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Babylon 5: The Complete First Season (Signs and Portents)

This six-disc set delivers the first season of the West Wing of science fiction, the Sopranos of interstellar badda-bing. As Babylon 5's evolving epic unfolded from January '94 to November '98, the intricacies of its Tolstoyan saga and the profound changes manifested in its multilayered characters revealed that, in comparison, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a wan, unimaginative, flaccid thing. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski's ambitious and richly realized "novel for television" was conceived from the outset as a vast five-season story arc, a saga of politics, intrigue, love, murder, war, high times, lowlifes, cool aliens, and big-ass spaceships. Season One bears the umbrella title Signs and Portents, and these 22 episodes begin setting the stage for a galactic Armageddon with roots a thousand years in the past and intimate personal connections to the show's principle characters. Centering around a 23rd century interstellar space station — sort of a volatile galactic U.N. — the story arc that began in an earlier pilot movie (The Gathering) branches out and thickens throughout Season One. As "the last, best hope for peace" in a galaxy that's seen its share of conflict, the Babylon 5 station serves as a vast meeting place and way station for a quarter-million humans and aliens — from diplomats to drug dealers — and our weekly attention is on the captain, officers, civilians, and some very alien ambassadors living there.

A series hallmark is that events playing out in any particular episode matter later on. So Season One comes seeded with incidents — even throw-away lines of dialogue — that have dramatic ramifications in following episodes and seasons. (That said, we acknowledge here and now that often the actors are given stiff, who-talks-like-that? dialogue, making them sound like they're dramatizing grimly serious fortune cookies. That remains a staple throughout the following four years.) After the principles are introduced in the opening episode, "Midnight on the Firing Line," highlights include the mystery behind 24 hours during which Commander Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) supposedly blacked out while leading his fighter squadron during the apocalyptic Earth-Minbari War ("And the Sky Full of Stars"). Friction with an increasingly right-wing Earth government begins in "By Any Means Necessary." Also beginning is an arc sparked by the Narn-Centauri conflict, embodied by alien ambassadors G'Kar (Andreas Katsulis) and Molari (Peter Jurasik), which will literally put two of the show's best actors at each other's throats in a later season, though in a way that surprises everyone. The Psi Corps and their oily envoy, Bester (Walter Koenig), arrive in "Mind War." Violent anti-alien prejudice from Earth erupts in "A War Prayer." In "TKO" Lt. Cmdr. Ivanova (Claudia Christian) comes to terms with her father's death (from the start Babylon 5 gave its characters personal histories, religious beliefs, and other nuances rare in screen sci-fi). Security Chief Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) takes refuge in the station's seedy Downbelow in "Survivors."

The first proof that the nearby planet is inhabited and holds technology directly inspired by Forbidden Planet occurs in "A Voice in the Wilderness" Parts 1 & 2. The station's predecessor, Babylon 4, vanished mysteriously years ago, yet temporarily re-appears to become a time-shifted linchpin in a cosmic war ("Babylon Squared"). The series' central Lovecraftian baddies, The Shadows, and their human representative, Morden (Ed Wasser), debut in "Signs and Portents." And Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) begins a strange and vital transformation in the cliff-hanging season closer, "Chrysalis." Mixed in among the arc-stories are some predictable Alien-Menace-of-the-Week entries, and (also predictably) the later seasons will display more sure-footed performances, even heartier writing (always the series' strongest point), and more advanced use of the pioneering CGI visuals we see here. Even at its weakest, though, it's the exceptional scripts, characterization, and production standards of Babylon 5's first year that raised the bar of televised science fiction. It helped that Straczynski was literate, tenacious, and took the genre seriously enough to aim for a higher common denominator in an audience of grown-ups. You'd be hard pressed to find a connected string of episodes that more rewards rewatching — those signs and portents really strike you as you watch later seasons — while they remain accessible to new viewers joining the series at any point.

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Warner's Babylon 5: The Complete First Season is an impressive piece of work, even in an increasingly crowded TV-to-DVD marketplace. Fans will be glad to see that it's a significant technical improvement over the trial-balloon release of Babylon 5: The Gathering / In the Beginning. Originally shot with high-def television in mind, all 22 eps on these six dual-layered discs have received strong anamorphic 1.78:1 transfers. The imagery is overall quite pleasing — almost completely free of speckling or other aberrations (note: almost). Hawkeyed digi-heads, especially those with jumbo home theater screens, will notice that some CGI visuals didn't take well to being digitally reformatted to fit the widescreen dimensions (a minor picked nit). The chief strength is each ep's audio, which was remastered in DD 5.1 surround. The sound here is clear as crystal, with strong range all the way down to some .1 LFE oomph. The separation spread impresses without gratuitous gimmickry, tastefully providing environmental ambiance effects and occasional spaceship whoosh support.

As for extras, perhaps most welcome are the audio commentaries Straczynski recorded for "Signs and Portents" and "Chrysalis." The Making of Babylon 5, hosted by Walter Koenig, is a 19-minute piece shot during the first season with interview clips from cast and crew members, plus a look at the then-high-tech CGI effects. A new retrospective piece, Back to Babylon 5 (13 min.), features Straczynski with members of the cast and production team. Both docus are low razzle and lower dazzle, but Straczynski is an amiable cheerleader and the passion that launched the series and kept it afloat is evident. Engaging but not overstaying its welcome, The Universe of Babylon 5 is a three-part guide to the human/alien history and politics behind the weekly dramas, character profiles, and the show's science-fictional technology. Another well-made interactive feature gives a quick tour of the Babylon 5 station's major sections. And we thank Valen for the handsome 16-page booklet that provides episode synopses. When removed from its paperboard slipcover, the keep-case is a convenient three-leaf, hinged digipak.
—Mark Bourne



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