Monday, 3 July 2017

Babylon 5 Rewatch: The Pilot

The Pilot Movie

“I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind. It began in the Earth year 2257 with the founding of the last of the Babylon stations, located deep in neutral space. It was a port of call for refugees, smugglers, businessmen, diplomats and travellers from a hundred worlds. It could be a dangerous place, but we accepted the risk because Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace.

“Under the leadership of its final commander, Babylon 5 was a dream given form, a dream of a galaxy without war, where species from different worlds could live side by side in mutual respect, a dream that was endangered as never before by the arrival of one man on a mission of destruction.

“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. This is its story.”
          - Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari

Regular Cast
Commander Jeffrey Sinclair                           Michael O’Hare
Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima                 Tamlyn Tomita
Security Chief Michael Garibaldi                   Jerry Doyle
Dr. Benjamin Kyle                                          Johnny Sekka
Lyta Alexander                                                Patricia Tallman
Ambassador Delenn                                        Mira Furlan
Ambassador G’Kar                                         Andreas Katsulas
Ambassador Londo Mollari                            Peter Jurasik

Producer                                                          Robert Latham Brown
Co-Producer                                                    John Copeland
Executive Producer                                         Douglas Netter
Co-Executive Producer                                   J. Michael Straczynski
Production Designer                                        John Iacovelli
Visual Effects Designer                                   Ron Thornton
Visual Effects Producers                                 Foundation Imaging
Costume Designer                                           Catherine Adair
Makeup Supervisor                                         John Criswell
Music Composer                                             Stewart Copeland


PM: The Gathering
Airdates: 22 February 1993 (US), 9 October 1994 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Richard Compton
Cast: Carolyn Sykes (Blaire Baron), Del Varner (John Fleck), Senator (Paul Hampton), Eric (Steven A. Barnett), Lt. Guerra (Ed Wasser), Smuggler (William Hayes), Hostage (Marianne Robertson), Businessmen 1 (F. William Parker), Businessmen 2 (David Sage), Station One (Linda Hoffman), Station Two (Robert Jackson)
Date: 3 January 2257 (according to episode B19)

Plot:    Earth Alliance diplomatic station Babylon 5 has been operational for several months and representatives from the Centauri Republic, Narn Regime, Minbari Federation and the smaller worlds have arrived to engage in trade and diplomacy. The crew now anxiously await the arrival of Ambassador Kosh Naranek of the enigmatic, powerful Vorlon Empire. The Vorlons rarely leave their own space and have next to no relations with other powers. Securing their cooperation in the Babylon Project is quite a coup. Whilst preparations are made for Kosh’s arrival, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair and Security Chief Michael Garibaldi welcome new resident telepath Lyta Alexander on board. A commercial telepath belonging to Psi Corps (Earth’s one and only telepathic organisation), Lyta’s job will be to oversee business transactions and make sure no cheating or foul play takes place.

Meanwhile, Ambassador G’Kar of the Narn complains angrily to executive officer Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima after a Narn cargo ship is refused permission to dock. Takashima tells him that the Narn captain has refused to allow a search party to scan for hidden weapons on board and station policy is that all vessels must submit to a weapons scan before docking. G’Kar denounces this as hypocrisy, since Earth Alliance military ships are allowed to dock with weapons, but Takashima stands firm. A little while later a one-man pod leaves the Narn ship before attaching itself to Babylon 5’s hull. The occupant burns his way through the hull. G’Kar goes back to Takashima, apologises for his earlier outburst, and agrees that the Narn ship can be searched, but suggests waiting until after the reception for Ambassador Kosh. Takashima is nonplussed by G’Kar’s change of heart.

Kosh’s Vorlon transport comes through the jump gate and approaches the docking bay. The various dignitaries assemble in the reception chamber, whilst Takashima and Garibaldi wait for Sinclair at the docking bay. Sinclair is delayed by a lift malfunction, but just as he arrives an alarm signal blares out. They enter the docking bay to find Kosh unconscious, his form concealed by a bulky encounter suit containing his own atmosphere. Kosh is rushed to Medlab and Doctor Benjamin Kyle prepares to treat him, although he has to alter the isolab’s atmosphere first. The Earth Alliance government contacts Sinclair and tells him that the Vorlon High Command has denied them permission to open Kosh’s encounter suit, even if he dies. Sinclair refuses to destroy everything Babylon 5 has achieved just to preserve an alien race’s sense of mystery. He shuts down all recorders and cameras and orders Kyle to proceed, trusting in the doctor’s oath of confidentiality. Kyle stabilises Kosh’s condition, but fears he will still die unless he can identify the source of the attack and how it is still affecting him.

Kyle and Takashima convince Lyta to telepathically scan Kosh, even though it is an invasion of privacy to do so. Lyta only agrees when she learns that if Kosh dies the Vorlons may retaliate against Babylon 5, if not the whole Earth Alliance. She has to physically touch Kosh to scan him – the encounter suit blocks telepathic signals – and sees an image in his mind of Commander Sinclair attacking him! Kosh has been poisoned and Lyta is able to identify the entry wound. From there Kyle is able to make an antitoxin and Kosh begins to recover.

The Babylon 5 Advisory Council meets to discuss the revelation that Sinclair may be implicated in the attempted murder. There is no record of the lift malfunction that Sinclair claims made him late for the meeting. Ambassador G’Kar has been in communication with the Vorlon homeworld and they concur that Sinclair should be taken into Vorlon custody pending a further inquiry. The Earth Alliance - represented by Takashima - votes against the proposal, whilst Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari Federation abstains. Ambassador Londo Mollari, surprisingly, sides with G’Kar and the Vorlons. A Vorlon transport is dispatched to Babylon 5 immediately to take Sinclair into custody. Garibaldi confronts Londo, shocked that the Centauri would agree with the Narn about anything, and Londo tells him that G’Kar has secured certain records confirming the involvement of Londo’s grandfather in atrocities committed against civilians during the Centauri occupation of the Narn homeworld. Londo was forced to side with G’Kar or have this information revealed. Londo also tells Garibaldi that he has been fleeced by a human con-man named Del Varner.

A robotic maintenance probe is destroyed whilst investigating the air leak caused by the assassin’s transport pod, still attached to the hull. A security team manages to shut down the pod and Garibaldi is alerted. Realising this is how the assassin got on board, Garibaldi runs security checks on the current visitors to the station and learns that Del Varner is a wanted criminal for smuggling technology to bronzetech worlds (worlds of low technological capability). Breaking into Varner’s quarters, Garibaldi finds Varner’s corpse and records indicating that Varner smuggled a changeling net on board from the Antares sector. Changeling nets can alter someone’s physical appearance. The assassin is confirmed as using a changeling net when he disguises himself as Lyta Alexander and attacks Kosh again in Medlab before being driven off by Dr. Kyle and a surgical laser.

Sinclair re-programmes the station’s external sensor grid to scan the interior of the station for the energy signature of a changeling net. He and Garibaldi, accompanied by a security camera, confront the assassin but Garibaldi is wounded and forced to retire. Sinclair and the assassin fight, just as the jump gate opens and a huge Vorlon battle fleet emerges to surround the station and demand that Sinclair be turned over to them at once. Takashima patches them into the security camera and they observe the fight. Sinclair overcomes the assassin by throwing him into a power grid, overloading the changeling net and shorting it out. The assassin is revealed to be a Minbari warrior. He tells Sinclair, “You have a hole in your mind,” before triggering a suicide bomb. Sinclair makes it out just before the blast doors seal. The contained explosion blows out the hull and causes the station to lose orbital stability until the stabilising thrusters kick in. Satisfied that Sinclair is innocent, the Vorlons depart.

Kosh recovers and takes his place among the other ambassadors, whilst Ambassador Delenn tells Sinclair that the Minbari assassin was a member of a group of soldiers who, refusing to accept the surrender order ten years ago, went into voluntary exile. The warrior presumably wanted to have the Vorlons wipe out humanity by killing Kosh and framing Sinclair. When he asks Delenn about the curious final phrase the Minbari uttered, she tells him it’s just a Minbari insult, although Sinclair does have a hole in his mind: he cannot remember the final 24 hours of the Earth-Minbari War, when the Minbari surrendered on the eve of total victory. Whilst Sinclair ponders this, Takashima declares Babylon 5 back on-line and once again fully open for business.

Dating the Episode: According to episode B19, the events of this episode begin on 3 January 2257. However, a Season 5 episode states that these events took place in “summer 2257”. In addition, Straczynski said during Season 1 that about six months passed between the pilot and the start of Season 1 proper (Season 1 spans the entire year 2258). Sinclair also says that the Battle of the Line took place “almost” ten years ago, which conflicts with later material placing the Battle of the Line in 2248 (although almost all in-series references point to a mid-to-late 2247 date for the Line anyway).


The Vorlon fleet approaches Babylon 5. One of the long shots has over 200 ships in frame at once, breaking the record for largest number of ships simultaneously on screen that had previously been held by Return of the Jedi ten years earlier.

The Arc: The Earth Alliance and the Minbari Federation fought a devastating war which ended ten years ago at the Battle of the Line, when the Minbari fleet reached Earth itself. Every remaining military ship was ordered to defend the human homeworld, but the defenders were severely outnumbered and outgunned. After his ship was damaged, Sinclair, then a fighter pilot, tried to ram the Minbari flagship, but passed out, apparently due to high-gravitational manoeuvres. When he woke up twenty-four hours later the war was over and the Minbari had surrendered at the moment of victory. No explanation has ever been given (see episodes A8 and B1 for more). Since the end of the war the reclusive Minbari have been pursuing a far more vigorous and active role in interstellar affairs. After the end of the war a sizeable faction of Minbari soldiers refused to surrender and believe the war is still waging (see episodes A17 and B1).

The Minbari are ruled by a governing body known as the "Grey Council". Not much is known about them, but G'Kar assumes they are collection of frightened old men unwilling to use their formidable power. We quickly learn more about the Grey Council in episodes A2, A8, B1 and B11.

According to Delenn, the Minbari don’t have a lot of information on the Vorlons. We learn otherwise in episodes A22, B17, C17, D1 and, most notably as it takes place prior to this episode, TVM1.

The Centauri Republic used to control the vast bulk of space around Babylon 5 during their glory days of empire-building, including the Narn homeworld. They allegedly conquered the Beta system in just nine days. The Centauri withdrew from the area several decades ago and are now in decline, with only a dozen worlds to their name (see episodes A13, A22, B3 and B9).

The Narn Regime is pursuing a course of retaliation against the Centauri who once brutally ruled their homeworld. The Narn do not have the technological might to withstand the Centauri in open warfare, so seek to embarrass and weaken the Centauri by any means possible (see episodes A1, A13, A22 and B9). The Narn do not possess telepaths, apparently due to a genetic defect, but are keen on getting their hands on genetic material from other worlds’ telepaths to see if they can splice the telepath gene into their own genetic structure (see episode C14). The Narns claim to have trhe potential for "unlimited manpower", which may be related to G'Kar's willingness to use a clone for genetic purposes.

Babylons 1, 2 and 3 were destroyed during construction. Babylon 4 vanished without a trace twenty-four hours after going on-line (see episodes A15, A20, C16 and C17).

The Vorlons are very secretive and very protective about their true appearance (see episodes B22 and D4) and rumour states that someone who once saw a Vorlon turned to stone. They seem to be wary of telepaths, since their encounter suits are shielded against telepathic scan (see episodes A9 and B19). They are also concerned about security and are prepared to use overwhelming force to back up their demands (see episodes A9 and D3-D6).

In the remastered Special Edition version of this episode, in the sequence where Lyta experiences the flashback to the poisoning, Kosh greets the Minbari assassin (posing as Sinclair) with the phrase “Entil’zha, Valen.” We don’t actually learn what Entil’zha means until episodes C16 and C19, although Valen is mentioned much sooner, most notably in episode A20. According to JMS Kosh didn’t actually say these words out loud, merely amusedly thought them as he greeted Sinclair. We hear them because Lyta is seeing events from his point of view.

During the reception scene, Kosh bows only to Sinclair and Delenn, and Delenn is the only ambassador to bow to Kosh. Straczynski later confirmed during the first season that this was a deliberate clue to later revelations in the series (made clearer in A22, B17 and C18).

The assassin uses Laurel Takashima’s identification code to enter Del Varner’s quarters. Although this is never expanded upon in the series, JMS has confirmed that in his original story outline Takashima was a spy and traitor, working for elements in the Earth Alliance government opposed to President Santiago’s dreams of peaceful relations between the different alien powers. She would have been part of the conspiracy later detailed in episodes A11, A22, B2, B6, B11 and B19 and which comes to fruition in episode C9. Episodes B6 and B19 hold clues on how she would have been won over by this conspiracy. However, as Tamlyn Tomita did not return for the series itself, this story arc was dropped. Takashima’s ultimate fate on the series is never revealed.

Changeling nets are used again in book NOV4.

Londo is presented here as a figure of fun but one given to nostalgic flashbacks to the glory days of his people. However, despite his joviality he is prepared to sell out Sinclair, possibly to his death, to protect his honour and that of his house. This is a brief glimpse of a harder and more ruthless Londo and one we will see more of as time goes by (see also A13, A22 and Season 2 in particular).

Garibaldi has a questionable background, having been moved from post to post several times before Sinclair requested him for Babylon 5. We find out more about Garibaldi's past in episode A11 and even get to see it in comics DC5-8.

Background: Babylon 5 operates as a free port and a diplomatic meeting place similar to the now-defunct United Nations back on Earth, although the Babylon 5 Advisory Council does not have independent resources or military forces to enforce its decisions, making it more like the League of Nations, the failure of which foreshadowed World War II.

The station is divided into both colour-coded sections (Red, Blue, Green, Grey, Brown and Yellow sectors) and areas described like neighbourhoods (the Casino, the Alien Sector, the Garden, etc.). Babylon 5 simulates gravity through centrifugal force and different parts of the station can be programmed to spin at different speeds to suit races from intolerably different gravity environments. The Alien Sector possesses sealed rooms and compartments supplied with different atmospheres for races who breathe gases other than air.

The Vorlon government is referred to as the Vorlon High Command. Kosh breathes a mixture of methane, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide (though this may just be cover to get him a room away from the other residents of the station, backed up by episodes B22 and D4). Although not established in the pilot, Straczynski confirmed that Kosh's ship can generate its own jump point, which is unusual for a vessel of that size.

Lyta Alexander is a sixth-generation telepath (indicating that telepaths have been tracked for just over a hundred years, backed up by NOV10), born 12 December 2225 on Earth, making her either 31 or 32 years old in this episode. She is rated P5. Telepaths are forbidden from gambling in the Casino.

G’Kar is married as he refers to his mate at one stage. She appears in NOV3 but her eventual fate is unknown. G’Kar has gill implants that allow him to breathe in the Alien Sector.

Florazine, the poison which afflicts Kosh, is found on only one world in the Damocles sector. The Vega and Proxima systems are part of the Earth Alliance; later episodes would name Vega VII and Proxima III as human colonies (and Proxima III actually appears in episode D15).

Changeling nets use high energy systems to create an illusionary holographic field around the target but prolonged use causes energy and radiation damage to the wearer. Every major race has banned their use.

Low-technology worlds, where a lot of illegal trading and dubious deals go down, are known as ‘bronzetech worlds’.

Laurel Takashima was stationed on Mars during the Food Riots, where she met Sinclair (the Food Riots, also called the Mars Riots, are referred to again in episodes C16 and D11). We later find out (episode A4 and comics DC5-DC8) that Sinclair met Garibaldi on Mars a few years later.

It takes Kosh eight days to reach Babylon 5 from Vorlon space. However, the Vorlon fleet arrives considerably more quickly at the end of the episode.

As seen in the scene where Delenn threatens G’Kar, the Minbari can artificially create, manipulate and dissipate gravity fields, technology that is far beyond the capabilities of either the humans or the Narn (the former of whom use rotating ship sections to simulate gravity). The Minbari and Centauri, as seen in multiple episodes, both have artificial gravity on their ships without the need for bulky rotating carousels.

It is apparently in vogue for the Centauri to feel guilty about what happened to the Narn, as Londo feels that his grandfather’s crimes being revealed would shame him. This is in keeping with the Centauri Republic under Emperor Turhan, which is committed to a more peaceful path and rapprochement with the Narns (culminating in episode B9). Other Centauri, frankly, wouldn’t care less, which presumably is why London is never concerned about this piece of blackmail again.

The Centauri are a formerly great but now declining power. According to Londo, the Centauri Republic has been reduced to twelve worlds and monuments to past glories, effectively a tourist attraction. The Centauri wish to attach themselves to Earth, which is a rising star in galactic affairs.

Earth has a major colony on Mars, where both Sinclair and Takashima were stationed. According to Takashima the colony was rough and ready, with lots of people on the take. Sinclair persuaded her to sharpen up and play by the rules, which improved her career prospects.

The assassin's energy weapon is a low-power, low-intensity weapon designed for just a few shots in an emergency, enough to kill but not enough to set off B5's weapons detectors. When the assassin fights Sinclair later on, his weapon runs out of power, forcing him to go hand-to-hand. Straczynski expands on this in the episode's Lurkers Guide entry.

References: “Sooner or later, everybody comes to Babylon 5” is a clear nod at the movie Casablanca, with which B5 shares significant thematic similarities. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses is a favourite of Straczynski’s and gets quoted here (as well as in the first comic).

“Babylon” is of course a nod at the Tower of Babylon, the mythological tower built by humans in hubris and was cast down by God, who made all the peoples of the Earth speak difference languages so they could not work together any more. Babylon 5 is this in reverse: people from different worlds and faiths coming together, speaking hundreds of different languages, to build something more impressive, dedicated to peace.

Unanswered Questions: Lyta Alexander doesn’t seem to know what happened to Babylons 1-4. Given that the Babylon Project is the biggest construction project in human history, this seems implausible, unless Lyta has been out of human space for over seven years.

The reasons why the Narn and G’Kar are helping the Minbari assassin seem a bit unclear. It may be related to G’Kar’s attempt to negotiate an alliance between the Minbari and Narn which backfires.

Given that Kosh knows that Sinclair doesn’t know who he is (yet), it’s unclear why he would risk blowing his cover or altering the timeline by shaking hands with him (exposing his own appearance, at least in part) and addressing him by his future rank.

What happened to Lt. Commander Takashima and Dr. Kyle after leaving the station? Lyta Alexander later returns to the station (B19, C4, C20, D1 onwards) and Carolyn Sykes’s fate is alluded to in episode A5, but Takashima and Kyle’s fates remain unresolved.

Lyta speaks to Del Varner several times after he was replaced. Why didn’t she pick up on the fact he was really a Minbari assassin in disguise?

Several establishing shots clearly show that Epsilon III has a small moon in this episode, but during the series itself it completely disappears. What happened to it?

Aside from dramatic licence, why does the relatively small explosion of the Minbari suicide bomb cause Babylon 5 to lose orbital stability when considerably larger explosions later in the series (in episode A11, among many others) don’t have the same effect?

Is Kosh actually really in danger? From what we know about them later, poison would seem to be utterly ineffectual on a Vorlon and he recovers pretty damn quick once the situation is resolved. If so, why did the Vorlons overreact and send a huge fleet to attack Babylon 5, especially if they know about Sinclair and his future destiny? If Sinclair had surrendered to them and been taken back to their homeworld, what would have happened?

Later episodes suggest that for a Vorlon to be seen in its “traditional” form, which inspires awe in lesser races (B22), the Vorlon must be consciously projecting that image, and the process is tiring (C1). Given that Lyta definitely sees the “awe-inspiring” Kosh as well, this suggests that Kosh was indeed conscious during her telepath scan.

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: It take Kosh’s ship two hours to slow down from the jump gate before arriving at the station. This technological limitation was removed from the show itself, which had ships leaving the jump gate and reaching the station within minutes (clearly seen in episodes A2 and – with a ship identical to this one – C18). It should be noted that Kosh's ship takes two hours to reach B5 from the jump gate, but the Vorlon warships reach B5 within minutes at the end of the episode.

The “Narn transport” that the assassin’s boarding pod departs from is very clearly an Earth Alliance shuttle.

The Cobra Bays are missing from Babylon 5’s forward support arms, as they had not been envisaged yet (the Starfuries had been planned, but were not ready to be shown at this point). Both the bays and the Starfuries show up in episode A1.

The Vorlon transport has visible rockets firing as it decelerates as it comes out of the gate. These are removed in future episodes (such as episodes A13 and C18); the same shot in the Special Edition specifically removes the visible engines rockets, instead implying the Vorlons use gravimetric forces similar to (but far more advanced than) the Minbari.

Delenn abstaining on the vote means that Londo and G’Kar should be able to pass their motion to send Sinclair to the Vorlon homeworld by themselves; Delenn’s abstention is instead treated as a negative vote, suggesting that the B5 Advisory Council requires an outright majority over both opposing votes and abstentions.

The League of Non-aligned Worlds is wholly missing from this episode and it is missing from the Council chambers, as is (crucially) its vote on Sinclair’s fate.

The design of the PPGs (Phased Plasma Guns, the weapon of choice for use on the station) changes radically between this episode and the series. This episode also suggests that PPGs have a “stun” setting, which they clearly don’t in the show itself.

In this episode Londo personally recounts the assault on the Beta system as if he'd been present, even starting to talk about "My ship..." at one point. However, episode A1 confirms that the Centauri had not been a great empire for at least one hundred years prior to Earth's first contact (in 2156). Londo also discusses a "clerical error" over the identity of the Beta system, suggesting that the conquest of the Beta system was considerably earlier, around the time of first contact with Earth. Episode A19 has Londo recounting his personal presence at the Battle of Ballos (presumably the same battle as during the Dilgar War, or a separate Centauri incursion to the same League world), so it might be that Londo's military background was adjusted after the pilot.

During the second trial scene, the director was so pressed for time he couldn't shoot any overhead masters. Instead, an establishing master shot from the first trial scene is re-used, which means that Dr. Kyle suddenly appears on the stand and then vanishes as the close-up shows Sinclair on the stand again. This "mistake" seriously annoyed Straczynski, who believed it was blatant. He was then shocked when no-one noticed it until he talked about it online.

The original makeup for Delenn, which was rather quickly changed when a furious Mira Furlan confronted studio executives (who were in fortunate agreement with her).

Behind the Scenes: Getting Babylon 5 on the air was a five-year saga of its own, which I’ll cover in depth in a different article. Suffice to say it was a story of rejection, humiliation, redemption and vengeance, filled with heartbreak, betrayal, a shattered tooth at the most inopportune moment possible and a guy with a Commodore Amiga and a Video Toaster who saved the day at the last possible second.

More immediately relevantly, the pilot episode for Babylon 5 was greenlit in 1991, with Warner Brothers Television highly impressed by Joseph Michael “JMS” Straczynski’s script; the old-school, hard-boiled Hollywood reputation of “take no prisoners” producer Douglas Netter; and the (for the time) impressive CG skills of veteran British effects whizz Ron Thornton (a veteran of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, among other shows). They were particularly intrigued by Netter and fellow producer John Copeland’s ambitious production model which, they claimed, would allow them to film the series for approximately half the budget of Star Trek: The Next Generation, then in its fourth season for Paramount.

Warner Brothers greenlit the project as the flagship of their new alliance of syndicated stations, the Prime-Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), only to have a panic attack when Paramount announced Deep Space Nine and almost shut down production. Fortunately, a mixture of bravado, confidence, already-sunk costs and they fact they didn’t have anything else ready to go led them to allow the project to carry on.

The B5 script was originally written in 1987 or 1988, along with a brief series bible. In 1989 the pilot was re-written to something close to the final version, along with outlines for 22 further episodes. It was this version that was sent to Paramount for consideration, where they sat on it for nine months before deciding to pass (deciding they didn’t want to produce a second space opera TV show, potentially cannibalising their own Star Trek audience). Paramount having access to the script and the outlines for nine months later led to Straczynski’s suspicion that they may have been “inspired” to develop their own space station show, Deep Space Nine by his material. However, he later acknowledged that he considered Rick Berman and Michael Pillar too honest to have done something so underhanded, and according to Paramount the basic DS9 premise came in with newly-arriving executive Brandon Tartikoff in early 1991, long after the B5 script and outlines had been reclaimed. Still, the relationship between B5 and DS9 would remain contentious for many years.

In the script G’Kar is named “Jackarr”, Lyta Alexander is named “Lyta Kim” and the medical doctor is of Indian descent and is named “Chakri Mendak”. Straczynski changed the spelling to “G’Kar” as it was faster to type and changed the doctor’s name when African actor Jonny Sekka was cast in the role. An early draft of the script also had a dedicated Earth Alliance Ambassador on the station, but he had returned to Earth due to a severe illness, with Sinclair filling in, in an ad-hoc capacity which would have become the norm in the series itself, possibly at the Minbari’s insistence. The loss of this dialogue led to fan confusion as to why the station’s commanding officer would be fulfilling a military and diplomatic role at the same time.

The B5 pilot was shot in the summer of 1991, although work on visual effects had begun about a year earlier: some of Straczynski’s earliest-surviving CompuServe and GENIE messages, from January 1991, report that Ron Thornton was already bringing the final version of the station to life in CGI. The shoot was extremely rushed: Andreas Katsulas was surprised to find that he was filming several different scenes in just one day and Michael O’Hare was so busy that he could only take short breaks between scenes (most of which were spent half-asleep in the studio lobby).

The pilot had a budget of $3,500,000. For comparison's sake, the pilot episode Deep Space Nine, The Emissary, which aired just a month earlier had a budget of $12 million (a record matched only by Star Trek: Voyager's pilot, Caretaker, two years later, and Lost's pilot eleven years later).

Despite the rushed shoot, the pilot required much more extensive post-production. To Straczynski and Warner Brother’s irritation, this meant that the pilot failed to beat Deep Space Nine to air, leading to some Star Trek fans dismissing B5 as a rip-off, despite B5 being commissioned and starting pre-production earlier, and being conceived many years earlier.

Arguably the actor who’d had the hardest time on the pilot shoot was Mira Furlan. Furlan had been partially cast for her distinctive voice and was extremely upset when she discovered that she was to be covered in thick makeup and have her voice distorted electronically. Straczynski wanted to make it ambiguous if Delenn was male or female, only to confirm in Season 1 that the character was male and then have the character change sex between Seasons 1 and 2. However, Furlan was unhappy with both the original make-up for Delenn and the voice distorter, so the make-up was softened and the voice distortion dropped altogether, to her relief. For Season 1 the make-up was changed to both be easier to apply and also allowed more of Furlan’s facial expressions to be visible.

During the pilot shoot, Patricia Tallman asked how to play the scene where Lyta Alexander beholds Kosh’s true form and touches his mind. Straczynski considered this and then told her that “You’re seeing God, you’re becoming a disciple.” Tallman remembered this for her return appearances in the series itself, but didn’t tell anyone else.

Tamlyn Tomita played Takashima as a clipped, confident military officer. The studio was unhappy with this and asked for a “softened” version of her performance, which necessitated her redubbing every scene in the pilot. Warner Brothers then declared that her “energy level” was unsatisfying and asked that she be replaced for the show. Irritated, Straczynski replaced Takashima’s dialogue with the original, more forceful takes in the 1998 Special Edition.

Straczynski’s script opened with a news piece on Interplanetary News Network (INN) about Babylon 5 celebrating its first year of being operational. It would then have transitioned to a second item celebrating the naming of a newly discovered star for President John F. Kennedy, featuring an excerpt from his 1960 “New Frontier” speech. This was dropped when the studio felt it was looking back too much, rather than forwards.

Ron Thornton created all of the original CGI for the pilot movie with his Commodore Amiga 2000 and a Video Toaster. With just 2MB of memory to play around with (to put this in context, the PC I am writing this on has 6GB – 6,000 MB – of dedicated video memory and 16GB of general-purpose memory) he had to come up with endlessly creative ways of generating the imagery. He also designed the Babylon 5 station – later expressing dissatisfaction with its rushed design and spending a lot more effort on Babylon 4 – and the Vorlon warships, which were inspired by cloves of garlic.

Composer Stewart Copeland was the former drummer in The Police, known for a large number of TV and film soundtracks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His original score for Babylon 5 can be best described as “functional” (with an overreliance on slightly inexplicable guitar solos), and it is unsurprising he was replaced for the series proper by the considerably more impressive Christopher Franke (late of Tangerine Dream).

Commander Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), Dr. Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) and Lt. Commander Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita).

Familiar Faces: The casting process for Babylon 5 was unusual, in that the casting director wanted to look beyond the normal Los Angeles talent pool. Michael O’Hare (Commander Sinclair) was spotted acting on Broadway in New York. Originally the studio had been more interested in casting John Rhys-Davies, at that time best known for his appearances in the Indiana Jones movies. Straczynski was minded to go with a younger and more unknown actor.

Jerry Doyle (Garibaldi) was a stock broker who’d abruptly decided to become an actor on a spur of the moment whim. He’d arrived in LA from New York and landed a role on Moonlighting in a matter of weeks. After a few smaller roles, he landed the Babylon 5 gig.

Patricia Tallman had been a stuntwoman, with several appearances on Star Trek, who’d wanted to transition into acting. Mira Furlan was recently arrived in Los Angeles with her director husband Goran Gajic, fleeing the outbreak of ethnic violence in her native Yugoslavia.

Peter Jurasik (Londo Mollari) was best-known for playing Sid the Snitch on Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s and had notched up a number of guest starring roles on other shows. Tamlyn Tomita (Laurel Takashima) was also seen as an up-and-coming actress, having appeared in The Karate Kid, Part II.

Johnny Sekka (Dr. Benjamin Kyle) was a British actor born in Senegal, who’d served in WWII and had notched up a string of critically-acclaimed performances on TV and on stage in the 1960s, earning him the distinction of being the “British Sidney Poitier”. Sekka later moved to LA and appeared in a string of films, several alongside Poitier.

Arguably the best-known member of the cast was Andreas Katsulas, who’d played the villainous “One-Armed Man” in the movie version of The Fugitive opposite Harrison Ford, as well as playing the recurring role of the Romulan captain Tomalak in Star Trek: The Next Generation (Patrick Stewart named him his favourite villain, and was disappointed that they didn’t have more scenes together).

Blaire Baron (Carolyn Sykes) was also seen as an up-and-coming actress, having impressed in the movie A League of Their Own.

The only significant guest cast member in the pilot is John Fleck, playing Del Varner. Fleck was relatively unknown before appearing in this episode, although he’d racked up a guest role on Seinfeld and a few other shows. After this episode, he’d go on to become a regular on Murder One, where he gained some critical acclaim.

Among the background performers some familiar faces can be spotted. Most notable is Ed Wasser playing Lt. Guerra, one of the officers in C&C. Wasser had actually been a line-reader during the auditioning process and Straczynski was impressed with his performance and particularly his distinctive vocal delivery. He wrote him into the pilot, but feeing he was wasted as a glorified extra, decided to write a character specially for Wasser for the series proper. This became, of course, Mr. Morden, who debuted in episode A13, Signs and Portents.

Marianne Robertson plays a woman taken hostage in a deleted scene in the pilot. For the series itself she was upgraded to the recurring role of the unnamed Earthforce officer serving in the Station One position in C&C, appearing in all but two episodes of the first season.

"Delenn! This is no time to be consulting your shot glass collection!"

The Special Edition: In 1998, The Gathering was re-edited by Straczynski as a “special edition” for cable network TNT. Straczynski had long expressed dissatisfaction with the pilot, particularly the edit by Richard Compton (combined with his handling of the first few episodes of the series itself, this would contribute to his departure from the series). Straczynski removed several lines that clashed with later events in the series (such as the implication that Sinclair was B5’s “final commander” when he actually had two successors), cut several scenes that he felt were unnecessary (such as the Alien Sector sequence) and restored Tamlyn Tomita’s original, more confident vocal performance.

The most significant change to the movie is that Kosh’s arm is shown to be glowing when he shakes Sinclair’s hand and we hear Kosh speak, saying, “Entil’zha Valen”.

Also noticeably, the less-detailed CG of the original pilot was replaced with more state-of-the-art material (albeit much of it stock footage from Seasons 1-4 of the series itself) and regular series composer Christopher Franke created a new score to replace Stewart Copeland’s cheesier efforts.

Review: The Gathering has a tough and unenviable job. It has to set up a completely new science fiction universe, introduce a ton of characters, races, technology and concepts, and it has to tell an exciting and interesting story at the same time. It’s inarguably bloated as pilots go, but it’s also reasonably successful. Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar emerges as the strongest performer, but Jerry Doyle makes a good impression as a relative newcomer and Michael O’Hare gives arguably his best performance as Sinclair (his medical condition – unknown at the time – would deteriorate over the course of the first season and the quality of his performance would suffer with it), giving him a haunted quality that is quite effective.

The pilot does have several problems: the mid-1980s guitar score by Stewart Copeland dates the pilot quite badly (and it felt quite dated when it came out) and there’s some very odd pacing and structural tics. Both the CG and prosthetics are not up to later standards and Straczynski’s script is long on pathos and great quotes but short on action and humour.

The pilot’s biggest success, however, is making Babylon 5 feel alive. The sets, constantly bustling crowds and the feeling of this being a busy port with people constantly coming and going give the show a certain level of depth and believability that goes beyond a lot of its contemporaries and successors. It does enough to set up the world, intrigue the viewer and leaves them wanting more…and wanting answers to the several mysteries presented in this episode, namely what happened to Babylon 4, and what happened at the Battle of the Line? ***½

Special Edition Review: The 1998 Special Edition of the pilot is often considered to be superior. However, I feel this is very much not the case. The Special Edition is almost 20 minutes longer, most of this taken up by completely unnecessary scenes which were correctly excised during the editing process. There's a peculiar mismatch of new and old CGI, with the most urgently-in-need-of-upgrading scenes (the pod attached to the hull) left completely alone. Franke's score is also unusually phoned in by his normal high standards, and the expanded scenes with Kosh feel pretty pointless. The only solid change from the original is the restoration of Tamlyn Tomita's original vocal performance, which is much more relaxed and convincing. Otherwise, I'd stick with the original version. ***

Killer Lines: "Would you prefer to be conscious or unconscious during the mating. I would prefer conscious, but I don't know what your pleasure threshold is." - G'Kar

"Sooner or later, everybody comes to Babylon 5." - Sinclair

"The sky was full of stars and every star was an exploding of ours." - Sinclair

"There is a hole in your mind." - Minbari assassin

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Anonymous said...

Yay, off we go! I rewatched the pilot a few days ago and it reminded me once again of the strange relationship I have with B5. On one hand, the pilot -- and the show itself -- is quite cheesy on occasion, with spotty acting, underwhelming production qualities, while JMS's dialogue leaves something to be desired: it's too theatrical and prone to veering into over-the-top territory. Yet, for all its faults, B5 is very addictive with some fine worldbuilding, compelling themes, as well as attention to detail and long-term narrative coherence that rewards attentive viewers.

I would never call Babylon 5 "great" as it's too rough around the edges (and man is the first season... problematic, to say the least), but those who love intelligent sci-fi will definitely appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Great job! Really looking forward to this.

I've always found it ridiculous that Kosh could have been poisoned. Your observation that he must have been awake during the examination makes sense.

The only way to reconcile the Vorlons' behaviour in this episode is that they're maneuvering things to their liking.