Wednesday, April 14, 2021

‘Babylon 5’ Returns to HBO Max, And It Doesn’t Look Like Garbage

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The cast of 'Babylon 5'
Warner Bros. Home Video

One of the most underappreciated Sci-Fi series of the 90s was Babylon 5, a show filled with nuance, twisting plots, and some of the earliest CGI use in a television show. While it was on Amazon Prime, it was an inferior version of the show. Now it’s back on HBO Max, and finally, it looks good again.

If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi, space dramas, or Star Trek, you owe it yourself to check out Babylon 5. Famously, J. Michael Straczynski (the creator) sent a series Bible to Paramount, which turned it down. Not long after, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 came into fruition, and the two shows shared quite a few similarities that everyone noticed.

Babylon 5 takes place in the far future on a deep space station. The series begins not long after the end of a war between two great races, and the goal of the station is to bring the many races together to find understanding. It isn’t too long before the station commander accidentally stumbles into a religious-like figure standing for one of the great races in the area—if you watched DS9, that probably sounds incredibly familiar.

But despite those similarities, the shows couldn’t be more different. Naturally, Babylon 5 has its own alien races, its own form of government. You won’t find Federation equivalent here, just powerful races dancing warily around one another. But where Babylon 5 excelled was intricate storytelling.

It mastered introducing new plots and resolving old ones, and adapting if a character left (or returned!) the show. Mysteries about a great war between two ancient races come up, and every decision can spell life or death for an entire galaxy. Yet with all those stakes, the show makes time for the small people, the stories of love, joy, sorrow, and hate. Of betrayal and friendship.

Babylon 5 is a slow burn, but it’s worth time. Especially now that the show looks good again. It was originally filmed in widescreen and cut back to 4:3, as most TVs were square in the day. But the show didn’t have a large budget, so rather than rely on practical effects like Star Trek for space scenes, it relied on CGI. The CGI wasn’t created in widescreen, however.

Later attempts to make the show work on widescreen TVs involved cropping and scanning the CGI sequences. The top and bottom were cut off, and the rest stretched to fit a widescreen aspect. That worked out terribly for multiple reasons. Part of that was the loss of detail, color, and fidelity. But that only got worse in many scenes that combined live-action with CGI; the live actions scenes suffered too.

The show will often feature characters riding a train through a space station, with the entire background filled in with CGI. Where you could once see fields, houses, and farmlands in the distance, the update turned everything into grey blobs. It isn’t uncommon to do a long sequence shot from space into the station’s window or a fighter ship. But while you can see the person we’re zooming too, they looked like a blurry mess.

Now the latest Babylon 5 puts things right by skipping the widescreen edition. It sticks with the original 4:3 format the show aired in and restores the CGI effects to their former glory. Don’t expect too much; this is still 90s CGI on a TV show budget. But it looks better than has in a long time.

You can stream Babylon 5 today on HBO Max, or buy it from Amazon Prime.

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