SCI-FI TV 

Mapping Farscape

by Ian Spelling

April 2000


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She appears human, but as Farscape's aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)—not to mention Series creator Rockne O'Bannon— can attest, looks can be deceiving.

On Farscape, Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey) is just one of a menagerie of aliens fleeing through the edgy universe envisionsed by O'Bannon and Brian Henson. John Crichton (Ben Browder) is hurled across space and into cosmic adventure. Still, like the O'Bannon-Henson collaaboration, Crichton manages to grow into his role. Thanks to the prosthetics wizardry of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) looks every bit the tendriled terror that he is

Based solely on the pilot of the Sci-Fi Channel's freshman genre series, some viewers and critics feared that the show might become precisely that, an SF lark with a parade of cuddly critters and quirky quips. After all, Farscape was 

beaming into our living rooms courtesy of the Jim Henson Company, the talented folks behind such kid fare as The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock. Fortunately, Farscape quickly quashed any cuteness and emerged as one of the year's best, most risk-taking and visually stimulating shows.

Heading into Farscape, even Rockne O'Bannon, the show's creator, co-executive producer and writer, felt apprehensive. "The concern, or interest, that it not be a Henson family entertainment show began five or six years ago with Brian Henson and me," O'Bannon says. "It all began because Brian wanted to create a TV series that really showed all the facets of the Henson Company, everything they could do. They were just getting into CGI at the time. Obviously, they were famous for their animatronics. Somewhat candidly, if I may, Brian wanted to put his own imprint on the Henson Company. He had taken it over from his father, obviously [after Jim Henson's sudden death], a few years earlier. He carried on with the Muppets and all of that, with the stuff his father had created.

"But Brian has a much darker, almost more adult point-of-view. He wanted to do something that showed what the Henson Company could be in the next century under his guidance. So the intent was never to do a kids' show or a family show. But people get that impression because Farscape is a Henson production it has animatronic characters in it. The thing I'm quite pleased about is that, when people find the show and watch it, they really do find it not to be a Henson kid production at all."

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Characters like Rygel and Pilot reflect the Henson Company's matured style— these impressive automatons would fry Miss Piggy's bacon.

In addition to sundry episodic perils, O'Bannon introduces a new adversary to test the crew's mettle—the aptly name Scorpius (Wayne Pygram).

So mature is Farscape that Miss Piggy would most certainly blush and Kermit the Frog would dive under his lily pad. The show centers on the crew of the Moya, a sentient ship that serves as home and refuge to a diverse group of prisoners fleeing from the dreaded Peacekeepers. Among them are displaced human astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder); the disenfranchised Sebacean Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), who appears to be developing a romantic bond with Crichton; the off-beat Nebari newcomer Chiana (Gigi Edgley); the formidable Luxan warrior Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe); Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey), the 800-year-old and very blue Delvian priestess; Rygel (with John Eccleston handling the puppeteering and Jonathan Hardy providing the voice), a 26-inch-tall, pompous and long-dethroned Hynerian despot; and the multi-armed, multitasking appropriately-named Pilot (Sean Masterson, voiced by Lani John Tupu). Lani Tupu is the voice of Pilot.

During any given season one episode, the crew battled each other or, more often thankfully, such menacing creatures as  Draks (giant clone-happy insects), a sexy Scorvian double agent (who attempted to seduce both Crichton and D'Argo), the vengeful Peacekeeper Captain Crais (also Tupu, who plays this Javert-esque character), a deadly virus and/or the most recent— and sure to be recurring—adversary, Scorpius (Wayne Pygram). Near the season's end, everyone also dealt with Moya giving birth. "I was extremely pleased with season one," comments O'Bannon, whose other genre credits include the Twilight Zone redux, the Alien Nation film, seaQuest DSV, Invasion and Peter Benchley's Creature. "If you look at episode 22 [the season finale, "Family Ties"] relative to the premiere, it's amazing how far the characters have come. And, even from my point-of-view, we've had surprising characters. Captain Crais had a very interesting arc through the season, as has Aeryn. Crichton is obviously a far different man than he was in the first few minutes of the premiere.

"If I had to pick a single best episode, I would probably say, 'Nerve.' It was the first part of a two-parter that launched us into our four-episode climax [which also encompassed "The Hidden Memory," "Bone to Be Wild" and "Family Ties"]. The production values were big for us. Because it was a two-parter, we were able to build sets and create a planet environment that really had a scale to it. Because it was near the season's end, all the characters and relationships were really clicking. We also introduced Scorpius, who's turning out to be a terrific character. So, I would say, 'Nerve' was one in which everything was clicking.

But what about this past year? How far has Farscape evolved?

Getting more specific, O'Bannon discusses such aspects as the Crichton-Aeryn relationship, the introduction and retention of Chiana and other first-season developments in some detail. "My desire with Crichton and Aeryn was never to do a Moon-lighting or Cheers kind of thing, where it's, 'Will they? Won't they' and have that linger forever," he says. As you saw in the season finale, and as you'll see in the beginning episodes of next season [premiering in March], there's a real indication of where that relationship is going. But I don t want to give away any more than that. Chiana actually came along In episode 15, and once we started to write for her, we just loved her. At the episode's end, we didn't know how we were going to get her off the ship. And we thought, 'Why should we? Why don't we just keep her around a while?' We had fallen in love with her, and the audience really liked her, too. And she has become a valuable asset to the show. 

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Appearing mid-season, the quirky, streetwise Chiana (Gigi Edgley) not only won herself a role on Farscape, but added another strong female to the cast.

"Look, the more strong women we have on the show, the better. I'm very proud of the reaction we've gotten to our very strong women characters. Chiana also gives us an opportunity to have someone in there who's a real catalyst for tension among the characters. Everybody has a different point-of-view about her and she, of course, has a very strong self-preservation thing going. She's definitely back [in season two]. And, by the way, the character is white. In our dailies, she's white, but when the episodes are color-corrected, she looks light blue. Our goal is to have her look as black-and-white as possible on a show that's done in color."

Perhaps the element of Farscape that most caught O'Bannon by surprise was the symbiotic relationship formed between the show's American and Australian behind-the-scenes counter-parts. O'Bannon and company chose to shoot Farscape in Australia for several reasons, chief among them the chance to reap more bang for the buck. The second key reason involved the Australian talent pool. Top-notch talent Down Under jockeys back and forth between TV and movies. No one there considers television as film's black-sheep cousin once removed. "We wanted to take advantage of that, though you never know how it's going to work out, especially since Australian television has not done SF, or major SF, that I know of," O'Bannon notes. We went down and found people who were incredibly creative and very anxious to strut their stuff, but had never done this kind of show before.

We sold Farscape to the Sci-Fi Channel and my analogy was the first Star Wars.That was shot in England. Even though you had Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill in the leads, and some recognizable faces like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, a lot of the ancillary faces, the and secondary players were British actors you had never seen before. It lent this additional reality to the idea you were someplace else. You were seeing an American style production, with a British sensibility and secondary cast.  I was looking for very much the same thing by doing Farscape in Australia. I figured it would be very interesting to have an American actor, Ben Browder, among all these Australian faces.

“Having said all of that," O’Bannon continues, "the thing that has surprised me most is how well it has all worked. Farscape could have been this American-Australian hybrid that was like a car with its tires flying off and the springs coming out. And it’s exactly the opposite. The clash of cultures is serving the series in a big, big way. Claudia Black has a very different acting style from any actress here in the States that we could have possibly hired. She's exactly right as Aeryn. The audience reacts to Aeryn in a very strong way, and I think that comes in a very large part through the way Claudia captures these fascinating facets of the character." really

So, what's on tap for season two? O'Bannon laughs, begins to answer and then dips back into Farscape's evolution before pursuing the question. "You'll see more of the same, in terms of pushing the envelope," he explains. "Stephen Chao inherited Farscape when he came in as President of the Sci-Fi Channel. It wasn’t something that he bought. It's always kind of dicey when you first go in and talk to the fellow who's now in charge. His marching orders to me were to make Farscape as out-there as possible. He didn't want people in alien makeup, playing aliens with human qualities and human points-of-view. He said, 'This is not NBC or CBS. This is not a regular network. We want alternative television. We want something that's as out-there as possible. Give your aliens an alien point-of-view.'

“We chuckled, and we’re thrilled to have Rygel biting Aeryn on the arm, taking a piece of flesh and actually swallowing it. As we get into the second season, that kind of attitude, irreverence and reality will be back. There's going to be romance aboard the ship between characters who haven't yet showed an inclination toward that. We'll also reprise every creature we've seen so far. We have all the heads up on a shelf in the Creature Shop and we'll be cycling them through again.”

O’Bannon is constantly surprised by the creatures that the wizards at the Jim Henson Creature Shop devise.

When writing, O'Bannon even goes so far as to weave that surprise into his scripts. In other words, he tries to keep the descriptions vague.

"That’s for a couple of reasons," he explains. "It's essentially a waste of time to describe in too much detail how you envision an alien. I found that if I tried to control that area too strongly, I wasn’t getting the best work out of the Creature Shop. They're smart, very creative people. While I'm looking at all aspects of the series, their area specifically is in the creature design. They're dedicating their imaginations to that 100 percent of their day. I find I get much more interesting stuff from if I say, 'OK, this is what the creature, the character, the species has to be able to do.' I'll say, 'He must fit through a door' or 'He has to be able to push a button. So he needs an opposable thumb. Other than that, give me the wildest stuff you can come up with.' That's the fun of it, to let them loose and see what they come up with.

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 O'Bannon admits that Farscape's wild assortment of stellar beings look best when he lets the design staff "loose and see what they come up with."


Of course, if O'Bannon and Henson and the other Powers That Be had wanted the Creature Shop to do so, the artists there would have rendered the Sebaceans completely different from humans. Instead, Sebaceans and humans look quite similar. What's the scoop there? "Someday," O'Bannon says, "I hope we'll give you the answer to that, but we don't want to answer it too soon. To be honest, it's so much richer an experience if you let the project evolve as it goes along. There are things the writers bring to the table, things that surprise me and, ultimately, surprise the audience. The actors bring facets to the characters that you wouldn't know in advance.

"So, in terms of the Sebacean-human connection, I'll say that throwing John Crichton into this rainbow coalition maelstrom adds one element, and that having the only other people who look like him be this incredibly evil contingent adds another element. That was fun to me, to have this one group that looks like him be reviled by every species. Why, specifically, do humans and Sebaceans look alike? I always knew there would be an answer, but we're not ready to reveal that yet. We'll be doling that out, hopefully, over the years to come."

Over the years to come? Interesting phrase. But not when you consider that everyone involved in Farscape—O'Bannon very much among them—is hoping for a long and prosperous run. However, as the second season of Farscape premieres next month, O'Bannon will have scaled back on his day-to-day involvement with the series. "I'm consulting on the show now," he says. "I wrote the second season premiere for Farscape, but my interest is in writing and directing my own stuff. I had created seaQuest, but my deal with Steven Spielberg at the time was that I would create the show, but not stay with it once it went to series. I wasn't very thrilled with the way the series came out, so the law I laid down for myself at the time was that if I ever got involved in creating another series, I would stay with it for the first year, for better or worse. If it was a failure, at least it would be my failure. 

"So, my intent was to stay with Farscape for the first season. I did a lot of rewriting of scripts, basically to get the train on the track and get it rolling. David Kemper, my fellow executive producer during the first season who was more than my right arm—he was more like the right side of my body—has taken over running the series. But I'm still very much in the mix of it, consulting,"

Whatever the future holds for O'Bannon, he has no intention of abandoning a genre that has treated him so well. "It's our generation's interest” concludes 44-year-old Rockne O'Bannon. It's the environment we grew up in. We had Star Trek. Now, we have movies like The Matrix that really grab our imaginations. My interest has never been strongly in SF, although I'm mostly associated with SF. A writer I admire very highly is Richard Matheson. Although associated with SF or at least speculative fiction, he really isn't a hardcore SF writer. If I could pass through a door behind anyone, it would be Richard Matheson, in terms of the material that interests me."

And hit shows like Farscape have a way of opening doors.


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