So, over the past two nights, I started off with "The Gathering", the two-hour movie that launched the series way back when. I actually watched both versions of the movie, the original airing of "The Gathering" and the creator/producer's preferred edition of the movie that was done some 11 years later.
For those who don't know, the basic premise of Babylon 5 is that the series is set on a space station called Babylon 5, which occupies neutral space between five different star-spanning empires - the Minbari, Narn, Centauri, Vorlon, and Human - and serves as a central point at which the five species can meet. Needless to say, the station turns out of be something of a hotbed of all manner of situations and storylines. What makes Babylon 5 special, other than the fact that it was the first series to attempt the "5-year novel", is that the initial movie presents several interesting sub-plots. For one, Babylon 5 is so called because Babylons 1 through 3 were sabotaged, and Babylon 4 vanished without a trace 24 hours after going operational. The second major plot and story arc is that the commander of B5, Jeffrey Sinclair, fought in the war some ten years ago against the Minbari, but he has a 24-hour gap in his memory; when he recovered, the Minbari had surrendered, despite having the Earth Alliance on its knees. This 24-hour memory gap is connected to his "old friend", Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari. Add to that the central plot of the movie about the attempt to assassinate Ambassador Kosh of the Vorlon Empire, the fact that there is a traitor on the station, the aggressiveness or the Narns (embodied in the movie by Andreas Katsulas as the magnificent Ambassador G'Kar), the introduction of the Psi Corps and the fact that something is going on with them as well, and some of the other "a day in the life" of Babylon 5, and one has a remarkable story that is full of promise and that offers wonderful plot hooks and potentials for the tv series that was to follow.
If the original "The Gathering" suffered from any real problems, it was slow plotting, a somewhat lack of characterisation, and a bit too much exposition, as well as some cheesy sequences. (Who can forget that terrible alien section zoo sequence, which JMS has referred to as the "muppet petting zoo" sequence?) This was remedied by J. Michael Straczynski (JMS, for short) some 11 years later when the TNT network gave him a chance to re-cut the movie in a producer's cut, and he restored a lot of the lost footage that had been dumped on the cutting room floor. The changes to "The Gathering" and additions include:
1. The music for the movie has been re-scored by Christopher Franke, who did the series' music, although some of the original score is intact.
2. The graphics for the credits of the movie have been updated to the standard B5 look.
3. Tamlyn Tomita, who played Laurel Takashima, had all of her dialogue looped in the original airing, as Warner felt she was too hard and harsh. This cut of the movie restores her original dialogue, and the character is much better for it.
4. At the beginning of the movie, Laurel Takashima tells Mr. Garibaldi that Commander Sinclair is looking after a tourist problem. This involves the addition of a scene where Sinclair convinces a patron of an Arnassian female not to go with her, as they eat their sexual partners.
5. Sinclair deals with a dust (a type of illegal drug) smuggler trying to come aboard the station, who takes another passenger (this actress will play a prominent role once the series starts) hostage. This sequence highlights the fact that Sinclair is a "hands on" commander, but it reveals a deep, underlying problem that he has due to the time spent in the Earth-Minbari war.
6. When Sinclair takes Lyta Alexander, the new resident telepath, to her quarters, the whole "alien sector as a zoo" scene is omitted, for a voice-over of Sinclair explaining things to her. Much better, and no muppets! :)
7. When G'Kar talks to Lyta in the conference centre about the whole matter of Narn telepaths and tries to get her to sell the Narns her DNA, the entire "Cone of Silence" aspect of the matter is omitted.
8. The scene is extended when Laurel Takashima and Dr. Kyle talk about getting Lyta to scan the Vorlon ambassador to find out who poisoned him. We learn that Laurel plays the flute, and that she has an illegal stash of coffee growing in the hydroponics garden. Among other things.
9. There is a deleted scene from the original, in which Sinclair and Security Chief Garibaldi meet in one of the core shuttles, where Garibaldi says that Sinclair's alibi doesn't hang together - as the evidence shows that there was no tampering with his transport tube.
10. When Lyta scans Kosh, she sees him call "Sinclair" "Entil-za Valen", and the hand of Kosh is now that of a glowing, alien Vorlon. JMS regrets doing this somewhat, but felt that 11 years later it didn't really matter.
11. There is a deleted scene from the original, in which Sinclair's love interest, Carolyn, goes to see Ambassador Delenn to find out why she didn't vote to acquit Sinclair at the trial. Some of Delenn's secrets are revealed here.
12. The scene between Sinclair and Carolyn in which she learns of his being at the Battle of the Line (the final battle of the Earth-Minbari War) is very extended, where it becomes clear why Sinclair had a change of heart about becoming more active in his own defense.
13. The final combat sequence against the Minbari assassin has added footage, notably where Sinclair has to go into the alien sector to rescue Garibaldi, who was taken there without a mask by the assassin. The scene is notable for the fact that Delenn arrives there, and fireman carries Garibaldi out of the deadly atmosphere.
14. The end of the film has an added, deleted sequence from the original movie in which Dr. Kyle and Laurel Takashima talk about what he saw inside the Vorlon encounter suit.
Sadly, Tamlyn Tomita did not return for the regular series as Laurel Takashima, as Warner decided they wanted a stronger character in the role of the B5 second-in-command. Johnny Sekka could not return in the role of Dr. Benjamin Kyle due to health issues. And Patricia Tallman did not return for the series as Lyta Alexander, although she did come back to the series later on to the series, replacing Andrea Thompson who decided to leave the series after several years. While the series may have been better off with these characters' replacements, JMS has admitted that some of the story that he intended to tell changed because of the cast shuffling.
That said, when all is said and done, Babylon 5's "The Gathering" stands as a testament to the originality that science fiction could bring to television, and the fact that sf could be made using CGI effects that were relatively new at the time of its making. The movie has served as a template and a blueprint for other tv and movie science fiction to come. Sure, JMS has said that he would have written parts of "The Gathering" differently if was writing it now, but that's the hindsight that one gains as a television and movie script writer.
But more importantly, "The Gathering" was the prologue to the story of Babylon 5. And it is well worth watching, in either form, as a means of introducing a newcomer to the series.
And so it begins...