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Babylon 5: The Gathering / In the Beginning

From 1994 to '98, executive Producer J. Michael Straczynski's ambitious "novel for television" strived to be more than just another example of Space Opera hokum. And more often than not it succeeded. For five seasons it exhibited the rare blend of grand "old school" science fiction and good television. It set a new highwater mark for spaceships-and-aliens storytelling, territory where certain other TV series had (often less boldly) gone before. Babylon 5 centered around a vast 23rd century interstellar space station — sort of a galactic U.N. — and individual episodes frequently contributed to a mammoth and intricate over-arching plot that unfolded piece by piece over the five years. So someone introduced to the series through this particular DVD may need a long-time fan nearby to fill in some details. Still, the series rewards the faithful, and this release of the its two-hour pilot and two-hour "prequel" movie could bring new fans to the fold and keep the old guard hungry for more.

"The Gathering," the pilot TV movie that originally aired in February '93 (then again in January '94), introduces the premise. As "the last, best hope for peace" in a galaxy that has seen its share of conflict, the newly commissioned Babylon 5 station serves as a vast meeting place and way station for a quarter-million humans and aliens — from diplomats to drug dealers — such as our principle characters : the captain, officers, civilians, and some very alien ambassadors living there. But peace is a slippery thing right from the outset. When the Vorlon ambassador is nearly killed by an assassin shortly after arriving at the station, station Commander Sinclair is the prime suspect. Viewed through hindsight, it's not a terribly auspicious opening. Compared to later episodes after the series had found its legs, the performances tend to be flat and the script takes few risks. All the same, it serves as a fine preamble to the Season One boxed set of DVDs, and its story tugs threads that become the warp and woof of the series' first four seasons.

The first of five Babylon 5 telefilms, "In the Beginning" is the prequel movie that originally aired on TNT in January 1998, between the series' fourth and fifth seasons. It serves up a cinema-worthy feature of engrossing drama, mythic scale, and, compared to "The Gathering," significantly more solid acting, writing, and production values. Set years before the events of "The Gathering," it tells the story of the Earth-Minbari War, an interstellar conflict that would have eliminated mankind from the cosmos had it not been for the discovery of one surprising mystery involving the human who would become Bab 5's first captain. The story flashes back from a framing device that gives us aged Emperor Londo Molari telling the tale to a group of Centauri children before Sheridan and Delenn are brought before him as prisoners. So both the main story — the events leading up to the cataclysmic Earth-Minbari War, especially Delenn's surprising part therein — and the surrounding frame expand and amplify story elements developed during the series' previous four seasons. However, fannish devotion to the series is not required for solid enjoyment of this superior TV science fiction drama.

*          *          *

Some fans here online are grumpy that this two-sided disc is just a bare-bones release, snapper case and all, with no bonus goodies such as commentary tracks or behind-the-scenes featurettes. And some legitimately gripe that the two feature movies here aren't presented in a fashion that takes full advantage of DVD potential. While "In the Beginning" is an anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1), "The Gathering" comes in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Color, definition, and contrast vary, and the differences between live-action footage and full CGI scenes are noticable. From start to finish this disc looks at least quite good, but hardcore videophiles will notice a lack of pristine consistency. (After "The Gathering," the series was shot to take advantage of HDTV, so the later season-in-a-box DVD releases show greater uniformity.) Likewise, the audio is an unambitious Dolby 2.0 Surround, so while the sound is plenty adequate without gratuitous digital gimmicks, it's also nothing to show off your system with. Consider this a disc that trumpets substance over style. Snap-case.
—Mark Bourne

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