Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.
It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.
But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.
That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.
Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.
Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?
I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.