Twenty years ago this week, Babylon 5’s first season premiered with “Midnight on the Firing Line.” I followed the series through 110 episodes, several movies, the spin-off series, and still find myself enjoying the run. There are some episodes which weren’t as great as others, but I remember every story fondly.
To begin the 20 year rewatch project, I popped in the DVD of The Gathering.
I still remember the first time I heard about B5. I was at a Star Trek convention at the Civic Center. The First Lady of Star Trek, Majel Barrett, was the headliner. During her Q&A, she talked about how she would be a part of the upcoming Deep Space 9, and how she was going to be the love interest of the shape shifter. She talked about the names that would become so familiar to us all – Rene Auberjonois, Cirroc Lofton, and the others. That series would begin airing in a few months, and she couldn’t wait for us all to see it.
She then talked about another space series that would be coming up, something called Babylon 5. She just knew we were all going to be fans of both series. If we fans had room in our hearts for a second and third Star Trek series, surely there was enough room for another space opera series. The way I remember it, she spent at least five minutes (out of her hour on stage) promoting B5, which 1) it hadn’t even begun airing, and 2) was a direct competitor to the Star Trek series. It didn’t hurt that she was talking up the sublime actor Andreas Katsulas, who was familiar to the Trek fans from his role as the Romulan Tomalak, and who would be a regular on B5.
Flash forward a few months, and I was a fan of Babylon 5 right from the beginning.
As much as I love the series, when I do a rewatch, I do tend to skip this pilot. In seeing it again for the first time in a few years, there are certain things that stand out. Before I get into that, a brief recap of the plot.
The year is 2257. Somewhere deep in neutral space, Earth has built a space station that is five miles long. The station houses roughly 250,000 life forms. The station is a port of call, sort of a “Switzerland” for the five major races (Humans, Minbari, Centauri, Narn, and Vorlons). Representatives of the first four governments are already on the station, while the fifth – Ambassador Kosh – is on his way. Before this, no one had ever seen a Vorlon. They wear encounter suits, which protect them from the atmosphere present off of their world.
Upon arriving on the station, Kosh is attacked by an unknown assailant. It’s up to the station’s doctor, a man named Benjamin Kyle, to save his life, but he can’t do it alone. The station commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, is accused of the attempted murder, and is put on trial. Narn Ambassador G’Kar leads the prosecution against him, and G’Kar will stop at nothing to get Sinclair. He is out for blood.
One of the problems is that the script is all over the place. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski (aka “JMS” or simply “Joe” had never been an executive producer or show runner before. He relied on the director for guidance, and also tended to stick a bit too much information in.
That’s another thing about Babylon 5 – layers. It’s like an onion. JMS will drop things into early episodes that at the time, mean nothing. Later – sometimes the next episode, sometimes four years later! – that information pays off. I am thinking of one specific instance where our heroes meet a strange, unusual creature in an unexpected place. They are forced to leave him behind, but the audience sees that he is saved before the end of the episode. The following year, our heroes are working with a rather powerful ally, who happens to be an old mentor of one of them. After they’ve left, that ally calls out for the strange creature from the previous episode. They are obviously working closely together. Each episode works perfectly fine on its own, but when those two episodes are connected, we see there is a much bigger story being told.
And JMS started telling some of those stories right here with the pilot. There is a character who will eventually have a rather nasty addiction problem; the origin of that problem is given here in a throwaway line. That’s just one example. There are several that could be given. The entire Delenn story is another example.
It feels like JMS was writing to two entirely different audiences. The first was fans who would be sticking around for a full five-year series, and would need information provided in this pilot. The second is people who would watch this movie-of-the-week as nothing more than a movie. Keep in mind that when this was filmed – even after it aired – they had no idea whether PTEN (the loose “network” it aired on) would even order a season.
There are ideas/concepts introduced here that are dropped completely, such as the incredibly diverse casino and bar. While we see them both later, they are generally Humans, with a few Narns and Drazi thrown into the background. Here, it’s positively teeming with exotic life forms. I loved the gorilla barkeep, and the muppet news reporter. The costumes are changed as well. For the Humans, they are changed slightly. For the Minbari, they are completely overhauled. This is also the only time we see Ben Kyle or Laurel. While Ben is at least name-checked later, I don’t remember Laurel getting even that much.
The video is extremely grainy. In places, it looks like a copy of a 25th generation videotape. The CGI, while on the cutting edge when this aired, looks like videogame footage.
It is not the strongest pilot, and I have a feeling that if JMS could re-do it today, he would rebuild it from the ground up. But, it has heart. It has a core cast that wants to entertain us, and more importantly has the ability to do so.
In a later episode, one of the characters will utter the famous words “No one here is exactly what they appear.” That is so true. As with real life, the characters grow and change. They live, and they die. Someone who may be the comic relief could turn out to be the most frightening character of them all. Someone who is the “Gung Ho” warrior could become the spiritual center.
In the end, that is the story of Babylon 5 – Change. Everyone changes. There is not one regular or recurring character in the series who remains unchanged through it all.
I am taking points off because of the music. I loved the original music by Stewart Copeland. In this version, it’s been replaced by an uninspired generic version by Chris Franke, who did the music for the entire series and all but one other movie. So, it gets 2 out of 5 stations.
Next up – “Midnight on the Firing Line”