Babylon 5
The Complete Second Series: The Coming of Shadows

Starring: Bruce Boxleitner
Warner Home Video
RRP 54.99
Z1 24168
Certificate: 12
Available now

Starship captain John Sheridan is surprised to learn of his new assignment: command of the space station Babylon 5. Its previous commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, has been mysteriously reassigned to the Minbari homeworld. Sheridan steps aboard B5 to find his security chief in a coma and the Minbari ambassador in a cocoon...

With Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) comatose and Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) undergoing a metamorphosis at the end of the first series, at the time I expected at least one of these characters to be written out. But these must have been contingency plans or complete red herrings on the part of the creator J. Michael Straczynski. The last thing I expected was for a new commanding officer to be written in.

Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) is like a breath of fresh air - a more dynamic and charismatic main character than Michael O'Hare's Jeffrey Sinclair had been. Note how upbeat he is during the opening episode, Points of Departure. Then watch how he develops over the next four seasons, growing steadily more stressed-out, aggressive... and grey-haired!

It was only upon watching this excellent season for the second time that I realised how much drama and tension are created by mere words rather than visuals. The sinister Shadow vessels, though more prominent than they had been during the first season, are still used quite sparingly. Nevertheless their menace, and the implication that something really bad is going to happen, pervades this series, thanks to numerous characters who warn us that a great darkness is coming. These prophets of doom range from the mystical Techno-mages in The Geometry of Shadows to the sadistic interrogator Sebastian (Wayne Alexander) in Comes the Inquisitor.

A more tangible threat to galactic harmony is presented by the Centauri/Narn conflict, which is re-ignited under truly tragic circumstances in the pivotal instalment, The Coming of Shadows. The war escalates to dramatic peaks in The Long, Twilight Struggle and the nail-biting season finale, The Fall of Night. We have come a long way since the first season's jocular Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and the then hostile G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas). By now Londo has developed into a character who has painted himself into a corner through his dreams of greatness for the Centauri Republic, while G'Kar has become a victim of aggression rather than a perpetrator of it. Both characters possess a tragic quality. In Acts of Sacrifice, Londo finds that his old friendship with Garibaldi has been tainted forever.

The ever enigmatic Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain) is curiously absent during the first half of the season, but comes to the fore again during All Alone in the Night, and thereafter takes an active interest in Captain Sheridan.

Other episodes are useful memory-joggers. Knives reminds the viewer about what became of the Babylon 4 station in the previous season's Babylon Squared - which is vital to understanding Series Three's War Without End. Similarly, The Long, Twilight Struggle sees the return of Draal (now played, in eccentric mode, by John Schuck), the "caretaker" of Epsilon 3.

Aside from those already mentioned, other classic episodes include And Now For a Word, which is ingeniously structured to be conveyed as though it were a news broadcast. In the Shadow of Z'Ha'Dum builds up the intrigue by connecting the slimy Shadow agent Morden (Ed Wasser) with the disappearance of Sheridan's wife, Anna. Confessions and Lamentations, like last season's Believers, is a heart-rending medical drama.

There are no truly weak episodes in this season, just those that are less brilliant. The less brilliant ones tend to be those penned by writers other than Straczynski and which have little or no overt connection with the upcoming Shadow war. The most apparent examples of this are A Spider in the Web, written by Lawrence G. Ditillio, and Soul Mates, written by Peter David, although these do contribute to an effective Psi Corps/Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) trilogy, which culminates in A Race Through Dark Places.

The extra features are comparable to those in the previous box set, with two short documentaries (13 minutes and 8 minutes) and 25 x 30-second "data files" on various characters and concepts from the show. In addition, three episodes are accompanied by audio commentaries (that's one more than last time) and, as an added bonus, trailers to all 22 instalments are included. The picture quality is far more consistent this time around, with little of the visual noise that blighted the Series One release.

The only real downside to this box set is that we will have to wait (eagerly) for another six months or so for Series Three!

Richard McGinlay

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