The commencement review in my personal "Babylon Project" - a complete run-through of the series in order, slotting all of the different media in more or less "where they should go," regardless of which are and are not considered canon. It's bound to be a bit of a mess... but I've seen the show through once, and this seems like a fun way to run through the whole epic again.
For the purposes of this run, I have chosen to start with the movie In the Beginning. I should stress up-front that this is NOT the ideal starting place for a first-time viewer. However, I do think it makes a fine start to re-experiencing the series.
The year is 2278. The place: the palace on Centauri Prime, home to Londo Mollari, the aged Emperor of the decayed and shattered Centauri Republic. As the film opens, two small children are playing, and have found their way into the throne room. Their mother, a servant in the palace, desperately tries to bundle them out of there before anyone discovers their indiscretion... but it is too late, for Londo is sitting quietly on his throne, and the sight of the children's joyful play has warmed something in his old, cold heart.
Londo calls the children over to him and passes his crown to the boy. "You may give one order, any order," he tells the boy, drawing back into the shadows to bitterly ask the question that has tormented him for so many decades: "What do you want?"
The boy's answer is a fairly innocuous one. He wants a story, a story with adventure and great battles and heroes. His sister also has a request; she wants a story that's true. Londo decides on a story that fits both requests: the story of the Earth-Minbari War.
It was 2246, on the planet Earth, and the humans were riding high on their victory in the Dilgar War. The next step for the Earth Alliance was to broaden their sphere of influence. They call in an advisor from the Centauri, a young diplomat named Londo Mollari, and question him about the Minbari. Londo warns them, in the strongest possible language, to stay away. "If you do not bother them, they will not bother you."
Londo's advice goes unheeded, and a botched first-contact situation leads to a Holy War, with the Minbari determined to hunt the humans to extinction and to show no mercy. Hopelessly outmatched by the much older, much more technologically advanced Minbari, the humans seem destined to lose every battle. Only a young Earth Alliance Officer named John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) manages to face down a Minbari ship and come back alive from the experience - and even that victory is as much a matter of luck as skill.
With the Minbari relentlessly pushing the humans back all the way to their home planet, the final defense of Earth comes down to an act of pure desperation. But with the Minbari rejecting calls for peace and ignoring cries of surrender, what possible hope can there be for the human race?
As I stated above, In the Beginning makes a very strong starting point for a second viewing of the series. It's the only real starting point that brings together all (well, most) of the series' lead characters: Sheridan, Delenn, Sinclair, Ivanova, Dr. Franklin, Londo, and G'Kar.
What's more, every major character gets a page. Bruce Boxleitner's Sheridan is presented as a decent, cautious, and thoughtful man, and we gradually see him grow into the beginnings of his leadership role in the "Starkiller" incident. Richard Biggs' Dr. Franklin is presented with an awful choice with regard to his medical research. Andreas Katsulas' G'Kar gets the chance to joyously manipulate the war situation by selling weapons to the humans for outrageous profits. Mira Furlan's Delenn progresses from Dukhat's loyal apprentice to a thoughtful leader in her own right. And Michael O'Hare's Sinclair even appears, through the miracle of archive footage, to become the central figure of the climactic Battle of the Line.
Judged in its own right, the film largely succeeds. Christopher Franke's score is magnificent, exciting in some places, mournful in others. The performers all do an admirable job of recreating their Season 1 - 2 personas, with Mira Furlan particularly benefiting from the spotlight this film shines on her.
Peter Jurasik, as will often prove to be the case, is the standout here. Some have questioned the use of the framing device, in which an aged Londo narrates the story to two children and their nanny from his palace on a devastated Centauri Prime. I love the framing device. It gives us a glimpse of the story's ending even as we are told the story's beginning, which creates a real sense of the story coming "full-circle." In addition, Peter Jurasik's performance as the aged Londo Mollari is nothing short of breathtaking.
All of the moments of this movie that I best remember are moments that belong to Londo. His eulogy of the humans, framed by Christopher Franke's operatic score and Mike Vejar's visuals, is a moment that brings tears to the eye. His bitter regret of a routine decision that cost the human race so much avoids seeming like a forced revelation only because Jurasik plays the moment with such authenticity. And the moment in which he whispers to the children's nanny his final wish is utterly heartbreaking.
Production values are as high as Babylon 5's production values would ever get. A few of the CGI shots (notably the establishing shot of Dr. Franklin's medical center) are a bit "fake-looking," but they are certainly acceptable for a television budget. Mike Vejar's direction is excellent, managing to balance the sweep of cinema with the intimacy of stage - particularly in the aforementioned "Londo's eulogy" sequence. Most impressive is that for a TV movie made on an at-best moderate budget, the budget limitations never show (which can create a whiplash effect when you go from this to The Gathering, where the budget limitations definitely do show...)
As mentioned, one of the reasons I consider this an ideal place to start re-experiencing the saga is that most of the major arcs that will be followed in the series are dramatized here. This fact makes In the Beginning in many ways a better and more comprehensive pilot than The Gathering. In fact, I would unhesitantly recommend it as a starting point for any viewer... but for the last 10 - 15 minutes, which give out just a little too much information, spoiling large tracts of the first three seasons for new viewers.
I accept that there was no dramatically satisfying way to avoid revealing at least some of the twist involving Minbari souls. Still, surely there was a way to write this without revealing the specific soul in question? Surely there was a way to script the final scenes without revealing Sheridan and Delenn's forthcoming destinies? The film is so good that I wish this could be used as a "hook" for new viewers. But with so much revealed so explicitly near the end, this movie has to be declared "off limits" to first-time viewers - which is a shame, given how superior this film is both technically and dramatically to The Gathering and the first batch of Season One episodes on virtually every level.
Even ignoring the spoilers (after all, it wasn't made as a pilot), the film does have its flaws. Every character has his or her moment, but Sinclair's moment in the Battle of the Line is made a lot less satisfying due to the fact that he gets no introduction! If you aren't already familiar with the series, you would almost certainly be sitting through Sinclair's scenes wondering who this guy is and where Sheridan went. According to Straczynski's DVD commentary and to on-line postings, the expense of flying Michael O'Hare out to Los Angeles was just too great to justify what would only have amounted to one to two more scenes. Nevertheless, a couple of looped lines of dialogue, or a brief bit of Londo's voice-over to tell us who Sinclair was, would have made the transition from the rest of the film to his sequence much, much smoother.
Even more annoying is the "peace mission" shared by Sheridan, G'Kar, and Dr. Franklin. The problem with this sequence is not the mission itself; such a mission makes absolute sense for both sides, as presented at this stage of the conflict. But shoehorning these three characters into the same mission just strains credibility a bit too far. Include any one of the three - even include G'Kar and Franklin without Sheridan - and this problem would not exist. But I simply cannot believe that all three of them would be together on the same mission during the Earth/Minbari War, and then would just coincidentally meet again on Babylon 5. I find it even harder to believe that upon meeting later, none of them would give any indication that they had ever met before (or that G'Kar, scheming manipulator that he was in the series' early days, wouldn't have used this past experience as leverage against Sheridan).
A very strong telefilm, and a fine "Welcome Back" for me to the universe of Babylon 5.
Next Up: Before we go forward to Babylon 5 itself, we must first go backward, to introduce the one key group not touched on in this movie - the telepaths. Dark Genesis: The Birth of the Psi-Corps.