Tuesday, March 19, 2024

The 25th Anniversary of Farscape

As television shows go, Farscape may not be well-known among the general public, but among sci-fi fans, it is often counted among the greatest science fiction series of all time. The entire series has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. It is widely available on streaming. There have been both Farscape books and comic books. It maintains a following to this day.

Farscape starred Ben Browder as John Crichton, an astronaut who is propelled through a wormhole to the far reaches of space during the test flight of an experimental spacecraft. In order to survive he joins a group of beings fleeing from the private military force known as the Peacekeepers aboard the living ship Moya. Joining the group at the same time as Crichton is Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), who was thrown out of the Peacekeepers because her encounter with the crew of Moya and John Crichton have "contaminated" her. Early in the series run, Crichton was pursued by Bialar Crais (Lani Tupu), a Peacekeeper officer who blamed Crichton for his brother's death. Later he was pursued by Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), who wanted the secret of wormhole technology contained within Crichton's mind.

From the beginning it was decided that Farscape would be very different from previous science fiction shows. Farscape eschewed the military command structure of such sci-fi shows as Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. It was also decided that the characters on Farscape would display more emotion than on previous shows. Brian Henson said of the show's origins, "We wanted it to be more alien than any other television series--bolder, more emotional--and to have stronger, richer characters than on other SF shows. We knew we needed a concept that allowed the characters to be a little more dialled up."

As to the crew of Moya, they were diverse and some of them were truly alien. John Crichton was far from being the leader of the group. Although he had been injected with translator microbes so he could understand other languages, he knew nothing of the various alien cultures and was often clueless as to what was going on. Crichton often provided much of the humour on the show, throwing out pop culture references that his companions obviously did not understand. Former peacekeeper Aeryn Sun looked human, but was actually a Sebacean, an alien race that for all extents and purposes resembled humans, although there were some major differences in biology. Initially detached and a bit cold, over time she became friendly and very attached to her shipmates.

Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) was a Luxan, a warrior race. He very much had a sense of honour, and he could be impatient and uncompromising. At the same time, he could be warm and sympathetic towards his shipmates. Dominar Rygel XVI (his voice was provided by Jonathan Hardy) had been the ruler of the Hynerian Empire. He could be both selfish and greedy, and tended to regard himself as superior to everyone else. As to Hynerians, they are a bipedal frog-like species. Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey) was a Delvian, a species that looked human, but were in fact a form of plant-life. Zhaan was a priestess among the Delvians, and tended to be spiritual and possessed both telepathic and empathic abilities. Pilot  was the pilot of Moya, who was bonded with the ship. Because of this, he really can't move, but played a large role in the crew's various adventures nonetheless. As a living being, the ship Moya must also be counted among the characters. Moya is a Leviathan, a biomechanoid ship. She can only communicate with the crew through Pilot, but nonetheless has affection for her crew. Joining the group midway through the first season was Chiana (Gigi Edgley), a street-smart Nebari who has a talent for both confidence games and theft. Chiana was highly independent, something frowned upon by the Nebari government.

Farscape was created by Rockne S. O'Bannon and Brian Henson. Rockne S. O'Bannon had served as a story consultant on the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone, written the screenplay for Alien Naiton (1989), and created the TV series SeaQuest DSV. Brian Henson was the son of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, and had taken over running the Jim Henson Company following his father's death. Brian Henson was interested in expanding the Jim Henson Company into more adult movies and television shows that would use the animatronic technology the company developed over the years. After Messrs. O'Bannon and Henson met, they began developing a science fiction series initially titled Space Chase.

It was in 1997 that the Fox Broadcasting Company ordered four scripts for the potential show. Fox ultimately passed on the show, and the other broadcast networks expressed no interest in it either. Rockne O'Bannon and Brian Henson would move onto other projects, but this did not mean Space Chase was dead. Having heard of the project, the Sci-Fi Chanel, then only a few years old, expressed interest in the potential show. Ultimately, the Sci-Fi Channel bought what would become known as Farscape. To keep costs down, not to mention greater creative freedom, the show was made in Australia. 

The Sci-Fi Channel aired a sneak preview of Farscape on March 14 1999. The show officially premiered on March 19 1999 on the Sci-Fi Channel. It later aired in Australia on Nine Network, which co-produced the show with the Jim Henson Company and Hallmark Entertainment. For much of its run on the Sci-Fi Channel, Farscape was the victim of irregular scheduling. While it generally aired in the same time slot on Friday nights, its breaks at mid-season could sometimes last months. For instance, its last episode at mid-season during its first season was aired on April 16 1999. Farscape would not return until June 11 1999. The large gaps at mid-season may well have affected the show's ratings, particularly given the format of Farscape. While for the most part the show relied upon self-contained episodes that were wrapped up in an hour, it also utilized story arcs that could go on for several episodes.

During its run Farscape would undergo some cast changes. As mentioned above, Gigi Edgley as Chianna joined the show midway through the first season. Scorpius first appeared late in the first season and became the show's primary antagonist for the rest of its run. It was in the next to the last episode of the third season that Crais was killed off. Zhaan died in the first episode of the third season, "Season of Death Part 2." Quite simply, Virginia Hey had chosen to leave the show because the extensive makeup required for her role were creating problems with her health. Jool (Tammy MacIntosh) joined the show in the fourth episode of the third season, ""Self-Inflicted Wounds Part 2." Jool was an Interion woman who was highly educated. Taking Zhaan's place on Moya, the character was not well-received and Jool ultimately parted ways with the crew of Moya at the end of the third season. She was replaced by Noranti (Melissa Jaffer), an old and eccentric woman skilled in herbalism and somewhat skilled in medicine. She was often referred to as "Grandma" and "Granny" by the crew of Moya.

In addition to the main characters on Farscape, the show featured a large number of recurring characters who came and went throughout its run. Among these were various Peacekeepers, Scarrans (a lizard-like race hostile to the Peacekeepers), other aliens, and Crichton's father Jack (played by Kent McCord, he sometimes appeared in flashbacks).

Farscape was meant to run five seasons. Unfortunately, just before the second half of the fourth season began airing on the Sci-Fi Channel, the Sci-Fi Channel decided against funding the show any further. This effectively cancelled Farscape. As to the reason for the cancellation, ratings for Farscape had fallen in its fourth season and the show was expensive to produce. Almost as soon as the cancellation was announced, fans mounted a campaign to save the show by either having it restored to the Sci-Fi Channel's line-up or moved to another network. Ultimately, the campaign would not result in another season of Farscape, but it would result in the mini-series Farscaple: The Peacekeeper Wars, that wrapped up the series.

Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel on October 17 2004, with the second half airing on October 18 2004. Many hoped that if Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars received high ratings, it might result in the continuation of the series. Unfortunately, its ratings, while not necessarily bad, were not impressive enough for the show to be renewed.

Both while the show was on the air and after its cancellation, Farscape would expand into other media. The first Farscape novel, Dark Side of the Sun by Jim Mortimer, was published in 2000. There have also been various non-fiction books on the show, as well as  Farscape comic books. In 2002 Wildstorm produced a two-part comic book titled "War Torn." In 2008 and 2009 BOOM! Studios produced a four-part mini-series in conjunction with the Jim Henson Company. It was in July 2009 that BOOM! Studios launched a monthly Farscape title that ran for 24 issues. On top of the regular series, BOOM! Studios also produced three four-part miniseries between 2009 and 2010, and an eight-part mini-series centred on Scorpius in 2010.

During its run Farscape was nominated for and won various awards. It won the Saturn Award for Best Syndicated/Cable Series in 2001, 2002, and 2003. and was nominated for several other Saturn Awards. It won the Award of Distinction from the Australian Cinematographers Society in both 2000 and 2001. It was nominated for several other various awards, including a Primetime Emmy in 2002 for Outstanding Costumes for a Series.

Following its cancellation, Farscape would enter syndication, although it only saw a little success there. Both Farscape and Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars have been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Currently, Farscape is widely available on streaming, including Tubi, fuboTV , Peacock, Pluto TV, Sling TV, Crackle, The CW, Plex, Amazon Prime, Freevee, Philo, YouTube, Google Play, and Fandango at Home. Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars is available on Tubi, Peacock, Pluto TV, Sling TV, The CW, Plex, Amazon Prime, Freevee, and Philo.

If Farscape remains popular, it is perhaps because it is unlike any other sci-fi television series. Farscape was one of the first science fiction shows to feature aliens who were truly alien. The previous Star Trek shows, Space: 1999, and various other series had featured aliens who were primarily humanoid in appearance. They certainly featured nothing as alien as Rygel or Pilot. The show was also set apart from other earlier sci-fi series in that the characters did not always get along. Because the crew of Moya were fugitives from the Peacekeepers, their objectives did not always line up, and sometimes they even found themselves at odds with each other. Rygel, in particular, could act in his own interests even when it did not benefit those of the group. Finally, Farscape utilized subplots and story arcs at a time when most television shows were strictly episodic, with stories that were wrapped up within the space of an hour. This also set it apart from previous sci-fi shows. In the twenty five years since Farscape debuted, there has never been a show quite like it. And while it may still not be as well-known as Star Trek or a few other science fiction shows, there can be no doubt it will always have a following.

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