A Look Back at Farscape: Aliens, Puppets, and Criminals on the Run

A Look Back at <i>Farscape</i>: Aliens, Puppets, and Criminals on the Run
Image: Syfy
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When we think about space operas, we think about Star Wars or Star Trek, or even Stargate. These are the sweeping, grand sagas, with stalwart heroes and clear distinctions between right and wrong. Farscape is not that kind of story.

Commissioned by the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), produced by the Jim Henson Company, and shot in Australia, Farscape ran for four seasons from 1999 to 2003. Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Farscape was a bizarre, gun-toting series about criminals on the run; its main cast featured two puppets, several aliens, and only one human. This, along with its daring plot lines and downright absurdity, made it an instant cult hit, but Farscape never quite reached the brand recognition of its rivals. Yet this show quietly redefined sci-fi—and we can still see its influence on the genre today.

Shot through a wormhole

“Just make it as weird as you possibly can.” According to creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, this was the order given to him and Brian Henson, as they stood in the Syfy president’s office 20 years ago last month. The network was undergoing a major regime change, and the interim president wasn’t sure what Farscape was—“He thought it was going to be a kids’ show,” O’Bannon told io9—but his words were a showrunner’s dream. With free rein to create whatever they wanted, Farscape truly lived up to its new mandate, and as Syfy’s first original flagship show they blended wild concepts with passionate sexuality, thought experiments about war, and, of course, Henson creatures.

Having grown up in the Jim Henson Creature Shop, Brian Henson (son of Jim) had very specific aims for Farscape. “I wanted to do something extraordinary in science fiction that differentiated us from the big shows at the time, something only our company could do,” he said. In an era when sci-fi was grounded and emotionally reserved (think the stoic authority of The Next Generation or Stargate: SG-1), Henson and creator O’Bannon wanted to “dial the emotion up to 11” and defy convention. With the Creature Shop at their disposal, the production team meticulously crafted an alien environment that looked genuinely alien, making for what Henson called a “wilder vision of space opera with a more primal energy.”

And wild Farscape was. The premise was simple, yet effective: Thanks to a wormhole experiment gone wrong, Earth scientist John Crichton turns up on the other side of the universe, accidentally kills the brother of a military commander, falls in with escaped convicts on a living spaceship, and meets Aeryn Sun, enemy soldier and the soon-to-be love of his life —all in the premiere episode’s first 20 minutes.

Ok, maybe it’s not that simple. But Syfy’s new flagship show premiered to 1.4 million viewers, impressive for the network at the time, and maintained this viewership with little drop-off throughout its four seasons. Unfortunately, the Syfy Channel picked up Stargate: SG-1 in 2002, which soon eclipsed Farscape in terms of ratings. Farscape’s ratings did decline in its fourth season, if marginally, and at reportedly $2 million per episode to produce, the show became less viable for the network.

The ax finally fell at the end of season four, but within hours of the cancellation news, fans had already mounted a fervent campaign for renewal. As their efforts garnered more attention in the press, the Jim Henson Company received enough financial backing to produce The Peacekeeper Wars, a three-hour miniseries that wrapped up the show’s main plotline.

The passion of Farscape’s fanbase has far from died out, even two decades after the premiere—and many Farscape fans are now behind the camera for TV and film. Actor Ben Browder (John Crichton) told io9 how often showrunners and filmmakers will cite Farscape as a source of inspiration to him. “I’ve had conversations with Bryan Fuller and…Farscape. Russell T. Davies…Farscape. When I met James Gunn, I introduced myself and he said ‘I know who you are.’ And I said ‘Yeah, I thought you did because I saw your movie, bro.’” Gunn credits Farscape as a major influence on Guardians of the Galaxy—proving that although it was short-lived, Farscape’s legacy endures.

Some distant part of the universe

Watching the show today, it’s easy to see why Farscape is beloved, because it is still so truly original. By flinging its human protagonist to the other side of the galaxy and immersing him in alien cultures, Farscape did something no other show has achieved—it de-normalized normal, and normalized the totally bizarre. To us, John Crichton may be the perfect everyman, but to everyone around him, he is the weird, nonsensical interloper. Seemingly unfazed, Crichton insistently makes pop culture references, despite the fact that no one understands him, and dives headfirst into every weird situation.

Crichton’s constant stream of pop culture quips weren’t just a way of providing humor; as with so many aspects of Farscape, they hid a deeper conflict. “It was his pressure valve,” creator O’Bannon explained. “He was keeping some sort of connection to Earth.” From throwing out Star Trek quotes to re-enacting an entire scene from Blazing Saddles, Crichton is desperate to remind himself of home the only way he can. These references entered the script very naturally, evolving from writers’ room in-jokes. “When we introduced Scorpius and he’s putting Crichton in the Aurora chair, Crichton calls it the ‘comfy chair’, which is a Monty Python reference—and that’s what we called it in the writers’ room.” The first draft of the script for the season one episode “Mind” didn’t feature this reference, but O’Bannon was sure to put it back in. “Even if 50% of the viewers don’t get it, it’s a good reference, so why not include it?”

Crichton’s new crewmates are at turns baffled and frustrated with his bizarre human behavior, but they can’t help but find it endearing. And the reverse is also true, as Crichton helps a blue-hued priestess (Zhaan), a warrior (D’Argo), a haughty emperor (Rygel, a puppet), an enemy soldier (Aeryn), a thief (Chiana), a pilot (Pilot, an animatronic puppet), and a living ship (Moya), bond together to finally find what they didn’t even realize they were searching for: a family. It’s the classic stranger-in-a-strange-land story, except for once it is not the alien that is the stranger, but the human who is alien. And as Crichton is a touchstone for the audience, so the viewers, too, are thrown into a whole new landscape.

This starts from the moment Crichton stumbles onto Moya’s bridge, confronted by a cacophony of guttural grunts and high-pitched trills. The aliens—D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel—are each communicating in their native tongues, yet they understand each other. This is thanks to the Translator Microbes that are injected at birth to all peoples in this corner of the galaxy, which was creator O’Bannon’s innovative solution to one of sci-fi’s most annoying problems. Once injected, Crichton can understand almost all verbal communication, with the exception of various technical terms, curses, and slang words.

This made for a rich dialect of alien slang that is peppered throughout Farscape’s dialogue, becoming one of the most recognizable aspects of the show. As slang phrases come from decades of culture-specific context, they are therefore untranslatable—but that didn’t stop O’Bannon developing a wide lexicon of alien swears. “I wanted the audience to get the meaning of the alien word smoothly,” O’Bannon elaborated, “so we strived to make the alien words similar to their Earth equivalent. ‘Dren’ sounds like the Yiddish ‘drek’, and of course ‘frell’ starts with an ‘f’. ‘Frell’ was particularly useful because it added the intensity of punctuating a statement with the f-word, without dropping the dreaded bomb.”

Strange, alien lifeforms...

O’Bannon and Henson’s dedication to doing something different led Farscape to fascinating places. Always unpredictable and never taking itself too seriously, the show veers from tragedy to comedy, sometimes even within one episode. This is a vivid corner of the galaxy that Crichton finds himself in, teeming with dozens if not hundreds of different lifeforms which, thanks to the Jim Henson Creature Shop, all had distinct appearances and cultures. This was no easy task, but as Brian Henson said, “if someone says something’s impossible, that to me is a challenge.”

Even in the pilot episode, we can see the results of the impossible made possible, like the gigantic, bug-like animatronic alien which features in a brief scene.

This six-foot tall creature is onscreen for a grand total of one minute.
This six-foot tall creature is onscreen for a grand total of one minute.
Image: Syfy

“That was Dave Elsey’s first character that he did from scratch,” Henson told io9. Elsey, who worked at the London Creature Shop before moving to Australia for Farscape, went on to win an Academy Award for Makeup (for 2010's The Wolfman, shared with the legendary Rick Baker). “I think he wanted to prove that he could be just as good as the London Creature Shop. [He] built it in such a way that it really only does that one scene and then it pretty much fell apart. I always say to the animatronic builders ‘if something is needed for only one thing, be very, very ambitious and if it only lasts for half an hour of shooting and then falls apart that’s okay, that’s a win’.”

It is this attention to detail that makes Farscape such a gorgeous thrill ride, and one which has stood the test of time; despite its age, Farscape’s visual effects still look amazing. Of course, not all animatronics were built to last just one episode. “Every single time I walked on the Pilot set my jaw dropped,” actor Anthony Simcoe (D’Argo) revealed. This immense animatronic was perhaps the greatest Farscape creation, operated by almost a dozen puppeteers hidden beneath Pilot’s control panel. Despite the fact that he is an animatronic, Pilot is incredibly emotive, sharing many poignant scenes with the other characters, especially Aeryn Sun. Episodes like season two’s spectacular “The Way We Weren’t” feature Pilot heavily, not shying away from his emotional growth, past trauma, or relationships. It’s a testament to the talent of the Creature Shop that as a viewer you can completely forget you’re watching an animatronic, and just emotionally invest in the character.

But it’s not just the Henson creatures that seem thoroughly alien. Virginia Hey, who played Zhaan, explained how she approached her character’s otherworldly nature: “I tried to limit Zhaan’s movements. I didn’t want to have any affectation of alien motion, just a serene stillness, which is not human-like at all.” Blue, bald, and beautiful, Zhaan was the soul of the show, an anarchist revolutionary turned priestess who was equal parts spiritual and terrifying. And although her stunning makeup was enough to convince us she wasn’t human, Hey took care to avoid any human reactions in her performance. “A human has the instinct of ‘fight or flight’ when any worrying stimulus comes their way, and adrenaline gates open, creating floods of stress. I tried to still that whole process, thereby making Zhaan non-human.”

Yet although Farscape’s dedication to being thoroughly alien made it stand out from other shows of the time (and, arguably, today), there was a key element that made it really special—as weird as things got, Farscape was an achingly human story.

A human reaction

Farscape was ultimately a character-driven series, a four-season exploration of who these people were, what broke them, and what brought them together. And as weird as Farscape’s characters are, they were all written and performed with incredible realism. For Hey (Zhaan), the linchpin of what made this character study so effective was the fact that they were criminals, thrust together with no chain of authority or captain to follow. “This created a fantastic tension and dynamic, an unlikely partnership between a band of the worst liars and murderers and scalawags in the universe who somehow grew to love and trust each other.”

Love, in fact, was the cornerstone of what made Farscape so outstanding. Unlike many other shows of the time that insistently kept their leads at arm’s length, the relationship between Crichton and ex-Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun was the beating heart of the show—which is what creator Rockne S O’Bannon always intended. “I wanted it to be the ultimate romance, the logline for the 1950s paperback novel that never will be: To find each other they had to traverse the entire galaxy,” he explained. With sparkling chemistry from their very first scene together, Crichton and Aeryn slowly developed a deep understanding and trust for one another that survived separation, war, and worse.

But although O’Bannon, Browder (Crichton), and Claudia Black (Aeryn) were all in agreement about the importance of the romance, that wasn’t to say that there weren’t some bumps in the road. “It was called Kirking Crichton,” Browder said. “I always fought that, every time a storyline would come down which was trying to make Crichton into [Star Trek’s Captain] Kirk. There were a couple of episodes where Crichton hooked up with someone, and I was like ‘no, no, no we’re not gonna do this—or better yet if you do it, there have to be repercussions’.”

For Browder, Aeryn was central to Crichton’s development. This made for a compelling relationship dynamic, one that is evident even without dialogue, in episodes like season three’s “Dog With Two Bones,” when Aeryn tosses a coin to decide whether she will stay aboard Moya. “Aeryn’s whole life is depending on this outcome,” said Black, “so she’s watching the coin. And Crichton never takes his eyes off her. He’s watching her the entire time. What a beautiful and exquisite way for Ben to tell that story.”

Interestingly, Browder revealed that it was Black who thought of tossing a coin. “That scene had been written and rewritten, and we started to shoot the rewritten scene but we stopped because it still wasn’t right.” Farscape’s creative process featured an “ebb and flow of ideas between departments,” as Browder called it, and this one scene stalled shooting for hours. “In the end, it was Claudia who came up with the idea of the coin toss. And the Creature Shop goes off and creates an alien coin for the shot.”

This improvised solution perfectly concludes one of Farscape’s most heartbreaking scenes, as Crichton and Aeryn are wrenched apart once again, only to reunite later in the show—which was true to O’Bannon’s aims in telling their story. “There’s a lot of friction between them, and obviously in life and death situations they have different opinions about how to best get out of it. But at the end of the day they’re truly be bonded together. They were soulmates that were not going to come apart.”

Farscape is often praised for subverting gender norms with Crichton and Aeryn, in how the man is communicative and emotionally intelligent, while the woman is the stoic soldier. But Black argued that it was the romance, above all else, that went beyond stereotypical roles. “That’s the silent version of ‘you can be more.’ Ben wanted to express masculinity in a way that had value to him, and that was very deeply reflected in the way the relationship progressed on screen.”

And ultimately, that’s the secret to why Farscape’s romance is so beloved by fans: It’s a genuine loving relationship. For Black, it was crucial to represent this kind of relationship. “Ben and I wanted to tell stories that would be a more healthy representation of what’s possible. Otherwise, if we stuck with the [William] Shatner model we would have perpetuated a story that I don’t think has much value, for women especially, but for men as well.” By exploring this romantic relationship over the course of many years, Farscape proved once and for all that putting the two leads together isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning.

The wonders I’ve seen

With its long term romance, serialized storytelling, frank depiction of sexuality, and generally adventurous approach to sci-fi, it’s clear that Farscape stands out —but this oft-forgotten show also made a quiet but significant impact on the industry, even just in terms of its tone.

This is something that Brian Henson has noticed in the years since Farscape went off the air, as sci-fi has gone from being reserved and grounded to being more wild and wonderful—current shows like Legends of Tomorrow and Killjoys often “turn the emotion up to 11,” and the Davies era of Doctor Who featured the kind of bizarre aliens that would populate Farscape’s universe. Above all, this is why Henson considers Farscape to be the project he’s most proud of.

“How we approached science fiction took off like wildfire,” he told io9. “When I saw Chris Pine in Star Trek [2009], I was like ‘wait a second he’s John Crichton, he’s gone to that wilder unpredictable place’. But Star Trek never used to go there.”

More than any other piece of media, Guardians of the Galaxy proves the show’s legacy—as the film features a gang of criminals lead by a pop-culture obsessed human who found himself on the other side of the galaxy, it’s easy to spot parallels with Farscape. “Man, I felt like someone went through my underwear drawer, you know,” Browder says of his experience watching the first film. As a huge fan of Farscape, Gunn was eager to include Browder in the sequel, and enthused about how much he was influenced by the show. “He went ‘yeah I totally stole your stuff!’ and promised to put me in the next one.”

Criminals? Check. One human? Check.
Criminals? Check. One human? Check.
Image: Marvel

Farscape’s impact isn’t limited to sci-fi storytelling, however, and arguably its greatest legacy is in the visual effects business, especially in Australia. Anthony Simcoe, who spent hours in makeup each day to be transformed into D’Argo, told io9 how much Farscape benefited the industry. “It was such a consistent source of that type of work. If you were working in prosthetics for example, you wouldn’t have had that platform otherwise, or the years of experience of creating creatures like D’Argo,” he said. “The crew from that production are now the leaders in the industry across all those departments.”

Farscape’s visual effects teams were among the best in the business, and many have found meteoric success after the show, like Damian Martin, makeup artist extraordinaire who won an Academy Award in 2016 for his work on Mad Max: Fury Road—and who honed his skills as Simcoe’s makeup artist on Farscape. But Farscape’s visual effects weren’t limited to puppetry and prosthetics. Much of the CGI was done by Animal Logic, a Sydney-based digital studio. When watching Farscape today, the CG is so good that it’s easy to forget Farscape is two decades old—so it should come as no surprise that Animal Logic has gone on to be something of a titan in the CG industry, producing effects for films like The Lego Movie, Happy Feet, Alien: Covenant, and multiple Marvel movies.

For Simcoe, this is a source of great joy: “It’s very rewarding and heartwarming thing to see those amazing talents that were developed on Farscape and grew there, and are now contributing to storytelling around the world.”

Somewhere over the wormhole...

Although it may not have been a crossover hit like Battlestar Galactica, or reached the pop culture consciousness level of Star Trek, Farscape was nonetheless a spectacular show, a testament to just how daring you can be with sci-fi.

This is a sentiment that has really taken off, and in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy, space operas are painted with brighter colors, starting to really embrace the weirdness of sci-fi, as Farscape’s impact continues to ripple outward. And with the series returning to streaming, a new generation will get the chance to discover this bizarre, thrilling show, forged by dozens of talented, passionate people from different creative backgrounds.

“We were witnessing and participating in something groundbreaking,” Claudia Black reminisced. “We were constantly in an environment where we were allowed to bend everything. And that’s very special.”

Correction: Dave Elsey and Rick Baker won an Oscar for Makeup on The Wolfman, not Best Visual Effects. io9 regrets the error.

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