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How long can 'Crusade' go on?

"Babylon 5" -- a show destined to become a sci-fi classic -- never had an easy time of it. Through four years in syndication and one year as a made-for-cable original, there was always a question about whether the series would be able to stay on the air long enough to complete its five-season story arc.

The outlook for its successor series, "Crusade," is even more iffy. Not because it isn't quality science fiction -- Wednesday's pilot (8 p.m., TNT) is exciting, action-packed and intriguing -- but because the show has already essentially been canceled.TNT stopped production after 13 episodes and is billing "Crusade" as a "limited series." Exactly why, no one is saying, but "creative differences" between creator/

writer/executive producer J. Michael Straczynski and TNT executives are at the root of the problem.

(A source at the cable network said that "somebody got stubborn when they shouldn't have.")

All of which is too bad, because "Crusade" shows considerable promise. Set five years after the end of the main "Babylon 5" narrative in the 23rd century, the show is about a captain, ship and crew with a mission -- to save all life on Earth.

As played out in the TV movie "Babylon 5: A Call to Arms" (which TNT, oddly enough, is airing Wednesday after the premiere of "Crusade"), the evil Drakh have unleashed a biogenetic plague on Earth. Capt. Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole) is given command of the advanced starship Excalibur, which is sent to search the galaxy for a cure.

While "Crusade" has its own five-year plan of sorts, individual episodes can stand on their own.

"There is a rough arc," Straczynski said. "It's not as rigorous as 'Babylon 5.' It's more of a character-based arc."

" 'Crusade' is a lot looser in terms of being tied to an arc than 'B5' was," said producer John Copeland. "Our goal is to have a little bit more fun with this. The episodes are kind of stand-alone.

"It makes it a little bit more audience-friendly. There was a feeling from many viewers that if they missed the first season or second season (of 'B5'), that they couldn't tune in and catch up with the series."

"Crusade" is designed as a starship-driven series. The Excalibur takes on new adventures -- many on new planets -- each week as it travels the galaxy.

"These are two different shows. That meant a different look -- the sets are designed differently, the camera work is different," Straczynski said. "It's more of a, I wouldn't say fast-paced show, but a more densely paced show."

Which is something that Stephen Furst, who starred as Vir in "B5" and directs the eighth episode of "Crusade," also found.

"The pace of the show is definitely different," Furst said. "This is much more sort of fast action, 'NYPD Blue'-paced action. . . . It's a younger, fresher look, and it's kind of cerebral -- although 'Babylon 5' was very cerebral."

And even if you've never seen an episode of "Babylon 5," you can still enjoy "Crusade." The two shows are similar but decidedly different as well.

"In 'Babylon 5,' the operative questions were external questions: Who are you? Where are you going? What do you want?" Straczynski said. "In 'Crusade,' the questions are: 'Who do you serve?' and 'Who do you trust?' -- which are much more internal questions. Those questions are primal to the shape of the show."

Don't get the idea that "Crusade" is so cerebral you need degrees in physics and philosophy to tune in. Nor does "cerebral" mean overly talky. Oh, there's a good deal of set-up that goes along with the first "Crusade" episode, but there's lots of action as well.

Just don't expect a complete clone of "Babylon 5."

"The main difference, probably, is in the scope of it. What we tried to do (with 'B5') was create a large story, which was then written small around the characters and around the station," Straczynski said. "We implied a great deal about what was out there. We just didn't see it too much.

"Here we have a chance to go out and explore that universe. And that's really the fun part of it."

And, with any luck, the ratings will be good enough for TNT to reconsider its decision to stop production on "Crusade." Or another cable outlet (the Sci-fi channel?) might take another look and produce more episodes of the show.

Fans of quality sci-fi can only hope.