When it debuted on PTEN back in 1993, Babylon 5 was unlike anything seen on television to that point. J. Michael Straczynski’s space opera featured both a rich mythology and some ground-breaking visual effects, and it’s become a cult classic in the years since.
But while the series has endured for its story, its appearance hasn’t dated well, thanks in part to a subpar home release to DVD (and later streaming). This week, the series moved over to HBO Max, and it’s undergone a significant facelift that leaves it looking better than ever.
Babylon 5 has had a bit of a troubled history when it comes to home releases, and it takes a little explanation for why fans have been disappointed with how the show’s been presented.
Henrik Herranen wrote up a detailed, wonky deep dive (as does Engadget) into the ins and outs of the technical aspects, but in short: the series was originally shot on 35 mm film in a 16:9 ratio, and Straczynski has said that one goal was to shoot it in such a way that it would be compatible with high definition television when the technology improved. For broadcast, Warner Bros. had to crop the video, and scaled the CGI accordingly, meaning without a complete remaster of all of the digital effects, there would be no way to release a true HD version of the show.
And as a result, when the show made its debut on DVD, the studio opted to release the series in widescreen, but because of the differences in aspect ratios between the live-action and CGI sequences, its presentation left something to be desired.
When the series made the jump to streaming on Amazon Prime Video a couple of years ago, Straczynski outlined on Twitter some of the steps that the streaming service could take to improve the quality for fans.
4. @amazon @AmazonStudios …so all you'd have to do is get WB to strike new prints off those original master negatives, and you'd have pristine compies you could uprez to HD. They wouldn't be 16:9 but at 4:3 they'd be the best versions ever seen, even more than first broadcast.
— J. Michael Straczynski (@straczynski) May 17, 2018
Those original masters still existed in Warner Bros.’ archives. They still wouldn’t be able to do a proper HD-upscale because of the CGI—which Straczynski noted would be prohibitively expensive—but it would be better than what’s been released before.
Now, Warner Bros. has remastered the series in preparation for its debut on HBO Max. Engadget reports, that the new version has been “scanned from the original camera negative,” and the “film sequences were scanned in 4K and then ‘finished’ or downscaled, back to HD with a dirt and scratch clean-up, as well as a color correction.”
The show’s CGI and composite sequences, meanwhile, have been digitally upscaled to HD with only some minor tweaks where absolutely necessary.
The series still isn’t presented in widescreen as intended, Engadget says, but is presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio that the CGI was designed for, and in which the series was originally shown.
Watching a couple of episodes on HBO Max and comparing them against the DVDs that I bought years ago, I can say that the quality is much better, even if it’s cropped. While the DVDs show off more in that widescreen format, the tradeoff is worth it: the streaming version feels cleaner, and looks as it as intended—mostly.
This has all been a roundabout way of saying that Babylon 5 is now streaming on HBO Max, and if you’ve never seen the show, this is probably the best opportunity to check it out. While that original CGI has definitely aged, it’s a phenomenal, classic series that’s perfect for streaming and that’s well worth being enjoyed by a new generation of fans.