So, not a lot of people know this, but I was there at the dawning of the Third Age of Mankind. It began in the Earth Year 1993, with a visionary science-fiction television show born from the imagination of Joe Michael Straczynski. Babylon 5 was completely unlike anything else on TV at the time; which earned it a passionate cult fanbase on the one hand, and a near-constant battle against cancellation on the other. Indeed, the story behind Babylon 5 is almost as good as Babylon 5 itself, and maybe better, because it’s been awhile since I’ve actually seen this thing. That’s part of why we’re here, in this introductory post for my very own Babylon 5 rewatch: to see it with fresh eyes, and see what exactly the big deal was.
Because make no mistake, this show was a big deal for me. I think it’s safe to say that the likes of Breaking Bad, Lost, and Carnivale have supplanted it as my favorite show of all time, but it’s easily held a top 5 spot over the years, for sure. Because I was there, you see, at the dawning of the Third Age. I have vivid memories of running 30 blocks from work so as not to miss a crucial episode, and the catharsis of collapsing in front of the television set in a pool of sweat and triumph. I was a part of that passionate cult fanbase. The very first scrap of the Internet I ever saw was the Babylon 5 homepage, which took about 5 minutes to load and was worth every pixel. True story.
But although I was there, I wasn’t a fan from the beginning. Not even a bit. I saw the pilot episode with my father when it aired on TBS and I think I was so bored I just stared at the wall instead. Dad really liked it though, and over the years he acquired the series-in-progress on a bunch of bootleg VHS tapes passed along his circle of friends. These he played on pretty well a continuous loop and since we were sharing a one bedroom apartment, it was pretty well unavoidable. To me, Babylon 5 was something to be tolerated. And then one day I just… got it. It clicked. I remember the exact scene where I perked up and was like ‘wait, that happened?‘ and I’ll be sure to point it out when we get there. It was a real Road to Damascus conversion, and from then on I was hooked.
But that was a long time ago. Babylon 5 may have pioneered long form storytelling, but we’re awash in it now. How does the series hold up in the rarified pop culture air of 2016? Will the story hold up in the face of corny humor and Stone Age computer graphics? Will the C-list actors detract from the performances of the B-list ones? I can’t trust my memory, so there’s only one way to know for sure. We’re gonna watch the whole goddam thing.
A few programming notes before we dive into this: the plan is to post these every Wednesday, and I will do my level best to adhere to that schedule. I’ll probably play it loose with the format until I find my stride, but for now I’m going to borrow the template from Leigh Butler’s excellent Wheel of Time reread, which is to say each episode will have a summary section followed by a commentary, and we’ll do two episodes a post. Except this one. The re-watch will also be spoiler free; at least, I’m determined to make it so. If that changes as the series picks up steam, I’ll be certain to throw up appropriate buffers and warnings and such. Aaaaaaaad, I think that’s it. To the post!
Babylon 5 : The Gathering
Listen, don’t worry about it. The Gathering is not on the test. You could have skipped it and not missed much, honestly. That being said, I’ll be brief: There’s a Space Station. In Space. Different alien species live there, ostensibly to build peace, except that the first thing that happens is an assassination attempt on the Vorlon ambassador. (Vorlon’s are mysterious, which will become relevant later.) Commander Jeffrey Sinclair is implicated in the assassination, but since he’s the series lead, we know he didn’t do it. The rest of the episode is a race against the clock as he tries both to clear his own name, as well as discover the identity of the actual assassin. Meanwhile Dr. I-can’t-remember-his-name-because-he’s-not-on-the-actual-show fights to save Ambassador Kosh’s life; battling not only the poison used, but also the red tape the mysterious Vorlons throw up to protect their secrets. Everything works out in the end though, and in the end the ambassadors and crew officially open Babylon 5: our last, best hope for peace.
For the record, there are two versions of this pilot movie: one which initially aired in 1993 (boring a 13 year old me half-to-death), and is nearly unwatchable and -blessedly- a second, directors cut released a few years later. Guess which one I picked this for this re-watch?
Director’s Cut aside, the Gathering is still far from a masterpiece of the genre, but this version actually isn’t that bad. I was pleasantly surprised, and the friend who bravely agreed to do this re-watch with me didn’t hate it either. (Unless she was simply being polite? I’ll have to inquire.) Now, this show is so 90’s it practically bleeds Duran Duran, but it was part of the charm for me, and Devin -again- did not seem to hate it.I feel like judging the production design of a pilot episode isn’t quite fair, anyway. Though the show will never shake it’s inherent 90’s-ness, I’m pretty sure it won’t always look this… garish.
As the movie introduces a dizzying array of characters, each with their own motivations and backstories, we’re given a kaleidoscopic view of a lived-in universe. It’s baffling to the initiate for sure, but that’s where the simplicity of the assassination plot comes in handy. While the story does take little dips and detours along the way, hinting at the bigger picture, it always comes right back to the point; a story so basic I just summarized it in a paragraph. Watching it with the benefit of foreknowledge, I was deeply impressed by how dense the storytelling actually was, seeding future episodes and entire arcs with a few throw-off lines and one particularly excellent monologue from Jeffery Sinclair.
“I was squad team leader when the call came in. We all knew it was a suicide mission. The Minbari had broken through and were closing in. Every ship we had left was ordered to circle earth. We had to stop them. No matter what it cost. They came at us out of nowhere. We never had a chance. The sky was full of stars, and every star, an exploding ship. One of ours. My team was blown out of the sky in less than a minute. I managed to take out a fighter before they hit my stabilizers. I was losing power, I’d lost my team, and I figured if I was going to die I’d take some of them with me. So I targeted one of their heavy cruisers, hit my afterburners, I was gonna ram them head on. The last thing I remember is… hurtling toward that cruiser, filling my screen, big. My god, so big. Then, something, passed in front of my eyes. I guess I blacked out from the acceleration. When I came to, 24 hours later, the cruiser was gone. I checked in. They told me the war was over. The Minbari had surrendered…”
This blog will have much and more to say about Michael O’Hare’s performance as Jeffrey Sinclair as we get deeper into the show, but for now, this piece of writing, and this delivery, is fantastic. It’s good to see that even in it’s infancy, Babylon 5 was showing flashes of the quality which my nostalgia recalls so strongly. This bodes well.
If nothing else, The Gathering has made me eager for this re-watch. Guys, it’s Babylon 5! We’re doing this!
Next week, we’ll wade deeper into politics and religion with Midnight on the Firing Line and Soul Hunter. And so it begins…