Babylon 5 - In the Beginning (1998)
Ah, Babylon 5... watching it has become such a regular feature in my entertainment diet that entering the B5 universe is like hanging out with old friends. I've now finished all five seasons of the original series (I'll review season 5 soon), and just recently watched this TV movie prequel. It isn't mind blowing, but it stands as a nice companion piece to the series.
'Babylon 5: In the Beginning' tells the story of the Earth-Minbari War and takes place around 10 years before the events of the first season of the series. It is told from the points of view of both the Earth and Minbari and introduces major characters into the B5 timeline while also setting up the Shadow War. Earth forces, seeking to learn more about the Minbari, send out an expedition towards Minbari space. Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) is involved with Earth affairs as a Centauri liaison, and he tries to warn Earth's government to leave the Minbari alone; but his advice falls on deaf ears and a series of unfortunate events leads to the Earth forces inadvertently killing Minbari leader Dukhat (Reiner Schoene), which causes Delenn (Mira Furlan) and the Gray Council to declare a Holy War against Earth. G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) becomes involved with Earth when he sells weapons to them to fight the Minbari. Commander John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) plays a major role during the war when he takes command of the Lexington and destroys the Minbari flagship, a key moment of the conflict. Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs) make brief appearances as well. The Minbari side of the story focuses on the coming of the Shadow War, the seeds of conflict within the Minbari castes, the role of the Rangers, and the emergence of the Vorlons to help guide the younger races in the battle against the Shadows.
The movie features a lot of characters from the show that would have been around and involved in events at the time, and for the most part their integration into the storyline is believable. Some, like Dr. Franklin's appearance, stretch plausibility and seem to contradict the series somewhat. The story doesn't really add anything new to what is established in the series, but it does flesh it out and fill in all the details and tie it all together very neatly. The integration is, as far as I can tell, spot on plot-wise, and there are even scenes taken from the series that are stitched together seamlessly with the newer footage. This movie is certainly not a standalone, and I find it hard to believe that it'll be enjoyable for those who haven't seen the show - it feels like a patchwork of events that have been alluded to in the show loosely strung together in a narrative framework. Bluntly put, it has very little value on its own and should only be watched after having seen the show even though it chronologically occurs before those events. To a newcomer it would appear interesting and conveys some of the depth of B5, but I imagine that it would also be unsatisfying and more than a little confusing.
The performances are fairly good, but again due to the mishmash nature of the various storylines no one really makes a strong impression, and really it's mostly plot with little in the way of character depth. The production values are pretty much on par with the show (it was filmed between seasons 4 and 5), while being higher budget with some impressive effects set pieces. It also has moments that feel more visually cinematic than anything in the show, but ultimately it feels like a very long episode (the series has multi part mini story arcs that easily trumps this in terms of scale and drama).
'In The Beginning' is one for the fans and a curiosity for everyone else. It may not have been wholly necessary for the B5 Universe, but it is a really cool addition that fleshes out the show's backstory and realizes things that were only hinted at. There are some very cool moments, such as Sheridan's battle with the Minbari in the asteroid field and his first meeting with Delenn, mankind's first encounter with the Minbari, and the final scenes with Londo asking for more alcohol (you have to know the story to understand that comment). An excellent movie for any B5 fan, and as far as prequels go it is rock solid in terms of continuity and far, far better than prequels from certain other sci-fi franchises (hint: their names begin with 'Star').