With the reputation of Jim Henson behind it, Farscape wasn't such a surprise hit. Nevertheless, some people find a spaceship driven by a muppet a little hard to swallow. "It forces you to be creative," explains star Ben Browder. "It forces you to try harder when suspending disbelief."
by Ian Spelling
Ben Browder is a stranger in a strange place. Why? Well, for the star of Farscape, the beginning is starting all over again. You see, Farscape is just now debuting in Australia, when there show actually films, but it's deep into its second season in the United States, Browder's native land and Farscape's primary market. All the kinks in the show, any mistakes and missteps that Aussie critics and audiences might be keen to point out, were already pointed out by American critics and audiences and -- here's the bottom line -- addressed in a prompt and satisfying manner. So, even thought the series now ranks as one of the coolest shows on TV -- anywhere -- it's deja vu all over again for everyone involved with the show, especially frontman Browder.
"Ultimately, the show was what I wanted it to be in the very beginning," says Browder, who plays Captain [sic] John Crichton. Whipped across space, the American astronaut is now stuck in the middle of a war and aboard Moya, a renegade, sentient ship. Its motley crew includes a tough ex-Peacekeeper (Claudia Black, of the hit sci-fi/horror film Pitch Black, as Aeryn Sun), a formidable warrior (Anthony Simcoe as D'Argo), a bluer-than-blue high priestess (Virgina Hey as Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan), a diminutive and powerless royal (Rygel, a puppet created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and voiced by Jonathan Hardy). And they have recently been joined by a newcomer, Chiana (Gigi Edgley). "You can look back now on the first 10 episodes and say, 'It's sort of the same show, but it's not really the same show.' And that's kind of right. The show has evolved. The thing that jumped out at people was the puppets, that there would be this Henson thing.
"I was watching an episode the other day and there's something about the presence of Rygel and the presence of Pilot that forces you to make a different show. It forces you to be creative. It forces you to try harder when suspending disbelief. The same would be true if you were using CGI. At the same time, you listen to the fans bemoan the absence of non-human creatures in Sci-Fi. This stuff that we're using is the cutting edge of technology that's available on TV and film to bring non-human characters to the screen. Farscape, for better or for worse, attempts to do it. We try to bring it of with the puppets and out puppet performers are amazing performers. In The Way We Weren't, Pilot's performance was beautiful. And Claudia did these incredibly emotional scenes with a puppet.
"That, in and of itself, makes the show different from anything else done on TGV or film anywhere else in the world. We're doing something unique and that's exciting," the actor continues. "Without the Muppet factor, it would have been much easier to fall into a Star Trek/Babylon 5 genre. I have nothing against that. I love those shows, but they do what they do and we're doing something that's a little different. Not everybody is going to like it and that's OK. I don't expect everybody to like it. With the show debuting here in Australia I'm dealing with 'What is the show? It's Muppets in Space. It's Buck Rogers. It's this. It's that.' The answer is simply, 'No, it's not. It's Farscape. It's something completely different.' And I'm happy to be doing something different."
By the end of Season One, especially from Episode 17 (Through the Looking Glass) on, Browder grew to be particularly proud of Farscape. It came into its own. Crichton came into his own. Gig Edgley had just recently joined the cast as the offbeat Nebari, Chiana, upping the show's otherworldliness and adding heat to Crichton's will-they/won't-they relationship with Aeryn. "There's an old kind of social synthesis that occurred the more we shot the show. There was a sense that it was changing into something different from what it began as," says the actor, whose previous credits include the TV series Party of Five, guest spots on Melrose Place and Murder, She Wrote, and roles in such films as Memphis Belle and A Kiss Before Dying. "I like the quirky nature of Farscape. I like the fact that every episode of the show has its own feel and its own place. We come in and are completely surprised by the scripts and by what we do with the scripts. There's a trepidation that occurs every time a new script comes out, because we're not sure what we're going to do. So it becomes a very creative, free-flowing process. We discovered this show as we went, and we've continued to do so this year. You never really know what you're going to get. That's exciting and fun and it's gratifying that the audience appreciates that.
"As far as Crichton goes, there are a lot of gaps we can still fill in as to what we really know about him. His backstory, in many ways, is sketchier than anyone else's. We know were he came form and we know his world. We know he had friends, that he had a dad and that he was an astronaut. But there are ghosts in his closet. We've maybe pulled one ghost out of the closet this year. I'm sure there are other ghosts in there. We've all got ghosts we have to deal with at some point. And John knows that. In episode 7 (The Way We Weren't, John even said, 'There are a lot of things we've done that we wouldn't want to see on instant replay.' That goes for all of us. So there's a lot of ground to cover in terms of how he'll change and evolve and continue to deal with this hostile environment. He's maybe getting used to his situation, but he doesn't have a handle on it yet. He'll continue to struggle with it, and I think that's a good thing. There was a moment there in Season One where people probably thought, "OK, now he's going to be the competent, all-capable guy who can fix all situations.' That's not the case and I think that makes him a layered, textured, more interesting character."
And what of Chiana? "When [executive producer] David Kemper was introducing Chiana, he talked about her being a young female character. The immediate reaction was, 'Oh, no, no, not the Wesley factor. We don't want that. We don't want a boy with a dolphin'," recalls Browder, alluding to Wesley 'Save the Ship' Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Lucas on SeaQuest: DSV. "David said, 'This is not Wesley. This is not a boy with a dolphin. This is a little whore with a good heart.' So Farscape has its very own trollop and that trollop is Gigi Edgley. And that me tell you something, that girl is utterly insane and utterly brave. Gigi will do anything. She will try anything and I think she pulls it off remarkably well. A lot of actresses would back away from playing a young whore and Gigi just goes out there."
Browder's mention of Kemper brings up another important issue. Series creator and former executive producer Rockne O'Bannon turned control of the series over to right-hand-man Kemper between the first and second seasons of Farscape. "Rock is still in contact with David, but David essentially took over in the middle of the first season," Browder notes. "But the feel of the show as it was created is very much Rock's. The characters and the environment are basically Rock's. The nature of the show as it stood at the end of Season One is David Kemper, with the blessing of Stephen Chao at USA Network (which owns the Sci-Fi Channel) and Rod Perth at Henson. They're the ones who said, 'Go ahead and do this. Entertain yourselves.' And David has. He's the one who has pushed the show into very quirky and dangerous places. The Aurora Chair, sticking me with knives and chopping of Pilot's arm? That's David Kemper. So I don't think we lost anything from the standpoint of the direction the show was taking. We lost Rock's eloquence and his day-to-day tempering of Mr. Kemper's madness, but I feel really good about the hands on the reins."
Whoever's behind them, Browder can point to more than a half-dozen episodes of Farscape that he considers top-notch. These include the first-season entries A Human Reaction, Through the Looking Glass, The Hidden Memory and the season finale, Family Ties In A Human Reaction, Crichton gets home, only to discover that the wormhole he zipped through had never closed, thus changing Earth's fate and, soon enough, the fates of D'Argo, Rygel and Aeryn. Through the Looking Glass follows Crichton's attempt to pluck his Moya mates from the different dimensions in which they were stuck and gather them back aboard the ship. A two-parter, Nerve and The Hidden Memory dealt with the aftermath of Aeryn being stabbed and everyone coping, in his or her way, with the possible implications of her demise. Crichton is then captured by Captain Crais (Lani John Tupu, who also provides the voice of Pilot) and is subsequently tortured at the hands of the monstrous Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) and the Peacekeepers in a nasty-looking, memory-sucking contraption called the Aurora Chair. Finally, in Family Ties, Moya's crew found itself uncomfortably allied with Crais as Scorpius and his baddies closed in, determined to kill everyone. Only the tussle for control of Moya's newborn baby, a leviathan named Talyn, allowed certain characters to be spared. "These five episodes have entirely different qualities," Browder says. "You've got a heavy drama, a romp, the two action pieces and a very lyrical show. And I'm proud that we can do five such different shows."
Thus far into the second season, the actor ranks The Way We Weren't and Crackers Don't Matter as complete winners. The Way We Weren't, written by former Next Generation scribe Naran Shankar, finds Crichton and company reacting to the discovery of a videotape that reveals Aeryn's role in the killing of Moya's previous pilot, while Crackers Don't Matter centres on the crew's increasing paranoia and distrust of each other following the arrival of a blind and seemingly timid alien named T'raltixx (Danny Adcock). "I'd stack The Way We Weren't up against anything out there in the genre and against most TV shows," argue the actor, who has spent the better part of his first Farscape hiatus relaxing with his wife (actress Francesca Buller, who guest-starred as M'Lee in the Farscape episode Bone to be Wild) and kids and visiting his parents back in the United States. "It was beautifully directed, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted by Claudia. Crackers Don't Matter is an absolute piece of insanity. It was funny and dark. Usually on a ship, when the characters go crazy, it's about 'How do we stop going crazy'. This time, we indulged the craziness. You had our boy Crichton, going completely off the deep end and killing the bad guy. That was interesting. We've also got another episode called Never Get Fooled Again. I've only seen it in the rough, but it's one of the most outrageous shows we've done yet."
On television series, the creator or creators devise a story, develop characters and hire actors to breathe life into their parts. What generally happens from there, at least on shows that last more than a season or two, is that an actor makes a given character his or her own and, from there, the writers play to the actor's strengths, react to his or her portrayal, and often heed the actor's opinions. Browder reports that his input began to count early in the game. "Even during the first season I was given a little leeway in the delivery of certain lines," he says. "That occurred, to a degree, before we came back for Season Two. The actors are speaking in the voices of the characters and the writers are reacting to what the actors do. You have to give a lot of credit to the writing staff. We'll do certain things that might or might not make the cut and then, three episodes later, that thing I said or ad-libbed might appear in the script.
"So the writers and the actors and the directors quickly begin to understand not just the characters, but the show. And the show has been able to take on a life of its own. We've been very lucky that we've retained four directors for the entirety of the season. These guys -- Andrew Prowse (who helmed the series pilot), Tony Tilse, Rowan Woods and Ian Watson were on last year basically from episodes five and six onwards. I think that makes a very big difference and is a good thing for the actors and the show."
A production assistant informs Browder that it's time to go, that he's got to settle into a make-up chair if the day is going to get going as scheduled. Given the show's popularity -- and hey, there's even a line of Farscape toys on the way -- Browder could be playing John Crichton for a very long time to come. "Bring it on!" he shouts, obviously nonplussed by the prospect. "Bring it on. I'm ready. I'm still having an absolutely brilliant time of it. I love doing the show. Again, because it's coming up now that we're about to be on in Australia, it was a concern of mine that the show would be a Muppet show. My sensibilities lie more with the latter part of Season One and with Season Two. I like stuff that pushes the genre and allows the show to take chances. That's what we've tried to do. Obviously, we don't always succeed and not every show, in my book, is a winner. But there are some shows that i am very proud of, and I think Farscape is excellent television.