TV GEMS: Farscape (1999-2003)

Astronaut John Crichton is just trying to get home in one of the best sci-fi shows you probably haven’t seen…

Farscape is insane. A living, breathing universe of peculiarities, its the type of concoction that could only be brewed by Australians on American money. This is a science fiction series with creature effects by the notoriously whimsical Jim Henson Company, and a tone that often veers straight into pure Red Dwarf territory. Star Trek: The Next Generation it isn’t, and you know what? That’s perfectly fine with me!

Summing up the main concept is easy because our lead character handily recounts the necessary exposition during the trippy opening titles. During an experimental space flight for what is assumed to be a futuristic NASA, pilot John Crichton (Ben Browder) is flung through a wormhole and ends up millions of lightyears from home. He is soon found by the occupants of rogue bio-mechnical vessel Moya, a living spaceship, who are on the run from a typically despotic military force named the Peacekeepers. Importantly, these characters are flung together by sheer chance and all must put aside their inevitable differences for the greater good.

There’s the beautifully-badass former Peacekeepr Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), proud and ill-tempered Luxan warrior Ka D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), the diminutive Rygel (operated under the stage by six people and voiced by Jonathan Hardy), and the bald, blue-skinned Zhaan (The Road Warrior‘s Virginia Hey) who belongs to a fucking plant species. Really. More strange travellers are added along the way, too, including the Cheetarah rip-off Chiana (Gigi Edgley) who could potentially be the most memorable addition for adolescent boys. Luckily, human beings share a kinship with many of this galaxy’s races, and it isn’t long before the naturally-bemused Crichton is joining forces with this ragamuffin crew to stay one step ahead of the duplicitous Captain Crais (Lani Tupu) and his evil regime. Anyone else thinking Firefly with aliens?

I really wasn’t expecting to love Farscape. I couldn’t get into it back in the days when the four-season run aired on BBC Two, as I think my young mind simply wasn’t ready for a series this, well, weird. It also takes a helluva lot for me to get into shows of this genre, especially when you can’t help but compare them all to the mighty Battlestar, which was free from humanoid aliens in silly make-up. Yet I was slowly won over by this show. As co-created by Rockne S. O’Bannon (seaQuest DSV) and Brian Henson, Farscape presents an original world from an unoriginal premise. The above synopsis could almost be a heady spin on Lost in Space, but the execution seems far from derivative. There’s an energy to this show that truly feels singular and unique; a slightly decrepit cosmos full of strange creatures with funny accents. Like the Mad Max films taught us, there’s something so natural about an Aussie brogue in a fantasy setting. Crichton’s distinctly American tones only serve to remind us how alone he is in this off-kilter world.

The astronaut is our anchor through a stream of outlandish plots that run the gamut from ridiculous to grim. We side with the Yank’s wide-eyed bewilderment and his never-ending and misunderstood film references (dubbed “Chrichtonisms”). There’s everything from planets filled with nymphomaniacs to living paintings that claim people’s souls. Really, Farscape proves to be consistently creative as it wears on, never letting obvious steals get in the way of forging fresh ideas. And it does all of this while telling an epic, overarching story across its many episodic episodes. Unlike shows like TNG, Farscape can’t just be dipped into willy-nilly – you have to jump into with both feet from the pilot and go along for the ride. In fact, its so frequently barking mad that even returning to an episode you’ve been watching is enough to spark momentary confusion.

O’Bannon and Henson’s numerous writers (including the brilliant Naren Shankar and Justin Monjo) also believed in pushing the adult content of their work, and you’ll be surprised at how dark Farscape gets, with season three’s first episode even baring the title “Season of Death.” It also cued a change in the indelible theme music from a jaunty, adventurous tone to a more foreboding one. Stick with it long enough and you’ll be surprised at how deep this Muppet show gets.

While much of the fleeting CGI is typically showing it’s age, there’s no faulting the practical effects work or even the production design, especially the thoroughly distinctive corridors – or “bowels” I guess – of Moya. This is continued proof of the Jim Henson creature shop’s continued brilliance, with the two main animatronic characters, Rygel and “Pilot” (voiced by Tupu), Moya’s built-in captain, possessing a major amount of dexterity in their facial expressions. After a while, you’ll stop seeing the slug-like and Yoda-ish Rygel as a puppet and more as a flesh and blood being. I love that cantankerous old fart bag. (For the record, he farts helium.)

The cast kept me invested throughout the warped stories that keep everything in a state of frenzy. Browder plays the square-jawed and virtuous Crichton as well as can be expected, making an affable hero. He’s better when contending with the psychosis brought on by the evil Scorpius (the fantastic Wayne Pygram) who has the uncanny ability to beam into John’s consciousness at inopportune moments thanks to an insidiously-placed microchip. Lets just say Gaius Baltar had it easier. There’s also no doubting Browder’s chemistry with our leading lady. How could Crichton NOT fall for Aeryn? Black owns the tough-as-nails femme fatale routine without breaking a sweat and has a voice to die for (it’s hardly surprising she has worked on more video games than you can count). She’s also the best actor in the show by miles, often giving the culty theatrics a sense of credibility.

The rest of the main players are loveable, too, with Simcoe’s Worf-like D’Argo becoming more warm than he initially appears and Edgely’s Chiana growing beyond her core traits of thievery and fornication. There’s too many great characters to mention in detail, and that’s always a wonderful thing in this genre. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Stark (Paul Goddard) who wears a half-mask to conceal an incorporeal and healing glow that radiates from his face (did I tell you Farscape is mental?). You’ll grow to care about all of these strange personalities over time, and I didn’t think that was possible way back at the start of season one.

Naturally, something so out-there was a hard sell for everyone and after four seasons, the network pulled the plug. This unfortunately left the show on a cliffhanger, enraging the faithful fanbase into mounting a campaign. Similarly to Joss Whedon’s Serenity, the efforts would see Farscape rise Pheonix-like for the feature-length miniseries The Peacekeeper Wars which handily tied-up all the loose ends. Such devotion isn’t misplaced. Despite my initial misgivings and the fact that I wouldn’t have watched it if not for Netflix, Farscape ended up becoming one of my favourite SF shows of all time due to its batshit insane determination. Rest assured, it gets better as it goes along and is comfortably one of the most daring and unique universes the genre has ever spat out.

Give it a frelling chance…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The show faced the very real threat of cancellation halfway through its first season when its production location, Fox Studios Australia, “forced” them out to make way for another production: Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). The logistical problems of moving the large and expensive sets to a Stateside location would have been too cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, another studio was found nearby that was able to house the production (at Homebush), and the series was renewed for a second season. Ironically, Wayne Pygram would later cameo in Revenge of the Sith as Grand Moff Tarkin due to his resemblance to Peter Cushing.
  • Ben Browder and Claudia Black would go on to star together in Stargate: SG1
  • Virginia Hey was originally required to shave her head for the full-body makeup needed for Zhaan. In later episodes, the makeup was modified to include a skullcap, allowing her to grow her hair back. Besides her problems with contact lenses, the make-up itself also negatively impacted Hey’s health and was a factor in her decision to leave in season three.
  • Ranked 4th in American magazine TV Guide’s list of the “25 Top Cult Shows Ever!”

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. MeowDragon says:

    I came across your article while I was rewatching the series. Everything you say is on point. Farscape still remains my favorite science fiction show. Talk about emotionally invested. Like many others at the time was devastated when it was cancelled. It is a little difficult to watch in 4:3 ratio at first but the oddness passes after a few episodes. It has been released in blue ray but I hear the quality is as poor as the dvds. The Sly-Lie channel claims to have lost the original films.

    • Dave James says:

      Thank you for so much for reading and commenting! Yes, it’s a great show. My favourite sci-fi series will always be Battlestar, followed by Firefly, but Farscape is making the top five. Tempted to rewatch it again!

  2. ixchup says:

    Dave, every re-watch brings out more consistency and evidence of the thoughtfulness of the scripts. And, I think you sell Ben Browder short. He lead the show and without his flare for taking acting risks, the show would have probably been much more “normal.” He could communicate silently with Claudia Black and that was not just her talent, but his as well. He went from innocent to nuclear terrorist during the course of the show all the while showing his compassion and soul. In a show so character-oriented, Ben lead the way. In addition, he wrote two episodes, the Season 3 Green-Eyed Monster that takes place on Talyn and the Season 4 bonkers and deep John Quixote. These were not ghost written, but totally his work.

    It pays to re-watch and then listen to the Commentaries. There has never been a show like Farscape ever. Much better than the extremely dark Battlestar where there was no hope.

    Thank you for your review.

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