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Babylon 5: The Complete Third Season (Point of No Return)

"The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace," we are told in this season's beefed up opening credits. "It failed. In the Year of the Shadow War, it became something greater — our last, best hope ... for victory." And indeed the events that unfolded like origami throughout seasons One and Two — fragile alliances on scales both personal and interstellar, conspiracies, loyalties made and broken, corrupted politics, assassinations, ancient evil reawakened, great loves found or lost — give nasty paper cuts to everyone concerned here in Season Three (1995-96). As series creator J. Michael Straczynski puts it in the liner notes, the characters we've been following for two years are faced with decisions that, once made, cannot be recalled, hence the umbrella title Point of No Return.

The series' fat Russian novel of a megastory displays, sometimes too self-consciously, its heady ur-sources such as the King Arthur legends and Lord of the Rings. Occasionally its lofty pretensions seem crafted to stroke a sci-fi fan's belief that only in literate Space Opera survives Western culture's great epics of heroes and empires. Dreamy-eyed fanboyism aside, Babylon 5 bears all the Oz-ish virtues — it is Star Wars with brains and heart, Star Trek with the courage of its convictions. Forwarding the serialized saga's five-year arc, this season pulls train cars of foreshadowing to the mountaintop via harsh setbacks and hardfought victories. Captain John Sheridan's secret preparations for the imminent war against the Shadows ... Delenn's crumbling relationship with the Grey Council ... the Centauris' assault on the Narn homeworld ... Londo's contract with the Shadows' traitorous representative, Mr. Morden ... Psi Cop Bester's search for rogue telepaths ... the paranoid right-wing martial law imposed on and from Earth ... even enigmatic Kosh's utterly alien presence in the fray ... it's all at a tipping point, and in each case the odds of things tipping for the worse are at best a 50/50 proposition. If the most fundamental rule of plotting is "things get worse," these 22 episodes are pretty damn fundamental.

Still, several new additions keep the scales balanced against overwhelming bad news. The White Star — a Minbari super-ship placed at Sheridan's command — arrives in the first hour. The Lord of the Rings' Strider enters as the knightly Ranger named Marcus, sending hearts aflutter throughout Nielsen Ratings Land. Telepath Lyta Alexander returns, mysteriously changed, from Vorlon space and stays to ultimately become a secret weapon in the Shadow War. The first battlefield victory against the Shadows is struck (a Vorlon fleet vs. a Shadow fleet, oh yeah!). Narn ambassador G'Kar receives a wrenching epiphany when at the throat of his Centauri nemesis Londo Molari. The time-twisted mysteries behind the vanished Babylon 4 and Geoffrey Sinclair's destiny reach a jawdropping convergence. After Sheridan's wife, a woman presumed long dead, returns, his voyage to the Shadow planet Z'ha'dum sets up Season Four with the mother of all cliff-hangers.

Plenty of powerhouse eps make this the most gripping season so far. The first, "Matters of Honor," introduces the White Star and Marcus. Meanwhile, Earth's tyrannical new government takes an active interest in footage of a Shadow vessel, and Londo attempts to end his clandestine pact with Morden and his unseen "associates." In "Voice of Authority" Ivanova commands the White Star on a mission to enlist the First Ones, the near-mythical oldest races in the galaxy, in the fight against the Shadows. In a stunning trilogy — "Messages from Earth," "Point of No Return," and "Severed Dreams" — Sheridan sets out to destroy an ancient Shadow vessel before Earth Gov makes it operational, the Gestapo-like Night Watch jackboots onto the station, and Sheridan formally declares Bab 5's secession from the Earth Alliance, leading to a pivotal battle with Earth Force destroyers (and some great space battles scenes).

Fans of Zathras take note — he returns in "War Without End," a mindbending two-parter that interlaces Season One's "Babylon Squared," only this time we witness the time-flipped events from the other side as they reveal what really happened to Babylon 4 and what in Valen's name is in store for the station's ex-captain, Sinclair. In the season's final two episodes, "Shadow Dancing" and "Z'ha'dum," the Shadows are on the move, Sheridan leads a huge battle fleet, and his bold sacrifice deep inside the Shadows' alien homeworld brings to mind Gandalf's in Khazad-Dum (my geek creds are now verified). It shouldn't be forgotten that, for all its big-wow story arcs and spaceships and ancient prophecies, Babylon 5 is driven primarily by its evolving characters. So throughout these individual dramas, it's the people who push events along, rather than vice-versa. As Sheridan and Delenn begin their romance in earnest, we know it's going to pay off in a way that prevents it from feeling tacked on. In "Interludes and Examinations" alone, Londo learns the price of working with Morden, Dr. Franklin faces his addiction, and a major character dies after choosing to get involved. G'kar and Londo begin the season as the bitterest of enemies, yet profound changes that begin in "Dust to Dust" lead to choices that would astound them both. Even bad-ass Bester gets personal when "Ship of Tears" reveals the Shadows' brutal need for telepaths, including the woman he loves.

Also here is, according to longtime fans, the best-remembered single line of dialogue from the entire series. It's Delenn's transmission to the Earth Force battle fleet in "Severed Dreams" that makes every fan leaning forward on the couch leap to his feet, Cheetos flying everywhere. Of course, not every one of the 22 eps is a first-rate winner (the infamously risible "Grey 17 is Missing" sits here, for instance). No matter. The major arc stories are super-duper, and several top-flight standalones — such as "Passing Through Gethsemane" with its take on crime and punishment, or "A Late Delivery from Avalon" with Michael York's return as a battle-shocked soldier who believes he's King Arthur — more than make up for any dips in the high quality presented on these six discs.

*          *          *

Warner's Babylon 5: The Complete Third Season DVD set once again delivers all eps sporting strong anamorphic 1.78:1 transfers. They look superb, the best of these box sets so far. The odd instances of grain and speckling that marred much of Season Two are gone now. As before, the remastered DD 5.1 audio is clear and strong with fine range and separation (listen for the ghost-voices in "Passing Through Gethsemane"). Each ep comes with its original "Next week on Babylon 5" promo.

Among the extras, we get two thoughtful audio commentaries from Straczynski for "Severed Dreams" and "Z'ha'dum," and a fun one from actors Bruce Boxleitner, Jerry Doyle, Richard Biggs, and Ed Wasser — apparently after taking in margarita hour at TGI Friday's before hitting the recording studio to watch for their first time ever "Interludes and Examinations." Disc 1 gives us Straczynski, producer Douglas Netter, and assorted members of the cast and crew in a six-minute introduction. Disc Six holds the majority of the extras, starting with three well-made new documentaries that take us into the workaday world behind the show — Behind the Mask: Creating the Aliens of Babylon 5 (8:11), Building a Better Narn (7:21), and Designing Tomorrow: The Look of Babylon 5 (9:58). This set's edition of The Universe of Babylon 5 delivers more Data Files ("Battle for Babylon 5," "Grey," "Mindwipe," "Thunderbolt," and "White Star"), Personnel Files (Zack Allen, Alfred Bester, Marcus Cole, David Corwin), and a Shadow Dossier narrated by Garibaldi. The Data File menu page is also where you'll find the latest Easter Egg: below "Battle for Babylon 5," find the station's "5" logo. Select it for the Season Three blooper reel (3:13). Another16-page booklet provides episode synopses. When removed from its paperboard slipcover, the keep-case is the nifty three-leaf, hinged digipak that we like so much.
—Mark Bourne

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