Farscape: What TV Was Invented For

Starburst coverWritten halfway through Season Three, this article was a Starburst cover feature, designed to alert people that Farscape was well worth tuning in for.

I later wrote a whole book on Farscape.


In an age when each autumn bombards us with new Sci-Fi shows clamouring for our attention it’s hard to know which ones are worth the time and effort. A common tactic is to watch all the pilots and only follow those shows whose opening effort demonstrates real originality, or a spark that seems to promise greater things. Of course some shows get off to a great start and then lose the plot – Star Trek Voyager springs gruesomely to mind – but at least that way you get to see the best and avoid the rest.

No one really knew what to expect from the Farscape premiere. Puppets were supposed to be a big part of the show and that didn’t inspire confidence. Plus it was filmed in Australia, and who ever heard of a great Australian TV show, let alone Aussie Sci-Fi. The cast were all unknowns and the production company, Jim Henson productions, had only had one real success, The Muppets, which didn’t bode well for their ability to handle mature, adult drama. Perhaps most worrying of all, the show was devised by Rockne S. O’Bannon, the man responsible for Seaquest DSV, and we all know what a mess that turned out to be.

As it transpired, we were presented with Buck Rogers redux. The main character, Crichton, was a square jawed all-American hero who seemed to promise self-sacrificing heroics, Kirk style seductions and Gil Gerard comedy grins. Then came the clumsy setup – Crichton vanished through a wormhole while testing new space technology and emerged billions of light years from home in the middle of a space battle. His capsule then accidentally collided with one of the ships in said battle, causing it to crash. The brother of the ship’s pilot, a slightly camp military commander called Crais, swore vengeance on Crichton and determined to pursue him to the ends of the galaxy. Meanwhile Crichton met up with an ersatz Klingon, a bald blue woman, a pretty girl in leather, and an irritating puppet with silly eyebrows, and they all ran away together on a big alien ship called Moya. It really wasn’t up to much and many viewers consigned it to the dustbin.

However, a lot of great shows have sprung from truly dreadful pilots. Many devoted Babylon 5 fans can’t watch the opening instalment of their favourite show without wanting to scurry behind the sofa and hide from the awkward terribleness of the whole exercise, yet it went on to become, for a while at least, must-see TV.

As Farscape’s first season progressed word got around that the show was getting to the ‘not all that bad really’ level. And when the second season premiered people started bandying around words like ‘ground breaking’, ‘inspired’, ‘spectacular’. So what was the show that had started so unpromisingly doing right?

At first glance Farscape appears to be little more than a greatest hits collection, yet another tired retread through tried and tested TV formulae. It is, in essence, a ship show in which the stories revolve around a group of individuals who travel the galaxy and have adventures. Very Star Trek.

The collection of aliens Crichton meets, and eventually joins forces with, are escaped convicts who have hijacked a vessel and are on the run from an intergalactic police force. Very Blakes Seven.

Crichton himself is a shuttle pilot from an organisation that is, in all but name, NASA, and through him we get the fish-out-of-water human perspective on this strange new world. Very Buck Rogers.

Take the characters as well. Ka D’Argo carries a big bladed weapon, just like Worf. Like Worf he is a single father of an absent son whose mother has been murdered; he is a warrior, proud, fierce and honourable; he even has Worf’s deep booming voice. Viewers cried foul and wrote him off as a reheated stereotype with whom nothing new or interesting could be done. Zhaan, the blue alien priestess, seemed to offer lots of Deanna Troi type, touchy-feely, ‘I sense great pain’ emoting, seasoned with a dash of Minbari spiritualism. Seen it all before. Aeryn Sun looked likely to be little more than the requisite cute chick with big gun. And as for the puppets, well, please, puppets? What was this, a kid’s show?

On top of all that, were you to look at brief synopses of the episodes, you could be forgiven for being entirely under whelmed: this week the crew of Moya swop bodies with each other; Crichton is split into three separate people, only one of whom can survive; Crichton wakes up on Earth and finds that the whole of his time through the wormhole has been a dream. They all seem depressingly familiar.

But what the team behind Farscape have demonstrated, time and time again, is an exceptional ability to take what might initially seem to be a familiar trope and turn it entirely, and stunningly, on its head. In the Uncharted Territories what seems at first familiar and predictable can, in an instant, become dangerous and surprising, not least the central characters, who have consistently defeated our expectations and evolved constantly until they are largely unrecognisable from the shopworn archetypes we were initially presented with.

D’Argo is a prime example. Having set him up as the big strong warrior of the group, it is revealed that he is, by the standards of his own race, little more than an adolescent. He is insecure about his abilities and talks a far more impressive figure than he actually cuts. When he does resort to violence he as often as not gets it all horribly wrong. He’s not a little stroppy, too. Despite all the external similarities he couldn’t be less like competent, dependable Worf if he tried.

Zhaan also has turned out to be far more complex than she first appeared. Whereas D’Argo was imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, Zhaan was guilty as sin and makes no bones about it – she ruthlessly and deliberately fried the brain of the man she loved. The tension between her quest for spiritual peace and the violent, borderline psychopathic urges that lie just below the surface make her terrifyingly unpredictable. Plus, she’s a plant who has a worrying tendency to release spores, and who reacts to intense light by writhing in the throes of a Photogasm. How many other shows have flora as main characters?

Aeryn turned out to be a loyal, funny, complex mess, unsure of her role the Peacekeepers and reluctant to face the new reality of her situation, having been thrown out of the Peacekeepers for fraternising with the enemy. And our viewpoint character, John Crichton, was initially ridiculed by his companions, who saw him as an odd, alien creature, strangely ineffectual and clumsy. He was, at times, almost treated like an amusing pet rather than a fully-fledged member of the crew. Naturally this has changed as the series has progressed, but he has never become the Captain Sheridan figurehead that might have been expected, instead he is merely one amongst equals, as likely as not to be ignored when he does try to assume authority. Season Two was primarily concerned with his increasing instability, and he went more and more out of his mind as the year progressed. What other show would risk alienating the fans by spending 22 episodes slowly driving their lead character insane, to the point where he begs his crewmates to kill him and end his suffering?

And then there are the puppets, Rygel and Pilot. Because puppetry is pretty much unprecedented in mainstream drama shows, it jars when they first appear. After all, how seriously can you take a character when you’re constantly aware that just offscreen there is a guy with his hand up its arse? But the animatronic complexity of the creations, and the excellent work of the actors who voice them, combined with scripts that clearly establish the puppets as distinct characters in their own right, with complex motivations, feelings and responses, broke through that initial disbelief very quickly. The fact that they are real rather than CGI adds a tactile solidity to them, and the cast are not averse to picking Rygel up, throwing him around the room and, in one episode that earned an 18 certificate, headbutting him.

On a Starfleet ship everyone pretty much wants to be there and they all get on pretty well. The creators of Voyager acknowledged that this could lead to anodyne characters devoid of conflict, so they set up the Starfleet/Maquis storyline and promised oodles of tension and distrust. It lasted about a week. Blakes Seven, the show with which Farscape has most in common, managed to maintain a healthy tension, but you always knew that they would pull together in the end. On board Moya, however, all bets are off.

The most startling example is Rygel, the small, green, Mekonish regent who floats around the ship irritating everyone. In one episode he steals a shuttle, flies off to the Peacekeepers and tries to make a deal whereby he gives up his crewmates in return for amnesty. When he returns to the ship Zhaan is outraged and confronts him, shouting ‘you went there to sell us out’. At this point the jaded audience is no doubt expecting him to reveal his cunning double cross, the depths of his loyalty proven by his brilliant duping of the enemy, he’ll be hurt that his friends don’t trust him as they should and we’ll feel sympathy for the poor misunderstood tyke who will win a place in our hearts with his derring-do. But Rygel merely replies ‘you bet your shiny blue ass I did’ and floats away without apology or explanation.

Perhaps the most shocking betrayal came when the crew of the ship actually cut off one of Pilot’s arms so they could use his DNA to barter with. Just think about that for a moment: they cut off his arm, without anaesthetic, while he begged for mercy. He’s their shipmate, the one person on board they rely on more than any other, but as soon as he was more useful to them as a collection of spare body parts they hacked him up like a side of beef. Just imagine if Janeway and co. had done that to Neelix. Go on, you know you want to.

This is not a crew who trust each other any further than they have to. Each character has their own agenda and at no point do we doubt that if their own ends would best be served by jumping ship that they would head for the hills. True, as the series has progressed they’ve become less likely to actively betray their fellows, and bonds of respect and even love have been forged, but they are fragile and there is still a wariness, even a suspicion, in their dealings that reflects their insecurities about each other.

David Kemper, the producer, has stated time and again that as soon as some sort of status quo is achieved he thinks the show is in danger of losing its edge and he will make strenuous efforts to shake things up before they become too safe. In keeping with this aim, new characters have joined while established ones have left or died. Chiana, a female thief who mostly uses sex to get her way, was at first an unwelcome addition but she’s now a key part of the show’s dynamic. Stark, a deeply unstable energy being has been integrated into the crew over time. Two of the initial cast have died, one of them even stayed dead, and Jool, a spoilt brat who screams a lot, has been introduced in the third season, to the great annoyance of pretty much everybody, specifically to prevent the crew’s dynamic getting too cosy.

Any show flies or falls on the strength of its characters, and Farscape’s are the best on Television at the moment, and the performances, especially Ben Browder as Crichton, are nothing short of astonishing, but they are not the whole equation. Take great characters played by excellent performers and place them in a show that lacks direction, or suffers from poor writing, and the whole thing will collapse – Crusade amply demonstrated that. So what about the tonal strength and narrative drive of Farscape, how do they stand up to scrutiny? And what about production standards, can the Aussies hold a candle to Trek’s effortless effects meisters?

Every episode of any show has one key concept, idea, revelation or instant that drives that week’s instalment. On Buffy it normally occurs at the end of the second act, on Voyager it often came as late as the middle of the fourth act. On Farscape it’s almost always dealt with either in the teaser or the first act. This gives the show a frantic narrative pace and it ensures that it takes concepts further than any of its peers. When all the obvious consequences of an incident or phenomenon have been dealt with in the first two acts you still have three acts to go, and so the writers twist and turn, subvert expectation, take old ideas further than anyone else has, conjuring new spins on old chestnuts. Often a Farscape episode will seem, for the first twenty minutes, to be a routine, albeit enjoyable, rehash of an old plot, before it veers off in a new and unexpected direction just when you thought the idea had run its course. This is a show that is always willing to go one step further.

And it’s not just pushing the envelope in story terms. In their quest to make this world seems as real as possible the writers present us with heroes who fart, defecate, and swear like troopers. Moya’s bodily functions and alarming secretions were a running thread throughout her pregnancy; Crichton once daubed himself in Zhaan’s vomit to protect against radiation; and Rygel’s habit of farting helium has been aired more than once.

Sex, too, is not off limits. If any normal person were stuck on a ship in deep space for three years chances are, sooner or later, they’d be looking for someone to sleep with, and the crew of Moya are no exception. Crichton and Aeryn’s sexual tension, one of the strongest elements in the series, has boiled over occasionally and they ended up in bed together once. D’Argo and Chiana are, according to D’Argo, ‘having fantastic sex’, something Crichton discovers for himself when he walks in on them in flagrante delicto. But instead of being fazed he just sits down on the end of the bed, waits for them to finish, and then tells them what’s on his mind. Unlike Lexx, which portrays sex in the most adolescent of terms, Farscape portrays it simply as a normal, natural part of everyday life, which informs people’s actions, motives and relationships.

In production terms Farscape is a show that looks and sounds like no other. The Australian location and crew give it a visual sensibility that is a millions miles from the bland sameness of the Hollywood sausage machine. Enterprise may have chosen, like all Trek shows, to garb its crew in drab purples, browns and greys, but Farscape is a riot of colour. The effects astound, especially when evoking new alien worlds, cities and races, and the directors will rarely, if ever, go for the obvious shot. The final four episodes of Season Two were breathtaking, and set new standards for Television effects; expect Season Three to take that even further.

There is still so much more to the show than can be encapsulated here – the concept of Moya being alive, and pregnant, was a masterstroke; Crais’ replacement as pursuing nemesis with Scorpius, an urbane and witty PVC clad monster, has driven the show forward brilliantly; the transformation of Crais until he has become almost an ally of Moya’s crew whose loyalties are as questionable as his actions are unpredictable; the difficult relationship between Moya and her temperamental, warlike offspring, Talyn; Ben Browder’s performance as Crichton, which just goes from strength to strength, as does Claudia Blacks’ portrayal of Aeryn.

And with the third season now well underway the future promises even more: the new title sequence voiceover hints at a fresh direction for the show, with Crichton’s main concern now being to prevent Scorpius from finding a way to reach Earth; the sweeping changes in the cast promise lots of internal conflict with the arrival of Stark, Jool and D’Argo’s son, Jothee; the shocking death of a series regular; the developing relationship between Aeryn and Crichton; and David Kemper’s assertion that every time you believe you’ve worked out the secret of Season Three it will change, even up to the very last episode of the year when he promises to pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet yet again.

Farscape recognises no limitations in its quest for originality and surprise. The only thing certain about the show is that whatever you think is going to happen probably won’t, and if it does it certainly won’t happen in the way you expect it to. Every action has consequences which are pursued logically and which bleed over from episode to episode – this universe has no reset button when the end titles roll. When a crisis is reached it will rarely, if ever, be resolved with a burst of incomprehensible technobabble; normally the solution will arise from the motives and actions of one of the characters. Those characters will change, grow and evolve; they will make mistakes and sometimes they’ll learn from them, sometimes they won’t. They are fallible, weak, morally ambiguous, occasionally selfish, but they’re all believable individuals trying their best to get through the days, and as time goes by you’ll find it hard not to like them, even Rygel.

If you like your Sci-Fi challenging, unexpected, intelligent, witty, engaging, and populated with complex characters you can really care about, then accept no substitute: Farscape it must be.


Farscape’s Top Five

Thank God It’s Friday, Again

Rygel’s entire body chemistry is changed by the food he eats on an alien world and he finds, to his horror, that his urine is now highly explosive. Only on Farscape could the final confrontation of an episode be resolved by one of the leads extracting his member and pissing the bad guys into submission.

Family Ties

When Crais admitted to Crichton, at the end of Season One, that his relentless and vicious pursuit of him had been misguided and wrong, and when Crichton responded by crying as the trauma of the past year caught up with, it was clear this was a show willing to get right to the heart of its characters.

Look At The Princess

Crichton discovers he is going to be a dad and instantly abandons his quest to return to Earth and remains on the planet to be a father to his child. No other action more clearly demonstrates the huge gulf between Crichton and the macho heroics of Kirk or Buck.

Die Me Dichotomy

Crichton, possessed by Scorpius, ruthlessly taunts Aeryn and then rams her prowler. As she plummets to certain death we cut one by one to the horrified reactions of all the crew, and finally to Crichton, as he re-asserts control seconds too late to save the woman he loves. The strength of the bond between Moya’s crew is tangible.

Season Of Death

Crichton is cured, Aeryn is back from the dead, seemingly at the cost of Zhaan’s own life, and finally she and Crichton can say what they feel – they love each other. The Aeryn/Crichton realtionship has sat at the heart of the show from the start, while never quite becoming a Moonlighting-type albatross, and this acknowledgment of it is an enormous relief.

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