Game of chess? What, you’ve never played? Well it’s a classic; once you get familiar with it, you’ll love it. What does this have to do with Babylon 5? I’m glad you asked. Well, The Gathering is rather brilliant and you may not realize it for some time. What it does is gives us a reasonably good whodunit while setting up the board and introducing the audience to the pieces. See, the thing is, you can’t just play chess. You have to know the pieces since they are all different; what they do and how they move. But even knowing how they move doesn’t help if you don’t know their starting positions. You need to know the rook goes on the corner and the queen sits on her own color. A pawn can move 1 space at a time, with the exception of its first move, wherein it can move two spaces, and so on and so on. The Gathering is the chessboard setup and overview of pieces. It is not explicit about who will be what piece, but it sets the game board up and lets us know we are in for what could be an epic experience. The big question this episode focuses on is whether the mysterious Kosh will be a part of the gameboard or not. Is he a pawn? A knight? Or perhaps something more? But all of that will make sense in time. First, the setup…
Visually, we get a tour of the station when Sinclair takes Lyta Alexander through the “alien sector”. Obviously, there’s a quicker way to her quarters but he’s showing off the station. He’s proud of it, it matters to him. If you’re paying attention, you notice things like newspaper headlines like the one in Universe Today: Vorlons Make Contact. The news broadcasts in Babylon 5 tell a story as they go. This is a living universe. Yet there is so much more than the visual stuff. It builds a mystery while dropping a whole host of hints. “I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind”, Londo’s voice says at the start of the series, telling us this is historical information. We are being told the Babylon story, from some future perspective. In the process, we learn that there are no Narn telepaths and they were once slaves of the Centauri. They want to develop telepathic abilities at any cost. Centuri culture is based on status and their chief representative, Londo, longs for the glory days of his republic. There is a secret group of Minbari called The Grey Council which must never be spoken of. The war between the Minbari and the humans was an utter slaughter but something stopped it and no one knows why. Sinclair fought in that infamous battle, The Battle of the Line, and expected to die there but has a missing 24 hours that point to something else going on. He also seems to have a very easy friendship with Delenn, a member of that race that were mortal enemies not ten years earlier. P5 telepaths, of which Lyta is classified, are very powerful but there are laws in place to stop unlawful use of their powers. There were food riots on Mars and Garibaldi has a checkered past. All of these plot points are laid out innocuously but will all be explored in greater detail as the series goes on.
Does it help knowing that the Minbari are the most advanced of the “four alien governments”, when it is clear there are a lot more races making their way to and through Babylon 5? Maybe. Maybe there are other races that are of less significance. We shall see! Or that the Vorlon are so mysterious that their people would sooner allow Kosh to die rather than give up potential secrets? Probably. Since the Vorlon ends up being the linchpin to the story, there are a lot of questions about who and what he is. Why does he live in an encounter suit and how could someone have gotten poison to his hand? Well, I guess we’ll have to see as we get there.
In the meantime, as Laurel Takashima puts it, Babylon 5 is open for business…
Beep beep! ML
The view from across the pond:
When we started this blog its original focus was on Doctor Who, and the premise was a dual-review format. I would write an article about each story, and then my American friend Mike would contribute his “view from across the pond”. We are long since done with that, having written about every Doctor Who story ever made, and since branched out into articles about specific aspects of Doctor Who on a thematic level, anime, computer games etc, all of which are ongoing topics for the Junkyard. But they are all individual projects, and I was keen to embark on another dual-review journey with Mike. Much to his surprise, I think, I suggested Babylon 5.
Mike has probably already mentioned this, but he loves Babylon 5. I never watched it. He tried to get me into it, I watched a couple of episodes and it didn’t grab me. But knowing how much Mike likes it, and trusting his judgement, Babylon 5 for me is the perfect opportunity for another “across the pond”, albeit reversed with me on the wrong side of the pond, a Brit looking at an American series. I am hoping this whole journey will provide an interesting contrast between a hardcore fan of the show, one who considers it the best sci-fi ever made, and somebody who is completely new to it all. So you get two in one: the expert view, and the newbie view. If I hate it I’ll be honest and say that. However, despite the first episodes not hooking me in I have a nagging suspicion that I’ll probably end up enjoying it. I’ve never known Mike to be that far wrong in his television opinions. So here goes.
A quick google tells me that this one is a pilot episode to test the waters. I’m going to have to do a lot of quick googling as we progress. Also, the version I’m watching says “special edition” at the start, and apparently this was re-edited to speed up the pace a bit and correct some things that conflict with later episodes. Frankly the pace is so terribly pedestrian that I can’t imagine how tedious the original was, and I don’t want to know.
First impressions, from the point of view of the overall concept. It’s very Deep Space 9, but I think this came first. I wonder if it will share some of the same problems, with exploration difficult and all the action having to come to the space station. A bit like Doctor Who when the Doctor gets exiled to Earth – rooted in one spot. We’ll see. At first glance we have a load of humans, plus a few Trek-ish aliens – actors in prosthetics. In the background of shots we have actors in very bad prosthetics. Worse, we have aliens represented by actors without any prosthetics. Londo in particular (and how many times am I going to accidentally type an “n” on the end of his name over the next few months?) is apparently an alien because he has very very silly hair and big eyebrows. It’s the kind of sci-fi that makes me laugh, sorry. He is also one of several of the cast who engage in some awful ham acting, although in the quiet, regretful moments later in the episode he is vastly better so I can see the actor is actually very talented. In contrast, the actor playing the doctor doesn’t seem able to give a convincing line reading at all (“I have looked upon the face of a Vorlon and nothing is the same any more.” – my word he’s cheesy), and as for Lyta Alexander…
Anyway, I’m not going to condemn a story for the acting. Let’s look at what this is all about. Although it’s all horribly dragged out to start with, the pace does pick up nicely during the second half, and what we have here is an enemy-within story, combined with a peace conference sabotage story. In other words, the kind of stuff I’ve seen a million times before. The inclusion of what appeared to be a shapeshifter spiced things up until it became clear that it was just a holographic trick: the sci-fi version of a cunning, villainous disguise. Oh, and those guns the captain and his lacky were carrying around were ridiculously big. Not ideal when they are trying to hide and there’s a gun that’s almost as big as they are, sticking out into the room. I had to laugh at that.
Contrast this to the first episode of Doctor Who, either 1963 or 2005. You can’t not keep watching that series. It draws you in. This doesn’t. It’s a terrible first episode that does nothing to encourage the viewers to keep watching, except…
There’s something about some of these characters that makes me want to see them again. Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar (googling again) is great fun, and there’s a decent bit of acting from Michael O’Hare as the commander. I like him. The best line of the episode: “tell them to get stuffed”; I was disappointed to learn that Takashima disappears after the pilot episode. I thought she was very good. There were a few plot points that hint at things to come, and I want to know about them. The “hole in your mind” is clearly going to be a thing, and if we don’t get to see the mysteriously vanished Babylon 4 one day I’ll be annoyed.
I’ll finish this by picking out one moment in the episode that really impressed me, the use of the stone garden as a metaphor for Delenn giving over classified information: one stone creating ripples that change the whole pattern. One moment of trust changing the fundamental relationship between two former enemies. That’s great writing.
Go on then, I’ll watch another. RP