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Behind the Scenes

Farscape | The Creature Shop's Strange Alien Lifeforms

“There’s life out here, Dad. Weird, amazing, psychotic life. And death. In Technicolor.”

John Crichton, ‘Premiere’ S1, Ep1.

The science-fiction series Farscape was wild, brash and bold. It was also incredibly alien. Shortly after Farscape was commissioned, creator Rockne S O’Bannon and executive producer Brian Henson were told in the Sci-Fi Channel president’s office to “Just make it as weird as you possibly can.”

Farscape harkens back to the classic science fiction series Buck Rogers. Both feature a lone astronaut flung far from their home. Buck Rogers finds himself 500 years in the future, whereas John Crichton (played by Ben Browder) is catapulted to a distant part of the galaxy.

Within the first 20 minutes of Farscape’s pilot episode, the bewildered Crichton is dragged aboard the living spaceship Moya and captured by a band of escaped alien prisoners, before being struck by a neurotoxin from the tongue of the hulking alien Ka D’Argo (played by Anthony Simcoe).  You never saw that on Star Trek.

“The level of effort that went into creating a real world, as opposed to ‘Here’s a blob and a set with some flashing lights,’ was excellent,” says Simcoe to The Companion. “That goes from makeup, to animatronics, to sets. We were right on the cusp of practical effects and CGI.”

A Sheyang, first seen in the background of the first episode, and later to play a central role in ‘PK Tech Girl’ (S1, Ep7) making it one of the earliest of the alien creatures created by the Sydney Creature Shop. | Courtesy of Dave Elsey..

“We’re not in Kansas anymore…”

What differentiated Farscape from other science fiction television is that the aliens were not just actors in platform boots with putty on their foreheads. These were stunningly realized beings that looked alien and had a similarly alien outlook on life.

Ka D’Argo was a towering warrior with tentacles on his head. The priestess Zhaan was a plant-based lifeform. Then there were the diminutive Rygel, with his floating sled, and the multi-limbed Pilot, who was bonded to the living ship Moya.

Everything about Farscape was designed to emphasize the alien aspects. Even the curved organic corridors of Moya reinforced that this was a living being.

Each of the characters became associated with a particular colour, which was seemingly used as a narrative short-hand describing for their nature. D’Argo predominantly wears clothes of fiery colours against his dark skin. The serene Zhaan is a tranquil blue-skinned alien who wears matching flowing blue robes. Likewise, Rygel is frequently associated with green and purple; colours that are associated with greed and royalty respectively. Finally, the eldritch Chiana is coloured in smokey shades of grey, evoking the sense of mystery and beguilement that was so integral to her nature.

Farscape emphasised the fact that even the language was inherently different. The writers interspersed alien words into the script: ‘Cycles’ and ‘Arns’ were units of time analogous to years and hours, whilst ‘Frell’ allowed Farscape to drop the F-bomb without upsetting the censors. As it is phonetically similar to the word it replaces, its context within the dialogue was clear, yet it also reinforced the alien nature of the environment.

Translator microbes, the Farscape equivalent of Star Trek’s universal translator, dealt with most of the language hurdles, yet Farscape introduced elements that had no equivalent on Earth, such as the leech-like teeth cleaning Dentics. This was only a small element mentioned in passing, but it served to reinforce the alien culture that Crichton found himself in, as well as emphasizing the presence of biological-based technology in this galaxy.

Unlike the numerous iterations of Star Trek, Farscape was not human-centric science fiction. It has a genuinely alien vision of the future, where humans are not the predominant species. Instead, there were the Sebaceans, and whilst they looked human and were genetically compatible, they are physiologically quite different. 

Making the alien truly alien

Farscape was produced by The Jim Henson Company, who at the time were most famous for The Muppets. It could easily have been Muppets from Space, were it not for the mature tone to the stories.

What The Jim Henson Company brought to the series was their fantastic puppetry and animatronic creatures, such as Rygel and Pilot. These were not background characters, but fully realized personalities.

The multi-limbed Pilot was the greatest example of this. Bonded to Moya, Pilot was navigator and liaison between Moya and the crew. Pilot’s animatronics were controlled by a series of puppeteers, who were able to express an incredible range of emotions for this gentle creature, which were reinforced by the casts’ naturalistic interactions with Pilot.

Rather than CGI, which was still in its infancy at the time, Farscape relied on practical effects using animatronics and makeup.

The Jim Henson Company designed the core cast of aliens (Zhaan, Pilot, D’Argo and Rygel), but it was the Australian branch of the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, run by Dave Elsey, that was responsible for populating the world of Farscape with all these alien lifeforms. Their approach to designing the aliens was always that they should never be human clones.

Melissa Jaffar (Noranti) in the makeup of ‘Unrealized Reality’’s (S4, Ep11) bizarre Rygel/Noranti hybrid. | Courtesy of Dave Elsey.

A cinematic universe on a television budget

Elsey had been initially brought on to maintain the puppetry and animatronics that had been built by The Jim Henson Company.  This role expanded to incorporate creature design when Elsey arrived in Australia, two weeks before production was due to begin with Farscape’s pilot episode ‘Premiere’…

The one that has a commerce planet filled with aliens…

Lots of aliens.

In order to achieve the seemingly impossible task of creating a galaxy of aliens to populate Farscape, Elsey recruited as many local effects and makeup people as possible. Unlike the UK and America, Australia did not have the ‘Fangoria generation’; people inspired to enter the effects and makeup industry by classic horror films.

Elsey was able to assemble a team of makeup and effects people, who would be responsible for populating the Unchartered Territories, but throughout the course of the series it would never be more than 25 people.

Given the high bar that had been set by The Jim Henson Company, Elsey knew that Farscape’s creature workshop needed to match that. “The aliens that had been built by The Jim Henson Creature Shop were spectacular,” says Elsey. “We had to build things that were equally impressive, even though we didn’t have nearly enough time to do it.”

In order to differentiate themselves from Muppets and Fraggles, Farscape was unafraid to explore mature themes. This is exemplified in the second season episode ‘Crackers Don’t Matter’ (S2, Ep4), where Rygel is force-fed crackers by an enraged D’Argo. Even though we know Rygel is merely a puppet, the scene is played completely straight and remains shocking to watch. Farscape was also unafraid to explore sexuality, such as Chiana and D’Argo’s numerous assignations, as well as the fetish scene in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (S2, Ep15).

“We had this concept amongst ourselves of gothic science fiction, as it has a dark sense of humour about it,” says Elsey to The Companion.  “We tried to put some dark themes in there, which suited me because a lot of them are ghost stories in space.”

Due to the restrictions of television budgets, guest actors could only be hired ten days prior to filming.  A consequence of this was that the creature shop typically only had ten days to build an alien not shaped like a human. Furthermore, clothing for the alien could not be made until the costume department actually had the completed alien to work with.

Expecting the costume department to create clothing for a non-humanoid alien was unacceptable in the remaining time. Instead, the Creature Shop took on the responsibilities of creating a costume for the alien as they designed it, allowing them to focus the makeup on what would be seen, and leaving the costume department to focus on the clothing worn by the humans – and humanoid – cast.

Evolving and growing

The demands of creating new and different aliens for a television series meant that Elsey needed to regularly find new sources of inspiration. During the few weekends he had free, Elsey would visit all of the nearby comic and book shops for inspirational artwork. “We found some great French comic books with this superb artwork for crazy ideas that you’d never seen in films, as well as Japanese and Chinese influences,” recalls Elsey. “We would bring all this stuff in and make it all join together into different things.”

Although the principal cast of alien characters had already been designed – and in some cases built – by The Jim Henson Company, Elsey was still responsible for maintaining and evolving the makeup and prosthetics.

D’Argo’s costume evolved over time, to allow Simcoe to have greater flexibility and movement.  Sharp-eyed viewers will also have noted that D’Argo’s skin darkens in the second season, which was intended to make the costume as realistic as possible.

D’Argo had initially been built with blue contact lenses, but Simcoe argued against them, as they would have impacted upon his ability to express emotion. “I was adamant that I shouldn’t have those contacts, because it takes away the involuntary dilation of your pupils,” says Simcoe. “That’s why you don’t really read the emotions of people with contacts as best you can, or you read them as colder and more alien than what they are.”

Some actors might have been unhappy with the amount of prosthetics required for the role, but Simcoe was accepting of it and the time required, as it helped create the illusion of the alien worlds in Farscape. Whilst it would have been easier for Simcoe if D’Argo had been created as a suit with a helmet, he would have refused, as it would have hidden all of his acting. “Even though the prosthetics are what they are, it’s absolutely my performance,” explains Simcoe.

There had also been discussion during pre-production and initial filming of digitally altering D’Argo’s voice to make it more alien. However, Simcoe was adamantly against this, as again he would lose the verisimilitude of his acting if it were to be digitally manipulated in post-production. Instead, Simcoe adapted his voice to have an American accent with a gravely texture, which became D’Argo’s signature growls.

“There was some discussion around whether we would digitally alter it. I was absolutely not doing this job if it’s not my performance,” says Simcoe.  

“I said I’ll take my voice where you want it to go, I have that capability. You can give me the note about where you want it to be, and I’ll get it there, but don’t put some digital s*** over the top of it, because that just takes away from the authenticity.”

Anthony Simcoe

Chiana’s concept designs were created by The Jim Henson Company, but it was Elsey’s Creature Shop that brought her to life.  Part of Elsey’s design philosophy for Chiana was to avoid the mottled look associated with clowns and have a graded variation in her skin tone. They worked with the makeup department to create what would become her shades of grey, developing a process that was achievable on a daily basis.

Another aspect of Farscape that evoked the alien nature of the galaxy was in the acting. Essentially, the aliens did not walk or behave like humans. Chiana was a prime example of this, as not only was she a gray-hued alien Nebari, but Gigi Edgley imbued her character with an animalistic poise, through Chiana’s signature head tilts and penchant for crouching down. Similarly, Virginia Hey used minimal movements to evoke Zhaan’s innate serenity.

Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) in all his terrible ghoulish glory. | Courtesy of Dave Elsey.

Enter: Scorpius

At first it seemed as if Farscape would last for only a single season, as it was felt that the show was unsustainable. It was Elsey’s belief that in order for the show to continue Farscape would need a villain. One that fans would “love to hate.” Enter Scorpius.

Scorpius had first been developed during the pre-production stages of Farscape, and had initially envisioned as being more insectoid. However, Esley’s inspirations for Scorpius included horror icons, such as Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. When Wayne Pygram was preparing for the role, Elsey recommended the classic horror film Witchfinder General, as Matthew Hopkins, played by Vincent Price.

One of the most iconic scenes in Farscape is when Scorpius’s cooling rods are being inserted into his head, as the camera focuses on his grimacing visage. This particular effect came about during a discussion about the purpose of Scorpius’s suit and why he needed to wear the mask. The idea was that Scorpius was constantly overheating and needed cooling rods to survive; a theme that was explored later in the series.

Whether the creation of Scorpius ensured subsequent seasons is unknown, but Farscape finally had its villain.

“I was floored by this futuristic S&M post-punk pop star in his alligator suit.”

Virginia Hey, Farscape: The Illustrated Companion.

With the second season, the main difference for Elsey and the rest of the Creature Shop was that now they knew what they were doing and how best to achieve the alienness that is so inimical to Farscape.

The ‘Look at the Princess’ trilogy (S2, Ep11-13), called for the creation of a Scarran; Sastaretski Cargn.  This creature was an incredible animatronic design, with a long neck, lizard face and laminated armour.  At the time, there had been no further plans for Scarrans and it was assumed that this species would only appear once. However, the design was so successful that it was decided the Scarrans would become a major element in the storyline, and they would need more of them.

The creation of Cargn had been a massive undertaking and to create more of them on such as scale was unfeasible. Instead, inspired by ants, Elsey came up with the idea of their being different castes of Scarrans.

There was the warrior caste, like Cargn, which relied on animatronics, and then there was the ruling caste that relied on makeup. This essentially allowed the Creature Shop to build animatronic Scarran warriors, which could be reused, whilst allowing them to focus on the individual makeup for the Scarran rulers, such as Emperor Staleek and War Minister Ahkna.

Using makeup to create the ruling caste of Scarrans also allowed for a much greater emotional range available to the actors under the makeup.  Whilst the warrior Scarrans looked impressive, the people portraying them had limited emotive ability.

An array of Scarrans from ‘We’re So Screwed, Part II: Hot to Katratzi’ – S4, Ep19. The nobles are Captain Jenek (Jason Clarke), War Minister Ahkna (Francesca Buller), and in red, Emperor Staleek (Duncan Young) | Courtesy of Dave Elsey.

This exemplified Farscape’s ability to have utterly alien characters that are nonetheless relatable.  A prime example of this was the alien Natira, who – in a single scene – shifted from glee, through doubt, then to fear.

Natira became an iconic character, who exemplified the utterly alien nature of Farscape.  She was played Claudia Karvan, who is one of Australia’s most recognised actresses, and it had been considered a big score for her to appear in the ‘Liars, Guns and Money’ trilogy (S2, Ep19-21).

The producers had wanted Karvan on the show as a princess, but Karvan wanted to be an alien. It was a challenge that Farscape’s Creature Shop were only too happy to hear. Unfortunately, there was outrage when the producers saw Natira. This was no longer Claudia Karvan, but a clawed alien blue lobster woman with mandibles on her head. Elsey’s phone never stopped ringing that weekend, as Natira was not what they had envisioned for Karvan.

Elsey was understandably nervous about the first scene on the Monday morning, which was Scorpius and Natira flirting with each other. It was a resounding success. So much so that during the following season, the person who had been upset by Natira was now asking for another alien like her to return, however this did not come to fruition.

One of the characters that did return was D’Argo’s son Jothee. He had departed Moya, during Farscape’s third season, but returned for the Peacekeeper Wars mini-series.  Not only had Jothee been recast, but he also looked vastly different. Previously, Jothee, who was half-Sebacean, seemed ashamed of his Luxan side. On his return, he looked distinctly Luxan.

The redesign of Jothee was due to production discussions about Jothee finally accepting himself and embracing his Luxan heritage to become a proud warrior. Therefore, it was assumed Jothee would let his Luxan side grow back. Unfortunately, none of those conversations were scripted, and it was left to the audience to figure it out for themselves.

The inherently evolving nature of television writing also meant that characters would change throughout the production process.  For example, the character of Paroos in ‘A Prefect Murder’ (S4, Ep9) was initially going to be an evil priest, which Elsey created as a twisted version of Father Jack from the TV series Father Ted.

Paroos the alien priest in ‘A Perfect Murder’ – S4, Ep9. | Courtesy of Dave Elsey.

During the script’s development, Paroos ultimately became a good person, but they still had to use him as built. In doing so, Farscape usurped expectations as to what a good priest could look like, to create something genuinely memorable and alien.

The legacy of Farscape

It has been nearly 20 years since Farscape concluded with the Peacekeeper Wars mini-series, and its legacy endures.  It is still finding new fans, whilst the creature effects and storytelling still hold up to this day.

The director James Gunn commented how Farscape influenced him when creating Guardians of the Galaxy.  As a homage to the series, Gunn cast a gold-painted Ben Browder as Admiral of the Sovereign in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).

Rather than taking a human-centric approach to science fiction, Farscape embraced the alien to create a fully-realized universe that was fundamentally alien and like no other. Crichton was the stranger in a strange land, who initially lacked even the basic translator microbes to communicate with the others. In many ways Crichton was the alien and became a human barometer for the viewers.  

Farscape has also had a wider impact. At the start, Australia had a small makeup and effects scene, but it has since grown into an incredibly talented array of effects and makeup people, many of whom learnt their skills on Farscape.

So, will we ever explore the Uncharted Territories and tormented space again? Although Crichton and Aeryn’s story has – for now – concluded, the galaxy of Farscape is more than rich enough for new stories.Only last year there has been discussion of its return.

Testimonial Author Image

After ten years designing drainage systems, Peter Ray Allison finally realised sewers were full of crap. Rather than having a midlife crisis, he became a freelance journalist specializing in technology and science fiction, and was once called a ‘blessed geek’ by Virginia Hey. Peter’s work has been published by the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent, amongst others. Peter is also regular podcaster for Geek Pride.

Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterRayAllison

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