Review – Farscape
It’s a little late to the game to be reviewing a series that’s fast approaching twenty years old, but I only watched it (for the second time) quite recently during a fit of serious nostalgia, but despite the years of superior special effects and quality drama Farscape bears the test of time. It’s a real testament to the staying power of practical effects and good writing that the Jim Henson company’s sci-fi series (led by creator Rockne S’ O’Bannon and EP Brian Henson) is still of excellent quality today.
The human hero John Crichton is accidentally flung through a wormhole on a test flight of an experimental deep-space shuttle. He pops out the other end into a convenient plot device, because in the vast empty galaxy marked only by being slightly less empty than the space in between galaxies it just so happens that he stumbles into an escape attempt of a band of mismatched alien convicts from an army of Peacekeepers. In the process of stumbling into this situation he accidentally kills the brother of Peacekeeper Cpt. Bialar Crais (future villain) and equally accidentally kidnaps a Peacekeeper Officer Aeryn Sun (future love interest).
Middle middle middle, ultimately Bialar becomes a hard-to-trust ally in the face of the greater nemesis who I’ll get to later, and over time the entire galaxy is gunning for Crichton and the wormhole knowledge implanted in his head by elder-beings. It all sounds a little cliché, but any cliché works well with good enough writing.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the cast is the setting. The ship, Moya, is a living entity, partially mechanical and partially biological, with a living creature bound to her known only as the Pilot. As the series progresses, through Moya’s pregnancy and relationship with her son, her fears and suffering communicated through metallic groans, instinctual reactions and shaky-cam, she becomes an incredibly important part of Farscape as a whole. While Firefly’s Serenity may be imbued with the properties of home and lifeline and all the heart and soul poured into her from her crew, Moya must surely be the most loveable ship in sci-fi history. I accept all rebuttals in the comments and on Facebook.
She’s not alone of course. Ka D’argo may begin as a very obvious Klingon analogue with all his talk of strength, honour and what is worthy of a warrior, but he develops into something quite unique over time. Dominar Rygel XVI has an ego and self-righteousness to counter his size, and has a richness of character that makes it easy to forget he’s a puppet. Chiana has a “kid sister” role within the family and a tendency to get into serious trouble as a result, but having come from a culture where rebellion is surgically extracted and spending years believing her brother to be dead, it’s only reasonable that she act out a little. Oh and not forgetting the madman Stark, the Phantom of the Opera, one foot in the metaphorical grave at all times and constantly driven mad by the visions of death that surround him at all times.
Of the remaining cast, the mystic Zhaan was killed off after some incredible characterization and ingenious backstory building due to issues with the health of the actress (regarding the head-to-toe blue body-paint) and was replaced by some fairly weak gap-fillers, the prissy leather-clad Jool whose scream could melt metal when time called for it, and later Sikozu whom I actually quite like for reasons I’ll get to later, and the mystic stand-in “Granny” Naranti. These members of the cast were a little hit and miss and occasionally screamed “space occupiers”.
The least likeable member of Moya’s crew has to be protagonist John Crichton. He makes a lot of very stupid decisions, kills a lot of people, gets angry for no reason and is generally just an ass to his friends. And yet it’s not without good reason. Here’s a guy removed from his home by knowledge he didn’t know he had which would become the reason for every major military force in the galaxy to want his brain extracted, and yet all he wants is the same wormhole-producing tech to take him back to the home that no other species can find.
To his credit though, Crichton does form a perfect lens for us as humans to view the sci-fi universe he has been slung into. He’s the kid who grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, and likens the things around him to the things he knows. Everyone he meets ends up with a childish nickname, Pip, Buckwheat, Sputnik, Harvey, and his character shows how self-aware the writing is. And that’s really the tip of the iceberg…
Did I ever mention how much I love a good villain? And Farscape’s biggest villain is a favourite. But let’s get a little backstory here:
The Peacekeepers are a militaristic organisation of mercenary enforcers who work to keep the peace as decided by those who can afford their services. The species – sebacean – are remarkably similar to humans to save on make-up, but with key differences, superior healing and intelligence, greater control over their own body, and a strange weakness to heat that causes them to enter a torturous catatonic state called “The Living Death”.
Scarrans are warlike reptiles that have dense hide that is incredibly resilient to harm, and can cast burning radiation from their hands. Like reptiles they crave heat, and they are also highly dependent on a plant that grants them the intelligence to organise military strategies to compliment their physical dominance, enslave species en-masse, and form a rigid caste structure.
Now we come to Scorpius. Half sebacean, half scarran. Intelligent, vicious, filled with rage that is a product of his birth, a loathing of the scarrans, and cursed by his divided heritage. He wears a black crocodile-skin full body suit that covers most of his face, and also contains a device drilled into his brain that regulates his body temperature:
“His Scarran half loves the heat, thrives in heat – craves heat. But his Peacekeeper half is destroyed by the same warmth. Thermal regulator suit. Cooling rods inserted directly into his brain. Tell me the rumors are true. Please tell me your search for thermic constancy is tormentful!”
But that’s not the end of it! Both sides want the wormhole tech lodged inside Crichton’s brain, and Scorpius goes to the most incredible lengths to get it to tear down the Scarran empire and bring the Peacekeepers entirely under his thumb. The most ingenious tortures, blackmails, Faustian bargains, threats, reason, cunning, and my personal favourite, Harvey.
Scorpius implants a digital clone of himself inside Crichton’s head, to drive him mad, to worm it’s way around in pursuit of the knowledge, and even worse to manipulate John into keeping Scorpius alive, even when he has the chance to put a bullet in his head. Beginning life as a perfect carbon copy of his master, Harvey’s time turns him into a half-and-half balance of the devilish charm of Scorpius and the pop-culture spouting host. They gain a comedic back-and-forth as the clone learns how badly he needs Crichton to live, and balances that with the demands of his master’s programming. Without question the best character of the series, Farscape is worth watching just for the back and forth between John and Harvey.
Here be spoilers
After the cliffhanger ending left by season four in which Crichton and Aeryn die again, there was on hell of a fan outcry for more, for some kind of satisfactory conclusion, which leads to the feature-length made-for-tv film Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars. The final culmination of the war between scarrans and Peacekeepers begins with the happy couple being brought back to life and learning that their death was all a misunderstanding and that the race that killed them are actually peaceloving but xenophobic. Ok, kinda weak, but ok, moving on.
The film also omits another major plot point: the first is that the final episodes of season four saw the destruction of the plant that kept the scarran species intelligent, and the obliteration of a large amount of their military forces. They re-emerge as a fully capable and fully intelligent military force.
Sikozu has finally given in to her blatantly obvious affections for Scorpius, using her intelligence and cunning that had made her incredibly useful on Moya to elevate herself to a military leader and advisor.
But enough backstory!
This is actually an incredible escalation. The three hour time slot allows for some serious escalation of drama, the all-out warfare between competing armies, the high stakes trying to save the one species that might be able to end it all, and finally culminating in the one thing we all wanted to see, the one thing that the whole series had been building to, the deployment of the wormhole weapon. Watching every major villain watch in horror as the hero unleashes burning apocalyptic fury, a weapon that turns space and time into an inferno that consumes a planet in minutes, is the dramatic conclusion that Farscape richly deserved.
So… Farscape Then?
In short, yes. Being a series from the turn of the millennium it’s a little dated now, and the CGI is embarrassing, the writing gets a little hackneyed from time to time and there are issues with the cast as people leave and join, and there are some really clunky moments of laughable science and just bad writing.
But these moments are few, and actually what we have is a cast of loveable characters, from the irritating whipping boy Rygel to the very ship upon which they live. Farscape also touches upon a lot of subjects that were still a little taboo or uncommon on TV at the time, matters of gender, sexuality, slavery, death and grief. An unlikeable protagonist makes for a fascinating anti-hero who explores themes of madness, loneliness, and the balance of power vs. responsibility that Spider-Man could never quite capture.
I have not seen a more self-aware sci-fi series before or since, and it’s something that I don’t think needs to be done again for some time. If you’ve not seen Farscape it’s well worth a watch despite it’s rapidly advancing age, especially as there are still so many amazing moments I have barely even touched upon.