"The Gathering" (pilot movie; originally aired 2/22/93, TNT edit aired 1/4/98)
If this is your first time watching Babylon 5, don’t start with the pilot.
I’ve been a fan of Babylon 5 since it aired. I’ve often encouraged other people to join, or participated in discussions where people described how annoyed they got at the show when they tried to watch the first few episodes. This is understandable. This is downright intelligent—they’re making a decision based on straightforward evidence: The first five episodes, including the two-hour pilot, include four of the show’s worst hours, and none of its best.
So skip the bad ones.
This isn’t how television viewers in the era of serialization, which Babylon 5 helped to kick off, expect to behave. We expect that the questions of plot and theme that pilots introduced stay with a show throughout. Consider The Wire’s opening scene, which hammers you over the head with its themes. Or The Sopranos, where Tony’s Gary Cooper monologue shows the issues he and the show’s writers are going to be addressing throughout. Or the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, which confronted the paranoia and fear of post-9/11 America.
Babylon 5 really doesn’t start that way. Babylon 5 starts slow. It’s closer to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the pilot and first season demonstrate potentially innovative television shows struggling to find their voice and form. B5’s pilot is probably the worst of these, but it does get better (and probably faster than TNG).
Like those shows, and several others (especially The X-Files and Deep Space Nine), Babylon 5 fits within a group of 1990s speculative fiction shows known for experimenting with narrative complexity. B5’s main claim to fame within that group: It was designed to tell a five-year story with a strong single author. The “five-year plan” has gained a bad rap in recent years thanks to shows that had extensive plans but failed to account for anything like character growth, like FlashForward, but Babylon 5 actually pulled its plan off. That’s a good reputation to have in one sense, but it’s also occasionally a bad one: It gives the impression that every episode is important to the telling of that story, which isn’t the case.
Those experimental narrative forms were all transitional, existing partway between the near-100 percent serialization of a Game Of Thrones or The Wire and the dominant procedural form of the past. In formal terms, this means that most every Babylon 5 episode (through the first three seasons) is both self-contained in terms of introducing and finishing its story, and it also spends time getting viewers up to speed. As a general rule, you can skip episodes. And, as I’m arguing here, you should skip several episodes. You won’t miss much. Babylon 5 possesses one of television’s most wonderful gifts: Its most important episodes are usually its best episodes, and its worst episodes are usually totally inessential.
Therefore, as I write about B5, I’m going to take the role of a guide, especially early in the show. I’ve introduced at least one person to the show by aggressively cutting the worst of the first season, and that worked. With that in mind, I’m also going to be giving grades to episodes for easy reference—if it's not an A/B, it's skippable. I’ll also mention what’s coming next week (and what to avoid), as well as including quick references to the thematic importance of each of episode, and clearly delineated spoilers for experts.
So, why should you avoid the Babylon 5 pilot? Pilots are usually important, after all, even with their warts, right?
First of all, “The Gathering” aired almost a year before the series. I don’t know the studio politics behind the timing, but I do know that there were clear effects of the retooling done between pilot and premiere. Several of the characters are replaced: Lt. Commander Takashima, the station’s second-in-command; Carolyn Sykes, Sinclair’s girlfriend; Dr. Benjamin Kyle; and Lyta Alexander, the station’s telepath.
There are other major and minor changes. Ambassador Delenn is initially presented as androgynous, an experiment that is quickly and rightly discarded. Some of the alien design is eliminated, specifically puppets that wildly diverged from human size and form. Delenn also has a set of magic rings that she uses in the pilot and are never seen again, which is good, because they’re really oddly magical.
Perhaps the most important change from pilot to series, though, is the change in the soundtrack. The pilot was initially scored by Stewart Copeland of The Police, and has a distinctly cock-rock flavor. That style is both grating on its own, as well as when compared to the music of the main series, done by Tangerine Dream’s Christopher Franke. That music is an extremely important component of the show’s personality and flavor, and I’ll be spending time discussing it over the course of the series—but without it, “The Gathering” just feels wrong. (This is also the easiest way to tell which version you’re watching. If there are guitar wails over the intro sequence, turn it off immediately.)
Babylon 5’s author, J. Michael Straczynski (generally known as JMS, for obvious reasons), acknowledged the validity of many of the criticisms of the pilot when he re-edited it for TNT after Babylon 5 moved to that network in 1998. The 1998 edit added more character development, deleted some of the more awkward scenes, had more specific moments of foreshadowing, and included Franke’s score. It’s far superior—almost watchable even—though is still far weaker than the best of the show proper.
To be fair to “The Gathering,” what it tries to do is extremely ambitious. No space opera had succeeded on American television that didn’t have Star Trek in the title. This pilot attempted to introduce at least glimpses of a fully fleshed-out universe, several different characters, an epic overarching story, its own single-episode story, and interesting political and philosophical themes. This was, quite simply, too much to accomplish in an hour-and-a-half. And the show’s first season does largely the same thing, but it has the time and space to narrow the focus on specific elements, while eventually covering much of the same ground.
Given all those negatives, I do think that “The Gathering,” from a critical perspective, is an interesting beginning to a television series. It’s not necessarily entertaining, but it is reasonably effective at introducing the show’s characters and universe. If you know that Babylon 5 gets better, “The Gathering” is an awkward origin story for a fascinating series, and as such, is worth revisiting. You just have to take the good with the bad. But as I said, if you're skeptical, skip it.
Some of the good: Londo and G’Kar, the Centauri and Narn ambassadors, respectively, are easily the best thing about the pilot (this is not a surprise, as they’re the best things about the show overall). Londo’s speech to Security Chief Garibaldi, in which he apologizes his vote in the council, is probably the only thing in “The Gathering” worth holding up as an example of the greatness of Babylon 5. I’m also partial to G’Kar at his most conniving, particularly the scene where he tries to gather Lyta’s genetic material, saying “The direct mating is more… cost-effective.”
But yes, some of the acting and directing is weak. Early in the episode, Commander Sinclair yells at a drug dealer that “guns and ‘Dust’”—he pauses here to wave the baggy of Dust awkwardly—“aren’t allowed on the station!” Or later on, Dr. Kyle gives a potentially beautiful speech about a life-changing event in response to a question from another character, but he’s bizarrely giving the monologue to the camera, not to the questioner. And oh those 1993 CGI effects—innovative, yes, but they have not aged well.
Perhaps the worst thing, though, is the amount of exposition. There’s a detailed universe here, and JMS wants to explain the biggest aspects of it, which he does often, in broad strokes. Each alien race is embodied by its ambassador, who is probably prone to giving speeches that detail his or her race’s interests. Nobody understands the Vorlons, nobody wants to mess with them, and those who encounter them directly are awestruck. The Minbari are almost as powerful, and apparently fond of cryptic utterances, as well as cryptic behavior, like being on the verge of conquering Earth then stopping, 10 years before. The Centauri are a formerly powerful empire, now decaying. They had once conquered the Narn, who are now the enfants terrible of the galaxy.
This is all critical information for understanding the show, but the problem is, there’s a lot of that info, and much of it’s only peripherally relevant. Sinclair’s speech about the Battle Of The Line, where the Earth Alliance fought a final battle against the Minbari is generally strong and helps contextualize the ending. It’s not so effective when Delenn tells G’Kar about his people’s history simply for the audience's benefit. And even though this information is generally important later, it’s all dealt with better over the course of the first season. “The Gathering” is moderately successful as an introduction to the Babylon 5 universe, but it’s much less so as a stand-alone piece of entertainment.
If you took my advice and didn’t watch, there’s one plot point that you need to take away from “The Gathering.” It’s the line the Minbari assassin speaks to Commander Sinclair before he dies. “There is a hole in your mind” helps motivate Sinclair through the first season.
Beyond that, I think “The Gathering” shows the show that Babylon 5 wants to be. It’s a political show, where the characters are often at odds with one another. On Star Trek, a series regular like G’Kar would never be involved in a plot to implicate another series regular. We’re more used to this now, but at the time? Babylon 5 was set up as something different and more complex from the beginning, though at first, it had a bit more ambition than sense. What’s great about the series is that eventually sense caught up and the ambition never went away.
Grade: D (initial version), C- (TNT edit)
The Great Spoiler Machine:
Here I’m putting information worth discussing in light of later events, since I suspect most readers will have already seen the series. That said, I’ll try to set the text off (with italics) and not say anything overly specific in case your eye falls on it. I’ve been there myself.
Given later events in the series, the supposedly negative result of Sinclair being taken to the Vorlon homeworld might not have been quite so bad. If I were starting a “What If…?” Babylon 5 comic series, I think I’d start there.
As much of the speculation at the Lurker’s Guide indicates and JMS quotes seem to confirm, Takashima was almost certainly involved in the assassination attempt. The actress was clearly struggling with the role, and I'm not sure any Babylon 5 fan would say that Ivanova isn't one of the best parts of the show, but removing her from the show may have severely and unfortunately weakened the conspiracy-based plot twists at the end of the first season.
- Are you B5-curious? It’s not on Netflix Instant anymore, sadly, but the first season and rotating sections of the second are available for streaming at WB.com. They don’t have the pilot, so they’re already following my advice. I'll also include links to each episode in the season one reviews.
- According to Wikipedia, it looks like digital download/streaming services with Babylon 5, such as the iTunes store tend to have the original pilot, while the superior 1998 edit is apparently only legally available via DVD.
- For supplemental information, I cannot recommend the old Lurker’s Guide To Babylon 5 site highly enough. It was built in the 1990s as the show was airing, so it’s not the prettiest website in the universe, but the episode guides include a wealth of information, speculation, and behind-the-scenes information from JMS. Here’s “The Gathering.” These tend to be specifically spoiler-free, but the speculation and notes often make it easy to see the shape of the show in the future, so the truly spoiler-averse may want to avoid them. I’ll likely be citing this site regularly.
- In terms of grading, I’m going to try be tough but fair, as well as avoiding relativity as best as I can (i.e., a season three B will probably be roughly as good as a season one B.) And given that importance and quality go in parallel with Babylon 5, the grades should also be usable as a guide, especially for the first season: watch all A/B episodes, Cs are optional, D/F episodes should only be viewed out of morbid curiosity.
- In addition to the edited version of the pilot, TNT also commissioned a prequel television movie, “In The Beginning,” to introduce the characters and universe. Although I like many aspects of “In The Beginning,” I don’t like it as an introduction to the show. It’ll definitely get a review, though, probably between seasons four and five, when it was shot and aired.
- I never noticed how “othered” G’Kar was early on. He’s almost childishly manic, capricious, chases sex with (white) human women, and the scene where he dabs his mouth with a handkerchief is downright feminine.
Next Week: The show proper begins with the first season premiere. “Midnight On The Firing Line,” the best and most interesting of the early episodes. Definitely start watching here. My review will focus on why you should watch B5, and where to go once you watch the premiere.
The ambitious, awkward “Soul Hunter” that follows is less important but still has some later relevance. If you like the premiere, give it a try. If not, read my review and wait a while.