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Stranger in a Strange Land

Ben Browder is an alien among a host of aliens in the hugely imaginative SF treat Farscape

By James E. Brooks, February 2000
Copyright 2000, Starburst Magazine; reprinted without permission

It's a classic fish out of water story, torn from the Earth and slingshot untold light years in another part of the universe. In the Sci-Fi Channel series Farscape, Astronaut John Crichton through his latest mission into Space would be more or less routine until he was caught by a wormhole and dropped right in the middle of a battle. Now part of the crew of the living starship Moya, Crichton is just as much an alien as the creatures he meets, a true stranger in a strange land.

Crichton's alter ego, Ben Browder, has a more rooted existence on planet Earth, but one with its own number of quirks. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Browder grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina where his family owns and operates a NASCAR race car. As a younger man, he graduated college from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, but received his training in acting across the Atlantic at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Although first appearing in stage productions, Browder branched into television and feature films. He made his movie debut in Memphis Belle and appeared in Nevada and A Kiss Before Dying. Although he worked in several TV movies and series, his highest profile role was as Neve Campbell's boyfriend in the hit series Party of Five

The fun of Farscape
Within the reality of Farscape, Crichton seems to wisecrack his way through situations where he's not sure what is going on. Although he's very smart and resourceful, it's all new ground to him, making it impossible for him to be completely secure. Like his character, Browder is quick with a quip and a joke, but he seems looser than Crichton, more incisive and quicker to laugh. Back in Hollywood to promote the Australian-based series, the actor is eager to expound on his affection for the show as well as providing insights into his character and the changes at work on him.

"When I'm doing a scene, the thing I always try to keep in mind is 'do what you do'. In other words, what would I do if I were really in this situation? That's the reality I give to John Crichton and it's something that hasn't changed since we began. Crichton is operating in an alien environment with the only tools he has -- his wits, his skills, and his wits," he says, laughing. "He's literally just trying to stay alive for most of the first season; he's trying to figure out where the bathroom is! That's what he's about -- trying to stay alive in all of this turbulent setting and looking for a way out."

"It was interesting to watch some of the early responses on the Internet to the character, " Browder says. "People were trying to figure out why Crichton wasn't the super-confident hero that everyone's come to expect. If you met John under different circumstances, he would be more like that. And he was, too, at least until the point at which he stepped onto Moya and then all the rules changed. He becomes like Harrison Ford with his head in the snake pit."

One of the Hallmark characteristics of Crichton is his seeming inability to get through any situation without wisecracking. The fact that his references completely go past his cremmates doesn't stop him for a moment.

Pop culture
That's the thing about the pop culture references; they're not gratuitous. And this is Crichton's coping mechanism. He's always trying to define and reinterpret any situation into something from Earth. He might say, 'All right, this is Larry, Curly and Moe.' It usually happens in time of stress which in fantastic because from a dramatic point of view, that's the best time for a joke. This joking is integrated into his character just as it's integrated into the scripts.

"I'm always looking for opportunities to show that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When that happens, they really save my ass in editing," he laughs. "Of course, with technology being what it is, by 2001 Crichton will be completely CGI."

Every member of the Farscape cast has talked about the free exchange of ideas between actors and writers. Browder expands on the experience, especially when it comes to the humour that springs from his character. He and the writers have fallen into a good-natured rivalry in coming up with the best one-liners and quips for Crichton.

"Sometimes I'll throw in variations which won't make the cut, yet these guys [the producers and writers] are great because they're obviously either watching the early cuts of the episodes or rushes because references that I throw in that don't make it turn up in the scripts a few episodes later."

Browder takes a sociological tact in explaining the kind of changes that Crichton begins to exhibit towards the end of the first year, carrying into the second. "As far as development of the character for the next season, I can honestly say that I've been very happy with what we've done this year. Crichton does change and evolve. In episode 16 [A Human Reaction], for example, John Crichton kicks somebody in the head. There's no way he would have done that in episode one and that has to do with the fact that he's reacting to the environment he's in.

"The universe that we have him in really shapes the direction of the character and I don't feel that it's necessary for me to sit down with [executive producer] David [Kemper] or [executive producer and series creator] Rockne [S. O'Bannon] and say, 'I want to push him this way or that way!' They're constantly pushing things in new directions and that includes the characters. Even if it's not a direction I might normally take, it's something I can work with. What happens as a result is really interesting and rewarding for me as an actor. They hand these scripts over and I go, 'I can interpret it this way or that way'. In that way, I can kind of lay the seeds for any direction I want to go.

"for instance, I wanted to see John Crichton played a little more competent and so I would play it that way. And, seeing that, in episodes 18 and 19 [A Bug's Life and Nerve], Crichton goes off in a completely different direction. The characters change much like we do in real life. Science Fiction traditionally accentuates the conditions that we all live under in reality -- you know, what if the world were dominated by lawyers? How would that change our behaviour? It works the same way with Crichton to date and will continue to for as long as the series will continue."

Meet the Mrs
With Bone to be Wild, Browder's experience on the show expanded form an artistically-rewarding one to something of a family affair. The actor's wife, Francesca Buller, was a fellow acting student when they met in London and I never occurred to either one of them that she might appear in Farscape. That changed over dinner with Kemper and O'Bannon and the arrival of the script for Bone to be Wild some time later with a part that the producers realized she'd be perfect for. A talented actor in her own right, Buller played the role of M'Lee who Kemper says, "literally and figuratively kills."

"She plays a character who -- like many on Farscape -- is not what she appears to be at the beginning. She's an especially dangerous critter as far as Crichton is concerned."

Luckily, their behind the scenes relationship was a great deal more tranquil, although no less interesting. Browder reveals, too, an earlier professional situation that mirrored his wife getting the Farscape job.

"I hadn't worked with her since doing The Merchant of Venice -- the Broadway production with Dustin Hoffman -- in which she played Jessica. It was my first major gig out of drama school and I remember she turned to the director and said, 'You should look at my husband'. And that's how I got the job so it was kind of interesting nine years later to be saying, 'David, you should look at my wife'," he laughs. "And she does a fantastic job. I also admired the fact that it was very difficult for her to do the show when she knows everybody socially and they only know her as my wife, not as an actress. So coming on the set, all eyes were on her and it created a tremendous tension, but that all went away because she did such a great job."

And early reader of Science Fiction novels and fan of the original Star Trek, Browder is thrilled to be working in a genre that he knows, but his enthusiasm derives from the quality of the series itself.

Sense of pride
"We paint on a large canvas," he says. "There's so much texture that the shows hold up to repeated viewing, which is good since we leave little seeds in each episode that come to fruition in later ones. For a first-year series, I'm pleased, bordering on proud of what has come out of our efforts. It's one of those things that if you're in the business, you do a lot of things where you go, 'It's just a job'. This is the first time that I can recall that I really feel a personal sense of pride in what we have created. And because I'm also a big Science Fiction buff, I consider myself a pretty harsh critic."

If Internet traffic is any indication, Browder isn't the only harsh critic to be satisfied by the show. Genre fans have embraced the series and the next step is mainstream acceptance.

If Farscape achieves it, then John Crichton and the man who plays him will find a whole new environment to get their bearings in.