Farscape

Tagged: TV

Australian-American tv series (1999-2003, 2005). Jim Henson Productions for The Sci Fi Channel and Nine Network Australia. Created by Rockne S O'Bannon. Producers include Richard Manning, Robert Halmi Jr., David Kemper, and Brian Henson. Directors include Tony Tilse, Rowan Woods, Andrew Prowse, and Ian Watson. Writers include O'Bannon, Kemper, Manning, and Justin Monjo. Starring Ben Browder as John Crichton, Claudia Black as Aeryn Sun, Anthony Simcoe as Ka D'Argo, Virginia Hey as Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (seasons 1-2), Jonathan Hardy as the voice of Dominar Rygel XVI, Lani Tupu as Crais and the voice of Pilot, Gigi Edgely as Chiana, Wayne Pygram as Scorpius, Paul Goddard as Stark (seasons 2-4), Tammy McIntosh as Jool (season 3), Raelee Hill as Sikozu (season 4), and Melissa Jaffer as Noranti (season 4). 88 one-hour episodes and a four-hour miniseries.

One of the last, and best, examples of the television Space Opera. Premiering only a few years before the genre television landscape began a drastic pendulum swing towards Earth-set, mimetic-looking SF ("V"), magical realism (Lost), and grim political allegory (Battlestar Galactica), Farscape starts off from an inauspicious, perhaps even cheesy, premise. Astronaut John Crichton is transported through a Wormhole to a distant region of space and ends up aboard Moya, a living Spaceship making a break for freedom from her masters, the fascistic, xenophobic Peacekeepers. He falls in with the prisoners who were being held aboard, who make up what is essentially a D&D (see Role Playing Game) coterie – a warrior, Ka D'argo, a mage/healer, Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, and a trader, Dominar Rygel XVI, deposed ruler of the Hynerian empire (expanded later in the first season with the addition of Chiana, a thief, and when Hey was forced to leave the show for health reasons at the beginning of the third season Zhaan was replaced with rotating raft of characters – Stark, Jool, Sikozu, Noranti – who split her function as spiritual counsellor and scientist between them). Also stranded with them is Officer Aeryn Sun, a former Peacekeeper. All of them, including Moya herself, are being pursued by the Peacekeeper commander Crais, who blames Crichton for the accidental death of his brother. Compounding the too-familiar premise is the show's look, which moves as far away from the sterile, tastefully appointed interiors and minimalist, forehead-ridged Aliens familiar from modern Star Trek and its imitators as it is possible to go. Farscape's design was multi-hued and frequently garish, its aliens often accessorized with prosthetic limbs and rubber faces, and sometimes possessing no humanoid features at all. Two of the main characters, Rygel and Moya's symbiotically linked pilot (known simply as Pilot), were animatronic, crafted and operated by The Jim Henson Creature Shop, whose parent company co-produced the show. Farscape's tone was a mixture of opera – its characters motivated by true love, revenge, the search for long-lost relatives, and an overpowering desire to get home – and gross-out comedy, with episodes making frequent forays into sexual and scatological humour, and eagerly dousing characters in various alien bodily fluids.

Nevertheless, it was not very long before Farscape established itself as one of the smartest, best-made, most enjoyable science fiction series of its time, embodying some of the finest qualities of late 1990s genre television. Its worldbuilding is superb, from the detailed cultural backgrounds of its alien characters to the violent philosophies of its various antagonist races, which tie together to create an alien universe with breadth and depth. After a first season made up mostly of standalone episodes whose thrust was the growing cohesion of Moya's initially distrustful and fractious crew, Farscape's writers began introducing overarching plot arcs. Crais, whose pursuit of Crichton was continued in defiance of his superiors' orders, is replaced by Scorpius, who discovers, while interrogating Crichton, that an alien race encountered during the first season had implanted the subconscious knowledge of how to create and manipulate Wormholes in Crichton's mind. Believing that this knowledge could be used to create Weapons that could defeat the Peacekeepers' greatest enemies, the Scarrans, Scorpius begins his own pursuit of Moya, forcing the crew to scramble to keep ahead of his machinations, and finally to take an active role in the Peacekeeper-Scarran conflict. The contrast between the always-fevered pitch of the show's operatic plots and its sharp dialogue and acting (and, in the case of the animatronic characters, skilful puppetry and voice acting) created vibrant, complicated characters, nearly all of whom changed and developed over the course of the show – D'argo's growth from selfish short-sightedness to maturity and eventually a leadership role on Moya; Aeryn's rediscovery of her repressed humanity; Crichton's loss of innocence and self as he is alternately victimized by and victimizes his pursuers; the initially hesitant, then sweeping romance between Crichton and Aeryn; perhaps most interestingly, the understanding the show extends to its Villain characters, Crais and Scorpius, who by the end of the series are as much a part of the main cast as Moya's crew. Technically, the show is a feast for the eyes, combining dazzling computer graphics (often used to depict thrilling space battles) with meticulous, multi-coloured and multi-textured set design.

Farscape is also notable as one of the earliest, most comprehensive, and most successful examples of one of the staples of 1990s and 2000s genre television, the save-the-show fan campaign. The show was too esoteric to cross over into the mainstream as more subdued genre series such as The X-Files (1993-2002) and later Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) did, and even some genre fans were put off by its aura of camp. Nevertheless, it developed a loyal fan following and was considered a minor success for The Sci Fi Channel, who contracted its producers for a fourth and fifth season, in which O'Bannon planned to resolve the Peacekeeper-Scarran conflict. However, a change of management at Sci Fi, and budgetary problems at EM.TV, the owners of The Jim Henson Company, brought about the show's sudden cancellation just before the conclusion of the fourth season, which ended with a cruel cliffhanger in which Crichton and Aeryn appear to die. Fans mobilized immediately and in force, bombarding the channel's offices with requests to revive the show. Their wishes were partially granted in 2005, when Sci Fi screened Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (2005), a four-hour miniseries that ties up most of the series' loose ends. It is rushed, and downplays or ignores some of the show's secondary characters and plotlines, but is nevertheless a well done and satisfying conclusion to the story. Today, Farscape continues in comic form, picking up after Peacekeeper Wars. In 2007 The Sci Fi Channel announced plans to produce a Farscape webseries featuring the original cast (Browder and Black had by that point joined the cast of another Sci Fi series, Stargate SG-1), but as of 2010 these seem to have been abandoned. With televised sf having moved away from space settings, space opera, and the humorous and operatic tones (only Doctor Who remains as an example of all four), Farscape remains unparalleled for the breadth of its story and invented universe, and the heights of imagination to which it took both – at least until the pendulum swings back again. [AN]

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