When Michael Tobias was a child, he imagined the earth talking to him.

"I had all kinds of animistic spirits. The world of Dr. Doolittle was the world I grew up with. I had adventures of talking to spirits and trees and feeling a kind of empathy with life that was pretty basic.

"In childhood, the notion of the earth talking to us is very fundamental. It's been said by many that we live maybe five minutes of our lives and then hope to repeat them. In a sense, that empathy and ability to speak with the earth has been something I've tried to sustain."

So Tobias wrote a book, "The Voice of the Planet" (Bantam), in which he set down his vision. His characters are a rather disillusioned, middleaged author/ecologist named William Hope Planter and Gaia, the spirit of Earth.

In Greek mythology, Gaia was goddess of the Earth and mother of the Titans. The "Gaia Hypothesis" says that the planet is a living being and that humans are only a part of a larger, self-regulating ecosystem; that although the planet gives us everything we need, it has its own agenda apart from man's.

Released last July, the paperback is in its fourth printing with very little publicity except word-of-mouth, he said. Many bookstores have it shelved under science fiction.

All this is gratifying to Tobias, who wrote the script for "Voice of the Planet" eight years ago for Ted Turner and then waited while nothing happened. Finally, this week, Turner's TBS cable channel will carry the series in two-hour installments Monday through Friday at 8:05 p.m. (repeating at 12:05 a.m.).

The production sent six crews of more than 200 persons around the world to more than 240 locations on five continents. The footage they shot -- some of it stunning -- becomes a sort of odyssey linked by a dialogue between William and Gaia, who first speaks to him through a computer built by a Buddhist monk at Thyanboche monastery beneath Mount Everest in Nepal. As their relationship develops, she takes him through time and space to the farthest reaches of the planet as it was and as it will be, forcing him to confront ecological issues.

"Turner wanted to do this thing back in '83," said Tobias. "It didn't happen, but it would have been ahead of its time. Now I'll be very curious to get viewers' reactions. People either love it or hate it. My sense is that a lot of people are so heavy they can't step back and look at the light elements, or they're not willing to accept the polemic, which is about not so much baiting our most revered preconceptions, but testing them."

Some viewers, for example, may not buy Gaia's observations, which do not always place humankind first. For example, she contends that, despite Darwin's theories, life selects for evolution, not survival. That overpopulation is no problem because corpses produce bacteria that enrich the earth. That the "Black Plague was my way of housecleaning" and that AIDS may be the same. And that the technology of which modern man is proudest is trivial.

But she also tells him, in a sort of vote of confidence, that "who you are is not what you did, but what you dreamt."

And she loves sex, because sex means reproduction, life, evolution.

"When Gaia, speaking for the Earth, makes some outrageous claims, she's obviously referring to a greater natural law: If one screws up, there's going to be a counterstrategy that she inflicts," said Tobias. "We've grown up hearing only about what mankind wants. It's this Judeo-Christian philosophy of subduing and dominating nature. 'Voice of the Planet' is about the perspective of the Earth, not about man. That can be very unsettling, and it means to be."

The voice of Gaia, spirit of Earth, is that of Faye Dunaway; Planter is played by William Shatner. Their relationship becomes a kind of love story between mankind and nature fusing ecology, philosophy, history, art and science. But Gaia discounts man's cultural mores.

To understand "Voice of the Planet" is to understand writer/director/producer Michael Tobias, 39, a man of great energy and many interests and talents. Once professor of environmental affairs and the humanities at Dartmouth College, he holds a doctorate in the history of consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He has directed, written and produced about 60 films in more than two dozen countries including "Black Tide," a documentary on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

His source of energy, he said, is mountain climbing. His credo: "That nature and art are what the world is about. Nature is the universe and art is the human response. There's nothing else. Within all those interlocked realms is all passion and future. The humanities and the merging of art and ecology has always been my quest because I think it's basic."

Tobias was born in San Francisco of an artist-mother and a father who was trained as an engineer but was devoted to the works of Shakespeare. He recalls late-night conversations at the age of 4 in which his mother discussed the history of art. When he was 3, his parents bought an antique pump organ and "for the first 14 years of my life, piano was my world."

When he was 5, the family moved to Colorado where he began ski racing and then discovered that it was mountain climbing, not skiing, he really liked.

"Mountaineering is how I got into the whole environmental world," he said, "that and kind of a nutty passion for monasteries which led me to a monastery in the Sinai Peninsula and eastern Himalayas when I was a teenager. Both places sort of drew me in. I found the combination of an esthetic and an intellectual and spiritual discipline compelling. I wanted to devote my life to finding out more about that."

Brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home and the descendent of "hundreds of years of rabbis," Tobias says now that he is "rather pantheistic, to say the least. I'm really in love with people and traditions, all people and all traditions, ceaselessly enamored with details and traditions. I tend to call religion philosophy and I find some more appealing than others. In terms of a way of life, I think the replacement of a god with nature, which the 19th century pretty much accomplished, was a good thing."

Tobias thinks of "Voice of the Planet" as what he calls a "preamble" to the further adventures of his ecologist-hero. And if there are further adventures, Tobias will create them first in book form.

"The difference between the book and the TV series is pretty amazing," he said. "They're very different enterprises. Obviously there's a lot more on one level that I was able to do in the novel.

"I enjoyed doing the novel more than the series. Television has so many constraints, strangleholds. We had some very difficult moments in the series. But we were able to capture some pretty amazing images visually. We traveled everywhere, on all the continents. It's a huge agenda. As one executive at Turner said, he wished it had been 20 hours."

Turner provided about $3.5 million, said Tobias, a fairly small sum for a 10 1/2-hour project of this scope plus a half-hour documentary on the making of the series ("If this had been done by National Geographic, it {the budget} would have been tripled"). Tobias' first scouting trip was in February 1988 to India and Nepal and two months later Shatner's studio segments were being shot at Maryland Public Television's Owings Mills studios.

(When MPT airs "Voice" later, viewers will see 100 minutes of "great stuff that had to be chopped" by TBS, he said.)

Tobias is a little hard-pressed to define "Voice of the Planet." He tries "docudrama," then settles on saying, "It's hard to pin down. It is a fiction. You have Shatner's character, but there's an evolution of temperament, whereby Shatner plays this Mr. Know-It-All. Gaia plays this female -- she couldn't be confused with anything else -- and they fight it out, and in the end they are in love with each other and they are unrequited, Earth having invested all this time and love and effort in life only to see life -- man -- turn its back.

"Some are going to think it's blasphemous, but it's filled with heart. It's really about empathy, empathizing with all of life. It's trying to recognize some natural tendencies on earth of which we are a part, but only a part; trying to convey the joy of living and the paradise that this planet is. There's a lot of pain and harsh realism. Some sad stuff, visually and intellectually. Some joyous things."

Tobias has gone on to write two novels ("Fatal Exposure," to be made into a movie by Viacom, and "Believe!" with William Shatner, a psychological thriller about the relationship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini); a picture book ("One Earth") and a nonfiction book ("A Vision of Nature"). He's planning a six-hour filmed biography of Susan B. Anthony, a feature film on Mahatma Gandhi, a birdwatchers' series with an English comedian as host, a project for Paramount Television "in the 'MacGyver' realm," he said, and a movie with Shatner about Western and Islamic fundamentalist values in the Middle East. He's also doing the libretto for a science fiction opera.

But he's still zealous about "Voice of the Planet," a unique combination of his many interests, and to that end has formed Gaia Corporation, his production company. His wife, Jane, who co-produced his special on Antarctica, is senior producer.

"Returning to the sheer joy and empathy which I like to perceive in childhood is more a priority than ever as we reach the end of the millenium," he said. "It's time to break out and become young again."