"And so it begins..."
After a prequel and various "stage-setting" novels, I have finally worked my way up to where the saga truly began... the original series pilot.
I confess, I had less-than-stellar memories of The Gathering from my first viewing. I recalled it as a very uneven film, with wooden performances and awkward pacing. Needless to say, I was not particularly looking forward to sitting through this film again, even in an enhanced Special Edition.
Well, I don't know how much of this is the memory cheating, and how much of it is simply the little tweaks and adjustments made to TNT's Special Edition. But though it still has its awkward moments, on this viewing I found The Gathering to be far, far better than I had recalled. A decent telefilm and a solid pilot, which on second viewing actually does set up a lot more of the arc to come than had seemed the case the first time around.
The year is 2257. To tie it in with The Shadow Within, the last item I reviewed, this is later in the very same year of the Babylon 5 station's dedication. In addition to Sinclair and Delenn, Ambassador Londo Mollari and Ambassador G'Kar have arrived to represent their respective races. The only major power still unrepresented is the Vorlons - and now, at long last, the Vorlons are sending their ambassador to the station.
But when Vorlon Ambassador Kosh disembarks, he becomes the victim of a mysterious assassination attempt. Security Chief Garibaldi investigates, while the station's second-in-command conspires with the station's doctor to do some investigating of their own. The evidence all adds up, with everything pointing to only one possible suspect - Station Commander Jeffrey Sinclair.
As a very wise man once said: "D'oh!"
As mentioned above, on this viewing The Gathering was much better than I had remembered. The central narrative, of the assassination attempt and investigation, is a good one for a pilot: it's a simple plot that's easy for viewers to relate to, even viewers not fond of science fiction; the nature of an "investigation" story allows an easy excuse to work all the major characters and settings on the station into the narrative; and by making the prime suspect the lead, it creates an easy hook to build suspense.
It also ties into a number of the arcs that will build later. Aspects that will reappear down the road include: the drug "dust," which gets a mention in footage restored for the Special Edition; the mystery of Commander Sinclair's missing 24 hours; the Minbari surrender at The Line; Delenn's enigmatic assignment to "observe" Sinclair; Londo Mollari's frustration over the decline of the Centauri Republic; and Dr. Kyle's allusions to looking on the face of a Vorlon. Appropriately, Dr. Kyle's last line is word-for-word with Sinclair's eventual last line as a regular cast member: "Nothing is the same anymore."
By viewing the prequel, In the Beginning, ahead of this, I have already seen introductions for Sinclair, Londo, G'Kar, and Delenn. The Gathering introduces two additional characters: Lyta Alexander (previously included in the novel Deadly Relations), and Security Chief Michael Garibaldi.
As in her appearance in Deadly Relations, Lyta is quite young and naive. We don't actually know much about her at this point. However, we can see that she believes in following the rules, and there is evidence that she has a healthy sense of humor (her reaction to G'Kar's proposal seems to be more one of amusement than of disgust or outrage). Beyond that, we'll have to wait for late Season Two for any real character details to be filled in. Patricia Tallman is already an appealing screen presence, however, and it is easy to regret that the producers were unable to secure her for Season One.
Jerry Doyle's Garibaldi is also appealing, though for different reasons. In the midst of schemers and ambassadors, telepaths and "men with destinies," Garibaldi is basically your ordinary guy. He's been bounced about from one job to another, he's failed in his life more often than not, and when real responsibility lands on his shoulders, he doesn't feel entirely up to the job. He muddles through, like the ordinary guy he is, doing the best he can with what he's got.
Doyle's performance is already one of the better ones of the cast. He delivers his lines in a very naturalistic fashion. He never seems stiff or awkward, and he brings a wry humor to the part that makes his character instinctively likable. He also has strong screen rapport with Peter Jurasik's Londo and Michael O'Hare's Sinclair.
As for O'Hare, his work here is very uneven, and there are a few scenes where his line deliveries just completely miss the mark. He seems to have no ability to deliver one-liners (though the crack about "how far do (Vorlons) go on the first date?" is so horrible, it would probably have defeated any actor), and his "pep talk" to Garibaldi is painful and leaden. Worse, when he's defeated by a line or scene, he has a tendency to try to mask it by giving a wry, self-deprecating grin... which only signals all the more clearly that he really doesn't quite know how to deliver the line in question.
For the most part, though, O'Hare's work is solid. He does some genuinely fine acting in the monologue where he recalls the Battle of the Line. And though we only see a few flashes of strong emotion, there is enough on-screen here to demonstrate that he plays anger and determination very well.
As in any pilot, one can sense both the actors and the production team finding their feet with this film. It is notable that several changes occurred between the pilot movie and Season One. With only one real exception, these were all changes for the better.
Tamlyn Tomita is a good actress. I know this because I have seen her in other films. I would not know this from watching The Gathering, however. Forget O'Hare's "off moments" - Tomita's performance is the real stiff and awkward one here. For the Special Edition, her original voice track has been restored to the film, and it is an improvement over the old cut. But even so, this is not a good performance.
Tomita seems uncomfortable with the role, and many of her line readings come across as false and/or forced. Perhaps she was uncomfortable with the genre, or perhaps she just didn't know who the character was supposed to be. Whatever the case, in my opinion she delivers by far the weakest performance in the movie. Though the arc plan for Takeshima was an interesting one that would have resulted in at least one major jolt for the viewers, I cannot help but be relieved that she did not return.
In contrast, I actually rather like Johnny Sekka's Dr. Kyle. Sekka provides a very warm screen presence, very grandfatherly. Nonetheless, I must say that I think it is good that he was replaced for the series proper. Richard Biggs' performance had an edginess and an energy that was visible even in his brief appearance in In the Beginning. This edge made Dr. Franklin a significantly more interesting character, and helped to sell some memorable moments in the character's journey. Sekka's performance is too warm, too friendly, and too centered; I would have a very difficult time believing Dr. Kyle can go to "dark places."
Besides, it's appropriate for a human who has seen a Vorlon to be immediately recalled; it makes more logical sense in the story for Dr. Kyle to go than it would have made for him to stay.
Finally, the make-up job on Delenn for the pilot is quite hard to look at, having such fresh memories of the final make-up from In the Beginning. It's not that it's a bad make-up job; but it's so visibly a make-up job, to the point where simply looking at her is distracting. It's a testament to Mira Furlan's talent that she still manages to deliver a strong performance around the make-up... but I'm very, very grateful that they cut it back for the series proper.
In addition to changes, there are some severe flaws in the story progression. A major problem with The Gathering is its lack of dramatic momentum. Sinclair is the protagonist; Sinclair is the character in the most jeopardy. So why does it take until 70 minutes into a 90-minute movie before Sinclair actually proactively does anything? On first viewing, I thought my empathy for Sinclair in the pilot was hobbled by O'Hare's performance. On re-watching, I find that O'Hare's performance is better than remembered - but the character's utter passivity in this situation makes it hard to identify with him. He simply doesn't behave like a man in a desperate situation. Mostly, he sits around broodingly while letting Garibaldi do all the investigative work - which has the additional odd effect of making Garibaldi seem more like the series lead than Sinclair does.
A solid pilot, and noticeably better in its Special Edition than in its original version. But the actors are still finding their feet, the pacing is still a bit uneven in places, and it's clear that there is much better work than this to come.