were a hard act to follow. In truth, Season Five has fewer problems than the rough first season of the show, and apart from Byron, still has plenty of great moments. Straczynski set himself the impossible task of winding down the biggest science-fiction epic television had ever seen without making its final moments anti-climactic. And he had to do it while compromising little things so he could please both the network suits and the fans -- while still pulling it all in on a smaller budget than the failing Star Trek franchise probably spends on donuts.
In this sense, Babylon 5, right to its final moments, is a remarkable achievement. Straczynski set out to tell a five-year story. Everyone laughed. Even I had my doubts when I watched the pilot movie. But in the end, he told that story, with grace and drama. How many television series can say that they have an actual vision, a real direction, and then manage to follow it completely through to the end?
If only for that reason and nothing more, Babylon 5 deserves your attention.
This court closes the case of Babylon 5 once and for all with the words of G'Kar, which sum up the court's opinion of Season Five: "Understand that I can never forgive your people for what they did to my world. My people can never forgive your people. But I can forgive you." Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 950 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introduction to Season 5
* Commentary by J. Michael Straczynski on "The Fall of Centauri Prime" and "Sleeping in Light"
* Cast Commentary on "Movements of Fire and Shadow"
* Featurette: Digital Tomorrows
* Featurette: Beyond Babylon 5
* The Universe of Babylon 5 Data Files
* Gag Reel
* Episode Trailers
* Official Site
* The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5