Of all the rumors we’ve reported on in recent months, this is the one I’d most like to be true and most likely to see something come of it. Babylon 5 was back in the news earlier this year after a reference made in Breaking Bad spurred B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski to take to the interwebs and ask fans to rally and try to get the beloved show back on the air somewhere — anywhere. The ensuing fan push did meet with success, with UKTV acquiring the rights to all five seasons of the show for their Watch channel. That’s great if you live in the UK and don’t already own the show on DVD, but what about the pipe dream B5 fans have been hoping for for years now: a remastered, upgraded, HD version of the classic SF series? It’s always seemed unlikely given the expense it would likely involve, but now a Warner Bros. executive has commented on the subject, and those comments give us hope. Possibly even our last, best hope.
Babylon 5 was a victim of bad luck and bad timing. While it was pioneering in its use of CGI effects when it first aired in the early ‘90s, there have been several major obstacles standing in the way of it getting the high-def Blu-ray release it deserves. B5 was an early adopter for the widescreen format, with all of its live-action sequences shot on Super 35mm film stock, which meant that the show could air in the normal 4:3 aspect ratio during its initial airings, but would have a leg up when widescreen TVs began to become popular. Unfortunately, the CGI sequences were created in 4:3 in order to save money. That means that, for any prospective HD release, the live-action elements shouldn’t be enormously difficult to clean up, but pretty much all of the CGI would need work, and lots of it, if not having to be redone outright.
That would be a massive project, but not necessarily a totally unfeasible one. Both the Original Series and Next Generation of Star Trek have been coming to Blu-ray with remastered footage and upgraded FX, but Trek is unquestionably a better-known, guaranteed cash cow for CBS and Paramount. Fixing B5’s problems could be prohibitively expensive, so Warners would have to be convinced there’s enough of a demand to make that investment worthwhile.
The good news is that the Powers That Be at Warner Bros. are at least discussing the possibility. George Feltenstein, Senior Vice President for Theatrical Catalog Marketing for Warner Bros., has a podcast where he discusses potential upcoming projects and answers listener questions. During a recent episode, Feltenstein responded to one of those questions regarding a B5 restoration project like so:
Babylon 5 is an extraordinarily important franchise to all of Warner Brothers. So much so that it is of course very much on the minds at everybody at Warner home video, and bringing Babylon 5 to a next generation shall we say, is very much on the minds of everyone involved. The fact that the show was post produced on video tape and FX were done on video tape makes bringing another iteration a very expensive proposition. But it is being discussed in the highest of quarters.
There might be hope, but there is nothing to report that’s a fact. Let’s just say that the powers that be are very smart and they know the fan desire is out there.
That might be a slim hope, but the fact that it’s even being considered at all can only be good news. Part of the reason JMS asked for the fans to try and get B5 back on the air is because it’s been sliding more and more into obscurity. The fans are still around, still devoted, and I’m sure still winning over new fans. But Warners hasn’t exactly been courting those potential new fans. Prior to the Watch pick-up, Babylon 5 wasn’t airing anywhere. It’s available on DVD, but for the reasons outlined above, those DVDs are of disappointing quality. Perhaps most crucially, the show isn’t readily available to stream — not on Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, not on Hulu. You can watch the first season and part of the second on the official website, but it speaks volumes that that site is for The WB, an online iteration of a broadcast network that hasn’t existed as an offline entity for seven goddamn years.
Right now, Babylon 5 is languishing. The British deal is great, but it’s not enough. I have no doubt giving B5 the upgrade it deserves would be costly, but if Warner Bros. cares about the series as much as Feltenstein’s quote suggests, what other option is there? If left alone, Babylon 5 will continue to survive only in the hearts of devoted fans and those few who are able to newly discover it. If it’s going to thrive, it’s got to be put in front of as many eyeballs as possible. It desperately needs a major push, like a deal with Netflix. An HD upgrade for Blu-ray would be a perfect excuse to eventually put the newly spit-shined series up on Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or whatever. Even if they only put the first season or two up, that would be enough to hook new viewers, viewers who then might be convinced to go buy the Blu-rays.
Giving B5 an HD upgrade, coupled with making it available streaming — even if after a timed exclusivity on physical media — would give B5 the benefit that shows like Breaking Bad have enjoyed from their streaming presence, a presence that earned AMC’s acclaimed drama huge numbers for its final episodes after many new viewers had burned through all the earlier seasons to catch up in time for the series finale. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and similar services allow for the easy discovery of shows viewers hadn’t previously seen. It’s easy to push a button and take a chance when the financial transaction is just part of the monthly fee that’s far from your mind.
If it’s going to happen, it’s only going to happen because the fans make their voices heard and make it known that they’d vote with their wallets to support B5 on Blu-ray, on Netflix, or wherever else it might potentially go. The chances of getting any new B5 material may or may not ever happen, but I’d say they’re a damn sight less likely so long as Straczynski’s brilliant show is allowed to gather dust as a relic of a bygone age. And it’s worth noting that JMS is already working with them on some of that original content Netflix is all about these days. Might make a nice home for a new B5 project if the show were able to gain more visibility. I’m just sayin’.
Much of the cast is also set to reunite in Texas this coming January. Would be the perfect place for a big announcement, Warner Bros., if you’re listening…