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Tuesday, August 26, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Babylon 5': Two-Way Loyalty

Baltimore Sun

His fans have designed a church for him, but Joe Straczynski is not a god.

He's a cult leader. A cult television leader, that is.

His fans put up a "Church of Joe" page on the Internet, which includes commandments, member testaments and information about J. Michael Straczynski. The church was founded to proclaim loyalty to Straczynski and the show he created: "Babylon 5."

Alongside "Xena, Warrior Princess," "La Femme Nikita," "The X-Files" and other contemporary shows with offbeat attitudes, "Babylon 5," which premiered in 1994, has attracted hard-core aficionados.

The syndicated program is the first sci-fi TV show in the past 30 years, aside from "Star Trek" and its spinoffs, to survive beyond three seasons. It has won two Emmys for special visual effects and makeup.

Straczynski wrote the original story outline as a five-season saga in which every season is a volume, and every episode a chapter. Set in the year 2261, the show chronicles life on a space station, Babylon 5. Representatives of different alien cultures have gathered there after a devastating transgalactic war, forcing former enemies to live and work together. It's an outpost, a Casablanca where the refugees are distinguished by exoskulls, not accents.

Straczynski's view of the future is not as idealistic as that of Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original "Star Trek" series. It has a dark side, and conflicts are rarely resolved in time for the final credits. Alcohol problems, repressed memories and messy romantic entanglements lend a sense of realism.

Born in New Jersey, Straczynski, 43, grew up reading science-fiction sagas and fantasy such as J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." It was his fascination with science-fiction sagas that inspired him to create one for television, he says.

Straczynski has worked as a journalist at several California papers and has written for magazines ranging from Writer's Digest to Penthouse. He's published numerous "dark fantasy" short stories in fantasy and science-fiction magazines, in addition to having written two novels, "Demon Night" and "OtherSyde." His TV credits include "Murder She Wrote," "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the British science-fiction cult program "Blake's 7."

In 1995, Newsweek declared him one of the "Fifty for the Future," a group of "innovators who will shape our lives ... into the 21st century."

But while shows such as "The X-Files" on the Fox network have popularized paranormal encounters and campy humor, it's unlikely that "Babylon 5," which is in syndication, will reach a mass audience.

"You can't find (the show) with a Ouija board," says Straczynski.

Straczynski thinks TV science fiction hasn't hit the mainstream simply because it hasn't been that good. Most shows have been formulaic and stereotypical, he says, citing "V" (1984-'85), which used every convention from flying saucers to funny aliens to cute kids.

He does appreciate the influence and vision of the original "Star Trek," despite its relentless optimism. "You can have more than one paradigm," he says. "There's room in the universe for both shows."

Some fans are absorbed in every sci-fi show, while others are devoted to only one, such as "Babylon 5." Many have an almost religious commitment to their favorite programs.

In return, Straczynski is devoted to his fans. He often spends more than four hours a day on the Internet beaming "Babylon 5" information to fans. He often doesn't get to sleep until around 5 a.m.

"It's a gesture of respect toward the fans," he says. "I always vowed if I ever got my own show I'd remain accessible and accountable."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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