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FARSCAPE: The Sci Fi Channel Show Without The Reset Button
By Anna L. Kaplan
December 06, 1999
David Kemper, executive producer of FARSCAPE, the Sci-Fi Channel's prime time ratings star, issued a challenge to the uninitiated. He said, 'Talk to someone who has seen this show, and look at it yourself. Just tune in once, and you'll be hooked. It's certainly the most ambitious science fiction show ever done. It's the most real science fiction show that's ever been done.'
The idea for FARSCAPE sprang from the fertile mind of Rockne S. O'Bannon, who helped bring ALIEN NATION, SEAQUEST DSV, and the NBC miniseries INVASION to the screen. The premise is simple. John Crichton, a human astronaut from our time, is testing an experimental craft when he accidentally gets drawn into a wormhole, and thrown to the other side of the universe. Crichton, played by Ben Browder, literally has no idea where he is or what is going on. Neither does the audience.
Explained O'Bannon, 'We so often portray mankind's first contact with alien life as it was in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, where the aliens come down at the end of the film, and they stand there at length so we can all be in awe. I wanted to thrust a human being into mankind's first contact with an alien race, and people aren't standing around benignly. He's in a situation where he is on the run from the minute he first steps foot there.'
So exactly where did Crichton find himself? He landed in the middle of a battle. On one side are the Peacekeepers, a commando force made up of trained Sebaceans, who look human but are not, led by Captain Crais (Lani John Tupu). They are attacking prisoners on board a living ship called Moya, herself held captive. The prisoners have freed Moya and her operator Pilot, and are trying to get away. On board is Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey), the 'blue lady,' a member of a long lived race called the Delvians. Also escaping is General Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a Luxan warrior, who is said to be under lock and key for killing his commanding officer. A third prisoner, Rygel the XVI, is a royal sovereign whose cousin deposed him and had him imprisoned 250 years ago.
When Crichton falls into this battle, his ship accidentally causes death of Crais' brother. Crichton is branded a criminal, and Crais is determined to catch him. Crichton's craft is brought on board Moya by the prisoners. He finds himself locked up with Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper attempting to recapture them. Eventually, Aeryn and Crichton get back to the Peacekeepers, but Crais considers Aeryn contaminated by her time with Crichton, and both are condemned to death. They choose to help the group of criminals get away aboard Moya, deeper into the 'uncharted territories,' and always on the run from the Peacekeepers. For Crichton, this is the complete unknown into which he has wandered, and where he must survive.
To create FARSCAPE, O'Bannon had to develop this story with its own mythology from scratch. He brought in David Kemper, another writer-producer with lots of sci-fi experience. Said O'Bannon, 'In early episodes we had a series that didn't have any reference point. We didn't have the original STAR TREK. We didn't have THE NEXT GENERATION. We didn't have those things to latch onto. We got hoarse, David and I, just talking to people about the style, and what was in our heads. We have the big advantage over other series such as the STAR TREK spin-offs in that we don't have a military hierarchy. It was tough, on the writing side, getting people past [that]. There is no military hierarchy on board this ship.' In other words, no rules.
O'Bannon got the help of Brian Henson, an executive producer and integral part of the show. Said O'Bannon, 'I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished. A large portion of that is a tribute to the vision of Brian Henson and the Henson Company to undertake a series as daunting as this. I do not believe there is another studio that would attempt a series like this.'
Pilot is an enormous being, physically joined to the alive, biomechanoid Leviathan spaceship called Moya. He is a puppet, as is the more or less two foot tall Rygel (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) whose main puppeteer is John Eccleston. Rygel bites, spits, passes helium and is generally nasty, making clear that FARSCAPE is not a children's show. Rygel, Pilot, and many of the other characters could not exist without The Jim Henson Creature Shop. O'Bannon compared Rygel to his ancestor, Yoda: 'He is actually a far more sophisticated animatronic creature. Rygel is able to use the musculature in the cheeks, to actually form letters in a way that other characters haven't. This system had never been used before, and the Jim Henson Company introduced it with Rygel. We are proud of the fact that Rygel really is a main character.'
Continued O'Bannon, 'I just love the idea of just screwing with TV as we've all grown up with it. The huge advantage is, we're on the Sci-Fi Channel, which allows us to do that, and in fact encourages us to just be as out-there as we possibly can.'
FARSCAPE is produced by The Jim Henson Company in association with Hallmark Entertainment and Australia's Nine Network. Season One was filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia. Said O'Bannon, 'We searched the world, and Australia just was the right place. The next two STAR WAR films have moved into our sound stages. THE MATRIX was shot there, on our stages. There is this huge pool of tremendous talent, that doesn't know boundaries between film and television, and will surf between the two. We're just down there with a big lasso, pulling them into our show.'
Ben Browder, the lead character of the show, is an accomplished American actor best know to television audiences for his role as Sam, Neve Campbell's boyfriend in PARTY OF FIVE. The rest of FARSCAPE's main cast is Australian. Virginia Hey is the most recognized by American viewers, having appeared in MAD MAX 2: ROAD WARRIOR. Anthony Simcoe is a highly regarded and popular Australian actor. Claudia Black is also well-known to Australian audiences, and can be seen in the upcoming genre film PITCH BLACK.
The writers, in addition to O'Bannon and Kemper, have included Ro Hume, Richard Manning and Doug Heyes, Jr. O'Bannon noted, 'It's been a very interesting mix of cultures. The writing has obviously been very American in style, and the production, in a large sense, is Australian based.'
Kemper added, 'We have had tremendous writers, both Australian and American. The staff reserves the right, in order to keep the continuity of the show, to doctor, a little bit, the scripts of writers. The first season, that responsibility fell hugely on Rockne. I went down to Australia, and did a lot of physical production.'
FARSCAPE found wonderful directors in Australia. Although many people have directed the show, including Brian Henson, the company seems to have established a pattern of working with a core of four directors. Said Browder, 'We retained four directors through the course of the season. Andrew Prowse basically keeps track of all the CGI and the editing of the show. Rowan Woods directed 'Back and Back to the Future' and 'A Human Reaction' which are two of my favorite episodes. Ian Watson, and Tony Tilse, when they came into the show, brought in something new and different. One of the great advantages of working in Australia is you have a wealth of talent in the directing core, as you can see in the directors who have come out of Australia to do films. They do film; they do television; and they think 'outside the box' as it were. It creates different layers to the show.'
The creative team includes Garner-MacLennan Design doing the computer graphics work. Explained O'Bannon, 'The marching orders that I gave the CG people from the very beginning was: when we go down to a city, I want it to look like the most evocative book cover that you could find in the sci-fi section of the local bookstore, which I think they have done in spades. Ricky Eyers, the production designer, has done a fantastic job of creating and designing sets, and places for our characters to interact, that is wildly distinctive from STAR TREK and BABYLON 5.'
What keeps the audience off balance is that there is no reset button at the end of each FARSCAPE episode. The characters are real, and they change, under the tremendous stresses of their lives. Noted Kemper, 'The watch word that Rock has always said on the show, and we tell writers over and over, is 'reality.' We ask the writers to do what would really happen.'
Added Browder, 'The show changes from week to week. The writers have done a great job creating character arcs and stories that go through the year, and then take a right turn when you don't expect it. The audience latches onto these turns and they scream, 'I love it,' and they scream 'I hate it.' In 'DNA Mad Scientist,' when Zhaan is there lopping off Pilot's arm, it's not the kind of thing you see on television. But real life is more that way. People surprise you. It's very bold writing, having the characters throw surprises at people. I think it's one of the things that the audience loves about the show.'
Because of all this, people have trouble pinning down FARSCAPE. Browder said, 'The hard core sci-fi audience is trying to figure out, what is this show? Is it STAR TREK? Is it BABYLON 5? Is it LOST IN SPACE? Is it BUCK ROGERS? Is it STAR WARS? I wonder what they are going to do next week? I think that's fantastic, and I love the complexity of it. I love the fact that we take pop culture and we insert it into the show. We reference the things science fiction fans know. We reference things the general audience knows. One of the beautiful conceits of FARSCAPE is that the audience is in on the joke. They know Crichton knows the reference. They know that no one else really gets it.'
Browder continued, 'There is an homage which FARSCAPE owes to the science fiction TV shows that have come before. There is no question that you'll say, that's like the original STAR TREK series, or that's like BABYLON 5, that's like LOST IN SPACE, that's like BUCK ROGERS. You can't help but to draw the comparisons. We don't shrink away and say, 'We are trying to be different for difference sake.' We recognize that the audience knows those shows, and we pay homage to those shows and say, 'We love those shows, too. John Crichton loves those shows.''
As the episodes have progressed through the first season, the characters have demonstrated all sorts of startling behavior and fallen into amazing situations, calling for actions that the audience, like John Crichton, might find hard to understand. Anyone who has missed the first 18 episodes will find most of them repeating regularly on the Sci-Fi Channel. The last four episodes of the first season will air in January of 2000. Emphasized O'Bannon, 'These are desperate people. They are escaped prisoners who band together initially because they absolutely have to, but with no affection or loyalty toward each other. As the first season develops, the stories go on, and they have more adventures together. They have to save each other's asses. There is a bond that develops. But the thing that I don't see in the foreseeable future is a cessation of that element, the fact that ultimately they all have very strong goals they want to achieve in terms of getting home and rectifying things from their past.'
As Kemper said, 'People die on our show. People betray each other. It's real, it's tough. Buy into our world.'