As you may recall from our previous conversation about Babylon 5, the show's existence teetered on the edge of a knife as the fourth season was being produced. It slipped so severely that one of the main stars, Claudia Christian, ended up leaving the show; an unhappy accident, that.
Nevertheless, a fifth season was commissioned thanks to the last-minute intervention of the TNT cable network, which decided to dip its toes into the original-sci-fi-show waters.
Part of that deal involved making a quartet of two-hour movies, each of which were presumably designed to try to broaden the appeal of the entire venture. I'm not entirely sure about this, but my research indicates that the production of these four movies may well have been split into two blocks, which occurred at the beginning of the fifth-season production and then again at the end. The first of them to be filmed was "Thirdspace," and the second was "In the Beginning." They were aired in the opposite order to that, but both were filmed prior to "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars," the fill-in episode which was used as the fourth-season finale. Both "Thirdspace" and "In the Beginning" also include appearances by Claudia Christian (in a major role in the former and in a minor one in the latter), which implies that the deal for those might have been done before she decided to leave the series.
In any case, they were both filmed before the rest of the season was. And I believe it to be the case that both "River of Souls" and "A Call to Arms" were filmed after production wrapped on the actual hourlong episodes comprising the fifth season. I'm not positive, but I believe that's what happened.
Regardless, for the purposes of this post, I am going to simply cover everything in the order in which it aired.
"In the Beginning"
(TNT movie #1)
airdate: January 4, 1998
written by: J. Michael Straczynski
directed by: Michael Vejar
Decades in the future -- mere hours before his fate (as we have seen it play out in "War Without End") -- Emperor Londo Mollari tells a pair of children a story about the war between the humans and the Minbari. Through his tale, we see a complete look at how the war began, some of the cloak-and-dagger activities which occurred behind the scenes, and how its end finally came about.
Let's address the elephant in the room: the matter of where this movie ought to be watched in the viewing chronology. In most matters, I am a formalist (no idea if I actually just used that correctly) in the sense that I advocate for following an order of composition chronology. In other words, if a series of books is written, a reader should read them in the order in which they were written so as to follow the progression of the author's writing. There might be scenarios in which it would be preferable to instead read them in the order the stories take place, but if I were to have to choose a default, I would default to the order of composition.
Many people argue vehemently that "In the Beginning" should be watched as a de facto pilot episode, even before "The Gathering." I argue that that is insanity. Far too much is given away in this movie: you learn way too much about Delenn, Sinclair, Londo, and Sheridan. Encountering the idea that Sinclair is a reincarnation of Valen this early is a sin; learning that Londo will become Emperor is nearly as bad; that it was Delenn who began the Minbari actions which truly began the war with Earth is, as well, as is learning that Sheridan will become the President of the Interstellar Alliance. Frankly, I think one would have to be a madman to even contemplate arguing that this is the way to begin viewing Babylon 5.
The idea comes, I think, from an assumption: that the first season of Babylon 5 is so shabby that literally nobody would be able to sit down and watch it from beginning to end, and that therefore nobody would ever make it to the second, and better, season. Well, maybe that notion carried some weight in 1998, when it was less easy to manage to see the entire series if you had not already. Back then, I do think there seemed to be a stark enough difference in quality that it made some sense to try to hook people with "In the Beginning" and then hope they'd be so hungry for more that they'd endure the "Infection"s and "Born to the Purple"s and "TKO"s of that first season.
Here's my argument: stripped of the mystery of what happened to Sinclair, and to some extent of the character arcs for both Delenn and Londo as well, the first season is almost entirely pointless. And from where I'm standing, it can't be. Too much else is set into motion, ranging from G'Kar's early villainy to the Homeguard to the death of President Santiago to Delenn's journey toward entering the chrysalis. All of this must be experienced in the proper context, or I don't think it works at all. And if it doesn't work at all, what's the point of watching any of this stuff?
Plus, I'm going to just be blunt about this: there isn't AS wide a quality gap in the first season and the fifth as people think. "In the Beginning" is absolutely a more confident and compelling piece of work than, say, "The Parliament of Dreams," but I don't think "In the Beginning" is confident or compelling enough that it is going to play for the average viewer in 2021 as well as it played in 1998. Better by far, if you ask me, to convince that hypothetical viewer to grit their teeth, pretend it's 1993, and take on "The Gathering." If they can't get through it armed with an understanding that it does eventually get better, then I suspect they are not going to enjoy the series. It's not for everyone; never was, and never will be.
So from my standpoint, attempting to counteract that by offering up a huge chunk of the show's secrets right at the outset is sheer lunacy. It's wrong, and I will not be a party to it, and JMS himself won't be able to budge me offa this rock. Neither will you, so don't even bother. If that sounds confrontational, well, you bet I'm being confrontational. It's a stupid idea and I won't have it.
Now, let's talk about the merits of the actual movie itself.
It's alright. It's got one major virtue: Peter Jurasik, who does some marvelous work as the aged Londo, telling the tale of the events which did so much to change the galaxy. Mira Furlan is also quite good, and I enjoyed seeing Theodore Bikel (Worf's father!) show up as the head of the Rangers. We also get some more time with Reiner Schone as Dukhat, and that's very welcome.
Ultimately, I have little to say. This is ... alright. We know most of the story already, and much of what we don't know either does little to impress in its own right or comes off seeming like an excuse to put the show's already-under-contract main players to use. Does it make any sense for Sheridan and Franklin and G'Kar to go off and have an adventure together years before they worked together on Babylon 5? Nope, not unless you've got Bruce Boxleitner, Richard Biggs, and Andreas Katsulas under a contract and need to find a way to get some value out of it. A lot of that stuff makes the universe seem smaller, not larger; this is one of the occasional curses of prequels.
All in all, though, this is a satisfying enough watch. It has good cinematography, good special effects, a fairly great score by Christopher Franke, and even some decent dialogue here and there. Does it work as an introduction the series? Absolutely not. But it's a solid introduction to the fifth season, for sure.
Bryant's rating: *** 1/2 / ***** (reviewed on March 31, 2021)