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Babylon 5: The Complete Fifth Season (The Wheel of Fire)

After four impressive and bar-raising seasons, TV's Babylon 5 had wrapped up its huge and densely populated narrative in a satisfying fashion. But if the apocalyptic fourth season felt a bit rushed, there was a reason for that. Because he had ample reason to believe that the series would not be picked up for a fifth season, series creator-producer-writer-guru J. Michael Straczynski tweaked his plans for Season Four so that, in the event that it closed the series, Babylon 5 would not end in mid-sentence. He did a good job of it and Seasons One through Four are an impressive self-contained "novel for television." And then Turner Network Television picked up Babylon 5 for Season Five (January - November 1998). So the final 22 episodes feel less like a fluid continuation of the first four seasons than a sometimes forced sprouting of mostly separate spinoff stories, dangling plot threads pulled to see where they might end up.

The result isn't the coherent tapestry that the series had presented. Worse, actress Claudia Christian left the show under contentious circumstances, and the new character replacing her — Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) — appeared too ridiculously glamorous to be convincing as the space station's new C.O. ("Captain Mascara" is only one fannish epithet.) We also get a new male character — telepath revolutionary leader Byron (Robin Atkin Downes), who's not only even more ridiculously glamorous, he's too dull to carry his messianic weight.

Of the two major plot arcs coring through the season, the one involving a colony of telepaths led by the Fabio-maned Byron not only fails to take off, it sucks the air right out of the room until it's resolved. Good episodes such as "Secrets of the Soul" (which reveals the origins of human telepaths and gives Patricia Tallman's fans reasons to freeze-frame) are offset by hours that simply drag the whole story line down. If fans tuned out during the season's initial airing, these eps are where they clicked the remote's channel-changer, most likely after "Strange Relations," which provokes heavy sighs and eye-rolling with a soap opera revelation re Sheridan's and Lochley's past, then concludes with the telepaths' "we shall overcome" kumbaya scene that just embarrasses everyone involved. There is good news, though.

Season 5 also presents some of the series' best moments, particularly in the second half with the escalation of a new Centauri War and Londo Mollari's ascension to the emperor's throne (influenced by old Shadow allies, the demonic Drakh and their creepy Keepers). Indeed, Londo's personal character arc comes full circle here, and his nearly Shakespearean tragedy is one of TV's great examples of writing and craft. Woven throughout the season are strands that become worthwhile arcs themselves: Sheridan's position as President of the new Interstellar Alliance and his marriage with Delenn (now pregnant); G'Kar and Londo's dynamic and beautifully revealed relationship; G'Kar's reluctant rise as a Narn religious figure, which dovetails nicely with Lyta Alexander's evolution as a strong-willed (and dangerously augmented) telepath; Garibaldi's addiction and his score-settling with Edgars Industries on Mars; and nasty Bester's maneuverings between the worlds of telepaths and normals.

Two standalone episodes are worth particular attention: "Day of the Dead" doesn't quite live up to expectations as an hour penned by the world-class fabulist Neil Gaiman, though it does feature Penn & Teller as galactic comics Rebo and Zooty. The second is the series' final hour, "Sleeping in Light," a moving epilogue set twenty years after the main action and one of the finest, most poignant eps of the entire five-year run. For many fans that hour alone is reason enough to own this boxed set. In this six-disc set, it's not until discs four and five, plus the two eps on disc six, that we feel the old Babylon 5 of Seasons One through Four shining through. Those closing mini-epics of destinies fulfilled, responsibilities accepted (sometimes unhappily), and leave-takings endured remind us of why we fell in love with the show years earlier.

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Warner's Babylon 5: The Complete Fifth 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 (the assault on Centauri Prime is especially riveting). 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 Fall of Centauri Prime" (Straczynski, lively and revealing as always), "Sleeping in Light" (Straczynski, clearly emotional and we love him for it), and "Movements of Fire and Shadow" (actors Bruce Boxleitner, Peter Jurasik, Patricia Tallman, and Tracy Scoggins, all having a high old time). Disc 1 gives us a seven-minute introduction from Straczynski and cast members reminiscing about Season Five. Disc Six holds the majority of the extras, starting with Digital Tomorrow (5:51), about the series' CGI work. That's followed by Beyond Babylon 5 (6:46), a love letter to us fans from the creators and cast (who boggle at the action figure dolls of themselves), plus a look at the print fiction that continues the saga. This set's edition of The Universe of Babylon 5 delivers more Data Files ("Drakh," "The Book of G'Kar," "Fall of the Centauri Republic," "Interstellar Alliance," and "Day of the Dead," plus an Easter Egg titled "Marcus Cole: Dead or Frozen" in which Straczynski gives us the final word on our favorite incurable romantic). The Personnel Files are for Lochley, Byron, Ta'Lon, Virini, and Mack & Bo. Also here are three Additional and Extended Scenes from "Sleeping in Light" ("Commander Sick in Bed," "Sheridan's Last Look," and "General Ivanova"). And of course there's a Gag Reel (3:13). Another 16-page booklet provides episode synopses. When removed from its paperboard slipcover, the keep-case is the three-leaf, hinged digipak that's the best idea since Post-It Notes.
—Mark Bourne

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