The late ’90s were a tough time for fans of TV shows about spaceships. The Star Trek franchise was in decline, with its best shows off the air, and the Voyager spin-off loved by few. Other space-bound series didn’t crack the formula necessary to find a mass audience, and The X-Files had become the TV science-fiction series of choice, as fewer and fewer networks were willing to take chances on shows about starship captains and the loyal men and women who served under them. The genre had also become stultified, the Star Trek influence so all-pervasive, that any series trying to do anything different—like Babylon 5, or the non-Trek-y Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (both of which were set onboard space stations, and did not prominently feature starships on missions)—struggled to find an audience.
Into this void stepped Farscape, a curious co-production between Australian broadcasters, the SCI FI Channel, and the Jim Henson Company. The series, about a man flung to the farthest reaches of the universe by a wormhole, forms the first series in a loose trilogy—including Firefly and Battlestar Galactica—of shows set onboard starships that made a deliberate effort to combat the Star Trek formula, and often did so very well, though all three suffered from low ratings. But Farscape got there first, and while none of its innovations hold up as well as they might have, a surprising amount of the show plays well, more than a decade on, creaky production values be damned.
Ben Browder—occasionally dull, even when the series asks him to rise to trickier emotions in its later, more complicated seasons—plays John Crichton, the wisecracking, pop-culture-riffing astronaut whose wormhole ride (spurred by a family experiment) makes him surprisingly valuable to both parties in an ancient outer-space war. He’s scooped up by Moya, a living prison ship (as in a giant, organic beast everybody rides around inside of), filled with quirky criminals on the run from those known as the Peacekeepers. The ship’s denizens include the alternately fierce and maternal Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black, doing her best Sigourney Weaver, and largely succeeding); warrior D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), who claims his innocence in the murder that led to his imprisonment; and tiny former ruler Rygel, who’s played by a puppet.
While the CGI special effects don’t always hold up, the puppetry does, and both Rygel and the ship’s rarely seen Pilot are performed by full animatronic creations, giving the whole thing a strange, lived-in, tactile feel. The prosthetic makeup also works, and the show’s many alien races are presented matter-of-factly, letting the audience learn about them at the same rate Crichton does.
Though the series begins as a mission-of-the-week type show, it quickly tips into something much more complex as season one rolls on. By the time of Farscape’s third season, nearly every episode deals with the central battles and storylines, often with double-crosses and betrayals as the order of the day. (One justly acclaimed season-two storyline involving a complicated heist takes three whole episodes to play out.) The series’ dense mythology and character backstories take time to untangle, but the series never introduces so much information that the audience can’t process it all at once. Occasionally, the show is a little too eager to return to the status quo—too many cliffhangers are resolved via easily predictable means—but in its dense web of serialization and character interplay, it creates the kind of storytelling that left other series of its ilk struggling. There’s a whole world to get lost in on Farscape, and it’s a show that insists you get lost if you want to sign up for the trip.
Key features: Some excellent featurettes on the making of the show, and a boatload of commentaries on many different episodes.