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Between a Rockne and a Farscape

Farscape creator Rockne O'Bannon on the show that has captured
the imagination of Sci-Fi fandom

By Resa Nelson
February 2000
Copyright 2000 Sci-Fi Entertainment; reproduced without permission

There is a saying about loss and opportunity: If you look too long and too hard at a door that has just closed in your life, you take the risk of not seeing a new door of opportunity as it opens.

If you have not seen Farscape yet, don't assume that it's too late to start watching. The final four episodes of Farscape's first season will air in January 2000. These last episodes are more like a four-part feature film than television episodes, both in scale and in scope. Even if you know nothing about Farscape, watching the last episodes of the season will serve as a good introduction to this acclaimed and successful series. You'll then be prepared for season 2, scheduled 9as of press time) to begin on March 17.

In other words, the last episodes of season 1 are a new door of opportunity that will open soon.

If you're already a fan of Farscape, here's a sneak peek: There will be some new characters in the Final Four episodes, as well as the return of some characters from previous episodes.

There will also be a funeral. Someone we know will die. The series' creator, Rockne S. O'Bannon (the film Alien Nation, TV's SeaQuest DSV and The Twilight Zone), isn't revealing who that someone is. But he readily talks about his pride in Farscape and its 1st season.

"The last four episodes of the season [are equivalent to] a Farscape movie," O'Bannon says. "If you watch episode 22, which is the conclusion of the season -- and you think back to how far these characters have come from the first moment of the first episode, where John Crichton first stepped on board Moya, first met the characters, and was in a situation with very heightened emotions -- it's difficult for me not to be proud of the character and emotional arcs."

In general, Science Fiction strives to answer the question: "What does it mean to be human?" Farscape addresses this question through its characters, only one of which is human -- John Crichton, played by Ben Browder. All of the characters want something, and they're all willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. At the same time, they strike a certain balance between taking steps to get what they want and being aware of other. They're dealing with some of the most basic questions of life: How do you get what you want without hurting other people? If someone is going to get hurt regardless of what choice you make, how do you make the best choice? How do you balance what you need with the needs of others, especially if their needs are at odds with yours?

One of the most interesting episodes of season 1 (episode 9, "DNA Mad Scientist") explores with issue with a sheer honesty rarely seen on television. Farscape's main characters include a lost modern-day astronaut (Crichton); a handful of escaped prisoners (the warrior D'Argo, played by Anthony Simcoe, the priest Zhaan, played by Virginia Hey, and the frog-like Rygel); a Peacekeeper soldier (Aeryn Sun played by Claudia Black); and a living ship (Moya) and her Pilot, which is a large insect-like creature that towers over the others in size. They're lost in uncharted territory in space, and they all want to find they're way home. When they encounter a very odd but intelligent scientist, he presents a dilemma to them. He claims to have maps that can guide each of the escaped prisoners back home. But the cost of the maps is extremely high: The scientist will give the maps to them only if they hand over one of Pilot's arms.

The escaped prisoners -- D'Argo, Zhaan and Rygel -- will do anything to return to their homes. But the scientist has no map for Crichton. And because Aeryn has been marked for death by her fellow Peacekeepers, who now consider her to be contaminated as a result of her prolonged exposure to the prisoners, she has no home -- Aeryn has nowhere to go, and Crichton has no way to get home. Because they have nothing to gain, it's easy for Crichton and Aeryn to be appalled by the desires of the others.

Although Pilot's nature is to serve as an interpreter between Moya and her passengers, and Pilot essentially lives a life of servitude, he's mortified by the escaped prisoners' request for one of his arms. And yet, he admits that if he loses an arm, he'll simply grow a new one to replace it. He resists, but D'Argo, Zhaan and Rygel win. They pin him down and D'Argo cuts off one of Pilot's arms.

"Believe me," O'Bannon says of the fans' responses to this episode, "it was interesting to watch the reaction on the bulletin board [at the Farscape web site]. Right after the show aired, people were aghast. And then as the weekend went on, and in the following week, people started to put it into perspective. As despicable as it is, and emotionally wrenching, for these characters, it was very real. [The writers decided] this is what they would do under those circumstances.

"There's some redemption at the end [of that episode] in terms of D'Argo saying he's sorry [to Pilot] in the way that he could. I remember reading an article about some reaction to a movie like Schindler's List [by a] holocaust scholar. And he was saying that as wonderful as films like Schindler's List are, unfortunately, they paint an artificial picture of events. Under the circumstances, something as truly hellacious as the holocaust was not a time of great heroism... it's that kind of stark reality that sort of fuels the thinking in a scene like [Pilot's arm being cut off]."

the kind of stark reality that O'Bannon talks about is a simple fact of life. If you have even experienced being laid off from a job or watched others being laid off around you, seeing Pilot's arm cut off should not come as a shock. Like any business, the crew aboard Moya sometimes has difficult decisions to make. Life is not simplistic. It is not black and white. Life is about the shades of gray. If you run a business and something changes that puts your business at risk, what do you do? Do you lay off good people who have worked hard for you for the past several years -- or do you let the business die, thereby putting hundreds of people out of a job instead of dozens? If this realization strikes home at the end of the year, do you lay people off right before the holiday season -- or do you delay the inevitable until after they've run up their credit card bills, not realizing that soon they'll have no way to pay off those bills?

Or, if you're a crewmember on board Moya, do you risk the possibility of never seeing your family and loved ones again, or do you cut off the arm of a colleague who has the ability to grow a new one?

These are the places to which the characters on Farscape have come. But how did they begin?

"When all we had in hand was the premiere script," O'Bannon says, "the characters were all kind of icons. This was by design. The [premise of the show is that] a human from our time was dropped into the middle of a Star Trek/Star Wars galaxy... the characters needed to be pretty quickly identified icons of no specific Star Trek/Star Wars world, but of those kinds of worlds. So, therefore, you have Zhaan, who was the Peace-nik, if you will. You have D'Argo, who's the warrior, and Rygel, who's the Napoleonic, little slug king."

Season 1 consists of 22 episodes, most of which were written in six-episode blocks. As the writers watched the actors get comfortable in the skins of their characters, the writers were inspired to shape the episodes around what they saw in each actor.

A case in point is the character of D'Argo, played by Anthony Simcoe. When Farscape began, D'Argo was a warrior icon: big and brutish, hot-tempered, and ready to grab his sword and head into battle at a moment's notice.

"Anthony Simcoe is big, gentle, and very well-read," O'Bannon says. "He's like a big, fun, really bright puppy. He's not D'Argo at all. He can play the gruff D'Argo readily and easily, but he can start to bring a subtlety and sensitivity to D'Argo that we in the writer room said, 'how can we capitalize on this?'... [in episode 6, "Thank God It's Friday Again"] D'Argo talks about what he always hoped for himself... [as a result of Simcoe's performance] we worked from that scene and started to turn D'Argo away from being the warrior icon that he was early on to a character with lots of shading. "Aeryn has made the transition, obviously, from straightforward Peacekeeper-indoctrinated soldier to a member of the crew. But in the hands of a less-disciplines actor, I believe Aeryn would be a softy by now. The things about Claudia is that she's able to play glancing blows at the emotional side of Aeryn, and we know that the others are getting through to her but without knowing what's going on inside of her."

Farscape itself is quickly evolving into a force to be reckoned with. O'Bannon believes that the series' success is due to the fact that it's different. He credits this to the support given to the series by the SCI FI Channel.

"The fun for us was to break as many rules as possible and bend as many of the remaining rules," O'Bannon says. "The big advantage that we have with this series [is that the SCI-FI Channel is not] one of the regular networks, where they need to appeal to a much broader, more homogenous audience, where they ask you to tone things down. Last summer, as I was finalizing the pilot script, Stephen Chao [president of programming and marketing, USE Networks, inc.] kept telling me to push it farther, make the characters more acrimonious, make the situations even more extreme and intense. I took that very much to heart. It's wonderful to have a network that isn't saying, 'Gee, we don't know about that,' but is saying '[We want] more 'out there' kind of stuff.'"Farscape draws to a close, that support is paying off. O'Bannon reports that the Sci FI Channel is "wildly ecstatic" with the final episodes of the season.

Considering that Farscape has been successful from its beginning, this is an indication of the series' constant, and constantly-growing, quality.

"We're attempting a show that you couldn't put your finger on exactly -- you couldn't find a specific antecedent to it in other series or other films. You never know if that's going to work or not. We're all thrilled with the reactions to it -- the audience, the critical reaction is spectacular. We're absolutely thrilled."

Sidebar: O'Bannon on Browder -- Farscape's creator considers Farscape's star

"I told Ben Browder, when we first cast him, I picture John Crichton in a way like Dennis Miller," Says series creator Rockne O'Bannon. "In the same way that one of his jokes will have references to Speedy Alka-Seltzer, Kierkegaard, and lawn fertilizer all in the same sentence, i want Crichton to never shy away from the levels of reference... figuring that it's a protection mechanism. He's trying to hold onto his own pysche."

In other words, Crichton hangs on to his own identity as a human being by making constant references to Earth (mostly American) culture. Appropriately, none of the other characters understands what he's talking about -- but Crichton does. The writers were cautious in Crichton's asides early on. But Browder took this aspect of Crichton's character to heart. In fact, Browder regularly ad libs in order to keep Crichton's psyche in place, whether it's including lines from movies that are appropriate to a Farscape scene, or making up a new nickname for Rygel, such as "Sparky" or "Spanky."

"Ben's presence on the set helps to emotionally guide the others," O'Bannon says. "Ben is an incredibly bright guy. I see him as being like a Kevin Costner or a Mel Gibson, as an actor who also ends up directing movies and being a real force. He's got that kind of instinct and intelligence."