Tower of Babylon 001: The Gathering

October 9th, 2021

As promised some time ago, I’m adding to my overall nerdry by doing an episode by episode review/commentary for Babylon 5, the SF TV show I love more than Star Trek. It’s been a while since my last watch, so it will be interesting to see how much it’s held up. Overall Babylon 5 was ground breaking in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of the overall series arc. But that’s something that’s common in TV shows now.

This is, of course, all triggered by the September 2021 announcement that a reboot of the show is coming, thankfully with the original creator jms still at the helm.

I’ll be watching everything in more or less the ‘as produced’ order – that is, as it was originally shot, but in the order that the producers intended for things to be seen. So I won’t be watching “In The Beginning” first, and I won’t be delaying “Sleeping in Light” until after Crusade. I’ll be joined by my brother who will be contributing some comments into the reviews as we go – and so it’ll be a slower burn than the Trekathon, just an episode or two a week. It’ll be done before the new show appears I’m sure.

Standing spoiler warning – all reviews will be from the perspective of remembering the series and the events ahead. So go watch it all first if you care. I won’t be otherwise flagging spoilers though.

So first up – the original pilot “The Gathering” (TNT special edition, because that’s what I have).

From the opening words of “I was there, at the dawn of the third age of mankind” I’m all the way back into it. I’ve always thought the opening narration is a great example of writing – it intrigues you and promises a story, and sets a tone from the start.

The production is overall a bit on the ‘obviously cheap’ side. Babylon 5 was always done for far less money than other shows, but the edges are showing here. The CGI hasn’t held up well (although it’s better in exterior distance shots), the sets are very close to shaking all the time (especially when doors are closed). But It has its moments of strength – for instance, the uniforms continue to be some of the best around. They read like they were designed by someone who had seen military uniforms at some point in their life, unlike most of Star Trek.,

The writing oscillates between fantastic and incredibly prosaic and dull. The backstory scenes, largely two-handers with a big monologue, are pretty good, But the ‘we need to finish the scene and move to the next one’ writing comes off as very forced and unnatural. My brother suggests this is likely reflecting where the time and effort went in.

The performances are uneven (with a lot on the ‘scenery chewing’ end, to use my brother’s term). Londo is the best overall, clearly had things fully established from day one. G’Kar is a little too much a one-note villain, needs more depth. And Delenn is just very slightly off – too arch, not enough heart. The others are mostly OK when they get the spotlight, but struggling to make the rest work. And Takashima is, I’m sorry, just not good. Not much to work with in the writing, but still didn’t pull it together.

Sinclair in particular is not given a lot to do, but has a strong start. Something just feels off in terms of the pitch and emphasis. But ‘The Line’ section is a strong part. It will be interesting to watch the rest of Season One now knowing the very tragic backstory for his departure from the show.

Watching this knowing where it all goes, it’s impressive. Especially the set up for Londo and G’Kar. It’s also relatively reserved in terms of setting things up – with a couple of exceptions, a lot of what’s set up her is resolved within the first season or so. But it definitely feels more like contemporary TV in terms of setting up arcs than what was going on at the time in other series.

A few shorter comments:

  • Glad they dropped the whole identity card cutaway thing. And the alien zoo stuff. Overall clearly learned a lot from the pilot about what works and what doesn’t.

  • I get why TV shows want to have their leads be Commanders and Captains, but it doesn’t make sense. Facilities like this would be commanded by Commodores or Brigadiers at the very least. Yes, I know there’s an in-canon answer to this later, but still.

  • Nice to see Ed Wasser (later Mr Morden) in the background in the C&C.

  • The doors are really janky. You can see them intermittently jam and wobble as they’re pushed by the stage hands.