This is the fourth and, in many respects climactic, season of Babylon 5. Babylon 5 (B5 from now on) is the story of "the last of that Babylon stations." Herein many of the plot threads that have been unspooling for the last three seasons began, at last to come together. The wars, both of them come to their conclusions. Allies turn out not to be so benign and adversaries...well may have had a point after all. Another twenty-two episode edition of B5.
Recommend this product?
Constant readers of my B5 reviews will know what comes next: my Standard Babylon 5 Spoiler Disclaimer. I will try in the course of this review not to disclose any important plot details that will ruin surprise for viewers but it will probably be necessary to discuss the events of the previous three seasons, so if you aren't familiar with the milieu of B5 you should stop now and read reviews by myself and others under those headings.
The story so far: after a disastrous war with the alien Minbari Earth established the Babylon station program. The purpose of the Babylon Program was to provide a place in neutral space where human and alien races could interact and settle their differences, in addition to other things. The first three stations were destroyed in explosions and the fourth... sorta disappeared.
The fifth station has survived. So far. But things are not all sweetness and light (if they were, what would be the point of the show?). Dark forces which fought terrible wars thousands of years before the Human Race set foot on other worlds have returned from their exile. Now the galaxy is imperiled by deadly threats. Meanwhile, back on Earth, an authoritarian dictator has seized control and given these dark forces, called the Shadows, support, tacit and otherwise. Captain John Sheridan, the CO of B5 and his staff have declared independence from the government of Earth and, along with the other free races of the galaxy have taken a stand against the darkness. No surrender. No retreat.
I left so much out of that summary. If I were forced to describe this series in a single word in would be "complex." It isn't unfair to compare B5 to Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" or Herbert's "Dune" trilogy. There are something like a dozen primary characters and at least twice that many who flit in and out of the story arc. Four or so important story threads, occasionally stuff that seems important will peter out into nothingness and things will burst out of nowhere. This isn't low-attention-span-ready network TV, folks.
B5 was designed by producer/writer J. Micheal Straczynski as a five year story arc. A novel set to TV. There is a beginning, middle and end. The three previous seasons were principally concerned with beginnings and middles and, since the story is eighty percent over at the close of this season the time now comes for endings. The centerpiece of the story, the mainspring which has been making everything run for almost the entirety of the show is the Shadow War. This concludes about midway through Season Four. Only "concludes" to expose more would be telling.
The only significant entry into the cast is Jason Carter as the Ranger Marcus Cole. Patricia Tallman is also back as telepath Lyta Alexander. Other than these the cast is pretty much settled for the series.
If you're this far into my series of B5 reviews you probably already know the deal with this show. Briefly, this show is the inverse of the normal American TV show. Whereas a conventional TV show is organized into episodes within which end more or less with the same situation for the characters as existed before the episode began. Nothing significant changes you can expect the same start point next week as this week, unless it's a "very special episode." (Soap operas are a notable exception to this rule.) B5's structure is serialized, like a soap opera. Things change. Characters grow, and shrink, come and go... sometimes they even die or change sides. Kind of like real life.
As with most Sci-Fi TV the special effects take a central role in B5. This is, as far as I know, the first weekly TV show to use computer generated optical effects exclusively. There is no model work or other traditional special effects work. In earlier seasons this was sometimes hit-or-miss but in this season have hit their stride. The results are are uniformly satisfactory and occasionally stunning. The make-up work, there is a lot of it in this show, is as good as it will ever get on B5. Which isn't bad, except for the Minbari headbones, which have never looked quite right to me. One technical hiccup is that the lighting throughout the series is often overly dark. It could just be the monitor I watch on but I often have a hard time seeing detail in some scenes due to underlighting. The writing is excellent, as always and the cast continues it's outstanding work.
It's going to be hard to explain this next without issuing any spoilers. The mainspring of the story arc of the whole series is the Shadow War. Even the Earth Civil War and the Londo G'Kar stories are really sub-sets of this plotline. The Shadow War concludes about halfway through this season and the mode of that conclusion is... well... shall we say "unconventional?"
With the mainspring gone there is some danger of the story tension beginning to run down. Straczynski avoids this by quickly shifting his focus to the Earth Civil War. These stories are less likely to be sweeping battles between hoards of alien spaceships and more likely to be a struggle between as few as two people. In this season and the next Straczynski indulges himself in a bit of experimentation. This consists mostly of allowing his directors freedom to use odd camera angles and lighting... technical things like this. There are also different takes on writing scripts. Of particular interest is the script for the episode "Intersections in Real Time" which should be mandatory viewing for military and intelligence people who may be subjected to capture and interrogations. The episode before this one "If the Face of the Enemy" pulls some now tricks out of the bag with stylish lighting, MTV-esque editing, and non-standard music. These two are among the best of the series. The final episode of the season (and at the time it was thought to be the last episode of the series) has a "flash-forward" structure that is rather less successful.
Once again it comes time for me to lay down another of my standard B5 review disclaimers. The fourth season of a five season series clearly is not the place for someone new to the story to begin watching. I'm sure it's possible to do so, it might be possible to swim the English channel in roller skates, but why would you want to? Newbie's are advised to begin... at the beginning with Season One.
The set has a number of extras including a feature on Christopher Franke's music and a sort of "music video" compilation as well as a gag reel and some data files.
So. At the end of this set we are eighty percent through the B5 story. It is also pretty much the climax of the series. Season Five is largely falling action, cleaning up loose threads. Some of this come from the fact that Straczynski was told by the powers at Warner Brothers that there would be no fifth season, so things are more or less wound up at the end of this season leading to a somewhat strange fifth season. But, no matter....
If you've watched Seasons one, two and three and you're chomping to find out what happens next by all means jump on this DVD set. They're going for around $30 to $40 these days so the wallet hit isn't as bad as it once was. You won't be disappointed. However, if you've stuck through things for three seasons and you're completely confused and wondering when it's going to start being more like "Star Trek" you might as well move on.