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Television: Sci-Fi Channel's rookie series features Brian Henson's
handiwork and a penchant to be daring.

By MICHAEL P. LUCAS, Times Staff Writer
L.A. Times, July 20, 1999
Copyright 1999, L.A. Times; reprinted without permission

The Muppets on the big screen may be in outer space this week, but their new, small-screen "Farscape" cousins already have been boldly going where no puppet has gone before. And, by most measures, the mission is a success. Sci-Fi Channel viewers have turned the offbeat drama series, executive produced by Brian Henson, who also produced Columbia Pictures' "Muppets From Space," into the cable channel's top-rated show.

The 3-month-old "Farscape" offers a lot of what most TV science fiction doesn't: romance, humor, richly textured relationships, a strong female point of view and, oh yes, some far-out plot twists based on all of the above (but more about that later). "We are going to be a lot more daring than the other science-fiction TV shows. We're going to go a little too far all over the place," Henson promises. The 36-year-old grew up with Kermit the Frog and the gang on the set of "The Muppet Show," his late father Jim Henson's smartly written 1976-81 syndicated series. That show was the first TV spinoff of the popular Muppet characters initially created by Henson in 1969 for the children's TV series "Sesame Street."

"Farscape" centers around the only earthling on the show, contemporary American astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder), a boyishly handsome scientist who gets lost during a routine space shuttle mission and lands in the middle of a running battle among warring aliens. He falls in with a band of misfits, all of whom are trying to get back to their respective home planets aboard a biomechanical--keep that in mind--ship called Moya.

Headstrong raven-haired humanoid Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) is also aboard, and when her eyes lock with Chrichton's, it's clear that there's more going on up there than wishing upon a star.

"If you look at any prime-time product, it has some sexual interest involved," explains Bonnie Hammer, Sci-Fi Channel senior vice president of programming.

Also aboard are bulbous-nosed, hot-tempered warrior D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe); doe-eyed, blue-toned priestess Zhaan (Virginia Hey); and a pair of vivid characters crafted by the storied Henson Creature Shop: froglike Rygel (voiced by Jonathan Hardy), a deposed king full of star-crossed schemes--think George Castanza--and the ship's seemingly omniscient Pilot (voiced by Lani John Tupu), who's vaguely reminiscent of Space Ghost's sarcastic musical director, Zorak the mantis.

It's a crew ready for adventure--and a few laughs too.

"They're edgy and alien, but you'd still love to invite them into your house," Henson says. "You take people to a movie and introduce them to some scary characters, but in TV ultimately they have to be characters you'd like to have over for a tea party." Alice's tea party, it seems at times--highly reminiscent of "The Muppet Show" and of the way Henson says he learned to create a TV series.

"My father worked with the talent around him, similar to the way Kermit interacts with all the other Muppets," says Henson, recalling his startlingly innovative parent, who died of acute pneumonia in 1990 at age 53. "He would give a lot of creative leeway to everybody around him and and was always wide open to ideas . . . perhaps at complete tangents from what he was thinking.

"One of the things that excited him the most [was] coming into a project with a strong feeling of exactly what it is he wanted, and then creating something that was entirely different and that could only be a product of that group of people with that creative input," Henson says. Henson's "Farscape" executive team includes Robert Halmi Jr., CEO of Hallmark Entertainment and one of TV's most successful producers, and series creator and executive producer Rockne S. O'Bannon ("Alien Nation," "SeaQuest DSV"), who sculpted the strong female characters. The Australian-filmed show's high-end production values give the otherworldly settings a rich, sumptuous look. All that has helped the product deliver above expectations on the network's "Sci Fi Prime" Friday night lineup, with peak ratings that hit just under 1 million households during a recent Sunday marathon. The show has averaged 790,000 viewers. TV science fiction always has been regarded as a boy's world. But "Farscape" has a remarkably balanced audience, network executive Hammer says. Women are tuning in to watch the romance and the engaging characters--especially Browder, whose astronaut projects a refreshing vulnerability and wonderment more than swaggering machismo.

"He never expected to be there, and most days has no idea what to make of it," says Browder, best known two seasons ago on "Party of Five" as Neve Campbell's older-man boyfriend, Sam Brody. "Crichton's flaw is naivete and enthusiasm." As Crichton matures into his role as space hero, Black's character finds that the good-looking young earthling melts her steely military commando heart.

"It's interesting that the females are quite polarized," says Black, who co-stars in "Pitch Black," a yet-to-be-released sci-fi feature. "Aeryn is at first indomitable and recalcitrant, while Zhaan is peaceful, loving, gentle, maternal. . . . Aeryn has to be nurtured to come out of her shell because it has been ingrained in her from birth that emotion is a sign of weakness."

The statuesque Hey, familiar from a variety of supporting film and television roles, starting as a warrior woman in the 1981 feature "The Road Warrior," regularly drops in anonymously on "Farscape" chat rooms on the Internet. "Viewers project themselves into our different characters," she says. "For many of them we represent different members of their families, sometimes dysfunctional families."

As the relationships evolve and the plot twists abound, romance is found in unlikely places. Moya, the living spaceship, will soon have a fling with an enemy craft, get pregnant and give birth to a spirited offspring. "We're now entertaining a very sophisticated audience," Henson says. "Sometimes you have to embrace their cynicism and either make a joke with them or . . . go in a direction you really aren't allowed to go--so right when they think they know what's going to happen, you try and twist it hard in a direction that will surprise them.

"We decided early on that when beings become higher and higher beings, they don't give up their individual character quirks," Henson continues. "They don't become so intelligent they lose their passion, they . . . lose their temper all the time. In this show, they get horribly depressed, they get over-excited . . . which is kind of fresh as far as science fiction goes."

And, so far, viewers are crowding aboard for the ride--wherever it takes them--with a cast whose godfather is a green frog with pingpong ball eyes.

"The Muppets are very real, truthful, flawed, insecure, they're not idealized," Henson says. "All the things that can go wrong do go wrong, yet it all works out wonderfully and that's the happy ending, that's the wonderful thing about life.

"It opens you up to enjoying the little things that go wrong in life as well as enjoying the things that go right, and finding humor, and celebrating all the ridiculous things."