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Babylon 5: The Complete Second Season (The Coming of Shadows)

The year 2259 is a crucial one for Earth Alliance space station Babylon 5. As tensions and hidden agendas increase on the station and on Earth (starting with the assassination of President Santiago that closed Season One), as well as throughout the various empires and confederacies that color the interstellar maps, Bab 5 is an increasingly hopeless fulcrum between galactic peace and cosmic obliteration. This second season of writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski's colossal narrative sets the serial arc in motion full-throttle. The 22 episodes that aired from November 1994 to November '95 raise the stakes with all-out war between the Centauri Republic and the Narn Regime. Minbari ambassador Delenn completes a physical transformation that will bridge human and Minbari coexistence. The ancient nightmarish race called the Shadows are silently pulling strings, ruthlessly manipulating key players to set up a devastating Final Battle of cosmic proportions. The Rangers, an underground "army of light," reveals itself. Enigmatic Vorlon ambassador Kosh, forever hidden within his Encounter Suit carapace, becomes more inscrutable even as he comes to the forefront of events (at one point he employs Earth's own Jack the Ripper as an operative). The conspiracy-fraught struggle for Mars independence heats up. Thrown into the center of all these crises is the station's new commander, Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner). Woven into this season's tapestry is an unusually clear-eyed treatment of power politics, from the individual to the imperial, including its addictive seductiveness and destructive side-effects. (Episodes that spotlight the political strong arm organization of Earth's Ministry of Peace, Night Watch, seem more unnervingly resonant in these Patriot Act times than when they first aired.)

One of Babylon 5's strengths is that it takes the familiar tropes of old-school Space Opera and lifts them out of the genre ghetto through smart writing that builds up layers of textured backstory. No episode ends with a TV writer's "reset switch" that starts the next ep back at some neutral square one. For a TV series this is big, epic-sized stuff, alright, but not so big that we aren't also treated to enormous starships, imaginative alien beings and worlds and hardware, big guns a-blazing, and other kick-ass ways to trot out the best visuals work on broadcast TV. These Season Two discs show us how Babylon 5 planted both feet as TV's most audacious and self-confident science fiction series. Even so, studio execs (a species not known for visionary bravado) fretted that it couldn't hold its own against the thoroughly entrenched Star Trek commodity franchise, with which it held superficial similarities. Many studio staff and TV viewers alike were ready to write off Babylon 5 as a Star Trek wannabe. Those fears vaporized during this second season. Indeed, it seemed that Star Trek became the wannabe, a status that served the venerable old franchise's advantage with the development of its best-ever series, Deep Space Nine, which seemed to graft the higher virtues of Straczynski's newcomer — more dimensional plotting and characterization — onto the Star Trek framework.

The season opener, "Points of Departure," introduces Boxleitner's character. Captain Sheridan, a dangerously controversial choice for the station's CO, is as surprised as anyone about the reasons behind the sudden shift in command and the whereabouts of former commander Sinclair. A new Delenn (Mira Furlan) emerges from her cocoon in "Revelations." The nefarious Psi Corps cop Bester (Walter Koenig) returns in "A Race Through Dark Places" to investigate an "underground railroad" that may be using Babylon 5 to protect rogue telepaths. The wizardly Techno-Mages make their debut in "The Geometry of Shadows." Earth's increasingly xenophobic and paranoid right-wing government flexes some deadly Psi Corps muscle in "A Spider in the Web," which also opens up the crucial Mars freedom plotline. One of the cleverest, not to mention slyly subversive, eps is "And Now For a Word," which is formatted as a Fox News-like exposé from the Interstellar News Network, with cameras rolling and government-approved "spin" engaged just when the Narn/Centauri conflict boils over in a lethal battle (watch for the "subliminal" message from the Psi Corps). In "The Long, Twilight Struggle," the clash of empires escalates in a conclusive bloody battle that signals an even greater threat looming over all civilizations. In one of the very best stories, "Divided Loyalties," telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) returns with devastating revelations, and this is a big, big episode for Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson).

Predictably though, not every story here is top-drawer material. For instance, "A Distant Star," which comes across as a slapdash effort from all involved, is utterly missable.

Among the arc stories and standalone episodes, on hand here are two particularly momentous hours that push forward the overall saga: Being cautious about what you wish for underscores the pivotal episode "The Coming of Shadows," in which Centauri ambassador Londo (Peter Jurasik) makes a devastating choice that propels the series from this point on. Weaving threads that get pulled tight in seasons Three and Four, "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum" ratchets up everything further with major revelations about the Shadows and about Sheridan's long-lost wife. (In his audio commentary track for this episode, Straczynski states that Season Two shows war veteran Sheridan's transformation from a "jarhead" to a thoughtful man of position and power.) In the season's knockout closer, "The Fall of Night," Earth's military/political maneuvering takes a divisive turn, and a moment of crisis forces Ambassador Kosh to reveal himself in a manner that only deepens his mystery.

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Warner's Babylon 5: The Complete Second Season DVD set delivers all 22 eps on six dual-layered discs. These strong anamorphic 1.78:1 transfers look great, generally, though expect a sometimes surprising amount of grain and speckling (some dark scenes in the episode "The Coming of Shadows" are especially marred). As in the Season One set, the chief strength is each ep's audio, which was remastered in DD 5.1. It's clear and strong with fine range and separation zip. Each ep comes with its original "Next week on Babylon 5" promo.

As for extras, perhaps most welcome are the illuminating audio commentaries recorded for "The Geometry of Shadows" (with actors Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, and Jerry Doyle in a reunion that was clearly fun for all), "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum" (with a thoughtful, candid Straczynski), and "The Fall of Night" (Straczynski again). Straczynski and several cast members offer a new on-screen Introduction to Season Two (5:30). Disc Six holds the majority of the extras, starting with two well-made new documentaries that take us into the workaday world behind the show: In Building Babylon: Anatomy of an Episode (13:45), Straczynski and several cast members (some looking more than nine years older) give us behind-the-scenes perspectives on a story's conception and execution, and in Shadows and Dreams: Honors of Babylon (8:38) Straczynski and others reminisce about how rewarding it was to win two prestigious Hugo Awards at World Science Fiction Conventions. Continuing what began in the previous DVD release, The Universe of Babylon 5 is a sharp four-part interactive guide to the Babylon 5 historical timeline, ten Season Two character profiles, Tech Files on spacecraft, and Data Files on alien races and other coolness in these discs. While in Data Files, look for the Easter Egg (scroll down to Project Lazarus and click left, then click the logo) — it's a funny gag reel (3:10) of on-set goofs and flubs that's well worth discovering. Finally, once again we get a welcome 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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