RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Babylon 5: “The Gathering” (Pilot 1993)

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Babylon 5 was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the best American SF show since the original Star Trek, and the most influential. Though never amazingly popular here in the states, pretty much every genre program since has owed at least an indirect debt to ground plowed and made fallow by it. Joseph Michael Straczynski conceived of it as a five year ‘novel for television,’ an arc-based program with a definite beginning, middle, and end, and while the hype is, as ever, hyped and somewhat unbelievable, he did, in fact, accomplish most of what he’d intended, though not really in the ways he intended it ( http://www.republibot.com/content/hidden-evolution-babylon-5 and http://www.republibot.com/content/hidden-evolution-babylon-5-part-ii-%E2... ) Though it’s since stumbled through several ill-fated spinoff/revival attempts, and been overshadowed by flashier, more popular productions, it holds up really well, far better than any of its peers from the era, and it’s still a pretty compelling, complex, fascinating story.

It is, however, rather daunting for newbies to jump in to. I mean, there’s something like a hundred and thirty-five hours of B5 and B5-related stuff, set in a completely new fictional universe that pretty much no one knew anything about at the time. It was threatening for Trekies then, and a huge investment of time for people with only mild curiosity now.

We’re going to be going through the series slowly, looking it over, and pointing out things of interest for the benefit of any of you out there who want to follow along. I had *intended* to do the entire franchise, including books and comics - in chronological order with the episodes, but that has quickly proven to be too daunting a task for me, so we'll just do our normal Retrospeculative treatment.

PLAY BY PLAY

Babylon 5 is a massive space station five miles long, orbiting a planet in the Epsilon Eridani solar system, ten and a half light years from earth. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epsilon_Eridani ) It’s a La Grange colony ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_points#L4_and_L5 ) built on a heavily-modified O’Neil Cylinder design ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O%27Neill_Cylinder ) Nearly a decade earlier, there had been a massive space war between Earth and an alien race called the “Minbari” which very nearly rendered our species extinct. In the hopes that such wars could be avoided in the future, the earth Government decided to build a space station in neutral territory, located more-or-less evenly between earth and the four other major alien governments: The Minbari, the Narn, the Centauri, and the Vorlon.

It’s function is basically a diplomatic establishment, but it also functions/pays the bills by working as a free trade port, and there’s lots of traffic coming through all the time. Think of it as a kind of United Nations located in Casablanca, and you’ll get the feel they’re going for here.

The whole “Babylon Project” hasn’t exactly been prosperous thus far. The first three attempts to build a Babylon space station were destroyed by internal sabotage, the fourth one appeared to be going fine, then disappeared without a trace 24 hours after being completed. (These are all details that’ll pay off later in the run of the series) Babylon 5 was, hence, built on a shoestring budget, and without a lot of confidence that it would work, or even survive. (Which is a clever way to explain the threadbare sets, since the series itself was run on a shoestring budget, and without a lot of confidence on the part of many people) Thus, even before we get going, the station is somewhat beleaguered by real-world problems like money, public confidence, trade patterns, government contracts, political tension, and stuff like that. That may not sound like much nowadays, but in a decade dominated by the sterile Maoist utopia known as Star Trek, it was both revolutionary and a breath of fresh air.

As the show starts out, the station has been up and running for a month or three. Representatives from three alien races are already on the station - Minbari, Centauri, and Narn - and the fourth and final one - the Vorlon - is en rout. Earth is represented by the guy who actually runs the station, Commander Jeffrey David Sinclair, who is, himself, a veteran of the Earth/Minbari war.

Literally within a minute of coming on board the station, Ambasador Kosh - the Vorlon - is the victim of an assassination attempt, and is in a coma. This happens shortly after a Telepath arrives on the station at roughly the same time Sinclair’s girlfriend does, so they both seem suspicious, but ultimately Sinclair himself is implicated and informed that the Vorlon government is coming to take him back to their homeworld for trial. Can Sinclair clear his good name and save the Ambassador’s life while unraveling the conspiracy to frame him for a murder he didn’t commit? Well, obviously, since he’s got 24 episodes after this one, but it’s still fairly touch and go for a while.

OBSERVATIONS

You may have noticed that my recap wasn’t as exhaustingly detailed as I’m known for. This is because an extremely detailed rundown of a boring story doesn’t make the story any less boring. I hate to say this, because I totally love B5, but this is all a pretty dull outing. Not Asimov dull, mind you, not TNG dull, but still pretty damn dull just the same. Even if we factor in the typical symptoms of “Pilotitis” - the exposition-heavy dialog, actors who don’t really know their characters yet, stodgy direction, cast and set changes, a tacked-on plot - this is still a yawner.

If you’re trying to introduce a friend to B5, I would strongly advise not starting here. If you’ve never seen the show, and you’re not sure if you want to invest the time, I’d suggest starting with the next episode, or, if you’re terribly impatient, you might want to start with episode 1 or 2 in season 2, which is where the ‘main sequence’ of the series really gets going.

That said, if you can place this in the context of the time in which it was made, it was a freakin’ watershed. Remember, this was in the days when Trek ruled the airwaves, and no one knew quite what to do about it. The most successful other SF shows of the period apart from Trek were the X-Files, and Seaquest DSV. It was a dark time for the genre, and obviously the 500 pound gorilla of evil attempting to crush the fence of imagination with its mephitic buttocks of sloppy barely-SF storytelling was Star Trek. We’ll get in to the specifics of how and why that was bad in a later entry, as we’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, but suffice to say that even by ‘93, Trek had become a safe and disappointing formula-based show that pandered to fans all the while avoiding really giving them anything to chew on.

B5 was an unbelievable paradigm shift. Instead of magical Treknology, we’ve got relatively hard-science stuff going on: The station makes a degree of engineering sense, it rotates for artificial gravity, it’s got a large farming section in the middle, there’s a lot of traffic and trade going on. There’s commerce, politics, drug smuggling, political deals made to cover up “Atrocities,” wheels within wheels, empires rising and falling, and that’s all in the first episode! I saw an advance screening at a ‘con about six months before it aired, and all of us were pretty affected by it. A Science Fiction show that paid attention to Science! Imagine! Most of us didn’t really process how dull it was, simply because we were so enchanted by the setting itself.

As are the storytellers, really. We get a lot of exposition about the station, the history, the mission, the command structure, the major sets, the various aliens living on the station. It’s almost like a movie version of a tourism brochure for a fictional place, with, time permitting, a plot.

In fact, we’re like fifteen or twenty minutes in to the story before the plot shows up, and it resolves itself a good ten minutes before the story ends. At the time, this was also rather refreshing. Trek had this habit of droning on with the story until they notice there was only three minutes left, and then they’d jiffy-pop a deus ex machina. The idea of a show with some denouement to show us the consequences of the story was pretty amazing. That said, the story itself suffers the typical problem of pilots: shoehorn in a “Major crisis," just so you can have a plot to break up ninety minutes of the characters talking to/about each other. We saw this in Man from Atlantis, or "Encounter at Farpoint," even: The setup is better than the story itself. Fortunately, B5 got much, much better.

Michael O’Hare plays Commander Sinclair. He’s kind of wooden, and his face can charitably be called inexpressive. He’s handsome enough, and appears kind of coiled up and repressed, a bit too meticulous, if that makes any sense. Watching it with the Republispouse, there’s a scene where he gets out of bed with his hair all disheveled, and she said “Wow, he’s kind of studly.” Apart from that, however, he made little impression on her.
Tamlyn Tomita plays Lt. Commander Laurel Takishima. If you didn’t like her, don’t worry about it: The studio didn’t either, and she’s not in the series. There’s some interesting hints of a plot arc for her that are set up here, but, of course, they never come to any fruition. The studio didn’t like her delivery, and re-dubbed the lines in post production. In the special edition (Which we’ll discuss below), they went with her original line readings, and they’re really not that good either. The studio was probably wise to complain. Tomita is, in general, a pretty good actress that I’ve liked in other things, and I would have liked to see where her character was going, but it’s pretty obvious that she wasn’t working out here. Straczynski had hoped to bring Takishima back as a guest star later on in the series, but it never happened.

Jerry Doyle - who later ran for a Republican representative seat and is now a Libertarian Talk Show host - is really the breakout character here. He’s not given anything terribly amazing to do, but he brings a very earthy sensibility to everything he does, and you just can’t help but like him. As with Takishima, they set up several elements of his personality in the pilot: For instance, there’s a scene where he’s sitting at a bar, just staring at a drink, and later pushes it away. There’s nothing grandstanding about this, it’s just a background detail, but we later find out that he’s an on-the-wagon alcoholic. Not only is Garibaldi the breakout character from the pilot, he's the only *human* character that’ll survive the full run of the series.

Mira Furlan - best known as the crazy French lady from Lost - plays Delenn, the Minbari ambassador. Her appearance is rather masculine here, the Minbari being rather androgynous at the outset, but when the actual series begins, her race had been re-thought, and her appearance becomes no less alien, but quite a bit more feminine.

Blaire Baron plays the commander’s girlfriend, Carolyn Sykes. She looks almost distractingly ‘80s, and she wears a plaid shirt a lot, so you know she’s working class. In essence, she’s the space equivalent of a lady truck driver. Her performance is…well, she doesn’t embarrass herself, and I’ve seen her do much better elsewhere, but here she suffers from not quite knowing who her character is, I think. The studio didn’t like her, so we won’t be seeing her again, but the real noteworthy aspect of all this is that the Commander has a steady love interest, he’s neither celibate, nor the love ‘em and leave ‘em type. This was a huge step into adulthood for SF.

Peter Jurasik - best known as “Lenny the Snitch” from Hill Street Blues - is pretty incredible as Londo Molari, the Centauri ambassador. In turns, funny, sad, boisterous, abusive, lecherous, forlorn, and broke, he instantly feels like a complete character, and you instantly like him as something of a lost soul, despite the outrageous hair. Londo will go on to be one of the best characters on TV in the 90s.

Andreas Katsulas - Best know as “Tomalek” from Star Trek: TNG, and as “The One Armed Man” from the Harrison Ford remake of “The Fugitive” - is a miracle as G’kar. He chews the scenery without ever quite letting on that that’s what he’s doing. An angry, Machiavellian popinjay, he’s a seething mass of contempt and anger, barely contained behind an officious and polite mask. As the series progresses, G’kar will become *The* most compelling character on any American SF show. That’s not exaggeration. The actor is amazing, the writing is fantastic, and the character becomes literally *THE* best there ever was.

Johnny Sekka plays Dr. Benjamin Kyle. Sekka had a long, and almost-impressive career, and I’ve seen him be absolutely brilliant in things, but this isn’t one of them. Getting him on the cast was considered something of a coup at the time, but evidently they had a lot of difficulties with him. Playing a part in an SF series is a lot different from playing more mundane parts - you have to spout gibberish as though you know what it means, you have to react and emote with things you can’t see, and a lot of the setups are things that are really hard to perform as they have no real exposure to your daily life. Word on the street is that Sekka was having a hard time on the set, blowing his lines, etc. I don’t know if he begged off after the pilot, or if the studio asked him not to return, but this is the only time we see him in the series, though he gets name-checked occasionally afterwards. This is sad for a number of reasons: (1) This is his final-ever role, and I really hate to see an actor I like go out in a sub-par performance (Think Sean Connery in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"), (2) from what I’ve been given to understand, Kyle had a long and involved backstory with Sinclair. (Dunno if this is Fannon or Cannon, but allegedly he was a friend of Sinclair’s dad, who helped raise the boy and became a surrogate father to him after his own dad died). They attempted to bring him back in a guest staring role later on, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen.

Patricia Tallman is extremely pretty, and she can be a forceful presence - she’s primarily a stuntwoman by trade - but in retrospect I think she’s a bit off her game here. I like her, I have nothing bad to say about her performance, she nails every line and scene, she’s good at what she does. Even so, there’s something slightly random about her voice this time out - maybe she’s projecting a bit much? Is that a twinge of an accent that isn’t normally there? Is she holding back a bit in one or two of the scenes? - I don’t know. I can’t quite define it. It totally works, of course, but it feels a bit off. The studio didn’t like her, and so she’s gone by the time the series rolls around, but unlike Johnny Sekka and Tamlyn Tomita, they do manage to reprise her role significantly later on. I suspect some of this almost-awkwardness might be because I suspect her character was possibly being set up as a traitor later on in the series, but I don’t know this for sure. There seem to have been several balls in the air in this pilot that never quite came to fruition. Neither here nor there, but the actress was 36 when they shot the pilot, and I always got the feeling she was supposed to be playing a much younger character. I don’t know that for sure, though, just my suspicion.

Ed Wasser plays a control room tech named “Gurerra” here. The same actor will turn up again later in the series as the ever-fascinating Mister Morden. Also, Lou Welch makes his first appearance here. Eventually he’ll even get a line.

It’s interesting that Londo Molari narrates the opening to this pilot. Each season of the series is narrated by a different person, evidently reflecting on the events we’re seeing, which are long in their past. Eventually, we’ll get an extended flash forward of Molari relating a lengthy story to an audience twenty years or so after this point, which is kind of a neat payoff.

For whatever reason, Dr. Kyle’s dress uniform is a different style from everyone elses.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PILOT AND THE SERIES

As with any pilot, there’s a whole bunch of differences ‘twixt it an the series proper. When they made the pilot, they had been assured they’d be going into production of the series within a month or so. The whole thing ended up getting delayed for nearly a year, so, presumably, many of these differences wouldn’t have been there without the lengthy hiatus. In any event:

- The Earth Alliance uniforms are considerably different than the ones we see in the series, as are the rank pins.

- The entire lighting system is different. In the pilot, everything is kind of dimly blue-lit with what can best be described as ‘nightclub lighting’ zipping around distractingly. Initially I thought this never shows up again, but in fact it *does* turn up in restrained fashion in season 1, but is quickly phased out entirely.

- Takishima, Kyle, and Alexander are gone.

- There are lots and lots of aliens we see here that we never see again - most of them either rubber suits or puppets.

- The “Alien Sector” is completely different.

- A number of the sets are different, some massively, some slightly (Production was moved from one facility to a completely different location before the series started)

- Makeup for all three major alien characters is quite a bit different in the series.

- The “Courtroom” set never looks like this again.

- Delenn uses techno-magical rings to slap G’kar around in one scene. These are never seen, nor referenced again, though JMS said he was setting them up for something else later on.

- No one ever “Invokes Silence” again.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PILOTS

“The Gathering” was made in 1993, and had a number of scenes chopped out of it at the insistence of the studio. None of these made any real difference in the story. In essence, they felt it was running slow, and wanted some of the scenes trimmed, and then wanted some more scenes chopped out to make room for another commercial break. There were one or two characters they already knew weren’t coming back anyway, so some of their soliloquies were trimmed. Straczynski went along with this, but instantly regretted it. In 1997 he was given the chance to re-edit the pilot, and in so doing he made a number of changes between the version available on DVD and the version I first saw seventeen years ago. Alas, I lost my VHS copy of the original about five years ago, so this is going from memory:

- The Music is completely different. The original soundtrack was done by Stewart Copeland of the Police. The series itself was done by Christopher Franke of Tangerine Dream. When they were recutting the pilot five years later, they decided to have Franke re-score it so it’d fit better with the rest of the series. Much as I like Tangerine Dream, I prefer Copeland’s score. It wasn’t great by any means, but it was at least distinctive, and I’ve long felt Franke’s synth-heavy soundtrack was consistently the weakest thing about the show. In particular, there was a neat little operatic bit we hear in one of the scenes in the casino that I loved, but it’s gone.

- The scene with the tourist and the alien hooker who wants to eat him (Not in a good way) is absent from the ‘93 version.

- The scene with the Dust smuggler in the spaceport terminal was absent from the ‘93 version.

- Laurel Takishima’s long scene about breaking the rules and stuff was much shorter in the ‘93 version, and all the stuff about her illegally getting coffee was absent.

- Caroline Sykes’ scene in which she talks to Sinclair about staying and the battle of the line is much shorter in the ‘93 version.

- When Sinclair talks about the battle of the line, there’s some voiceover dialog that comes from “And the Sky Full of Stars,” which was absent in the ‘93 version. The voiceover is pretty goofy and overdramatic, really, as it basically says the same thing he, himself, is saying anyway. It’s like the Greedo/Jabba scenes from the Star Wars Special Edition: Pick one to use, don’t use both, they’re redundant.

- There’s a bit less of Delenn in the final gunfight in the original cut

- Delenn’s voice was put through a filter in the ‘93 version to deepen it and make it sound more masculine, in keeping with her more masculine appearance. (At one point, Delenn had been intended to be a male character played by a female). She sounded like a Goauld. This was un-done for the special edition. The Minbari Assasin’s voice, however, is still basically filtered.

- Takishima’s voice was re-dubbed in post production. The studio wasn’t happy with her line readings, so they made her re-do them, which basically made them even worse. They went with the original live sound in the Special Edition, rather than the re-dubbed dialog from the ‘93 original.

- Sinclair and Lyta’s walk-and-talk through the Alien Sector is muuuuuuuuuuch shorter than it was in the ‘93 version. The alien sector had been conceived of with all the alien quarters having a kind of ‘front porch’ with aliens hanging out on them, talking or socializing or whatever, but in actual practice it ended up looking a bit like an alien petting zoo, so nearly all of this was cut, and basically all we see are Sinclair and Lyta walking in, then walking out the other side, with a bit of voice over dialog to link the two. The voiceover comes from the ‘93 version, but is truncated. For instance, there was a line in the original about being able to “Adjust the rotation and gravity of some sections” of the station that is now absent.

- In the original, when Kyle sees Kosh he makes ‘I’m-about-to-be-sick’ noises. In the redux, these have been removed.

- In the original, when Kosh sees Sinclair, that’s really it. In the special edition, he calls Sinclair “Entilzha Valen,” Which is, of course, a dead giveaway regarding the big Sinclair mystery.

ODDITIES

Looking at this in hindsight, there’s a few odd bits. Things that don’t make sense when taken in light of the series as a whole:

- Lyta says she could get thrown out of the Psicorps for what she’s about to do. We later find that the only way out of the Psicorps is in a body bag.

- Were the Vorlons really gonna’ kill Sinclair? I mean, given how important they know him to be…

QUESTIONS THAT WILL DEFINITELY BE ANSWERED LATER ON IN THE SERIES

- What happened to Babylon 4?

- Why did the Minbari end the war so abruptly?

- What happened during Sinclair’s missing 24 hours?

- What is Delenn up to? What’s all this “I’d never tell you anything that wasn’t in your best interests?” stuff? What’s that thing she’s playing with in her quarters?

- What will become of Sinclair’s romantic relationship with Carolyn Sykes?

- What became of Takishima’s illegal coffee garden?

- Why don’t the Narn have telepaths?

- What about G’kar’s offer to pay Lyta to have sex with him, or at least give him some DNA?

QUESTIONS THAT WILL DEFINITELY NOT BE ANSWERED LATER ON IN THE SERIES

- JMS has inferred that Laurel Takishima wasn’t entirely on the level, but we never really find out what that was all about.

- Pretty much anything pertaining to Ben Kyle, though as the show progresses, we can make some educated guesses about what would have happened with him.

- Anything pertaining to the character arc for Caroline Sykes, though, again, we can make some educated guesses later on.

- The whole thing with Delenn’s rings, and what their ultimate purpose was.

STATIONS IN THE STATION

B5 is a sprawling place, and it’s handy to have a list of the places we’ve seen in the station. This time out, we saw:

1) The main corridor, 2) The control room (“ObDome” or “C-in-C”), 3) The disembarkation lounge and the security checkpoint there (Though neither of them ever look anything like this ever again), 4) The various character’s quarters, 5) The Zocalo, 6) A sort of business-lounge thing (Never seen again), 7) The Casino, 8) Medlab (Which, likewise, never looks quite the same again), 9) Sinclair’s office (Never looking quite the same again). 10) The Core Shuttle monorail dealie 11) The Council Chamber/Courtroom (It’s not quite clear which it’s intended to be) 12) The Central Garden, 13) The Zen Garden within the central garden, 14) The ballroom where they have the diplomatic reception, 15) The random corridors in the ball-shaped section at the front of the station (Never seen again.)

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

It's a bit dull, but yes, I think so. It provides a pretty realistic, interesting, yet still positive view of humanity, and a very nice contrast to the unrealistic preachy utopian communist outlook that Star Trek is built around.

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