It's the pilot, but not the original version from 1993. I'll be talking here about the special edition, re-edited in 1998 to include an additional fourteen minutes of exposition and character development. Most of that was made possible simply by editing for pace, but it's also been made five minutes longer to match the format of TNT's other Babylon 5 TV movies. It also has a new incidental score by the regular Babylon 5 composer, Christopher Franke, replacing Stewart Copeland's old music. Obviously we've lost a few bits and pieces in the re-edit, but the only thing anyone talks about is the excision of the "alien zoo". This seems to be widely regarded as a good thing.
As for the movie I watched, I liked it a lot. Naturally it can't compare with the high points of the TV series
, but it more than holds its own compared with the other TV movies. What's interesting about it is that it's so clearly a work in progress, with a number of things still in development and the Babylon 5 station itself only having recently gone online. Scriptwise it's all there, but as a TV production it's easy to see why JMS made the changes he did between pilot and series. What's more, every single change would be an improvement, which is reassuring to those of us who'd seen some of his other casting decisions and wondered if he actually knew what he was doing.
On the downside, of course that means The Gathering has some sizeable flaws, but I like the resulting sense of history. People come and people go. You can even say the same for entire species. This is a look at the station in 2257, a full year before the beginning of the TV series
proper, and it gives us a peep at yet another station crew. I might as well start going through the cast.
1. Michael O'Hare (Sinclair) - to my surprise, I liked him a good deal. Obviously O'Hare's a wooden actor, but I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't previously watched Season One. This script isn't stretching him, so he's comfortably within his limits and riding rather well on his old-school charm and slightly presidential air. The only exception to that is the scene in which he remembers the Battle of the Line and even for most of that I was impressed. Only towards the end of it does he show flashes of plankness. Some of me still regrets the fact that he'd eventually leave the series, you know. Here I enjoyed watching him.
2. Jerry Doyle (Garibaldi) - he's so young! He has hair!
3. Tamlyn Tomita (Takashima) - my word, she's terrible. This might be the worst performance ever given on a Babylon 5 set, which is a scary claim to have to think about. She appears to be playing the Claudia Christian role and never can a trade-off have looked so good. I hated the scene in her apartment with Dr Kyle, in which she's almost bad enough to kill the movie. Horrifyingly I've heard that if Straczynski hadn't been told to get rid of her by the studio, she might have made it to the first season.
4. Johnny Sekka (Dr Kyle) - another guy we'd never see again, but this time it's because Sekka turned it down due to health problems. This would be his last screen role, although ironically he'd outlive his replacement Richard Biggs by more than two years. I thought he was okay, albeit handicapped by a distracting accent. It's not as if Biggs set the screen alight either. By the way, this is yet another example of JMS's love of like-for-like replacements, with slots in his master plan for a black doctor (Biggs/Sekka), a female telepath (Tallman/Thompson) and a female Lieutenant Commander (Tomita/Christian). The only tweak is that Takashima's replacement wouldn't be Japanese.
5. Ed Wasser (Guerra) - it's Mr Morden! You know, the smug Shadow-serving slimeball who'd go on to cause Londo and the rest all the grief in the world in coming years. Same actor, different role. Here he's playing Faceless Bridge Officer #1, but with lines and everything. The difference between him and Tomita is that instead of being kicked off the show, he showed enough potential to get promoted to the role of Morden and the series duly created a new button-pusher character for Joshua Cox instead. You could weave a million fan theories out of this, but they'd have been more entertaining had Wasser ever got a close-up. Just one or two brief shots could have been enough to make us long-time viewers squeal in the face of evil. Alas, as it is, it's a bit bland. "Hey, isn't that Mr Morden?"
6. Mira Furlan (Delenn) - eurgh, ow, ew. What is that make-up? Furlan's a beautiful woman, but you'd never know from this. Make-up dudes! Leave her chin and jaw alone! She looks so unfamiliar that it's startling to hear her speak in Furlan's voice. It's even weirder if you watch this between In The Beginning
and the TV series
, which would mean you're getting in quick succession Delenn-With-Hair, Bald Delenn and Ugly Prototype Delenn before returning once again to the bald one. However that aside, it's a strong introduction for the character. She gets more to do than she'd ever get in the show's later years, nearly murdering G'Kar as well as discussing Japanese stone gardens with Sinclair. If you close your eyes and listen, she's perfect. At one point I did wonder if her performance wasn't occasionally getting a bit arch, but I think it's probably more likely that I'm just overreacting to her appearance.
7. Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar) - full of energy and gets the movie's funniest scene. He nails the role immediately, although he's not being shot to best effect. The show hasn't yet worked out how imposing he can be. Another downside is that I'm not wild about this slightly different version of his make-up, which to a lesser extent shares some of the faults I mentioned with Delenn. They'd fix that too.
8. Peter Jurasik (Londo) - almost perfect. He's 100% Londo, from the make-up to the performance. He has trouble with the accent in one scene, but otherwise he's immediately the colourfully irresponsible criminal of the show's early years, wallowing in self-pity and unable to get over the memory of his race's glory days. If you've seen the series before, this is almost sinister. Admittedly he's lacking the depth and gravity of the Londo he'd evolve into later (who also appears in In The Beginning
), but I don't have a problem with that. It's called character development.
9. Patricia Tallman (Lyta) - almost as bad as Tomita. She'd have improved when she returned later, but I thank my lucky stars that the studio forced JMS to drop her for season one in favour of Andrea Thompson, who was both prettier and a much better actress.
10. Kosh. Damn, I love the Vorlons. The show lost so much when they went.
As for the station itself, it's fascinating. It's even more crowded, detailed and alien than it would ever be again, by the way, with puppet and full body prosthetic aliens of a kind that you wouldn't see in the series proper. Presumably all kinds of species came to check out the new station on the occasion of its opening, but it tended to be the more humanoid ones that stuck around. You've got the Alien Sector, into which humans can't go without a gas mask. You've got hard SF details like the station's sectors being capable of independent rotation. A lot of this would get gradually sidelined as the series continued, but here JMS is setting up his universe as hard as he can and it's being made to look like an exciting place.
The CGI looks terrible of course, but what can you do? This is Babylon 5, after all.
I've hardly even mentioned the story. It's an (attempted) murder mystery with additional layers of politics. Londo, G'Kar and Delenn all have depths and are all dangerous in their own individual ways, while of course the Vorlons are yet more people you don't want to piss off. I like the SF detective aspect and the hints of foreshadowing that we're already getting. Basically it's a strong story. It suffers if you compare it to the best of Babylon 5, but the show's biggest weapon was its story arcs and this pilot could never have competed on that level. It doesn't sparkle like the best of, say, Joss Whedon, but it's solid meat-and-potatoes SF that takes itself impressively seriously. Compared with the series as a whole, it holds up better than I'd expected.