April 16, 2013

The Wonders of Farscape


Last night, SyFy premiered their ambitious new series Defiance, which was developed by Rockne O'Bannon. Way back in 1999, he created the wildly imaginative show Farscape for this same network. Four seasons and a mini-series later, it remains one of the most innovative genre series ever produced. A few years ago, I watched the entire series over a short period of time and recounted my experiences in an epic review for PopMatters. In honor of O'Bannon's new show, I've decided this is the perfect time to present this grand piece here on this blog. If you still haven't caught up with this remarkable show, now is the perfect time to give it a shot. My review didn't cover the mini-series, but I've revisited it recently and added an extra section near the end. Here's my original review!

Farscape – Created by Rockne O'Bannon; Starring Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Lani John Tupu, Jonathan Hardy, Gigi Edgley, Wayne Pygram, Virginia Hey, Paul Goddard, Raelee Hill, and Tammy Macintosh

Our current TV landscape offers a wealth of ambitious sci-fi series to suit all types of viewers. Popular hits (Lost, Battlestar Galactica) mix well with cult favorites (Dollhouse, Sanctuary) on broadcast and cable to provide a wide array of options. But that wasn’t always the case. In the late ‘90s, the sci-fi genre mostly lived in syndication or pay channels like Showtime. There were some impressive shows, but they mostly stuck to the "Star Trek model" that personified the decade. Even the Sci-Fi Channel was small potatoes and aired mostly old material to minimal audiences. In search of an original series to expand their presence, the network found a partner in Brian Henson of the Jim Henson Company, who aimed to enter the television market to showcase their Creature Shop. Along with Rockne O’Bannon (SeaQuest DSV, Alien Nation), they talked to Fox about a project, but the two sides never reached the same page to move forward.


Produced in Australia for the Nine Network and airing on Sci-Fi in the U.S., Farscape premiered in March 1999 and showcased remarkable make-up, prosthetics, and puppetry. Creator O’Bannon had earned acclaim for his past works, but those projects didn’t match this series’ gargantuan scope. Airing for four seasons and concluding with a mini-series, it remains one of the most unique shows to ever hit the airwaves. The story begins on Earth with astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) conducting a test in space that inadvertently sends him through a wormhole across the universe. He boards the giant living ship Moya and joins its crew of diverse aliens for adventures while he tries to get home.

This group includes the hulking Luxan warrior D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), the blue-skinned priestess Zhaan (Virginia Hey) and the small Hynerian Dominar Rygel XVI (voice by Jonathan Hardy), who once ruled over billions of subjects. Each member of this trio was a prisoner of the ruling authority known as the Peacekeepers, a military-based company with strict guidelines. Crichton arrives on Moya at the same time as the striking Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper who becomes an outcast and joins their team. They quickly develop a romantic connection that becomes pivotal in the entire series.


The Jim Henson Company’s achievements in puppetry on Farscape are astounding, and its smooth immersion with CGI and live actors is an even greater feat. The Rygel character is a nuanced, intelligent figure, equally believable as humanoid aliens like Zhaan and D’Argo. As the series progresses, the “fake” aspects of Rygel become even less noticeable because we’ve grown emotionally attached to him. The massive Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu) puppet is possibly even more impressive and outshines most modern CGI creations. Both Rygel and Pilot also succeed due to excellent voice work from Hardy and Tupu, who craft unique personalities that connect with viewers. Each episode provides new characters that stretch the boundaries of the medium. Combined with creative set design and make-up, these advances help to build an in-depth, believable faraway galaxy.

This was my first experience with Farscape beyond catching a few early episodes. During the past two months, I’ve screened the entire series and grown attached to the enjoyable group of characters. The opening episodes introduce the cast within a fairly episodic structure, shifting to a more serial approach as we go along. The story builds wonderfully towards the third season, which pays off many ongoing plot lines and delivers cathartic emotional scenes. Without giving away major spoilers, here are more details about each season and the many unique individuals that grace the screen.


Season 1: What is wrong with you people?
The opening season places audiences in Crichton’s shoes as he accidentally falls into a crazy alien world. His bewildered reactions to everything match our confusion and introduce the Moya crew. Ben Browder plays the perfect everyman who blunders his way into plenty of early scrapes. Whenever Crichton says he has a plan, it’s time to get nervous. “Premiere” brings him onto Moya and introduces the season’s primary nemesis, the fanatical Peacekeeper Crais (Lani Tupu). His brother was accidentally killed by Crichton on his arrival, which leads Crais to relentlessly pursue them for much of the year.

The early episodes are up-and-down but set the foundation for the entire series. All types of strange new alien races appear, with a select few recurring over the years. We’ve gone well beyond rubber masks and goofy make-up with these creations. A standout is “Back and Back and Back to the Future”, which jumps Crichton ahead and back through time to foresee possible disasters on the ship. The kinetic, out-of-control shooting style with these leaps overcomes the time-travel formula and reveals a Farscape trademark. The writers take the expected sci-fi frameworks and blow them to pieces. The outcome doesn’t always transcend the genre, but it’s rarely a boring ride. A less successful result is “Thank God It’s Friday, Again”, which can’t overcome a dull, over-the-top villain.

A driving force behind the entire story is the romance between Crichton and Aeryn, which takes many twists and turns. An early indicator is “PK Tech Girl”, where he catches the eye of an attractive Peacekeeper technician, leading to jealous tension. Browder and Black have such great chemistry that we want them to get together, but having their relationship grow slowly is the right artistic choice. Even weaker episodes like “The Flax”, which offers an unconvincing A plot, contain precious moments for the couple. Their interactions are believable and remain true to their characters throughout the series.


A stunning mid-season entry is “A Human Reaction”, which sends Crichton and the gang to Earth, but all is not as it seems. The story appears to set up manipulation from nefarious aliens, but the outcome is complicated and surprisingly emotional. The concluding events of this episode have ramifications throughout the series and raise the stakes far beyond Crichton finding home. The two-part combo of “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory” brings that moment’s ramifications to the forefront. It also introduces the chilling villain Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) — my favorite Farscape character. Clad in a black leather protective suit and a mix of two alien races, he becomes a brilliant opponent for Crichton. Unlike Crais’ single-minded quest for revenge, Scorpius displays complex views and an uncanny ability to survive. The theatrically trained Pygram dominates scenes with a clever mix of wit and menace while hidden under extensive facial makeup. His showdown with Browder while torturing Crichton is the season’s best sequence and drives the action towards the finale.

While this season might appear to follow a simple “fish out of water” premise, it’s impossible to summarize all the key moments in a few paragraphs. I haven’t even mentioned that Moya becomes pregnant and has a baby near the year’s end. This child, named Talyn, is actually a powerful warship capable of serious havoc. The idea of a spaceship having a baby sounds ridiculous, but it actually is a believable storyline. I should also mention Chiana (Gigi Edgley), who joins the cast in “Durka Returns”, the 15th episode. Her introduction is a bit shaky, but Edgley’s energetic presence becomes welcome in a short time. This pattern will recur multiple times with other cast additions in the future. The grey-skinned Chiana brings sex to almost everything and never makes it a cliché; it’s just part of her identity as a rebellious member of the Nebari race. These are just two of many enjoyable parts of the first season, which introduces the world and sets up the crew’s future adventures.


Season 2: How Batman Was That?
Following the striking conflicts with Scorpius and its major set pieces, the creators seemed unsure of where to go next. The original pilot “Reunion” was scrapped, eventually finding its way into “Dream a Little Dream” in the eighth slot. The actual premiere “Mind the Baby” resolves the cliffhanger quicker and works solidly but still falls a bit short. The writers don’t have a clear vision of the season’s prevailing arc during the beginning episodes. We also see Farscape’s definitive worst episode, “Taking the Stone”. Designed as a showcase for Chiana, it instead becomes a painful look at crazy kids hopped up on drugs. Edgley gives her best shot but can’t overcome clunky plotting and unimaginative set design.

Thankfully, there are still effective episodes within the mix, particularly “The Way We Weren’t”. This emotional story reveals surprising details from Aeryn and Pilot’s pasts that they prefer to forget. Even though one of them is a puppet, their interactions are believable and heart-wrenching. The mid-season sees modest success from two genre staples —mind-swapping (“Out of Their Minds”) and duplicate characters (“My Three Crichtons”). The former gives the actors a chance to showcase their imitation skills when everyone’s brains switch. For example, Crichton ends up in Aeryn, and Aeryn is in Rygel, with ridiculous results. The latter shows both caveman and futuristic variations of Crichton that wreak havoc across Moya. Although these are standard ideas, the writers find ways to keep the material fresh. They also introduce crazy moments that make me question if mind-altering substances weren’t involved. This zany creativity keeps even the missteps from going off the rails.


Some of the show’s top episodes come in two- or three-part blocs, and the three segments of "Look at the Princess" raise the stakes immensely. Trapped between a variety of dangerous forces, Crichton must decide if marrying a princess is the best solution. Of course, there are some serious strings, one which involves him becoming a statue. This story maintains the fun while actually building on the ongoing storyline. It also marks the first appearance of the Scarrans, a ruthless alien rival for the Peacekeepers. This brilliant race will play a key role in nearly all major events of upcoming years. The pace barely lags during the three parts, which is also a trademark of the extended stories.

The second season might be the weakest, but it still provides a thrilling final four episodes. The three-part “Liars, Guns and Money” plays out like a classic heist film as the crew attempts a daring robbery to save D’Argo’s son. Predictably, the plan fails miserably and forces the gang to keep adjusting to stay alive and avoid Scorpius. Watching them make desperate moves never gets old and subverts the sci-fi model. It’s high entertainment and even brings back colorful aliens from past encounters to join the action. The finale “Die Me Dichotomy” involves Crichton’s attempts to save his brain. Scorpius implanted a chip into Crichton’s mind during their first meeting in hopes of grabbing his wormhole knowledge. This leads to some creepy, wonderful sequences that have our hero questioning his reality and losing control. It also gives Pygram a chance to spend more time on screen, which is always a positive. The cliffhanger is a shocker and leads well into the remarkable upcoming year.


Season 3: Season of Death
At the halfway point of viewing Farscape, I was enjoying the ride, particularly the ambitious multi-part episodes. However, the grand scope of the third season still surprised me. Major changes occur, including the departure of a series regular during the “Self-Inflicted Wounds” two-parter. The exit is handled well and involves multiple sacrifices to save Moya and the crew. We also see the arrival of the fiery Jool (Tammy MacIntosh), who overcomes a rough start and eventually becomes a likable team member. Another new regular is Stark (Paul Goddard), who’s filled with so much emotion that he sometimes caves into a ranting mess. Originally appearing in “Nerve”, he officially joined the crew late in the second season and plays a major part in this year’s events.

Executive Producer David Kemper and the writers take several major chances this season, and the risks pay off wonderfully. The first is introducing an exact double for Crichton due to a madman’s experiments in “Eat Me”. This is hardly novel in sci-fi, but there are several differences here. The other Crichton survives for a long time, and it’s not even clear which guy is the original. We never learn the truth, and it doesn’t matter because both are likable. The other creative leap was breaking the crew apart on Moya and Talyn. The episodes then alternate stories between the two groups for a surprisingly long time.  With one Crichton on each ship, their personas start to vary based on differing experiences. The Talyn Crichton becomes closer to Aeryn and battles the Scarrans, while the Moya Crichton falls into odd comic situations. When the inevitable happens and one of them falls, the other faces the unenviable task of being considered the lesser Crichton by his close friends.


The season’s main arc is wormhole travel, which could become a powerful weapon in the wrong hands. Scorpius is trying to gain an edge in a possible war against the Scarrans, who vastly outnumber the Peacekeepers. The destructive power of wormholes is revealed in the two-part “Infinite Possibilities”. The Talyn crew — Crichton, Aeryn, Crais (now an ally), Rygel and Stark — strive desperately to keep the wormhole tech from the Scarrans before it’s too late. This action-packed epic sets up the massive climactic encounters with Scorpius at season’s end. Before this battle, this group was hunted by Aeryn’s mother, a brutal Peacekeeper tracker. This nasty conflict in “Relativity” is emotionally charged while revealing details about Aeryn’s past. There are still a few missteps, namely the Looney Tunes-inspired “Revenging Angel”. The animated fantasies in the Moya Crichton’s brain are creative, but it’s not enough to carry a full episode. Another middling entry is “Meltdown”, which brings the Talyn crew into contact with strange beings while nearing a blazing sun. There are still some good moments, particularly from the crazed Stark as Talyn’s temporary pilot in a dire situation. Even this season’s weakest episodes have memorable portions.

After the entire group reunites, they plot a daring plan to thwart Scorpius’ wormhole program. It begins with the unpredictable “I-Yensch, You-Yensch”, which brings the heroes and villains together at a remote alien diner. It’s like the classic DeNiro/Pacino meeting in Heat, if it involved random hostage-taking by redneck aliens. The action intensifies in the two-part “Into the Lions Den” on a huge Peacekeeper carrier. Success seems nearly impossible, but a noble sacrifice from a former enemy might save the day. The maneuvering between Crichton and Scorpius has never had larger stakes, with the fate of the entire universe in the balance. These episodes seemed impossible to top, but the low-key “Dog with Two Bones” finale nearly does it. The entire John/Aeryn relationship of the first three years comes to a head, and the result is definitely unpredictable.


Season 4: Unfinished Business
Following the epic conclusion of the third season, it was hard to imagine the follow-up to come even close. The beginning is a bit shaky, but the momentum really builds to deliver an enjoyable finish. Sadly, the Sci-Fi Network’s surprise cancellation ruins the chance for a proper end during the original run. The finale “Bad Timing” is a wonderful episode, though the brutal cliffhanger is not intended to end the show. The Peacekeeper Wars mini-series does resolve this problem, but it’s not included in the series set for contractual reasons.

In typical Farscape fashion, this season introduces two more regulars who become important crew members. The striking Kalish alien Sikozu (Raehill Hill) arrives in the premiere “Crichton Kicks” and makes no secret of her disdain for almost everyone. But she plays a valuable role, even while building an alliance with Scorpius. The other newcomer is the older woman Noranti (Melissa Jaffer), whose herbal concoctions can help and wreak havoc. She creates a potion for Crichton that’s designed to ease his emotional pain, but it becomes a dangerous addiction. Moya’s crew must face off with both the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans and face dire situations. In the two-part “What Was Lost”, they’re captured by the Peacekeeper Commandant Grayza (Rebecca Riggs), who now leads their forces. The aftermath brings Scorpius onto Moya as a possible ally in “Promises”. This is a brilliant move by the writers because it forces Crichton to trust his enemy. It benefits Scorpius to keep Crichton alive, but anything he does causes everyone to question his intentions.

The highlight of the mid-season is the three-part return to Earth. After discussing wormholes with strange alien in the intriguing “Unrealized Reality”, Crichton finds his way home, but in the wrong time period. “Kansas” brings the Moya crew to 1985, where they interact with a young Crichton and his family. In Back to the Future fashion, they could mess with the time line and harm the future. After this slip-up, they finally return to present-day Earth in “Terra Firma”, but the results aren’t so happy. These episodes wonderfully pay off long-term stories and deliver ridiculous moments, particularly from Rygel. His love for our food, particularly candy, is especially silly. Farscape concludes with a group of stories that rank among the series’ best. They involve both the Scarrans and Peacekeepers and multiple daring heists from the Moya crew. “Prayer” gives a harrowing look at Aeryn’s captivity while Scorpius and Crichton try desperately to find her. This leads into the awesome trilogy “We’re So Screwed” that matches the power of the third season’s end. This title would seem out of place on other self-important series, but it fits really well in this universe. The stakes remain high while retaining the sense of fun that makes Farscape such a unique show.


The Mini-Series: The Peacekeeper Wars
It's hard to imagine what it would be like if this mini-series didn't exist. They do a lot more than resolve the cliffhanger and bring the show's major villains together for an all-out war. All the main characters return for a battle for the universe with Crichton right in the middle between the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans. It's an action-packed, three-hour conclusion that doesn't feel rushed. It gives everyone a chance to shine and reunites us with the characters that we loved. The story feels like the glorious multi-part arcs of past seasons, particularly "Into the Lion's Den". It moves quickly yet still gives time for character beats; the writers know that's a main part of the draw. The stakes are even higher than usual; Aeryn is pregnant but her baby is growing inside Rygel. The main couple is trying to get married, but the impending war keeps getting in the way. No matter how much they want to step aside and just enjoy life, they're tied to the fate of the universe.

There are grand scenes, tragic deaths, and impressive space battles, but what sticks with me are the small moments. When Critchton and Aeryn are regenerated, they immediately draw their guns and go on alert without missing a beat. The Scarran leader may think he's all-powerful, but his visit with Crichton inside the wormhole shows his limitations. There's a constant question of the responsibilities of avoiding war, while a pragmatist like Scorpius realizes that it's inevitable. Pygram remains in top form as the clever villain, and we even get several appearances from his doppelganger inside Crichton's head. Everyone gets their chance to shine, including the mentally erratic Stark and the extremely agile Sikozu. It's a love letter to the fans while continuing the series story in epic fashion. I can't think of a better way to end this wonderful show.


My name is John Crichton. An astronaut…
Farscape is a show for true geeks, not the casual nerds who enjoy conventional soap operas like Heroes and Revolution. I use the term “geeks” in a lovable way to mean dedicated viewers who adore unpredictable, imaginative shows. It’s funny, irreverent and ridiculous without ever becoming a self-parody. Each episode provides serious emotions and never sacrifices the fun. Even if facing certain death, Crichton will throw out pop-culture references and maintain his wits. When a rock-paper-scissors game plays a key role and doesn’t seem absurd, you know we’ve got something special.

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