Babylon 5: The Gathering
review by P. Douglas Reeder, ©️ 1993
The television series Babylon 5 has been five years in the making, five years well spent creating a universe and developing characters. Unfortunately, the producer, J. Michael Straczynski has tried to put ALL of it in the two-hour pilot. It doesn’t fit. By itself, the pilot (“The Gathering”) is confusing and has little depth, but is fine entertainment in spite of this.
I watched the film, then reviewed many background files and watched the film again the next night. This review is therefore partly based on information not in the film itself, and my assessment of it future potential is primarily based on the outside files. I will mention many problems, but I would like to emphasize here that the quality was, in general, good.
Babylon 5 is a human-built and -run space station in neutral territory between humans and four other species which maintain embassies. Its primary function is free port and cultural mixing ground. The story opens in 2257, a decade after a major war between the Earth Alliance and the Minbari Federation.
The plot of “The Gathering” is straightforward action/adventure which unfolds leisurely as the audience receives background on the characters and setting. An unknown assassin attacks the Vorlon ambassador as he arrives, and the crew must track him down.
There are nine major characters, and several more minor ones, all of whom are known by more than one name: The four major crew have first names, last names, and rank, and the ambassadors are referred to both by their own names and by their position. It is normal and natural to refer to people differently in different situations; it is the scriptwriter’s job to keep this from being confusing (especially when the audience has met none of the characters before). The writers here fail to do so.
The major characters are (barring transcription errors): Commander Jeffery Sinclair, played by Michael O’Hare, Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima, played by Tamlyn Tomita, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, played by Jerry Doyle, Dr. Benjamin Kyle, played by Johhny Sekka, Psi-Corps telepath Lyta Alexander, played by Patricia Tallman, Ambassador G’Kar of the Narn Regime, played by Andreas Katsulas Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari Federation, played by Mira Furlan, Ambassador Londo Mollari of the Centauri Republic, played by Peter Jurasik and Ambassador Kosh of the Vorlon, played by his space suit :-) Other characters include the assassin and Caroline Sykes, Commander Sinclair’s girlfriend, played by Blair Baron.
The action jumps around from one scene involving two or three characters, then jumps to another with two or three others doing something unrelated. The audience gets a little information about a character, then is switched to another. Trying to build up impressions of ten characters simultaneously is all but impossible. This is particularly problematic at the beginning, where we don’t know who is a character and who is just background. The first identified character is Del Varner who the narrator says “endangered the station as never before”, but he has only two lines in the whole rest of the movie. The camera focuses in on the crewmember checking idents, including Varner’s. The next scene has uniformed people talking to a ship as it docks. The camera give just as much attention to a woman here as it did to the crewman in the previous scene. It is much later in the film before the audience can tell that she (Takashima) is important and he is not. The problem is mixing establishing/background shots with character introduction. The serve different purposes and mixing them leaves things muddy. Sinclair then gives Lyta Alexander a short tour while showing her to her quarters. The tour guide/tourist bit shows us nothing about their characters, and unfortunately showcases the alien section, the least-convincing set: it looks like a zoo, not living quarters. Right after the imminent arrival of the Vorlon ambassador is announced, the arrival of the spider-ship is shown, without explanation. The actual ambassador’s ship arrives later, after an unrelated scene, and it failed to register on me that the spider-ship must then be something ELSE.
The characters are adult and have a lot of potential. The Gathering is too much the smorgasbord and doesn’t let the viewer get into any one character, as is necessary for the deeper sort of work that Stracyzinski says he wants to do. There are a number of entertaining scenes.
Commander Sinclair faces some internal conflict when he becomes a suspect in the attempted murder, but this conflict soon evaporates and he is never a creditable suspect to the audience.
Lt. Commander Takashima, much as I like the character, is not very important to the plot. The monolog where she explains why she consents to breaking the rules by telling her history should have been dropped, as it focuses attention on a character who should be just a supporting character in this story, and to give more room to other things that need it. The other alternative would to have made her a more central character, and make her internal conflicts (when Sinclair comes under suspicion and Takashima must replace him on the council) more important. Had I written the script, I might have told the whole story from her point of view. Tomita’s acting is good in some scenes, notably when delivering the line about the fruitbasket, and poor in others, notably when she delivers the lines “Who did it? Who poisoned the ambassador?”
Garibaldi’s part is well written: we learn something of his background in a natural way, and he appears when it makes sense, plotwise, for him to appear and he doesn’t when it doesn’t. His lines are thus very natural, and do not feel pasted in as some of the others’ do.
After looking at Ambassador Kosh (having been warned of terrible consequences) Benjamin Kyle sounds like he’s stoned. Is this the effect of looking at Vorlons, which no human has before seen? No, Johnny Sekka playing Dr. Kyle just has a strange speech pattern, which the audience has not had time to recognize and adjust to before this scene.
Londo, the Centauri ambassador, is one of the more interesting characters. The Centauri republic is the remnant of a great empire and Londo is well aware of its decadence. He maneuvers to keep it (and himself) afloat. It’s too bad this has nothing to do with the main plot.
In fact, the alien characters come off as more interesting than the human ones, owing to the limited time each character receives. The three known major aliens appear to have personalities at the boundaries of human ones.
Carol Sykes should not have appeared in the pilot at all; in this story, she’s just another character cluttering up the script.
The acting varies in quality. It is occasionally unconvincing and usually adequate, but rarely outstanding.
The lighting gave the set an exotic look, but is unlikely: humans prefer light from above, not from the floor or beaming out from the walls. Chaser lights in the control room floor look cool, but when you’re dealing with an emergency, they’re distracting. There is too little of an establishing shot in some places, forcing the audience to guess where the scene is and why the characters are there. The poor lighting and rapid scene changes make it difficult to visually identify characters and keep track of who is who: it took me more than an hour to be able to tell apart Sinclair from Garibaldi and Caroline from Lyta Alexander. One pair of scenes was particularly bad: Sinclair and one of the women are in a residential-appearing area while Sinclair talks about his experience on The Line. The woman is seen primarily from the back or side back and has few lines. Both women have similar builds and hair color and both wear civilian clothes; about all one has to go on is hair length. The woman is Caroline, a minor character in this story who last appeared a number of scenes ago. The scene then jumps to the medical facility with Dr. Kyle and one of the women. I was not sure if this was the same woman (and thus this was a continuation of the previous scene) or another jump to different characters doing something unrelated.
The doors on the station are absurdly bizarre shapes, with excitingly chunky bulges. They seemed more than a bit silly. The interior decor was otherwise good.
The sound was frequently mushy: I heard Sinclair get a message from a training vessel, not a trading vessel. There was no further dialog to clarify the situation. Since a training vessel has multiple crew and is probably military, I made wrong assumptions about who Carolyn Sykes is.
The uniforms of station personnel are drab. The underlings wear an entirely different color uniform. Why?
The alien costumes and makeup were well executed. The major races are all humanoid, but present film technology doesn’t allow much else. In particular, Ambassador Delenne of the Minbari Federation and G’Kar of the Narn Regime were aesthetically pleasing and well-acted. However, when G’Kar said to Delenne, “Whatever happens now, may it be on your own head” I couldn’t help but reply “No can do! Her head’s too pointy!”
The music is interesting and good, but many times is just not cut out to be background music. It works best with the exteriors.
The exteriors themselves are good, and add much to the atmosphere. However, one Vorlon ship does make a maneuver in defiance of Newtonian physics. Computer generated scenes do not look like the model work we are used to, but if you compare it to REAL photographs of objects in space, it is no less realistic. The graphics are made using a network of Video Toasters, a microcomputer based system. Professional quality special effects can now be done on a budget that amateur can afford, which is a godsend to visual science fiction. Small producers can now do science fiction that can compete with the big studios. Hopefully, the groups with artistic talent will do well.
The plot is well-constructed, for the most part. There are a few holes: how the assassin penetrates the Vorlon ambassadors encounter suit is glossed over, for one. The Vorlons say they’d rather have their ambassador die than have his suit opened. After his suit IS opened, we never hear why they don’t protest. For that matter, it would have helped to hear someone clearly state near the beginning that there were no other Vorlons on the ambassador’s ship; I wondered why no one came out to help him. When the council vote on an important matter stands at two in favor, one against, and one abstaining it is described as a tie. This is explainable if three votes are always required for a measure to pass (out of five possible), but this does not seem entirely consistent with the character’s comments. After Commander Sinclair declares the station sealed off, there are many exterior shots of ships zipping around, apparently coming or going.
The technical background is good, and astoundingly good for tv: the station is an O’Neil cylinder which rotates to provide artificial gravity, it is solar powered, and they devote much space to raising food.
There are three non-scientific elements: FTL travel, a separate real-time FTL communication, and telepathy. These are standard SF elements, but the latter two may cause problems.
If your characters have instantaneous FTL radio, they can always call for help or call for information, and the writer must constantly explain why the characters do not have access to information they could easily obtain. There are warrants for Del Varner’s arrest on other human worlds; it is never explained why he was not arrested when his ID was checked as he entered.
Telepathy has similar problems: when Commander Sinclair becomes the major suspect in the attack on the Vorlon ambassador, it is never explained why Lyta Alexander does not scan his mind to verify or disprove this. If telepaths existed, they would be a staple of criminal investigations and trials. Even if they were erratic, they would be as common as the unreliable witnesses and circumstantial evidence that are commonly used today (and are used in the hearing on Sinclair).
Good SF accepts the implications of the postulated technology. These two items are a bad sign. I hope Babylon 5 is able to stay out of the ‘Star Trek’ mode where technology can or can’t do whatever this week’s plot demands of it, one week’s assertions are contradicted by the next’s, and miracle inventions never are followed up.
The camera robots are thus an excellent element: when commander Sinclair (a major suspect in the murder investigation, at least as far as the aliens know) goes to arrest the other major suspect, Takashima tells him to take along a camerabot. I’ve been waiting years for someone on the screen be this intelligent and take sensible precautions.
I expect the quality of the series to improve. The acting should improve as the actors settle into their roles. The audience will get to know the characters, so they can move forward, not relate history and quote regulations for the audience’s benefit. Straczynski has indicated that events will happen that will really change the characters, so we won’t just have everything back to normal at the end of every episode. He places high emphasis on the episodes being integrated parts of a whole. There will be less need to cram so much material in one episode, and thus the episodes can be integrated works.
Interestingly enough, this pilot would work better as an episode. The second time through, when I knew who people were, the action was easy to follow.
If you have any interest in quality visual science fiction (and you must, if you’ve ploughed this far through this review :-) you should see this film, more as a taste of what might come, than for intrinsic merit. If you decide you want to see more, you should write some letters - the existence of the series is up in the air.