Warner Bros. // 1997 // 471 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // October 13th, 2004
"Babylon 5 is open for business." -- Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita)
The last of the Babylon stations was built in the year 2257. Nobody thought it would last a week. But it outlasted empires and wars. Babylon 5 premiered in 1993. Few thought the pilot movie would make it to series, and fewer thought the series would last. Then came five years of the television series, five television movies, a host of novels (and even a few comics), a short-lived spin-off, and a shelf full of action figures.
Not bad so far. So what's next?
Nobody had ever tried anything like it on American television: a five-year space opera on a budget. If you wander all the way back to my review for Season One of Babylon 5, you will recall my remarks that I was not very impressed with the pilot for this ambitious show back in 1993. It was the series itself, premiering the following year, that finally hooked me. When the show made the transition from syndication (on the ill-fated PTEN network) to another arm of the Warner Bros. empire (TNT), the brass offered series producers J. Michael Straczynski and Douglas Netter the opportunity to bolster Babylon 5's profile with a set of television movies. First, Straczynski dug through the vaults to find the surviving footage left from that weak-chinned 1993 pilot.
*The Gathering: The year is 2257. Work crews put the finishing touches on Babylon 5, fully expecting disaster to strike at any moment. After all, the first three efforts at a neutral space station sponsored by the Earth Alliance blew to pieces. The fourth just disappeared. But Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) has high hopes for success. After all, haven't you heard that he was raised by Jesuits?
Sinclair and his staff, the grim Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita), taciturn Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), and -- oh, what is another word for depressingly straight-faced? -- Dr. Kyle (Johnny Sekka), await the arrival of the final important ambassador, an enigmatic Vorlon named Kosh. No one has ever seen a Vorlon, not even the more worldly ambassadors already unpacked on the station. Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) represents the fading Centauri Republic, but his carousing and gambling tell you all you need to know about where his race is headed. His bitter enemy, Narn ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), plots in secret, hoping to turn his home world into the next major imperial power. Delenn (Mira Furlan), whose fellow Minbari only recently ended a brutal war against Earth, is more pensive and curious than her diplomatic peers. But we all know that Minbari never tell the whole truth.
Everything looks ready for a smooth beginning -- until an assassin places Kosh in mortal danger only moments after the Vorlon's arrival. Worse still, that assassin can look like anybody he wants, including Sinclair. With a Vorlon fleet poised outside, demanding Sinclair's head, and a camouflaged killer wandering the corridors of a five-mile-long space station, it seems like Babylon 5 may not survive any longer than its predecessors.
The 1998 revised edition of The Gathering benefits considerably from additional character scenes, editorial tightening of its original flaccid pace, and a new score from series composer Christopher Franke (replacing the original Stuart Copeland score). However, the human characters are still played pretty flat, with particularly stiff performances by Tamlyn Tomita (who was replaced by Claudia Christian for the series) and Michael O'Hare (who stuck it out through the first season and eventually warmed up a bit in the character). The alien characters are far more interesting here, although you might note that Delenn is played a little broadly: Mira Furlan had to over-enunciate all her lines with the expectation that they would be digitally processed in postproduction to make Delenn sound more androgynous.
The story itself is a little forced, but mostly in retrospect (assassination plots would become a Babylon 5 staple when the show became a full series). What still seems clunky is the extended exposition scenes, although these are not uncharacteristic of a pilot episode. If you have watched the series without seeing the pilot episode first, you may notice a number of differences (read: continuity errors) that resulted from Straczynski's changing his mind as the show progressed. These range from small issues (differences in makeup, particularly with Delenn) to some seriously frustrating acts of misdirection (how do you poison a Vorlon, if [a] nobody knows anything about their physiology, and [b] we learn later that they are not fully corporeal?).
At least Straczynski is also aware of the weaknesses of the pilot film. His commentary track with production designer John Iacovelli is surprisingly candid, considering his reticence on previous commentary tracks, where he largely limits himself to rehashing plot points. Here, the two men discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the film (Straczynski even admits that the exposition is overwritten) and finally clarify why Tamyln Tomita and Johnny Sekka were dropped when B5 went to series: bad acting (okay, so he says that she was "uncomfortable with her character," but that sounds like a euphemism to me) and bad health, respectively. He also confirms the rumors that Takashima was supposed to be the traitor among the crew later in the show's story arc. As a side note, look for Ed Wasser, the future Mr. Morden, as a crew member on the command deck.
*In the Beginning: The year is 2278. As his last hours on the throne of Centauri Prime are winding down, Emperor Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) tells two impatient children a fairy tale. Once upon a time, there were two races. The first, the Minbari, was frustrated. They had waited a thousand years for a promised sign that had yet to come. Some said an ancient enemy was rising; others said it was nonsense, that the race that gave them this prophecy, the Vorlons, had abandoned them. A wise Minbari, Dukhat (Reiner Schone), decided to visit the Vorlon homeworld, hoping for a sign.
The other race, the humans, was arrogant. Full of pride after their victory over the weaker Dilgar, the humans thought only of power and destiny. Londo warned them of their folly, but his enemy G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) encouraged them. So the humans went to look for the Minbari, whom they heard were a formidable adversary. They came upon Dukhat and his novice, the young Delenn (Mira Furlan). But the two races did not understand one another, and a simple act of miscommunication erupted into a brutal war that nearly destroyed the human race.
Although you can easily watch The Gathering prior to embarking on Season One (it is a pilot movie, after all), it might be a good idea to wait on In the Beginning until after Season Two, if not until near the end of the show's run (which is when Straczynski wrote it). The sprawling narrative covers the events of the Earth-Minbari War and therefore tends to spoil a lot of the secrets revealed about the war during the early parts of Babylon 5's arc. On the plus side, the episodic nature of the tale tends to avoid the weaknesses in pacing that mar Straczynski's long-form stories: When one sequence does not work, we know that the story will jump tracks shortly to something else. Of course (and here are the minuses), those weaker sequences tend to stand out, especially since they often involve new information that was not established already during the course of the series. Claudia Christian turns up in an awkward scene playing a teenage (!) version of Susan Ivanova, seeing her brother off to war. While we get a great sequence revealing exactly how John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) destroyed a Minbari flagship by playing a very dirty trick, we unfortunately get a muddled subplot in which Sheridan, Dr. Franklin (Richard Biggs), and G'Kar all team up for a secret meeting with a Minbari negotiator. It is an awkward way to work in the principal characters, as Straczynski tries to cover for the fact that none of the stars share any screen time through this story. Overall, In the Beginning is one of the better of the TNT telefilms, and a solid commentary by Straczynski and director Mike Vejar gets the job done. But how many times is Straczynski going to tell us the joke about Vejar making everyone on the set work "Vejar'der and Vejar'der"?
*Thirdspace: The year is 2261. Returning from a routine ass kicking on some raiders, Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian) stumbles upon a massive artifact floating in hyperspace. Her Starfury team tows it back to Babylon 5, where a greedy corporate archeologist (Shari Belafonte) wastes no time trying to pry the object open. But this is not some space piñata, full of candy and toys. Some people on Babylon 5 are having eerily seductive dreams, as if something inside the artifact is calling to them. Telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) is afraid: The Vorlons remember this thing. It is a gigantic coffin, meant to bury something old and terrible. That something is waking up.
This is easily the best of the Babylon 5 telefilms. Straczynski's homage to H.P. Lovecraft (with alien designs by Wayne Barlowe) manages to give the audience a credible threat to our heroes, use the supporting cast to excellent effect, and actually look like a movie, thanks to moody lighting and solid pacing from director Jesus Treviño. While Sheridan gets to do the flashy stuff (Boxleitner even jokes on the commentary that Sheridan's nickname should be "Nuke 'em"), the script also makes good use of series regulars Pat Tallman, Steven Furst, and Jeff Conaway (who gets a great scene where he confesses his feelings for Lyta), with a little of William Sanderson reprising his role as Deuce. The notion of an enemy that even the Vorlons fear works well, especially as this story is set just after the end of the Shadow War (about a third of the way into Season Four) and suggests there will be future consequences from the meddling of the more powerful races like the Vorlons. Moreover, this disc boasts the best commentary track in the set: Straczynski, Jesus Treviño, Boxleitner, Conaway, Furst, and Tallman tease one another. I have always said that the cast commentaries are a welcome part of the season boxed sets, and this one is quite entertaining as well.
*The River of Souls: The year is 2263. Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) has settled into life on Babylon 5 without the meddling presence of Sheridan and the Alliance. Of course, nothing is ever quiet on the station for long. When Michael Garibaldi turns up in search of a half-crazed archeologist (Ian McShane, Sexy Beast) who claims he has found the secret of eternal life (paid for with Garibaldi's money), Lochley knows trouble is coming. Sure enough, the artifact in question belongs to the Soul Hunters, and one of their number (Martin Sheen) has come to reclaim their property. Things go from bad to disastrous when the artifact begins to leak angry souls into the corridors of the station, eventually taking over...um, a holo-brothel?
If Thirdspace got everything right for a Babylon 5 television movie, The River of Souls seems more a collection of awkward missteps. The plot is recycled from already-clichéd bits from the show's first season, notably the episodes "Soul Hunter" (naturally) and "Infection" (naughty archeologist brings aboard dangerous artifact). While it is nice to see Tracy Scoggins carry over from the show's fifth season, especially since Straczynski gave little time to developing her character there, she does not do much more here than look annoyed. There is some fan service thrown in here in the form of a holographic Lochley dressed by Frederick's of Hollywood, but the entire notion of a virtual reality brothel (likely a slam at Quark's place on Deep Space 9, which you just know had holo-hookers) is thrown in here more as comedy relief (complete with a stock blubbering lawyer played by Stuart Pankin) and takes up too much screen time.
Indeed, with as many clichés as this film incorporates, it is surprising how padded it feels, right up to its requisite "noble sacrifice" climax. I suppose some of this comes from Straczynski's desire to spotlight guest star Martin Sheen in long stretches of dialogue. But Sheen seems to think his regretful alien should be played for thick melodrama, and the audience cannot help but constantly think, "Oh look, Martin Sheen is playing an alien." It just does not click. Instead, this entire film could have fit neatly into an hour-long episode of Crusade. Imagine Max Eilerson looting a Soul Hunter crypt for information on the Drakh plague, then bringing an artifact to Babylon 5 on the Excalibur. Gideon's reaction to seeing Lochley in lingerie would have been just as amusing as Garibaldi's, but more suited to the budding relationship between those characters.
The River of Souls includes a commentary track from Straczynski, director Janet Greek, and Tracy Scoggins. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given the film), it tends to drag, as if the participants really do not have as much to say about this film as they do about some of the others. Maybe, like the movie itself, they are just going through the motions.
*A Call to Arms: The year is 2267. Earth is still recovering from the recent Telepath War, and the first prototype ships using shared Earth and Minbari technology are now ready for launch. John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), president of the Interstellar Alliance, joins Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) to inspect the new ships, Victory and Excalibur. Sheridan's delight in his new toys is short-lived. Not only are there still bugs in the design, but Sheridan is having maddening dreams of a burning planet, shown to him by an errant technomage (Peter Woodward). The Drakh, deadly servants of the Shadows with delusions of grandeur, have gotten their scaly hands on a deathcloud, a genocidal weapon that can burn planets to ash. And they are heading for Earth. So Sheridan does the obvious thing: He teams up with a thief (Carrie Dobro) and an AWOL Earth Force captain (Tony Todd), they steal the prototype ships, and they race off to save Earth. Their mission: set up the back story for the Babylon 5 spin-off, Crusade.
Okay, where to begin. A Call to Arms is not a bad film. It sets up some of the key elements of Crusade while still keeping the story firmly entrenched in the Babylon 5 continuity. Carrie Dobro and Peter Woodward are regulars in Crusade, and we get to see the Excalibur in action for the first time, which saves a lot of exposition later. The Drakh plague feels a little tacked on at the end, but, well, it is: The network (TNT, whose icy grip would continue to crush Crusade) insisted that Straczynski give his new series some sense of urgency.
On the other hand, the setup (and Crusade itself) feels a little like a Dungeons and Dragons game with spaceships. Here is the mage; here is the thief; here is the paladin with his +4 laser beam weapon. Using Sheridan in this story was a bit of a narrative mistake as well. His story is well developed within the confines of Babylon 5 already, and by 2267, he should be settled into running the Alliance, not fighting battles. He's done his time. Straczynski should have taken the more adventurous route here and written the story around Susan Ivanova.
No, bear with me here. In the years since Ivanova left her friends after the death of Marcus and we see her comfortably at the top of her profession in "Sleeping in Light," there are still stories to tell. Imagine that by 2267, she has spent so much time keeping to herself, brooding over what happened to Marcus, that her career has stalled and she is just marking time. Ordered to take the Excalibur on its shakedown cruise (she is one of the few Earth Force officers who have piloted a Minbari ship before), she starts having bad dreams, courtesy of Galen. She assumes she is having a nervous breakdown (which is more believable than Sheridan in this case), but she follows her instinct that something is really amiss -- and the story proceeds from there. The difference is that by the end, there is actually some character development: Ivanova finds her sense of purpose again in her desire to save Earth from the Drakh. And Straczynski can reconcile with Claudia Christian after her troubled departure prior to Season 5.
It is just water under the bridge now, I suppose. And whatever promise Crusade might have had, as evidenced by this pilot and the short-lived series, is too. Straczynski and Mike Vejar express few regrets during their commentary track for A Call to Arms, which they feel is the best of the Babylon 5 telefilms. This final disc in the set also includes the only supplemental featurette in the collection, a chat about the show's attempts at scientific extrapolation called "Creating the Future." Straczynski, John Iacovelli, and others admit to some pseudoscientific cheats (faster-than-light travel, sound in space), and I am surprised they never discuss the contributions of the Jet Propulsion Lab, which let the effects crew crib lots of background space images from Hubble photographs, making space a lot more colorful than you see on most science fiction shows.
This set also omits the more recent, and rather disappointing, telefilm The Legend of the Rangers, a pilot for the SciFi Channel, but those distribution rights are likely still tied up.
Fans of Babylon 5 will certainly want to fill the gap in their collection with this set. Fortunately, two of the five movies are genuinely good (In the Beginning and Thirdspace), one is useful in fleshing out the show's continuity (the pilot film The Gathering), and the remaining two, while not up to the show's usual standards, should be pleasing enough to pass the time. The extras on this set are thin compared to the series boxed sets, but I suspect Warner Bros. figured that this set would be for completists only. In a sense, it is. While those interested in Babylon 5 on a casual level still need to see all five years of the series to get the full effect of J. Michael Straczynski's "television novel," these movies are not essential components of the overall story, not even the pilot or the prequel, since Straczynski reiterated (and in some cases in the pilot, actually changed) key details in the series.
If I sound a little less enthusiastic about the Babylon 5: The Movie Collection than I have about the other sets in the series, it is for two reasons. First, the movies themselves are a mixed bag, surprising considering the strong track record of this show. Second, I am already looking with a mixture of excitement and regret toward the final story (so far) in the television history of the last of the Babylon stations, the unfinished Crusade.
Warner Bros. is warned to pull out all the stops for their upcoming Crusade set, since this will be their last chance to do right by Babylon 5. Joe Straczynski is ordered to get back to work on the Babylon 5 theatrical feature he claims is forthcoming. Flags at the courthouse shall be flown at half-mast in honor of the recently departed Richard Biggs, our own Dr. Stephen Franklin. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame (The Gathering Only)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 471 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Tracks by J. Michael Straczynski, Cast, and Crew
* "Babylon 5: Creating the Future" Featurette
* IMDb: The Gathering
* IMDb: In the Beginning
* IMDb: Thirdspace
* IMDb: The River of Souls
* IMDb: A Call to Arms
* Official Site
* The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5
* Review of Season One
* Review of Season Two
* Review of Season Four
* Review of Season Five