|Babylon 5's command crew as never seen again.|
With The Gathering
Although not yet fully formed
Babylon 5 starts
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 travelers 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. Babylon 5 was a dream given form, a dream of a galaxy without war where species from different worlds could live side by side in mutual respect. Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. This is its story. - Londo Mollari
And with that, the series begins. One interesting thing about this voice-over is that it is told in the past tense: by the time the speaker is talking, Babylon 5's story has presumably ended, and long enough ago that Londo needs to make a point of pointing out that he was there for the events. In other words, Londo knows how the story ends, even if the audience does not. I'll digress for a bit here and point out that there are two distinct versions of The Gathering in circulation. When the show was originally aired in 1993, as a pilot for the series on PTEN, it was fairly long and slow. This version is only available online, on sites like Hulu. After the fourth season of the show, PTEN abandoned the series and it moved to TNT. As part of the shift to the new network, J. Michael Straczynski recut a "special" version of The Gathering to make the plot move faster, which as a side effect allowed him to add in some additional character development scenes. In addition, the special edition excised an extended walk through the alien sector, which, quite frankly, was kind of dull and not really necessary to the plot of the episode, or the eventual overarching plots of the series itself. The "special edition" is the one that is included on both versions offered on DVD: the two-sided DVD with The Gathering and In the Beginning, and the Babylon 5: The Movie Collection DVD set. For clarity, the version I am going to talk about here is the "special edition".
|Commander Jeffrey Sinclair|
|My name is Laurel Takashima. You won't see me again.|
|Hi. I'm Delenn.|
I'll look very different soon.
I'll also note that this scene is just the first of the strange relationship Babylon 5 has with distance. Sinclair tells the smuggler that if his ship ever gets "within fifty clicks" of Babylon 5, they will blow him out of the sky. Now, unless they meant to coin a new vernacular here, clicks is usually a slang term for kilometers. Fifty kilometers is not a particularly long distance for weapon systems on Earth in the present day. In space, fifty clicks is so close that it would be practically inside the station. This scene also shows a very different style of personal weaponry used - both Garibaldi and the smuggler have a very obviously plastic hand weapon that looks like a rejected phaser design. This is another design quirk that doesn't last beyond the pilot episode.
|Hey! Aren't you supposed to be on the rim somewhere?|
Hopping back to Sinclair and Lyta, they cut through the alien sector. In the original version of The Gathering, this led to a lengthy tour laden with special effects intended to both show off how large the station is, and to provide a glimpse of the wide array of aliens that populate the Babylon 5 universe. This has mostly been excised from the special edition, which is good from a narrative standpoint - the extended tour really broke up the story - but comes at something of a cost. Either way, much of Sinclair's mostly-monologue to Lyta (in this scene and the last) is basically a spoken version of the "As you know Bob" scenes that plague science fiction in which a character tells another character things they really should already know for the narrative purpose of telling the reader (or in this case the viewer). Sinclair reviews the rules for telepaths on the station, something someone would think Lyta would know already, being a member of Psi Corps. Lyta even asks Sinclair why it is called Babylon 5, whereupon he explains that the first three stations were sabotaged and the fourth vanished without a trace. But one has to wonder why she wouldn't know that already. The destruction of an installation intended to be the headquarters for interstellar equivalent of the U.N. should have been big news, and someone coming to reside there probably would know this already. But since the viewer needs to be handed this information, Sinclair tells Lyta things she should already know.
|A pool for zen skinny-dipping|
|I'm the Commander's girlfriend. At least for now.|
We move back to a little character development as we see Lyta plying her trade, acting as an intermediary between two businessmen negotiating a deal. This scene is noteworthy for the appearance of "Universe Today" in a brief scanning shot, and G'Kar's attempt to negotiate a deal with Lyta for her genetic material to try to develop telepaths for the nontelepathic Narn race. Besides finding out that the Narn lack telepaths, we also learn, for the first time, of G'Kar's proclivity for non-Narn women. And we learn of G'Kar's high opinion of himself, as he asks Lyta if she would prefer to be conscious or unconscious for mating "depending on her pleasure threshold".
After all of this build up, the plot itself finally really gets underway. After Sinclair is stuck in a stalled transport tube he arrives to join Garibaldi and Takashima where they find an apparently nearly dead Kosh. This whole scene is odd. First off, the alarm goes off with a "station alert" letting them know something is wrong. But since Kosh is in the docking bay lying on the floor incapacitated with no one else present, who set off the alarm? Second, upon hearing the alert, Sinclair immediately turns to Takashima and says "notify station security". Leaving aside the question "notify them of what", since they haven't gone in to find Kosh lying on the floor yet, Garibaldi is right there. His presence means that security already knows there is a problem of some sort, and since Garibaldi is the station security chief, shouldn't he be notifying his people? In one of the few sane things anyone says about Kosh's condition, Garibaldi says he cannot tell anything about the Vorlon's condition. Which, since humans know next to nothing about Vorlons one would think would be true even if Kosh wasn't wearing an encounter suit. Sinclair, on the other hand, says "if you open the suit, our air will kill him". How the hell would he know that? This is just the first in a massive string of statements by Babylon 5 characters about Kosh and his condition that make no sense at all. They are all more or less necessary statements for the story to work, but when you stop and think about them, they are just nonsensical.
|Vorlons. They glow.|
Then we shift to some alien intrigue, as G'Kar tries to convince Delenn that Londo was somehow responsible for the attempt to kill Kosh and proposes an alliance. Delenn rejects it out of hand, and in the process reveals another story element that will drive much of the series - the fact that the Narn had been occupied and subjugated by the Centauri for a century. In turn, G'Kar reveals to the viewer that in the Earth-Minbari War, the Minbari had defeated Earth and then mysteriously surrendered on the eve of victory, the result of a decision that supposedly came from the Minbari holy men on the Grey Council. Delenn then whips out a weapon that is never seen again - a ring that allows her to control the local gravity around G'Kar and crush him. She uses it to force him to swear he will never mention the Grey Council again, presenting the viewer with another mystery. I suspect the ring weapon was never used again in the series because it was just not very visually interesting in action, mostly just resulting in Andreas Katsulas moaning and flailing his arms about.
|My name is Londo, and I have really big hair.|
"You make very good sharks Garibaldi. We were pretty good sharks ourselves once. But somehow, along the way, we forgot how to bite. There was a time when this whole quadrant belonged to us. What are we now? Twelve worlds and a thousand monuments to past glories, living off memories and stories."
One can hear and almost feel the despair and the anguish. And this is exactly why Londo is so vulnerable to the developments that take place over the course of the show. In large part, Londo is the central character of the show - as it is his personal story as much as anything that drives the action.
|Watch my facial features fade into the background.|
In a quick cut scene we learn that Sinclair's alibi doesn't hold up - there is no record of the tube malfunction that delayed him. Sinclair then says that knowing Garibaldi's work he'd hate to end up on opposite sides of an investigation, which is ironic as he's been undermining Garibaldi as security chief for most of the episode.
But back to Lyta. She says she cannot see Kosh, and Kyle says "trust me, it's better this way", which is a little bit strange if one knows what is revealed about Vorlons over the course of the series. Lyta then reveals an tidbit about telepathy that becomes modestly important in the series: it is intensified by direct contact. In her scan we see Sinclair greeting Kosh. There are numerous important long-term plot elements in this sequence. First, Kosh refers to Sinclair as "Entil'zha Valen" (which is a retcon introduced for the special edition). Second, Kosh's glowing hand appears outside of his encounter suit, both giving some indication of what Vorlons might look like and raising the question as to whether he actually needs the suit to begin with. And of course, in the element most salient to the immediate plot of The Gathering, Sinclair appears to slap a poison tab onto Kosh's wrist. Consequently, we get a dramatic scene where Lyta accuses Sinclair of attempting to murder Kosh.
Once again we have a conversation with the unnamed Senator and he says that Sinclair's case is being handed over to the Babylon 5 Advisory Council, where we have the obligatory outburst of crew loyalty in support of Sinclair. Then we get our first shot of the Babylon 5 council chamber, which in this version is cramped and dark. G'Kar seems to act as a prosecutor, although no explanation is given as to why he would be placed in this role. He questions Dr. Kyle, and in a continuity error Kyle says he was part of the group that was present to meet Kosh, when he clearly was not. Kyle reveals that the poison was flourozine, a rare toxin available only from the "Damocles sector", at which point G'Kar dramatically reveals that Carolyn had just been on a trip that passed through there and returned twenty minutes before Kosh arrived. This is a pretty amazing coincidence, and since both Kosh and Carolyn arrived much earlier than they were supposed to, one wonders how the conspirators (you knew there were conspirators, didn't you?) arranged this - either that, or it was a huge bit of serendipity for them.
|Why am I the prosecutor here?|
We get a few scenes in the aftermath of this decision that also reveal some fairly interesting plot information. Leading off with Garibaldi discovering the dead body of Del Varner, and then moving to Carolyn meeting with Delenn to plead for Delenn to take action, berating her for not doing anything to help Sinclair (which is a little strange, since even if Delenn had voted "no" instead of abstaining, it would not have changed the outcome). At this juncture, Delenn reveals that insofar as Sinclair is concerned, she is present strictly to observe. To which Carolyn asks "observe what". Indeed. The obvious mystery of the attempted murder of Kosh is front and center, but it seems that there are much deeper mysteries underlying everything. We also get a scene in which Londo attempts to explain his vote to Garibaldi, saying that G'Kar used information about atrocities committed by Londo's grandfather to blackmail him. Mollari says that he knew about them before, but that if they were leaked at home they would prove embarrassing and damage his reputation - which is yet another bit of irony given how Londo's story plays out over the course of the upcoming seasons. Londo pleads that he thought is would result in a deadlock, but admits when asked that if he had known G'Kar's plan ahead of time, that he would not have done anything differently, a telling character point about Mollari.
|Lose twenty-four hours. Gain a medal.|
Meeting with Lyta, it is revealed that G'Kar apparently has gill implants that let him breathe hostile atmospheres, but this is yet another piece of information that never comes up again in the series. G'Kar tells her that they need to tie up a loose end. Following this, Lyta sort of strolls into medlab to start messing with the medical equipment. One wonders about the security on Babylon 5 if someone can just waltz into the medical facility where the subject of an attempted assasination is being treated and start hammering buttons. Kyle tries to stop her, at one point grabbing a long plastic bar to hit her with (why would they have that in medlab?), which reminded me of a Minbari fighting pike, and then turning a large laser on her (and really why would they have that in medlab?) And as she flees we find Lyta coming up the hall to come into medlab - where we have Lyta and Lyta come face to face, and Lyta is seemingly saved when Sinclair comes around the corner. But Lyta had fingered Sinclair as the killer earlier, which makes it seem strange that she is calm and collected when he runs up to see if she's okay. Just to make it clear - she just saw her double point a gun at her, and then the man she said attempted to murder someone runs up to see if she's fine, and she's not completely freaked out. This seems, well, odd.
The mystery begins to reveal itself quickly now - Varner was dead for a long time, but people saw him after he was supposedly dead, an environment tech named Hazeltine too. They bring in a small pod from the hull of the station that could have carried as single person into the station. And then Takashima calls in (and Sinclair responds using a wrist communicator of a style that is never again seen in the series) to fill in the final piece of the puzzle - Varner had a "changeling net" which projects a holographic field, and as Sinclair note has to put out a lot of energy. We then get a Star Trek: The Next Generation moment as Sinclair asks Takashima to recalibrate the station's sensors to locate the changeling net while he and Garibaldi stop off to pick up some really impractically designed guns.
|"There is a hole in your mind"|
Which brings us to the epilogue. First Carolyn heads back into space (in a spaceship that looks exactly like the one Catherine Sakai uses later). Then Delenn strolls into medlab (seriously, is there any security at all around medlab?) and reveals that the Minbari was a warrior caste member of the "Wind Swords" clan, and hands over a data card with all the information about them to Sinclair. This is significant as it seems to be the first mention in the show of the Minbari caste system, although the only caste referenced is the warrior caste. The scene closes with Dr. Kyle giving what is clearly supposed to be a stirring description of his encounter with the Vorlon that just falls flat and is completely uninspiring.
But Sinclair then hosts a brief encounter with G'Kar laying out how Del Varner had substantial contacts with the Narn, and outlining a scenario that points to G'Kar as the hand behind the attempt on Kosh's life. G'Kar, of course, denies it, leading Sinclair to reveal the nanotracker he had put in G'Kar's drink, telling him that his friends would track down G'Kar if anything bad ever happened to the station. Garibaldi gets in a road runner-like "beep beep" (a hint of things to come), and Londo gets in one more "there we were" story about the old Republic. Shifting back to the stone garden, Sinclair discusses the Minbari assassin's cryptic line with Delenn, who claims it to be an old Minbari insult. Then, in a revelation concerning the somewhat ambiguous relationship between the Minbari and the truth, Delenn says "I would never tell you anything that was not in your best interest." Sinclair then explains why they kept rebuilding the Babylon stations, saying that humans rebuild something they value until it stays, and for the first time in the series, quotes Tennyson. This leads to another continuity error as Delenn asks Sinclair for an explanation of poetry, even though we later learn in The War Prayer that she is close friends with Shaal Mayan, a famous Minbari poet.
The Gathering is, ultimately, a very mixed bag. While it is loaded with moments of interest and import for someone who is familiar with the series, I always wonder about how effective it is to introduce new viewers to the Babylon 5 universe. The movie is quite slow for the first half, flooding the viewer with piles of exposition, and then picks up at an almost breakneck pace as it rushes to the resolution of the murder mystery. In some ways, The Gathering is a pilot for a different (albeit very similar) series than the one that actually ended up airing. Although the direct story of this pilot is built around characters leaping to conclusions without any real basis for doing so, the actual murder mystery itself is almost beside the point. Despite the handful of continuity oddities, The Gathering serves its primary purpose well - establishing all the major characters fairly well, giving the basic layout of the political landscape, and providing the foundation for the mysteries that would drive the series for the entire first season and beyond. For that reason, I give this movie a slightly guarded recommendation, noting that it is probably more enjoyable for those familiar with the show than it is for the presumed intended audience of those first coming to the series.
Subsequent episode reviewed: Midnight On the Firing Line
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