Pilot episode/movie: "The Gathering"
I explained in the introduction that when it came to, well, mostly US series, where a season can consist of twenty or more episodes, I wouldn't be treating each episode separately, unlike the shorter, UK series like Red Dwarf, Life on Mars, Being Human etc, and so I won't. When the series has that many episodes it just isn't practical to synopsise every single episode, and would take far too long, dragging out each series to lengths I'd prefer not to go to. But this one is special, so I will be doing a reasonably in-depth analysis of it.
The pilot movie that would lead-in the series, should it be commissioned, "The Gathering" (originally just called "Babylon 5" before it was clear there would even be
a series) is important in many ways. Its plot sets up the backdrop to the series, and introduces us to many of its characters, even if some of those would not last beyond this film. It hints at the very beginnings of a deeper story, and even from this standalone movie you can see the depth and intricacy of JMS's writing, so that it woudl have been a shame --- indeed, a crime --- had the series not been taken up. But happily it was, and the rest is television history.
CHARACTER AND CAST FOR "THE GATHERING"
(Characters/actors who were changed after this are italicised, with notes on who replaced them)
Michael O'Hare (RIP) as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair
Jerry Doyle as Chief Michael Garibaldi
Mira Furlan as Ambassador Delenn
Tamlyn Tomita as Lieutenant Laurel Takashima (Replaced by Claudia Christian, playing Lieutenant-Commander and later Commander Susan Ivanova)
Andreas Katsulas (RIP) as Ambassador G'Kar
Johnny Sekka as Doctor Benjamin Kyle (Replaced by Richard Biggs (RIP) playing Doctor Stephen Franklin)
Peter Jurasik as Ambassador Londo Mollari
Blaire Baron as Carolyn Sykes (Replaced by Julia Nickon-Soul, playing Catherine Sakai)
John Fleck as Del Varner (Never seen again)
Peter Hampton as the Senator (Never seen again)
Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander (Replaced for seasons 1 and 2 by Andrea Thompson as Babylon 5's onsite telepath, but Lyta returns from the end of season 2 and features quite prominently, if sporadically, during the third fourth and fifth seasons)
The year is 2257. Mankind has made contact with alien races and moved out into the galaxy, mostly by way of "jumpgates", technology shared with them by the Centauri, a much advanced race, and have built a space station, which they call Babylon 5, in neutral space. Here, all races are welcome. It's a trading post, jumping-off point, conference centre, diplomatic post and holiday destination for humans and aliens, and an important factor in keeping the uneasy peace between the various races. Babylons 1 through 4 have all suffered various untimely demises, with the final station prior to this, Babylon 4, actually vanishing twenty-four hours after going online. This small snippet of information is an example of a seemingly-offhand remark that will turn out to have massive importance as both season one and three come to a close.
There are five main races in this part of the galaxy, including humans, and they are the "superpowers" that run things. They are vastly different, each with their own idelology, traditions, history and outlook, and while some are content to live in peace there are old wounds that are festering between others, wounds which will not heal and which will all too soon plunge this sector of the galaxy into war. For now though, a quick look at each of these aliens.
: without question the most logical, spiritual and coldly clinical race, the Minbari revere life and peace but are nevertheless divided into three classes, or castes: Worker, Warrior and Religious. They have just come off the back of a vicious war with humankind, during which Earth itself was almost overwhelmed, but for the fact that the Minbari, with victory within their grasp and all opposition to them smashed, mysteriously surrendered at what came to be known as The Battle of the Line, Earth's last stand against the implacable enemy. The reason they halted hostilities will become clear, and again have a huge and profound effect on the story arc, later on. When we meet them in "The Gathering", they seem more observational than confrontational, almost monklike, as if they're waiting for some great event to unfold.
Looking like reptilian humanoids, the Narn are a proud race of mighty warriors, but not so long ago were subjugated by their old enemy, the Centauri, who enslaved them for years, raping their planet and stripping it of all its resources, leaving the Narns far behind in terms of technology. Due to their treatment at the hands of the Centauri, the Narns are out for revenge and will side with anyone against their old oppressors. They are also trying to gain any technological or military advantage that would allow them to wipe out the Centauri.
An ancient race of people whose lifestyle and traditions seem to be based on that of the Roman Empire of antiquity, the Centauri are a fallen people. They still have power, but used to command a vast empire which has shrunk as their influence in the galaxy has waned. They long for "the old days", and keep an abiding hatred and contempt of the Narn in their hearts, their other desire being the elimination of the whole race, which they consider inferior. The Centauri were the ones who sold jumpgate tech to the humans, and so are essentially their oldest and closest allies among the Five Races. They see the humans as less evolved, younger versions of themselves when they were at the height of their power.
A mysterious race cloaked in secrecy and rumour, no-one has ever seen a Vorlon. They leave their home planet but seldom and when they do, always wear a bulky encounter suit, as the atmosphere of other planets is lethal to them. At the time this takes place, hardly anything is known about the Vorlons, and legends about them include one which holds that if anyone sees a Vorlon without his encounter suit they will turn to stone.
As the movie opens, station commander Jeffrey Sinclair is waiting to welcome a Vorlon as the fourth ambassador to Babylon 5. The first race we meet however is one of the Narn, a man called G'Kar (jyih-kar) who is in fact the Narn ambassador to the station. He comes across as belligerent and pushy, a thoroughly nasty fellow. The station's resident telepath arrives and greets Sinclair. Her name is Lyta Alexander (lee-ta) and through her induction to the station we learn various things, such as that the aliens resident on the station have their own sector (Green) where their quarters can be maintained with the correct mix of atmosphere and gravity to allow them live safely. Sinclair's security chief, Michael Garibaldi, opines that he does not trust telepaths. This will become a recurring theme throughout the series.
The arrival of the ambassador from Vorlon (like some of the races here, their homeworld is the same name as their race) occurs unexpectedly, as his ship comes through the jumpgate early, and Sinclair goes to meet him alone. However, before he can get to greet the ambassador, a klaxon blares around the station advising an emergency, and on reachiing the alien Sinclair sees that he has fallen ill and he is rushed to medlab. Fearing that the ambassador may die, thus provoking a lethal response from his government, Dr. Benjamin Kyle, Chief Medical Officer on the station, asks Lyta to scan the Vorlon's mind telepathically. She is reluctant, as firstly scanning without the person's permission or consent is against the law, and she could be thrown out of Psi Corps, the body which regulates, trains and employs all telepaths; and secondly, this could conceivably be seen as a hostile act, the invasion of the privacy of an alien ambassador's mind, the breaking of diplomatic immunity in its most literal sense.
However, when the alternatives are put to her she has no choice but to agree, and is shocked to see in Ambassador Kosh's mind the picture of Sinclair poisoning him by attaching a small disc to his exposed hand. With such irrefutable evidence, a trial is convened and Sinclair is relieved of duty. Unconvinced, however, Garibaldi, who is his friend and served with him on the Mars colonies, and who got the job here from the commander, investigates to see if there is another answer. Meanwhile, the politics and powerplays that drive and characterise Babylon 5 come to the fore, as representatives jockey for position, eventually voting to allow Sinclair to be extradited to Vorlon to stand trial for murder.
But Garibaldi is interested in a traveller who came aboard about the same time as Lyta, a man called Del Varner, who is a petty thief and smuggler wanted in several systems. He breaks into the man's quarters but is shocked --- and annoyed --- to find Varner dead. So much for that lead! However, as he tries to figure out a new strategy, it seems that Lyta is in medlab trying to finish Kosh off by turning off his life-support, before Dr. Kyle catches her. As she runs off though, she walks in the door and it's obvious there is an imposter on the station.
More or less confined to quarters, Sinclair tells Carolyn, his girlfriend, about the Battle of the Line, and his part in it. He tells her that as the battle reached its height he decided to ram one of the Minbari cruisers, determined to take one of them with him, but he blacked out and when he came to it was twenty-four hours later, and the war was over. The Minbari had unaccountably surrendered, and no-one has ever been able to say why.
Looking further into the dead smuggler's records, Garibaldi discovers that he had been trafficking in specialised items, and his last run had taken him to the Antares sector, where he had got his hands on a changeling net, a portable force-field that allows one to bend images around it, essentially enabling them to take on any shape or form they wish. Including that of the commander! So it wasn't Sinclair who had poisoned Kosh --- as Garibaldi had been sure anyway --- but Varner, using the changeling net to look like him! But... Varner is dead, so who killed him, and why? Had he an accomplice? A second suspect, who even now is running around the station, probably at this point trying to get off it?
He has Takashima use the station's scanners to pinpoint the huge energy signature the changeling net woudl put out, and they discover that there is indeed a second man, or rather alien. An assassin from a Minbari warrior caste, who once they have overpowered him tells Sinclair "You have a hole in your mind!" That cryptic remark resonates with the commander, as he knows that there is a twenty-four hour period that he can't account for during the Battle of the Line. It's a phrase that will come back to haunt him, and lead to a massive development and finally revelation as the series progresses.
Once Sinclair's innocence is established then, everything, for now, goes back to normal, and the massive station, with the recovered Ambassador Kosh installed as its final representative, is opened for business.
Important plot arc points:
This is where I will refer to scenes, people, quotes, occurences, anything that will later have a large impact on future episodes/seasons. I'll rate them from Green through Orange to Red, which will correspond to their importance and how they influence the series and the plot as a whole. If, in later seasons, they tie in to a previous plot point, I'll reference that.
The Battle of the Line
Arc Level: Orange
Note: the final defence of Earth from the attacking Minbari warfleet, the Battle of the Line was the last stand against the invasion fleet. It has gone down in human (and Minbar, and other) history as one of the bravest and yet most futile actions ever, and yet it worked (or seemed to) as the attacking fleet stopped short of destroying Earth, and in fact surrendered. Many who were there at the time believe something else happened: they know they were outmanned and outgunned, and were losing, had lost the war. There was no reason why an enemy vastly superior, on the very cusp of victory, would suddenly decide to end hostilities. Sinclair would later say "Maybe God blinked!" but the truth will turn out to be very much more stunning and unbelievable than that.
Narn vs Centauri
Arc Level: Red
Note: The enmity between the Narn and the Centauri, the oppressed against the oppressor, the conquered for the conquerors, is an old wound that is still fresh. It means no Narn would ever trust a Centauri, and very much vice versa. The Centauri see the Narn as vile, backward, subhuman beings who are only good as slaves, and though they were eventually forced off Narn in a war of attrition, they still consider the planet theirs. They do not accept that they were defeated, merely that it became "too expensive to be worth staying". The relationship between the two races will form a pivotal strand of the plot, and in a tremendous piece of writing our attitudes towards and opinion of each race will change radically as the seasons progress.
Arc Level: Red
Note: Though having almost a peripheral role in this pilot movie, the mysterious and enigmatic Vorlons will become the puppet masters of the second and third seasons, leading into the fourth, and will become more entangled in and important to the fates of not only humans, but all races.
Lyta Alexander/Telepaths/Psi Corps
Arc Level: Red
Note: Although Lyta is replaced for seasons one and two by another telepath, the role of their parent organisation, the dark and shadowy, Orwellian Psi Corps, will become more pronounced and deep as it insinuates itself into the life of the station and makes its own plans for using certain members of its staff, resulting in a massive power struggle that will have cataclysmic consequences down the line.
"You have a hole in your mind".
Arc Level: Red
Note: This seemingly incomprehensible and unimportant remark will impact hugely on the truth behind the Battle of the Line, why the Minbari surrendered and why Commander Jeffrey Sinclair is key not only to the fate of humans but also to the rest of the galaxy. However, we will not find out exactly why until close to the end of season three, in an explosive revelation.
Commander Sinclair to tourist, about to make an, ahem, assignation with a female alien: "I wouldn't. You know the rules about crossing species. Stick with the list."
Tourist: "What are you, a bigot or something?
Sinclair: "No, but you've obviously never met an Arnassian before. After they're finished, they eat their mate!"
Ambassador Londo Mollari to Garibaldi: "You make very good sharks, Mister Garibaldi. We were pretty good sharks too once, but somehow, along the way, we forgot how to bite."
Londo (after Garibaldi has departed): "See the great Centauri Republic! Open nine to five, Earth time!"
Generic business man to Lyta Alexander: "Some day I'm gonna find the guy who thought up the idea of renting telepaths to businessmen, and I'm gonna kill him!"
Ambassador G'Kar to Lyta, on the subject of creating a race of Narn telepaths: "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."
Londo to Garibaldi: "I suppose there will be a war now? All that running around and shooting at one another: you'd think that sooner or later it would have gone out of fashion!"
Dr. Kyle: "There are moments in your life when everything crystallises, and the whole world reshapes itself, right down to its component molecules, and everything changes. I have looked upon the face of a Vorlon, and nothing is the same anymore."
Why does Delenn abstain from the vote to extradite Sinclair to the Vorlon homeworld? When she says she is here merely to observe, what is she watching?
What was the Minbari assassin's involvement with G'Kar? Why does he meet him in the Alien Sector (disguised as Lyta Alexander) where he tells the killer "there's been a complication"? What has he to gain from the assassination of Ambassador Kosh?
Was there a connection between the fact that the poison used on Kosh can only be found in the one sector from which Carolyn had returned? Was it merely coincidence that she arrived at the station twenty minutes before the assassination attempt?
What really happened to Sinclair at the Battle of the Line?
What did Dr. Kyle see under Kosh's encounter suit?
Next post I'll be looking at season one, though not in as much detail episode-wise, giving an overall synopsis of the season and also some pointers as to where the five-year story is going. Season one of Babylon 5 --- or at least, part one of season one, depending on how long I make it --- "Signs and portents", next.