It’s been ten years since the Earth-Minbari war, a war in which the Minbari unconditionally surrendered despite dominating and being on the verge of complete victory. Babylon 5, mankind’s “last, best hope for peace,” is about to go operational or “on-line” and the last remaining factor to fall in to place is the arrival of Ambassador Kosh, the Vorlon. When Kosh arrives early, the command staff of Babylon 5 are thrown for a loop and as they rush to meet him, an attempt is made on the Vorlon ambassador’s life. What follows is a desperate race to identify the assassin and save Kosh’s life because otherwise, everything Babylon 5 is supposed to stand for – peace and neutrality – is thrown into jeopardy.
All right, to be fair, as pilot movies go, “The Gathering” was not the most auspicious of starts. Before I get into the meat and potatoes of this post, let me begin by saying that there are two versions of “The Gathering.” The first, is the original version (1993) that was aired on television and had music by Stewart Copeland of The Police fame. The second is a Director’s cut/Special Edition (1998) that Straczynski had the opportunity to go back and re-edit and which has music by Christopher Franke, the man who would go on to do the music for the entire series. This post is related to the 1998 version but much of it will apply to both.
In The Gathering we are introduced to, among others, the following characters:
Michael O’Hare as Commander Jeffery Sinclair
Tamlyn Tomita as Lieutenant Commander Laurel Takashima
Jerry Doyle as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi
Mira Furlan as Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari
Peter Jurasik as Ambassador Londo Mollari of the Centauri Republic
Andreas Katsulas as Ambassador G’Kar of the Narn Regime
Johnny Sekka as Doctor Benjamin Kyle
Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander
Ardwight Chamberlain (voice) as Ambassador Kosh Naranek
As expected, many of these characters would go on to populate the series. Some, however, would not.
The Gathering succeeds in as much as it completes its story arc and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Where it fails is that it has an awful lot of information to dispense to set up the five seasons that will follow and occasionally you get characters lecturing other characters with infodumps just so we know what’s going on at that moment in time and as reference for what is to come.
For the most part, The Gathering was well cast. Straczynski said that he wanted Babylon 5 to be multi-racial as well multi-species – “Almost like a United Nations in Space.” As a result you have Tamlyn Tomita as the Asian Lieutenant Commander and Johnny Sekka as the African American doctor. Unfortunately they are also two of the weakest characters in the movie. I think the reason I bought into Babylon 5 so heavily was because I had no prior knowledge of any of the actors who played the major characters. It wasn’t like Battlestar Galactica (Oh, that’s that dude from Miami Vice) and so it was easy for me to lose myself in these characters. However, when it came to Lieutenant Commander Laurel Takashima and Doctor Benjamin Kyle in the pilot, I’m sorry, I just wasn’t buying it. This is a shame because both actors have had long and successful careers (Sekka is now sadly deceased). Tomita gives a particularly stiff performance as the station’s second in command and, to be honest, I just don’t get the feeling that her heart is in it. Sekka, on the other hand, might just have had poor material to work with. His delivery of the old sci-fi/horror favorite “Will somebody please tell me what the hell is going on here!” is so bad it’s almost laughable. In his commentary, Straczynski says that he wanted Sekka to play the doctor throughout the series but health issues prevented Sekka from doing so. To be honest, I think this worked in Babylon 5’s favor as Richard Biggs was then cast as Doctor Stephen Franklin and he excelled in that role.
I always liked Michael O’Hare as Commander Sinclair. He would go on to star in season one of the show and gave Sinclair a level-headedness and confidence that you’d expect to see from a commander burdened with the responsibility of a gigantic space station and a few million lives.
Jerry Doyle also brought some Bruce Willis/John McClaine-esque hard nosed grittiness to the role of Garibaldi.
I’m sure his similarity to Willis was not pure accident given the massive success of the Die Hard franchise.
But Babylon 5 was not just a show about a station and its Earth Alliance crew and it was the other principal actors who played the alien ambassadors who were perhaps one of its greatest strengths. Mira Furlan, Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas brought Delenn, Londo and G’Kar to life, creating complex, mulit-faceted characters who were feisty, compassionate, devious, funny, tragic and inspirational all at the same time.
Fans of the show who revisit the pilot will notice that Delenn’s make up is very different in the movie. She has more facial prosthetics and patterning on her head which is somewhat similar to G’Kar’s. (Not the blue mandelbrot set – yeah, what was that all about??? – that would go on to adorn her shiny palate in season one). Her head bone prosthetic also looks like it could do with a bit more glue!
The difference is because Delenn was originally intended to be a male character who would undergo a much more radical transformation at the end of season one, changing from male to female. There was work done to enhance/alter Furlan’s voice but in the end it just didn’t work and so that plot detail was discarded and Delenn’s “change” was something a bit less fantastic.
G’Kar’s make up (arguably one of the best in sci-fi) was also slightly different in the pilot.
The Centauri hair piece was never intended to be quite so large, but apparently after it was fixed to Jurasik’s head and before it was trimmed, Jurasik walked in on Straczynski and as a joke said something along the lines of “I like it like this,” and Straczynski said, “OK, we’ll keep it.” So the joke ultimately backfired on Jurasik and for five years he, Londo and every other male Cantauri character was stuck with big hair. The other nuance that Jurasik brought to Londo was that accent. (No, Peter Jurasik does not talk like that in real life). On set, to get into character, Jurasik would repeat the oft used line that B5 fans got to know and love – “Ah, Mister Garibaldi!”
On a personal note, G’Kar and Londo would go on to become my favorite characters because of their ongoing feud. Katsulas and Jurasik played off each other extremely well and made each of the character’s growth over the course of the show a smooth and believable progression.
Patricia Tallman is our first introduction to telepaths and the shadowy organization that controls them – the Psi Corps. In The Gathering, her character is mentioned as being Babylon 5’s resident telepath although, despite returning in later seasons, her character is replaced in seasons one and two by Talia Winters played by Andrea Thompson. That said, her inclusion in the pilot is essential due to her direct contact with Kosh (no human has ever laid eyes on a Vorlon outside of their encounter suit) and what is to come much later in season three.
Again, fans of the show might recognize another notable face on the command staff of B5 in this pilot. Ed Wasser, who would go on to be excellent in the role of the sinister Mr. Morden plays one of the operators in the observation dome or “C&C” as it also became to be known. It’s only a bit part and he is sadly cursed with the job of computer operators in all sci-fi shows – namely repeating anything the computer tells him in frantic tones (“Hull breach in brown five!”) or stating the completely obvious, (“There’s something coming through the jump gate.”) Nevertheless, it is both a shock and a pleasant surprise to find him here.
Wasser was originally employed by Straczynski as a reader – to read the script opposite other auditioning actors. Straczynski gave him his bit part in the pilot but when it came time to cast someone in the role of Mr. Morden, Wasser immediately sprang to mind. He was suave, debonair, dashingly good-looking and his deep voice was perfect for the role. He played Morden to a tee, being perfectly charming and yet casually indifferent.
John Iacovelli, B5’s production designer joins Straczynski on the DVD commentary and it’s interesting to hear him talk at length about the sets. Babylon 5 was shot on an extremely low budget that required the crew to improvise and be innovative in their set design. The modular nature of the station itself helped in this respect, allowing walls from one set to be used in many others. In fact, many of the sets doubled as two or three locations on the station. One of the things Iacovelli says he wanted to incorporate into Babylon 5 was a lot of texture and color and again, this helped him bring Babylon 5 to life. Many of the areas of Babylon 5 were color-coded and so to give the impression that characters were in different parts of the station all that was required was to change the strip lighting on the sets. Winding corridors were also shot one way and then the other to give the illusion that Babylon 5 was indeed a vast space station.
Many of the sets that were constructed for the pilot were used throughout Babylon 5’s five season run.
The other thing about The Gathering that is worth mentioning is that it is in this pilot that we are first treated to the CG that would become the signature effects for the series. Babylon 5 was unique in that it was the first sci-fi series to rely totally on CG and not models for its external station/ship shots. Despite looking a bit dated now, given the time that Babylon 5 was produced, the CG effects are actually pretty good. For a good chuckle at the technology used and a deeper appreciation of what they managed to achieve with the CG, check out this article.
And so, as I come to the end of my thoughts on The Gathering it is worth mentioning that at the end of the movie, when the mystery is solved, one of the characters informs Sinclair that “there is a hole in your mind.” It is this cliffhanger/revelation that is central to the whole Babylon 5 story and the hook that is supposed to make you continue watching the show.
As Sinclair admits earlier in the movie (remember those infodumps I mentioned?), he fought at the battle of the line, the final battle of the war and mankind’s last-ditch effort to repel the Minbari before they inexplicably surrendered. During that battle Sinclair, giving up all hope, set his Starfury fighter on a kamikaze style collision course with a Minbari war cruiser. Just before impact though, Sinclair believes he blacked out and for a twenty four hour period he can remember nothing. When he comes to, he discovers the war is over.
Did I like The Gathering? As a fan, yes. I think it does a good job of telling its own self-contained story whilst foreshadowing a lot of what was to come in the seasons that followed. It’s only from going back and watching the pilot again that you can actually pick up on all the references and events that will have so much meaning later on, so in that respect, it’s interesting for fans but I’m not so sure how interesting it is for non B5-o-philes.
The acting from some quarters leaves a lot to be desired and the writing could have been better in places – but again, with so much information to get across and ninety minutes to do it in, you can understand and maybe even forgive The Gathering for its infodumps. All that said, I’m not sure The Gathering succeeds as a pilot and by that I mean I’m not sure if it’s strong enough to convert B5 newbie’s to instant fans (clearly it succeeded in getting the show green lighted). I think there are stronger episodes in season one that I would recommend to people before I’d have them watch The Gathering.
I have written this post with the aim of giving my overall impressions of the Babylon 5 pilot and without going in to too much plot detail. For an alternate view and a complete summary of the plot (with spoilers) check out this post.
If you enjoyed this post, jump back soon for my thoughts on season one.
Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of sci-fi adventure books