Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back To The Beginning And Back Before That: "The Gathering" And "In The Beginning!"

The Good: "In The Beginning" is a great story
The Bad: "The Gathering" looks very pilot-ish
The Basics: The clunky acting and pilot nature of "The Gathering" pulls down the refined, if overly revealing "In The Beginning" on this very simple DVD release!

One of the things that blows - and no, there is no better term for it than that - about all of the Babylon 5 multipacks and DVD boxed sets featuring the various seasons of Babylon 5 is that none of them include the pilot film, "The Gathering," which is alluded to a fair number of times, especially in the first season. Indeed, despite being an amazing collection, The Complete Babylon 5 (reviewed here!) does not have the integral pilot movie, which aired almost a year before the series began and was enough to get the television show green-lit.

"The Gathering" also establishes the big mystery of the first season, which is not answered in that first season. It follows various characters around, asking how and why the Earth/Minbari War actually ended. Given that those events are hundreds of years in the mythical future of the universe of Babylon 5, it is perfectly natural for viewers to ask, "What's the big deal about the Earth/Minbari War?" That is where "In The Beginning" comes in. "In The Beginning" tells the full story (almost) of the war between Earth and Minbar, with a few new, never-before-alluded-to episodes thrown in for fun and edification.

On DVD, "The Gathering" and "In The Beginning" appears with no frills as a single double-sided DVD intended to inexpensively offer fans and viewers a chance to start the series properly with "The Gathering" and to flashback when it is done (there is a HUGE amount of debate among fans as to when "In The Beginning" ought to be watched; I tend to fall on the side of after the fourth season, myself) with "In The Beginning."

For those who like DVD frills and are fans of Babylon 5, a better deal is Babylon 5: The Movies, a five disc set review pending. That set includes both "The Gathering" and "In The Beginning" and it adds commentary tracks and a few featurettes, plus has three more films to accompany these two. But for those who just want the essentials, there is this DVD.

"The Gathering" is the recut pilot episode for the Babylon 5 series and it is pretty much essential for fans or newcomers to watch before attempting to view the series. Introducing all of the major players in the universe, station commander Jeffrey Sinclair must deal with the arrival and subsequent assassination attempt on the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh. In the process, Sinclair himself becomes a target, inspiring the question that will rule the entire first season of the series.

"In The Beginning" is a prequel movie which tells the story of the Earth-Minbari war. Here we see more than what the series has told us previously, including Dr. Franklin's role, Londo Mollari's interventions and John Sheridan's victory against the Minbari as well as a secret mission to try to end the war.

"The Gathering," being the pilot, is awkward in comparison to the polished look of the rest of the series and the rest of the movies. But, as it is the beginning, we know the universe will not end. Similarly, "In the Beginning" is the story of a war which has a known outcome. Fleshing it out is certainly interesting and while it is perhaps the best of the Babylon 5 films, the story falls mostly along known lines.

"The Gathering" looks like a pilot and between the costumes, props and hair styles, it seems like no one knew quite what to make of the endeavor. It does, however, establish the dark and gritty universe of Babylon 5. The main races and players are introduced with the Centauri, Narn, Minbari, Vorlons and telepaths all making appearances. There is a ridiculous amount of exposition, but it is a necessary evil. In fact, "The Gathering" works better in context; it seems almost like a dramatis personae for some of the essential characters and an outline of themes for the forthcoming television show.

This is not to say that it is not entertaining; it is. "The Gathering" is an attempted murder mystery and it sets up a number of questions that take years in the Babylon 5 universe to answer. And because this is a science fiction setting, there are things like ridiculous magical rings (fortunately never seen again after this movie) and other conceits that make finding the potential assassin a real treat.

But far superior to the clunky acting and poor lighting of "The Gathering" - which, admittedly is harder for fans of the series to get into because station Commander Sinclair is replaced at the climax of the first season - is "In The Beginning." An unabashed war story, "In The Beginning" combines footage from throughout the Babylon 5 series to tell the story of the Earth-Minbari War from the perspective of Londo and all he has pieced together by the time he dies. It illustrates the Minbari perspective and the human one as Earth and Minbar struggle to relate after a chance encounter and a mistake trigger a war that leads humanity to the brink of extinction.

And then it ends and no one knows why . . . and for that, one needs Babylon 5. "In The Beginning" is entertaining and engaging for all audiences, but it should not be watched by casual viewers because it does rob the thunder from some of the most impressive and enduring surprises of the Babylon 5 television series.

"In The Beginning" also has the benefit of both the refined special effects and better acting than "The Gathering." "The Gathering" has a few recognizable characters and actors, like Michael O'Hare as Commander Sinclair, Jerry Doyle as Garibaldi, and Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander. Also present are Andreas Katsulas as G'Kar, Mira Furlan as a far more androgynous and spotty D'elenn and Peter Jurasik as a much balder Londo. None of them shine in "The Gathering" and there are notable cast members absent.

"In The Beginning," on the other hand, has the full Babylon 5 cast and everyone is in their prime and running at stride. Bruce Boxleitner and Richard Biggs flesh out the cast as Captain Sheridan and Dr. Franklin, respectively. As well, Claudia Christian has some wonderful scenes as Ivanova.

But basically, this is a single, no-frills DVD featuring a science fiction mystery and a science fiction war story. They bookend the television series and while "The Gathering" is very much a set-up, "In The Beginning" stands quite well on its own. Ultimately, my "not recommend" only comes down to preferring the full movies boxed set and thinking that that is a better value for fans of Babylon 5. If, however, one just wants a cheap science fiction adventure, this DVD set will fit the bill.

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© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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