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Babylon 5: The Complete Fourth Season (No Surrender, No Retreat)

Season Four (1996-97) wasn't Babylon 5's final year, but it sure can be watched that way. A victim of studio machinations, series creator/writer J. Michael Straczynski was forced to craft Season Four with no assurance that there would be a fifth season. So his planned five-year "novel for television" suddenly needed editorial adjustments. No easy task with a series that, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine then or 24 and Alias years later, relied on flowing continuity from episode to episode. Story elements assigned to a now questionable Season Five were brought up a year, and the rhythm of events had to be accelerated. As a result, Season Four unfolds to an off-kilter shape. It delivers a long-awaited climactic bang early and fast, then regroups to build a second climax toward the year's end. These two ropy story arcs — the Shadow War and Earth's tyrannical right-wing martial law — have grown since the series began, and fans can argue that the resolution of the galaxy-spanning apocalyptic Shadow War comes as less a big bang than a premature ejaculation.

However, remaining intact are Babylon 5's core qualities of strong storytelling on a grand scale (by now we've forgiven the propensity for portentous dialogue), addictive character metamorphoses, and cool-as-all-getout visuals. Included in the payoff are not one, not two, but three of TV's most impressive space battle sequences. Plus, with no time for standalone stories that allow us to catch a breather, each of these 22 episodes pushes the intertwined plots and characters forward like a bat out of hyperspace. There's little fat or filler here.

Fully maturing in these episodes are other vines first seeded back in seasons One, Two, and Three — the Narn-Centauri war (and thus the G'Kar-Londo cycle) ... Sheridan's return from the dead and Z'ha'dum with a mysterious stranger ... Londo's quest for power and influence ("be careful what you wish for" could be this season's on-target subtitle) ... G'Kar's new role as his people's bloodied but unbowed leader ... Lyta's enhanced telepath abilities ... Garibaldi's ex-fiancée Lise, now married to a wealthy Mars industrialist with a secret the Psi Corps desperately want ... and Delenn's rift with the Grey Council and an impending Minbari civil war. Stepping forward from the background is the revolution for Mars independence, a crucial component in freeing Earth from President Clark's dictatorial, xenophobic reign of terror. With Earth's interstellar news outlets turned into a state-run propaganda organ, Commander Ivanova heads up the Voice of Resistance, the independent Babylon 5 station's illegal broadcasts determined to spread the truth across human space.

On Centauri Prime, which the Shadows are using a base of operations, another power-crazed maniac ascends to the throne. He's Emperor Cartagia, a dangerous Caligula eager to sacrifice his entire world in the Vorlon-Shadow conflict just to ensure his own godhood. Meanwhile, the Psi Cop Bester changes Garibaldi's mind, resulting in the security chief turning against Captain Sheridan. Then, with Sheridan undergoing torture to break him physically and mentally, Dr. Franklin works to free him by going underground as an espionage agent on Mars. On the relationship front, Sheridan and Delenn's romance grows, and Marcus Cole gives his all in the name of love for the unreachable Ivanova. Rising above its pulp sci-fi roots and TV's black-white simplicities, throughout the season Straczynski's scripts churn up the ambiguities of warfare, the paradoxes of duty (to the state vs. to your conscience), the notion that one individual can fight the system and win, and the sometimes heretical nature of honest patriotism. Perhaps the series' apexing theme is the question of how much of a difference one person can make in the big scheme of things. In the peculiar final episode of this season, which views the Babylon 5 saga as history 100 years — then 500, 1000, and a million years — hence, the answer is clear: a hell of a lot. Ultimately Straczynski got his fifth season, but by then the big stories were told. Still, what he did with some of the remaining loose ends will prove to be good stuff too.... (Also, originally airing between seasons Four and Five, an excellent TV movie prequel, In the Beginning, further illuminated events seen in Season Four.)

Highlights this season are many, and the opening trio of eps — "The Hour of the Wolf," "Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?," and "The Summoning" — crank up to some nice surprises, especially concerning what became of Sheridan at Z'ha'dum. When he returns, Gandalf-like, to lead the fight against the supremely powerful Shadows (and the Vorlons, who've decided to aggressively counter the Shadows no matter who gets hurt), it's just what Delenn needs to pull together a fracturing League. Fans of Season Three will also recall that Garibaldi vanished when Sheridan did, and his fate plays out deep into the season. Londo's decision to do something about Emperor Cartagia is only one of the crucial turns taken in the "Falling Toward Apotheosis." Special effects junkies take note: With billions of lives on the line, Sheridan recruits the largest fleet in history and brings the Shadow War to a head in "The Long Night" and "Into the Fire." The fact that this galactic Ragnarok ends on a finger-wagging Captain Kirk speech from Sheridan remains a rancorous point in fan circles.

With that war done and all the First Ones heading out to the Grey Havens (rather, "beyond the rim"), leaving the galaxy to the younger races, Sheridan must craft a viable peace. That means it's up to Sheridian (a good soldier who's now a reluctant freedom fighter against his own government) and his people to somehow strike down the radical conservative government on Earth. Thus begins an arc of revolutionary war that drives the rest of the season toward a final confrontation. In "Epiphanies," Psi Cop Bester returns to Babylon 5 and asks to be taken to Z'ha'dum to recover Shadow technology. On Earth, President Clark begins a new operation to discredit the station. In "The Illusion of Truth," Sheridan must face the fact that an ISN documentary report about his station brings the phrase "no spin zone" into the 23rd century. Delenn's relationship with Sheridan is the catalyst leading to a fracture that could tear apart Minbari society, as depicted in "Atonement," "Rumors, Bargains and Lies," and "Moments of Transition." Franklin and Marcus join the fight for Mars independence (with its resistance leader played by an improbably gorgeous covergirl blonde) in "Lines of Communication" and "Racing Mars." G'Kar and Londo, for a common cause, put aside their "Conflicts of Interest."

While Sheridan builds up his forces from human and alien fleets to take on Earthforce ships targeting civilians (the pivotal "No Surrender, No Retreat"), Garibaldi's betrayal of Sheridan preoccupies "The Exercise of Vital Powers" and "The Face of the Enemy." Sheridan, captured by Earth forces on Mars, is brutally interrogated in the stark "Intersections in Real Time" (probably coincidentally, this 1984esque ep is the series' 84th one-hour episode). The battle to free Earth from corrupted powers in its own government boils over in "Between the Darkness and the Light" and the explosive "Endgame." Rounding thing off well is "Rising Star," which sees the formation of a new Interstellar Alliance. Plus, Londo — who with Vir's help permanently takes care of the Cartagia problem in "The Long Night" — finds that the Centauris have a surprising new Emperor. And finally, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" gives us those peeks into the future to reveal how legends are made. Its best-remembered scene is a well-wrought nod to Walter M. Miller's classic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz: set 500 years after the devastating Big Burn, an order of Catholic monks scrapes together Earth civilization's long-lost knowledge and tales (with a little help from above).

*          *          *

Warner's Babylon 5: The Complete Fourth Season DVD set once again delivers all 22 eps in strong anamorphic 1.78:1 transfers. We have no complaints about the visuals, even with the series' groundbreaking use of three-dimensional CGI more abundant than ever before (all those space battles and Martian landscapes really are eye-grabbing). Again the DD 5.1 audio is as clear and clean as you could ask for, and though the soundspace spread isn't very dynamic there's enough oomph in the subwoofer when it's required.

Chief among the extras are more audio commentary tracks, this time for "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" (Straczynski, lively and revealing as always), "The Face of the Enemy" (Straczynski and director Mike Vejar), and "Falling Toward Apotheosis" (actors Bruce Boxleitner, Peter Jurasik, Jerry Doyle, and Patricia Tallman, all having a free-for-all good time as if they've finished an hour of Jell-O shots). Disc 1 gives us a six-minute introduction from Straczynski and cast members reminiscing about the high points of Season Four. Disc Six holds the majority of the extras, starting with Celestial Sounds (5:44), about the music of Babylon 5. That's followed by some well-made fluff, No Surrender, No Retreat DVD Suite (6:49), a music montage video for the season. This set's edition of The Universe of Babylon 5 delivers more Data Files ("Voice of Resistance," "Edgars Industries," "Mars Resistance," "Battle for Earth," and "Proxima 3"), Personnel Files (Lyta Alexander, Kosh II, Cartagia, Lorien, Neroon), and a Gag Reel (3:26) that's not Easter Egg'd this time. This set's Easter Egg is a before/after CGI of a station flyby (:51) accessible when you reach the Personnel Files menu screen and select the "5". Another 16-page booklet provides episode synopses. When removed from its paperboard slipcover, the keep-case is the nifty three-leaf, hinged digipak that's just right for the job.
—Mark Bourne



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