A fresh viewing of Babylon 5 commences
Over the next few months or so, I’ll be rewatching the entirety of Babylon 5 (the series itself, Crusade, the movies — all of it) and blogging about it (Note: As it doesn’t stream currently, if you want to watch it that means purchasing it as DVDs¹, digital episodes on Amazon² or iTunes³, or using other means I don’t condone). I’ll try to make it a more critical viewing than not… but this is mostly just for pleasure (I’ve been meaning to rewatch it for a couple of years now). So, if you’re looking for a more critical read of B5, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help. Maybe? We’ll see.
Anyhow, like most of the good TV I’ve watched from college forward, I came late to Babylon 5 (it’s a bad habit of mine — I don’t do well picking good stuff when it first airs and then I end up playing catch-up; let’s not talk about when I finally started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
The issue with B5 was it aired in the 1990s. Had it come a decade later, things would have been different (but then the show wouldn’t have been what it is). I knew it was on. It originally was on a weird little ad-hoc TV network (PTEN) that had space on UHF channels across the US (in Detroit, it was on Channel 20). We didn’t have DVRs yet (or, if we did, they were probably prohibitively expensive), scheduling the VCR to record was a pain in the ass (plus managing those tapes was annoying beyond belief), and I was usually busy when it was on. So I skipped it for a while.
I picked it up somewhere in the fourth season and realized I liked what I was seeing… but I was lost. I had no idea who Sheridan was, or why Londo and G’kar didn’t like each other, or why Delenn had hair but the other Minbari did not. It’s a testament to the planning that went into that series — but it also made it beyond difficult for a new viewer to easily get into (remember that there wasn’t any streaming to binge, but there were VHS tapes to attempt to catch up with — if you could find them all). That was one of the major failings of the series — it was difficult, and potentially expensive to the viewer, to catch up (even if you joined just a little late in the series). When TNT surprisingly picked it up near the tail end of the series, the network tried to catch newcomers up with Babylon 5: In the Beginning, but it never truly pulled in the audience they were hoping for (and it’s full of spoilers if you watch it at the actual beginning). In the end, Babylon 5 wasn’t a good network show, but it’s an excellent one for binging. It is one of the first serialized TV shows that would have lent itself to the current streaming environment… but was a couple of decades too early. I wonder: What would have happened had the show been on Netflix or Prime or Hulu 20 years later (other than a completely different cast)?
Eventually I ended up fully watching the series a few years later when I picked up the DVD box sets in a sale at Best Buy. After watching the series through once, I came across The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5 (yes, that’s what the web used to look like) and the larger B5 community — including the establishment of the preferred viewing order. When I watched it again, my wife joined me and we watched one of the preferred viewing orders.⁴ I was very happy with the way it played out.
It’s been about seven years or so since that last viewing. In addition to just wanting to watch it, I find the current political environment lends itself to the overarching story the story presents. And, as I’m finally getting back to my own storytelling, I think B5 is an excellent example of how to tell stories correctly (despite some missteps here and there). So, once a week or so, I’ll post my thoughts (as members only stories, so please sign up as a Medium member) on the episodes I watched that week (I’m thinking I’ll summarize a disc or two per post). After some thinking about the viewing order, I’m going with what is said to be creator J. Michael Straczynski’s perferred viewing order (I’m through “Born to the Purple” at the time of this writing, so will post soon after watching “Infection,” I think).
If you’d like to watch along with me, please do — and let me know what you think. As it’s been quite a few years since I last watched B5, and as I’m a bit (a lot) of a tech and gadget geek, I’ve upgraded our media hardware a couple of times.⁵ So, for the record, we’re currently using an LG 4K OLED display with an Apple TV 4K for streaming and an Xbox One X for physical media. When trying to decide what standard definition source to use (DVD or iTunes digital files) for rewatching B5, I chose to use the original pilot movie The Gathering. It’s probably the one piece in the series that is of the least quality film-wise, and it’s also the best to help you calibrate and forecast what results you’re going to get with the poor-quality scenes in the series (I’ll just say the digital files are not the best route to go in a setup like ours. If you can get the physical DVDs and upscale correctly, do so).
Let’s go do some exploring on this side of the galactic rim, shall we?
¹ The discs are available by individual seasons (Season One, Season Two, Season Three, Season Four, Season Five, The Movie Collection, Crusade (the follow-up series), Legend of the Rangers (pilot for another follow-up that went nowhere), and The Lost Tales) or, in some cases, large collections can be purchased that include most (if not all) of the discs. Yes, they are all DVD — there is nothing on Blu-ray.
² Amazon has the full B5 episodes available here. Crusade is here. The movies are in a collection here. And, yes, they’re almost all standard definition — you will find no HD here except The Lost Tales.
³ iTunes has the full B5 episodes here. Crusade is here. The movies are available seperately: In the Beginning, Thirdspace, River of Souls, Legend of the Rangers, A Call to Arms, and The Lost Tales. And, as above, they’re all standard definition except The Lost Tales.
⁴ Why is it that science fiction series get these sorts of “preferred” viewing order things? Babylon 5, Star Wars, Firefly. I’m sure the list goes on.
⁵ I’ve debated setting up a retro 480i standard definition rig — something for analog sources (VHS, LaserDisc, my old Atari 2600, maybe an NES or a Genesis) to be presented in something more appropriate to the context they were originally released for. I just haven’t had the time to go after a good used CRT with S-video on it nor the space to set it up in. One day I may still do that, though. Then that will give the old standard def stuff (like B5) an appropriate place to live.