One of the most common criticisms levelled at Star Trek over the years has been that it depicts a universe almost entirely populated by humanoids, or humanoids with bumpy foreheads. Now, we think this is a trifle unfair for a couple of reasons; first, various Trek series did occasionally experiment with such non-humanoid alien life forms as sentient rocks (The Original Series,‘episode “The Devil in the Dark”) or giant space jellyfish (Next Generation‘s “Encounter at Farpoint”) and second, there are practical, financial reasons most aliens have to be humanoid. However, it remains true that sentient life in the universe of Star Trek and most other space operas tends toward the humanoid.
One of the things that set Farscape apart from the beginning was the physical variation in the alien life forms that appeared on the show. Because Farscape was made by the Jim Henson Company, its various alien species ranged from the humanoid-because-love-interest Sebaceans, through the largely-humanoid-but-sporting-extra-tentacles Luxans, all the way through to completely non-humanoid life forms like Pilot’s species.
As ever, both financial and practical considerations played a part, and an enormous number of alien species in Farscape were, in fact, humanoid with unusually coloured eyes, skin or hair. Still, overall, Farscape had far more non-humanoid life forms running, trotting or hovering around than most shows in the subgenre. These are five of the best…
5. LeviathansLeviathan Moya (left) and genetically altered Leviathan warship Talyn (right)First appearance: PremiereOne of the first things new viewers have to get used to watching Farscape is the fact that the ship – Moya – is, in fact, a giant, sentient space whale. It’s best to just ignore such questions as “how have they evolved to produce oxygen internally, not to mention doors?” and go with it, because Moya’s unusual nature opens up all sorts of story-telling possibilities.
Pilot speaks for Moya, which allows the crew to communicate with the ship, functioning in a similar way to the sentient computer programmes that sometimes run ships in other shows. But, because Moya is biological, we also get plot arcs about her becoming pregnant, giving birth, and then ignoring the crew to chase after her baby (to say nothing of the danger posed by her son Talyn, a mentally unstable warship).
The set design on Moya is wonderfully biological, each corridor designed to look like a cross between a spaceship and some kind of internal passageway, while Moya’s animal nature suggests that there is actually a reason that some parts of her are too small to be accessed by anyone other than Rygel. After a few episodes, Moya’s place as a character in the series seems so completely natural that when Zhaan gets the chance to communicate with her directly, we feel her delight and understand it.
Weird alien biology: They are giant, sentient space whales capable of supporting life in their guts. Also, it’s possible to breed them as part-mechanical warships.
Special skills: Leviathans can “starburst,” which is a biological version of the sort of faster than light travel variously depicted in speculative fiction as hyperdrive, slipstream, infinite improbability drive and so on. Leviathans seem to have limited control over where they end up when they starburst, though, and it takes a lot of energy.
4. Lower-class Scarrans
First appearance: Look at the Princess Part 1: A Kiss is But a Kiss
Scarrans have broadly humanoid bodies and upper-class Scarrans have lizard-like but largely humanoid faces. However, the earliest Scarrans seen on the series, later revealed to belong to a lower class, have distinctly non-humanoid long lizard faces, balanced precariously atop long reptilian necks.
Brought in as a new primary antagonist and enemy of the series’ initial antagonists, the Peacekeepers, the Scarrans’ alien appearance marks them out as a distinct and different type of villain, easily distinguishable from the completely humanoid Sebacean Peacekeepers. They also look particularly frightening, and their rough, reptilian nature is part of what makes Scorpius’ origin story (his Sebacean mother was raped by a Scarran) so horrifying.
Weird alien biology: In order to maintain a level of intelligence to match other sentient species, Scarrans must eat a particular “bird of paradise” flower, Crystherium Utilia. In accordance with the inverse laws of narrative probability, this flower is rare in the Uncharted Territories but apparently common in Earth’s United States of America. Obviously.
Special skills: The Scarrans’ favorite torture device is their biological heat probe; they gesture towards their unlucky victim and, well, cook them. This is particularly useful since their arch enemies, the Sebacean Peacekeepers, are unusually sensitive to extreme heat.
The Vork is on the left.
First appearance: Beware of Dog
Vorks are a small, semi-sentient animal-like species bred to hunt and eradicate parasites – sort of a cross between a cat, a parrot (they have some limited speech when injected with translator microbes) and, as the episode title switch out, a dog. The design of the Vork encapsulates the ugly-cute look that the Henson workshop does so well, which is fundamental to the story, as much of the episode revolves around the question of whether the Vork is friend or enemy.
The main Vork puppet is absolutely wonderful, vaguely resembling E.T. crossed with Gollum and capable of showing beautifully played emotion in the hands of very skilled puppeteers (the bigger, hunting version is less memorable, but in the context of the plot that works rather well).
Weird alien biology: The Vork hunts parasites in its small, E.T.-like form, then transforms into a larger, more aggressive form to attack them.
Special skills: It’s alien pest control.
2. Moordil’s species
First appearance: Suns and Lovers
We don’t know the name of this species, just the one member of it we meet in Season 3. Moordil is a wonderful creation; essentially, he’s a giant spider barman. With a huge walrus moustache. Actually he looks a bit like a walrus, but with lots of limbs, and not on water. And wearing a fez, because fezzes are cool.
Moordil is one of those gorgeous creations that randomly populate the world of Farscape. There’s no pressing plot-related reason for him to be a giant spider-walrus – but on the other hand, there’s no reason for him not to be either. It’s creatures like Moordil that form a big part of what makes Farscape so special.
Weird alien biology: What, being a giant spider barman isn’t weird enough for you?!
Special skills: He can probably mix several drinks at once.
First appearance: Premiere
Hynerians are a small, sentient, amphibious species who tend to use hover-chairs (in Rygel’s case, of course, it’s a hover-throne) to move around, to compensate for their very short legs. The design of Hynerians was probably the most important puppet design in the show.
Rygel and Pilot are both main characters, both puppets, but where Pilot is largely stationary, Rygel must be able to move around with the humanoid characters, as well as display all the breadth of emotion required of a series regular. From a viewer’s point of view, he is an unqualified success. Between the designers, the puppeteers and Jonathan Hardy’s voice performance, Rygel is a completely believable main character. We rarely see other Hynerians, partly because of the difficulties in working around two Hynerian puppets at once, but it doesn’t matter – Rygel is wonderful all by himself.
Rygel is frequently threated and/or temporarily killed, presumably on the grounds that hurting Rygel presented the most credible threat, since he could potentially be replaced by another Hynerian voiced by the same actor (over the course of its run, the only humanoid regulars permanently killed off on Farscape were Virginia Hey’s Zhaan, because the make-up was affecting her health, and Lani Tupu’s Crais – since Tupu also voiced Pilot, this could be done without rendering the actor unemployed).
Every time we see Rygel hurt, we feel just as much horror as we would if it happened to one of the humanoid regulars. His revival by odd-couple roommate Stark in Season 3’s “Relativity” is particularly touching, and his puppet nature makes the sight of him cut open on a dissecting table in “A Human Reaction” easier to produce, but no less disturbing than if it had been one of the humanoid characters. Rygel is as much as member of the crew as anyone else, and that is the true genius of the Henson workshop.
Weird alien biology: Hynerians fart helium when stressed or in a state of high emotion. We presume that an innate superiority complex and rather lecherous nature are specific to Rygel, though you never know.
Special skills: Again, Rygel’s superior negotiating skills are particular to Rygel, but Hynerians do have a few tricks up their sleeve. Because they have three stomachs, Hynerians have a very fast metabolism, so drug-based attacks like the Nebari mind-cleanse have a limited effect on them.
Honourable mention: We ran out of room in the list, but Pilot and other members of the Pilot species are pretty amazing as well, and the make-up department outdid themselves when Aeryn ended up semi-transformed by Pilot’s DNA in season one’s “DNA Mad Scientist.”