I have always loved science fiction. From the first time I saw Star Wars as a kid, I was hooked on stories involving weird aliens, amazing technology and far off worlds. I’ve discussed before my love of Star Trek, Farscape, and the various Stargates. But, for whatever reason the beloved 90’s sci-fi epic Babylon 5 never quite made my list.
Premiering in 1993, a month after the too-similar-by-half Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which we’ll discuss more in a minute), J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 is still lauded by fans as an incredible work that, because of its perceived similarity to another show, never really gained the mainstream love it should have. The story goes that Straczynski pitched B5 to Paramount in 1989 who passed on the series. He shopped it around and it was eventually picked up to syndication. But, right as B5 was announced, Paramount announced the third Star Trek spin-off, DS9, which was suspiciously similar to the show that they had passed on 4 years before. All parties have basically denied any copying but the initial similarities:
- Takes place on a space station
- Various aliens everywhere
- Station has a centrally located casino
- Political and religious intrigue take center stage
are hard to ignore. And, that DS9 has the obvious built-in Star Trek fanbase puts it in a better position for success right off the bat. But, as fans of both shows will point out, the series diverged from each other pretty sharply after the initial episodes and found their own paths (or in DS9’s case around season 3). As a die hard Trekker in the 90’s, B5 was never really on my radar. It wasn’t even a choice really, DS9 already plugged into something I was a fan of so dipping into this new world was not something I was looking to explore beyond seeing commercials and thinking “huh, that looks…what is with that guy’s hair?”
As the years wore on though, I heard more and more how amazing this show was. The last time I had heard such vociferous praise of a genre show was Farscape and when I finally saw that I was floored at how much I loved it. Which bring us here, now, with all (ish) of Babylon 5 being on Amazon Prime Video.
All 5 seasons, and the pilot movie The Gathering are available for streaming. The other movies (Thirdspace, In the Beginning, River of Souls, The Legend of The Rangers, A Call to Arms) as well as the spin-off Crusade and the final movie Lost Tales: Voices in the Dark are not currently available but from what I have seen those don’t begin in continuity until part way through season 4 so I think I have more than enough to really see if this show lives up to all the hype.
With all that preamble out of the way, let’s begin The Gathering
It’s important to note right at the beginning, there are HUGE differences between the movie and the first episode of the series. There are some differing characters and the aesthetic is slightly different. But, the crux of the world building done in the movie carries over to the series well.We get our first look at our home for the series, the titular station Babylon 5. There’s some dialogue about why the station is designated 5- the first 3 were destroyed and the 4th vanished without a trace and that seems like a rather good time to retire the “Babylon” name but I digress- and nothing about why the station looks like a spark plug. I realize my DS9 bias as I immediately assumed that planet in the background is in someway important. It so far is not.
The 1993 graphics are on full display. This was a random shot I grabbed but they’re all bad in a Starfox-meets-VR Troopers sort of way
And, again this station has a Not-the-Promenade casino centerpiece.
Here’s a quick glimpse of the aliens that populate the station, on the left is a proto-Farscape muppet-like creature and on the right is a refugee-from-the-planet-of-the-apes-cum-bartender.
And, don’t forget the cultures of Earth being represented
In their traditional garb and all…Yes that is a beret. Because of course.
Here’s our first glimpse of the XO Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita). Her job appears the be to control all traffic entering the station and standing in disco lighting all day. Takashima doesn’t make it to the series. She doesn’t die (as far as I can tell) but her character disappears after this movie.
Other things that don’t survive this movie are these uniforms. Which, if I was Tamlyn Tomita I would have quit after looking in the mirror. If the uniforms didn’t look…um…uniformly bad (sorry) I would say the costumer hated her so very much. Additionally if you plan on watching this, please note that Tamlyn Tomita is a great actress and you should not judge her ability based on this movie. The acting in this movie is pretty bad across the board but Tomita’s performance is almost as fake as the graphics.
Babylon 5 (as the opening narration of the series proper will endlessly drone) is a place where humans and aliens can meet and coexist. Humans have in the recent past completed a devastating war with the Minbari , and the station is to serve as a diplomatic post to prevent future wars. There are to be representatives from all of the major races; Humans (who run the station), the aforementioned Minbari in the person of the mysterious Delenn (Mira Furlan), the Narn represented by G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas), and the Centauri represented but Londo (Peter Jurasik) who is also the most ridiculous being I have ever seen
The last of the ambassadors, Kosh of the Vorlons, is set to arrive as the movie begins. I gather the Vorlons are the mysterious warlike race of this world as no one has ever seen one and they are spoken about in hushed tones.
The Gathering is the story of Kosh’s arrival and the assassination attempt that follows. One of the things that is made clear is that most of the aliens need specific environments to breathe. This leads to what seems to be Babylon 5‘s favorite things: OXYGEN MASKS!!
So many scenes feature actors trying to act through giant oxygen masks. The scene on the left is station commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) leading new station telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) to her quarters while explaining the station’s environs and population. Because of the mask it’s all done in voice-over while the actors gesture vaguely and move their eyes a lot. I have so far watched up through episode 2 and this trend continues. On the right, station doctor Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) works on a dying Kosh. Sekka also doesn’t continue to the series and again he spends a lot of time in this mask so I wouldn’t blame him if he quit.
Sinclair gets implicated in the assassination plot and a trial ensues. The ambassadors and Lt. Commander Takashima are the judges- the words conflict of interest are not uttered- and the witnesses get sent to the Phantom Zone, I guess
How the hell is anyone supposed to concentrate on their answers with all of that going on?
As the trial continues, the crew continues to try to save Kosh, which requires eye-searing purple lighting
And concerned looks. And conversations with people back on Earth (and Sinclair’s totally pointless girlfriend) via the future tech of grainy 13 inch CRT monitors
I understand it was 1993 but damn that looks terrible. If Star Wars could have holographic communication in 1977 they could have found a more futury looking communication technique in their budget.
Anyway, eventually they figure out that the real assassin is using an illegal shape changing tech to hide on the station. The tech is…not going well
But luckily the Doctor is on the case using this super helpful display
Somehow playing 3 different types of Tetris helps save Kosh. Hooray!
The Gathering is…not good. Had I watched this on original airing it would not have excited me to watch a forthcoming series set in this world. It’s boring, poorly paced, badly realized, and badly acted But, knowing how it all shakes out, I am still planning on watching the rest of the series because I have been assured that it gets so much better .