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Farscape: A Frellin’ Retrospective

Farscape without the Dominar would be like The Empire Strikes Back without Yoda.

Farscape: A Frellin' Retrospective
Photo: SciFi

My first impression of Farscape is forever burned into the ol’ gray matter. I was at a friend’s abode and the Sci-Fi Channel was on in the background. Dominar Rygel the XVI—a mainstay of the series, as well as a creation of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop—filled the screen. Within seconds a judgment was made: “This looks fuckin’ stupid.”

Good thing I gave the show another chance a couple years later.

And Rygel? Farscape without the Dominar would be like The Empire Strikes Back without Yoda. Actors may come and go, but Henson’s proven time and again you can’t keep a good Muppet down.

The ‘90s weren’t a hayride for a sci-fi fan of my breed. The various Star Treks felt sterile and stiff. The X-Files became a crowd-pleasing ratings whore. Babylon 5 was…well, I still don’t know what it was, but try as I might it just never grabbed me (although Londo and G’Kar always made it worth the effort). By the time Sci-Fi unveiled Farscape, hopes of enjoyable space opera had long since faded.

My name is John Crichton – I’m lost. An astronaut shot through a wormhole in some distant part of the Universe. I’m trying to stay alive aboard this ship – this living ship – of escaped prisoners – my friends. If you can hear me – beware. If I make it back, will they follow? If I open the door, are you ready? Earth is unprepared—helpless – for the nightmares I’ve seen. Or should I stay, protect my home? Not show them you exist. But then you’ll never know…the wonders I’ve seen.—Crichton’s Opening Credits Voiceover from Season Three

It’s tempting to hail Farscape as a sci-fi TV breakthrough, but what really made the show work (aside from great scripts, direction, effects, puppetry and acting) was its uniquely derivative feel. Pulling from places other series didn’t acknowledge, Farscape’s beauty came from its originality being so damn unoriginal. It smacked of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century…had Buck spent his nights in Mos Eisley’s creature cantina. It had major Blake’s 7 mojo working overtime. It owed the curse word “frell” to Battlestar Galactica’s “frak”, yet shamelessly kept the time unit “microt” intact. Farscape grokked Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land by turning it upside down and inside out. The show often felt like Dallas in space: A ship full of greedy, opportunistic folk who didn’t always do the right thing. They made bad decisions. Fucked and cheated on each other. Got drunk and did drugs. Quoted Monty Python.

But it was love, respect and mutual admiration that kept the day-to-day bullshit from tearing Farscape’s characters apart. Over four 22-episode seasons and a miniseries wrap-up, they learned from each other and formed a dysfunctional family willing to risk everything and die for one another. It was so cool that in the end even the bad guys weren’t all that bad. See, falling for Farscape was easy, because Farscape was me.

season one was largely a collection of standalone tales introducing us—through the eyes of displaced Earth astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder)—to this bizarre, unpredictable alien world. Central to his conflict were the Sebaceans, a race who appeared human—at least enough so that the astronaut reluctantly fell for one of them: Peacekeeper Officer Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black). Of course Aeryn really wasn’t having any of it. The key to Farscape’s eventual formula? The guy was the girl and the girl was the guy; he the hopeless romantic thinker and she the stainless steel soldier. The season’s close saw the introduction of John’s other “love”: Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), a militant Sebacean half-breed adept at playing every side of the fence, and ruthlessly intent on uncovering precious wormhole knowledge buried somewhere inside Crichton’s subconscious.

Matt Seitz quoted a friend in a recent Sopranos talkback: “…During its first season, a great show is about what it’s about, and during subsequent seasons, it’s about itself, and how great it is.” This struck me as possibly applicable to Farscape, yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion with the feeling that regardless of how groundbreaking season one often felt, the frequently self-indulgent material that came afterward cemented the concept as something gloriously epic. Sometimes a show is so damn out there it needs to be told how great it is so it can go even further—to the places others fear to tread.

season two expanded on the themes set up in the first while at the same time taking even bigger risks. Two such offerings—“Crackers Don’t Matter” (2.4) and “The Way We Weren’t” (2.5)—couldn’t have been less alike. The former was a brilliant mixture of wit and slapstick set entirely onboard the living ship, Moya. The latter was an intense, personal drama exploring previously unknown histories of both Aeryn and Pilot (the peculiar, gentle creature who serves as Moya’s, um, pilot) and their unusual connection to each other. These two episodes demonstrated flexibility—Farscape could wander in wildly different directions and still work. The season also introduced the Scarrans, the reptilian race with whom the Sebacean Peacekeepers are continually at odds. Earlier I referred to Scorpius as a Sebacean half-breed—his other half is Scarran.

The entirety of Season Three was arguably Farscape’s crowning achievement (and the point has been argued to death). It’s a rollercoaster of a book told in 22 chapters, with a distinct beginning (Eps. 3.1-3.6), absorbing middle (3.7-3.16) and epic end (3.17-3.22).

3.1 was titled “Season of Death”; it was the shape of things to come and Farscape’s third season lived up to it from start to finish. The “Self-Inflicted Wounds” two-parter (3.3 & 3.4) delved deeper into the mysteries of wormholes as well as showcased the tearful sacrifice of a series regular. “Eat Me” (3.6), a sci-fi spin on Night of the Living Dead, featured a villain capable of “twinning” people for his own nasty purposes. It ended with two John Crichtons returning to Moya—problem being the “twin” element. This wasn’t a case of cloning—the two Johns were equal and the same and the situation wasn’t resolved within the hour. Indeed, each John grabbed a half of the cast and the two parties split up for the season’s middle section, with every other episode focusing on one of the two groups. Now it didn’t take a genius to figure out sooner or later that one of the Johns would meet his maker, and any fan who’d been paying attention to the way Farscape did things knew which one it would end up being: The one whose passing could be milked for the maximum dramatic effect. If one were judging from every angle, “Into the Lion’s Den Part II: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” (3.21) may well have been Farscape’s apex. I’m still able to put those 45 minutes on and wallow in every frame. If I could recommend one season of Farscape for someone to view, it’d be the third—yet that’s a double-edged recommendation because, without the primer of the first two, much of Season Three’s drama is lessened considerably and there’s a good chance none of it would make much sense.

With Season Four, the show morphed into a near operatic (though uneven) blend of tried & true and risky & daring. Some of it sailed and some of it sunk—yet the 16×9 visuals peaked and were slicker than whale shit in an ice flow. Unfortunately, Farscape also lost some narrative focus at this point (The “Season 4 Curse”—see also Six Feet Under & The Sopranos)…and then it was abruptly canceled. An insanely well-organized and thought-out fan campaign led to the eventual production of a wrap-up miniseries, “The Peacekeeper Wars”. Tautly directed by Brian Henson, it satisfactorily tied up most of the loose ends, delivered a hellaciously relentess story along the way, and sent the concept sailing off into the uncharted territories of near-obscurity. The sole mission of “The Peacekeeper Wars” was to make sure the series got the ending it deserved. It was a beautifully executed love letter to the fans, as well as to those who’d worked so hard on it for so long. Yet for all John Crichton and Co. meant to so many people just a few years ago, these days it often feels as if they never even existed. Well, maybe that’s not entirely the case.

* * *

Before even a frame was shot, a noteworthy initial guideline from the creative head honchos—David Kemper and Rockne S. O’Bannon—was simplistic and daring: “If Star Trek already does it, then it’s off limits”. The aim was to create the anti-Trek. (Interesting to note that Kemper penned two eps of Next Generation and one of Voyager; numerous other Farscape scribes can be traced back to Trek as well.)

Farscape’s influence was felt after the fact—far more so than when it was actually on the air. Probably its biggest contribution to TV sci-fi was its approach to sexuality—people on the show got it on, which at the time was nearly non-existent in the genre, yet today is rampant. When Enterprise was unveiled, it seemed to have taken a few notes from the Farscape book in regard to sexuality. Suddenly the franchise that had been frigid since the late 80s featured a hot and sometimes even horny Vulcan…and when Star Trek encourages viewers to lust over Vulcans, you know the times they are a changin’.

Second on the influential roster would be its wicked sense of humor—Farscape could be as funny as it was dramatic. Again, B.S. (Before ’Scape) so much space opera was dictated by the dry Trek template—clearly somewhere between Kirk stepping down and Picard taking over, humanity lost the ability to have a good laugh. Babylon 5 even seemed to present its characters as mostly humorless. Then again, Farscape was set in the present rather than the future (well, the present on the other side of the universe) and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with humorless sci-fi, but people on spaceships who’ll dance for me are far more entertaining. (Oh yeah—Farscape had some bitchin’ dance scenes, too.) A lot of this probably stemmed from Farscape’s lack of emphasis on the military, which was yet another deviation from the sci-fi norm. Moya was a ship full of criminals on the run; the stodgy, militaristic Peacekeepers were basically around to chase them every five or six episodes. One of the great Farscape experiments was the episode “Revenging Angel” (3.16), which literally shifted into an animated Warner Bros. cartoon for about half the story. The bold, ballsy and weird material explored the relationship of Crichton and fellow crewmember D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe) through making the former the Roadrunner and the latter Wile E. Coyote. In the end, the entire thing ended up being a dramatic, poignant test of what exactly their friendship was about.

The series also helped pave the way, like Babylon 5 before it, for arc-driven sci-fi. These days it seems almost untenable for a sci-fi show to lack an arcing storyline of some kind. Farscape’s arc became so out there and convoluted by the end that you had to tip your hat at its audacity to be its own dog. Back when ’Scape was doing this, it was immensely counter-productive to building an audience: You were either onboard Moya or you were adrift in space. The show was rarely designed for the uninitiated. In this day and age of TV on DVD, these issues don’t plague television as doggedly, but it’s easy to forget that the TV-on-DVD revolution is really something which viewers have become acclimated to over the past few years. Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Doctor Who and maybe even Lost and Heroes all owe some of their vision to the groundwork Farscape laid. (Hell, Stargate went so far as to hire not one, but both of its lead actors.)

Yet there’s one area where Farscape excelled that hasn’t been duplicated: Its presentation of creatures and aliens. Doctor Who scratches the surface from time to time, but it’s still in junior high compared to the accomplishments of Henson’s Creature Shop. I remain stunned that the BBC hasn’t hired them at least once for the new Doctor Who, and it’s somewhat baffling the Shop seems virtually unemployed these days. Yet in saying that, I’m forced to consider my initial negative reaction to seeing Rygel. Shit, George Lucas eventually took Yoda into the CGI realm despite the success of the puppet incarnation (indeed, even Rygel briefly went digital in the opening moments of “The Peacekeeper Wars”). Without getting into a rant about the pitfalls of CGI, it’s unfortunate the common consensus these days is that computer animation somehow looks more “real” than a three-dimensional puppet. CGI technology has evolved to the point where anything can be accomplished with the right amount of time and money. Puppetry is a fascinating wizardry that seems to be on the way out, if it’s not already extinct (a CGI Kermit is probably right around the corner). I think it was Ben Browder who once said that he loved Rygel because he could physically grab, smack and beat the shit out of him when the character deserved it (which was often). Wait a minute—maybe there are still some areas where CGI isn’t the only solution.

Probably the most offensive thing you can say to a Farscape fan is “Isn’t that the show with all the Muppets?” Frellin’ pisses me off!! I’ve come a long way through those uncharted territories, haven’t I? Star Wars was brought up a couple times here, and I’d like to specifically recommend Farscape to any Star Wars fans who were less than enthused by the new trilogy. If there’s one thing that I specifically missed in Episodes I-III, it was the lack of swashbuckling that Episodes IV-VI displayed. Farscape will buckle your swash.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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