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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

A TVD Bonanza! Tons More Cult TV on DVD (except Bonanza)

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Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Babylon 5: The Movie Collection
1993-98 (2004) - Warner Bros.

Babylon 5: The Movie Collection

OK, if you're a fan of J. Michael Straczyinski's sci-fi series, move along. There's nothing for you to see here. I will admit right up front that I had never seen so much as a single frame of Babylon 5 before popping in the first disc of this five-DVD set. I'd heard good things, however, and thought perhaps The Movie Collection would be a decent jumping-on point. After all, the set includes The Gathering, the re-edited version of the B5 pilot. And while the Star Trek movies are certainly closer to the hearts of long-time Trekkies (or Trekkers or whatever you're calling yourselves this week), they aren't so insular that casual viewers can't watch and appreciate them. Turns out, I was wrong. Babylon 5 may or may not be a great science fiction series but The Movie Collection is not the place to find out.

The Gathering gets things off to a rocky start, introducing the crew of the gi-normous space station Babylon 5 in what amounts to a sci-fi episode of Murder, She Wrote. Everyone is anticipating the arrival of the Vorlon ambassador, the final and most mysterious alien representative to take up residence on B5. But the second the Vorlon arrives, an attempt is made on his life. Whodunit? And will the assassination attempt destroy the peace talks between the aliens? I'll give the series the benefit of the doubt and assume that the various plot threads introduced here become more interesting as time goes on but within the hour-and-a-half of The Gathering, I really didn't care what happened. A lot of characters are introduced in a short time and almost none of them make much impression. If I had seen this as the first episode of the series, I doubt very much I would have come back for more.

The second movie, In the Beginning, is an improvement over the first despite the fact that I had even less of an idea what was going on. The movie reaches back to the beginning, showing the conflict between humans and aliens that led to the creation of the Babylon stations. At the same time, it jumps ahead to some years after the events of The Gathering, as the back story is told by Londo, now an emperor of his world but an ambassador on B5 in The Gathering. In the Beginning suffers from some of the same clunky dialogue that hurt The Gathering but here at least is some indication of the size and scope of Straczynski's story. This was the only movie in this set that actually intrigued me and made me want to know more of these characters' stories.

That good will was pretty much squandered in the next two essentially stand-alone films, Thirdspace and The River of Souls. Thirdspace looks at the chaotic results of discovering a mysterious artifact in hyperspace which begins to fog and control the minds of those aboard Babylon 5. It's an exercise in mixing Lovecraftian horror with science fiction that scared me not at all. However, it's a masterpiece compared to the absurd River of Souls, which has to be the worst film of the set. A slumming Martin Sheen guest stars as an alien soul harvester looking to retrieve a stolen collection of souls. This provides an excuse for a lot of ponderous talk about the existence or non-existence of God and heaven of the type that should really be outlawed from science fiction. River of Souls is a bad movie by any definition, from its tedious setup to Sheen's laughable performance.

The collection is completed by A Call to Arms, apparently a bridge between the conclusion of Babylon 5 and the new series Crusade. This one was OK, getting back into the elaborate B5 master story which is clearly the most interesting part of this series. I disliked having characters linked and told what to do via dreams and visions, which always seems narratively lazy to me, but once things get going, A Call to Arms isn't bad. But by this point, it was too little, too late and I can't see myself going back to fill in the blanks with the regular Babylon 5 series. But like I said, if you loved the show, more power to you. These movies probably mean a lot more to you than they do to the rest of us.

Warner's DVD treatment of the B5 movies is pretty good. The Gathering is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio while the other four movies are given the anamorphic widescreen treatment. There's a big disparity in quality between the CGI effects sequences and the rest of the series that I found a bit jarring. I'm sure these effects were state of the art at the time but today, you can find effects that are as good or better on PlayStation 2. All five movies are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and all of them sound above average or better. As for extras, each movie is given a brief video introduction which, if you're a newbie like me, you should definitely watch beforehand. Each disc also boasts a commentary track by creator J. Michael Straczynski and other creative personnel, including production designer John Iacovelli, Mike Vejar (director of In the Beginning and A Call to Arms), Thirdspace director Jesus Trevino, River of Souls director Janet Greek and assorted actors and actresses. These commentaries also helped me to fill in some of the blanks from the series and if you like the movies more than I did, they may intrigue you enough that you'll want to give the series a shot. Finally, the fifth disc contains a short featurette called Creating the Future examining the scientific realities behind B5's designs.

Like I said at the outset, Babylon 5: The Movie Collection is not for me. B5 completists will no doubt be very happy with the set. But if you're new to the series and want to give it a shot, do yourself a favor and start with season one. The Movie Collection is not a short cut into the world of Babylon 5. It's a detour that goes around and above it while only occasionally cutting through the heart of it.

Babylon 5: The Movie Collection
Program Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/C+

Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds: International Rescue Edition
(Thunderbirds Are Go / Thunderbird 6)

1966-68 (2004) - MGM

Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds: International Rescue EditionThunderbirds Are GoThunderbird 6

Just to show you that The Bottom Shelf hasn't turned its back on the silver screen in favor of all TV all the time, let's look at a couple of bona fide theatrical motion pictures... based on a TV show. Gerry Anderson's sixties cult hit, Thunderbirds, was one of his most popular efforts in the Supermarionation style. The show was a phenomenon in the UK, leading to a pair of feature-length spinoffs: Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). MGM released the two movies in a snazzy box set a few months back, no doubt hoping to capitalize on the wave of Thunderbirds-mania that would sweep the country in the wake of this summer's live action remake. Whoops. Well, perhaps they can still cash in on renewed interest in puppets after the release of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Thunderbirds-inspired Team America: World Police. Or perhaps not because while MGM's International Rescue Edition is almost certain to please longtime fans, I can't imagine it will win over any new converts to Thunderbirds.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, Thunderbirds follows the adventures of the Tracy family in International Rescue, based on a high-tech tropical island and equipped with five of the most cutting-edge vehicles (the Thunderbirds) the sixties could come up with. Along with aristocratic spy Lady Penelope, her butler Parker, and their Asian love puppet Tin-Tin, the Tracy boys keep the world safe from such nefarious evil-doers as The Hood. The first movie, Thunderbirds Are Go, starts off with The Hood sabotaging the launch of Zero-X, the first manned mission to Mars. Six months later, all systems are go for another attempt and International Rescue is there to make sure things go smoothly. Sure enough, The Hood tries again but Lady Penelope stops him and it's off to Mars. The crew of Zero-X cruises around the Martian surface for awhile, gets attacked by rock snakes, then comes home. And that's about it, really, except for an extended dream sequence in which Alan Tracy and Lady Penelope have a date in an outer space nightclub where Cliff Richard and The Shadows are performing.

The sequel, Thunderbird 6, is marginally more plot-oriented. Brains designs a spectacular new passenger vessel called Skyship One but can't go on its maiden voyage because Jeff Tracy assigns him the task of developing a sixth Thunderbird rescue vehicle. Alan, Lady Penelope, Parker and Tin-Tin board Skyship One for a round-the-world trip. Unbeknownst to them, the entire crew is murdered and replaced with high-jackers who have an elaborate, drawn-out scheme to fake a message from Lady Penelope to lure the rest of the International Rescue team into an ambush. Eventually that message is sent but Alan and Penelope are able to warn the Tracys in time and the Thunderbirds race to Skyship One to rescue their friends.

Both Thunderbirds movies are fun to look at and boast some incredible miniature effects (especially if you like explosions) by Derek Meddings, who would go on to work on many of the best James Bond films. Thunderbirds Are Go has the rock snakes which are pretty cool and if you like weird 60's moments, you'll love the puppet versions of Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Thunderbird 6 doesn't have anything quite that peculiar but there are plenty of great effects and eye-popping sets, including the game room on board Skyship One and the Swiss restaurant where food is delivered to the table by miniature electric trains. But for me, the novelty factor was outweighed by the films' sluggish, episodic pacing. Neither film really tells much of a story. They're just these series of events that are marginally connected to each other. Characters and events will be introduced that seem like they're plot points but they're never followed up on. And perhaps it's just me, but Supermarionation, for all its virtues, isn't really the ideal way to tell an action story. The puppets can't really walk, much less run, so most of their action is restricted to movable command chairs. It's like an all-parapalegic action movie. And because they have basically just one facial expression, there isn't much tension when the puppets are in need of rescuing.

But like I said, Thunderbirds has its following and if you're a member of its cult, you'll likely be very pleased with MGM's discs. Both movies have been given a sonic upgrade, including a DTS track if you can believe it, and sound very good considering their age. They also look great with a clean, clear picture that enhances Meddings' effects work. Each disc also contains a decent number of complimentary extras. Both films have fond, informative commentaries by producer Sylvia Anderson and director David Lane. They also include featurettes (three per disc) focusing on the history of the series, the design of the puppets, the vehicles and the visual effects. Each disc includes its film's trailer, an animated photo gallery that plays over music from the film, and a Thunderbirds game. The box itself is a shiny metallic blue that unfolds to reveal a punch-out spaceport you can assemble and the set also includes a sheet of Thunderbirds magnets!

Thunderbirds isn't for everybody and may well be better suited to short-form episodic television than feature-length films. But if you grew up with the Tracy family, you'll likely find this box set to be F.A.B.

Thunderbirds Are Go
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B

Thunderbird 6
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

Adam Jahnke
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