SCIENCE FICTION AGE
March 2000 by Resa Nelson
Farscape creators tell all!
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.
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
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
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.
"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
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.
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
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?'
to turn D'Argo away from simply being the warrior icon that he was early on to a character with lots
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.”
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.