Monday, September 15, 2003

DVD Review: Babylon 5 Season 3

It has been noted by industry watchers that the fastest growing segment of DVD sales today is now devoted to box sets of popular television shows. The DVD format has given a new lease on life to many much beloved TV series which previously were limited by their air time on affiliated channels. The demand for these boxed sets have been steadily growing that it seems that there is at least one new TV series boxed set being released in DVD format every month. The producers and copyright owners of these TV series have suddenly found themselves sitting on goldmines that have been largely untapped while their series languished in syndication. As a result, they have begun to embraced the DVD format fully and taking the advantage of the current insatiable demand for TV series of past years.

One such TV series that have found a second chance to shine is “Babylon 5”. Much touted as the best written sci-fi television series ever created, “Babylon 5” ran for five years in the United States from 1993 to 1998. In the five years that it was on air, Babylon 5; more commonly referred to as B5; won several Hugo awards for sci-fi writing accomplishments and won the hearts of many viewers around the world who have been acknowledged as among the most supportive fan base for any TV series every. This large fan base, colloquially known as “Lurkers”, is also very active on the Internet where numerous websites had been devoted to the discussion of the series and some are still active until today 5 years after the series ended. I have to admit that I count myself as one of these “Lurkers”; as well as being both a “Trekkie” and “X-Philes” card carrying member; ever since watching the first episode they produced.

For the uninitiated, B5 was written by J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) and chronicles the story of an Earth space station located in neutral territory between the years of 2258 to 2263. The Babylon 5 space station was the last of a series of failed space stations built by Earth as a place where humans and aliens could interact peacefully and avoid the mistakes that previously resulted in a devastating interspecies war between Earth and a major alien culture. While it started as a neutral diplomatic meeting place for humans and aliens, it would later become more and more important for the future survival of all races as the universe faced the threat of the returned of a long prophesied evil force. As the focal point for the forces on the side of light and good, B5 triumphed in the face of adversity and intricate webs of deceptions. In every episode of the series, fans were drawn in ever deeper into the engaging conflict involving many of the best written characters that have ever been seen on television.

The third season of “Babylon 5” DVD box series opens with the station and her personnel standing at the crumbling edge of an abyss. The war with the dark forces of the Shadows was intensifying at all fronts and B5 found itself increasingly isolated by the Earth forces that seem to have an agenda of their own. Increasing evidence had been uncovered showing that the Earth forces were actually conspiring with the Shadow forces in an attempt to gain more power in the universe at the expanse of personal freedom and the lives of other alien races. Finding itself fighting alone, B5 began the creation of a space fleet to protect itself from the threat of the Shadows and Earth forces whose action forced B5 to sever all ties and declared independence from Earth. From that point onwards, B5 was the only force capable enough to gather support from other alien races in their fight against the evil forces threatening to leave the universe ablaze in their wake. I recommend interested parties to visit the B5 Lurkers Episode Guide for some good analysis of the episodes of season 3.

As with the other 2 box sets, season 3 of B5 contains all 22 episodes arranged in the order it was presented on 6 DVDs. Each DVD contains 4 episodes of the season with the exception of the last DVD which contained the last 2 episodes of the season as well as several short documentaries of the series production. Each episode of the series has been digitally remastered for a widescreen presentation with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. While the picture and sound quality for most of the set have been exceptional, several scenes seems come out worse for wear from the digital treatment. I’ve noticed that scenes involving life actors interacting with blue screen elements suffered the most as they seem too muted and soft compared to the crisp lines and colors of the other scenes. The end result seems too jarring a transition and a bit distracting for an attentive viewer. I feel that this problem was more noticeable in season 3 DVD set as more of such scenes were produced than in previous seasons.

Also included in the box set are 2 feature length commentaries by the writer and 1 by the principle actors. The actor’s commentary track was recorded for Episode 15, “Interludes and Examinations” by Bruce Boxleitner (Capt Sheridan), Jerry Doyle (Mr. Garibaldi), Richard Biggs (Dr Franklin) and Ed Wasser (Mr. Morten). While the cast’s exuberance while recording the commentary was infectious, it was at times difficult of follow as they tend to speak over one another. The commentary has the feel of a boisterous gathering of family recollecting many anecdotes that happened during the filming of the episode. I have to say that I missed hearing Claudia Christian (Ivanova) in the actor’s commentary as I though that she did a wonderful job in the previous season cast commentary.

The remaining 2 commentaries were recorded by the series writer for Episode 10: “Severed Dreams” and Episode 22: “Z’ha’dum”. As he did in the previous 2 box sets, commentaries by JMS are always insightful to me in that he tends to explain the writing process involved in producing this accomplished work. He would also relate the work involved in producing this series week after week and the problems that they would run into as they tried to complete each episode within the budgetary limitation. I personally find his comments enlightening and educational to me although his delivery could be dry at some points. JMS also recorded a season introduction featurette at the beginning of the first DVD of the set as he did for the previous box sets. First time viewers are advised to defer the introduction to the end as it contains several spoilers that may affect the enjoyment of the watching experience.

The bonus features included on the last DVD of B5 season 3 focuses on the make-up and design of the alien races seen in the series. While it is technically interesting to watch, I found the subject matter a bit dry and uninvolving. The bonus features are rounded up by a collection of short presentations of several of the technologies, characters and location presented as if they were computer files from Babylon 5’s computer system. Most of the information here is well known to “Lurkers” like me but may be interesting to new viewers trying to understand the universe of B5. Last but not least, the final DVD of the set contains an Easter egg; an unlisted special feature; containing the outtakes and blooper reel from season 3. Like in the season 2 set, this gag reel is quite hilarious to watch and worthwhile to search for.

All in all, the B5 Season 3 box set still shows several shortcomings in the picture quality as in the previous season sets. The commentaries are not as good as the commentary tracks in season 2 but are still enjoyable to listen to. I wished that they could have chosen a better subject for the short documentaries in the special features section but I guess that new viewers would find them interesting. I do hope that they continue to include the blooper reels in future box sets as I find them enjoyable to watch. The price of the box set is a bit steep by Malaysian standards but as a fan of the series, the question of adding this box set to my collection never arose as it was simply a given fact. For me, the fact that I am owning a piece of television history in the form of “Babylon 5” DVD sets makes it worth every cent.

Rating :
Story (5/5)
Picture Quality (3.5/5)
Sound Quality (4/5)
Commentary Tracks (3.5/5)
Special Features (3/5)

Overall Rating (3.9/5)

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