ROB OWEN TV/Radio writer
Section: ARTS,  Page: I1

Date: Sunday, January 4, 1998

As many cast changes as ``Melrose Place.'' More mythology than ``The X-Files.''

Snazzier uniforms than ``Star Trek.''

Stop right there. It's the dreaded ``T''-word: ``Trek.'' ``Babylon 5'' creator J. Michael Straczynski (JMS to his fans) hates comparisons to ``Star Trek.''

``That tends to put `Trek' at the center of the universe,'' Straczynski said in a recent phone interview. ``Critics started out thinking we were just like `Star Trek' and then dissed us for not being like `Star Trek.' We are a whole different show. We found our own identity.''

Straczynski, 43, has every right to distance himself from the long-running ``Star Trek'' franchise. After all, ``Babylon 5'' has carved out its own niche, luring in both traditional sci-fi fans and quality TV drama devotees. And the show's presence on the American pop culture radar is glowing brighter than ever.

Prior to creating ``Babylon 5,'' Straczynski wrote for the 1987-1988 syndicated ``Twilight Zone'' revival, ``Jake and the Fatman,'' ``The Real Ghostbusters'' animated series and ``Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.'' He also served as a producer on ``Murder, She Wrote'' and `'Walker, Texas Ranger.'' But his legacy will no doubt be the series he brought to life himself, ``Babylon 5.''

This story of a far-flung space station and the political machinations of its human and alien inhabitants was never highly rated in its four-year syndicated run, but ``Babylon 5'' gets a big boost this month when TNT begins rerunning the serialized saga.

Lisa Mateas, TNT senior vice president of programming, said the network picked up ``Babylon 5'' reruns before its acquisition by Time Warner, which produces the show. Once that happened, discussions began about making new ``Babylon 5'' TV movies, and finally TNT decided to produce the 22-episode fifth and final season of the series.

``The acquisition (by Time Warner) made it possible for more investment in the franchise,'' Mateas said. ``It costs a lot of money to do this stuff and we couldn't have done it by ourselves. This is a case where synergy happened to work.''

Mateas said another inducement to continue the series was its ability to attract a younger, broader audience.

``All science fiction gets more than sci-fi fans,'' Mateas said. ``What does Hollywood do when they want to cast a wide net? They make a sci-fi movie.''

TNT's first new two-hour cable movie, a prequel titled ``In the Beginning,'' premieres tonight at 8, the reruns begin Monday at 7 p.m. and the new episodes that make up the show's fifth season debut later this month.

The show is almost over, and is only now achieving mainstream success. For the cast and crew who worked on ``Babylon 5'' in the early years, it was always a frustration that so few people tuned in.

``We never really got the attention we deserved because you couldn't find the show without a hunting dog and a Ouija board,'' Straczynski said.

In many places -- including during its syndicated run locally on WXXA, Ch. 23 -- ``Babylon 5'' aired in the wee hours of the morning, and even then its time slot was not always consistent. But there were benefits to keeping a low profile.

``We did just well enough to stay on the air, but the studio left us alone,'' Straczynski said. ``There was no creative interference and not even a script note from Warner Bros. after episode two of Year Two. It was benign neglect, which on one level is not terrific, but on another level it allowed us to tell the stories we wanted to tell.''

Those stories all fit into Straczynski's grand plan, a pre-determined five-year story arc with a definite beginning, middle and end.

``It uses the conventions of science fiction to tell a story as broad in scope as `Gone With the Wind,' '' Straczynski said. ``It's the story of several wars over a period of time and the background of the people behind the lines affected by it. It's a saga in that respect.''

Sci-fi fan Mark Altman, a columnist for the magazine Cinescape, said he likes ``Babylon 5,'' but isn't willing to call it groundbreaking TV as some devotees are quick to do.

``To me it's nothing more than a great soap opera,'' Altman said in a phone interview. ``It's too clunkily done to be great drama, but it's an incredible soap. It's `All My Children,' except it's in space. That's not to diminish it at all, it's a really fun, entertaining, engaging show.''

Still, Straczynski's plan for a five-year story has led other producers to proclaim they would do likewise, including the creators of NBC's canceled ``Dark Skies'' and the new syndicated show ``Earth: Final Conflict.''

That's one of the biggest ways ``Babylon 5'' differs from ``Star Trek.'' While Straczynski has concocted a 1,000-year history forward and backward in time, the ``Trek'' shows tend to move along from season-to-season with no grand plan.

``There's a definite hunger (on the part of the audience) for TV with more meat on its bones,'' Straczynski said. ``My problem with television overall is that the questions it asks tend to be trivial and ephemeral. In `Babylon 5' we try to tackle harder questions. We don't have the answers ourselves, but we say `discuss amongst yourselves.' ''

As an example, Straczynski pointed to an episode about a holy man who discovered he'd been a serial killer before his mind was wiped out and he was given a new, nonlethal personality.

``He finds out he was this terrible thing and he asks, what is the disposition of my soul?'' Straczynski said. ``Am I a good man of God or do I have the soul of a killer? How does he apologize to God for things he doesn't remember doing?

``What I hear back from people is that they like the fact we are tackling some of the big questions they're concerned about,'' Straczynski said.

Straczynski hears many comments from viewers via computer e-mail. He spends about two hours online each day answering questions from fans (you can leave a message for him, tagged ATTN: JMS, on the newsgroup; details on the show can be found at the Lurker's Guide to ``Babylon 5,''

``I always said, if I get my show on the air, I'm going to be accessible,'' Straczynski said. ``Brickbats or praise, I'll be there for the fans. I'm a fan myself and came out of that group.''

Now that ``Babylon 5'' is almost over and its popularity is finally growing, will Straczynski's five-year arc get stretched to a sixth year? He says it won't.

``Various safeguards were built in to make a sixth season impossible,'' Straczynski said. ``We made the actor's contracts for five years, so there's a time bomb built into it in that respect.''

But that doesn't mean ``Babylon 5'' will disappear anytime soon. A sequel series, titled ``Crusade,'' is being planned. Set after ``Babylon 5,'' the sequel series is about a plague that will wipe out all human life on Earth in five years (that magic number again!) if a cure isn't found in time.

Two more ``Babylon 5'' TV movies will air on TNT later in the year, and a feature film from Warner Bros. is also under discussion.

TNT's Mateas compared ``Babylon 5's'' current state to the way ``Star Trek'' was before it became hugely popular, growing from a cult series in the late '60s to a more mainstream hit through syndicated daily reruns in the 1970s.

`` `Babylon 5' is in the pre-stage, it hasn't quite become the ubiquitous piece of product it can become,'' Mateas said. ``It needs to be on consistently, five days a week in regular time slots, that's what made `Star Trek.' Things have to be around before they become classic. Familiarity in TV does not breed contempt, it breeds love.''

Still, Straczynski is wary of the notion that ``Babylon 5'' will ever become a franchise a la ``Star Trek.''

``It can get out of hand if the dynamic force behind a show becomes making money, and I've resisted that,'' he said. ``This will never be a massively successful show along the lines of `Trek,' because it requires a certain attention span. `Babylon 5' is a cult show with a good-sized following.''

FACTS:Premieres"Babylon 5" premiere dates on TNTTonight:"In the Beginning" (8 p.m.)-An all-new TV movie prequel about the Earth-Minbari war that set the stage for the creation of the Babylon 5 space station."The Gathering" (10 p.m.)-The original two-hour TV movie pilot for the series has been re-edited with new special effects and never-before-seen scenes.Monday:"Babylon 5" (7 p.m. weeknights)-Episodes from seasons one through four of the series will air chronologically Monday through Friday.Jan 21:"No Compromises" (season five premiere)-The fifth and final season of "Babylon 5" WILL AIR 10 P.M. WEDNESDAYS, WITH AN ENCORE AT 6 P.M. SATURDAYS--ROB OWEN/TV-RADIO WRITER