'Babylon 5,' a five-year trek through space, nearly fell to Earth after four. Instead, it reaches its final destination, as planned, tomorrow night on TNT.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

November 24, 1998|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow night on TNT, "Babylon 5," the science-fiction fan's science-fiction series, ends the five-year odyssey its creator had always promised -- but only after an escape that would do even the most experienced starship commander proud.

For last summer, it looked as though "Babylon 5" would follow the path established by "Star Trek," although not in the way its fans would have preferred.

Just as "Star Trek" had promised, in that famous introductory voice-over from William Shatner, to take viewers on a five-year mission, "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski had always envisioned a five-year plan for his intergalactic space station.

Unfortunately, "Star Trek" never made it past year three. And "Babylon 5," with no promise of a home beyond season four, seemed destined for the same unfulfilled fate.

"It was very iffy," says Straczynski, who spent years molding "Babylon 5" as a sort-of novel for television, with a definite beginning, middle and end. "There was definitely a very real possibility that [season four] was going to be it."

So allowances had to be made. Story lines were hurried up. A final episode, in which the fate of both Capt. John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and the Babylon 5 space station itself is revealed, was shot. The fans, as dedicated a group as ever attached itself to a television program, were left to console themselves on the dozens of Internet Web sites dedicated to the show.

And then a reprieve.

"TNT was aware that we had not finished our story yet," Straczynski explains. "They had just picked up the first four seasons for syndication, and they said, 'Well, if you're going to have a book, you should have the last chapter of it.' And they decided to go ahead and give us that opportunity."

The five-year run of "Babylon 5" ends at 10 p.m. tomorrow with "Sleeping In Light," a moving, quiet rumination on loyalty, honor, friendship and making peace with your destiny.

Watch carefully, and you'll notice a fitting detail: The last person you see on-screen, the man in whose hands rests the fate of the Babylon 5 space station, is none other than J. Michael Straczynski.

"Yeah, that's me," he says from his office in Southern California. "If anyone on the planet is going to pull that switch, it should be me."

A 44-year-old former journalist with script-writing credits that include such un-sci-fi shows as "Murder, She Wrote" and "Walker, Texas Ranger," Straczynski set two parameters for "Babylon 5." He wanted his saga of an intergalactic space station, where beings from anywhere in the universe can live and play in peace, to segue naturally from one chapter into the next. And he wanted a series that was truly science fiction, not one that only used the genre as a handy way of attracting viewers. It's that respect for the genre that garnered the show its rabid cult following.

Knows the genre

"At the networks, if you're going to do a cop show, you hire a guy who knows police procedurals," Straczynski says. "In a hospital show, you hire a guy who knows medical stuff. Traditionally, the networks have hired to do science-fiction shows guys who have done soap operas. The guy who did 'War of the Worlds' for Paramount, for instance, had come off of 'Love Boat.' They had no knowledge of the form. Same thing for the guy who did 'V.' They actually tried to say it wasn't a science-fiction show; they had great contempt for science fiction. But as long as we had the ray guns and the aliens and the funny ships, the audience would come, guaranteed.

"When you have that kind of contempt behind the show," he continues, "the stories you do will not be mature stories, they won't be character-based stories, they'll be gimmick stories, sort of like two kids and robots who fall down and make funny noises. Doing the show with a certain degree of integrity -- that's what we tried to do."

His fans say he succeeded.

"Knowing that the show would run for five years actually increased my confidence that the show would be done right, since Joe would have no vested interest in pandering to a lower common denominator," says Barbara Pfeiffer, who has her own Web page dedicated to the minutiae of "Babylon 5" (http: //www.bejay. com/b5.htm). "At its best, and there have been many classic episodes, it has the quality of classic high drama, dealing with life and death and real choices."

Adds Andrew A. Adams, who oversees his "Babylon 5" Web page (http: //www-theory.dcs.st-and.ac. uk/ (tilde)aaa/B5.Ref.html) from the U.K., "There have been some things that failed along the way, but I agree with JMS [Straczynski] that if you never fail, you're not pushing the envelope hard enough."

Fan input

And what the fans think has always been important to Straczynski. He's legendary for reading fans' e-mails and has even been known to incorporate their suggestions and criticisms into the show. Sometimes, the exchanges can get pretty spirited, as in last year's debate over the departure of actress Claudia Christian.

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