SJ Review #p

Episode: p - The Gathering (pilot episode)
Director: Richard Compton
Michael O'Hare (Jeffrey Sinclair)
Tamlyn Tomita (Laurel Takashima)
Jerry Doyle (Michael Garibaldi)
Mira Furlan (Delenn)
Blaire Baron (Carolyn Sykes)
John Fleck (Del Varner)
Paul Hampton (Senator)
Peter Jurasik (Londo Mollari)
Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar)
Johnny Sekka (Dr. Benjamin Kyle)
Patricia Tallman (Lyta Alexander)
Steven R. Barnett (Eric)
William Hayes (Traveler)
Linda Hoffman (Tech #2)
Robert Jason Jackson (Tech #3)
F. William Parker (Business Man #1)
Marianne Robertson (Hostage - scenes to be replaced in special edition)
Dave Sage (Business Man #2)
Ed Wasser (Guerra - yep, that's the guy who played Morden!)

As the Babylon 5 space station finally becomes fully operational, a mysterious assassin places its future in danger.....

"The Gathering" was the pilot episode for Babylon 5 - in other words, it was a single, one-off episode that was intended to judge whether a full series would be viable to produce. As with most American television series' pilots, it was feature length (the length of a two-parter, basically). It is rare for a series' pilot to stand up in comparison to the eventual series proper: "The Gathering" does an admirable job.

What is perhaps most impressive about the pilot is its general design. Science fiction has been done to death in the latter part of the twentieth century and, consequently, it is hard to come up with a convincing and (fairly) original idea, particularly in th realm of television. Many expected the Babylon 5 pilot to be a virtual remake of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; those people were wrong. The design of the station itself is stunning - not just the outside, but the interior as well: the central, curving corridors that seemingly go on forever, the main biosphere-like section, Command & Control - it has all been designed extremely convincingly, and very much unlike anything previously seen.

The way this is portrayed on screen is superb, as well. The special effects, at the time, were ground-breaking; after all, computer-generated imaging had only just got off the ground in full-blown movies, so for a (comparatively) low-budget television series to be achieving such good results was quite astonishing. Whilst the effects have evolved and improved immensely over the seasons, the pilot's special effects still remain remarkably impressive - particularly the shots of the station itself and the core shuttle.

The live-action sets are well-handled. The central corridor is extremely clever, utilising forced perspective wonderfully. The lighting is very well thought-out, too, creating just the right atmosphere whilst remaining convincing and believeable. The only exception is the multi-coloured light from ship's engines which shines into C&C - this is interesting at first but it then widly overused; it is good that they removed this effect for the series itself.

The acting, however, is something of a mixed bag. Michael O'Hare is convincing as Sinclair, managing to portray the character accurately without appearing too boring - although his acting is slightly 'wooden' at times during the first season, he nevertheless does very well in the pilot. As Sinclair's second-in-command, Laurel Takashima, Tamlyn Tomita is a great disappointment; her acting is flat, emotionless and extremely unconvincing, to say the least. In light of later seasons, several have criticised Claudia Christian's performance as Susan Ivanova - Christian is a hundred times better than Tomita in any episode. Thank Valen Tomita did not make it to the actual series...

Just as disappointing is Johnny Sekka, as Dr. Kyle. Whilst not quite as awful as Tomita, he is still lifeless and dull. At first I thought his halting and monotone speech was due to an infamiliarity with the English language; I eventually concluded that it was due to a lack of acting skill (particuarly noticeable in the scene when the killer attempts another assassination). Sekka was another actor who was replaced by a far more capable one - Richard Biggs, as Stephen Franklin. Sekka could never have handled some of the scenes Biggs has so successfully carried off.

Most of the rest of the cast go about their duties fairly unremarkably, but without any major faults. Two exceptions to this are Peter Jurasik (Londo) and Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar), who deliver sterling performances of a very high standard, as they continued to do thoughout the series. They both throw themselves into their respective roles, delivering completely convincing characters despite the rather disappointing make-up, which was greatly improved for the series.

Straczynski's debut script for Babylon 5 is adequate. It contains some classic JMS lines, but also contains a fair amount of cringe-inducing dialogue - the coffee line at the end, for a start, as well as Delenn's confusion over poetry. There are also a number of irritating inconsistencies between the pilot and the series, although this was to be expected, I suppose. Thankfully the inconsistencies are due to improvements that were made between the pilot and the first season, not bad decisions.

Stewart Copeland's music was effective in places (scenes involving Kosh) and awful in others (the main theme and opening sequence). Christopher Franke, who took over from season one, has achieved far greater things. To be fair to Copeland, he was never given the chance to expand his musical ideas for the show; even Franke was less than impressive at the start of the first season and it took him a while to find a style of his own.

The director, Richard Compton, holds the episode together nicely. The atmosphere is kept up throughout and the directing is effective without compromising the plot and getting in the way. There are, however, a few scenes which could have been handled much better - the discovery of Kosh in the docking bay is particuarly disappointing. The finale is expertly filmed, however, and feature some very exciting pyrotechnics.

Basically, this pilot as art is nothing special. As a televisions series pilot it fulfills its job and is undeniably fun to watch. The series which eventually followed it improved upon its lightly developed ideas enormously and went from strength to strength; several series peak with the pilot, which is never a good sign. Babylon 5 was very definitely not one of these such series...

Rating: 7/10 - Nothing particularly special for the long-term B5 fan, but it offered great promise of something new and original to come and is professionally handled, despite serious lacking in the acting department.

Best Quote: Sinclair: The sky was full of stars, every one an exploding of ours...

Points For Discussion:

Simon Jones, reviewer.

1998 Simon Jones.