“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.
What do you get when you produce a television show across three continents, combining financing and “notes” from three very different networks in three very different time zones? What if this show was also an intricately plotted space opera — with puppets? Well, if you’re Rockne S. O’Bannon and Brian Henson, you get Farscape. In the US the series ran from 1999 – 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, with a follow-up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars airing in 2004. Starring Ben Browder (John Crichton) and Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun), Farscape traces the (mis)adventures of American astronaut Crichton, who is inadvertently catapulted into the distant reaches of the galaxy while test-piloting his experimental space engine. Crichton finds himself a true stranger in a strange land, surrounded by species that are technologically far in advance of Earth, and generally much, much older than humanity.
So far, so not-so-unusual. Yet Farscape quickly becomes something more than a standard, episodic, good-guys v. bad-guys space show. It turns out that real life, even in the vastness of space, isn’t nearly that clear cut, and shades of grey predominate. Despite undeniable technological advances, and supposed socio-cultural ones, the strange alien polities Crichton finds himself in the middle of have the same old problems: arms races, cold wars, greed, corruption, and special interests abound, and in-between are billions of people on thousands of small worlds who become conquests or colonies of hungry empires, or proxies in their conflict, or are simply ground underfoot, unnoticed as titans clash.
Crichton and his new pals are definitely in this latter category. A group of escaped supposed criminals aboard a living ship which was itself enslaved as a prison barge, they are the definition of flotsam and jetsam in this wider universe, people with little or no value to the galactic superpowers, but priceless to themselves and each other. Much like Firefly (about which much more later!), Farscape is about chosen family, and about the capacity for change inherent in even the most twisted of souls. The main cast (for seasons 1 – 3) is rounded out by Anthony Simcoe as Ka D’Ago, a Luxan warrior prone to hyper-rage; Gigi Edgley as the sensuous and dangerous grey-skinned Chiana; and Virginia Hey as Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, a blue-fleshed priestess, but not always a gentle one.
Then there are the puppets, brought to brilliant life by the puppeteers at the Jim Henson Company. Several generations removed from Jim Henson’s original felt-covered creations, the Farscape puppets are incredibly intricate, often enormous constructs requiring multiple puppeteers to operate. The most central of such are Pilot, the, well, pilot of the living ship Moya, multi-limbed, with a massive head and carapace, Pilot is literally gown into the ship. Voiced by Lani John Tupu, Pilot is the crew’s direct line of communication to Moya, and the heart of the fragile family. At times teacher, confidant, confessor, or scold, Pilot is the moral center of the series, dedicated to the protection of Moya, and therefore the only character whose core motivation is the preservation of another’s life. Perhaps Pilot’s polar opposite is Dominar Rygel XVI a stubby, rotund ex-monarch and kleptomaniac. Given a royally entitled voice and personality by Jonathan Hardy, Rygel looks out for himself before all others, and often to the exclusion of everyone else.
Some of the crew will leave, and other will arrive, but all share the same fate of being lost, of looking for home, or for something like it. Each eventually will find that place aboard Moya, at least for a time, and discover that chosen family can be much stronger than one cast together by the randomness of DNA. The crew moves through dangerous spaces in dangerous times, and slowly becomes the obsessive interest of great powers for knowledge they are believed to possess, knowledge that can supposedly bring final victory and dominance for whichever power controls it. Such knowledge is worth having at any cost, particularly when it comes to the lives of Crichton and the crew, and their desires are inconsequential, particularly when it comes to a preference not to be dominated by anyone.
Farscape is the Cold War writ large, where something called “Mutually Assured Destruction” seems to be a viable and desirable policy, even if it means the destruction of entire planets. It is also a look at how the machinations of the powerful can all too often become divorced from the goals of civilization, and how the really important things: love, family, a productive life lived in peace can wind up being considered not just tertiary concerns, but irrelevant in the face of “larger issues.” Ultimately, however, Farscape is also about the power that the really important things actually have, and how dangerous the ignored can be when they are forced to fight for them. Farscape tells these tales with true style, incredible performances, effects, and writing, and uses the genre of science fiction to ask some really big questions and postulate some answers along the way. It is intricate, beautiful, gripping, sexy, and intensely moving, and that is why it is part of The Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.