Babylon 5 #1: The Gathering

"Babylon 5 is open for business."
IN THIS ONE... It begins. The regular cast is introduced (plus Lyta Alexander, Benjamin Kyle and Laurel Takashima), as is the station and world. The Vorlon Ambassador Kosh arrives and immediately becomes the victim of an assassination attempt.

REVIEW: Take a deep breath, the first one is always long. Babylon 5 is a multi-year televisual novel of the kind we're more familiar with today, though a particularly ambitious idea in the day (which was 1993). The pilot has the tough job of introducing us to an entire world, which has its own history, species and technology, as well as to a large cast of characters. That it gets a bit slow in the middle, what with all the exposition required, is understandable, though still a drain on the viewer's energy. But it gets the job done, setting up the show's premise, while also opening up several mysteries to pay off in the series. Some ideas were subsequently abandoned - Delenn's power rings, Sinclair's girlfriend, the idea that Delenn starts off as a male and would transform into a female later - but that was probably for the better. The pilot also offers slightly different make-up jobs on the alien characters, with mannish Delenn (still played by Mira Furlan) the most extreme, and Londo the least (something with the teeth). On a technical note, the DVD presents this one in full screen so the effects aren't all zoomed-in and glitchy. Huzzah! Now, obviously, the 90s CG used in Babylon 5 isn't on par with what Trek was doing at the time with a mix of models and visual effects. I'm not bothered. Yes, it looks cheaper, but I'll forgive it when the writing is strong, and loved, for example, Space: Above and Beyond which used similar effects. We can agree these are "representations", and part of the suspension of disbelief required. And the DVD features the 1998 special edition of the pilot, which sounds much superior to the broadcast TV movie (see Versions), and is the only one I can actually review. So let's get to it, shall we?

The show is named after a space station, but that's as much to say it's about the community that lives aboard. The characters are what will make this series succeed or fail. Looking first at the human cast, we start with Commander Sinclair, who I only really remembered as the guy who wasn't as cool as Sheridan, the guy who replaced him. Well, I think the character is due for a complete reevaluation. Sinclair is, professionally, hard as nails, a guy whose bluff you dare not call, a real "cowboy diplomat", and yet has a softer side he can show when off-duty. Anyone accusing Michael O'Hare of stiff acting (which is admittedly a problem in B5) should look at the scene where he has his Vietnam flashback. In many ways, this is a story about war veterans - winners, losers, soldiers, victims - all of them traumatized. If Sinclair is a little starchy, it's because he needs the armor to function. But I like that he has a girlfriend here, and I love his micro-transmitter bluff on G'Kar. His second-in-command, Laurel Takahashi, isn't so good. Like him, she's tough and harsh when she wears the uniform, as softer when she isn't, which lacks a bit of color (but her replacement, Ivanova, is the same and I have no problems with her, quite the opposite). No, I think Takahashi is simply miscast. Tamlyn Tomita looks too young to hold the position, and looks lost in that over-sized uniform (more uniform problems: the day players on the bridge look like sous-chefs who've just lost 50 pounds overnight). She really IS stiff and unlikable, never really managing to convince me she had a handle on the role. She, along with Dr. Ben Kyle and PsiCorps' Lyta Alexander, do not return for episode one of the series (an in-universe explanation might be that these were the three who fooled around with a prone Vorlon against orders), and though it was Tomita's choice, I won't miss her. Dr. Kyle didn't make much of an impression on me either, a poor man's Dr. McCoy (the older friend of the commander's), though Lyta returns later in the series, which is fine because I had no problems with her character. If there's a human character who is second to Sinclair, it's none of these, but rather security chief Michael Garibaldi. Though Jerry Doyle has never struck me as an actor with a lot of range, he's fine as B5's everyman, down-to-Earth (which is an ironic turn of phrase, as we'll one day find out), but also capable of providing comic relief in his interactions with the rest of the cast.

The aliens are generally more intriguing and even charming. That part of the cast is centered on four diplomatic missions, representing the four other powers in the universe. Where humanity seems to be on the rise, the Centauri are in decline. They are represented by Londo, a character that by rights should be risible if not for the gusto and pathos Peter Jurasik brings to the role. The crazy hair, the Bela Lugosi accent, and the role of "resident rogue" should have made him a kind of Ferengi comic relief, but you the Centauri ambassador is much more than that. He's bitter about his empire's losses, a political operative quicky losing influence in a culture where status, family and tradition are important. A product of a failing empire, he's naturally decadent, a gambler, a drinker, his position so weak he has to make backroom deals with former enemies like G'Kar. Ah, G'Kar  (soft "G" please). He's a Narn, the youngest of the "five Federations". They were once invaded and enslaved by the Centauri, but are currently free to forge their own destinies. I don't know what their culture was like before they were subjugated, but now they're clearly a martial culture with a strong deceptive streak. Andreas Katsulas is a powerful presence in the role, and perhaps the show's initial villain. Having tasted power, the Narns are greedy for more, presumably, and he's just a patriot from his point of view. The pass he makes at Lyta is... words fail me. In the corner opposite humanity are the Minbari, represented by the (for now) androgynous Delenn, a somewhat ethereal species and the most evolved culture of the lot. They appear to be the wise men and women of the galaxy, a people who see patterns others don't, and who, for some reason, surrendered just as they were about to win the war with us. They work in mysterious ways and speak in a poetic mode (so the fact they have no poets is interesting). Delenn seems intent on helping Sinclair, apparently committing treason against her own government to do so. What's her play here? And even more of an enigma than she is, we have the newly-arrived Vorlon ambassador Kosh, a creature we're never allowed to see. Are they energy beings? Madness-inducing Cthuhuoids? (Their ships look like squids.) I don't know, but they add a touch of the bizarre, and I do like the concept of an "encounter suit" with which people must interact.

And of course, Kosh's arrival sets the plot into motion. Now, I'm not a huge fan of this plot, but I do respect it. With an assassination attempt on an ambassador that's also a frame-up job for (in this case) Sinclair is pretty familiar territory, and it's a little too early to cast doubt on one of the main characters. Or maybe it's the right time, because we haven't learned enough about any of the characters to know who we like and trust. But you do lose an element of shock. The investigation that follows isn't particularly involving, and the kangaroo court fails to understand what abstaining means (sorry, pet peeve from years of work with non-profits). Things pick up at the end with a bit of a firefight and an explosion ending with a pretty cool stunt dive, but whatever. What I do like is what it ultimately says about the program. See, the assassin is using technology that allows him to look like anyone, and that's very much a metaphor for the show's political story. In Babylon 5, it's really not clear who's meant to be a hero and who's meant to be a villain. Our bias is to side with the humans, but they're not necessarily the most likable, and PsiCorps seems a particularly fascist element. For that matter, why is Earth's diplomatic representative a military officer? Londo and G'Kar are certainly capable of wrong-doing, but I can't get mad at them because they're the most charming characters in the cast! In fact, the insubordinate human trio might have done as much to start a war with the Vorlons as G'Kar's machinations might've. And what of the Minbari, who were at war with us a mere 10 years ago, but have a representative on the very best terms with Sinclair? The fact the assassin is a Minbari dissident only adds another layer of ambiguity.

While a show like this could function with a "plot of the week", it's really meant to be a serial, so sowing the seeds of future story lines is important. Thankfully, JMS laces the pilot with plenty of mysteries. Why did the Minbari suddenly give up 10 years ago? What happened in the 24 hours Sinclair lost during the war, what is the "hole in [his] mind"? Why doesn't Earthgov trust Garibaldi and why was he bounced from post to post until he got to B5? What is Delenn's deal? What is Kosh's? What the heck happened to Babylon 4? It just disappeared as soon as it came online?! Despite the detective/action plot, the show's focus is on politics, keeping secrets, making deals, finding out who to trust, and that's key to B5's success. I was stoked, for example, that there was so little techno-babble in the story. A bit of sensor stuff at the end to spot the assassin and shouting at console jockeys to get the station stabilized after an explosion, and well, that's it. AND I AM FINE WITH THAT APPROACH.

A few last words on the production elements themselves. In this first outing, the station interiors are actually rather good, with lots of large spaces - the two-storied plaza, the tunnel that seems to bend back along the circumference of the tubular station, the gardens, the casino, etc. The more confined sets look more tatty, though I understand the intent is to make this a more run-down universe. Still, Babylon 5 itself isn't that old, is it? There's a definite dated 90s look to the color schemes, hair and make-up. Really dated are the computer screens, but that's inevitable. One thing I do like is the cinematic lighting in the pilot. Lots of harsh overhead light, a sense that the station is turning and sunlight moves around the frame, lots of smoke and atmosphere. There are a couple scenes where it's a bit of a disco, but generally, this is a strong unifying element. Overall, not the best looking series, but the story trumps the production's limitations.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: What came first? DS9 or B5? The former first aired on January 3rd, 1993. The latter, 23 days later. Of course, DS9 would benefit from more than 30 additional episodes in between B5's pilot and its first season. Obviously, the premise is much the same. The action takes place on a space station with a number in its name, manned by human officers trying, among other things, to keep the peace between alien forces, some of which they themselves were recently at war with. The hyperspace jump points replace warp drive as a means of interstellar travel, but aren't unlike DS9's articifical wormhole. G'Kar is played by Andreas Katsulas, best known to Trek fans as the Romulan Commander Tamalak, who never appeared on DS9, only TNG. Hollywood being what it is, there are plenty of other actors who've done both Trek and B5, including about half the pilot's cast. We don't need to go into it. One-to-one comparisons between B5 and Trek aliens are doomed to failure (happily), though the Narn seem perhaps the most familiar, combining the military culture and extreme looks of the Klingons with the smooth double talk of the Cardassians, but these are superficial at best. What's really striking is the similarity in set design. The control center has a pit just like DS9's ops, the "promenade" has balconies over-looking a market, there's a big casino in the center where characters can go and unwind... even the sickbay is arranged in a vaguely similar way! Where B5 was first: DS9 would later give its commander a girlfriend who runs a civilian ship, and would make liberal use of "shapeshifting" enemies.

VERSIONS: Not usually a category, but just this once... The DVD release features a different edit that brings the pilot closer to JMS' original vision. It restores many character moments, as well as Takashima's original line readings (her looped lines sounded softer and less authoritative in the broadcast version). The new version has more music in it, and there are fewer acts (i.e. breaks to commercial). Other changes are minor and subtle (different coverage, sound layers, etc.).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - No higher? Well look, the first season's first episode reintroduces these concepts in a punchier story, and has the proper continuing characters, make-ups, etc. The Gathering is still a very good introduction to the Babylon 5 universe and one that, especially on the directorial side, looks much better than most first season episodes.


Anonymous said...

"The hyperspace jump points replace warp drive as a means of interstellar travel, but aren't unlike DS9's articifical wormhole."

There's a big difference, though, that sometimes gets forgotten: the DS9 wormhole is the point around which then entire series revolves*, while the B5 hyperspace jump points are mundane utilities, like highway ramps.

One thing B5 tries to do well, and succeeds at somewhat, is giving us flawed yet competent officers. Sheridan is great at this when he comes on board; Ivanova is so-so (I think they tried too hard with her), but Takahashi screams (literally screams once or twice) that she has no business in a command role. DS9 didn't do a perfect job of this either. The series that really nailed it was "Farscape".

In terms of framing the Centauri, I think of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its final years. All fragile and feeble and spent, nothing left but aristocracy and tradition.

Something to watch for in the first season of B5: JMS's original plan was that Sinclair would be the station commander for the entire run of the series, so a lot of what happened to Sheridan was initially planned to happen to Sinclair. Keep that in mind, for example, during the many many times it's declared that Sinclair and Garibaldi are as close as brothers. That sure would make it tragic if Garibaldi were eventually to betray Sinclair or something, wouldn't it.

Or keep in mind how straightforward it would be if Sinclair's space explorer wife were to disappear but then miraculously come back alive. Certainly simpler than if Melissa Gilbert had to be introduced as a long-dead wife who later shows up miraculously intact, yes?

*: Actually the point around which DS9 whirls is Benny Russell's pencil making the period at the end of the sentence "... and opens it." But I am being figurative.

Ryan Lohner said...

Actually, Takashimi's replacement wasn't Tomita's choice. The network said she didn't sound feminine enough so they made her overdub her lines to sound softer, and then fired her for not being a believable commander. Dear god, it's frustrating, though at least we did get Ivanova out of it.

The show is in the 2250s, not 2050s. Not that it really matters beyond "really far in the future."

Not that I blame anyone who accused Michael O'Hare of being stiff, as there was no way they could tell, but it's really painful to recall those comments now that we know he was fighting SCHIZOPHRENIA, and deliberately withholding treatment so the show wouldn't die.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I have never seen Babylon 5, but you make it sound worth a look. Maybe this will be my fall/winter 'new' sci-fi discovery.

Of course, I know the names Londo, G'Kar, Delenn, like those of old friends. I spent the better part of two years in grad school in a computer lab on workstations of those names. Clearly there was a fan in the IT room.

- Jason

Madeley said...

Wow, I hadn't realised Michael O'Hare was dealing with a medical issue at the time, getting through just one series is a hell of an achievement on those terms. He certainly has moments when he absolutely nails the trauma of a combat veteran.

Was Sinclair always meant to be the commander right the way through, though? I knew he was intended to be around longer than one series. Wasn't "one who was, one who is, one who will be" mentioned in series one? Maybe not, I could well be remembering incorrectly. I guess we're going to find out!

"Midnight on the Firing Line" was the first episode broadcast in the UK. I don't know when the pilot was actually broadcast, if it ever was, but I do remember buying the video of it. There was so much going on in B5 even in the early days that realising I'd missed part of the puzzle was hugely frustrating.

The thing that always sticks in my mind about the pilot is the music. Stewart Copeland (drummer with the Police) did the score, and it was so strange hearing such guitar-heavy music in a space opera. A huge contrast to the usual orchestral stuff. Christopher Franke's electronic synthy approach was just as distinctive (if maaaaybe sounding like it had been done on the cheap), of course, and the different title themes he did (S3 in particular) are still some of my favourite themes of all time, but I'm still really curious as to what they sound like in the parallel universe where Copeland stayed on.

Well, I know what they would have sounded like, they would have sounded like 1980s squealy guitar noodling.

Siskoid said...

Those are some highly developed comments, guys. I think we're gonna have a fruitful few months together.

Anon: The Austro-Hungarian Empire is definitely what they're going for with the costume, accent, etc.

Ryan: Well, JSM says she decided to leave because she didn't want to play military for a year or more, and didn't feel comfortable with the role. Like I said yesterday, I don't much care about the behind the scenes stuff. The reviews are principally about what made it on screen. (And sorry about the dating snafu... too much to absorb, I guess.)

Didn't know about O'Hare's travails, wow. That is harsh.

Jason: That's hilarious! Now, did anyone notice all my World of Warcraft characters had named culled from Doctor Who?

Madeley: I guess I just watched it the way you initially experienced it, Midnight first, then the pilot (I still wrote the reviews in the proper order though). I was surprised to find Midnight wasn't the pilot, because it stood up so well as an introductory episode.

I agree the music is rather ambient instead of orchestral. Adds to the mood, I think.

Anonymous said...

"Wasn't 'one who was, one who is, one who will be' mentioned in series one?"

Nope. Zathros said that Sinclair was not "The One", and as happened later, what he was probably talking about was that Sinclair was not ready to be The One. Full credit to JMS for reworking the "The One" premise in a way that included Sheridan and Delenn, but I am pretty sure that wasn't the original plan.

For that matter, the whole Great Machine business ... all this build-up about this mysterious technology, and it's used exactly once in the middle of season 3, and never heard from again? I think it's more likely that the original plan was for the series protagonist, at the end of the series, to take things full circle by becoming [SPOILER] and then using the [SPOILER] to take [SPOILER] to [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILERY SPOILER], rather than embed that whole plot point somewhere in season 3.

So, would you rather use the bathroom after Zathros or Neelix? Defend your choice.

Siskoid said...

Sounds like a question for another, I don't even know who you mean at this point!

Ryan Lohner said...

"Full credit to JMS for reworking the "The One" premise in a way that included Sheridan and Delenn, but I am pretty sure that wasn't the original plan."

He's described that particular story point as being like building a tesseract, with all kinds of different pieces that had to be worked around due to real life issues. It's amazing that it holds together as well as it does.

"For that matter, the whole Great Machine business ... all this build-up about this mysterious technology, and it's used exactly once in the middle of season 3, and never heard from again?"

There was going to be more with it, but John Schuck left to do a play, and JMS decided it would be too much to ask us to accept a third actor as Draal.

Anonymous said...

At some point, we ALL need to decide whether we'd rather use the bathroom after Zathros or Neelix.

(myself, I pick Neelix)

LiamKav said...

A few thoughts:

There is an interview out there somewhere (I know that I said that yesterday as well), that mentioned that the original plan was actually for TWO 5 yeah series, with the end of the first series being the destruction of Babylon 5, and then the whole second series being set on Babylon 4 and involving the Shadow War. At some point very, VERY early on in season 1 either JMS realised or was persuaded to cut that down, as the changes of the show lasting ten years was slim to none.

I do agree with the points raised about how much of season one has seeds that seem to show that Sinclair would be our primary protagonist for the whole length of the series. And as Anonymous says, in many ways "War Without End" would work better as a SERIES finale rather than a mid point in the story. I'm not complaining though, as Sleeping in Light is up there with All Good Things and the Cheers final episde as one of the best TV finales ever written.

There was going to be more with it, but John Schuck left to do a play, and JMS decided it would be too much to ask us to accept a third actor as Draal.

That's the problem with JMS. He's very much a guy who will always give an answer, even if there isn't one. And he's absolutely the sort of guy who'd say "well, it was originally gonna be used at the end of season 5, but because of the whole thing with the change of leads I had to get rid of Sinclair much earlier. Let's just agree not to mention it again for the next two and a half years, even though it would be really, really useful for the main characters to use it."

I'll probably mention this at the start of season 2, but I remember someone describing Sinclair as being hard on the surface but soft underneath, whereas Sheridan was the exact opposite. I like that. And rewatching Season 1 does make me warm to Sinclair. Still, the show gets a major boost of energy when Boxleitner turns up. He just zings off of everyone.

Londo is absolutely one of my all time favourite characters. The way that he starts out pathetic and comic relief and G'Kar is brutish and nasty, and then.. well, I won't spoil it, but the characters and actors amazed me time and time again.

One nitpick: You're a bit all over the place with spelling Delenn's name. It does sound like you've had a hell of a fortnight though, so it's understandable. :)

LiamKav said...

One thing: Copeland only did the music on the original version of The Gathering. Franke did the music for the redone version and the series.

One other hint that the change of lead wasn't planned: In the original version of the pilot, Londo's line says "under the leadership of her final commander..." JMS said that line still worked because Sheridan was a captain, not a commander, but obviously still thought it was a good idea on the special edition to change it, as in that version he just says "under the leadership of her commander".

Siskoid said...

Unlike Trek and Who, which I have read EXTENSIVELY about, B5's names and vocabulary tend to get away from me. Sorry about that.

Are you saying you're "watching along", Liam?

Anonymous said...

"I'm not complaining though, as Sleeping in Light is up there with All Good Things and the Cheers final episde as one of the best TV finales ever written."

So totally agreed. Sheridan is my second favorite space commander (only Sisko rates higher); Boxleitner did a fantastic job in that role. I really love his final line: "wouldja look at that". Absolutely perfect as the guy who was always down to earth even as he was on the cusp of transcending humanity.

I almost forgot: as far back as the 20th century, the Internet decided that Babylon 5 could beat up Deep Space Nine:

LiamKav said...

God knows I don't want to get into a Trek vs ANYTHING argument, but (he says with gritted teeth), I'm pretty sure that the technology of the 24th century Federation wipes the floor with the technology of the 23rd Century Earth Alliance.

Anyway, I will try and follow along. I've only got season one on DVD and I've got a busy couple of weeks coming up, but I'll give it a go! And if it goes well, I might actually pick up season 2 on the cheap...

DustMan said...

"He's described that particular story point as being like building a tesseract, with all kinds of different pieces that had to be worked around due to real life issues. It's amazing that it holds together as well as it does."

See, that's what makes this such a beautiful series. JMS had a plan, and knew enough about it to be able to adapt to changing conditions (cast changes, network issues, etc.). When you compare B5 to other series that supposedly knew where they were going or "had a plan" that completely fell apart as it approached the end without most of those issues JMS faced, it's almost laughable that those writers still have people watching their work.

Also, if anyone has the B5 script books released a few years ago, the special 15th volume has the original 5 year arc notes with Sinclair in the lead. If anyone cares, I can summarize the highlights when I get home tonight.

Siskoid said...

Liam: You don't have to! Just the way you were talking. (And Amazon has them all on the very cheap)

Randal said...

I had a student who graduated this year whose middle name was G'Kar. First day I did a double take, then a couple days later asked if his parents were B-5 fans. Long suffering sigh in the affirmative. I didn't bring it up again.

I chose, at that time, to reflect that a 17 year old kid was named after a show I watched post college, because that would be too depressing for words.

I was at Phoenix Comicon when JMS revealed the whole schizophrenia thing. Yeah, it the room.

Madeley said...

DustMan: I would love to read a summary of the original plan, but it would inevitably be very spoilery for this thread. Is there a link elsewhere on the internet to it?

Regarding the reworking of "The One" as a concept, this is one of the changed forced on JMS that definitely improved the theme of the show. B5's obviously, explicitly, about the power and importance of individuals to change history, but it's ALSO about all the things that can be achieved together, collectively, despite our differences. Having "The One" be a single messiah figure, I feel, would have pushed the balance too far one way, whil having three-as-one is a beautifully elegant summation of the show's philosophy.

Not one character was the same at the end as they were at the beginning, and most of the time they changed RADICALLY. On a wholly meta level, isn't it a little brilliant that a show so dedicated to the theme of change had to itself change to accommodate so much disruption?

Also, does anyone else wonder what other "trapdoors" JMS had planned? Like, what would happen if Jurasik or Katsulas left after the pilot? Or would it just have been as simple as shuffling their diplomatic aides up the chain?

Timothy Brannan said...

This is going to be a great read. I was/am a dyed in the wool Trek fan and only gave B5 a passing glance. But I am enjoying this so far and if the reviews are of the same quality as your posts on Doctor Who then this will be great.

DustMan said...

Madeley, you're right, it probably would be too spoilery (even more so than we already have gotten). Maybe after the series is done I can put it up?

I vaguely remember reading a shorter version on the Lurker's Guide ( but I can't find it now. Unfortunately, the full text is only available in the printed book. It was a limited edition series, and volume 15 was only available as a free gift if you purchased the other 14 volumes.

Chuck Lavazzi said...

Straczynski, it must be noted, was trying to do something which was pretty much unheard-of at the time: create a five-year "novel for television" (his words) with a planned beginning, middle, and end. At one point early in the series he mentioned that he had told his co-producers exactly what would happen in the final episode and they looked at him like he was nuts. JMS was a major presence on the 5 Usenet newsgroup back when the series aired and routinely interacted directly with fans; which was also quite an innovation at the time.

FYI The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5 is still the authoritative source for background on the series:

Chuck Lavazzi said...

As for the whole B 5/DS 9 thing, it's a matter of recorded fact that JMS pitched B5 to Paramount before DS 9 went on the air. He always said he didn't think DS 9's creators intentionally copied anything from the B5 pitch but the whole issue is likely to remain murky for eternity. Here's an interesting article on the subject for those curious enough to pursue it:

Siskoid said...

That's interesting.

Media is of course full of such "coincidences", some actually coincidental, some due to some influence. X-Men/Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing/Man-Thing, and so on.

It's what you do with the premise you may or may not have consciously copied.

Kid Kyoto said...

Great idea, looking forward to following this for some time!

I agree with your comment about why Earth's diplomatic rep was a military officer, it always struck me as wrong. Especially since all the aliens are represented by civilians.

It really comes to a head in a few seasons when Sheridan is assigned a political appointee to keep an eye on him and resents it.

The whole plot point has a distinctly facist feel to it, that the military is the only trustworthy organ of government.

But I doubt it was deliberate, probably just the need for a TV hero to do EVERYTHING, he fights fistfights, flies fighters, heads the station and represents us in the Space UN.


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