December 02, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

J. Michael Straczynski has a theory. The creator and executive producer of the syndicated space-station melodrama Babylon 5, Straczynski has lately been pondering the mysteries of the universe — or more accurately, pondering the mystery of why everyone else seems to be pondering the mysteries of the universe. The basic question is, Why is science fiction suddenly hotter than a phaser? To which Straczynski posits this thesis: ”All the old farts at the studios — the ones who are frightened of science fiction — they’re dying off.”

Call it the ”next generation” theory. Still, Straczynski’s response makes about as much sense as any other explanation currently circulating in Hollywood, as everyone tries to shed some light on this newest galactic phenomenon: the sci-fi boom. Everywhere you look, people are lining up or tuning in to catch their favorite stars journey to the stars, or the future, or another dimension. And as far as studio execs are concerned, it’s a dimension not of sight and sound, but of cold, hard cash. Got a pitch? The word in Tinseltown these days is: Slap your leads into space suits, throw in a few goofy-looking aliens, add a sprinkling of computer-generated effects, and you can start counting down to blastoff.

”We were aware that people were waiting for sci-fi,” says StarGate director Roland Emmerich. ”We told everybody, but they didn’t believe us. But we knew that this was the right movie at the right time.” Last month, the universally panned StarGate stunned industry experts by dominating box offices for two weeks, sucking in a healthy $46 million. The weekend after StarGate‘s debut, NBC’s Earth 2 premiered, edging out heavyweight competitor 60 Minutes to win its time slot and place eighth for the week. And last week, Star Trek Generations zapped Interview With the Vampire to take over the title of box office champ, warping to a $23 million opening weekend.

”If studios were sitting on projects that had sci-fi elements,” says MGM/UA marketing head Gerry Rich, who saw his studio’s gamble on the estimated $55 million StarGate pay off, ”after our second weekend, they were swayed.”

Sure enough, signs of alien life are popping up all over the map. Among the higher-profile sci-fi projects in the works for the big screen are: Johnny Mnemonic, a cyberpunk thriller starring Keanu Reeves and based on William Gibson’s edgy, technopoetic 1981 short story; Waterworld, Kevin Costner’s ambitious postapocalyptic undersea epic; Judge Dredd, in which Sylvester Stallone plays a merciless motorcycling lawman in a Blade Runner-esque future; and AI, director Stanley Kubrick’s much-awaited return to the subject of artificial intelligence. On the tube, you can already catch a glimpse of otherworldly action on no fewer than a dozen shows: Along with Earth 2 and Babylon 5, there’s Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, seaQuest DSV, RoboCop, Space Precinct, and Highlander. And the space invasion keeps growing, with a slew of new sci-fi projects riding in every day on the vapor trails of their soaring predecessors.

”Right now there is an enormous surge in the market,” says Barry Schulman, VP of programming for the Sci-Fi Channel, which since its 1992 launch has become one of the most requested new cable channels by offering such classic space fare as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. ”People want their science fiction.”

And Hollywood wants to give it to them. The continuing success of the starship Enterprise and her spin-offs has convinced even die-hard doubters that sci-fi is chic, not geek. ”Star Trek has proven the willingness of the TV viewing audience to embrace good sci-fi,” says Generations producer Rick Berman. Adds Nana Visitor, who plays Major Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine: ”Star Trek has gone way beyond the sci-fi aficionados. It’s had a very long arm.” Indeed, Deep Space Nine, like The Next Generation before it, is the highest-rated drama in syndication, and Generations had the biggest opening of any of the seven Trek features, proving there is no such thing as too much Trek. In fact, come January, Paramount will pin its hopes for its new TV network on what it optimistically expects will be the next Next Generation — a series called Star Trek: Voyager.

Keenly aware of the legacy Voyager has inherited, Kate Mulgrew, who plays Capt. Kathryn Janeway, expects the new show to have no trouble holding on to Trek‘s crossover viewers. ”Star Trek plays to a very intellectual audience,” she says. ”The futuristic elements exercise a part of the brain most of us don’t often use.” For that kind of brain food, goes the thinking, fans will follow Trek to the ends of the universe.

Adding fuel to the sci-fi fire is the increasingly cheaper costs of producing special effects. With the advent of computer graphics and digital imaging technology, the dazzling visuals needed for sci-fi projects are no longer budget-busters. Babylon 5, for example, takes place aboard a spectacular five-mile-long space station, and each week a new variety of exotic alien ship docks there. All of these scenes are generated on several ordinary Macintosh computers.

”In the past, networks were terrified of science fiction because of the cost,” says Straczynski. ”We came in under budget this year, which surprised the hell out of the studio. Science fiction is starting to come down to mainstream TV prices, so you’re going to start seeing more of it.”

Major-studio productions are benefiting from these high-tech innovations as well. Emmerich says he couldn’t have made StarGate a few years ago because traditional F/X techniques would have made it too expensive. ”The possibilities are growing so fast,” he says. ”We made the sand dunes look prettier, we masked out the skies and put other skies in, we made everything look grander. James Spader was totally surprised when he saw the movie. He said, ‘I was there and it didn’t look like that. Can you make my face look prettier?”’

The fact that what was once the stuff of science fiction is now used to create sci-fi suggests why audiences are lapping up space-age stories. They are living in what cyberpunk author William Gibson calls ”our increasingly science-fictional present.” Or, as veteran sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury puts it, ”Science fiction itself has remained the same. We have caught up to it…. We’re surrounded by cellular phones and fax machines and computers. We are a science-fiction generation.”

Here’s a telling anecdote: Last summer the producers of Fox’s supernatural series The X-Files learned that a lively discussion of their show was being held nightly on the Internet. To get better in tune with their fans, X-Files creator Chris Carter decided to hold a forum on Delphi Internet, a popular on-line service. (A forum is like a radio call-in show, except instead of a radio and a phone, you use a computer and a modem.) Cool idea: a sci-fi concept (an on-line fan conference) for a sci-fi show. Unexpected result: Carter was overwhelmed when hordes of devotees, many of whom had subscribed to Delphi solely to converse with him, flooded the system and forced him to extend the forum by an hour and a half. ”Both the Internet and The X-Files are coming of age together,” says Carter. ”That’s good luck.”

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