In the variegated landscape of science fiction tv shows, one stands out because of its novel and daring approach to storytelling, themes and portrayal: I’m talking about Farscape. From a deceptively conventional premise, that of the human lost in an unknown environment, the show proceeds to turn many of the genre tropes on their own head, and to offer the viewers a kaleidoscopic ride through a strange, new universe.
Astronaut/scientist John Crichton (Ben Browder) is testing a space module when he’s drawn into a wormhole, a tunnel in the space-time continuum that yanks him toward an unexplored part of the galaxy. Taken aboard the Leviathan Moya (a bio-mechanoid entity that resembles a huge space whale) he meets a group of escaped prisoners on the run from the Peacekeepers, a ruthless military organization. The motley crew consists of Ka D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a Luxan – big, tentacled humanoid with an aggressive stance; Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey) – a blue-skinned Delvian priestess devoted to spirituality; Rygel the XVI (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) – a frog-like Hynerian royal; and Pilot (voiced by Lany Tupu) – the symbiotic half of Moya, a four-armed creature that looks like a cross between a turtle and a spider.
If finely executed make-up and prosthetics make D’Argo and Zhaan outstanding alien creatures with a natural, believable appearance, Rygel and Pilot represent a huge step forward in non-terrestrial characterization: they are animatronics – in other words, highly sophisticated puppets that the Jim Henson Company’s magic wielders are able to transform into living creatures, or better, into flesh and blood characters with a personality. To be truthful, I don’t like the word “puppets” at all, and prefer to think of them as “artificial actors”. The combination of painstaking detail in appearance, skill from the animation crew and excellent voice work from the real persons behind the animatronics, manages to help the viewers forget that Rygel and Pilot are not living creatures, and makes the audience care for them just as much as they do for flesh-and-blood people.
The escapees group is joined by Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper turned renegade against her will, and later on by Chiana (Gigi Edgley), a grey-skinned Nebari – rebel, thief and street urchin all rolled into one. This is the core group of characters, that will mix and match with other regulars, or semi-regulars, giving life to a complex, gripping and entertaining story based both on plot and character development.
The first season centers mostly on Crichton and his struggles to stay alive in this bizarre and dangerous universe while trying to find a way to return home. It’s a classical “fish out of water” theme that however does not take the expected course of the genre, where the Earther usually manages to bring the aliens around to his own point of view: here is Crichton who has to adapt to new ways, bending and re-shaping his thought processes, changing who he is and who he perceives himself to be. The final episodes of this season see him turn slowly from a mediating stance to a more aggressive one as his battle for survival takes darker and darker overtones, thanks to the arrival of a powerful enemy, Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), who is one of the best villains to have graced the screen.
Season Two explores in greater depth the relationships between the Moyans, who are (so very slowly) turning into a more cohesive group – the beginning of a family born first out of necessity and then strengthened through common ordeals, even though it maintains its dysfunctional quality. The stakes are raised little by little and find hair-raising outcomes in two groups of multi-part episodes that lead to a stunning, emotion-laden and hair-raising finale, where we discover that Farscape does not pull any punches where characters are concerned, because death can be part of the equation. And if sometimes the storyline requires that death be cheated, there is always a steep price to pay.
The third year opens with the episode “Season of Death”, aptly named for the overall mood in this new installment of the show: loss and grief dominate the scene and bring with them a darkness that is hardly relieved by the comical or grotesque moments for which this series is well known. The writers’ choice of separating the crew into two groups further enhances this feeling of loss, and ushers in one of the most dramatic narrative arcs in the show, one whose consequences will carry on into next season. This mood, paired with Crichton’s growing obsession with wormholes, that are revealed as a potential destructive weapon, not just his way home, blends to perfection with the increasing stakes, offering a breathless storyline that ends in another massive cliffhanger, one of Farscape‘s trademarks.
Season Four sees the broadening of the show’s narrative scope from personal issues to drama of literally galactic proportions, as politics and the fragile balance of power intersect with the Moyans’ struggle for survival and Crichton’s personal problems. In this season we also see his longed-for return to Earth, even though it’s far from a happy occurrence when it brings home the awareness that we can never go back, that no matter how strong our desire to return home, life changes us, leaving us with the only choice of ever moving forward.
The unexpected cancellation of the show at the end of its fourth season left a great number of narrative threads hanging, especially when considering the end of the season’s final episode. Fortunately the wide outcry for this state of business brought about a mini-series, The Peacekeeper Wars, that despite a few “hiccups” in characterization and story-flow managed to give closure to the main themes developed during the previous four years.
What makes Farscape stand out from other series is its willingness to keep pushing the envelope beyond the usual limits, daring to tread over difficult or controversial terrain: part of it is due to the overt sexuality permeating the show, treated in such a off-hand, happy-go-lucky way as to be totally devoid of prurient leanings; but most of its foundation, and the reason it gained such a loyal audience, rests on the highly emotional content, on the willingness to explore the characters’ inner workings, their demons and angels, and to turn the resulting stuff into episodes that keep the viewers glued to the screen, caring for the characters as if they were real people and riding the emotional rollercoaster with them.
Add to all that wonderful sets, impeccable make-up and prosthetics and a general feeling of quality gained through daring experimentation, and you get a successful show that 15 years after its inception has not lost its striking impact.