It took a while, but I managed to finish all ten seasons of Stargate: SG-1 (regular readers will recall my review of that fine series elsewhere on this site). Ten seasons is a lot to absorb all at once, even more so when Mrs Zennmaster, after watching the last six seasons, insisted on going back and getting caught up by watching the first four. Even so, I was still on a strong Sci-Fi Channel kick. It seemed sort of obvious that the next show in line would be Farscape. This is mainly due to the shows being somewhat concurrent, sharing a few of the same actors, and the general “Sci-Fi Channel feel”.
I have to admit that, like SG-1, I wasn’t really hoping for much. The reason, in a word: Muppets.
There was that period of time, starting roughly when Return of the Jedi was released, and ending about the time that CGI really came into being, where space adventures always seemed to involve some sort of Muppet. As a huge fan of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, it’s sort of painful to admit, but the “Muppets in Space” thing has always left me a little flat. Case in point, the famous scene in Return of the Jedi when Admiral Ackbar laments with floppy, fishy, thoroughly latex fingers that the Rebel shields cannot repel “Firepower of that magnitude!”. Add this to the fact that latex without slime applied looks exactly like latex, and suspension of disbelief becomes a trifle challenging.
So here comes Farscape: an Australian produced story (produced by a guy named Henson, no less!), about an Earthling Astronaut (John Crichton, played by Ben Browder) who gets sucked into a wormhole while conducting an experimental orbital mission. The wormhole dumps the hapless Crichton next to a living ship which is in the process of being hijacked by a bunch of escaped prisoners, all of whom happen to fall into classic science fiction “Alien” categories: Zhann (Virginia Hey)is the hot chick who’s skin is a weird color (In this case blue, although the concept was pioneered by the green chick in the original, first pilot of Star Trek), Ka D’argo (Anthony Simcoe) is the big scary dude with weird appendages hanging off his chin and the back of his head (think of the dancing girls in Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Return of the Jedi), and Rygel, (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) a weird little dude that has characteristics of both Yoda and Kermit the Frog. The ship is driven by another muppet that looks like something of a cross between the queen alien from Aliens and the invaders from Independence Day. This guy is known simply as “Pilot”, and is symbiotically joined to the ship, whose name is Moya.
The addition of Kent McCord, who will for so many of us be forever known as Officer Reed from Adam 12 as Crichton’s father, completes the setup. I have to admit, my expectations were relatively low, and it took me a few tries to stay awake through the first episode (to be fair, I was watching it at night in bed). When the show was in production, I don’t recall ever really thinking it looked all that inviting, and I wasn’t really sure I’d be making it all the way through this one.
In the first episode, when Crichton first shows up, the characters are trying hard to effect their escape, by stealing the ship from the Peacekeepers, who are sort of like the UN of the universe, except that somewhere along the way, they lost sight of the actual mission of keeping the peace, which one might assume meant stopping potential wars, and have grown more into the role of trying to stop people from doing whatever it is they are doing, regardless of whether or not such actions are lawful or reasonable. Right away this is brought into clear focus when Crichton convinces Officer Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) that he wasn’t actually doing anything he wasn’t supposed to. When she points this out to her boss, Captain Bialar Crais (Lani Tupu), her reward is to be fired and forced underground, and ends up joining the rest of the figitives. A few episodes later, Chiana, a young monochromatic woman joins the crew (Picture Debbie Harry in black and white). We now have the gang living on Moya.
So with a setup like this, how can a show actually be saved?
Well, there are really two big ways: One is by creating some very strong and interesting stories, both in the large arcs that eventually evolve, as well as within individual episodes. The other way is to treat the interpersonal relationships between the small and close group of characters in a much more complex and realistic way than we have come to expect from science fiction shows.
First, the stories. Putting a random collection of escapees on a spaceship is a pretty basic setup for a space opera. Once they have made their escape, they are free to wander around the universe having all kinds of adventures. The fact that each of them is from somewhere far away makes the quest to get home a central goal, at least for a season, and drives the stories of several episodes. Things are a little different for Crichton, of course, since he was flung VERY far from Earth by a wormhole, so he is very interested in trying to figure out if he can catch one going the other direction. It is this element that gives rise to the grand story arc of Farscape. In first season, we meet Scorpius, a particularly mean and nasty Peacekeeper who becomes convinced that Crichton’s experience with the wormhole was not an accident at all, and that Crichton must posses the knowledge of how to create and use wormholes. Scorpius sees tremendous potential, and becomes obsessed with learning what he sees as Crichton’s secrets.
Over the course of the show’s four seasons, we meet new characters and alien races, we see some major characters die, leaving room for others to come in. What I think really makes Farscape special is the way the relationships between the characters grow and evolve over time. In the beginning, they are a loose group of individuals, each out for themselves primarily, but not averse to helping someone else out if it’s convenient. By the end of season four, this has changed dramatically. Crichton and D’Argo, for example, have gone from a place of being mostly wary of each other to eventually being close and trusted friends, complete with well-natured verbal barbs and nicknames.
As one would expect in a situation like this, there is some romantic and sexual tension, but Farscape bucks the conventional wisdom that says that as soon as they Do It, the magic is lost, and all that’s left is a soap opera (Witness ST:TNG’s Picard/Crusher non-romance). Quite the contrary, our heroes find themselves involved with each other, and when it doesn’t work out, they are left with the question of how to work and live together afterward. Just like in real life, this proves not to be all that easy, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In all cases, it’s great storytelling. The obvious pairing between Aeryn and Crighton is the primary example of this (not the only one, but I won’t spoil it!). In season 3, the story takes an extremely clever twist, that allows the tension to resolve on one hand, and yet be picked right back up on the other. My hat is off to whoever thought of that at the writers’ meeting, I did NOT see it coming!
So in season four, we see things getting ready to head into the crescendo of the season’s final episodes, with the state of the universe being quite a bit different than it was just three short years ago. The notions of friends and enemies have changed around quite a bit, and things are starting to get really interesting when suddenly…
Farscape is canceled.
Yup, the show effectively ends on a cliffhanger. Damn, that hurts! Luckily, Brian Henson, one of the show’s producers, obtained the rights to Farscape, and created a miniseries called Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, which resolved the immediate “To Be Continued” nature of the final episode, and served to try to wrap things up as much as possible. I’ll let you know how it works out.
In the end, I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by how good Farscape turned out to be. As concerned as I was about the “Muppety” nature of it, I actually found myself quite interested in the fate of all the little (and not so little) puppets. I also have to point out that the Muppets really were beautifully done, and created a much more convincing universe than the usual gaggle of aliens who look exactly like regular people except for the appliances on their foreheads. I was also particularly impressed with the way Scorpius was developed. Initially I saw him as being an over-the-top and very one-dimensional bad guy, but he eventually tuned out to have quite a bit of complexity to him, as well as some very good reasons for characteristics that seemed at first to be quite hackneyed and overdone sci-fi cliches. This is the kind of surprise that I particularly like to find.
Chalk one up for the Aussies, go rent Farscape!