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Babylon 5 on VHS: A History

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Since we were discussing Babylon 5 on VHS in the blu-ray thread, I thought I'd make a thread dedicated to the VHS collections. This might seem a bit boring but I seem to have suddenly developed an OCD about it! So here is the history of B5 on VHS – at least as it was in the UK. Looney has already talked about B5 on VHS in the United States in the other thread, if there is any interesting history about B5 VHS collections in other countries, I'd be interested in hearing it. I think because VHS is now a dead format, yet it was how we all got our early B5 collections, it's got a lot of memories locked up in it , at least for me. Here's a crummy picture of my VHS collection on the bookcase circa 2001/2 - the entire B5 series, plus Crusade and TV movies took up two and a half shelves (the rest being X-Files, Battlestar Galactica and some early DVDs on the bottom shelf). Now we get the entire series in one modest blu-ray set (and for a fraction of the overall price – I must have spent £600 in total on VHS tapes in comparison) – remarkable! For the record, I only have a handful of my VHS left, most in the loft at my parents. I figured at the time we were unlikely to see a Blu-ray, so I kept onto the tapes with the special effects-heavy episodes as they were the only versions I had with the uncropped fx. As you'll see though, I kept most of the sleeves. The part of me that likes to hoard kind of wishes I'd kept all the tapes, but they do take up a lot of room.

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So starting with The Gathering: this is how we originally got it on VHS in the UK (ignore the cat in the background!). Looking back at it now it looks a little weird - the logo, the overall presentation making it seem more like a one-off direct-to-video effort than the pilot for a long-running series. The copyright on the back is 1994 Warner Home Video UK, so by this stage season 1 would have already begun.

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Warners then began releasing the series proper, two episodes per tape (with a few exceptions, which I'll come onto), under their 'Beyond Vision' label, which was the label they used for their SF TV shows, such as V. The first two volumes were released together, and both had exactly this same picture on the cover. Why they decided to use G'Kar's head as a planet, I have no idea! Their intention was to use this picture on the cover of every volume. Fans hated it and complained, and not only did subsequent volumes have bespoke images, but they went back and re-released volume 1 and 2 with new images too. The Gathering was also re-released with a cover more consistent with this style (the image of a backlit Sinclair and Garibaldi in armour, it made a pretty cool cover).

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I mentioned there were a couple of exceptions to the two-episodes per tape rule. To avoid splitting A Voice in the Wilderness between two tapes, volume 8 had three episodes – Grail, Legacies and Eyes (and subsequently I've always associated these three episodes together) – and volume 9 had both parts of A Voice in the Wilderness plus Babylon Squared. And I think (someone can correct me if my memory is playing tricks) that it was edited together into one long 90 minute episode. WB didn't do the same for War Without End - that was split over two tapes.

Speaking of A Voice in the Wilderness, that episode was a two-parter because WB wanted something they could market on VHS in overseas territories. Now I don't think we got that here, maybe because the series was already showing in the UK and coming out on video? I have seen it on eBay though, so maybe it was available for rental? I'm sure I've also seen some season 1 tapes on eBay that have four episodes per tape. These may have also been for rental?

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Next posts I'll cover later seasons, and also some special gifts we received with the video tapes.
 
For the second season, they smartened the covers up and I think the overall production was more polished, with some sharper and striking images such as the season 2 cast photo and Ivanova in a Starfury. But there were some that were not so striking – I mean, why would the cover to the volume 17 convince anybody to buy it?!

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Warners seemed proud of the fact that B5 won the Hugo with The Coming of Shadows (back in the day when winning Best Dramatic Presentation was much more difficult because TV and film were not in separate categories) and released a special edition VHS containing just that episode (it had already been released as part of volume 15), with a picture of Londo on the cover and a blurb stating it had won the Hugo. I guess Warners hoped that casual buyers would be impressed enough to buy it and try out the series, but it doesn't seem to have worked because they didn't bother doing the same thing for Severed Dreams.

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Moving into season 3, again the production of the VHS sleeves went up a notch. Volume 23 was a particular favourite of mine – I've always loved this promotional image, and would love it as a large poster.

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Up until now, all the volumes had been consecutively numbered. But with season 4, they changed the styling. What should have been volume 33 was called volume 4:01 instead, which when you are lining them all up on the shelf rather spoils the system. I also don't think the cover design worked very well; I can see what they were getting at, but it feels a bit gimmicky.

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Then in season 5 (beginning with volume 5:01) they started using the nice artwork that the US was getting on their VHS and Laser Discs.

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Up until the start of season 4, I'd done quite well keeping up with the VHS releases. Given each tape was around £12–13, it was a lot of money for a teenager. But by season 4 I couldn't keep up. Then, HMV released each season in an individual box set, and was able to pick up season 4 for I think about £70 using my birthday money. I still have the box in my parent's loft holding what videos I have left – it was pretty neat – thick card, I think a foil embossed logo, and the name of the season (e.g. No Surrender, No Retreat) – and kind of a precursor to the DVD season boxsets.

Speaking of boxsets, we also got the TNT movies released both as single tapes and in a boxset with the novelisation (except for River of Souls, since that novelisation was cancelled). I've still got the novels on my bookcase, and I think I still have the boxes at my parents. There was also a special box set that contained In the Beginning, Thirdspace, David Bassom's The Making of Babylon 5 and a B5 torch, and I see that boxset on eBay quite frequently.

Here's some promotional literature that would come with the tapes. The release schedule was one or two tapes each month.

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Next, the free gifts...
 
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Babylon 5 did very well on VHS here in the UK, with new releases regularly making it into the top 10 best sellers. And with that success, the main chains – HMV, Our Price and Virgin Megastore – competed for our custom with collectable free gifts, starting with the release of the third season.

From HMV, the first volume for season 3 and 4 came as a double pack with an extra plastic case to store collectable cards in. Collect all the cards, and they would form a picture on the back. Season 3's picture was weird, I think it is the space warp effect from when Ivanova used the Great Machine to go to Sigma 957. Season 4 was the poster for In the Beginning. There were three cards per volume, and they were quite large, about 3.5 by 6 inches.

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HMV also produced another card set that came in a little card wallet. I have no memory of what this came with, but the nine cards are split into three groups – Behind the Scenes, The Makers of Babylon 5 and Story Arch (sic) – with text on the back. It seems to be mostly season 1 based, except for the season 2 cast photo. If anyone can remind me how this card set was made available, please let me know!

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Our Price and Virgin also had a card set exclusive to them, but I only have three cards from that set. These cards were the same size as the others at 3.5 x 6 inches, and had text on the back. Why I don't have a complete set of any of them is a mystery given I was buying the videos at the time.

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Finally, there were also these tiny stickers that came with season 4 videos from one of the stores (I want to say Our Price or Virgin). I believe there was also a poster to which the stickers could be stuck, but I don't have the poster. They are small, smaller than Panini stickers, for example.

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So that's it, the history of B5 on VHS in the UK. If I've missed anything out, please let me know, and if you've managed to get this far through these lengthy and probably boring posts, then thanks for reading!
 
Almost forgot, there was a trailer that appeared on the videos for the VHS collection, which was pretty good actually! I found it on YouTube – quality isn't that great, but you can get the gist!

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OMG that was FANTASTIC!!!!!!!! 🤯 THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!! 🫡 And now I'm definitely going to have to try to track down some of those cards and stickers. Love all of it. That HUNTER PREY cover was so great because it is so random. I hope those actors have seen it. 😂

Just an outstanding post. Loved reading every word. I'd love to read more history VHS releases. If you have a story please do tell. 🤓
 
One more thing that I've just remembered. When WB released season 5 on VHS, they had a giveaway; each cassette included a leaflet with a voucher, collect so many vouchers and you could mail away for either a B5-branded bag or a sweater. I got the sweater back in the day (which still fits!) and the bag from eBay. Unfortunately one of my dogs has gotten to the bag and nibbled on it.

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More cards! (Plus a free video, lol – at least it's my favourite cover) Got these off eBay, and I think I'm going to have to start hunting for all the cards now.

And look at that price – £12.99 for two episodes. We must have been crazy spending that much money on just two episodes back then, it just shows how much of a bargain box-sets are these days. I think I didn't get the full set of cards in the 90s because I probably bought most of my tapes from another shop where they were a pound cheaper and made my pocket money and paper-round money go a bit further.

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Very jealous. I would love to track down all of those cards, but I don't think I have the energy. 😄 I have rarely seen them in auctions. Don't know if it is a regional thing, but I've rarely ever seen them available to me.
 
Very jealous. I would love to track down all of those cards, but I don't think I have the energy. 😄 I have rarely seen them in auctions. Don't know if it is a regional thing, but I've rarely ever seen them available to me.
To be fair, I hardly ever see these cards in auctions either – I've just done a search of UK eBay and I can't find any.

A couple more things. First while I was searching eBay I was reminded that the TNT movies were also released on VHS in widescreen. I'm assuming these are like the widescreen of the DVDs – more of the live action but the effects shots cropped, rather than just cropping the entire 4:3 frame (which some nefarious video companies used to do at the beginning of the widescreen 'craze'), but if anyone knows for sure I'd be curious to find out (for some reason, the widescreen versions were always a pound more expensive, and since back in the 90s I didn't have a widescreen TV there seemed no point in getting them).

I also found on eBay some promo samples of video sleeves; I mentioned in a post above that I thought there were some releases with 4 episodes on a tape. These promo sleeves seem to corroborate that, or at least imply that there was once a plan to do that. Interestingly, one of the sleeves is season 1 episodes but the design of the sleeve is in the season 2 style, suggesting they may have been thinking of re-releasing the episodes in this format instead. https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/305543389543

And here's a few more goodies I'd forgotten about. These are prints, A4 in size. The first one is the classic season one promo poster. I think I got this free with one of the VHS tapes that I bought from a shop called Our Price, I can't remember which volume it was but something in the back of my mind wants to say it was the final volume of season 1.

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Next up is a double photo print that came with In The Beginning when purchased from Forbidden Planet. I think I was gifted this by someone as I got my copy in the boxset with the novel.

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I know they also released a similar print for Thirdspace when that was released on VHS, but I don't have that.

Tangentially, to celebrate the home video release of In The Beginning, Warners had a UK premiere at London's Leicester Square, with some of the cast present. I didn't go but I did pick up this signed ticket to the event on eBay a few years back.

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B5 was never massive in the UK. I don't think it ever got over two million viewers per episode (which was not a lot in those days) and by the end it was getting less than a million viewers, but I think Warners knew that the fanbase was steadfast and dedicated and provided a guaranteed audience for all this merchandise, at least the stuff related to the VHS releases, and books. As for other merchandise, we did get the Micro Machines at UK retail in small quantities, but everything else had to be imported.
 
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OH THOSE ARE FANTASTIC! And just to the historical standpoint, " B5 was never massive in the U.K.".... REALLY?! 🤯 I've always thought it was a big hit. I've always assumed it was a big hit in the U.K. because for decades it seems I've talked to more U.K. than U.S. fans. On top of that I recall cast members convention stories speaking of massive crowds at U.K. Cons. I guess rabidity took the place of quantity. 😂
 
Am a bit rusty on details, but wasn't the "first" script book The Coming of Shadows (A Channel 4 Book), followed by Day of the Dead. Not sure if the second one originated in the UK, but the first one certainly did. Plus Dining on Babylon 5. There were also the five books by Jane Killick, and the two volumes of the Official Magazine. I believe the first volume was only published in the UK, or at least only the second volume had a US print run. It gave me the impression that there was more of an active fan base there compared to the US.

If it wasn't for B5 :) Books, would of thought that virtually all material originated in the UK.
 
Oh, we definitely had a very active and dedicated fanbase - it just wasn't huge in the way Star Trek was.

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So here's a graph that shows that (you can find the full page on the second page of the Collectibles thread). These are the ratings and the 'audience appreciation' values for season 4 on channel 4 here in the UK. For context, season 1 and 2 had aired on Monday and Tuesday early evenings at 6pm, which for anyone on the commute home from work, they're probably going to miss it. Season 3 moved to 6pm on Sundays, so it was more accessible. By this stage Channel 4 knew it had a dedicated audience and I think they wanted to try and grow that audience, so they made a big deal out of season 4 and began showing it at 10pm on Thursday evenings, preceded by a science fiction quiz show that Claudia Christian appeared on a couple of times, and she also appeared on a Graham Norton talk show - this was all designed by C4 to drum up interest in season 4. And well, you can see from the graph, that it didn't work – The Hour of the Wolf opened with just shy of 1.8 million viewers, no higher than previous seasons. The season peaked with Into The Fire at 1.8 million, and reached a nadir of just over 1 million viewers around mid-season – I think a lot of people tuned out with the end of the Shadow War. Later episodes in the season were shown later and later at night, I think by the end the show was coming on at 11.15pm and not finishing until after midnight, when most people had gone to bed (and really I should have, with school the next day).

And then there's how season 5 was treated - dumped in the lunchtime slot on Sundays, and the last five episodes were shown in the morning during the children's segment between Christmas and New Year.

For comparison, above the graph we can see the bottom of a table and we can see that the repeat of Spock's Brain – universally considered one of the worst episodes, though I kinda like aspects of it – was watched by 2.7 million viewers during the same period as season 4 was on, and even an old Battlestar Galactica episode got 2.2 million viewers. The most watched shows - soap operas, major sports events, David Attenborough nature shows, would get over 20 million viewers.

Now, the red line on that graph is audience appreciation, and this is a different story. Audience appreciation was measured by basically counting how many people who began watching an episode stuck with it all the way through to the end, rather than turning off. An audience appreciation rating over 80 was considered excellent. Season 4 was always above 80 with the exception of Atonement and Intersections in Real Time, which were 79 and 78 respectively, so still high. (The article puts these lower values down to Atonement requiring some knowledge of earlier seasons, and Intersections being experimental.) B5 was almost always in the top 10 shows of the week for audience appreciation, and Endgame was actually number 1 – in other words, it was the most enjoyed programme of anything on British television that week. B5 really was TV's biggest secret, hardly anyone watched, but those of us who did were absolutely dedicated to it, packing out the conventions, and making the books, videos and associated magazines a success. Magazines like TV Zone and Cult Times practically survived on a diet of B5, and yes, the first volume of 9 issues of the official magazine (plus a one-off before that which tested the market) were only in the UK market before the relaunch in the US.

And I was probably incorrect to say most merchandise had to be imported - comics and action figures yes, we could only get them from speciality shops who imported them, but the books, videos, the CCG, CDs, posters could all be found in the shops quite easily. We even had our own B5 fan club (which I can discuss in a new thread if anyone's interested).
 
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