In 1999 a new breed of television science fiction premiered that wasn’t quite like audiences had ever seen before. It was an Australian/American co-production, which was pretty singular in itself. It was the brainchild of Rockne S. O’Bannon who had impressed with Alien Nation (where our own Gary Graham had a prominent role), and then less-impressed with SeaQuest DSV, which, though it had its fans, always seemed like a damp iteration of Star Trek. Farscape was also brilliantly supported, not by a new effects production house, but by the venerable Jim Henson Company.
And speaking of Muppets… it also had a muppet main cast member. Who urinated fire. On screen. This was a show that was most definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Farscape relied on more than a few well-worn tropes, but it assembled and executed them with flair and imagination. At first blush, it was the story of astronaut John Crichton (the insanely charismatic Ben Browder before his Stargate SG1 days), thrown far into the galaxy after flying into a wormhole. But at the other end, he meets one of the most rag-tag assemblages of outsiders. Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan (Australian Virginia Hey) is a plant-based creature, and a largely pacifist priest. There’s the aforementioned pissing-puppet, Rigel, a diminutive despot, and the hulking but honorable warrior Ka D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe, another Aussie). And they’re all prisoners aboard the sentient ship, Moya, whose pilot (Lani Tupu, a New Zealander) is a permanent extension of the organic vessel.
When Crichton meets these ne’er-do-wells, they’re all fleeing the rather nasty Peacekeepers, a human-like species currently dominating this part of the galaxy. They’re a rather xenophobic lot, too, so one when one of the fighter pilots trying to apprehend them is captured in her turn, things get very interesting – and this is just the pilot! But this plot point also introduces one of the strongest female characters in science fiction – Aeryn Sun, played by (yes, another Australian) Claudia Black. She also went on to play in Stargate SG1, but she was also in Pitch Black, and has done some great voice work in video games.
The basic cast would be added to over the shows four seasons, with a range of good, almost good, and downright nefarious characters. Villains would come and go, though some lasted the entire run of the show (even if they were in Crichton’s head), and some turned out to be good guys after all. However, no matter any character’s given allegiance, one thing that bound nearly every part was that you could believe in them. They existed in a framework that made sense, that had a past, a present, and an uncertain future. Though the show started out telling, like many SF shows do, stories of the week, it quickly developed an ongoing rhythm of plotting and narrative that few shows have ever matched. Babylon 5 comes close, but B5 was always plagued by terrible writing and some questionable acting. Later Deep Space Nine got there with the Dominion War plotline, and Enterprise always had a very strong idea of the overall story it was trying to tell – but it had the advantage of working with story that was, basically, already established. Farscape broke new ground.
And while that plot continued to develop – the ongoing fight against Peacekeeper aggression, the various other races trying their best to get their own slice of the action – what really held the show together was its characters. At first, Crichton is not only not trusted, he’s seen as barely sentient. He can’t speak any languages, he can’t see even the basic signage (it’s not his fault if everything is written in another visual spectrum), and he’s not nearly as strong or tough as anyone else. But, thanks to Ben Browder’s own magnetic performance, he’s got a determination and spirit that is unmatched. In fact, like the humans of Enterprise help bring together the Federation, its Crichton that slowly binds together not only Moya’s crew, but also Moya herself. As a non-speaking part, played by a giant CG starship, the level of care you get for Moya and her pilot is intense. Watching these people come together into a family, one that they will all fight for, is one of the great pleasures of SF television. There’s a real pathos to the show, and when the growing relationship between Crichton and his seeming exact opposite Aeryn Sun starts to be explored…
Get some tissues.
But Farscape isn’t just angst – it’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, as well. It manages to present a very real, believable world while still keeping its tongue firmly in cheek. One episode is famously almost entirely animated, Looney Tunes style. Many more take much glee in introducing strange new alien drugs to our hero Crichton, or playing on the cultural and linguistic differences of the main characters. I was lucky enough to watch through the show with a whole swathe of friends and there are so many phrases that have become part of our common lexicon… It really is that kind of show.
Sadly, while it had and still has a cult following, Farscape was cancelled after its fourth season. The cast was shattered, and even though a standalone film wrapped up a lot of plotlines, it still feels like one of the great losses of science fiction. In fact, I think I would be hard-pressed if I had to make a choice between getting more Firefly, or more Farscape.
If you’ve not seen the show, it’s well worth watching, and while some of the CG may have aged, a lot of the practical effects – thanks to the Jim Henson Company – still stand up. And if you have seen the show, I think it’s time to watch it again, and visit again with our old friends from that far part of the galaxy.
You bring the Hawaiian shirts, I’ll bring the leather pants.