December 2, 2011

Babble On, part 2: "The Gathering"

Michael O'Hare as Babylon 5 commander Jeffrey Sinclair.
Babylon 5's feature length pilot, "The Gathering", is a staggeringly uneven production. Every element that works seems matched with one that doesn't. The result is a viewing experience that lurches from good to bad like a listing galleon. I do remember being rather impressed with it back in 1993; a science fiction television drama, made in the USA, filled with spaceships, aliens and intrigue, and it wasn't Star Trek. (Don't get me wrong - I adore Star Trek. It was just lovely to get some variety.)

I think it's important to acknowledge how great a year 1993 was for American television. Science fiction fans had pretty much been living on a solid diet of Star Trek: The Next Generation for five years, with odd short-lived distractions such as Alien Nation. 1993 saw a positive explosion of science fiction TV with the debut of not only Babylon 5, but also Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X Files, Lois & Clark and SeaQuest DSV, plus short-lived entries such as Time Trax and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Beyond science fiction, 1993 also saw the debuts of Homicide: Life of the Street, NYPD Blue, Frasier, Animaniacs, Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman and Diagnosis Murder. Now the quality of these shows varied considerably, but it's difficult to argue with the fact that 1993 was a fairly auspicious year for American TV.

One of the main selling points of Babylon 5 was its story arc: episodes were not self-contained, but rather each formed part of a larger, continuing narrative. This is often held up as something unique about Babylon 5, or at least groundbreaking, and this is partially true. American TV drama had featured story arcs since Hill Street Blues in 1981, and 1993 witnessed an explosion of arc-based television dramas with Deep Space Nine, The X Files, Homicide and NYPD Blue all including one form of continuing story or another. Where Babylon 5 marked itself as particularly distinct was that the series was formed around a pre-planned five-year storyline. Knowing where the series would be not only in the first season but several seasons beyond allowed the series to work in foreshadowing to an extent not seen in TV before or since. How tightly this five-season arc was actually planned has always been open to debate (I personally feel it was significantly looser than the series' producers may have suggested at the time) but it remains a significant achievement and one of Babylon 5's most appealing aspects.

So asides from some intriguing foreshadowing, what does "The Gathering" give us? I'm going to give my observations of each episode in dot points, beginning here:
  • The producers have taken the bold choice of rendering all of the space sequences with computer-generated images (CGI). At the time this seemed wonderfully exciting. 18 years later, it's fairly apparent that they may have jumped the gun a little. The CGI works to tell the story required, and I've never been one to let substandard visuals ruin a decent story, but it does mean that - in visual terms - Babylon 5 has aged a lot faster than contemporaries such as Deep Space Nine (which continued to use physical models for its first few seasons).
  • The production values of the pilot appear stretched to the limit: there are two ways to look at this. One view would be to believe the production team bit off more than they could chew, and that the pilot (and subsequent series) is strained beyond reasonable limits: costumes look a bit tatty, the sets look disturbingly wobbly, and so on. The alternate view - one I share - is that Babylon 5 is a series with a massive amount of ambition, and that's one of its core strengths. I note (but don't necessarily criticise) that the series is garishly colourful.
  • The pilot is also exceptionally good at world-building: interesting detail in the background of each scene, aliens that look genuinely alien and which avoid the "bumpy head" syndrome that plagued Star Trek in the 1990s. There are five main civilizations in the series (including humans), and each is given a very different look and identity.
  • By contrast, the central plot of the episode - a new ambassador to the station is almost killed in an assassination attempt, and the crew of Babylon 5 must hunt down the one responsible - is riddled with cliche and stereotype. It's functional, and helps to give the pilot a framework around which the universe can be explored, but it's very disappointing and not particularly rewatchable.
  • The acting varies wildly from one member of the cast to the other. There are two stand-outs, and they will remain the stand-outs for all five seasons: Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas. Both have been given very theatricalised characters, and play them very effectively. Beyond them the acting wavers, either functional but unexceptional (Mira Furlan as Delenn, Michael O'Hare as Sinclair) to downright amateurish (Tamlyn Tomita as Takashima).
  • The script is about as uneven in quality as the acting. Lines that are intended to be funny fall flat with me: I'm not sure if it's because they're simply not funny, or if my sense of humour varies from Straczynski's. Other lines are just horribly cliched.
  • One aspect of Straczynski's writing that absolutely deserves acclaim is his writing of monologues. Twice this pilot characters are given lengthy monologues to deliver, and in both cases both writer and actor have knocked one out of the park. As Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari, Peter Jurasik gets to deliver a wonderful speech about the slow downfall of his republic. As station Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Michael O'Hare tells his girlfriend of "the Battle of the Line", a crucial conflict that will inform major parts of the series to come. I have a lot of issues with how J. Michael Straczynski writes, but monologues like these are fine with me.
I've tried to pretend I have never seen this episode before, and then asked myself if I would watch the first season (which followed about a year after the pilot). I think the answer is yes. "The Gathering" is a very shaky, uneven and regularly frustrating watch, but at the end I did feel intrigued enough to continue revisiting the series.

1 comment:

  1. I always loved the sound the guns made. It was something like a tennis ball being ejected at high velocity from a plastic tube. It was a truely unique sound for a weapon. I was bitterly disapointed when they reverted to generic energy burst sounds for the actual show.


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