"Babylon 5 is open for business."
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.