Of all the programs that graced the golden age of television space operas, Farscape is the one that has drifted furthest from public consciousness. It lacks the brand recognition of Star Trek, makes do without the popcorn picture appeal of Stargate and while its strides in long-format story-telling are notable for the time period, they are overshadowed by the almost insane level of pre-plotting and storytelling detail accomplished by Babylon 5. Farscape has, for the most part, been forgotten. It’s an unfair reality, but it’s reality nonetheless.
Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon (Defiance, Alien Nation) the show was an international co-production between the United States and Australia, with filming taking place largely in the latter country. Commissioned as one of the first flagship enterprises of the Syfy network (then more sensibly named the Sci-Fi Channel), the show was a production of the Jim Henson Company, which had been known up to that point (and still is for that matter) for the making of puppet-based children’s programming like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street.
Farscape was anything but children’s programming. While it utilized the Jim Henson Company’s puppets for two of its main characters, along with a host of guest roles over the years, its tone was a subversive one, playing with dark humor and the surreal to imbue the show with a truly unique personality.
Premiering in 1999, the show followed John Crichton (Ben Browder; Stargate: The Ark of Truth, Call of Duty: Black Ops III), an astronaut who is sucked through a wormhole while test-piloting a small space craft known as the Farscape module. Spat out in a strange part of the universe, Crichton finds himself stranded aboard a prison ship taken over by a motley crew of escaped alien prisoners: the warrior-like Luxan Ka D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe; The Castle, Nim’s Island), the blue and bald Delvian priest Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey; Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, The Living Daylights) and the deposed Hynerian Dominar Rygel XVI (Academy Award nominee Jonathan Hardy; Mad Max, Moulin Rouge), one of the show’s main two puppets. The ship is a Leviathan (a race of bio-mechanoid creatures that function as living ships) named Moya, crewed by the gargantuan Pilot (Lani John Tupu; Lantana, The Punisher), a massive four-armed being with a mental link to the ship and who serves as the second puppet to appear regularly in the series.
The ship is on the run from the Peacekeepers, a race of Nazi-like beings called Sebacceans, who are startlingly human in appearance and initially lead by the barbaric Captain Bialar Crais (also Lani John Tupu). Self-styled policemen of the galaxy, they’re more accurately a brutal militia for hire and it’s their prison ship that the main characters have commandeered.
The Peacekeepers are also embroiled in an ongoing cold war with the Scarrans, a cruel reptilian race encroaching on Peacekeeper controlled space. When a series of unfortunate events sends Peacekeeper pilot Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black; Pitch Black, Dragon Age: Inquisition) on the run from her people, she finds herself on Moya as well, and together the group roams the Uncharted Territories of space, looking for a way home.
In its early episodes, Farscape struggles to reconcile its desire to be something straightforwardly commercial like Star Trek with its more subversive tendencies, resulting in an uneven first season that refuses to really embrace its own identity until the final third. Early hours see Crichton making first contact with an alien race and the crew encountering an abandoned ship adrift in space, but these episodes are painfully generic and fail to utilize the show’s greatest asset: its characters.
While many shows present their protagonists from a straight-forwardly heroic perspective (a tendency that’s admittedly become less prevalent in this age of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones), Farscape always tried to address the grey matter in the moral centres of its characters. In the series’ early installments, the characters just don’t get along; they bicker and squabble, coming to physical blows more than once, and the uneasiness between them all is the source of the first season’s most potent drama.
It’s these character dynamics that get so lost in the show’s early, decidedly Star Trek-esque standalone episodes, and it’s not until the writers finally ditch the more white bread elements of the show’s nature and fully embrace the program’s inherent off-beat personality that Farscape truly crystallizes into its own concrete identity.
Unsurprisingly, this come-to-Jesus moment coincides with an increase in a more semi-serialized format, but it’s also kickstarted by the introduction of three more important characters: the grey Nebari fugitive Chiana (Gigi Edgley; Rescue Special Ops, The Secret Life of Us), the insane humanoid Stykera Stark (Paul Goddard; The Matrix, Babe) and the cunning and ruthlessly pragmatic Peacekeeper commander Scorpius (Wayne Pygram; Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Return to the Blue Lagoon). It’s the latter of the three that proves the most valuable to the show in the long run, driving most of the serialised stories over the show’s four season run.
Scorpius is a fascinating character, by far the show’s most successful, because he is at once likeable, despicable and reasonable. It’s that last trait that most makes him an effective villain for the series, but he’s also a character caught between two fundamentally opposed forces.
He’s a Peacekeeper/Scarran hybrid, a singular being in the Uncharted Territories, and these two races are constantly at each others’ throats both militarily and politically. This dichotomy is symbolized within Scorpius himself: Scarrans generate heat and Peacekeepers are easily killed by it, forcing the commander to don a stark, black leather cooling suit to mediate his body’s own internal war.
By bringing Scorpius into the mix, Farscape provides itself with a valuable catalyst going forward, and the villain works brilliantly as a window into the Scarran/Peacekeeper conflict that drives the show’s stories in the seconds half of its run. Farscape never loses it’s episodic elements, but the increased focus on a more serialised narrative serves as an identifying marker for when the show truly came into its own.
Another key aspect in Farscape‘s storytelling maturation is the relationship between Crichton and Aeryn. Virtually every story under the sun has its romantic element, and the most popular in modern times is that of the unlikely couple who are forced to interact on a regular basis before gradually realizing that they’re meant for each other. Most television programs possess at least a trace of this kind of relationship; Castle runs on it, The X-Files stretched it out for nine years and The Office played it heart-warmingly straight in its first few seasons.
What makes Farscape‘s version unique is that Aeryn is an alien. She looks human, certainly, but an alien nature is more than green skin or a tail.
Aeryn, and to a certain extent the others as well, view Crichton as an extra-terrestrial as much as we do them. Few shows explore that dichotomy.
In Star Trek and Star Wars, humans and aliens have gotten along forever. We view the aliens from a totally human perspective; they are aberrant and unusual because we, the audience, have never seen before. Farscape presents a relatively unique scenario in science fiction, wherein Crichton is the only human around. In this scenario, Crichton is the alien and that perspective gives Farscape a fresh lens through which to tell familiar stories, but also allows a truly unique romance to develop between its two leads.
The entire cast possesses fantastic chemistry with each other, but none more so than Ben Browder and Claudia Black. The two are exceptional in their roles and while both went on to star in the last few seasons of Stargate SG-1, neither have had much of a career since, which baffles me to no end. They navigate the unusual waters of their characters interactions with an ease that belies just how unique the plotline is, and they are, at all times, the beating heart of the show.
It’s also worth noting how successful the show is in its utilization of puppets. Rygel and Pilot are impeccable creations and it’s easy to treat them as characters rather than a stuffed toy. Much of their work in the story could definitely have been accomplished by CGI, but it likely would’ve been too expensive given the regularity of their appearances and it certainly wouldn’t have stood the test of time as well as the puppets have. More than the practical realities of the decision, the puppets have a sense of presence that CGI creations don’t. The actors are on set with Rygel and Pilot; they’re looking right at them and that kind of immediacy between performers is difficult to replicate with CGI, especially at this scale.
All of this–the tone, the acting, the storytelling–coalesces into a truly brilliant exploration of the characters over the eighty-eight episodes, as the crew members grow closer and closer in such a natural fashion that you don’t even notice it happening until you stop to think about it. The juxtaposition between the hostile and mistrustful characters of the series premiere and the friendly, cooperative crewmembers of the series finale is a truly impressive testament to the talent of the writers.
What CGI there is has held up quite well also. The exterior shots of Moya and the alien landscapes and space battles all look great and while they were all rendered in standard definition, thus preventing a proper high definition rerelease without recreating them from scratch, they usually look the best of all the show’s visual elements. Likewise, the score, which was largely created digitally without the use of an orchestra, has stood the test of time as well.
For all its positives, however, the show still has one glaring fault that can be hugely problematic. The show’s episodic elements can be fantastic (most of my favourite episodes have little relationship to the ongoing storylines) but when the show misses, it often misses in the worst possible way. There are some totally misjudged episodes over the course of the series, and while a few of them are at least ambitious in their failure, there are far too many that commit the worst sin entertainment ever can: they’re boring. Sitting through the series’ poorer outings can occasionally be excruciating and that kind of problem is one that no show can ever truly overcome. Farscape firing on all cylinders is an example of how ambitious a science fiction story can be, but Farscape firing blanks is just awful.
In 2003, the Sci-Fi Channel cancelled the show during the production of the season four finale, despite having previously ordered a fifth season. Frustratingly, the show was cancelled on a cliff-hanger. The ensuing fallout from fans was incredible. In recent years there have been numerous cult hit programmes whose fan-bases have worked to prevent or reverse a cancellation (Jericho and Chuck number among the more successful, while Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Star Trek: Enterprise number among the less so) but Farscape was one of the first.
Fans rallied behind the program, starting campaigns and petitions, taking out ads in newspapers around the world, writing letters to Sci-Fi and even other networks, begging for a fifth season pick up. The furore was so strong that it actually worked. In 2004 the Sci-Fi Channel commissioned a two part miniseries to conclude the story. Titled Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, the three hour production serves as a disappointing coda, but one that we’re undeniably lucky to have.
The miniseries has the unenviable task of shoving what is basically a season’s worth of storytelling into the span of three hours. It’s an overstuffed, bloated effort that struggles to properly convey its story with the right kind of scale, an unavoidable problem but a problem nonetheless. The obvious acceleration is an issue that the miniseries just can’t find it’s way around but it is, at the very least, a serviceable conclusion to a narrative that deserved a lot more.
Below I’ll discuss my favourite of Farscape‘s episodes. I think it can be valuable to look at a television program on a macro level and so I thought I’d highlight the best of Farscape and what makes these episodes work. I’ll be as vague possible, but episodes with bolded titles may contain spoilers in the discussions of them, no matter how hard I try otherwise. I don’t think any real spoilers are contained in them but better to be safe than sorry.
FARSCAPE AT ITS BEST
- THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (Season 1, Episode 17)
When Moya becomes stuck in some sort of anomaly, the crew is scattered into four separate dimensions, each with their own unique properties. It’s up to Crichton to find the holes leading between them and figure out a way to stitch reality back together.
Through the Looking Glass is the first episode of Farscape that totally and completely gels. The story, set entirely on the ship, is at the same time incredibly ambitious but also deceptively simple. The complicated layout of the multiple dimensions is established in an easy to follow fashion and there’s plenty of great mystery and intrigue as the story progresses, but what truly makes the episode work is that it portrays the characters working as a unit for the first time.
- CRACKERS DON’T MATTER (Season 2, Episode 4)
When the ship takes aboard a new passenger, the crew becomes progressively more and more paranoid. At each others throats, they start to turn on each other, revealing a little more about themselves then they’d probably like in the process.
This episode is the greatest showcase of Farscape‘s humour in the entire run of the series. The episode is hysterical, but also possesses a dark and slightly disturbing undercurrent that most programs of the time wouldn’t touch (many still wouldn’t). It’s probably my favourite episode of the series, helped along by an incredible performance by Ben Browder and it lays the foundations for some great stories going forward.
- EAT ME (Season 3, Episode 6)
The crew stumbles upon a Leviathan adrift in space. Upon boarding her, they discover to their horror, that the crew has gone rabid and resorted to cannibalism. Worse still, they view our heroes as a potential meal.
Eat Me is the closest Farscape ever came to horror. It flirted with the idea both before and after this instalment but it was never more absolute in it’s execution of the frightening as it was in this episode. The suspense is built brilliantly and the set (the Moya set redressed) is deeply unsettling. Guy Cross’ screeching, discordant score is perfect and the result is a genuinely creepy episode. More than that however, the story also tackles themes of identity, while establishing a crucial plot point that drives the rest of the season going forward.
- INTO THE LION’S DEN: PARTS 1 AND 2 (Season 3, Episodes 20-21)
Desperate to halt Scorpius’ plans, the main characters find themselves forced to simulate a truce in order to gain access to the Peacekeeper Commander’s command carrier, and the information it holds.
This is without a doubt the best of Farscape‘s multi part stories and it marks the complete destruction of the status quo the show has relied on for a full two seasons, along with the induction of a new one. Epic in scope and flawless in execution, the true bravura moment here is Part 2’s incredible operatic conclusion which serves as the most brilliantly dramatic thing the show ever pulled off.
- A CONSTELLATION OF DOUBT (Season 4, Episode 17)
The Moya crew intercepts a documentary detailing their first contact with a race they interacted with a few episodes ago.
Built largely around the concept of the crew watching the documentary, A Constellation of Doubt is fascinating because it zeroes in on one of the series’ most compelling elements: culture clash and how we view those different from us. It can be a little heavy handed but the conversation it holds is well worth that price, and it’s perhaps the most off-format episode of the series.
Farscape is unlikely to ever find the same broad recognition that some of it’s similar (and sometimes less deserving) brethren did. That’s a shame because it’s an incredibly unique program, especially once it embraces its own identity, and the cast and the production design is incredible. While it’s hit or miss nature when it comes to the episodic can be incredibly frustrating, Farscape remains a gem of a show, overlooked by many and quite worthy of your attention.