What? You’ve never heard of Farscape?
Twenty-four years ago, one of the most compelling serial-format space operas appeared on American television. Created by a collaboration with American and Australian production companies, Farscape dared the unthinkable: to create a space opera setting which featured animatronic characters as regular members of the cast.
They weren’t just cast members, they were serious cast members, not placed there purely for comic relief (looking at you, Alf) or as a marketing ploy to sell cute toys, no names mentioned (Baby Yoda/Grogu). These characters became members of the cast the viewers would come to love/revile as much as any of the other members the almost entirely Australian cast.
The animatronic cast members were made by the same company which brought the Muppets to the big screen, the Jim Henson Company and the two primary cast members (Rygel and Pilot) were made in the Creature Shop and required multiple handlers to ensure their debut appearance in the series.
I mention them first because many viewers, upon seeing both characters assume this is a show primarily for children and I want to disabuse you of that notion, immediately. While children could watch this series, it may be best to watch it with an adult because of the adult themes featured in the series.
Farscape was a highly-rated series and enjoyed an enthusiastic fan base despite its erratic schedule, which over time, became the reason for its eventual decline, reduction in the number of episodes produced and the unfortunate loss of its fifth season. The franchise appears to have collapsed upon itself and the last season was shoehorned into a two hour movie-like production called Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars.
With all this truth on the table, I want you to recognize: Farscape was different from many of the space operas on television in a significant way. It followed a cast of characters who begin the adventure imprisoned and on their way to subjugation or execution depending on their crimes. These dissimilar and highly aggressive individuals sought to regain their freedom and collaborate with their living starship, Moya, who is an organic, but bio-engineered vehicle capable of interstellar space flight. Moya was also a prisoner, along with its companion being/interface, Pilot forced to ferry prisoners across a vast authoritarian empire policed by an agency known as the Peacekeepers.
This series focuses on a simple premise: never stop moving. The story revolves around a single, feeble, not-too-bright, NASA astronaut named John Crichton (played by the only American on the cast, Ben Browder) who is flying an experimental space vehicle. During its maiden flight, the ship, Farscape One, falls into a wormhole and reappears thousands of light years from home. Crichton has no idea how this has happened but he discovers himself surrounded by enemy space fighters firing on a gigantic spacecraft, Moya. Pulled into the ship’s cargo hold, Crichton is studied, tagged and led into the ship to meet the other passengers attempting to escape from the Peacekeepers.
The story maintains your interest because the characters are not friendly, they are not warm or inviting and begin their adventure as adversaries bound together only by their circumstance. John Crichton’s untimely arrival is made more problematic because he physiologically resembles the Peacekeepers who are trying to blow Moya out of the sky. Their first meeting is in an effort to escape and this becomes the running theme across the series, first to break free and then to remain so.
The crew of Moya would expand and contract, but most of them would be sought for various crimes including harboring wanted criminals, suspected of possessing dangerous but highly coveted technology: the ability to create wormholes in space. Except they didn’t have said technology. Not yet. For all of his training John Crichton does not bring much to the party because he is from a pre-spaceflight Earth and knows nothing about the region of space the Crew will hide in, known among the locals as The Uncharted Territories.
The series will review the backstories of the crew while leading them on adventures which they hope will allow them to return to their respective homes.
The crew of Moya includes the militaristic and frankly quite terrifying Luxan, Ka D’Argo, whose wild hair, tattooed chin and plaited beard were enough to set anyone on edge. Add to this mix, his size, his hyper-aggressive nature, and you come to understand why Luxans were considered outstanding warriors. Ka D’Argo was accused of killing his wife and wants nothing more than revenge for her death. He carries a ridiculously large broadsword called a Qualta Blade which can also be used as a rifle.
The second most terrifying member of their crew was Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan (played by Virginia Hey). A strange fusion of plant and animal, Zhaan, as she preferred to be called was something of a pacifist but accused of murdering a lover who was a Peacekeeper collaborator. Zhaan’s species is empathic, capable of feeling the pain of others. As a member of her religious order, she could also share pain with another being if she so desired. Zhaan doubled as a doctor and scientist, often finding solutions where others only found problems.
Dominar Rygel XVI (operated by John Eccleston, Matthew McCoy, Dave Collins, Sean Masterson, Graeme Haddon and Tim Mieville, voiced by Jonathan Hardy) is one of the two animatronic members of the cast, who despite his diminutative stature was the former ruler of the Hynerian Empire betrayed to the Peacekeepers by his cousin.
The final initial member of the more mobile members of the crew was a Peacekeeper stranded during Crichton’s arrival. Her ship, which was damaged by Crichton’s module also killed another Peacekeeper pilot. Aeryn Sun is brought onboard by Moya and trapped there when they escape. While she starts life as a prisoner onboard Moya, she will be thrown to the wolves as the Peacekeepers declare her “culturally contaminated” by her close exposure to the aliens onboard Moya. Trained as a soldier from the time she could walk, Sun is a fearsome fighting machine, without emotion or connection to anyone but her creche mates. Once abandoned by the Peacekeepers, she begins to explore her more emotional parts of her psychology.
Last but certainly not least lies Pilot, (operated by John Eccleston, Matthew McCoy, Dave Collins, Sean Masterson, Graeme Haddon and Tim Mieville, voiced by Lani Tupu) a creature who was selected in adolescence and bound to the Leviathan Moya’s nervous system, acting as her voice, and as her coordinator of resources used to keep her healthy and functional as she plies the spaceways, a servant of the Peacekeepers.
Pilot is unable to leave Moya and the two have a symbiotic bond which brings the crew closer together, over time. Moya relies on Pilot to protect and maintain her interests and with the help of the DRD’s (small, autonomous, semi-intelligent droids) the two save the crew again and again with her Starburst ability – allowing them to jump across vast regions of space – ironically with a biological capacity similar to wormhole travel.
There will be many other members of the crew over time as they run from Peacekeeper forces, often with their own agendas, beliefs and annoying habits which often fight against the needs of the other crew members. Farscape succeeds because the crew slowly and consistently come to understand how to trust one another, and eventually to work toward common goals (though that varies depending on who we are talking about at the time – some of the crew were not ideal members, no matter how long they ran with the crew).
Crichton, curiously is not the leader of this group. Most of them have little respect for him and note he is the weakest and least intellectually developed member of the crew. However, he excels in risk-taking and problem-solving, two things this crew is in desperate need of if they want to stay one step ahead of Crais, a leader in the Peacekeeper forces and the brother to the unfortunate pilot Crichton killed as he arrived.
This is a soap opera in space. There are strong emotions, betrayals, cruelty and violence in every episode. What redeems the series is the depth of the emotions and how each character makes the choice to grow, to risk emotional connection and in some cases to make the ultimate sacrifice for their fellows. Unlike Star Wars, there are few space wizards to save the day. Unlike Star Trek, there is no Prime Directive protecting alien species from predation. This is a wild and lawless galaxy with only the Peacekeepers attempting to maintain a Human-focused order in the Universe.
The Peacekeepers are a bumbling lot until we meet Scorpius. Then we realize how dangerous they could be with the right leadership. Scorpius keeps his eye on the prize. He wants wormhole technology, even if he has to acquire it over Crichton’s still twitching corpse.
Scorpius is an intense, intelligent, enemy whose every gambit maintains another hidden within. His ambition is nothing less than the complete subjugation of every intelligent species in the galaxy using wormhole technology as the key to his rule. Don’t let his leather-daddy look fool you. He is the most dangerous person alive in this series. If you can see him, you are too close.
Farscape is one of my all-time favorite series because it manages to successfully subvert the “Humans are the Best” trope so common to space opera. Crichton is forced to reconcile himself as one of many, not as the leader but as a capable member of a fantastic crew of reprobates and ne’er-do-wells.
Crichton keeps hoping to redeem them but it’s not gonna happen. If anything, he becomes more like them – more daring, bolder, and more selfless as he sees himself changing.
The fun lies in watching him try to lead a group he is simply unable to recognize how outclassed he is, at first. Meanwhile, as the crew grows and evolves, the Peacekeepers keep everyone on their toes.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, Farscape is a fun, well-structured, tongue-in-cheek space soap opera I give a solid 8 out of 10 overall, with some episodes stinking up the joint and others leaving you breathless.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.
Loved Farscape! One of my favorite shows.