A Look at the Lens: Farscape

A diamond in the rough, that looks like a rough diamond.

If you want original science fiction, truly original and not a rehash of what Star Trek or Wars covered before, Farscape is it. Truly alien in every sense, by intention. Cobbled together design, without the now fairly typical junker aesthetic. Sense of plot and the quest, with the element of threat deriving from each episode carrying unexpected consequence, and a vignette that was intentionally thought up to deviate from the expected episodic plot of the genre. Humour, playfulness with setting, quality control that means that the first season is legitimately excellent from the start. And the characters.

I’m not kidding when I say there’s more chemistry in the first season than probably every Trek show combined. Farscape occupies a time where hostility and an imposing galaxy is not offset by a necessary humour and idealism, references used for the audience and as the protagonist’s barely effective psychological coping mechanism. If you look carefully, there are roots of ideas here that may not have inspired many other settings; but reflect the nature of the interpersonal conflict and explorative wonder audiences seek within their entertainment.

The galaxy of Farscape from the beginning establishes the sour and sweet nature of the alien; the notion of humanity and its assumptions are uprooted and bizarre, yet the miasma of civilisations and criminal underbelly cavorts and continues as the great, the good and the evil either make what life they can, or take it from others.

There’s something in this show that we haven’t seen in decades, sexuality in shows with multiple facets. Elements of passion and romance, for desire, often clear depictions of advantage or avoidance of hurt. Interestingly in showing multiple hedonistic relationships as prelude or temptation, Farscape gives more priority to family and friendship as something that many desired characters long for, the true pining of a sentient being; again a refreshing and at the moment pretty novel take on relationships within the genre.

There’s quite a brazen element of the turn of the millennium, when science fiction could never escape black and red leather. But overt flirtation, expressly as a sign of deceit, most often as a cover for issues on inadequacy or to avoid displaying the inner layers of one’s nature is expressed as well as any other story. Only real life’s layers of spiteful, wasteful, or defensive flirtation approaches it. Farscape is a show not necessarily about hiding; but it does feature heavily due to the fugitive nature of its cast, the arms race of the galactic powers, and that to live under an authoritarian heel or wander strange lands, the average person winds up employing deception purely to embrace the needed confidence we must at least affect to feed.

It’s interesting how a show will blatantly throw on screen so many visceral images and be obvious with its symbolism, then pull back and often as not show a character almost weeping, or quietly expressing distaste for their self-destruction. Rather than male or female expectations or moral treatises, Farscape often literally and verbally presents the core conflict of resource management and satiation. From earlier seasons before the cast and characters ‘find their footing’, it is clear that the glutting of desire is the villain of the episode. These liars and people twisting themselves in an inhumane society have greater human aspirations, and the payoff is worth it due to the fact that it takes quite a while to even learn what their longings and losses are.

Misfortune, weapons jamming, needing to take time to comprehend a culture and multiple episode arcs give Farscape an appeal as much as guaranteed unique aesthetics. Realism in things not being easy echoes life, it makes impressive displays feel earned, developing bonds feel like legitimate growth often offering payoff and sense of growing momentum. Watching these characters refit, test and be seen working on no less than three separate star fighters is an example that recent tv has taken inspiration on today, resource acquisition and application is the appeal most of us are programmed with and enjoy when playing video games and particularly something like a space sun or RPG.

I really enjoy not just stories like these, but Farscape specifically as a group of protagonists who go from illegible prisoners to impressive renowned commandos and galaxy shakers. Victory is hard earned and ill luck the constant companion that dovetails Moya into slow, but clearly observable improvement is in learning from the show’ famous ability to remember and follow continuity, the story being quite clear as a character driven plot with people becoming more dangerous and less over their heads as they explore.

 The initial hostility of the crew is matched by their growing affection. I don’t think there are many examples of teeth clenched teamwork that feel so fractious and divided, nor a bond by a crew that is so genuine. A lot of it must come down a excellent acting, or at least a synergy. I find D’Argo’s actor, Anthony Simcoe in particular the best example of this. Forget the Klingons. I’m serious. Because this is the best proud warrior race character on television, at least in acting skill. The man has Avery Brooks levels of emotive acting, when he talks about the love he bears for an as-then unknown character is his past, hallucinating and confusing Rygel for someone in a way that turns misunderstanding into poignancy, you absolutely believe that the man is simultaneously a forceful personality and someone swallowed by lament like an abandoned drunk. His warrior’s bond with Aeryn Sun, and this just at the closing of the first season mind you conveys a sense of people who have known each other for years.

Characters transition from legitimate violence and ruthlessness to teamwork in a sense we understand personally, and yet there are divisions of culture, preferences of association, and the reality that affection takes time and mistakes are easily made in crisis give a sense of chaotic cohesion that mirrors the reality of being adrift and sailing as a group of disparate individuals.

Every character experiences development from their realistic initial antagonism, being so divergent in their cultures and even species. The typical warrior is for a change actually violent and dangerous, yet youthful by the perceptions of his own kind and liable to consider due to not being typecast as deficient in intelligence. The priestly Zahn is both surprisingly seductive for television, and brutal in her moral myopia and a variant of eco-terroristic beliefs at times.

I believe the reason the show is good but not as easily recognisible as other shows, because the species within the more popular shows are simplistic, even caricatured archetypes. A Hynerian species may on the surface seem like a Ferengi -entirely a caricature, first villainous and then a satire of capitalism- but one is a culture with a prominent character, at once imperial, cowardly, venomous and callous killing his enemies, unimposing and yet distinct.

Continuing with the earlier example, the Ferengi are a parody of capitalism and mercantilism first used as a literal demonic visage, then a joke and counterpoint to the post-scarcity Federation, and its characters are all entirely written around a theme and political commentary rather than as individuals who may in one episode support a coup for personal riches, strive for revenge against a brutally oppressive regime, or simply wish to run away from the situation due to instinct and life experience rendering them wary and paranoid. Farscape may employ fewer broad brushes, and therefore not delve as many times into easily visually identified species, but it does much the same with particular minds like Scorpius. It’s an utterly different approach, akin to older literature that made do with examination of a single soul, a fixed antagonist, understanding that thinking life is so multifaceted that uniformity is pretty comedic, Farscape simply takes this to a logical literal level. One can watch the broad appealing science fiction show, and the smaller, weird and cult classic Farscape.

The characters pretend to be something they are not, often failing, they struggle to survive and all have an idealised self, and alongside the adventures and capers is the simple tragedy and appeal of such redeemable, even heroic bystanders rising to the fore by looking to be what they feel they should, motivated by melancholy of fear of what they are.

Dark secrets, torture, and the initial experience of all being lost and hunted by the law pushes them into a certain mindset, flying a ship without weapons (a brilliant original notion for tension and to distinguish the crew) and intentionally far from the typical explorer/military organisation commonplace within the genre. It’s quite a relevant tragedy for the modern age, that caring at all is a risk today. In there being no escape, being a trial and a person to love, one already both has meaning and everything to lose.

We all may not be superheroes, but the actual ideal of heroism is perfectly possible for us all no matter what any cynic or authority says. It’s just monotonous, painful and unrewarding. So, there’s something both funny and supportive seeing these often literally spat on aliens and the world’s most confused human stumbling into chaos wherever they go, succeeding by coming out the other side, if anything their failures making them more empathetic and admirable realising they persist when notions of apathy or ruthless military dominance have all but consumed the entire galaxy.

The show also has a quality missing in science fiction, or at least one that has rather questionable landing: comedy. Not so much a comedy premise (although some episodes do) as the humour coming from sarcasm, insults, and characters -with the actors clearly- enjoying messing with and tricking each other. An early example I always snort at is the pilot, where D’Argo cannot resist growling at the bewildered Crichton, deliberately bouncing his chest into him and Simcoe’s expression all but laughing, playing to the warrior alien stereotype and clearly having a grand time watching this fish out of water.

Humans are not the norm. technically, there is only one human on the show, and Farscape doesn’t shy from this in making impressively different bazaars of fishheaded aliens and a frankly still impressive cosmetics department. No nose ridges, no green skinned people, and the humans are not the more relatable species in-setting.

Australia -obviously not to Australians, but I hope you understand- offers a clear bit of difference watching the show, with things as clear as the abundance of Australian accents. No American/European bias, no stand ins and tacked on patriotic fervour or flag waving. Besides ISIA, which is clearly a scientific exploration endeavour, humanity just seems to be humanity. Something Crichton misses, and his coping mechanism invoking pop culture references, while being lonely and ironically most apathetic to the aliens that look the most human give a lot of audience sympathy, as Crichton is the audience surrogate who changes his terminology, wardrobe and personality concurrently to the audience becoming more accustomed to the setting.

From the pilot, the alien nature of the characters, genuinely alien, an attempt to be very different is paired with an ironic acting choice that proved to be distinct in a lasting way where perhaps the (computer) special effects were not: the characters are very emotive in their acting. Hesitancy, fear, being conniving, rude, shameful when not at their best gives credence and support when they rise from the worst.

Shows then and now like to portray typically military figures, or officers at least who are stoic, straightforward, or part of an archetype. The scientist. The compassionate character, with their impassioned appeals and speeches. The warrior race. Farscape was written to clearly add a few more layers than that, to write what were clearly very odd characters, with appearances and worldviews as opposite to each other as their aesthetic design. An anarchist priest, a repressed military pilot, a dumbfounded astronaut who will be intentionally given a lot of development from episode to episode, let alone season to season (for example Crichton’s pacifism being lost is practically its own arc in the early stages of season 1). And these characters are established as escaped prisoners, wanted criminals free to get up to all sorts of inventive adventures, the idea fertile for episodic storytelling and emergent worldbuilding.

The ideas in Farscape are more deftly told, and intentionally original than their premise, which gives the show a lot of staying power and the element of surprise. The time travel episode for example, doubles not as a way to show old earth or experiment with the idea, but explore the nature of mass graves, the futility of war, and the relatively rare experience of repeatedly defeated heroes coming to terms with their failure. This and action episodes dovetail with many more frankly bizarre synopses, the episode where the ship splits into multiple dimensions in a terrifying, utterly unique colour-coded manner where even deciphering the rules and sound of Moya becomes a puzzle Crichton needs to solve. Covering the ‘hero’ in vomit to protect him from an energy mad humanoid parasite. The ‘heroes’ cutting off their own Pilot’s arm. This is a weird show, not weird for novelty or shock value, but as an experiment in creativity, and it’s certainly a memorable and incredibly inventive ride at the very least.

By J.W.H. Hobbs

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