One of my friends recently dumped his collection of “Farscape” on me, and I just finished up with the finale miniseries yesterday.
I think the show got off to a slow start. It took me a good number of episodes to really get into it – (was Crichton’s big scientific theory that catapulted him across the universe really the gravity assist plus atmospheric drag?!) – but, I have to hand it to the writers and actors of this show. They hooked me. This show worked really well for me in a lot of ways that many other recent sci-fi shows didn’t. I’d rank this one over Firefly. (It still doesn’t beat Galactica – maybe it was better than seasons 3.5-4.0, though.) At its heart, Farscape falls into the “Star Trek”-style journey-through-strange-worlds genre, but with a liberal chunk of the lost-in-space, half-a-dozen-of-us-cooped-up-in-a-boat, and epic-plot-arc stuff thrown in there. But it’s got a very different take. It’s kind of the anti-“Voyager.”
The thing I really love most about this show has to be John Crichton. I don’t think I have ever met a character who felt this much like a real live human being ripped out of contemporary society and into strange situations. It’s not just that he’s always trying to rationalize things into a perspective that he (and we) will be comfortable with. Sometimes John meets situations that he’s not comfortable with, even after re-expressing them in American slang, and sometimes he just has to throw his hands up and scream at the universe. He is always amazed to discover that his alien friends and their ship Moya have previously unknown capabilities, and sometimes he gets frustrated when they can’t magically pull themselves out of any situation. His constant stream of pop culture references really added something to the whole effect (he nicknames a bunch of aliens Skeksis in one episode, calls an alien planet Dagobah, and goes into one scene of the miniseries finale with a reference to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). Sometimes it seems like a parody of contemporary sci-fi, though whenever I think back on that, I have a pretty hard time coming up with how I might react in those situations, and Crichton seems much more understandable! It was also a good way of getting out of the “Didn’t you guys ever watch the show?!” problem highlighted in “Galaxy Quest.”
As the protagonist of the show, the writers did a great job with Crichton, but the rest of the rotating cast of characters also stood out in my mind. While one core group stays with the show from beginning to end, there are at least eight characters I can name offhand who get picked up partway or dropped off at some point. Sometimes Moya picks someone up for just a few episodes before dropping them at the nearest planet, sometimes they show up again later, sometimes they join the crew, sometimes they convince a member of the crew to leave. The same is true of the antagonists of the show – meaning that sometimes one character would be an adversary, and sometimes an ally, depending on the situation at hand. Even the crew of Moya, thrown together by accident, isn’t always working towards the same goal. One episode that stands out in my mind as really showing off the ensemble cast – and the actors – was “Out of Their Minds,” in which the crew gets repeatedly zapped between each others’ bodies. That may sound hackneyed (how many times has Star Trek used that mechanic?) but the actors did a phenomenal job of playing each others’ characters in a way that was instantly recognizable. And, going back to my comments on Crichton, he had some of the typical reactions one might expect of a contemporary guy in that situation….
The alien races on the show were pretty wonderful, too. For starters, “Farscape” goes way beyond the funny-forehead phenomenon (though that does happen from time to time – for budgetary reasons, I forgive them). We see a lot of complicated prosthetics and animatronics, many of which look surprisingly lifelike; and, of course, this is so because all the aliens came out of the amazing Jim Henson Creature Shop! But there was more than the quality of the alien puppets and “Fifth Element”-esque costumes. Most of the time, when we met an alien species, we met individuals of that species with several different points of view, political opinions, or faction memberships. This show definitely didn’t follow the Star Trek trope of homogenized alien species that all share the same trait. No, the Farscape universe is populated with neither absolute good nor absolute evil, but instead with…people.
I really enjoyed the way the show handles the Crichton/Aeryn relationship. If you haven’t seen the show, I’m really not spoiling anything if I tell you that the romantic tension between these two characters is a major plot mover. That’s obvious from the moment Aeryn appears. And, of course, for this to be an episode TV show, they need to have a very difficult, tumultuous relationship that doesn’t quite reach closure until the series ends. But these two have a difficult relationship for what seem like very good reasons, and Farscape played with some really interesting ways to get the two of them together and apart again. And more than that, the characters actually get frustrated by this dynamic, too! Like when Crichton and Aeryn seemed to be going somewhere at the end of one episode, and the next one picked up with nothing happening – just after I started to wonder as an audience member, “hey, what’s going on between them?” Crichton actually went up to Aeryn to ask her that very question. It’s like this show was actually playing with reality, by turning a lens on the typical television plot devices.
Finally, several of the episodes were memorable for their cinematography. I haven’t seen other sci-fi shows really play with the way they’re being shot to try and tie things together – the SF Farscape seems to have the most in common with in this regard is “The Fifth Element.” Yeah, Battlestar went for a “documentary feel” and all that, but I’m not just talking about a style for the show as a whole. There are some great dream sequences and some episodes in which the point of view of the characters really comes out in their editing.
I’m feeling bittersweet about Farscape now. Bitter, because I missed it while it was on, I’ve blown through it all, and it’s not around any more. But sweet, because that was a pretty good evening diversion for a couple months, it was a great show, it handled itself well, and it ended in a satisfying way.