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Babylon 5: The Gathering/In the Beginning Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001


Babylon 5: The Gathering/In the Beginning box art

When the "Babylon 5" television series first aired in 1994, pundits probably dismissed as 'just another science fiction series set in space', riding the coattails of "Star Trek: Deep Space 9", which had premiered the year before, and shared a similar space station setting. But by the time J. Michael Straczynski's ambitious series finished its five-year run in 1998, after having moved to another network and avoided the axe of cancellation on numerous occasions, "Babylon 5" had blossomed into truly one of the more well-written and thought-provoking programs of the decade, if not in the history of television. Indeed, "Babylon 5" was not just another genre show... it was a 'genre innovator' with its pre-ordained 'five-year plan' that outlined the entire series arc from the pilot to the very last episode. Though multi-episode story arcs in a series were nothing new at the time, no one had ever dared to do it on such a grand and epic scale as Straczynski had envisioned.

Babylon 5

And though the series still exists in syndication, and an offshoot series, "Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers", is set to debut in North America in early 2002, many of the series' fans have longed to have the entire 113-episode run in their private collection. Other than setting their VCRs and taping all the episodes, the only choice for the series' fans was to purchase the occasional box set from Warner Home Video of only the most popular episodes. However, with the increasing popularity of releasing entire seasons of television shows as DVD box sets (which started with "The X-Files"), Warner Home Video has decided to test the waters with a DVD release of the double-sided disc "Babylon 5: The Gathering/In the Beginning", with future "Babylon 5" releases dependent on its reception. And though "Babylon 5: The Gathering/In the Beginning" skimps on the extra features one would normally hope for in a DVD release (i.e. commentary by Straczynski would have been nice), it is still a must-have for the show's fans, and just may win over a few new ones.

The Gathering

I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind. It began in the Earth year 2257 with the last of the Babylon stations located deep in neutral space. It was a port of call for refugees, smugglers, businessmen, diplomats, and travellers from a hundred worlds. It could be a dangerous place, but we accepted the risk because Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace. Under the leadership of its final commander, Babylon 5 was a dream given form. A dream of a galaxy without war, where species could live side-by-side in mutual respect. A dream that was endangered as never before by one man on a mission of destruction. Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. This is its story.

Michael O'Hare

"The Gathering" was the "Babylon 5" series pilot and it first aired in February of 1993. The story begins in the year 2257, as Babylon 5's Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) prepares for the arrival of Kosh, the ambassador from the secretive Vorlon Empire, thereby completing the diplomatic complement of the would-be 'United Nations in space'. Unfortunately, Kosh is nearly killed by an unknown assassin upon his arrival, placing the station on high alert. As Dr. Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) tries to stop the poison ravaging Kosh, head of security Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) launches an investigation. Meanwhile, damning evidence is uncovered by the station's new resident telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) that points to Sinclair as the assassin, and as a result, he is relieved of command, leaving the station in the hands of first officer Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita). To make matters worse, the Vorlon Empire has sent a sizable fleet to Babylon 5 to demand Sinclair's extradition.

There is a hole in your mind.

Ambassador Kosh's ship docks

Unfortunately, as with most pilots, "The Gathering" was a weak kick-off to the series. With only about 90 minutes to introduce the sizable ensemble of main characters and establish the rich and complex universe of "Babylon 5", it was not surprising that the run-of-the-mill murder-mystery story almost seemed to take a back seat to all the exposition and setup. In addition, the actors and production crew had not yet found the series' 'groove' (such as with Mira Furlan's 'rough-around-the-edges' make-up for playing Minbari ambassador Delenn), which further added to the unsure footing of "The Gathering". But despite these issues, "The Gathering" went on to earn some respectable ratings that were good enough to convince Warner Bros. to make a formal series order, which culminated in the airing of the first regular episode in the following year.

There's a 24-hour period in my life that I can't account for; it happened during the war with your people. You wouldn't be holding anything out on me, would you old friend?
Commander, I would never tell you anything that was not in your best interest.

Tamlyn Tomita, Patricia Tallman, and Johnny Sekka

Though "The Gathering" is unlikely to impress newcomers to the "Babylon 5" universe, long-time fans will certainly appreciate the nostalgia of watching the pilot again, especially with the foreknowledge of what ends up transpiring during the five-year series arc. Among the plot points that Straczynski quickly sets up as unanswered questions include the unexplained surrender of the Minbari during the Earth-Minbari War despite having been on the verge of victory, the Minbari government's mysterious request to have Sinclair stationed at Babylon 5, and the 'hole' in Sinclair's mind, a 24-hour period at the end of the Earth-Minbari War for which he has no memory of.

There was a time when this whole quadrant belonged to us! What are we now? Twelve worlds and a thousand monuments to past glories. Living off memories and stories, and selling trinkets. My god, man! We've become a tourist attraction. 'See the great Centauri Republic, open 9 to 5, Earth time.'

Mira Furlan

In addition to these unanswered questions, it is also fascinating to see what Straczynski purposefully reveals to the audience in the pilot episode. Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), the ambassador from the Centauri Republic, is presented as a gambling and drinking buffoon from a faded empire, while Ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) is a sinister and scheming warmonger determined to see Babylon 5 fail in its mission of peace. Of course, over the five years that would follow, these two characters would trade places, with G'Kar becoming a would-be martyr and prophet, while Londo's destructive ambitions would turn him into a tragic villain. And given that Londo would harbor the most regrets in the years that would follow, it is appropriate he that delivers the opening monologue, especially with the reference to how the dream of Babylon 5 'was endangered as never before by one man on a mission of destruction'. A prior existing relationship is also hinted at in the manner that Delenn greets Kosh at the welcoming reception, the details of which would not be revealed until "In the Beginning". Finally, a number of scenes hint at a Takashima's involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Kosh, especially a quick flash of the assassin using Takashima's ID to unlock a door-however, due to various reasons, Tomita did not sign on as a regular cast member, and what would have been an added layer of intrigue in the series was lost.

I look forward to meeting a Vorlon. I've heard much about them that is strange.
Such as?
Do you not have files on the Vorlons?
Absolutely, very large files. There's nothing in them, of course.

A Minbari meets his doom

Though the presentation of "The Gathering " on the DVD is full-screen, the version that appears on the disc is actually the 'TNT Special Edition', which was aired in 1998 to coincide with a new syndication run on Turner Network Television. Running fourteen minutes longer than the original version, the Special Edition was re-edited back into the six-act structure that Straczynski intended, which flows much more smoothly than the original nine-act structure that was dictated by Warner Bros. to accommodate for more commercial breaks. Also, Tomita's original dialogue, which was re-looped in the 1993 pilot to make her character sound 'softer', is restored, making her performance sound more natural and vibrant.

In addition, the Special Edition restores some scenes of interest to the show's fans, with the most interesting of which being Kosh addressing Sinclair as 'Entil-zha Valen' (which means 'Valen, he who builds the future' in Minbari), hinting at Sinclair's eventual transformation into the Minbari prophet Valen later on in the series. Also, a small scene reveals that Takashima uses valuable hydroponic space to grow coffee, while Dr. Kyle relies on stims to stay alert-these character traits would eventually transfer to the characters that replaced them in the series, Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs).

In the Beginning

Minbari ships during the Earth-Minbari War

Following the end of the fourth season of "Babylon 5" in 1998, the made-for-TV prequel movie "In the Beginning" was aired. Told in flashback by an aging Londo, now the Emperor of the defeated Centauri Republic, "In the Beginning" covers the Earth-Minbari War and the involvement of the characters who would eventually be stationed on Babylon 5. The story begins ten years prior to the events of "The Gathering", when the Earth Alliance, fresh off a victory over the Dilgar, is interested in expanding its sphere of influence in the galaxy. Despite warnings to the contrary by Ambassador Londo, Earth's military leaders decide to send a small force, led by the Prometheus, to gather intelligence on the mysterious Minbari. Unfortunately, they run into a Minbari fleet carrying a Grey Council expedition on its way to Z'ha'dum to confirm Valen's prophecy about the return of the Shadows. The Minbari greet the Earth fleet by opening all their gun ports, the traditional gesture of non-hostility, but it is mistaken by the captain of the Prometheus to mean an imminent attack, and he orders his ships to fire. During the attack, the leader of the Grey Council, Dukhat (Raynor Scheine), is killed, triggering a bloody conflict that almost exterminates the human race.

Did they live happily ever after?
That remains to be seen.

With its epic scale, "In the Beginning" is much more readily accessible to newcomers to the "Babylon 5" phenomenon, and serves as an excellent appetizer to watching the series for the first time. However, like "The Gathering", "In the Beginning" is probably best appreciated by viewers already familiar with the show, as the story is deeply integrated with the 'series mythology'. Londo's narration of "In the Beginning" serves as a nice bookend to his opening monologue of "The Gathering", and the telling of the story to two children is revealed to have a significant bearing on the outcome of the third-season episode "War Without End Part 2". In addition, it is revealed that Delenn had dealings with Kosh prior to his arrival on Babylon 5, explaining their apparent familiarity in "The Gathering". Another nice moment occurs when Delenn makes the fateful decision to spare two humans in the aftermath of a failed peace negotiation, with one of them being John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), who would not only eventually become President of the Minbari-brokered Interstellar Alliance, but also her husband.

Ah, arrogance and stupidity all in the same package. How efficient of you.

Even without the 'gee-whiz' moments related to story continuity, "In the Beginning" is an enthralling standalone piece with excellent production values. Given that the actors and crew had four prior years of experience in working on the series, the performances and production flow much more smoothly in comparison to "The Gathering". The script also benefits from strong thematic elements that illustrate the pitfalls of arrogance and pride, particularly in the events that ignite and escalate the war. In addition, these themes are echoed in Londo's self-reflection, both in relation to his involvement in the Earth-Minbari War, and implied by his actions since then (i.e. during the series).

Are we on? This is...this is the President. I have just been informed that the midrange military bases at Beta Durani and Proxima 3 have fallen to the Minbari advance. We have lost contact with Io and must presume they have fallen to an advance force. Intelligence believes the Minbari intend to bypass Mars and hit Earth directly. They say the attack could come at any time. We have...we have continued to broadcast our surrender and a plea for mercy. They have not responded. We can only conclude that we stand at the twilight of the human race. To buy time for more evacuation transports to leave Earth, we ask for the support of every ship capable of fighting to take part in a last defense of our home world. We will not lie to you: survival is not a possibility. Those who enter the battle will never come back. But for every ten minutes we can delay the enemy advance, several hundred more civilians may be able to escape to neutral territory. Though Earth may fall, the human race must have a chance to continue elsewhere. No greater sacrifice has ever been asked of a people. But I ask you now to step forward one last time, one last battle to hold the line against the night. God go with you all.

The Battle of the Line

The crew at Netter Digital Animation also go overboard in visualizing the grand battles between the Earth Alliance and the vastly-superior Minbari, particularly in bringing the 'Battle of the Line' to life, where the remainder of Earth's forces makes one valiant last stand. The emotional resonance of this momentous battle sequence is further heightened by the Earth President's (Tricia O'Neil) moving speech, where she asks humanity's last defenders 'to step forward one last time, one last battle to hold the line against the night.' Perhaps Straczynski said it best in an on-line chat about "In the Beginning": "I think it's one of those moments when we committed art."

And so it begins...

Since its diminutive beginnings in 1993, "Babylon 5" has been a landmark in the history of television history, and it is doubtful that there will ever be another series with as much vision, foresight, determination, and ambition. The DVD release of "Babylon 5: The Gathering/In the Beginning" offers just a small taste of the superb storytelling, literary sensibility, and epic scale awaiting viewers in the rest of Straczynski's 'dream given form'. Hopefully, the show's legion of fans will show their support for this initial release, thereby bringing the release of DVD boxed sets of the show's five seasons closer to reality.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.


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