Rockne O'Bannon offers final thoughts on the untimely end of the beloved SF saga he created.

FAREWELL TO FARSCAPE

By Joe Nazzaro in Starlog #308 March, 2002

A SCI FI Channel press release from September, 2001 described Farscape as the cornerstone of SCI FI’s original series line-up, helping to attract new viewers to the cable network. At the time, SCI FI was trumpeting their decision to renew the critically acclaimed space saga for two more seasons, but just a year later, fans were stunned by the network’s announcement that it was dropping Farscape after Season Four.

What had happened to cause the SCI FI Channel to jettison their flagship series in such an abrupt fashion? Their explanatory press release cited Farscape’s inability to grow beyond its core fan base, along with the extreme and growing cost of production, but to many fans those reasons just didn’t ring true. STARLOG recently spoke at length to series creator Rockne O’Bannon about the circumstances surrounding his show’s cancellation, as well as the controversy that followed.

“I think the dust has settled for the moment,” claims O’Bannon, “but for the most part, I believe the fans are biding their time and gathering their strength for when the last 11 episodes air. As of right now, it’s definjitely a door nail at the SCI FI Channel. They’ve retreated down into their concrete bunker, and whatever shit storm has been falling on them, they’re pretty much inured to it.”

If the final 11 episodes of Farscape’s fourth season – which are now airing – manage to score blockbuster ratings, the SCI FI Channel could theoretically reverse their decision about a fifth season pickup, but O'Bannon isn't holding his breath. "The series has been cancelled," he states. "It's dead as far as they're concerned. They're not going to lift a finger. To be honest, as much as they would love to have a successful series on the air, if they promoted the show to any degree and it garnered higher ratings, imagine the egg on their face! So they have no interest in promoting the show."

That certainly wasn't always the case for Farscape's first three-and-a-half seasons. The series was the jewel in SCI FI's crown, earning rave reviews from critics as well as some much- needed credibility for the network. "We were one horse pulling a very large cart," notes O'Banno~. "If you look at the ratings for the first three years in particular, we had whatever our lead-in was, and then we jumped enormously [ratings-wise]. The show after us would drop off, but not as much as the show that aired before us. Plus, SCI FI had the opportunity to promote the rest of their schedule during that hour when more people were watching. Look, we were a multi-award-winning show that was well thought of in the SF community, and a majority of mainstream TV critics called Farscape the best science fiction series on television at the moment. So if I were the SCI FI Channel, I would see that as a viable loss-leader in terms of, 'It gives us credibility that we're not just the network of Lexx, Black Scorpion and ancient reruns of TV series from the '70s. We're cutting-edge!'

"Having said all that, I can understand the economics. We were an expensive show and they're a small network, but the thing I find particularly unfortunate is that they made this big, proud announcement, announcing a fourth and fifth season pickup, getting all the juice they could out of the loyal fans, and then over-I don't want to say dubious-but economic issues that hadn't changed significantly over the last couple of years, they pulled back on that fifth season."

Final Conclusions

Although SCI FI's notification was made during the final days of Season Four's filming, O'Bannon believes there were quiet rumblings long before then. "It has always been a very slippery surface," he explains. "Simply because of the nature of the SCI FI Channel. It's a very small network, so right off the bat, you're insulting the core audience with the term 'sci fi.' Also, a large portion of the populace just on general principle shuns SF as a genre. One of the things that we were very proud of about Farscape was that our demographics had a huge [fan base] of women 18 to 39 or whatever that desirable age group is. It's not something the SCI FI Channel traditionally ever got, and SF historically doesn't get sampled to a large degree by that demographic. 

"As I said, we did sturdy service for them, in terms of being their highest-rated show for three years running. And there were times when they would rerun all the episodes and strip us five nights a week. Our ratings did very well for them, and then they began something in 2001 where they took us off the air completely – with no reruns or anything-throughout the entire fall. For several months, there was no Farscape-either in reruns or originals – and that's a long dry period to leave an audience without a show, so we kind of knew from the beginning. "In terms of the specifics," he continues, "it really started to I come about at the end of [2001] and the I beginning of [2002], when the new regime [at SCI FI] came in. We were certainly getting signals that they could do better. From what I understand, they weren't really happy with the amount of money it was costing, and felt that they could take that money and do two or three new shows – ike it's easy to get a critically acclaimed, award-winning show. I think that's what their internal attitude has been, and more power to them."

One of the reasons cited by the SCI FI Channel for cancellation was the rising cost of production. "The show cost in the neighborhood of $1.5 million an episode," O'Bannon discloses. "For most of the four years that we were in production, the exchange rate in Australia was about two to one, so our budget was around $3 million Australia, which is what the Australian film industry makes movies for. That's part of the thing that makes you scratch your head: The fact that it was an expensive show for the SCI FI Channel, but it wasn't outrageously expensive relative to the level of quality they were getting.

"Again, it was meant to be the flagship of the network, and it was. Critics said it had motion picture quality effects and stunts and that sort of thing, and an incredibly rich look. It had a stellar cast willing to take chances. So you would think that would be enough to have the SCI FI Channel say, 'Gee, we're proud to have this show on our network!' My feeling is that [they felt] the grass is always greener. When I was having conversations with SCI FI about doing something else for them, they were like, 'So what sort of shows interest you?' And I would hear, 'Gee, we would love to have Smallville' or 'We would kill to have Enterprise!' I like both those shows, but that's not the point. If Farscape was on Showtime, I honestly believe SCI FI would have been saying, 'If we could only have Farscape on our network!' "

Another problem that O'Bannon points out is that the start of Farscape's fourth season was heavily promoted as a two-hour block with Stargate SG-l, which had just moved over from Showtime. That block set a summer ratings record for SCI FI, with a 27 percent ratings increase in that time period from the previous season, and a whopping 46 percent increase in household delivery. Unfortunately, the two genre shows couldn't have been more different, and it may have been a mistake to link them thematically.

O'Bannon remarks, "A network normally has seven nights to program, and they carefully position shows where there's a flow next to each other, and steadfastly keep shows that don't have a flow away from each other. Well, in the case of SCI FI, their original programming was distilled down to just Friday night, so therefore, in this new season, they had Stargate and us. We were the two original shows, so they had to pair us up, which is fine. The problem is that the campaign they came up with was essentially aimed at the very thing that Farscape isn't. It seemed to emphasize that John Crichton always gets the alien babe, that sort of thing, which is clearly not the case. Obviously, if you advertise it that way, you're never going to get the audience that's going to appreciate the show. If you get 13-year-old boys to tune in thinking they're going to see a version of Lexx, they're going to be horribly disappointed."

So if SCI FI is no longer interested in Farscape, why can't production partners Hallmark Entertainment and the Jim Henson Company take their series to another channel? Well, it's not that simple. SCI FI still retains repeat rights to the series for two years after the "final episode premieres, which means that the first 88 shows aren't available to a potential buyer. As for the SCI FI Channel's assertion (on their official website) that they haven't been "approached to release Farscape to another network," O'Bannon says it's disingenuous at best. "That is patently untrue," he counters. "They may not have been asked, but that's because Henson let the suitors know that SCI FI has a stranglehold on the reruns for two years, so of course nobody is going to contact them. So, it's rather disingenuous. They're clearly not passionate about airing Farscape, and if they were, they would have gone ahead with the promised fifth season.

"I think they'll wring out everything they can from the show, and hopefully two years from now, when the episodes do become available, a) we'll immediately sell them into syndication, and b) there might be an opportunity to do something else – either with new episodes or some sort of long form to complete the series."

One can't help but wonder if the network – unhappy with what they were getting in terms of content – ever approached O'Bannon or executive producer David Kemper with notes about making Farscape more accessible to new or casual viewers. "There were never any specific notes that I know of," says O'Bannon. "Believe me, there were constant conversations of, 'How can we make this more accessible?' But does that translate to dumbing it down or making the stories or characters less complex? We were battling our personal feelings that the show's appeal – to the passionate core audience and the critics – was that it was so outside the box. But the very thing that made it so unique also made it [difficult] for new viewers to hop aboard any single episode and get caught up in who these characters are.

"This is something that TV in general wrestles with. If you look at the main networks, they've thrown in the towel to a large extent [in terms of] trying to do longer-range storytelling and have gone back to procedural shows. CSI is the poster child for that, and Law & Order is the other one. There's something to be said for series that don't require you to show up every week, [so you can] have an ongoing knowledge of what it's about."

Last Words

The SCl FI Channel finally dropped the hammer in September 2002, just as principal photography on Season Four was nearing completion in Sydney. "There had been talk throughout the summer, but much to the credit of Henson, Hallmark and David, they really worked hard to make it work, in a financial dynamic that everyone could live with," says O'Bannon. "The compromise position that SCI FI was taking was, 'We'll give you 13, episodes for a fifth season so we're not totally slapping the audience in the face and saying that we're reneging on the fifth season.' But at the time that they were saying they would do 13, that's when they started to get very intractable in terms of the financial aspect of it. Henson, Hallmark and David really tried to make it work, but the SCI FI Channel dug in their heels, because the bottom line was, they just didn't want the show anymore. Early in September, when it was all coming to a head, I heard from David. They were essentially working out the press release [saying] that the show t was picked up for 13 fifth season episodes, and then it all blew up."

With the final episode almost in the can, there was virtually no time to make any last-minute adjustments to tie up any major story threads in the series, but that's not to say the writers would have made any major changes  they had been given the opportunity. "As far as I know, nothing was changed, because it was I too late to change anything to a significant degree," O'Bannon reveals. "Plus, David and I agreed that the series didn't deserve some rushed, half-ass 'Let's try to wrap this up' finish. The saga of John Crichton and the other characters goes on. [The end] hasn't been filmed and we haven't seen it yet. The notion of trying to cobble together [an episode with at sense of closure] in the 11th hour was discussed, for about a hot second but no more, because the show doesn't deserve that. 

"Television series conclude, and sometimes there's closure, in series like M*A *S*H. But sometimes they just go off the air like the original Star Trek. The sad fact of Farscape's history at this moment is that the series goes off at the end of Season Four with a cliffhanger. It isn't the end of the story. In fact, if we had had the fifth season – with the intent of concluding five years of the series – the last episode wouldn't necessarily have been a sigh of relief, with everyone staring at the horizon, having completed everything there was to complete. Probably the saddest aspect of this for me is that the series is going off the air with the story left up in the air."

Fortunately, all is not gloom and doom for Farscape fans. Discussions about a number of potential revival projects are in the works, including a possible anime version. "It would not continue where the live-action series left off," says O'Bannon. "It's our fervent hope and expectation that someday, somehow, we will be 8 able to film a live-action climax to the series, which could take many forms. At the top of the pyramid, there's the possibility of a feature film, but there's also the possibility of a two-hour show or a mini-series, or for the series to come back." SCI FI's two-year stranglehold on rerun rights to the first 88 episodes of Farscape has effectively precluded an immediate life elsewhere for the show. "That has been the stumbling block in getting a TNT or even a syndication company to say, 'Yes, we would love to produce new episodes.' What they want is to marry it with the syndication of the original 88," O'Bannon notes. "So there's a possibility that a few years down the line – once we've pried the show from SCI FI's cold, dead fingers – that we might be able to reconstitute it then."

The Farscape creator has a message for the legion of fans who have shown their loyalty to and enthusiasm for Farscape in recent months. "In the show's first four years, when it aired in its original run, the audience was like a community," says O'Bannon. "It was small and passionate enough that there was a real unity there, married to the fact that we now have the Internet, which allows us access to the viewers and to get a sense of what they like and don't like. For me and the show's makers, the fans were a part of this series. It was quite a wonderful community of people who watched it during its original run. So we can all take pleasure in the fact that we were all a part of Farscape as it aired. "Obviously, I hope the 88 episodes live on in syndication and garner new viewers," Rockne O'Bannon remarks, "but those of us who were part of the series during its initial run have something we can carry with us. In terms of trying to get the show back, I've been incredibly heartened and pleased and flattered by the wave of passion that I've seen from the fans. I'm glad they like the show!"  

 

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