Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Unexpected Universe Of Greatness From The Mind Of J. Michael Straczynski: Babylon 5!

The Good: Excellent writing, Great plots, characters and acting, Decent commentary tracks, Bundle respects fans
The Bad: Some mediocre early special effects, Pilot not included
The Basics: J. Michael Straczynski's novel-for-television is collected in one massive DVD bundle that is worthy of investing in!

When rumors of Babylon 5 began, fans of science fiction shows were skeptical. With selling points being that the series would feature bathrooms in space and computer-generated special effects, science fiction enthusiasts were wary. Let's stop splitting hairs here; science fiction fans are unusually tolerant of new material, Star Trek fans were pretty prejudiced against Babylon 5. I was one of them, so believe me, I know. Beaten to the punch by the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!), which was the first Star Trek series based on a space station, Babylon 5 had a lot of prejudice to overcome in the largest organized science fiction fan community in the world.

And wow, did it! For sure, it might have taken years and certainly the show was already off the air before some fans of the Star Trek franchise opened up to Babylon 5. But now, as the Star Trek franchise enters a much needed fallow period, the lure of Babylon 5 is pretty much irresistible to science fiction fans of all bents. And honestly, there is no better investment for those looking to get into Babylon 5 than Babylon 5 - The Complete Series on DVD. For fans of the series or those looking to get into the series, Babylon 5 - The Complete Series represents the best opportunity for getting the series on DVD as it includes all five seasons of the show in a single bundle. Fans who already began purchasing the series need not worry; this is a simple bundle pack comprising Seasons 1 - 5. There are no bonus materials unique to these discs! Indeed, these are the same discs, same pressings, same packaging as the individual seasons, simply bundled together. For fans of the series who have not gotten it on DVD, this represents the ultimate collection.

For those unfamiliar with Babylon 5, it is germane to understand what this amazing science fiction series is. Set beginning in the year 2258, Babylon 5 tells the story of Universal History for a five year setting, though it is greatly informed by the twenty years prior and even some for the twenty years after. Intended to be a novel for television, J. Michael Straczynski created and wrote (most of) the episodes with a strong sense of history and a clear concept of where he wanted the show to go.

To understand the plot, a primer on the races involved makes sense. The Babylon 5 universe is populated by five (well, six really) main races: humans, Minbari, Narn, Centauri, and the Vorlons. The humans are much as they are now, though in recent years, confirmed telepaths have begun sprouting up, enough to need a whole new set of laws and a de facto segregation system to protect the mundane humans. The Minbari are an old race in the galaxy that is quite technologically advanced and very spiritual. A decade ago, they waged a merciless war on the humans that almost made humanity extinct. The Narn are a reptilian race that cast off the shackles of the Centauri after their planet was occupied to become a vital power in the galaxy. The Centauri look human - save a ridiculous hairdo and extreme sexual organs - and are an empire in decline, their fortunes having turned since they lost control of Narn. The Vorlons are a mysterious alien race that no one has seen. They travel about inside "encounter suits" which leave their true form entirely obscured. Little is known about them, save that they are truly ancient and they appear wise.

Sadly, this bundle set does not include "The Gathering," the pilot episode of Babylon 5 that establishes most all of this universe. "The Gathering" (reviewed here!) is included in the Babylon 5: The Movies DVD collection. As a result, the bundle set begins with the first episode of the first season, after the Vorlon ambassador Kosh has arrived and various changes in personnel have occurred.

Under the control of Commander Jeffery Sinclair, the human-built space station Babylon 5 exists in neutral territory as a free haven for workers, smugglers, pilots, and functions as a military outpost used to defend promote the concept of peace in the galaxy. As such, it houses representatives from all the major alien races, many of whom are wary of one another. Sinclair himself is a hero of the war with the Minbari, though he finds himself in a quirky friendship with the Minbari ambassador, Delenn. Sinclair's tenure aboard Babylon 5 is cut short abruptly, when he is reassigned following an assassination back on Earth.

Captain John Sheridan - arguably even more hated by the Minbari - takes over Babylon 5 and he inherits problems that send the galaxy spiraling into war. Londo Mollari, the Centauri ambassador, is approached by a strange gentleman who entices him with all he could ever want, in this case the restoration of his people to what he views as their rightful place in the galaxy. Londo's associate Morden is backed by powerful allies, an ancient evil that lights the match to set the Centauri against the Narn once again, while they manipulate other alien races and the galaxy descends into all out war. And as the other alien races succumb to the chaos of the growing threat, Sheridan watches as Earth falls under the control of a dictator and he must make the choice to follow orders or stand against his homeworld.

J. Michael Straczynski, in innumerable bonus features on the DVDs, states that the theme of Babylon 5 is "One man may change the future." In the case of Babylon 5, he understates his own story; in even the most simple interpretation of the series, two people radically alter the course of galactic events; Londo and Sheridan. In a more liberal interpretation of the series, it is at least six people who change the galaxy: Sheridan, Londo, Delenn, G'Kar, Sinclair and Kosh. Even in its more limited interpretation, the show is brilliant and it illustrates its thesis with style, grace and no small amount of inspirational genius. The story of Babylon 5 is one that explores how virtually everyone is at the right place at the right time to make a statement and statements lead to change. If the series has any other point, it would have to be that without such bold statements, nothing changes.

And to truly understand the magnitude and depth of the series, it's important to understand that it is a character driven work and the characters are intriguing and well-developed. They make the story compelling and they become likable and empathetic; the viewer completely comes to share their hopes and dreams. The principle characters of Babylon 5 are:

Commander Jeffery Sinclair - Leader of space station Babylon 5 at the outset, he is a hero of the final battle of the Earth/Minbari War and a man who is missing a day of his life. In addition to his missing memories, he finds himself barely holding onto his command as he is attacked by Earth forces who find is suspicious that the Minbari wanted him to command the station. A friend of Michael Garibaldi and Ivanova, Sinclair's tenure ends abruptly when he realizes his destiny in the wake of a political takeover of Earth,

Susan Ivanova - First officer of Babylon 5, she is a pessimist, a Russian Jew and a woman who loathes telepaths. Blaming the Psi Corps for the death of her telepath mother, Ivanova works to keep Babylon 5 functioning as a beacon for peace in the galaxy,

Michael Garibaldi - A recovering alcoholic and best friend of Sinclair, he finds himself as security chief on Babylon 5 in what many consider his last chance to hold down a job. Loyal and determined, Garibaldi finds his diligence to be a liability when forces within the Earth government attempt to take over using the station,

Dr. Stephen Franklin - A kind doctor with a spiritual sense to him, he is generally a pacifist and an amazing xenobiologist. As the station becomes more and more alienated from Earth, he finds himself slipping away and dependent on stimulants to function,

Delenn - The Minbari Ambassador, she is a member of the religious caste and one of the members of the highest body of the Minbari government. With the abrupt abandonment by Sinclair and her own impressive transformation into something other than a Minbari, she finds herself romantically interested in Captain Sheridan as they work to save the galaxy from the rising enemy,

Londo Mollari - The Centauri Ambassador, he is a joke to his people until he apparently orchestrates a series of military victories that cripple the Narn Regime. As the pacifistic Centauri Emperor begins to decline in health, various elements within the government covet relationships with Londo and he soon finds himself allied with the most nightmarish forces in the galaxy and in way over his head,

G'Kar - The Narn Ambassador and a member of the council that rules his homeworld, he is a fiery spirit who is goaded by Sinclair and Sheridan into giving peace a chance. When the Centauri turn to war and obliterate Narn, G'Kar finds himself on the station under Sheridan's protection in the position where the only thing he is able to do is have a spiritual awakening,

Kosh - The Vorlon Ambassador. He's on the station,

Vir Cotto - Aide to Londo, he is a pacifist and represents the next generation of Centauri,

Lennier - Delenn's aid, an acolyte who harbors a secret love for his mentor,

Marcus - As tensions heat up, Marcus arrives, a Ranger and an ally in the coming war against the darkness,

Talia Winters - Resident commercial telepath on Babylon 5, she lives a lonely life isolated by those around her,

and Captain John Sheridan - A man upon whom the events of the galaxy turns. He arrives on Babylon 5 as tensions are rising between the Centauri and Narn and an unnamed evil is awakening from its long slumber. A widower, he takes command somewhat reluctantly only to find that he is being given an opportunity that will change the very direction of galactic history.

The acting on Babylon 5 is executed quite well with a rich ensemble cast. Many of the principles are forced to act around extensive prosthetics and make-up which completely conceals their humanity. Indeed, the costuming and make-up is the most consistently great special effect on the series. But even with quite a bit of make-up and extensive costuming constraints, the acting genius of Mira Furlan (Delenn), Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar) and Peter Jurasik (Londo) is realized.

It is, however, the burden of Bruce Boxleitner to carry most of the acting load as Captain John Sheridan. From the moment he takes command of Babylon 5 (and the series), he has an authority to him that makes him seem like a natural leader. There is not a moment of doubt in the viewer's mind that he is up to the challenge and that he is the military governor of this city in space. More than that, over the course of the series he is able to convey the layered depths of his character's tortured soul perfectly. He falls in love, is wounded from the loss of his wife and makes the tough decisions to use the powers only granted to him as a man of reason. Boxleitner pulls it off consistently for the four seasons he is on.

And while some of the early special effects may seem campy, the computer generated special effects get better and better with each season. The effects in seasons three and four are flawless and enhance the story perfectly.

Truly, Babylon 5 is an epic series and the scope of it is big. Events have consequences and the advantage of purchasing this bundle pack is that the expense is such that one is not likely to give up on the series after the first season. The package, like the series, is an investment and it requires some faith and trust that that investment will be paid off. With this very smart series, the show consistently ratchets up, getting better and better as the series progresses up through the climax of the fourth season.

And for those who are fans of science fiction, one of the true gems of Babylon 5 is its lack of ethnocentrism. Humans are not the center of the galaxy, they are not the solver of all problems and they are not the smartest, most advanced nor the best governed in the Babylon 5 universe. This is a grittier reality than fans of, for example, Star Trek are used to. The humans make mistakes and they are not the only ones. The real genius of Babylon 5 is that it is so well-written and well-conceived that entire episodes pass involved solely with alien governments and their machinations without human storylines and the show works! Viewers will not feel cheated when other aliens are focused on outside humans and that's a pretty rich setting!

On the various DVDs, bonuses include commentaries - which are usually pretty good -, featurettes, information files on significant characters, location and universe history. Most have Easter eggs as well which are fun. They also include all of the episode previews for each episode which is nice. If you've watched an episode you enjoy, though, I often recommend not watching the preview for the next episode: odds are, you'll stay up and watch the episode after seeing the preview!

While Babylon 5 is clearly marketed toward a science fiction base audience, those tolerant of dramas that are set in extreme settings will find much worthwhile to enjoy with Babylon 5. At its core, it is great drama, telling stories of resistance against tyranny and the value of standing up against evil. It's an epic drama in that sense and the story deserves to be seen in its entirety, making this bundle pack a great investment.

For more information on Babylon 5, check out my reviews of the individual seasons, which are included in the five volumes of this bundle pack at:
Babylon 5 - The Complete First Season
Babylon 5 - The Complete Second Season
Babylon 5 - The Complete Third Season
Babylon 5 - The Complete Fourth Season
Babylon 5 - The Complete Fifth Season


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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