|A Newbies Guide to Farscape|
All you need to know to get hooked on Farscape...
By Mary Wood
NOTE/SPOILERS: The only spoiler in this article is for the core premise of the show, which is established in the Premiere episode. It does not contain spoilers for the specific events of the Premiere episode itself.
So, you saw the commercials on the SciFi channel for Farscape saying that they’re going to start rerunning it from the beginning and that bald blue lady looks intriguing. Or maybe you have a friend whose world stops revolving when Farscape comes on and you’re curious to see what it is that compels them so. Or maybe you happened to be at the Marriott Cincinnati North during ScaperCon, witnessed the wild debauchery, and are dying to know what got this group all worked up in the first place.
Well wonder no more! We’re here at Farscape World to be your tour guides to this wild and wonderful, strange and irreverent, unlike-anything-else-on-television, world without boundaries! What is it? Why should I watch? What do I get from Farscape that I can’t get on a dozen other dramas, sci-fi shows, or combinations thereof?
First, we’re compelled to tell you what Farscape isn’t. Conceived and produced by the Jim Henson Company, the first and furthest-from-the-truth misconception is that this is “Muppets in Space.” Yes, a number of characters – even a couple of main characters – are animatronics from the twisted minds of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, but therein ends the similarity. The animatronics are amazingly life-like and their acting is on par with any of the live cast. Some are good guys, some are bad guys, none fall into the stereotype of cute and endearing pets and all provide a way for Farscape to expand its world of aliens well beyond the limitations of “humans with funny foreheads.” Claudia Black, one of the series’ stars, calls it the antithesis of Muppets; “What would Kermit never do? I know, bite someone’s arm and then swallow the flesh. Brilliant! Let’s use it!” To that end, Farscape is also not a children’s show. Just when you think how cute that puppet is, he really will gnaw off a chunk of Claudia’s arm (and both characters are the supposed good guys). Things can get gory – good guys chopping off a fellow crewmember's arm and the like – and they’re not afraid to tackle the darker issues where other shows won’t go or will barely touch upon. The realism factor is actually quite good for kids (in a sea of gratuitous violence, Farscape sends a clear message that actions have consequences), but not young kids without adult supervision. Finally, it is not stock sci-fi where we save the universe from itself with our superior human morals, and it is not afraid to let the good guys lose once in a while. Like a good psychological thriller, Farscape starts out in the daylight and the realm of the recognizable, but this kiddie-coaster becomes a strange and twisted high-speed thrill ride real fast.
“So if that’s what Farscape isn’t, tell us what it is.”
The Letterman list:
8) No safety nets
7) Character growth
6) Superior acting and production
5) Women as persons, not as gender-types
4) Sex appeal
3) Active versus passive viewing
2) Novel feel over the course of the series
The core premise of Farscape can best be described as “X number of strangers in a lifeboat.” Sometime in the present day, human Astronaut John Crichton was flying a one-man experimental spacecraft when he was sucked through a wormhole – a shortcut through space-time – and deposited in another part of the galaxy. A cascade of could-anything-else-go-wrong-today events led him to seek refuge aboard an escaped prison ship with four other fugitives, all on the run from the Peacekeepers – the local military regime and collectively one of many bad guys. There are two key elements that make this premise unique:
First, Crichton is the only human on the show, versus the more traditional plot of several humans with a token alien or two. Moreover, he’s not futuristic or fantastical. He’s not a brave captain or a cocky, Flash-Gordon hero type. He’s an everyday guy from our present time who views things from our present-day perspective. He has skills and faults. He’s creeped out and freaked out by this alien universe, but he makes do the best he can. In short, we humans are the aliens in this world and we relate to it through a man not very unlike you or I.
Second is the strangers-in-a-lifeboat setup. Instead of a military unit or a common-interest group, everyone on board Moya – the ship – comes from disparate backgrounds and has his or her own agenda: A priestess, a young man from a warrior race who’s lost his family, a deposed king, an outcast Peacekeeper soldier, and our human astronaut. You can also include Moya herself – a bio-mechanoid, living ship – and Moya’s pilot – a symbiotic creature bonded to the ship. Halfway through the first season, they are joined by a fifth fugitive, a young, street-wise rebel from a frighteningly conformist society. Some pairings get along, most don’t. Each person comes from a completely different alien background and there is no leadership structure. This creates scores of conflict and conflict equals drama. And, against the backdrop of fantastical alien cultures, Farscape is, at its heart, a character-driven drama.
One of the first things Farscape has that others lack is grit. The producers’ original vision was “the Star Wars’ bar scene on a weekly basis.” The maintenance bay is a mess. When a character gets hurt, it can be gory and you know they hurt. They spit, they belch, they fart helium, they need a bath more often than not. How many serious sci-fi dramas can you name that would deal with how you would pee when your consciousness is inhabiting the body of an alien being? Farscape even develops its own vocabulary of alien swear words with obvious correlations to their English counterparts (“frell you… you’re so full of dren…”) allowing them to cuss like the soldier, warrior, and astronaut that they are on a TV channel that otherwise wouldn’t allow such language. This is not to say the show is one big toilet-humor fest, but it incorporates just enough of it to give the series a very real-life edge that is missing from the more sterile high-tech universe we are normally fed.
Let’s face it. You and I are funny. Everyday things in our everyday lives are funny and we move through our lives cracking understated jokes about them. Just because this is a serious drama doesn’t mean it can’t be layered in the same underlying humor that layers our own lives. Even the most dark and horrifying episodes of Farscape still incorporate hilarious, dry-wit one-liners, biting sarcasm, or just plain amusing moments of everyday life.
8) Lack of safety nets:
Farscape shies away from the cardinal rules of just how bad of a situation your heroes can get into and does not give them a deus ex machina to rescue them at every turn. The heroes are faced with hard decisions, sometimes they don’t make the right decisions, and not every episode or story arc is tied up in a neat little bow. After saying they’d never touch the cliché vehicle of time travel, Farscape caved and did so in season three. Yes, the timeline was reset, but it wasn’t reset perfectly and people got hurt. Actions have consequences and victories come at a cost, yet again adding to the realism of the show. This also delves into what many have deemed the “darkness” of Farscape. Yes, it deals with some pretty heavy topics; torture, rape, slavery, prostitution, drugs, good guys with ugly pasts who still aren’t the ideal role-models. All this really would be very dark and depressing if it served no purpose. But the purpose it serves is to cause the characters to grow and evolve, to overcome adversity and find the better part of oneself to do it. Farscape does tragedy extremely well and the tragedy makes the comedy and the lighter moments all the more vivid and fun to experience.
7) Character growth:
In too many TV shows, the most reaction we get to the most tragic of events is a heartfelt sigh, before next week’s episode where the character is back to his or her old happy self. He or she is exactly the same in season six as they were in season one. In Farscape, as in real life, events change people. Characters grow. In season one, John Crichton is wide-eyed, low-tech, and a stranger in this strange universe. By season two and three, he’s learned his way around and is carving out a niche for himself. The Peacekeeper soldier who comes on board in the Premiere discovers through experience that she really can be more than the strict, emotionless military regime she was born and raised in. These changes don’t happen in a sudden epiphany in a single, focal episode, but is a gradual and ongoing process throughout the series.
6) Superior acting/writing/production:
We’ve come to the conclusion that in addition to the creative element Henson brings in, the fact that Farscape is produced and filmed in Sydney, Australia is largely responsible for its superior talent pool. When people are in the business for fame and glory, they move to Hollywood. The people who stay elsewhere are in it for the love of the craft. It shows too, in the direction and set designs and acting, that these people really love what they’re doing and are constantly challenging themselves to be more and more creative and explorative with this world. With regards to the cast, the producers have tended to cast an actor and write the role around him or her more than having a strict role in mind and hiring whomever can spit out the lines. Combine that with the aforementioned superior talent pool you get when people are there for the love of their art and you have some of the best actors onscreen who really become the roles they are playing. Though covered in prosthetics, Anthony Simcoe emotes more through his eyes than most actors do through their whole face. Gigi Edgley, playing the street-wise thief who comes onboard mid season, brings voice work and movement to her character that gives her a decidedly alien edge. Producer Brian Henson describes Claudia Black – Peacekeeper Officer Aeryn Sun – by saying, “You watch her for ten seconds and you can’t stop.” She really does have a compelling presence that is a rare treat to watch. Even the guest stars usually bring more talent to a single episode than some main cast members in other series throughout the entire run.
5) Women as people – not as gender-types:
Women in television generally swing between two poles. She’s either the victim, waiting for a man to rescue her, or there’s the “strong” woman, who either has to become a guy to be in on the action, or is expected to perform paramilitary duties in spike heels and leather thongs. Her every accomplishment is embellished as if she were handicapped and all the guys say unconvincingly, “Whoa! Don’t mess with the tough chick! [wink, wink, nudge, nudge]” Farscape’s women are people first. They aren’t pink and prissy but they don’t have to lose their femininity to hold up their end of the action. Aeryn is a soldier, not a girl-soldier, and the other characters respect her skills the same as if she were a guy. When Moya is invaded by a small unit of Peacekeepers, you still don’t get the feeling that the one female soldier in the unit is a “token” female. She’s just there. Yes, sexism amongst characters and enemies will rear its ugly head as one would expect in everyday life, but the show itself treats people like people.
4) Sex appeal:
Ahh, that got your attention, eh? But hold off on the exasperated sighs. This is very much not “lust in space.” Most of Farscape’s sex appeal doesn’t come from characters getting it on, or from day-to-day outfits that show too much skin. Part of the aforementioned superior acting is sex appeal that is natural rather than painted on or forced upon you. With the character of Crichton, most women will attest that a sweet, everyday guy is much more appealing than the over-confident hero who thinks he’s king of the herd. Anthony Simcoe brings a sweet sensitivity to the young warrior. In Summer, 2000, TV guide came up with their vote for the eight sexiest female characters in sci-fi. All three of Farscape’s female leads made the list, yet none achieve that through disproportionate super-model looks or by throwing themselves at everything that moves. Male viewers often note it is their magnetism, inner strength, and sense of self that make them sexier fully clothed in military gear or monochrome robes than any barely-dressed Baywatch Babe.
But when two characters do get it on, there is more heat in a look or a shoulder-to-shoulder brush … and Farscape does not pair up characters unless the chemistry is smoking. That chemistry allows such relationship arcs to flow smoothly within the story; keeping the rabid romantics well-fed, but without overwhelming those viewers who would rather see firefights than sex scenes.
3) Active viewership
We sit down, we watch a show. It shows us a story, the whole story, and nothing but the story, the end credits roll and we wait for next week. Farscape on the other hand has a talent for dropping mysteries and leaving a number of plot points and “missing scenes” up to the viewer’s imagination. “So she wasn’t killed after all! How did she escape and track our heroes to this planet?” Does it matter? It’s easy enough for you and I to imagine any number of plausible scenarios for how she got there. And besides, the point of this episode is not how she got there but what she does once she’s there, so why take valuable airtime away from the principle action? Without leaving plot holes, Farscape drops tantalizing tidbits and mysteries that are as much fun to speculate on as what's shown onscreen. Much to the delight of people turned off by sci-fi because the “technobabble” gets too complicated and redundant, technobabble is also kept to a minimum so as to focus more on the action and the drama. There's no using the metaphasic interdimensional force torpedoes to penetrate the enemies' time-shifting quantum shield drive here. It’s more like, “Ok Crichton, for the last time, here’s how the device works. [Quick cut to the characters back on the ship. Cut back to Aeryn and Crichton on the planet…] There. Understand?” Farscape explains just enough to keep the story coherent and plausible, but also keeps it moving and maximizes on the time spent showing you the good stuff. When series star Ben Browder wrote an episode, he made it clear that he’d rather give the audience credit for intelligence and creativity than spoon-feed us every minute detail.
2) A TV novel; beginning, middle, end.
When “Babylon 5” finished its run, a huge chunk of the fan base picked up Farscape, citing the same novel feel. As you watch from season to season you see that there’s a complete story being told here. “Babylon 5” was planned out, in its entirety, before filming ever started. Beginning, middle, end. Rumors vary as to whether the series length of Farscape is set in stone, but what is certain is that producer David Kemper knows how the series will end and is building towards that. He plans out each season the same way, starting out by telling his writing staff, “In the final episode of the season, this needs to happen or that element must come together.” This shows as each season feels like a complete section of a book, building into the next section.
All of these other elements build into this feel of realism. It's a realistic drama unfolding in space as opposed to the sci-fi elements driving the show. What is meant by that is that while the backdrop is very much fantasy, the character reactions and interactions are real. Given the premise of Farscape, “real” also means “dark.” When you have a ship full of escaped fugitives, you can’t realistically portray their lives as a bed of roses. They go hungry, they go without proper medical care, they have few luxuries. When you know your heroes will always win and never get hurt, when you know everything will be tied up neatly by the end of the episode, there’s no challenge. There’s no thrill or suspense. It also makes it harder to care about a character the further that character gets from realistic reactions. Caring about our characters means the tragedy cuts deep, but it also means the lighter moments, even the smallest of light moments, mean so much more.
“Ok, ok, I’ll watch the show already!”
Good! But there is a final note. By mid-season two, Farscape does get into some pretty involved story arcs. While it’s by no means impossible to pick up this book part way through, it’s more fun to watch in order from the beginning. Like any series, Farscape also had to find its foothold and the actors and writers had to discover their characters. While some of us were completely hooked from the start, those who weren’t almost unanimously cite either episode 7, “PK Tech Girl,” or episode 9, “DNA Mad Scientist,” as the point where the roller-coaster ride makes its first high-speed drop and hasn’t let up since. Just a few episodes after that, Chiana hops on board and a few episodes after that, the greater scope that is the series’ novel begins to take hold. Again, it is possible to pick it up midway or miss an episode here and there. You will be confused however if you only passively watch every third episode while you’re doing housework.
And last but not least, to accompany you through the Uncharted Territories, we have reviews, summaries, and photo galleries of all the episodes (well, most as of this writing, but that will be changed to “all” very soon). We’re gradually adding character profiles, special articles, merchandise reviews, and are sure to have new features in store. Dani and I are always eager to hear your feedback, answer questions, or get into in-depth email discussions about the show. So tune in to the SciFi Channel or pop in that video tape or DVD. Please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times, make sure glasses and loose items are secure, hang on tight and enjoy the ride!
Written by Mary Wood with suggestions and additions from Dani Moure exclusively for this site.