SCIENCE FICTION AGE

March 2000 by Resa Nelson

Farscape creators tell all!


SFAge03.jpg (23114 bytes)With Deep Space Nine deep-sixed, fans have embraced SCI FI's Farscape

With the dawn of the year 2000, you would think that this would be the perfect time and place for anyone who loves quality Science Fiction on television. After all, we cut our teeth on the original Star Trek more than three decades ago, and then watched a new generation of Star Trek blossom into multiple series in the '80s and '90s. But time marches on. Deep Space Nine has come to an end, and the highly acclaimed Babylon 5 is long gone. Where can you turn in this new day and age if you crave alien life forms, the wonders of the universe, logical stories, and characters that reflect the gray areas of life as we know it?  

The answer is Farscape, one of the prime time offerings on the SCI FI Channel. With production values equal to those of feature films, extremely intelligent characters and story lines, and a completely unpredictable nature, Farscape has what it takes to become the next major-league Science Fiction franchise. And from day one, the SCI FI Channel has consistently given the green light to Farscape to push itself into frontiers typically not seen on TV. 

Farscape is the brainchild of Hollywood veteran Rockne S. O'Bannon (the film Alien Nation, TVs seaQuest DSV, and The Twilight Zone) and The Jim Henson company. Together, they invested five years in the development of Farscape. "They wanted to do a show that would show off all the wonderfully varied aspects of the company," O'Bannon says about his co-creators at The Jim Henson Company. "Something that would not only highlight the production expertise but also the animatronics and the computer graphics, which at that point was just starting to show itself.

"(Farscape) tells the story of a far, distant galaxy where someone from our time—a traveler from Earth in our era—is a part of that. So (Farscape is) unlike Star Trek, which takes place 500 years in the future…or Star Wars, which takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Farscape takes place today. So it's like watching one of us, out of (present-day) Earth, drop into the middle of a totally alien world at the other end of the system."

The hero of Farscape is its only human character, John Crichton (played by Party of Five's Ben Browder). In the premiere episode, Crichton is an American astronaut who is flying an experimental mission when his ship accidentally enters a wormhole. The wormhole spits Crichton out at the far reaches of the universe, where he immediately finds himself in the midst of a battle between a handful of escaped prisoners and a human-like race called the Peacekeepers, who are actually mercenary soldiers.

By the end of the premiere episode, Crichton ends up aboard a living ship (Moya, who has her own alien Pilot) along with the escaped prisoners: Zhaan (played by Road Warrior's Virginia Hey) is a cool, calm, and serene Delvian priest; D'Argo (played by Anthony Simcoe) is a hot- tempered Luxan warrior; and Rygel the Sixteenth (a Jim Henson creature with voice by Jonathan Hardy, movement by John Eccleston) is a greedy, glutinous, and pompous Hynerian emperor. The escaped prisoners tend to be pretty close-mouthed about exactly what it was that they did to end up behind bars. In addition to Crichton and his convicted traveling companions, there's a fly in the ointment. Crichton wasn't the only unwelcome stranger to find himself onboard ship with prisoners Zhaan, D'Argo, and Rygel. Peacekeeper officer Aeryn Sun (played by Pitch Black's Claudia Black) unintentionally ended up on board as well. But here's the kicker: Sun's fellow Peacekeepers now consider her to be irreversibly contaminated as a result of her prolonged exposure to the prisoners and Crichton.

In Season I, the Peacekeepers have been in hot pursuit of not only Crichton and the escaped prisoners, but Sun, as well. Crichton and the prisoners are lost in uncharted territories, and they simply want to find their respective ways home. But that leaves Sun out in the cold. She can't return home because she no longer has one.

While Farscape boasts not only plots and special effects that are worthy of a feature film, its true strength lies in the conflict between its characters, their changing relationships, and the honesty of their strengths and weaknesses.

SFAge01.jpg (18527 bytes)"You know the stages of death?" Browder says. "Denial, rage, acceptance…I think that's John's journey. I think the first thing is that he's confused, and then he wants to deny it, and then finally he gets to the point of acceptance. And then, of course, about the time he gets comfortable and accepts it, the writers turn (the series) on its head again…what you thought was going to happen—or what you thought was true about the characters—begins to shift and slip yet again. What I love about the show is its unpredictable nature.

"The only constant for our show is the characters. Everything else seems to be anarchy. And I think that's the way the uncharted territories are. I think that's the world (that the writers) want Crichton reacting to. They're not looking for a sort of well-defined universe, which we so often see on TV or in Science Fiction. Crichton is living in chaos and trying to make sense out of it. And that's the experience that, in some ways, I think we give to the audience." 

It makes sense that Farscape reflects a certain sense of chaos. Unlike, Babylon 5, which was carefully designed in advance, Farscape grows and develops on the fly. The writers typically block out six episodes at a time. Furthermore, the show's creators and writers have been shaping the show around the strengths of its actors.

"It's fantastic to feel like a participant rather than a receiver in terms of the development of the storyline," Simcoe says. "If the creative process becomes a dialog between all the collaborators, then you're going to get the strengths of everyone. You have a much stronger show."

O'Bannon explains how Simcoe surprised the writers with his portrayal of the hot-tempered warrior, D'Argo. "Anthony Simcoe is big, gentle, incredibly bright, and very well read. He's like a big, fun, really bright puppy dog. He's not D'Argo at all. He can play the brutish D'Argo real readily and easily, but he would start to bring a subtlety and sensitivity to D'Argo that we in the writers room (said) "How can we capitalize on this?'

"We…started to turn D'Argo away from simply being the warrior icon that he was early on to a character with lots of shading.”

Simcoe explains how he approaches the role of D'Argo. "When I look at a part, I try and work out what I get for free, and then how can I juxtapose that…and make it more interesting for the people watching me. The first couple of episodes—with the look of D'Argo—you try and establish his character, which is essentially quite brutish, warrior-like, quick tempered, wants to fight all the time. I try to switch that on its head all the time, so then you actually find out that he's really just a teenager with a lot of bluster who's…worried about his family and friends. He still makes quick, hot-tempered decisions, but it comes from a place of real, beautiful naiveté. And I think that’s a fantastic gift for me to have such a rustle-tussle, mean-looking exterior, because it gives me the chance to make soft choices time and again. It the gives me these lovely opportunities to really soften him down. That's really fleshed him out as a character, which I’m pleased about.”

SFAge02.jpg (16220 bytes)Just as Simcoe has shown the vulnerability of his warrior character, Claudia Black has provided what is possibly the most unexpected performance as Sun, the dispossessed Peacekeeper. "It's awesome to watch such wonderful restraint from Claudia," O’Bannon notes. "Aeryn has made the transition obviously, from straightforward, Peacekeeper-indoctrinated soldier to a member of the crew. But in the hands of a less disciplined actor, I believe that Aeryn would be a softie by now. The thing about Claudia is that she's able to take glancing blows at the emotional side of Aeryn, and we know that the others are getting through to her but without know [sic] what's going on inside of her."

Both the SCI FI Channel and Farscape's writers have paved the way for Farscape's actors to stretch their characters in unforeseen directions. O'Bannon describes how working with SCI FI has made his job easier. "The fun for us was to break as many rules as possible and bend as many of the remaining rules," O'Bannon says. "The big advantage that we have with this series (is that the SCI FI Channel is not) one of the regular networks, where they need to appeal to a much broader, more homogenous audience, where they ask you to tone things down. As I was finalizing the pilot script, Stephen Chao (President of Programming and Marketing, USA Networks, Inc.) kept telling me to push it farther, make the characters even more acrimonious, make the situations even more extreme and intense. I took that very much to heart."

With the support of the network behind them, the writers create a universe that strikes a genuine balance between its male and female characters.

In regard to the strength of Farscape's female characters, Black says, "It is television history in the making. I know that sounds dramatic…but we owe a lot to current television icons like Xena: Warrior Princess. The more the audience appears to be comfortable with females taking charge on the screen, the more these characters can flourish."

Browder not only agrees, but cites Shakespeare's collective work as an example of how strong female characters contribute to fiction. "He has terribly strong women," Browder says. " And I happen to think that's real. And I think that the audience relates to it because it's real. I don't think there's anything in making a woman strong that makes her less feminine. And, likewise, I don't think being feminine makes them weak. Zhaan (Virginia Hey) is an incredibly feminine character, yet incredibly strong."

Which leads to an interesting and ongoing conflict between two of Farscape's characters. Crichton is the only human in the series. And Sun, while a Peacekeeper, is a Sebacean-a human-like race. Although initially enemies, there were also initial sparks between the two characters. But unlike The X-Files' Scully and Mulder, Farscape's characters recognize that chances are, eventually, they will be going their separate ways. They're realists.

"It's an enormously dramatic premise on which to establish a relationship," Black says about her character's predicament. "Crichton's desperately trying to find his way home. Aeryn cannot go home. And they're constantly being faced with challenges which threaten their survival…there's such enormous conflict between their worlds, their lives, and the existences that they know independently, and yet there's this connection and attraction between them, which you really see from the beginning. In the premiere, Aeryn makes a decision, despite her training, to support Crichton. "We have been careful and very mindful of the fact that we're dealing with a very intelligent audience, and there's no point in teasing or being coy about their attraction…as Aeryn and Crichton learn to be friends and trust each other, there will be more interesting dialog, more interesting communication between them. But I think the tension comes from the constant situations they get placed in where their allegiance is challenged or threatened."

In fact, the relationships between all of the characters undergoes constant testing. Although the escaped prisoners, Crichton, Sun, the living ship Moya, and Pilot have learned to work together as a family, there is little room for sentimentality on Farscape. Zhaan's serenity has been broken by Rygel's irritating behavior. Zhaan has shown her ability to lose her temper in one episode and her dark side in others. D'Argo has led the prisoners in a decision to cut off one of Pilot's arms, which they traded to a mad scientist who promised them, in return, maps to their home planets. Rygel has taken a bite out of Sun's arm-and swallowed what he bit off.

Puppeteer John Eccleston (TV’s Storyteller), who provides movement for Rygel, describes the role of his character in regard to the other escaped prisoners. "In very simplistic terms, the characters are elements of human emotions…Rygel—for his sins—is the greedy glutinous, pompous, self-important part that we all have inside us. So his role…is to hold a mirror up to…John Crichton (so he can) recognize some of those elements in himself. The strangest thing is when, the director shouts, 'Action!' and it all happens and everybody's there, everybody's in the moment, it's a reality. Even if it's only for maybe a minute's worth of shooting, for that minute, you're somewhere off in space. You're on the other side of the galaxy."

If you didn't already know how to get to the other side of the galaxy, you do now. Just turn on Farscape, and enjoy the ride.   


Farscape is owned by The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Entertainment, Nine Network (Australia) and the Sci-Fi Channel. No copyright infringement is intended and no financial gain has been made by any of the staff of this web site.