The Accidental Tourist
by David Bassom
Propelled into an uncharted galaxy of Henson aleins, Farscape star Ben Browder has rapidly established himself as one of sci-fi's hottest properties. He's also a terrific tour guide, as David Bassom discovers.
"Welcome to my world," declares Ben Browder with a grin. "It's insane!"
The time has just gone 11am, and we're in sunny but cold Homebush Bay, some 40 minutes away from the centre of Sydney, Australia. Browder has spent the past few hours shooting some pivotal scenes for the penultimate episode of Farscape's second season, and is now in the midst of taking a jetlagged SFX reporter on a personal walking tour of the show's riverside studios.
Dressed in Commander John Crichton's now-legendary black T-shirt and leather trousers (steady girls!), the 6'1" American actor guides me through Farscape's seemingly endless collection of lavish sets. These include the familiar interiors of Crichton's spaceship home, Moya, and a recently constructed spaceship cockpit, to name but a few. Browder also offers a brief overview of events in the show's Creature Shop department, where a number of exotic aliens are being readied for the season finale, which begins filming on Friday.
In-between outlining the making of Farscape, Browder occasionally quizzes me about the UK's response to the series. He's understandably delighted to hear about the show's growing popularity and its outstanding, Star Trek: Voyager-bashing ratings on BBC2 ("That's just mind-blowing!" he exclaims). He's also excited to learn that the series is set [to] receive a prime-time screening on the UK Sci-Fi Channel from November. Away from Farscape, the conversation strays into Browder's memories of studying at London's Central School of Speech and Drama.
At each and every stage of the tour, Browder is warmly greeted by everyone we encounter (including costar Claudia "Aeryn Sun" Black and Creature Shop supremo Dave Elsey) in a manner which speaks volumes of just how popular Farscape's leading man is with his colleagues. And quite right too, because it becomes increasingly obvious that Browder is a genuine, modest, funny and smart guy.
Following the whirlwind tour of the Farscape universe, we adjourn to the production office's main conference room for an interview. In addition to the requisite enormous meeting table, the room houses a TV and VCR and is decorated by various Farscape production designs, pictures and a storyline/episode whiteboard, all of which Browder uses to illustrate various points during the coversation.
As soon as the recorder gets going, Browder immediately comes back to the "controlled insanity" which, he feels, drives the making of Farscape from week to week. "When you get a chance to tour the set and you realise how big the show is, it's overwhelming," he says, to my total agreement. "And it's overwhelming to be involved in it.
"When I originally saw the first script for Farscape, I just thought, 'Well how in the hell are they going to do this?' You read it and you know the Henson Company is involved, but it's got a character that 20 inches high [Rygel], you've got another character who's 15 feet high [Pilot], and then you've got all the CGI elements, and you just think, 'How are you going to shoot this?'
"And the interesting thing about the show is that rather than backing away from the absurd level at which it was originally pitched, in some ways it's actually grown. Those sets you just saw are some of the biggest sets we've built. We're using them for three episodes and then they'll be gone. And they'll build other huge sets for just a single episode and they'll be gone. The same is true of the creatures. The time and energy it takes to build some of the creatures we use and get them up and running is a phenomenal investment of not only money but also creativity. Week-to-week, we try to bite off a bigger chunk.
"It's just insane!" he laughs. "It's an insane universe the writer write. I don't think there's anything else on TV that is trying to do what we're trying to do.
"So I'm proud of the bravery it takes to make Farscape. Whether the show works on all levels or whether the show works the way you want it to, it doesn't matter. Because if we're going to fail, we're going to fail gloriously. And I love that about the show."
Browder was originally thrust into the Farscape universe in September 1998, when a freak mishap left contemporary human astronaut John Crichton stranded ina wild, crazy and unpredictable galaxy of space muppets. Although the intervening year-and-a-half has seen Farscape become recognized as the most exciting, daring and throughly enjoyable sci-fi series currently in production, Browder is quick to point out that is took a long time for Crichton's adventures to begin winning widespread approval. "I think in the beginning everyone was a little scared, because Farscape is so different from the rest of the genre," he explains. "When the show started airing, you'd look at the internet and see people asking, 'Is it Blake's 7?' 'Is it Lexx?' 'Is it Star Trek?' 'Is it Star Wars?' And it doesn't really sit well with any of those.
"Farscape is unique because it shoots in Australia and has a different perspective. It's unique because of the Henson Creature Shop influence. It's unique because you have English, American and Australian influences working on the show. The look of the show was shaped by [original production designer] Ricky Eyres, who's English. Dae Elsey, who runs the Creature Shop, is English. Half of our writers are American, the other half is Australian and all of the directors are Australian. All of the cast, except myself and the odd guest actor, is Australian. It's a unique mix.
"When the show started, it was trying to figure out what it was," he admits. "There is a noticeable difference between the end of the first season and the beginning of this season. There's a naive innocence about the first four or five episodes, but by the end there's a harsh edge to the show.
"It's an interesting journey. And it's the same sort of journey which occurs in season 2."
Both of Farscape's first two seasons are ultimately driven by Crichton's escapades in his new alien enironment. Farscape's first year follows the human astronaut's attempts to grow accustomed to his new home, while season two sees Crichton being pushed to the brink of insanity for reasons which only become clear during the season's closing hours. Browder couldn't be happier about the character's ongoing growth and development.
"That's one of the most interesting thing about playing him," he reveals. "I watched the premiere two weeks ago when it aired here for the first time [on Australia's Channel Nine Network] and if you compare that with the end of the season, he's two completely different people. And he should be, after everything that's happened. So John's changed. His relationships with the other characters change as well.
"Chricton's, Aeryn's and Zhaan's development are all journeys. I think good television adresses those character journeys over a long period of time. If you watch ER, the characters change and they're different from what they were in the beginning. That's usually the sign of good TV.
"If you ignore that, you do the cookie-cutter hero. Personally, I don't find that compelling television. It can be good entertainment but I, personally, was never attracted to shows where the characters don't change, you know? Magnum P.I. is Magnum P.I. and Tom Selleck played it beautifully, but it's just not what we're doing."
Besides the potential for character development, Browder also relishes the variety of his work on Farscape. "This show never allows you to get too comfortable," he explains. "You never know what you're going to be required to do next. Which is cool.
"But on the other hand, because of the nature of what you're required to do on a week-to-week basis, you just don't have the time you'd like to prepare. So you sort of fling yourself out there; you have to take your choices and hope that it holds up. You don't really know how it's going to play until you get there."
To demonstrate his point, Browder heads for the VCR and plays a brief clip from an upcoming Farscape episode. The scene shows an aged John Crichton discussing life and love with an equally elderly Aeryn Sun. Despite Browder's frustrating refusal to divulge any details whatsoever about what I've just seen, it looks like very moving stuff.
"It's a tear-jerker," he agrees, "and then we do all these big action episodes with huge explosions. It's a phenomenal mix. So you have to make your choice, go for it and hope you don't fall flat on your face. But I actually think that episode -- 'The Locket' -- holds up pretty well."
It isn't all drama and action on Farscape, though. Comedy -- and frequently outrageous comedy at that -- also plays a vital role in the series' success. Many of the show's hardest belly laughs are provided by Crichton's human pop culture and sci-fi references, which he uses to relate to the alien environment and people around him.
"So basically what you have there is two major pop culture references. One is to Kirk and Spock, which is a homage to science fiction. But then I'm saying we're more like Abbot and Costello, which is more like a comedic/serious reference -- we're a team but we're a different kind of team. Crichton and D'Argo then launch themselves into the longest space walk season ender in TV history. We're left hanging in space for the end of the season -- how cool is that? That's the sort of absurd level it reaches."
Before boarding Moya, the Memphis-born actor had starred in a number of aclaimed stage production, wile his screen credits included supporting roles in Memphis Belle, A Kiss Before Dying and Party of Five (in which he played one of Scream star Neve Campbell's love interests). Is Browder surprised that his passport to international stardom has come with a puppet-fuelled sci-fi show?
"I think if you asked me prior to doing this I would have said, 'Yeah, it doesn't make sense,'" he replies. "But I think now that it does make sense. I am a big science fiction buff and the other big thing about Farcape is that it's always been difficult for me to come in and just do the normal thing. Hence I ended up playing a lot of roles earlier in my career that required a man to cry or be goofy or I could play the bad guy. It was sort of hit and miss as to the kind of stuff I did. But Farscape is so strange that me not being normal is fine.
"In the casting of John Crichton, even when I read for the role, people said to me, 'He seems confused'. And I said, 'The dude just got shot across the universe. He can't even open the door. How's he supposed to react? He's supposed to come in and take charge? I don't think so!' So I did what I thought was realistic, which is you come in and you'd be freaked out. Most of us would just be curled up in a foetal ball. So that's the tack I took from my very first audition.
"Even in getting cast for this, they were saying, 'We're thinking of more of a can-do kind of guy', ya-da, ya-da, ya-da. I went, 'Well, yeah, eventually he'll get there. Probably.'"
Coming right back to the present, Browder is now just over two weeks away from his hols. All that stands in his way is the cliffhanging season finale.
"The cliffhanger is huge!" he promises. "It's massive. It's like three episodes rolled into one.
"in the broadest of terms, without tipping off the entire season, I can't say anything," he adds firmly. "What happens in episode 22 is basically the natural conclusion of the season. Up until around episodes 18 and 19, you don't really know where the season is going. It's all hinted at up to that point.
"I can tell you that 22 has left me wondering what I'm going to do next year," he continues. "It's an interesting thing. Coming out of last year, I had an idea and the writers had an idea of what we wanted to do, and I think what they wanted to do is really beautiful. I think it's a really intersting arc.
"But right now, I'm just floating ideas around in my head for season three. Justin Mojo, one of our writers, suggested that Crichton loses his bladder control for season three. I'll walk around the ship peeing for a season!"
With season three due to enter production in mid November, Browder is looking forward to taking a break from the rigours of daily filming during the five-month hiatus. His immediate plans include spending some quality time with his actress wife (and two-time Farscape alien) Francesca Buller and their children, a trip home to America and some serious surfing. The consumamte professional, Browder also intends to continue flying the Farscape flag by attending the show's first convention.
"Up until now, we've been really isolated from most of the response to the show," he notes. "We've been working in a vacuum. The show has only just started airing here in Australia, so nobody has recognized me on the street or anything... It will be intersting to interact with some of the viewers and get their take on things."
At this point, Ben Browder suggests lunch in Farscape's famed catering department. So there's just time to quiz him on how long he can see himself playing John Crichton. Dare viewers hope for a further three, four or even five years of Farscape?
"It's hard to imagine, isn't it?" he says, pausing for thought. "I don't know. I have trouble imagining season three, which I know we're doing! We'll see -- there's so many things which are out of my control."
No mere jobbing actor, Browder would like nothing better than to come back for more Farscape.
"Right now, I can unequivocally say I'm looking forward to coming back for a season three and I hope there will be a season four," he enthuses. "I get excited every day coming into work."