March 31, 2003 From Cult Times

So, unless something completely unexpected has happened between my writing this month's column and your reading it, it currently looks as if we've seen the last of Farscape. To borrow a phrase from another Sci-Fi classic, this has made a lot of people unhappy, and has generally been regarded as a bad move -but is it? And if it is, how has it been allowed to happen?

Certainly, the inevitable Internet-based campaign to save it has given short shrift to Sci-Fi's argument that the show 'failed to reach beyond its core audience', and we might pause to reflect for a moment on what exactly that might mean. The counter- argument might be that Sci-Fióboth the genre and the channelóis built for 'core audiences', or in other words, people who care about the television they watch and are prepared to make a commitment to it. We might ask how else it would be possible to produce and sell magazines about these shows, or indeed to devote a whole channel to them. Farscape, perhaps, is only guilty of being a particularly Sci-Fi sort of Sci-Fi show.

Grudgingly though, I have to admit that my experience of this season has rather justified the skeptics' view. Being a busy sort of chap, who works in central London till the early evening and then (if not out being sociable) spends an hour or so struggling with public trans- port to get home, I'm quite likely to miss a show that airs at 6.45 pm on a Monday. (You'd think that I'd know how to work a video recorder by now, but I really do find them quite baffling.) Many of the episodes I saw in the early and middle part of the season were therefore quite inexplicable, relying on knowledge of previous episodes I'd either managed to miss or not understood in the first place. Although it's all well and good for a series to have character development and 'story arcs', rather than the notorious 'reset button' beloved of the Star Trek series, there comes a point where it just becomes off-putting to the casual (or, in my case, borderline incompetent) viewer.

Who? Where? What?

Alarmingly though, as I discovered during a committed viewing of the final five or six episodes, Farscape is quite difficult to follow even if you do manage to watch it continuously. I feel sure this isn't because I'm I particularly stupid (the video recorder thing notwithstanding), although it's possible that years of being spoon-fed fairly populist television has made me reluctant to put much effort into following complex plots. But to some extent the writers of the show also have themselves to blame, for adopting a general style that emphasizes exoticism at the expense of exposition. To some extent, good Science Fiction relies on creating complex, internally consistent but exotic new realities, and characters who behave as if it all comes naturally to them.

When Farscape started, John Crichton was a pretty typical example of the Everyman character, whose everyday perspective allowed exotic concepts and plot points to be explained and related to us in terms we understood. As the series developed, though, Crichton's character and speech patterns became more adapted to his environment (quite possibly he went a little crazy), and the whole show became detached from its audience's reality. In my defense, it's more than common for me to be able to follow complicated plots in things like The West Wing or The Sopranos, so it's not that I can't handle complexity. But Farscape, to emphasize its exoticism, made a deliberate and successful attempt to be opaque and obscure as well as complex, and ended up seeming pretty self-absorbed.

Can They Do That???

Meanwhile, like The X-Files, Farscape has spent its later years developing the relationship between its two leads in tortuous (and torturous) ways, delighting in putting two likeable characters through the mill both individually and as a couple. Like Scully, Aeryn suffered the indignity of horrific aliens threatening harm to, and theft of, her unborn child, in scenes that were far too unpleasant to be really entertaining (I do wonder whether, if women were in charge of these shows, they'd be quite so willing to do these storylines). And like Mulder, by the end Crichton had been through so many near-death experiences and moral dilemmas that he showed signs of utter emotional exhaustion. In the midst of all this it would clearly be difficult for Aeryn and Crichton to have a re- warding relationship, even if Crichton hadn't been split in two at one stage and then killed. (Aeryn's original death, by contrast, looked like a mere hiccup.) But thankfully our heroes managed to reach a point, by the last moments of the final episode, where they could contemplate settling down, getting married and having a family.

For those of us who invest more in such emotional character-based storylines than in whether the Scarrans would get worm- hole technology and manage to invade Earth, it was this moment that really seemed like a natural conclusion to the show's final episode. Which is why, in what presumably was a final attempt to be exotic, different and unexpected, it was a particularly cruel move to kill the pair of them stone dead. After that, perhaps the only thing that could hive been more self- indulgent, more inexplicable to the casual viewer, and more perplexing to those of us who really wanted to give the show a chance, was what came next: a caption reading 'to be continued'. As if!

John Binns


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