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Late To The Party: Farscape

WHAT IT IS:

Farscape, for those of you who don’t know, is about John Crichton, an astronaut. In a study on wormholes, he is accidentally transported to a distant part of the universe. In the first five minutes of his arrival, he has made an enemy of an insane military commander and must take refuge aboard a ship (a LIVING ship) of escaped alien prisoners and must try to find a way home. Starting in 1999, it ran for four seasons and was followed by a miniseries to wrap things up.

If this sounds like Firefly meets Quantum Leap, you’re only half right. It’s amazing to me how much Farscape feels like Firefly before Firefly. As for the Quantum Leap part; well, one of the running themes is that no matter how hard John Crichton tries to make things right, he typically makes things worse.

WHY I WANTED TO SEE IT:

Growing up, my imagination belonged to one franchise and one franchise only: Star Trek. It was a natural consequence of being the child of two Trekkers. (Trekkies, my mother told me, was what they called fans who weren’t serious about Star Trek.) In first grade, I earned the chance to teach a lesson to the class, so I decided to review Federation starship design. By third grade, I had the chronology memorized.

The result was that I was the kind of nerd with exactly those orthodox opinions about sci-fi that 1990s television was trying to challenge. After the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was an explosion of shows in science fiction settings. Besides the juggernaut of The X-Files, there were direct rip-offs like SeaQuest:DSV, there were forgotten duds like TimeTrax and Seven Days (which I liked but seems lost to time), there were Roddenberry’s lesser attempts like Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict, and there were shows with small but passionate audiences like Babylon 5, Stargate: SG1, and Farscape.

That last category is especially notable because they were shows that wanted to take the cultural force of Star Trek and do two things. They wanted to celebrate it, while also pushing back against the restrictions inherent in the franchise. At the time, I was too fussy to appreciate these later shows as anything more than an inferior substitute to watch a half-episode of during a sick day. But now as an adult who gets excited about a brussels sprouts recipe, I decided it was time to go back and try them again with fresh eyes.

(If I hadn’t branched ut, I never would have played Mass Effect, which is like if all of your favorite flavors of ice cream could be mixed together and each part still taste as good as it did individually. Watching Farscape made me realize just how many of the parts in Mass Effect I loved had been outright stolen from this show.)

THE BEST PART:

Did you know this show has Muppets? Well, not specifically Muppets, but puppets of all types made by Brian Henson’s workshop. Brian seems to have inherited all of the Labyrinth and Dark Crystal portions of his dad’s creativity.

I mean it, a lot of these puppets are WEIRD. There are two main types: the ones that are Gross But Cool (like His Eminence, Dominar Rygel XVI), and then there are the ones that are Gross And Just Gross (there’s a four-eyed baby Kuato mystic who sees dead people and speaks like a mediocre D&D Dungeonmaster’s impression of a ghoul.)

But the puppetry is still incredible.

The best character is a puppet. Yes, Pilot is the best character.

But if you want to see a bunch of creative types have as much fun being as weird as they can be, then Farscape delivers. It is obvious in every episode that everyone involved in production is having a blast doing whatever they can imagine. Sometimes it works, a lot of times it doesn’t, but the attempt to be inventive is undeniable.

OTHER GREAT PARTS:

So many things to mention, but let me try to limit it to three. Only list format will suffice

Moya
The ship (the LIVING ship) on which Crichton finds himself is a Leviathan named Moya. Did you know you can create a character using nothing but stomach noises, camera angles, lighting, and people reacting to what she has said? It is incredible that in a show filled with human actors, Moya, who is a series of special effects, gets one of the best partnerships in the show with Pilot, who is a puppet.

Moya even gets her own arc. Nothing makes me weep on the show more reliably than when something bad happens to Moya. I’d write another bullet point related to Moya (ha!), but it’s too much of a spoiler and I’m being bad enough about those as it is.

I’ve changed my mind. Moya is the best character.

Officer Aeryn Sun
Nothing signals just how much Farscape wants to take Star Trek out for a beer or a coffee and tell it, “Hey, you’re a jerk. A loveable jerk, but still a jerk. But I love you, you jerk,” than the whole idea of the Peacekeepers.

Long before Firefly made a villain of the obvious Federation analogue, Farscape took the idea further with the Peacekeepers. They’re bigoted militants who knock over governments on a whim and are obsessed with eugenics and species purity. In case you missed the point, they also love red, white, and black flags, in addition to eagle symbols.

The show often teases you that it’s going to dip into typical early 2000’s edge by insisting that the Peacekeepers are better than the alternative, a hegemonizing swarm known as the Scarrans. But the show impressed me in that the characters reject the Peacekeepers’ arguments about being the lesser of two evils. The crew of Moya never stop fighting for a third, peaceful, ethical way.

Yet despite all this, the show is still able to take a Peacekeeper character, Aeryn Sun, in the breakout role for sci-fi champion Claudia Black, and give her a believable trajectory towards being a good person, despite having no foundation to know what that means. By the third season, she’s not just doing the right thing, she’s trying to convince other Peacekeepers why she’s right.

It’s an impressive feat, and Claudia Black sells it with her acting.

Lani Tupu
Pilot (the best second best character) and Bialar Crais, who’s gotta be in the top five, are both played by the same Kiwi actor Lani Tupu, and he’s amazing in both roles. One is an alien puppet who expresses through voice acting and posture alone, and the other is the aforementioned insane military commander who undergoes a redemption arc second only to Aeryn Sun’s. When the show started, I was disinterested in Crais. By the third season, I was rooting for him.

Scorpius
Holy cow, what a villain. Sinister, competent, believes he is morally justified when he clearly is not. I loved to hate him. The best episodes usually involved Scorpius in some way, and kudos to the show for showing the terrible effect he has on John Crichton.

NOT-SO-GREAT PARTS:

The Bad Episodes Are Really Bad
It is no exaggeration to say that Farscape has delivered some of the best episodes of science fiction I have ever seen. It is also no exaggeration to say that it tortured me with some of the most excruciatingly bad hours of television I have suffered.

I have a theory that several episodes of the show were rejected Star Trek: Voyager scripts that the writer shopped to The Sci-Fi Channel (years before it was called SyFy.) There’s an air about some of the more awful instalments where nobody seems in character, and you wonder if Ka D’Argo is saying lines originally intended for B’Elanna Torres.

Also, the bad episodes often have stories where the only justification is that this brand new planet has resources, but the government there has Mysterious Ways which they won’t explain until our heroes figure out the puzzle just at the climax. It reminds me a lot of the standard plot structure for Voyager.

Jool Is Really Jool
I don’t actually hate Jool. I feel sorry for her.

Farscape is fun and great, but there’s a recurring problem where they create female characters with a single, rather misogynist gimmick. “This one’s a blue-skinned priestess who uses sex as part of her magic!” (See: Mass Effect, Asari, ripped off from loving allusion to Zhaan)  “This one’s a libertine who will sleep with anybody!”

Jool suffers the worst because her character is, “This one’s a spoiled brat who screams a lot! Like, a lot. And really loud.” It turns out you can’t actually write an interesting character about that person. She just whines and is miserable the whole time, and eventually even the show is making fun of her.

In the fourth season, they replace her with another character, Sikozu. She is clearly just New Jool (Nool? Jool 2.0?), right down to the red outfit and hair. The difference is this time, she has an interesting backstory and some depth to her character, and she never screeches.

I’ve read that the actress got death threats for how bad the character was, which broke her heart because she just wanted to be on this fun show with wacky puppets. Come on, sci-fi fans, what is our problem?

The Sex Parts Are Really Creepy
Let’s go back to the original thesis under “Why I Wanted to See This”, where Farscape is a response to Star Trek.

Star Trek is infamous for having a weird abhorrence to sex in most of its stories, and then every so often when it tries to do romance it usually fails. (I’m a firm believer that Sisko and Kassidy Yates are the only healthy relationship in any of the series.) So a show that’s trying to be a response to Star Trek has an easy target by actually including sex as part of the world-building.

In 1999, when Farscape started, the idea of a sci-fi show where sex wasn’t just a thing that was implied with a giggle during a bad romance episode was pretty revolutionary. For it be a thing that regularly occurred between consenting adults? That was out there. I can’t think of another sci-fi show that was as happy to explore that part of the human experience than Farscape.

(Oh wait, I can. It was called Lexx. I’ve only seen a few episodes and remember it badly. Nothing I’ve heard about it since suggests it’s worth revisiting.)

My problem with Farscape is not that it wants to use sex in its stories, it’s that it’s always doing it from a grimace-inducing approach that makes me think, “Wow, this is not okay.”

So, a fan-favorite episode is “Crackers Don’t Matter”. I can see why: 95% of this episode is incredible, hilarious, and clever. I cackled with glee for most of the run-time.

And then there’s this scene where Crichton, under the influence of an alien presence, assaults Chiana and tells her all the reprehensible plans he has for her. It completely kills the mood of the episode. After the fact, I read that the scene was added because the director was worried the episode wasn’t “dark” enough. Which, wait, is having a funny episode a problem? Why did it need to go dark? Why is, “You know what this comedy needs? A rape monologue,” a reaction that this show would have?

Likewise, with Scorpius’ backstory – why did he need to be the product of a forced breeding program? Why did we need to see a scene demonstrating that? What does that add? Are we supposed to think, well, these Scarrans, you know they’re rapists?

These are extreme examples, but it ties into an approach to sex that comes across as leering. Female characters are often reduced to sex objects, and in the most “boys-will-be-boys” kind of way. Forget about representation: I can’t remember a single gay character, lesbian moments are reduced to how exciting it is for men to see two ladies together, and there’s only one character that comes close to trans, and they’re played as a gross joke.

So yeah. We need healthy sex in sci-fi. I think we can appreciate Farscape for trying to bring that, but it typically fails to make that happen.

FAVORITE EPISODE:

Nothing will beat “Family Ties, Part I” (the Season 1 finale) for kicking the show up a notch and proving that the show was willing to build on all the stories it had told so far and add twists that made you wonder what it was going to do next. It encapsulates my favorite part of Farscape: the fact I often had no idea how a story was going to end and needed to find out how.

LEAST FAVORITE EPISODE:

“Vitas Mortis”. Ugh. When you’ve figured out the twist a third of the way through, and just have to suffer through the characters struggling to solve whatever could the problem beeeeee, you start to form opinions that maybe they’re taking rejected Voyager scripts.

FINAL CONCLUSION:

Farscape is fun and exciting in that way that old, pre-binge television used to be at its best. You can sit down to an episode, and it might be good or it might be terrible, but its never predictable. You can remember how you used to spend all summer theorizing what might happen between seasons of a show, and then the show starts and it’s nothing like you imagined. The cast and crew have a passion for making the show that is demonstrated through their creativity. The end result is a show that’s never forgettable.

RANDOM THOUGHTS:

Ka D’Argo got a lot better once the plot about his son goes away. He was incredible in Season 4. Too many great quotes come from him.

It’s wonderful how Dominar Rygel XIV (use his full title, please) is such a weaselly, greedy, miserable little character, but is also a powerful negotiator. Every time you wonder why they keep him around, suddenly he’s schmoozing some monarch or executive to get a good deal on food cubes, and you have your answer.

No television character captures the confusing hellscape that is living in a house of anarchist grad students than Noranti, the random person who shows up and no one knows who she is. She won’t leave, she insists she can cook but she can’t, and absolutely do not take her drugs.

Ben Browder apparently challenged James Gunn for ripping off Farscape in Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s why Gunn gave him a cameo in GotG2. Having finished the show, let me say Browder is 100% correct. All Gunn did was cut out the references to sex and drugs.