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Farscape | Everything You Need to Know

Editor’s note:

As part of our romance with SciFiNow (wait, what, you haven’t read the first issue of SciFiNow+ yet?), the world’s number one science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine have opened up their archives to allow us to bring you some classic coverage of our favourite shows. Waaaay back in SciFiNow 42, they revisited Farscape to give newbies everything they needed to know about the most frelled up, fahrbot show ever aired – a show which since this was written, went on to directly inspire James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Farscape, showing a wise-cracking leather-clad gunslinger, a walking plant, a blade-wielding warrior, an ice-cold female killing machine, and a pint-sized furry-faced asshole, way before it was cool. With the show now on Amazon Prime, it’s the best opportunity for existing fans to share their favorite show with others, and for the curious to jump aboard Moya for the very first time!

“My name is John Crichton, an astronaut. A radiation wave hit and I got shot through a wormhole… Now I’m lost in some distant part of the universe on a ship – a living ship – full of strange, alien life forms. Help me… Listen, please. Is there anybody out there who can hear me? I’m being hunted by an insane military commander, doing everything I can. I’m just looking for a way home.”

John Crichton

The introduction to Farscape, being the adventures of a quixotic and bizarre alien crew of fugitives on board an equally bizarre ship, defines the show better than any other synopsis could. It began its run in 1999, a joint American and Australian production utilizing the distinctive work of Jim Henson’s puppetry and, later, more modern advances in CGI. The story followed a serialized format with an overarching plot of Crichton (Ben Browder) attempting to get home, one that slowly transmuted over time into something entirely different.

“That [emphasis on stand-alone episodes] comes and goes,” said Ben Browder to the Chicago Tribune. “Someone told me what the networks were looking for this year was serial as opposed to episodic-style television. They want to get a fanbase and hold it because the casual fan base was leaking off into too many other areas, so they want what Farscape was. The original edict for Farscape was “get an audience and hold them.” 

From the off, it marked a shift from other traditionally serious science-fiction television of the ‘90s such as the various Star Treks and Babylon 5, and other shorter-lived series. It was humorous and intelligent, ridiculous and rich in the same measure, it took serious issues and gently explored them while poking fun at them, all the while offering some of the best production values in a genre show from that time. The series was originally pitched as Space Chase, and took inspiration from films such as Star Wars, but was passed on by Fox in favour of Space: Above and Beyond, with the executives citing concerns about the expense. Eventually, the Sci Fi Channel picked it up as Farscape along with Hallmark Entertainment, The Jim Henson Company and Australia’s Nine Network, and production began in 1998. 

“The ethos of Farscape was pretty much anything goes, which for a writer is extremely liberating. It was actually tough for some freelancer [writers] that came in to give in to that anarchy, that free willingness,” said Richard Manning in an interview with the BBC following the show’s conclusion. “So it was a lot of fun in that regard, and like no other show that I’d really worked on; it was constant encouragement to push the boundaries as far as you could, and even fall on your face if necessary.” Indeed, it was the ability and willingness to challenge the conventional format of sci-fi television that led to

Master of Puppets

Farscape’s enduring popularity in genre circles, but it was also a reason that the show was hard to quantify for new viewers. The actors, however, seemed to relish the challenge. “Crichton was half out of his mind,” said series lead Ben Browder in a separate interview with Cinema Spy. “I watch Crichton occasionally. I put a [Farscape episode] in to compare it to Stargate when I was taping my reel and I thought, ‘That kid’s nuts! He’s completely whacked out of his brain. What is he doing?’ Especially in the later episodes. I watch them and I go, ‘That dude is completely psychotic’.” 

The puppetry involved in the series also added to its distinctive flavour. The Jim Henson Company was largely in charge of the unique prosthetics and animatronic puppets that played the roles of Rygel and Pilot, and Brian Henson has long been a supporter of the show, even going so far as to direct the miniseries that tied it off, The Peacekeeper Wars. David Collins, John Eccleston, Sean Masterson, Graeme Haddon and Tim Mieville operated the two main animatronic devices in the series, and according to Collins, the actors adapted well to performing with artificial characters. “I am amazed at how quickly Ben [Browder] and Claudia [Black] et al got to grips with that, talking to the puppet as if it were alive. Claudia and Anthony [Simcoe] in particular had some quite emotional stuff with Rygel and my fear was the ‘technicalities’ of the puppet would hamper them, but they were brilliant. Half the job is done for you if the actor opposite the puppet believes.”

Despite being different, fresh and interesting, and from the mind of Rockne S. O’Bannon, whose previous credits included Alien Nation and seaQuest, the show’s production was always somewhat tempestuous. It faced a serious threat of forced cancellation midway through the first season, when it was compelled to move from its shoot locations by Fox Studios Australia, in order to make way for the filming of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. As the show was filmed in Australia, there was no reasonably cost-effective way to relocate the production to America, but fortunately, the producers found another studio nearby at Homebush, enabling a second season renewal. Other problems soon began to arise in terms of casting and story. 

The show took on a noticeably darker tone from the third season onwards, which wasn’t universally popular with the unusually vocal fanbase for the series, and the ratings seemed to stall. In addition, the show lost a major character in the form of Zhaan, as the actress Virginia Hey was forced to leave the series due to, according to her, health problems arising from her extensive prosthetics and the hard lifestyle changes she had to make. 

“As you know I shaved off my long blonde hair and my eyebrows to bring Zhaan to life; it was a huge sacrifice that was like a religious initiation to me. The way I justified it was to see this dedication as part of the spiritual discipline. I did give my outward femininity up to devote my inner spirit to this beautiful and enlightened creation, Zhaan,” the actress wrote on her blog, answering a question from a fan as to why she left the show. “Actually it was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life to sacrifice my human femininity permanently for years on end. And the downside is that the extensive prosthetics and little sleep caused my kidneys to overload and bleed for three years. I simply had to go… I was so sick… But there were other reasons too, not just my dwindling health.”

Seasons in the Balance

The Sci Fi Channel took out a two-year renewal contract on the series after Season 3, promising both a fourth and fifth season for Farscape. The fifth, however, never emerged, and the show’s cast and crew revealed the news to fans in what has now become an infamous and emotional online chat. 

“Each and every year, at the end of the season we have a chat with you, our slightly bent cohorts in this wonderful adventure, and we wanted this year to be no different,” said executive producer David Kemp in the transcript from the event. “However, despite our best efforts, this year is a bit different from all the rest. In the past 24 hours, I have been inundated with emails and calls regarding rumors that are circulating regarding our joint passion. Where do we stand? We are two days away from shooting the last scenes of Season 4. As you know, Sci Fi has picked us up for fourth and fifth seasons. However, as with everything done at a corporate level, there was an out clause built into Sci Fi’s pickup schedule. As of yesterday, we were informed – after massive efforts by everyone at Henson and working on the show, most importantly Brian Henson and the three gentlemen here – that Sci Fi was not going to exercise its option to pick up the fifth season of Farscape. The rumors that everyone has been calling me about are sadly, very sadly, true.” 

Almost instantaneously, the fan circuit was aflame with the news, and a ‘Save Farscape‘ campaign was launched. Fans wrote to the Sci Fi Channel, sent in crackers to show their support, and other initiatives were launched as well, including a massive telephone and email campaign. Efforts eventually paid off in the form of The Peacekeeper Wars, a miniseries that resolved the cliffhanger ending of the fourth season, and gave closure to the main story of the series. Henson has attributed the production of the miniseries to the ongoing efforts of fans, which were covered widely in news media, and led to a number of financial backers giving their aid to the Jim Henson Company, enabling them to produce The Peacekeeper Wars. 

“Because of what the fans did, Farscape is alive again. At the end of Season 4, I really did explore all options. Because of the fan attention, an unexpected and almost unprecedented solution for going into production presented itself,” he said to the Chicago Tribune. “Basically what happened was, the fans were talking about Farscape so much online, begging for it to come back and placing ads in magazines all over the world. There was a consortium of financiers that saw this. They knew the show and thought, maybe we can help them. [They said] ‘We’ve got so much faith in Farscape and we would like you to do the final chapter, we’ll finance it without a broadcaster.'”

Wayne Pygram as the villainous Scorpius in The Peacekeeper Wars. | The Jim Henson Company, 2004.

It wasn’t an altogether pleasant experience for some of the actors, however, who were now rather unsure about the status of a series they clearly enjoyed working on one hell of a lot, as Wayne Pygram elaborated to the BBC. “Every day there was a different story, so the grieving process was delayed. It was horrible. That’s exactly it. Your lover leaves, but she comes back every night, wants to stay, gets up the next morning and says no, I made the right decision, I’m gone. The same thing would happen again, and again. I’ve never seen so many grown men in tears. It meant a lot to everyone, which was great. It was our family.” 

Eventually, though, it was decided that the production didn’t pull in enough viewers to justify further outings on Moya, and the television show was put to bed for good. 

Uncharted Territory

Or at least, that was the idea. Rumors and questions for fans have consistently surfaced regarding a webisode series, and those involved in the production have confirmed that work has taken place on them. The problem, apparently, is in securing funding for the series, which is planned out but will inevitably be costly to produce. Indeed, it seems as if the webisodes will be unlikely to surface at all, given the length of time since the end of the series and the continuing problems. The Writers’ Strike didn’t help matters either, as Browder said to Syfy’s news service, Sci Fi Wire: “They haven’t come to me with any specifics yet, and I don’t read anything into that. But at San Diego Comic-Con, Brian discussed it and said, ‘Yeah, we’re still figuring it out.’ The Writers’ Strike happened immediately after that… and a lot of things went on hold, and it will take a little while before a number of things get going again.”

However, that’s not to say that the Farscape universe has been completely static. Boom! Studios continued to release comics related to the show that are still ongoing, and are more or less seen as the only likely continuation of the story now. O’Bannon at least, who is writing the series, sees it that way, as he said in an interview with Newsarama. “Farscape lives! We’re using this fantastic opportunity to keep the Farscape world alive and the saga continuing. I’m personally looking at this as if it were the next season of the series. I would hope that fans will approach the comics as if they are reading scripts from upcoming episodes – except that there is also great art accompanying the words. And the possibility of paper cuts. Other than that, it’s very much the same Farscape.”

[Editor’s Note: The Farscape comics ran from 2008 to 2011, sadly there’s been nothing since.]

 In addition, a humorous reference was made in the 200th episode of Stargate SG-1, where Ben Browder and Claudia Black parodied the show (Browder and Black went to SG-1 from Farscape, assuming leading roles for the final two seasons).

So, although it’s probably not likely that we’ll see Moya on the big screen (or the internet for that matter), the story of Farscape is still not dead. When asked by the BBC, after The Peacekeeper Wars, if she thought it would carry on further, Claudia Black said: “It was always a joy to watch what they were doing in the writing room with Aeryn and John, and it was always fun to watch it on screen. It was always so dramatic and they were funny. The characters – I think they will endure and I think they will last, and knowing Brian [Henson], if he has anything to do with it, I think we haven’t heard the last of Farscape. We’ve rounded off the circle, we’ve finished off a chapter.” 

Whether that chapter leads on to another, or just serves as an epilogue, remains to be seen.

James Rundle

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