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I'll be quite frank about this right now - I'm not a fan of Babylon 5, but not for the reasons you might think.  I got into this series quite late so I had trouble following what was going on throughout the show, mainly because you had to have watched every other past episode to understand the plot development.  This is quite unlike Star Trek where half the episodes are pretty much stand-alone and do not quite rely on past events to tell the story that is particular to that 45 minute period (add another 15 minutes for ads).  So basically, after having been poorly trained in the ways of Babylon 5 I didn't bother to continue watching this series to the end - which I'm sure some ardent fans will think that this is nothing short of sacrilege.

On Side A is the original 1993 two-part pilot episode, The Gathering (which had no distinctive title in its 1993 incarnation, however this DVD holds the new 1998 Special Edition version with a few added tweaks in plot and effects).  On Side B is the first of the three 1998 movie-length episodes, In The Beginning, which was made after the Babylon 5 TV series completed its intentional five season run.

Security chief "Garabaldi" with Babylon 5 commander "Sinclair" - (The Gathering, 1993)
An additional note regarding the Special Edition of The Gathering.  There were some scenes deleted from or inserted into this new version of the episode, as well as some corrected special effects (such as the colour of the jumpgate) to bring it in line with the other five seasons of this show.  Also, the regular composer for the TV series, Christopher Franke, redid the entire musical score.

The Gathering is the pilot episode that started it all.  Set in the Earth year of 2257 A.D., Babylon 5 is the fifth space-station that now orbits a planet inside a neutral corner of the galaxy, manned by the third age of the human race from Earth.  It is a port of both refuge and diplomacy for hundreds of worlds as well as between the four major alien races who fight to control the galaxy - Narn, Centauri, Vorlon and Minbari.  This episode deals with the attempted murder of a Vorlon representative who has arrived for a long awaited peace treaty settlement.  When the commander of Babylon 5 himself is alleged as the key suspect, the remaining crew members must subvertly go against the rules in order to solve the mystery - otherwise Babylon 5 itself is doomed to the fate that was met by its previous incarnations (1 through 4).

In The Beginning tells the story of how the human race was almost completely obliterated by an inter-galaxy war which had started after a fatal misunderstanding of protocol.  A much older, wiser and somewhat regretful Londo Mollari of the Centauri race recites his first-hand knowledge of the battles from the last 35 years (in flashback) to two children.  This is the first of three movie-length episodes that were produced to help explain what had occurred before the events in The Gathering.  Oddly enough, this marks an uncanny view to what could be seen as a retrospective look upon the New York WTC attacks in 2001, in terms of the over-reaction and overwhelming feelings of vengeance (on both sides of the conflict).

There's an interesting point regarding this DVD release that took me a while to fully understand.  When you put in Side A (the episode of The Gathering) it comes up with a viewers note saying "This film has been modified as follows from its original version: it has been formatted to fit your screen" (this does not appear on Side B).  But this quotation usually applies to a widescreen movie has been modified to fit into a 4:3 TV image (of which this episode was filmed well before widescreen TV episodes were the norm).  My guess is that this was meant to be seen by owners of what will soon be the "normal" 16:9 widescreen TV sets available today.  Maybe it should have read something like "This film is presented in its original aspect ratio".

The Minbari at the beginning of the "Holy War" with the humans - (In The Beginning, 1998)
For both of these episodes, the video quality varies mainly between ... the filmed footage of the actors on-set ... to the pure CGI effects.  The live action sequences used 24fps film stock which was then transcoded to 29.97fps NTSC video (just as is done with cinema movies).  But the CGI effects were actually rendered purely into this same NTSC video signal (with no generational loss in detail).  However, both of these sources exhibit very different but still problematic flaws.  The notes below apply to both The Gathering (4:3 fullscreen) and In The Beginning (16:9 widescreen).

On the side of the live action film footage - this DVD exhibits substantial macro-blocking and also some noticable grain, both of which could have been improved by utilising more of the available space left on the DVDs single-layers.  The resultant "block-pixel" look affects both background and foreground information that can be quite distracting at times.  Quite a number of film artifacts and blemishes show up as well and this does not help in the aging process, but it is especially surprising that they also appear in the more recent 1998 episode as well.  Colours are nothing particularly striking and the black levels are okay but a lot of shadow detail tends get lost in here.  Overall, an image which is often quite blurry with a great deal of both MPEG and film artifacts - this unfortunately ruins the viewing experience for me.

On the side of the CGI effects - the image is crystal clear and perfectly balanced, however the one thing it also provides in mega-quantities is "aliasing".  This is like watching your favourite PC game at a low-resolution where you have an obvious jaggedness to what should be straight line on maybe a slight angle - not pretty.  The colours are fully saturated and the black levels are as absorbing as a black hole.  There is also no hint of MPEG artifacting or grain anywhere.

For both of these episodes, the soundtrack is very good indeed - especially for a made-for-TV Pro-Logic surround mix.

The dialogue is easily distinguishable (which is most important in a plot-heavy TV show such as this).  All the sound effects are presented in a highly energised front-to-back soundstage that is very effectively mixed and not muffled by overenhancement of any kind.  Lots of effective left and right front channel activity is greatly complemented by powerful rear-channel activity.

The subwoofer gets a good deal to play with when the battles ensue onscreen (although as we all know we wouldn't be hearing squat in deep space since there's no oxygen out there to carry the sound).  And in place of the explosive sound sequences, we are treated to an effective (if not obviously monotonous) environmental ambience of the space-station throughout all of the speakers.

In any case, a very involving soundtrack if ever there was one.

The not-so-great battle for the human race - (In The Beginning, 1998)
Both sides of this DVD contain the same material - a Scene Selections link, the uninspired one-page Cast & Crew information page and two lots of subtitles.

In terms of the appeal of each episode (to an unknowing unappreciative moron like me :-), The Gathering is a weak introduction into what I've heard is a brilliant TV series to follow.  Since it centres itself around a veritable conspiracy to subvert a much needed peace accord with a few tidbits regarding the existence of Babylon 5 itself, it doesn't hold much lasting appeal to even the hardest of core fans, I'm sure.

However, In The Beginning is probably Babylon 5's answer to the Star Wars prequel where it reveals how the whole saga first began (hehe, which is done much more effectively here I think).  It is also enjoyable for those who haven't watched Babylon 5 before and could easily stand on its own.

It'd be great if the rest of the TV movie-length episodes generated after the initial TV series ended were to come out onto DVD.  I feel that this 1998 Babylon 5 Prequel Trilogy would make for a great collection of "stories" that would indeed educate anyone in the results of ignorance and the ultimate futility of war.

(Note:-  This DVD is dual-encoded for R1 & R4, and it also includes an FBI warning rather than any indication of an equivalent Australian copyright infringement notice).