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Monday, 4 April 2016

Babylon 5: The Gathering - Special Edition

Written by:J. Michael Straczynski|Original Version Air Date:22-Feb-1993

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures I'll be going through the feature length pilot episode for J. Michael Straczynski's science fiction TV epic Babylon 5! Though I'm going to be calling him JMS, because it's easier to type and I don't think he'll mind.

In fact I've decided to commit to finishing the entire first season and maybe more after that if watching 22 episodes of first season Babylon 5 doesn't utterly break my spirit. I've done the maths, and if I get through an episode every two weeks I'll be able to hit Severed Dreams in time for the 25th anniversary! I'll also be writing about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine simultaneously as it doesn't seem right to watch one without the other. The two arch-rival space station shows actually aired their pilots just a month apart, though this had spent so long getting off the ground it was actually written before Star Trek: The Next Generation began in 1987. Then there was another gap before the series proper began airing, giving DS9 a year's head start.

I had to buy the 1998 TNT special edition of the movie on DVD, because it seems that someone's taped over my VHS version with a snow storm. It's probably for the best though, as the special edition has extra scenes, a tighter editing job, and a new soundtrack (plus it's way easier to get screencaps from). Also I'm hoping that if I spend enough money on B5 DVDs the gods of irony will torment me with a sudden announcement that high-definition Blu-Rays are finally being produced and I have to buy them all again. The horror.

Okay I'm going to pretty much go through the whole movie scene by scene, so if 50 images with SPOILERS under each holds no appeal to you, you're not going to want to click "Read on". I'll only be ruining the pilot though; there'll be zero discussion of anything revealed in episodes aired afterwards.



The film begins with a computer generated shot of Babylon 5 station, a 5 mile long city orbiting a nondescript rock in a blue part of space. It's a bit like the Citadel in 'Mass Effect', except rendered on a home computer from 1987.

There's narration here to set the scene, which is later revealed to be spoken by an alien ambassador called Londo Mollari.
“I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of mankind. It began in the Earth year 2257, with the founding of 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.”
He goes on a bit longer than that, but that’s the gist of it. I like how Londo's speaking in past tense here, apparently telling the tale from some point long after the series has finished. JMS had a plan for the whole five year arc figured out in advance, and was fond of writing in hints to how things would eventually play out. Trouble is that the plan changed due to exposure to reality, and Londo's original line here about the station's "final commander" doesn't ring so true any more. So that's perhaps the first thing that's been sneakily edited out of the special edition.

Okay now you've had a good look at the station, here's what it looks like on my DVD menu:

I don't even know what's going on there. Did they strap two Babylon 5's together to try to make Babylon 10 or something?

Other things wrong with this menu include: no making of video, no documentary on the changes made for the special edition, no commentary... and I don't even get a trailer! It's the most barebones disc I've seen in forever. Plus it's cruel to make the menu widescreen when the rest of the movie is in a 4:3 aspect ratio.

I know that it's possible to get a disc with a JMS commentary track, but if I'd bought that I'd be missing out on owning this old school 90s cardboard DVD snap case, complete with four perforated 'proof of purchase' tabs along the spine!

The trouble with this being the reconstructed special edition of the movie, is that I don't know which of these effects shots have been replaced with newer renderers. They're not making it easy for me to see how the CGI evolved over the series. But if this scene was one of the ones rendered on 8 networked Amiga 2000 computers fitted with 2MB of RAM and a Video Toaster card, then it came out pretty well considering!
 
Babylon 5 might not have been the first live action TV series to rely on computer generated effects in place of model shots… but it probably was. You couldn't exactly call its visuals photorealistic, but it could have so much more happening on screen for so much less money, and by the end of its five year run pretty much every sci-fi series had jumped on board the CGI train along with it.

Hey they've changed the credits. This would've originally said 'Music by STEWART COPELAND', but his soundtrack has been replaced by with new music by Christopher Franke. Whether it sounds better depends on your taste in music, but Franke was the sole composer for the 110 episodes that came afterwards, so this at least feels a lot more like Babylon 5 now.

One thing they couldn’t replace to match the rest of the series is Lieutenant Commander Laurel Takashima here. The actress decided not to return for season one, so her part in the epic five year story arc begins and ends in this movie. But they've restored some of her personality at least. Her voice was dubbed over in ADR to give her a softer tone, but the special edition puts her original voice track back.

This room is C&C by the way, the command centre for the station. If you want to be blinded by the spotlights on incoming ships, this is the best place to stand.

The story soon finds its way down to meet Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Babylon 5's wise, yet heroic leading man. Some might even say wooden, though I think that's harsh. Sinclair is a decorated war hero and will one day claim to be descended from a long line of fighter pilots. Personally I think he's descended from Christian Bale.

These uniforms aren't quite the same as they are in the TV series and I've been staring at his jacket trying to figure out what's wrong with it. Seems that it's missing the little pin on the collar, and the insignia on the epaulets look a bit off. Oh, plus it's missing the massive leather strip down the front, like duh!

Anyway, Sinclair's come down to the customs area to personally greet another main character as she comes on board: commercial telepath Lyta Alexander.

He checks her identicard and we suddenly get a screenful of info in the face.

There's a couple of interesting things here I've noticed, but I think the most important is the hidden message in the top left saying 'ELVIS STILL LIVES'. Or maybe it says 'ELVIS STILL LOVES YOU', it's hard to tell with this interlacing. Either way the guy's apparently doing well for a 322 year old.

Like Laurel Takashima, Lyta was intended to be a series regular, but didn't make it back for season one. But you can catch the actress getting shot and blown up all over space as a stunt woman in the Star Trek spin offs.

Also coming on board is Del Varner, armed with a sneer and jacket that make him a contender for the dodgiest looking man in space. It's like there was a mix-up and the actor arrived on the wrong TV series. Maybe there's an episode of Only Fools and Horses where Del Boy's buying counterfeit watches from a lizard alien in a rubber mask.

Varner’s played by John Fleck who coincidentally also played the villain in the pilot of Star Trek: Enterprise, though in this he’s not doing anything openly evil. He’s just lurking.

But then a third passenger gets caught trying to smuggle 'dust' on board and it quickly escalates into a hostage situation. This didn't happen in the original cut!

Security Chief Garibaldi's first instinct is to shoot the guy, but Sinclair knows that'll end badly. Plus their gun props are terrible and he likely wants to limit their screen time. Instead he'll go out there himself and personally negotiate for the hostage's release.

People criticise Michael O’Hare’s acting as Sinclair, but I think he puts in an amazing performance during this scene, as he manages to deliver all his lines with a distracting alarm light constantly flashing in his eyes the whole time. He gives the dust dealer his word that he'll let him leave the station if he drops the gun and lets his hostage go... and then he actually keeps his promise once he surrenders! Just lets him fly away. So that worked out I guess.

I get why this scene was dropped from the original edit because it has absolutely zero impact on the story, but it does give Sinclair a chance to seem competent and commanding, and that's always nice. Plus it's funny that half the main cast disappeared before this even reached season one, yet the actress with no lines playing 'Hostage' came back. She'll play a unnamed officer credited as 'Tech #1' throughout the first year.

Then we're back in C&C for the first appearance of Ambassador G’Kar of the Narn Regime (you know, the guy from the DVD menu). He's a bit pissed off that the supply ship sent by his government isn’t being allowed to dock until they submit to a weapons search.

I don't think the B5 staff are picking on him in particular, I'm sure they scan everyone, but Takashima does use the opportunity to get in an awkward bit of exposition about how the Narns have been quietly invading planets "out on the fringe".

G’Kar’s looking really gaunt and angular here compared to his appearance in the series proper. One good thing about the year long break in between is that it gave the production team time to rethink things, and that really paid off with the alien ambassadors. I doubt anyone would accuse Babylon 5 of looking expensive, but the alien makeup was often top tier.

Speaking of aliens, Sinclair's been escorting Lyta through the Alien Sector, an area of the station pumped full of various poisonous atmospheres for species that don't take well to oxygen. He claims it's a shortcut to her quarters, and that sounds perfectly reasonable to me! I suppose they'll be cutting through the fusion reactor next.

This was originally B5's version of the Star Wars cantina scene, where we get to see all the alien masks and puppets they've built, but it came out looking too much like a zoo so that's all gone from the special edition.

Seems like they left in all the exposition though, as we learn that the station is home to an Advisory Council, which is a kind of Space UN where ambassadors from the alien races can vote on issues. Diplomacy is basically the station's main purpose, with its functions as a trading centre and military outpost being secondary (depending on who you ask).

Lyta wants just a little bit more exposition though, asking why the station’s called Babylon five. Which I guess shows how little publicity the station's been getting back on Earth (or wherever she's from). Deep Space Nine from Star Trek presumably got its name by being the 9th deep space station in operation, and I expect that's the kind of answer she's hoping for. But nope, it's actually because every time they build a Babylon station it explodes and they have to build a new one. Well except for Babylon 4 which disappeared without any trace or explanation. So enjoy your short stay on B5!

With the hostage crisis over, the Narn ambassador pissed off and the telepath officially greeted, the crew can get together in Sinclair's office and discuss more important business. You can tell this is set in the future as Sinclair's got transparent coloured paper artfully arranged on his desk and Takashima's brought a laptop.

Vorlon ambassador Kosh is arriving on board in 48 hours, and this is a big deal as it means that all four of the major races will have an ambassador on the station (plus Sinclair representing Earth as number five). The thing is, no one has ever seen a Vorlon before, they’re as mysterious as they are powerful, and they're pretty damn powerful, and the crew have been sent barely enough information to set up the atmosphere for his quarters so he doesn’t suffocate in his own living room.
 
“What about their psychology, customs, social order, how far they go on the first date?” asks Sinclair with a grin, but the line falls dead on arrival.

I like how all the rooms on this station seem to be filled with smoke by the way. It adds a lot of atmosphere (literally) and helps disguise how rushed the sets are. They stopped using it so much during the series though because of how nasty it is to work in.

Meanwhile in space, a shiny little bug pod detaches from a ship and makes its way over to the station, where it clamps onto the hull and begins to cut a hole.

You know, I think the thing that dates B5's CGI more than anything is those ugly tiled textures. You can camouflage a lack of polygon detail with well drawn textures, but the images they've used here make it look like a screenshot from 'Quake'. It's not the modeller's fault though, as you couldn't even fit the page you're reading now into the amount of RAM they had to work with.

Aha, that background has to be a new effect! Not because it looks 5 years more advanced, but because the station interior was tweaked a little at some point to add some red paint and fix the light strip running down the middle.

Commander Sinclair's still blissfully unaware of the bugship breaking into his station, and he's been asked to come down to the garden to have a chat with Amabassador Delenn of the Minbari. She actually means the Japanese stone garden, which is basically a patch of raked sand with rocks placed into it. The rocks have ripples traced around them, breaking up the pattern, which is such a good metaphor for characters like her and Sinclair that she likes to come and stare at it every other day.

Whoa, what have they done to Delenn’s face? She’s got Robocop’s jawline there! The original intent was to cast a female actress and then make her up to look male, but that's another thing that didn't return for season one. She looks a lot more feminine in the series proper.

Turns out that Delenn called Sinclair down here so she could be sneaky and pass on some classified info about the Vorlons, to help him prepare for the incoming ambassador. The conversation's set up to give us some backstory about her people, revealing that just a decade ago the humans and Minbari were at war, and relations are still tense. It was a conflict so devastating in fact, that humanity then spent a fortune trying to get a Babylon station built so that we could convince aliens to talk to us instead of shooting us with warships.

He's surprised she's taking so much of a risk giving him this intel, but she refers him to the stone garden. To her it symbolises the power of one mind to change the universe, and she apparently intends for them to make waves.

Meanwhile in C&C they’ve got flashing lights and alarms going off. There's an unscheduled jumpgate activation, and something's coming through!

The series uses hyperspace as its method of FTL, a chaotic region outside of normal space which can be used to take million light year short cuts. Most ships travel the galaxy by relying on a gigantic jumpgate to punch a hole into hyperspace for them, and then another to get them back out at their destination.

But for people who've seen the series before, the most interesting part of this scene is this man pushing buttons on a console. He's some guy called Guerra, basically just the pilot's version of 'Tech #1', but the actor was later recast as one of the most important recurring characters in the series. So it seems like there's a clue here to something deeper going on, but it's really just two people sharing the same face.

The unidentified ship comes through the jumpgate vortex, and it's actually got some colour on it! It's not just monochrome grey like nearly every other spaceship at the time. The crew soon figure out that it's Ambassador Kosh’s transport; that bloody Vorlon has arrived unannounced two days early to catch them off guard, and he's flying at them backwards.

Babylon 5 was intended to feature a more realistic portrayal of space travel than something like Star Trek or Star Wars ever did, so Kosh is coming out with his rear engine pointed forward to decelerate. Unfortunately that doesn't come across well on screen without someone explaining what's happening, so in future episodes everyone comes out of hyperspace flying headfirst instead.

Back on the station, a mysterious person meets up with our friend Del Varner in a dark room and there’s a flash of futuristic gunfire as the door closes. So that was... mysterious. There’s actually a genuine clue here to a plot thread that was never followed up on, but chances are you’re not going to spot it unless you're looking for it.

The mysterious stranger entered Del’s room using Laurel Takashima’s authorisation to unlock the door. So I get to drop a massive non-spoiler here and reveal that she's actually a traitor! It's never revealed in the series, but according to JMS she was supposed be secretly working against the crew for a season or two before being found out. The idea had to be dropped though when the character didn't come back.

Speaking of Takashima, she's having a stroll down one of the curvy corridors when G'Kar turns up to drag her into another conversation about that supply ship of his waiting to dock. But it's good news this time, as he's agreeing to the weapons scan and is even willing to wait to let Ambassador Kosh dock first. 

It’s hard to know what Takashima thinks about this, because her face doesn’t have expressions on it. Any actor sharing a scene with Andreas Katsulas playing G’Kar is going to seem subdued by comparison, but for whatever reason actress Tamlyn Tomita plays her role like the character is secretly a mannequin. Dr. Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was more convincingly animated.

Down in the casino we finally find out who the distinctive voice from the intro monologue belongs to. It's Ambassador Londo Mollari of the Centauri Republic, the man with the best hair in space. He's the one on the left by the way, though Garibaldi's got some pretty good hair himself.

I guess they ran out of latex when it came to making the Centauri, as the only thing alien about him (besides the longer canines) is that his hair is doing an impersonation of Napoleon’s hat. In one of the commentaries (episode 13 I think) producer JMS explains that the hair was actually an accident, as it was meant to be a cropped much shorter. Actor Peter Jurasik showed him his character’s wig before it had been trimmed down, and jokingly said it looked perfect. JMS thought he was being serious and agreed to it and so this is the look they were stuck with for five seasons.

I'm sure they would've changed it if they weren't ultimately happy with it though, considering how much Delenn and G'Kar's makeup changed for season one.

Wow, I've never noticed how much Londo looks like the Penguin until now. He just needs an umbrella and a monocle.

Del Varner is also hanging around at the table, and he’s looking very well for a guy who got shot earlier. He’s apparently suffered some brain damage though as he believes that bankrolling Londo's gambling and keeping him at the table is a smart and good idea. Either that or he doesn't want him to meet Ambassador Kosh when he docks.

By the way Del possess something very rare in the Babylon 5 universe, something that won’t often be seen again: a shirt with a collar on it. The series didn’t really go too crazy with the human outfits as 90s fashions looked alien enough, but collars apparently fall out of favour in the next two centuries.

Elsewhere G’Kar is trying to buy Lyta Alexander’s genetic material to help his race engineer their own telepaths, but this really doesn’t have any purpose in the story other to establish that he’s the kind of gentleman who'd use the line “Would you like to be conscious or unconscious during the mating?” and mean it. Hey, I wonder if this is supposed to be the bad guy?

Two hours later, the Vorlon ship is finally docking at the front of the station. I think they must move the jumpgate closer in later episodes, because I'm sure they usually make the trip in minutes rather than hours.

By the way I like how the front of Babylon 5 is secretly Space Station V from 2001: A Space Odyssey with the area behind the four spokes filled in. Well kind of, if you squint.

Anyway the docking procedure continues and Kosh arrives on board without incident. Well okay Sinclair got stuck in a lift for a while and Londo didn't turn up either as he's still in the casino, but other than that…

…oh. Seems that Ambassador Kosh is currently dying in their docking bay. Though it's hard to tell as he's sealed inside an air-tight jukebox and wrapped in a curtain.

They get him down to Medlab, but there's not much they can do for the guy as the the Vorlon high command would rather let him die than let them open his encounter suit and ruin their mystique. Sinclair's not about to let the Babylon project get ruined by this though and decides to let Doctor Kyle do what he can. They'll turn the monitors off so Kyle will be the only one who knows what a Vorlon's like under the suit, and hopefully that'll be enough to satisfy them. After all, as a doctor he's bound by a vow of confidentiality, which apparently also includes what the patient looks like.

Sinclair tries to get some sleep (with his girlfriend Carolyn Sykes), but he’s woken by Dr. Kyle with bad news. They’ve determined that Kosh was deliberately poisoned, but they can't administer an antidote without first identifying the poison.

The commander decides to order the station sealed off to keep the assassin on board. The Vorlons are as powerful as they are mysterious, and they’re pretty damn mysterious, so it would be in Babylon 5’s best interests to give them someone to blame for the attempt on Kosh's life. Garibaldi's decides he's going to question Londo first, which isn't a good sign. If he's investigating people based on who did and didn't turn up to greet Kosh, then there's about 250,000 other people on board he'll need to chat with after him.

Over in Delenn's quarters G’Kar is explaining to the Minbari ambassador why the assassin had to be Londo. The Centauri are an empire in decline and they’ve been wanting to join forces with the Earth Alliance for years. A mutual enemy like the Vorlons would be just the thing to bring them together. So... obviously the Minbari should join forces with the Narn to fight their mutual enemy! And not just because G'Kar really really wants to wipe the Centauri out, honest.

When he realises she's not really interested in what he's selling he gets a bit shouty, ranting about how the Minbari should’ve won their war against the humans, but their Grey Council lost their nerve and surrendered just before their ultimate victory.

Delenn doesn’t much like the words ‘Grey’ and ’Council’ being thrown around though and decides to crush the life out of G’Kar with her gravity ring until he swears never to say them again in her presence. And she seemed like such a gentle soul earlier.

Speaking of things that must never happen again, Delenn’s cupboard full of magic rings was quietly shoved under a metaphoric rug for the rest of the series and they won't be seen, used or referenced for the rest of the series. I guess JMS thought they came across as a bit dumb.

Garibaldi finds Londo at a bar getting drunk, which mustn't come as a huge surprise to him. But then he's not even shocked to see that the bartender is a gorilla.

Londo tells him how Del Varner's the reason he didn't make it to the dock to meet Kosh, which we already knew (though we don't know why). But he quickly turns the conversation around to vent about his own problems, seeing an opportunity to explain where his people stand in the great scheme of things and set up his ongoing character arc at the same time.

Wait hang on, I just spotted a muppet!

Most of these guys were edited out, but this one escaped by hiding in the background.

Anyway, Londo's miserable because he's here having to suck up to the Earth Alliance and put up with the Narns, because his own people have lost their teeth (metaphorically speaking). They were never on the level of the Minbari or Vorlons, but in their corner of space they used to have everything, including their self respect. Which is pretty impressive considering the hair. Now all they have are their fancy purple jackets and their monuments to past glories. “See the great Centauri Republic, open 9 to 5, Earth time."

Well thanks for the backstory Londo, but that wasn't exactly relevant to anything happening in this movie. Though at least Garibaldi's finally aware of Del Varner now.

Then we get a restored scene that was missing from the original episode, with Takashima talking about her secret forbidden coffee plant in hydroponics and Dr. Kyle mentioning that he’s been taking stims to keep awake, both ideas that were later reused for other characters during the series.

After a long speech about how she had a crappy job before this and swore to never break the rules again (except to grow coffee), Takashima decides to break the rules and asks Lyta to telepathically scan Kosh. If they can read his mind and find out where on his body the poison was administered, they'll be able to get a sample of it, figure out what it is, and come up with a cure!

Babylon 5 may just come out of this with its '0 ambassador fatalities' record intact after all.

Oh wow, I'd forgotten about the roller coaster seats! I love those things, they should've kept them.

The station generates gravity through rotation, meaning there's less of it the closer you get to the middle. This core shuttle runs alongside the light strips right at the centre of the station, so people really should have something to keep them from floating off their chairs. The shuttle used to run directly in front of the lights in the original edit, but it seems that someone realised that would cast a huge shadow down the length of the station, so they changed it.

Garibaldi's got some bad news for Sinclair: the only alibi that doesn’t check out is his, as the logs show that his elevator hadn’t broken down like he claimed. Takashima presumably edited the files. Still it’s fine, as down in Medlab Lyta is about to enter Kosh’s mind and find out exactly who poisoned him from his own memory.

Well... shit.

In this special edition Kosh greets 'Sinclair' with an alien phrase which means nothing to new viewers and seems kind of strange when we (eventually) find out what was said. Overall the special edition is a real improvement over the original cut, but if anything stands out as being a 'Greedo shoots first' moment, it's this. Didn't need to be here.

Kosh’s encounter suit doesn’t have arms (he picks things up with little R2D2 claws), but Lyta’s seeing herself in his place and from her perspective the Vorlon offers 'Sinclair' his glowing hand in friendship and gets a poison skin tab slapped onto it. So unless he stuck an actual limb out through a hole that doesn't entirely make sense, but whatever. At least Dr. Kyle has what he needs to get working on a cure now.

Meanwhile the C&C crew have finally noticed that there’s a hole in the hull leaking air into space, and send a maintenance bot out to where the bug ship is parked.

With Sinclair accused of the assassination attempt, the investigation is taken out of his hands and he’s forced to defend himself before the remaining members of the Advisory Council. G'Kar's really going after the commander here. He even drags Sinclair's girlfriend into it, pointing out that the poison likely came from the same sector Carolyn was just visiting.

But when they reconvene, G’Kar proposes that they decline jurisdiction in this matter and give Sinclair over to be tried by the Vorlons instead. G’Kar votes yes, Earth Alliance votes no, Delenn abstains and Londo… votes yes. It would be deadlocked, but G’Kar reveals that he phoned the Vorlons up earlier and they said yes. So now Sinclair has just 12 hours to prove his innocence before he becomes the next human to never return from Vorlon space.
 
Carolyn's furious about this when she finds out, and goes to Delenn's quarters to yell at her for not doing more to help Sinclair. Delenn's actually feeling a bit guilty though it seems and lets slip that she’s under orders to observe him only. So there's a fairly major hint that something is up.

Meanwhile G’Kar’s having a secret meeting… with Lyta! We don’t know what he says to her, but I'm guessing it was something along the lines of "go down to Medlab and secretly turn off all the equipment keeping Kosh alive", because that's what she goes and does.

Garibaldi's murder mystery plot line hasn't been going so great either, as he found Del Varner dead in a fish tank. Seems the guy really was shot dead by his mysterious visitor, so the Varner Londo met was actually someone else in disguise. Which means that there's been at least two people on the station wearing that jacket!

Londo is at least able to explain to Garibaldi why he sided with G'Kar in the vote. He was being blackmailed, as G'Kar has evidence that one of his ancestors was involved in an atrocity during the Centauri's long brutal occupation of the Narn homeworld. This seems really weird in context of the rest of the series; family history is incredibly important to the Centauri but atrocities committed against the Narn aren’t so much. If the evidence ever got out the worst they'd do is give Londo a trophy shaped like a Centauri with his boot on a Narn's face.

Right from episode zero you can see how these two ambassadors are tied together by an occupation that happened decades ago. Londo's mourning the past while G'Kar's driven by it, and neither can let it go.

Londo’s genuinely sorry about sending Sinclair to the Vorlons though. He assumed the vote would be tied, but admits that if he'd known what G'Kar was up to he'd still have voted against Sinclair.

Carolyn decides to drop by to see how Sinclair's doing, and nearly gets a medal case in the face. Not that he was aiming it at her, she just picked the wrong moment to walk in. Sinclair's a bit pissed off about how his day's gone you see, feeling that if he fights this he'll be putting everyone else in danger.

She opens the case and sees a Battle of the Line medal, awarded to those who survived the largest battle of the Earth-Minbari War. Surprise, it's another cunning excuse to drop even more backstory on us, as Sinclair explains that the Line was humanity's desperate last stand around Earth. They were utterly outmatched and his squad was wiped out in less than a minute. He tried to go out with a kamikaze attack, flying his damaged spacefighter right into a Minbari heavy cruiser... then woke up 24 hours later to discover that the war was over! The Minbari had surrendered without explanation on the verge of our annihilation. Mysterious!

But Carolyn doesn't let him get away with using his survivor's guilt as an excuse to give up, so he marches off to get answers.

Down in Medlab, Dr. Kyle catches Lyta Alexander trying to kill Kosh, and ends up getting shoved around with a pipe. I have to admit, I've seen better fight scenes. He manages to get to a medical laser though and shoots her in the arm, so she escapes and runs right into…

… Lyta Alexander!

Well at least it won’t be hard to tell who the real one is, you just have to ask them what number you’re thinking of. Or maybe look for the burn mark on her arm, that's kind of a giveaway.

Kosh is saved, but evil Lyta makes a run for it and she doesn't look at all well.

Plus I think she'll have a real struggle ever finding glasses that fit.

At this point the crew have recovered the bug pod from outside the station and Garibaldi's able to piece together what they’re dealing with here. Kosh's assassin must have gotten on board by cutting through the hull and crawling in from the pod. Then he found Del Varner, shot him, dumped him in a fish tank and collected the prototype changeling net he'd smuggled on board. Not sure why Varner had to die, he only came here to give him the hardware, but assassins gonna assassinate I guess.

With the changeling net the assassin can disguise himself as anyone else. That’s why Londo saw him as Varner, Kosh saw him as Sinclair, and G'Kar and Dr. Kyle saw him as Lyta. The first aired episode of Star Trek also involved a shape-shifter going around and murdering people, so there's some trivia for you.

Fortunately this technology will never been seen again in the entire five year run, because it's expensive and prolonged exposure is fatal. Plus it puts out a lot of energy, making it possible to use the station's sensors to track him.

Sinclair and Garibaldi decide to go after him alone, which isn't actually a terrible plan when you think about it. You don't go hunting a shape-shifter with a large group of people you barely know. You don't typically bring the commander of the station either, but Sinclair’s the lead character and needs to get into at least one proper gun or fist fight before this is over, preferably both.

They'll need witnesses though, so Takashima has the sense to send a floating camera drone along with them so they'll have some evidence to back up their story. She's a complicated traitor.

Sinclair and Garibaldi close in on the assassin, carrying giant plastic rifles with laser pointers on top so they can shine them into the camera.

Two minutes later and the assassin has managed to shoot Garibaldi and drag him into the poisonous Alien Sector as bait. Then he swipes Sinclair's breathing mask right off his head when he goes in to help him. So now they're both choking to death.

Fortunately Delenn turns up out of nowhere and carries the security chief to safety on her shoulders! I honestly didn't see that coming, and I've watched this before.

Outside, the Vorlons have turned up to pick up Sinclair with a whole fleet of warships, and now they're making threats. Just one of these ships could probably take on the entire station, but the Vorlons are fond of overkill. Takashima on the other hand is a lunatic, as tells them to "get stuffed" and activates the defensive grid! The thing is, they don't have energy shields in the B5 universe, so the 'defence grid' is actually made up of hidden gun turrets that pop out of panels all over the station.

Foundation Imaging apparently broke the Return of the Jedi’s record for the amount of ships on-screen at once at some point here. It doesn't seem like that many to me, but I'm not going to start counting all those tiny dots so I'll take their word for it.

The assassin decides to take Sinclair on hand to hand (I guess his gun ran out of ammo), so we get some morphing effects as he transforms into different characters as they fight. Well, as Sinclair holds him still against a wall anyway. It's actually not all that bad for a low budget TV movie made just one year after Terminator 2... aside from the fact that the wall morphs with him, and he somehow ends up with Sinclair's hand sticking through his chest. It's a hologram projection though, so I suppose it doesn't have to look flawless.

Sinclair gets sick of all these expensive effects shots and throws him into an inexplicable electrified fence, shorting out the changeling net and revealing his true face.

The assassin is a Minbari!

The Vorlons were watching the camera feed from the drone so they know what's up now, and Sinclair's off the hook. He still wants to know why he tried to kill Kosh and frame him for it, but the best he can get out of him is “There is a hole in your mind”. And then he explodes.

I mean he really explodes, using an implanted suicide bomb to go up with enough force to blast a hole in the hull. I guess they don't have cyanide on Minbar. Sinclair manages to outrun the fireball, but the whole station has been knocked off axis, causing all the Vorlon ships outside to quickly scurry out of the way. They may be super advanced, but colliding with 2.5 million tons of spinning metal going to dint any spaceship's tentacles.

Fortunately Takashima is on the case, and by yelling a bit and having people press buttons, she manages to get the station back in position without snapping it! It's a very Star Trek scene (someone literally says "She'll blow apart!") but as long as they skip the technobabble I'm cool with that.

Later Sinclair invites G’Kar over to his quarters for a toast to a fully operational Babylon 5.

This also gives him a chance to mention that the Minbari assassin was part of their warrior caste who split with his government during the war, probably over the controversial 'let's surrender for no reason' issue. Sinclair reveals he's pieced together that the assassin originally planned to collect the changeling net from Del Varner before coming to B5, so that he could disguise himself and just walk right through customs... from G'Kar's supply ship. When that failed and Takashima wanted to scan the ship, they moved to plan B, using the breaching pod to get him on board instead.

Can you tell that this was written by someone who worked on Murder, She Wrote for three years?

Unfortunately Sinclair can’t actually prove that G'Kar was working with the assassin, but then G’Kar can’t prove that Sinclair put a nanomachine in his drink either. It’s a location transmitter, he explains, and then demonstrates by pointing a remote at him which goes ‘beep beep’. The idea is that if anything happens to Babylon 5 within the next five years, Sinclair’s friends will be able to find G’Kar wherever he goes and make him regret it.

G’Kar storms out and runs into Garibaldi and Londo outside. It doesn’t help his mood when Garibaldi points at him and goes “beep beep”. Londo doesn’t get the joke.

Somehow he knew to stick his arm out like he’s holding a remote though, something he didn’t actually see Garibaldi do. “It must be Earth humour. Who can figure a species like that? Beep beep.”

It's got a very distinctive kind of comedy, this series.

Just to add the icing on the cake, Sinclair admits to Garibaldi that he made the whole thing up. Sinclair’s well aware of the tests his people are going to run on G'Kar, the things they’re going to do to remove a tracker that doesn’t exist, but the guy smuggled an assassin on board to murder an ambassador and set the Earth Alliance and Vorlons against each other, so he really doesn't give a shit.

Speaking of Kosh…

… they managed to cure his poisoning and save his life! So now all the major powers have a representative on the station and they can get on with the business of diplomacy and resolving differences peacefully. I’m sure the torture he’s inflicted upon the Narn ambassador will probably be forgiven by the next episode and then never mentioned again.

Oh by the way, this is why the movie’s called ‘The Gathering’. Because it’s about the ambassadors gathering on the station.

But just before the credits roll, Sinclair has a chat with Delenn about what the assassin told him. He does have a hole in his mind: a 24 hour gap in his memory when he blacked out at the Battle of the Line. "I would never tell you anything that was not in your best interest," is her moderately troubling reply. Then they chat about stubbornness, Tennyson and limericks and walk off.

Laurel Takashima announces that Babylon 5 is once again open for business, the end.


CONCLUSION

Babylon 5 is an epic 5 year serialised novel for television, but this first chapter isn't much of a hook. The trouble with The Gathering is that it's a feature length pilot for a science fiction show, and does feature length pilot things like dragging on, having clunky dialogue, looking weird, and continually cutting to characters that got written out by season one. The special edition edit has faster pacing and more character moments, but this is still a pretty sluggish introduction to the series.

It was originally intended to flow straight into the first season and the plot is a paper thin delivery system designed to release concentrated exposition. Star Trek pilots don't have to work too hard because everyone already knows about Vulcans, transporters and warp drives, but this had to define the setting, explain the purpose of the station, introduce four alien races and their relationship to each other, and set up arcs and story threads for future episodes. It gets to the point where a new viewer may feel like they should be taking notes.

Plus it takes the time to give every single character a little bit of backstory and something to do... and then half of them go and leave the show before the first proper episode! We've forever lost the chance to learn whether Lt. Cmdr. Takashima and Dr. Kyle would've someday developed into convincing human beings. I kind of feel like punching myself now for saying that, but there really is something up with their performances in this. Fortunately a couple of the replacement characters coming on board in season one are a big step up compared to their Gathering counterparts. Plus it actually works out well this way, having the only two people who ever saw a Vorlon suddenly disappear without a trace.

So the story isn't all that and the acting covers the full range from 'may be an elaborate animatronic' to 'believes he's on Broadway right now', but at least it's... visually distinctive. Cinematic though, it isn't; it looked cheap and dated the day it came out, and the effects were produced on a machine that rivalled the Super Nintendo. But that's mostly because they had just $3.5 million to get it made, compared to the $12 million or so that Deep Space Nine's pilot possibly got. This is the work of talented people with a limited budget and schedule, folks who gave a shit but hadn't quite figured out what Babylon 5 was yet. Though weirdly the Gathering actually looks better than the first season in a number of ways, possibly because they had more time to set up moodier lighting, possibly because it takes place in a thick fog that obscures the imperfect scenery.

Speaking to people reading this who haven't seen B5 but are interested, if you're the kind of person stubborn enough to give a series a full season to win you over, then this is as good a place to start as any. It's not actually all that bad, and despite its problems I can't say I didn't enjoy watching it. But if your curiosity only stretches to two hours, you'll want to stay well clear. Maybe even skip the entire first season; you can always come back to it later when you've got a bit of investment in the characters. Plus then you'll know for sure that it's all actually leading somewhere!


Babylon 5 will return with Midnight on the Firing Line, but next on Sci-Fi Adventures I'll be going through the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Emissary.

Comments are welcome, encouraged and appreciated, so if you want to talk about B5's pilot movie or tell me I'm doing everything wrong, you should file your thoughts into the box provided. Please don't mention anything from the later episodes though, I'd like this to be safe for new viewers.

5 comments:

  1. It's the most barebones disc I've seen in forever.

    I have a copy of The Emperor and the White Snake and the only option in the menu is Play Movie.

    Babylon 5 might not have been the first live action TV series to rely on computer generated effects in place of model shots… but it probably was.

    I think seaQuest DSV was first by a few months. There may have been stuff before that but I remember it was these two that had all the cgi buzz at the time. I know Amiga Format wouldn't stop banging on about them.

    It's odd; I have no memory of this pilot, even though I loved Babylon 5 and watched every episode on Channel 4. Maybe they didn't show this one.

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    1. The Gathering first aired during February 1993, while seaQuest started in September, so Babylon 5 did get there first. But B5 season 1 didn't begin until January the following year, so it's complicated.

      I should've typed "Babylon 5 was the first live action TV series with CGI you can actually see".

      Also The Gathering must have aired on C4 at some point as I have the evidence on VHS... well, HAD the evidence. I think it's just really forgettable.

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    2. I stand corrected on seaQuest!

      It's weird because I remember the broad events of this episode -- or at least the assassination attempt on Kosh -- but none of the details. So maybe I did see it and just forgot, as you say, or they talk about it a lot in later episodes.

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    3. All that said, I have a vague memory that C4 did show it, but out of sequence, much later on. I could be wrong.

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  2. I remember this being trailed as Babylon 5 'The Movie' by a C4 announcer at the end the of season 2 run (I don't know why I have such a vivid memory of this from my 10 year old self). I then missed it and rented it a couple of years later from Lincolnshire library services.

    It was a rollercoaster of glamour, my youth.

    Great write up; I have all five series on DVD, still in the plastic wrapping, bought on a 'I must see these in 16:9, he was a visionary!' impulse about 8 years ago. Maybe now I'll finally start watching them.

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