Revisiting Farscape: Premiere

Don't be put off by Farscape's crazy pilot, says Juliette, in the first of a weekly series revisiting the Henson Company's sci-fi show...

This feature contains spoilers.

Summer is the perfect time to catch up on older shows, to discover or re-discover forgotten gems of years gone by. Now that we have Netflix, LoveFilm, Amazon and iTunes at our disposal, it’s easier than ever to watch a whole classic series while we wait for new episodes of current favourites to re-emerge in the autumn. With that in mind, we at Den of Geek would like humbly to recommend Farscape, the Henson company’s Sci-Fi channel space opera that ran for four seasons and one mini-series between 1998 and 2004. We’ll be revisiting Farscape over the next couple of months, so if you’re a fan, come and re-live the wackiness, the drama and many, many ways it’s possible to use sex and/or bodily functions as a weapon, and if you’re not a fan, seek it out and give it a go! 

Some of us have a truly terrible habit of starting a new series partway through, with whichever episode we happen to catch on TV, or with whichever season is generally considered to be the best of that show’s run. However, most viewers, when seeking out a series unfamiliar to them, are more likely to attempt the logical approach and start with the pilot. Although season one is very rarely the best season of a show’s run, this does have the advantage of allowing the viewer to discover the show’s world in the way the creators intended. In Farscape’s case, starting with the pilot (slightly pretentiously entitled Premiere) is probably wise, as it’s a relatively arc-driven show set in a world with an increasingly high level of unique ticks and tweaks of reality. Just understanding the biology of the main characters can take up to half a season. 

Even starting with the pilot, however, can lead to the feeling of being thrown in at the deep end with this show. First of all, there’s the opening title sequence, an interesting artistic choice which makes the viewer feel like they’re being screamed at, possibly by the alien opera singer from The Fifth Element. Most episodes include a Quantum Leap-style narrative getting viewers up to the speed on the story during this sequence, but of course the pilot doesn’t do that because the story has only just started, so new viewers are treated to the cat-torture-inspired ‘theme tune’ in all its glory. We’re then introduced to Farscape’s world along with lead character John Crichton, an Earthling who accidentally got himself shot through a wormhole into an unknown and distant region of space while testing a new theory of spaceflight involving that old favourite, sling-shotting himself around the Earth. 

Farscape’s world includes such delightful and unusual features as a spaceship that’s actually a huge space whale (not a ship on the back of a space whale – they live inside the whale, Pinocchio-style), characters whose alien features go way beyond bumpy foreheads with two puppets in the regular cast, a main character who farts helium and a group of humanoid bad guys called Peacekeepers who have some extreme laws about alien contamination but who, on the upside, have an excellent understanding of the attractive qualities of large amounts of black leather with red highlights as a uniform. Between the screechy title sequence, the living ship and the Muppets (since they’re Henson workshop, many viewers think of them as Muppets even though officially they have no connection to those characters) new viewers can find Farscape’s premiere a slightly baffling experience.

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Of course, that is largely the point, and one of the brilliant touches in the writing of the pilot is that we’re meeting these characters as they’re meeting each other, getting to know them as they learn about each other. Our primary guide in this world is, of course, Crichton, who has to have even the simplest aspects of this universe (like translator microbes, Farscape’s version of the Babel fish) explained to him and has no idea what’s going on for most of the first season. But Crichton is not the only character who’s a little lost – none of the other characters know each other very well at this point in the story either. Crichton has been pulled aboard a ship of escaped prisoners along with Aeryn Sun, a pursuing Peacekeeper officer, and since D’Argo, Zhaan and Rygel have only just escaped their cells, the writers are able to include scenes such as the one where D’Argo and Zhaan introduce themselves to each other without having to use sentences starting with ‘As you know…’ or having them calling each other by their relationship (how many TV shows have characters calling each other ‘brother!’ ‘cousin!’ or ‘wife!’ in a way that they never address each other again over the course of the series?). 

Several of the prominent themes of the series are clearly present right from the start. For one thing, do not be fooled by the Muppets – Farscape is a dark show, thematically speaking. Crichton is thrown into a battle, captured by a group of escaped prisoners and pursued by a Peacekeeper out for revenge, and it only gets darker from there. On a slightly lighter level, Farscape is also a show obsessed with bodily functions – Rygel’s helium farts are just the beginning. Throughout the series, the writers demonstrate a fascination with body horror worthy of Fringe as well as a healthily bodily-function-oriented sense of humour. And it’s a show with an equally healthy interest in sex, in all sorts of ways. Crichton Captain Kirk-ing his way across the universe – destroying someone’s life through mere charm in the pilot alone – is only the beginning. As is clear from Zhaan and D’Argo’s first conversation, sex in Farscape’s universe is a tool, a weapon, a bargaining chip, a form of spiritual ecstasy, a practised skill, an important procreative device and most importantly, of course, a popular pleasurable activity. This is the Henson workshop for grown-ups, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

 

If the craziness of Farscape’s pilot puts you off entirely, then it has to be admitted, this show may not be for you, as it only gets crazier from here on in. But if you can let yourself go, suspend your disbelief and throw yourself into this extraordinary Technicolor world, it will be worth the effort, as Farscape has more humour, drama, tragedy and romance in one Muppet-based, bodily-fluid-covered little finger than some shows display over the whole course of their run. Just mute the title sequence if you need to… 

Read the ten reasons we love Farscape, here.

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Juliette Harrisson is a part-time lecturer and full-time Trekkie. Her thoughts on what the Greeks and Romans have done for us can be found here

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