It's great and the only Babylon 5 TV movie that's a must-watch. That's so obviously true that it doesn't even really need saying. I can't imagine anyone bothering to debate it. "What's the best Babylon 5 TV movie?" "In the Beginning, d'oh." It's just one of those things you'd take for granted as the starting point of the conversation. No one should be allowed to watch the series without having this cornerstone of the mythos in the schedule somewhere, whereas none of the other TV movies matter a bent pin.
It's tempting to say that this is partly because so much of this is lifted from the TV series rather than being original movie. After all, the best bits of B5 were always the big story arcs, not the filler stories. Ten years before the events of Season 1, there was a war between the humans and Minbari in which Earth nearly got annihilated and various regular cast members experienced or did some surprising and in some cases bloodthirsty things. This backstory was only revealed to us gradually. It was an unfolding mystery and a big part of what powers the show's early seasons.
In the Beginning takes all these flashbacks, shoots lots of extra footage and edits it all into a coherent story. This is of course an arse-over-tit way of making a movie and it should have been an embarrassing flop, but fortunately the story being told:
(a) had been planned out in detail by JMS before he wrote a single word of even the pilot, so it all hangs together. Just don't think too hard about why no one's met Sheridan before the start of Season 2, even though here we see him going on a secret peace mission with G'Kar and Dr Franklin.
(b) is really powerful. I can't think of another war movie, either SF or otherwise, that tells this kind of story. You see, Earth is screwed. They've gone stirring up the Minbari because they were monumentally stupid and now they're cavemen fighting against tanks and missiles. They simply don't have the technology. It's not a fight, but a turkey shoot. Their only victory throughout the entire film is to destroy one (1) enemy ship, whereas the Minbari are casually wiping out entire worlds as they advance on Earth. We're looking at planetary extinction here. The film's most moving scene isn't about heroes going out to beat the enemy, but instead volunteering to go out and die.
This strikes me as a story that's really worth telling. In the beginning, mankind is all gung-ho. They beat the Dilgar, after all. We're rough, we're manly men. We can handle ourselves. Gimme a fight, bring it on! These people nearly bring about the death of our entire species. There's a scale and sweep to this movie that you only get with SF and makes it, as far as I know, unique. I'm sure something similar will have been done in novels. However in film and TV, no. Obviously we're basically talking about American telefantasy with bad CGI and one or two scenes that don't belong here and only exist for the sake of giving all the regular cast something to do. Nevertheless if you don't mind the dated SF aesthetic, I think this is one of the most interesting anti-war films I've seen.
For instance, compare with something like Flags of our Fathers
. The Clint Eastwood film is a painstaking recreation of real historical events, looks amazing and is clearly the kind of thing that you'd expect to be nominated for Oscars, even if it's not actually that good. It even shares this film's back-and-forth structure of narration and a framing story and has slightly more to say than "shit, this is a bit fucked up, isn't it?" However at the end of the day, Flags of our Fathers
is always going to be focused on its characters. It's only telling their story. Its anti-war statement can only come from the personal experiences of these men, so is going to be limited in its scope. In the Beginning on the other hand is playing with decades of future history, billions of lives and entire worlds. Its message is that war is the fruit of stupidity and greed, is perpetuated for any number of shameful reasons and only brings death. The people who boast of glory are the people you should be locking up first. This war is nothing but pointless carnage and the heroes are the ones who are aware of this.
Admittedly the TV series did all this and more, but that's the difference between 110 hour-long episodes and one little movie. The only question is where to insert it. I discovered Babylon 5 through the DVDs and so this was the first episode I ever saw. Unsurprisingly I loved it and would recommend doing this to anyone. Admittedly it's full of spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 (although not 3), but personally I didn't care about that. All the future stuff felt like foreshadowing. I think the movie even helped me enjoy Season 1 more, because I'd seen this terrifying slice of history and so had more patience for the station's day-to-day problems with striking dock workers or Mutai duels.
However people who saw Babylon 5 on transmission will often tell me that a huge part of the show's appeal for them was the unfolding of the mysteries and they can't imagine starting with something so spoiler-filled. I can see this point of view. To be honest, I think the movie's strong enough that you'll be sitting pretty wherever you watch it, so long as some part of it at least is still in the future for you. Make sure you've watched it before doing the Season 5
finale, for instance. The second time I watched this film, I knew all the Minbari war stuff but hadn't yet got to the show's later seasons, so was gobsmacked by certain aspects of the framing story. You see, there's a narrator. It's Londo Mollari, old and sick in the year 2278. If you're familiar with what happens in Season 5
, this will pack even more of a punch than it already does. One day I'll rewatch the end of the Babylon 5 saga:
- 2262 - the end of Season 5 (but not the finale)
- 2263 - The River of Souls
- 2265 - The Legend of the Rangers
- 2266 - A Call to Arms
- 2267 - the three Lochley episodes of Crusade (only)
- 2271 - The Lost Tales
- 2278 - In the Beginning
- 2281 - the Season 5 finale
- up to 1,000,000 - the Season 4 finale
In fact, I'd recommend that even someone watching for the first time should hold back the last two season finales until the very end like this. No, that's not the production order, but those episodes were clearly designed to be the capstones of the Babylon 5 mythos and so it seems right to let them retain that function even after taking the TV movies and spin-offs into account. Besides, they leap off into the show's future, so you needn't be worried about missing any important story by delaying them as I'm suggesting.
Peter Jurasik is wonderful. He'd have his ups and downs over the course of the show, but in this film I couldn't ask for more. He has the weight, the pain and that jovial bravado that comes from not caring that he's a bastard while at the same time caring deeply. He's also a shameless liar, although maybe by now he's even lying to himself. "I had four wives; I loved them all deeply." Yeah, sure you did, Londo.
Meanwhile G'Kar is great, as always. Delenn appears in both versions: bald and with hair. Dr Franklin gets a strong story role, which must have made a change for him. Almost everyone's memorable, in fact. The only one who lets the side down is Claudia Christian, who's been squeezed in as a 33-year-old teenager in a scene that doesn't even add anything to the story. At this point, Ivanova's a nobody. Of course her scene was never going to make any difference to anything. I really like Claudia Christian, but she's swimming against the tide with this one. If you really must see her as a teenager, go watch her appearances in Dallas or T.J. Hooker.
The film slows down a bit in the scenes where our heroes are trying to broker peace. We know how that will end up, even if the details are up for grabs. However it's completely the right thing for them to be doing in the circumstances and I'd have been screaming blue murder had those scenes not been there. There's also an insane coincidence in that it's Sinclair who gets pulled from the battle. Nevertheless these nitpicks don't matter. This movie isn't a flawless gem or anything. It still looks like Babylon 5 and it's occasionally awkward in its attempts to tell its dizzingly huge story with this scattered cast. They could have never pulled it all together without a narrator. There are more powerful and coherent stories out there, but that doesn't mean this isn't special.
I love the irony of Ducat's last message to Delenn. I love the speech of the Battle of the Line. I love what JMS does with Londo's last scene at the end. I even love the set-up for the creation of the Babylon 5 station. I love it all, basically.