Remastered Babylon 5 on Amazon Prime

b5a“Faith manages” was a line Delenn used to say, and I have to wonder at the odd synchronicity in which, having posted just a few days ago regards the possible reboot/remake of Babylon 5, I learned yesterday evening that the remastered Babylon 5 is available on Amazon Prime, albeit by some circuitous route. It turns out that Amazon have launched a ‘mini-channel’ here in the UK (not sure about elsewhere in Europe, but I presume its being rolled out) called imdb TV, which is free but ad-supported, and includes, buried in the long list of available shows, the complete remastered Babylon 5. The imdb-TV channel takes a little of digging to find, and  Babylon 5, for me at least, wouldn’t have a chance of being found had I not been tipped off that it was there (somewhere) but I guess a search for Babylon 5 would have found it easily enough (I prefer to take the Indiana Jones-with-a-remote route, I get a much rosier glow of satisfaction when I get there).

The persistently questionable Amazon compression algorithms likely don’t show the series at its best, and the CGI looks as woeful as it ever did, but back in its 4:3 picture format, the show returns to how we first saw it when it originally aired and the non-effects shots look pretty good, considering (probably would have looked better on a Blu-ray, just saying). Naturally it would be even better without any ads but hey, it weirdly maintains that authentic ‘watching on Channel 4’ ambience I suppose.

I’m not suggesting, tempting as it is, that I’ll manage to rewatch the whole series- maybe if I’d invested in a Blu-ray set I would have felt disposed to make the additional effort/exert better self-discipline. As it is, there’s just so many time constraints these days, but at least I have an option to see the remastered Babylon 5 that I didn’t have before. At very least I shall watch my favourite, key episodes from each season, but you never know…

A Babylon 5 Reboot?

b5rebootThat picture above is almost enough to drive me to tears. So many of those wonderful people gathered for a fun publicity shot, so clearly enjoying themselves, are gone now; Richard Briggs, Andreas Katsulas, Stephen Furst, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Jeff Conaway (and of course, not pictured here, Michael O’Hare). Its the sadness and loss that permeates the memory of Babylon 5.

I expected the chief Babylon 5 event of 2021 would have been a remastered release of the complete series on Blu-ray- alas, that hasn’t transpired, the remaster limited to a digital-only release and streaming on HBO Max over in the States. Regrettable, if not surprising, the way physical formats become increasingly marginalised: possibly the new interest/HD remaster was just two or three years too late for the disc boxsets I had hoped for.

But it seems there was a hidden reason for that HD remaster, as it appears to have been a way of gauging interest in the Babylon 5 franchise- and somebody likes how it turned out. It has been announced by Warner Bros that the show is being rebooted, some totally unexpected news that is part exciting, part intriguing, part absolutely horrible. I suppose in a world in which Blade Runner got both a sequel and an anime series spin-off, anything is possible, but Babylon 5 coming back? Beyond weird. About the only thing that possibly makes any sense at this point is the news that original creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski is involved- on Twitter he has announced that he is currently writing the new show’s pilot. 

Straczynski has revealed that it won’t be a continuation or sequel, if only because of the simple, inescapable fact that we have lost the actors who played the major characters of Delenn, G’Kar, Franklin, Vir and Zack… its impossible to go back again, to the Babylon 5 we used to know and love. Instead he seems to be going back to the original idea for the show, a “from-the-ground-up reboot” retelling the story with what I assume will be a fresh, contemporary spin. Horrible as it might sound. I just find it rather unnerving, reading about kicking off with the season two storyline of John Sheridan (played by Bruce Boxleitner originally) being assigned to Babylon 5, a five-mile long space station positioned in neutral space attempting to maintain an uneasy peace between rival planetary empires. 

It could be brilliant. Imagine Babylon 5 with a considerable budget, in 4K, with cutting-edge visual effects enabling the scale and scope of the galactic space-opera. But it could be terrible. I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, but it could turn out to be about Earthforce commander Jane Sheridan and all sorts of new characters, a new G’Kar and a new Londo, or a new Delenn, switching sexes etc and just.. well, I suppose that’s the whole point of a reboot, and there’s likely no good sticking too close to the original anyway. But as a fan of the original, who took that shows ups and lows to heart, all those cliff-hangers within the show and outside (would we get a third season? would we get a fourth season?), it feels so difficult even considering going back. Can you go back? Those of us who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy have already found its impossible to bring some things back. Maybe original B5 fans should stick with our DVDs (damn it, I still want my HD remastered discs!) while Straczynski makes the new show for an entirely different audience.

I can only hope that somehow Straczynski finds the formula to reboot it in the same way as Ronald D Moore managed to do it with his Battlestar Galactica; you know, different and better: but its a different thing, turning Glen Larson’s cheesy Star Wars-knockoff/homage into a gritty and adult show, compared to rebooting something that was perfectly fine first time around. Good luck JMS capturing lightning twice. 

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Raised By Wolves (Season One)

raised1Alas, the fascination with ‘mystery boxes’ continues and becomes increasingly tiresome: its a crux used by JJ Abrams all through his career and one endlessly mimicked by other creatives, best described as being a narrative which drops viewers into the middle of a mystery-in-progress that leaves them wanting to know answers in both directions (what happened before/what happens next?). Admittedly I can trace a lot of this to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, which is one of my most revered genre shows. Not that B5 was the first, but certainly at the time when it came out, American shows were generally episodic in nature, pressing a metaphorical ‘reset’ button at the end of each episode and one episode seldom if ever referencing another.

Babylon 5 was more like a huge novel, each season being a part of a larger whole, so early seasons of B5 dropped hints and portents of mysterious ancient wars and a dark menace returning to threaten all the galaxy, and Straczynski fulfilled all the promise in later seasons, rewarded all the investment with the arcs and world building. He brought all the threads and revelations together into a grand conclusion that satisfied immensely (at least as regards the Shadow War storyline with season four, season five’s issues being largely out of his hands).

It paid off, and in spades, but that was a trick that showrunners and writers these days don’t seem to heed. 

So instead we get obtuse writing posing as complex storylines, promising grand revelations regards mysteries being scattered through plots (Westworld, Lost, Disney Star Wars etc) which ultimately fall apart, everything being built on sand. Its incredibly frustrating being taken in every time by this mystery box routine. Showrunners and writers are hooking viewers in and then largely failing to reward the viewer investment: even shows that succeed at this on some level only manage this in some compromised way that proves contentious even amongst fans (I’d cite Fringe as an example of this, and Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot too).

So now we can add Raised By Wolves to this annoying list of Mystery Box Television, and already by the end of its first season its clear that a promising concept is not going to fulfil the early promise of its first few episodes. Those first two episodes in particular, directed by Ridley Scott no less, promise so much that even within the space of its ten-episode first season the crushing disappointment is palpable.

raised2Two androids (‘Mother’ and ‘Father’) arrive at a remote planet, Kepler 22b tasked with raising a group of human children in order to rebuild and save a humanity that has been destroyed by a global war between two factions: atheists and fundamentalist sun worshippers called the Mithraic. The visual design and concept is fascinatingly reminiscent of that of Scott’s troubled Prometheus, so much so that it almost seems an unofficial sequel, or at least set in the same universe. The music, too, seems directly related to that films haunting score.

On that level, I was hooked from the start, and enthralled by glimpses of this global disaster shown in flashbacks (Ridley Scott visualising The End Of The World!), scenes of survivors boarding colony ships bound for a fresh start on a new world. Vague references to the two warring factions and a subtext referencing Eden, humanity bringing its old sins to tarnish this new world – it promised much. Additionally, ‘Mother’ (Amanda Collin, who is quite excellent) is fascinating, an androgynous android that back on Earth was a weapon of mass destruction, a Necromancer that destroys with its voice, the android of Lang’s Metropolis transformed into an Angel of Death. Now mysteriously reprogrammed to nurture and protect its cargo of twelve human embryos and the children they grow into, she is aided by her companion, a lesser, servant-model android named ‘Father’ (Abubakar Salim, who possibly steals the show). ‘Mother’ is initially protective as intended, but falls back into her old destructive ways when her wards are threatened by a Mithraic colony ship arriving at this New World, her powers terrifying both children and enemies alike.

The mysteries are endless: who reprogrammed ‘mother’, what is the history of this new world and the skeletons of giant snakes that litter the landscape, what are the unnatural circular shafts that plunge into the depths, the odd voices characters begin to hear, the mysterious artefacts of alien origin that are found… yeah its all mystery box piled upon mystery box, and unwisely the series begins to unwrap some of these boxes, each one proving a confounding disappointment, increasingly riddled with inconsistencies. Why is no-one alarmed at signs of alien life or remnants of apparent alien intelligence? Are Mother’s virtual meetings with her creator truly the resurfacing of deleted memories or are they a fabricated deception created by some entity of Kepler 22b, manifested later as the giant snake? And how do Mother and Father survive plunging down into what is presumably the molten core of the planet, through and out the other side (as patently ridiculous as it sounds, it makes the Hollow Earth of Godzilla vs Kong seem almost pedantic).

Its actually alarming to see a show that begins with such promise collapse so very quickly- its like seeing all three seasons of Westworld condensed into a single season, and I cannot imagine where it will take us with season two (just finished filming, apparently). That’s if I stick around for season two, of course. I was enjoying the first half of this season but began to rapidly lose interest during the second half, the finale proving totally unsatisfying, typically dropping hints and leaving arcs for season two to attempt to resolve (or just tangle up even more). Even as a fan of Babylon 5, I am getting so tired of the teasing of revelations and answering questions with more questions: just tell the goddam story.

2021 Babylon 5

b5I’ve already written regards this blog next year looking back as much as reviewing/commenting on ‘new’ films and television. Oddly, recent news from various quarters seems to have reinforced that, with a strange sense of synchronicity. Two of my favourite anime, the wonderful Satoshi Kon film Millennium Actress and the tv series Planetes, are being released early next year by All the Anime,  Millennium Actress on 4K UHD and Planetes on Blu-ray, each firsts for the UK.  I’m really enthused regards revisiting them, and shall hopefully be able to write about how wonderful they still are having not seen them for years: one of my fears of revisiting old favourites next year is in discovering they aren’t as great as I used to think they were, but you know, sometimes things just look even better in hindsight, so the opposite might be just as true.

Added to those anime returning is recent news regards my old favourite tv show,  J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 coming to Blu-ray next Spring in remastered form. Well, I say remastered, there are caveats to that, but all the same, this is frankly wonderful news. I’ve read that a new remaster of the show is now available on Apple iTunes and is apparently being set for a disc release on Blu-ray in the Spring. The show has returned back to its original transmitted 4:3 format in order to preserve some level of quality to the aged CGI visual effects shots and allow a remaster of the on-set material, essentially upscaling the show as was done with reasonable success with Farscape a few years back. While B5 was forward-thinking enough to be consciously shot ‘protected’ for widescreen, and was released as such on DVD several years back, unfortunately this was undermined by the original VFX hard-drives being lost long ago, which meant that any scenes involving VFX had to be zoomed-in from 4:3 to 16:9, just making the already dated CGI look even worse. The only way of truly remastering the show properly would be recreating all the VFX shots from scratch in 16:9 and editing them into the 16:9 live-action material, at what is apparently a far too prohibitive cost for Warner Brothers to countenance. Its frustrating, but its just how things are, so this new endeavour of remastering the show in its original 4:3 format is the best we will ever get.

As for the show itself, well, one has to remember how old B5 is now, and all the many great genre shows that came after it. I recently watched a YouTube video of the Babylon 5 cast then-and-now and it was really scary seeing just how many years have passed (and how many of the cast have been lost to us over the years), but it did have me feeling very nostalgic and swaying towards a re-watch of the show, so this remaster news is rather timely.  I think something that will help B5 stand apart is the fact that it was always distinctly old-fashioned space opera, rather than space fantasy or hard sci-fi; very much the kind of stuff one could read in the 1950s and 1960s. Hopefully the charm of that will help forgive some of its failings, and for myself I’m really curious having not seen it in years (I never really got through all those DVD boxsets, it just looked so poor). And hey, its a triple-dip! I had the show on (really expensive, all told, looking back on it) VHS tapes where they released them two episodes at a time, or something like that, and yes, bought those DVD sets. Maybe the third time will be the charm. Yes its a real pity nobody at Warners (or some millionaire fan) thought it worthy of investing in redoing those effects and bringing the show up to modern standards, but at the very least this preserves the old, authentic experience of the original transmissions back in the day. I just hope that news of Blu-ray releases holds true (apparently place-holders have been spotted with European vendors, and it makes sense for a disc release while physical is still worth something). I look forward to someday next Spring  sitting down with a strong coffee steaming from my Babylon 5 mug while I revisit that dangerous place, our last, best hope for peace… 

Babylon 5’s Jerry Doyle dies aged 60

b5jerryIts getting so I’m almost afraid to look at the news these days.

Well, mark this as another reason why this year seems particularly horrible. The actor Jerry Doyle, who played the space station’s flawed security chief Michael Garibaldi, has died at the age of 60. The show’s creator  J.Michael Straczynski has posted a moving tribute  regards Jerry’s passing, noting that “…Of the main cast, we have lost Richard Biggs, Michael O’Hare, Andreas Katsulas, Jeff Conaway, and now Jerry Doyle, and I’m goddamned tired of it.” 

Jerry’s Michael Garibaldi was a refreshingly realistic character for a science fiction show; he came across as a no-nonsense, working-class guy just doing his job the best he could, with his some interesting character flaws and backstory which developed over the show’s five seasons. At a time when most tv science-fiction featured idealistic characters in utopian futures (dominated of course by Star Trek), Babylon 5 and its characters with individual arcs that changed over the length of the show was such a radical thing, it’s hard to describe its impact back then with the changed tv landscape we experience and take for granted now. Certainly Garibaldi was one of my favourite B5 characters; a little overweight, balding, suffering from drink problems… he seemed to be a ‘real’ guy in a genre dominated by tall, handsome, muscular heroes who always got the women and saved the day. Garibaldi was just doing his job and he didn’t get everything right- he could be a bit of a jerk as much as a hero; indeed in the latter seasons he was frankly a bit of an asshole.

Jerry didn’t have a ‘traditional’ acting background; he moved into acting fairly late, following a career as a pilot in civil aviation and a stint as a Stockbroker on Wall Street. I think his life experiences informed his acting and gave added depth/life to his character. I’ll certainly never forget Garibaldi. Post-Babylon 5 Jerry turned into politics and ran for office in the US House of Representatives as a Republican candidate but failed in his campaign, later having success on a national talk-radio show.

Its funny,thinking about it, the way the world is now, Babylon 5 is more valid and topical than it ever was, with its varied alien races seeking to exist in harmony in the face of interplanetary war, and its ensuing refugee crises and far-right political machinations. It all seems so familiar to the world we live in today. While I don’t think we need a reboot, I thinks its past time Warners remastered the show with updated CGI effects and re-released it to current audiences who might have missed it (the original effects files are long-lost and the show can’t be properly aired in widescreen or HD without replaced effects) .

Well, its a lousy reason to dust-off my Babylon 5 DVDs but I think I shall watch an episode tonight. Here’s to you, Jerry Doyle.

The Expanse: Season One (2016)

ex32016.46:  The Expanse – Season One (Blu-ray)

Blade Runner was originally not intended to have a post-credits crawl-up setting up its scenario- indeed at one point it wasn’t going to be set in any particular place or have any particular date. Instead it was going to drop the audience into its world and leave them working to make sense of it all, but the studio and/or film-makers got cold feet, so we got the crawl up and the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ legend that doesn’t really work at all (indeed, it never really did even back in 1982). Maybe they were right to do it, but even in 1982 I missed that brave conceit of letting the audience do some work. The fact that they maintained that crawl-up and setting for the Final Cut version of 2007 quite mystifies me and is the one negative about that otherwise definitive version of the film.

So why do I mention that film again, in a post talking about a new sci-fi tv show? Well, The Expanse does have a short text intro, but otherwise it bravely throws the audience into its remarkable future world and simply leaves the audience to it. It’s a bold gambit for a new series and one that, for me, pays off handsomely. This show refuses to hold your hand; you are thrown into the 23rd Century and its likely four episodes before you really ‘get’ what the show is and the story it is telling. Before that, you are left to it, trying to make sense of the societies and rival factions and who might be good, who might be bad, and whats really going on with the derelict Scopuli.

Bizarrely still not picked up by any broadcaster here in the UK, even now, several months after it aired in the States, The Expanse is the  best science fiction show I have seen in years. With all the channels we have over here now, it is a complete mystery that this show hasn’t found a broadcaster yet. Weary of waiting for the world to make some sense, a few weeks ago I caved in and imported the Blu-ray, surely a sign that some broadcaster was about to announce UK airdates (typically as soon as I got it through the letterbox). And yet no, not even my purchase of the blu-ray set has mystically triggered anything, but you can’t say I haven’t tried. What gives?

ex3My all-time favourite science fiction series is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series from awhile back. Which at the time surprised me no end, as I wasn’t a fan of the original, am weary of reboots in general and didn’t expect anything special at all. Of course I was completely wrong  -this was one reboot that was a total success. It was gritty and realistic, had brilliant production design, great writing, a fantastic cast and likely the most thematically complex score of any television series, ever. It ran for five great years and actually managed a deeply satisfying end (for me, anyway, although I know some fans were put off by it).

With The Expanse, the SyFy channel is trying to repeat the success and critical clout  that it managed with BSG. The odd thing is, The Expanse doesn’t really resemble BSG much at all- instead, it really harkens back to Warner Bros classic space opera Babylon 5.

I was a B5 nut back when it was first aired. It consumed my life for the five years it was on, right up to a series finale that, yes, brought tears to my eyes. B5 was an underdog right from the start- a low-budget, indie-sci fi epic at a time that Star Trek dominated the tv science fiction landscape.

B5 had cutting-edge CG effects that opened up the scale of what a genre tv series could be, gaining a huge canvas for its space opera of alien politics, ancient evil and intergalactic war. Writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski had a five-year plan, a vision for each season and the arc of an overall story, and barring a few detours he managed to tell the story he wanted to tell. The ambition of the thing is pretty amazing to this day and it remains a remarkable achievement, and it is only the troubles involving some cast departures and a poor season five (precipitated by JMS being told he had to complete the saga by close of season four and then actually getting a season five he hadn’t planned for) that weakens it compared to BSG. But B5 had moments the equal of anything before or since; moments of edge of your seat, WTF brilliance, from great character arcs to plot twists and awesome cliffhangers.

ex2Watching The Expanse, I frequently thought about B5. Its in the realistic sets, the costume design, the multi-cultural feel, the politics, the machinations of rival planets. The Expanse is everything a ‘new’ B5 would be- it’s really how B5 would look if it were made with the technology of today, albeit The Expanse doesn’t actually have any alien empires in it (as yet anyway- who knows where it is finally headed, certainly not me, as I’ve not read the books).

The simplest way to describe The Expanse, particularly as it has adopted the ten-episode series format so popular now, is that it’s a sci-fi Game of Thrones by way of Babylon 5. If that sounds interesting and worthy of your time, then you’d be right. Based on a series of books by James S.A.Corey (actually a pen name for two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) the series benefits from having a solid story with a well thought-out background perhaps richer than you might expect on television. And yes, as it’s based on a series of books, there is evidently some overall masterplan for the story and where it’s going. The first season of the show is based on the first book, Leviathan Wakes, and I’m told it manages to adapt about three-quarters of it, leaving the remainder for the start of season two. It sounds odd, but people who’ve read the books seem to think the break before the end of the first book makes sense. All I know is that the end of season one left me slightly frustrated in a kind of good, “wtf happens next?!!” kind of way that has me itching to turn to the books, but I can see how it works. It leaves viewers curious and eager for more (and thank goodness there is a season two) but manages a rather neat way to close out the season that perhaps the remainder of the book lacks.

So anyway, whats it about? The Expanse is set in the 23rd Century. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but is not united like in, say, Star Trek -this is a more fractured humanity. The United Nations controls Earth, Mars is ruled by an independent military power, and the asteroid belt, home to vast resources that are vital to both Earth and Mars, is populated by working-class grunts eager to break free of what they see are their Terran/Martian oppressors. Tensions are running high as the series opens, with the three factions – “Earthers,” “Dusters,” and “Belters” – on the brink of war.

ex4The Expanse is part space opera, part detective-noir mystery, part political thriller. A young woman named Julie has disappeared, and a run-down/washout Belter detective, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane in terrific form), is assigned to the case. Miller gets drawn into a web of intrigue that spans the solar system and a conspiracy that could threaten all humanity.  The same conspiracy entangles a deep-space officer of a mining ship, James Holden (Steven Strait) whose encounter with a distress signal out at the rings of Saturn drags him and several of his crew into a chaotic series of events culminating in the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, and possibly igniting all-out war. As Holden tries to makes sense of it all, his fate becomes entwined with that of Miller, and the two men find themselves working together to find out what happened to Julie and why her fate is central to the entire mystery.

After an initial number of episodes that stumble a little as the show establishes its rather complex web of political machinations and rival power-groups, the series really gets going and proves to be a thrilling and fascinating watch. Indeed, that stumble at the start is actually rather welcome, as the show deliberately drops the viewer into its future-world complete with odd languages and unspoken agendas leaving the viewer having to work at making sense of it all. It is an approach I found quite refreshing, and I have stated earlier its a great move and something that immediately warmed me to the series. Indeed it’s left me keen to rewatch the show now that it all makes more sense to me.

Anyway, I’ll say no more as that would reduce ones enjoyment of the show. I only hope it gets a UK airdate sometime soon/eventually. It really deserves it and it really is strange that it hasn’t been aired here already- maybe when season two nears early in 2017 in the States something will happen. In the meantime, there is always the Blu-ray set from the States (great picture naturally but alas woefully devoid of any extras) to get your fix if the show seems interesting to you. As for me? Those books seem awfully tempting…