Master And Slave Of ‘Babylon 5’

Master And Slave Of ‘Babylon 5’
The Hardest-Working Man In Outer Space

Newsweek | Culture | Jun 9, 1997

IN THE LAST FOUR YEARS, J. MICHAEL Straczynski’s full head of brown hair has gone to thinning gray. Before he bought an ergonomic keyboard about a year ago, he had to stop typing every 20 minutes to ice down his aching wrists. He’s made it to two movies in the last year and a half. Straczynski lives for his creation, the cult sci-fi TV show “”Babylon 5.” He has written more than 50 consecutive episodes of the syndicated weekly series, as well as working on the special effects, editing, set and costume design, even “”B5” merchandise and toys. And he spends a couple hours a night answering e-mail from fans. “”Every so often, something pops out of your subconscious that demands your total and unyielding commitment,” he says. “”For me, “B5′ is like that.”

Chris Carter works with several other writers to crank out “”The X-Files.” Gene Roddenberry wrote or plotted only a dozen episodes of “”Star Trek.” But “”Babylon 5” is clearly a product of one mind, and the result has been some of the most intelligent science fiction on television. About 4.4 million people tune in every week – nowhere near the audience for syndicated powerhouses like “”Deep Space 9” or “”Xena,” but “”B5” fans are deeply passionate, with Web sites so good that production staffers use them for reference. And last year the show won a Hugo, the science-fiction Oscar.

In the mid-1980s Straczynski – “”Joe” to those who know him – was a writer for a kids’ show called “”Captain Power,” and he didn’t like it. “”I was in the shower one day, and I had this flash,” he says. “”I spent the next year working out all of what I saw in that moment.” It was a five-year-long epic set on a massive space station at the hub of a galactic war, with stories about stuff that makes “”Star Trek” writers cower: religion, homosexuality, the media, politics. “”You can’t turn television over to the Visigoths and the Aaron Spellings,” Straczynski says.

Ten years later (including five spent shopping the idea around) he and his “”Captain Power” colleagues John Copeland and Doug Netter are ensconced in their hot-tub assembly plant turned soundstage north of Los Angeles. It’s a warren of offices with door frames so low that the tall-and-wide Straczynski seems even bigger out from behind his videotape-encrusted desk. The sets don’t look like 2261; they’re a series of fragile rooms with no ceilings, and furniture from Ikea. Computer-generated effects add that futuristic sparkle.

“”Babylon 5” could use some sparkle right now. The cable network TNT is set to rerun all 88 episodes and two new movies (also by Straczynski) next January – but that deal comes just when the original show might be ending. This summer Warner Brothers will decide whether or not to give Straczynski his fifth year. Fans would grieve, but Straczynski says he’d be “”OK” with finishing “”B5” this season. He’s talking about a sequel series, a CD-ROM, a novel. And maybe after that, a quick nap.

Link: Master And Slave Of ‘Babylon 5’

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