Babylon 5
The Complete First Season: Signs and Portents

Starring: Michael O'Hare
Warner Home Video
RRP 49.99
Z1 22855
Certificate: 12
Available now

Commanding the diplomatic space station Babylon 5, Jeffrey Sinclair must contend with the continual bickering of the Centauri and Narn delegates, whose races have a deep-seated hatred of each other, resulting from centuries of conflict. Sinclair also has to deal with the repercussions of his role in the abrupt conclusion of the Earth-Minbari war ten years previously...

The five-year story arc of Babylon 5 is a slow-boiler, which takes a fair while to hot up. Therefore the opening episodes of the first season give us little indication of the greatness that is to come. What the series initially appears to be, in instalments such as Midnight on the Firing Line, Soul Hunter, Infection and The Parliament of Dreams is your average episodic sci-fi show dealing with harassed humans and strange-looking aliens (most of which look very good, apart from the silly Centauri hairdos). The CGI space shots and occasional virtual sets are very detailed for the time in which they were made, but they are not always entirely convincing - at least, not at first.

But then you begin to get the impression that there is something more to this series than meets the eye. Often the hints of a wider purpose are more intriguing than the primary plot of the episode, such as Ambassador Kosh's (Ardwight Chamberlain) investigation of the telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) in Deathwalker or the unfortunate fates of the previous four "cursed" Babylon stations, as discussed in Grail.

Soon the magic of Babylon 5 takes hold of you, in episodes such as the sixth one, Mind War, which introduces the sinister Psi-cop Bester (Walter Koenig). Episode 8, And the Sky Full of Stars, looks into the reasons behind the gap in Sinclair's (Michael O'Hare) memory, and gives us the first real hint of the show's far-reaching scope. The 13th episode, Signs and Portents, is the one that truly got me hooked back in the 1990s, with the dramatically staged debut of the deadly Shadow vessels.

Other favourites of mine include Believers, which is an intensely moving medical drama, if a little Star Trekky. Survivors is a good Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) episode, which also includes some amusing Ivanova (Claudia Christian) scenes. By Any Other Means is especially satisfying, demonstrating a particular speciality of this series, as Commander Sinclair well and truly gives the finger to bureaucracy. Babylon Squared appeals to me in the same way that Star Trek: The Next Generation's Yesterday's Enterprise does, as Babylon 4 spectacularly and mysteriously appears out of the past, and also sets up plenty of mystery for the future. Chrysalis rounds off the season with calamitous events that affect all the residents of the station, and assures we, the audience, that the terrifying Shadows are here to stay. Throughout the season, any scene that focuses on the eccentric ambassadors Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) or G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) is a joy to watch.

For a series that mostly shows great subtlety in its storytelling, Babylon 5 can sometimes end up being anything but subtle. Sinclair's moral speech about purity in Infection is very over-the-top, while the character's performance as a pretend racist in The War Prayer is equally heavy-handed: "The only good alien is a dead alien!" The scarred and gravel-voiced Colonel Ben Zayn (Gregory Martin) in Eyes is very much a pantomime villain. And it is patently obvious long before the end of the two-part A Voice in the Wilderness who will end up becoming the new "caretaker" of Epsilon 3.

As Commander Sinclair, Michael O'Hare is not as charismatic as the main character should be. Nevertheless, he does bring sufficient gravitas to his displays of anger or aggression, as demonstrated in Midnight on the Firing Line, Survivors and Eyes.

Throughout the season, composer Christopher Franke brings a distinctive and unique quality to the show through his incidental music. He accentuates the drama particularly during the season's two great turning points, Signs and Portents and Chrysalis. Creator J. Michael Straczynski does not exaggerate when he speaks of Franke's vital contribution to the show.

Extra features in this box set include two documentaries - one old, one new - the 19-minute The Making of Babylon 5 and the 13-minute Back to Babylon 5, as well as interactive "data files": short video clips explaining the background details of the series' setting and characters. Straczynski has recorded commentaries to accompany the episodes Signs and Portents and Chrysalis, containing such revelations as the fact that Londo's huge hairpiece came about more or less by accident. However, I wouldn't advise listening to these commentaries unless you have seen the entire five-year series already, otherwise they could spoil some of the surprises for you.

One tends to expect perfect picture quality on DVD, but, as with the recent Stargate SG-1 box set from MGM, this is not the case. Certain scenes in Soul Hunter show scratches on the original film, while several episodes, The Parliament of Dreams especially, do not appear to have been cleaned up at all before being digitally transferred. There are also problems with the widescreen format of And the Sky Full of Stars, which results in numerous scenes appearing "stretched", as if from a 4:3 image.

In addition, the presentation pack contains a couple of picture errors. The booklet shows the Soul Hunter played by Martin Sheen in the TV movie River of Souls, which is not part of this collection, while the outer pack shows Delenn (Mira Furlan) as she looked in the pilot episode The Gathering. Still, at such a cheap price I feel I shouldn't grumble too much.

The first season of Babylon 5 gives us clear and tantalising hints as to the series' potential. But the best is yet to come...

Richard McGinlay

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