A couple of years ago, I wrote about a TV series that I’ve always had a big soft spot for: Babylon 5. The show aimed to deliver a grand sci-fi epic on a budget closer to General Hospital than Star Trek. But its real strength was in its writing, with the show’s creator writing 92 of the 110 episodes made across its five-year run. Babylon 5 arguably laid the groundwork for the hyper-serialized TV series of today, and even had a dedicated web fandom in those halcyon, pre-Reddit days.
Babylon 5 was rolled out on DVD starting in 2004, but the release struggled at maintaining the show’s visual quality. The show’s filmed segments were shot in widescreen in anticipation of the forthcoming HDTV era, but broadcast in the square 4:3 ratio at the time.
In order to save money and time, the show’s FX-heavy sequences were created in 4:3, which would need fixing when the show was re-released in widescreen. Thankfully, the show’s producers already had a plan to upscale the CGI material in a way that preserved the quality.
Warner Bros., however, opted to save money by using a hacked-together version of the show made for international sale. The widescreen footage was fine, but the composite and full-CGI sequences were cropped from the 4:3 originals and stretched to fill the space. As I explained in that big 2018 story, that means the show has some glaring muddiness and weird framing whenever the actors are in a digital environment. And the show’s numerous space battles don’t look anywhere near as good with the distorted imagery.
I didn’t know this, but Warner Bros. actually released the original 4:3 broadcast versions on Vudu a few years back, (thanks, Reddit). This version has now made its way to Apple’s iTunes video store, and since I had the holiday break to vegetate in front of the TV, I watched the show in the form I originally saw it in. Rather than start at the beginning, I cherry-picked the best moments from the show’s third season, when it was hitting its creative peak.
Even in standard definition, the footage looks much better than what’s been available on DVD for over 15 years. The big difference is consistency, since the CGI and composite shots are now back in the same aspect ratio. The battles that bookend the episode “Severed Dreams”, for instance, just look so much better in 4:3 than their blockier relatives. Big sequences that relied on composite shots (such as the conclusion to season finale “Z’ha’Dum”) have more weight when you can see them how they were meant to be seen.
In that sequence, for instance, John Sheridan crawls out of a rocky corridor onto a balcony overlooking a huge city. In 4:3, you get a much better sense of the verticality of the scene, especially when the character peeks down into the chasm.
Also, because everything but the balcony is virtual, the shots bounce from (actor) Bruce Boxleitner in front of a green screen, looking a lot blurrier than normal, to his reaction face when framed against the real set.
Similarly, you can see just how blurrier and awkwardly-framed the cropped version is here, which helps to expose the matte lines around Bruce Boxleitner’s (magnificent) hair.
It’s not perfect, because what you gain in consistency you lose in the roomier picture you get with the widescreen versions. Even if you’re not losing out on acres of background detail with the 4:3 versions, the show looks better with a little space. Some of Babylon 5’s rotating crew of directors loved a close-up, and sometimes they can be mighty claustrophobic. The color balance on the DVD versions is better, too, compared to the heavy tints on the broadcast originals.
It’s not clear which version of Babylon 5 is going to arrive on HBOMax when it hits the streaming service on January 26th. But, no matter how it looks, it’s great binge-watching fare.