Closer to Farscape
To Travel in Another Galaxy, Actor Ben Browder Took a Trip Around the World
Sci-Fi Teen, July 1999
For a good chunk of last year, American actor Ben Browder has found himself a stranger in a not-so-strange land. As the star of Farscape, one of the most ambitious sci-fi TV series in recent years, he's had to temporarily relocate to Sydney, Australia, where filming began at the Fox Studios in September, 1998.
Created by Rockne S. O'Bannon, a long-time contributor to fantastic TV (SeaQuest DSV, Alien Nation, etc.), and co-produced by the Jim Henson Company, which also provides its animatronic characters, Farscape stars Browder as astronaut John Crichton, who finds himself completely displaced when an experiment of his own invention goes awry. He's trust down an intergalactic wormhole that transports him across the universe to a galaxy far, far away. In order to survive and attempt to get back to Earth, he teams up with the crew of a giant bio-mechanoid spaceship, the Moya. This living craft houses members of many different alien cultures, all of whom are attempting to elude the villainous Peacekeepers, a human-looking alien race. The series is currently airing Fridays on the Sci-Fi Channel.
The actor, whose previous claim to fame was a "Neve Campbell's older boyfriend in season three of Party of Five", seem ideal for the role of Crichton. Not only is he a great enthusiast of both written and filmed science fiction, but he had returned from acting in the unsold pilot for a series called Martian Law when he got the call to play Crichton. "what's cool about John," Browder says during a lunch break, "is that he's a contemporary guy stuck at the far end of the universe. What he brings to the table are the same sort of references you or I would. He grew up with Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek and The X-Files and all the things we would reference as science fiction. He then tries to make sense of the alien universe in a way that we relate to, but it's so far removed that nothing quite works."
Joining Browder in the main cast are Claudia Black as captured Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun, Virginia (The Road Warrior) Hey as Pau Zotoh Zhaan, Anthony Simcoe as the 7-foot General [sic] Ka D'Argo and two animatronic beings. Rygel XVI is a two-foot ruler from another galaxy, while Pilot is a half-body who's grafted to the Moya and shares a symbiotic relationship with it as the main communicator between the ship and the passengers. Browder laughs loudly at the suggestion that he and his fellow travelers comprise a sort of mobile bar scene from Star Wars.
"There are certain resemblances to Star Wars," he admits. "A number of our art department are off the prequel. So there are similarities in that respect and the Henson Company also built creatures for many science fiction pieces, but the show has a pretty unique look. Every time we turn around we're bumping into a new planet or asteroid or ship, and we get a different alien."
Browder claims to have done 98 percent of his own stuntwork, but admits that a lot of the Farscape action is created later in postproduction. "The CGI is fantastic," he raves. "On episode 1, we had three times as much CGI as they had in all of Independence Day!" Regarding his animatronic costars, Browder observes, "This is something that has never been done for TV in the science fiction genre. It's not Muppets. These things border on real in that same way that prosthetics do. You know, I'm constantly amazed at what they turn out. We have one guest creature in episode 8, and it's the first time anyone's ever tried this: a guy on stilts with a full animatronic head, and he's about 8 feet tall. It's remarkable what these guys keep dreaming up."
Asked to cite a favorite overall episode, Browder doesn't hesitate to mane the fifth. "It's called 'Back and Back and Back to the Future'," he says. "Essentially, it's a time travel piece with an interesting twist. Crichton keeps reliving the same chunk of the future. the story leaps back on itself in very clever ways. It's a really good script, but the whole show has gotten progressively better as we've gone along."
for Browder, part of the thrill of doing Farscape has come from filming it in another country. "Australia's a fascinating place," he raves. "I spent four years in London, and a lot of the references cross over. Much of the language that Australians use is a kind of cross between British and American. the attitudes are different in the way that the crews interact. Their jobs are slightly different than they are in the states, but not substantially so. I was just saying the other day that it's amazing how you can travel all the way around to the other side of the world, and yet you're still speaking the same language and basically making film the same way. Sydney is my only reference point for Australia, though. I haven't had a chance to travel around the country, which I hope to do at some point."
Naturally, Browder hopes that "A lot of people see Farscape and like it," but he has ambitions beyond audience acceptance. "I come in every day just hoping to tell and interesting story. The science fiction audience is an intelligent and discerning one. they'll pick and poke and point at what you do, so I try to be sure we're making an intelligent show.
"I love science fiction and always have," he continues. "One of the first novels I ever read as a kid was a Ben Bova book, and I was essentially hooked from then on. You can go back, and there's such great science fiction literature. Reams and reams of material which Hollywood has not tapped into. Hollywood generally sees science fiction in terms of special effects and how many aliens they can get in. Thematically and storytelling-wise, science fiction is rich with ideas. The ability to take a single aspect of our humanity and stretch the boundaries of it by changing the rule with which we're operating -- you know, what would we do if we could all live forever? Science fiction can explore questions like that in ways that normal dramas can't."
Yet it's also, he admits, a difficult genre to pull off, both on a story level and simply because of the technical requirements. "When you do science fiction for the modern audience, so often there's so much CGI and plate shots. In Farscape we have creatures, which means puppeteers. You've got guys all around you on the floor. You [have to] know the integration of all those pieces, besides keeping an eye on the scripts and the story and idea of how all these things fit together. You have the latitude to say, 'Well, this alien race may do that', but that decision can affect the story down the line."
Nonetheless, Browder demonstrates and ease with his role, which can be at least partially explained by the fact that he's one of the few Farscape actors not coated in heavy makeup. He relates the experience of his new buddy, co-star Simcoe, as an example of why he's excite dot be involved.
"He's in heavy prosthetics," Browder notes, "and he does an amazing job. At the beginning her was spending four hours just getting into his outfit. It's a full body suit in addition to this incredible makeup job. They've now got the process down to two and a half to three hours, but if he does a full day it's still massively long. Easily 14 hours every day he works. Early in the process, I said, 'Man, are you doing OK?" because the suit is hot and they hadn't sorted out how to keep him cool. And he said, 'I'm an alien on a spaceship -- what have I got to complain about? This is great.' It was like, you can get tired, but ultimately at the end of the day, you're on a spaceship. How much better does it get than that?"