Farscape ForeverA Sci-Fi original delivers an exciting second season
By Resa Nelson
Few things in life are certain : death, taxes -- and the fact that if you profess your love for an amphibian within the very pages of this magazine, it's bound to become fodder for gossip throughout the universe.
The universe of Farscape, that is.
Ben Browder portrays John Crichton, the only human on Sci-Fi's hit series, Farscape, which has been renewed for a second season. In a recent interview, the very first thing he does is tease me about my crush on Rygel, the frog-like character created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop for the series. "You know that Rygel's a glut!" Browder declares gleefully. "He's glutinous!"
It reminds me of the kind of playground taints I used to hear in my junior-high days. Of course, being fickle when it comes to frogs, I'd forgotten all about it. After all, it's been nine months since Farscape premiered.
Now that I remember my crush on Rygel, it's come back in full force. But something else has happened. I'm quite fond of Farscape -- and all of it's characters.
Most television series go in one eye and out the other. I'm capable of becoming a fanatic, but I need two things before that can happen: characters who are so fascinating that they truly come alive, and a television show that remembers its past -- such as The X-Files and Homicide.
Although I fell in love with Homicide late in its life, I became a rabid fan. Its characters were not only completely realistic, but episodes would reach back and tap into events that had happened in the show that were aired years ago. If you watched Homicide faithfully, the reward was high. The death of Homicide has not been an easy one for me to accept -- I'm still in denial. Even worse, as a dyed-in-the-wool X-phile, I've considered simply tossing my TV set out he window when the final season of The X-Files ends.
But talking to Ben Browder and Claudia Black (who plays Aeryn Sun on Farscape) has made me realize there's hope. Farscape has demonstrated in its first season that it has the chops to become as powerful a series as X-Files or Homicide in regard to the strength of its characters and the fact that their pasts determine their presents.
But let's start at the beginning. Crichton, a present-day American astronaut, is on an experimental space mission that goes terribly wrong. By accident, Crichton's spacecraft enters a wormhole in space, and he's thrown to the far reaches of the universe, far from Earth, far from anything resembling home.
"The first thing it that he's confused," Browder says about the character he plays. "And then he wants to deny it, and then he finally gets to the point of acceptance. I think that's the point he's getting to, going into episodes 17, 18, 19 [of season one]. And then, of course, about the time he gets comfortable and accepts it, the writers turn it on its head again... what you thought was true about the characters begins to shift and slip yet again... What I love about the show is its unpredictable nature.
"The only constant for our show is the characters. Everything else seems to be anarchy. And I think that's the way the uncharted territories are. I think that's the way the writers want it...
"They're not looking for a sort of well-defined universe, which we so often see on TV or in Science Fiction... Crichton is living in chaos and trying to make sense out of it. And that's the experience that, in some ways, I think we give the audience."
The part of the universe in which Crichton lands is run by the Peacekeepers, who hire themselves out to make order out of chaos. In season 1, the Peacekeepers come across as ruthless and cold-blooded. Although Crichton takes refuge on a ship of escaped prisoners, one of his unintended shipmates is a Peacekeeper (Aeryn Sun) who must find a way to adjust to a new life that is unlike anything she has ever known.
Claudia Black talks about what her character has experienced so far: "I supposed season 1 has been about the dysfunctional family of Moya learning to operate as a team, and [Aeryn is] used to the rigidity of rules and the [Peacekeeper] regimen. She's not one that actually likes to spend time alone. In an episode -- 'DNA Mad Scientist' -- she explains to Crichton her fear of what will happen to her is... she has to be left to her own devices, because after being irreversibly contaminated, she cannot go home to her home world.
"We also have, in the episode 'A human Reaction'... the situation where Crichton goes down to a planet, which he believes is Earth, and he invites Aeryn to come with him. And the reason why she chooses not to go with him is because she's completely afraid. She really doesn't believe -- even with Crichton by her side -- that she's going to fit in. She's a little girl lost in a big world."
So get this straight: Aeryn Sun, in the premiere episode of Farscape, is a harsh military office. But now she's someone who's been rejected by her own species and has nowhere else to go. "That vulnerability that's starting to break through for Aeryn in the story is beautiful for an actor to play," Black says. "A woman that has such a tough exterior with such a soft kernel is a brilliant challenge for me."
One of the many strengths of Farscape is that it has an equal number of female and male characters -- all of whom are strong and fascinating. No major female player seems in any danger of becoming a simple love interest.
"I originally imagined that the viewers would be predominantly male," Black says. "But we're split right down the middle between both female and male viewers, which is golden for us. It's a wonderful opportunity to give audiences what they've been wanting to see. It just takes enormous courage on the network's part to create opportunities, so we're very lucky that Sci-Fi has taken the initiative and given us that task.
"It is television history in the making. I know that sounds dramatic... but we owe a lot to current television icons like Xena: Warrior Princess. The more the audience appears to be comfortable with females taking charge on the screen, the more these characters can flourish, which is good news for me and my female colleagues."
But what kind of impact does this have on their male counterparts? Browder points back a few hundred years to explain what could be a wave of the future.
"If you looks back at Shakespeare and read his women, you'll see how strongly they're written. The poetry and the verse that he writes for them is as tight -- or tighter -- that what he writes for the men. He has terribly strong women. And I happen to think that's real. I don't think there's anything in making a woman strong that makes her less feminine. And, likewise, I don't think being feminine makes them weak. Zhaan [Virginia Hey] is an incredibly feminine character, yet incredibly strong. The weakest character is probably John."
It's time for another reality check. Browder believes that John Crichton, the main character of Farscape, the astronaut who ends up as Indiana Jones with his head in the snake pit... is actually the weakest character?
"In some ways, he's the most vulnerable," Browder says. "He's the fish out of water... he's certainly the most likely to get into physical danger. He's like the child of the bunch. He doesn't know what he's walking into when he's walking into it. And he plunges in, quite happily, because he has insatiable curiosity. That's the thing that led him out into space.
"We try to tell the stories of the characters' weaknesses and how they deal with that, and how the others deal with it. We're telling stories about characters. We're telling stories about people.
"One thing that we have tried to do with the show is pull those emotional threads through the characters."
And herein lies the strength of Farscape. Those emotional threads become real when what happens in the most current episode is built upon everything that has happened in all of the previous episodes. Here is where Farscape can stand toe to toe with stellar television series like The X-Files and Homicide.
In episode 8 of season 1, 'That Old Black Magic', Crichton and his colleagues go down to a planet in search of a remedy for an ailing Rygel. Crichton encounters a sorcerer, and ultimately is given a way to confront the Peacekeeper who is spearheading the pursuit of Moya. In episode 1, Crichton unintentionally was involved in the death of this Peacekeeper's brother. But now Crichton is concerned with setting the record straight. He wants the Peacekeeper to know that Crichton didn't want to kill his brother -- in fact, tried to prevent it from happening and failed. Episode 8 reaches back to an event in the premiere episode and revolves around it.
The power of this episode is that Crichton accomplishes nothing. Despite his efforts, nothing changes. But what we learn is that this seems to be an issue that has been haunting Crichton. It appears that his intents are important to him and he wants others to understand that. Or did Crichton believe that he could stop the Peacekeepers' pursuit by trying to reason with them? Could it have been primarily a strategic tactic and little else?
At the same time, each episode is intended to stand on it's own feet. For example, if you did not see the premiere episode, episode 8 makes sense because it provides enough context to let you understand it; however, if you did see the premiere episode, watching episode 8 becomes a richer experience.
Browder enthusiastically describes his colleagues, who work together to create the richness of Farscape. "The writers and our Australian directors are just fantastic. Anthony Simcoe as D'Argo is a storytelling genius. He knows more about acting than almost any other actor I've ever met. And Claudia plays true down the line and does beautiful stuff in what many people would take as the cardboard cutout character. Virginia [Zhaan] brings a tremendous presence to her role. The puppeteer -- Johnny Ecclestono [sic.] did Rygel this year -- brought comedic elements want went out on a limb to do dramatic elements.
"One of the things about the puppet -- the more you personalize the puppet the more you put your hands on the puppet, the more real he becomes. And then the better is it for the puppet, and the better it is for the audience."
In that case, I have a request for Ben Browder: The next time you see Rygel, would you mind giving him a little kiss from me?
Sidebar: Surfing with Farscape
Want to voice your comments about Farscape? Go to www.scifi.com/farscape. The makers of Farscape are interested in what you have to say.
The series is made in Australia and, as of press time, has not begun to air in Australia yet.
"We've been working in a virtual vacuum," Claudia Black says. "The best thing for me is knowing that I'm working on a show that's appreciated by so many people. With thanks to the presence of the scifi.com/farscape Web site, we're getting an insight into just how many people are tuning in to watch our show. The ratings have been fantastic. We're getting enormous support from everyone who's been watching.
"We're very lucky on Farscape to have an enormous fan base who have a presence on our Web site. We glean all sorts, all manner of opinions from them about each episode... each weeks we find there's something new and interesting."
Ben Browder also has a high interest in getting feedback from the fans via the Farscape Web site.
"An interesting analogy to reading the bulletin board is that it's sort of delayed effect that you have on the stage," Browder says. "When you do a stage performance, you can feel a sense of where the audience is going. And you get to be taken there with them, or you take them to another place -- and there's a direct feedback. And it's a tremendous thing as an actor when you feel the audience is with you.
"So it's wonderful and it's very interesting to see what [the people who post messages to the Farscape bulletin board] say... I think it's a tremendous tool from a storytelling standpoint. And it's just plain interesting to see what they say."
Farscape has also begun to establish a presence at fan conventions.
Claudia Black enjoyed her experience at the 1999 Comic Con in San Diego, where she recognized some of the handles that fans use on the Web site.
"I'm finding that we are so lucky as actors to have to contact with the fans that we're having... they are intelligent and they are generous and so enthusiastic. And it's that interaction -- getting a chance to meet the fans, getting a chance to see that they look forward to Friday nights -- that actually really does hit home for us."