Farscape: A Psychological Drama In Disguise
The cult series Farscape has some rare features – it’s an Australian sci-fi, produced by the Jim Henson Company, and consists largely of colourful chaos interspersed with fart jokes. But there’s more than meets the eye… or nose…
You’ve got to feel a certain fondness for a sci-fi series that relies on Henson puppets and terribly crass humour, right? At first glance, Farscape does not seem terribly deep, involved, or well thought out. Some episodes are not written very well, and it is a confusing world to be thrown into. Nothing is what it seems, which is a Henson adage once repeated in Labyrinth.
Indeed, Farscape does sort of feel like Labyrinth, but darker, and in space. They’ve got their own Bog of Eternal Stench residing within the gluttonous Dominar Rygel (pictured). Some of their baddies certainly keep to the overly-made up and slightly kinky dress sense (except this is played to maximum disturbing effect in Farscape). Many episodes involve mazes and riddles. If you grew up with Henson shows such as Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, even Sesame Street, it’s hard not to feel a comfortable sort of familiarity.
The other benefit of this being under the Henson Company is that many jokes are played on previous Henson works without any fear of copyright infringement. See if you can spot them all! And the humour is kept even more crass by the invention of swear words. This has the effect of keeping the rating down to a 15, whilst allowing the more dirty-minded of viewers to complete the sentences any which way they choose.
The central theme is wormholes. It’s rare for a sci-fi show to place itself in the position where complex technology is not yet discovered. It is all too easy to attribute the discovery of amazing tech to an ancient alien race and leave it at that. But Farscape does no such thing. It forces the central character, our human hero John Crichton, to discover wormholes accidentally, attracting much unwanted attention from alien baddies as a result, and all without anyone fully understanding how they work.
I hear many books, films and series rely on a marketing buzzword, ‘Obsession’, to attract potential viewers. Farscape is one of few things that uses this word to its utmost meaning. You come away from some of the story episodes feeling like your brain has undergone an onslaught from the doldrum repetition. And even in the non-story episodes, there is still an all-pervasive echo of this theme that won’t go away, like an itch you can’t quite scratch.
Brian Henson and Rockne S. O’Bannon have achieved something akin to Darren Aronofsky (creator of Pi, and Requiem for a Dream) in the way they portray the psychology of this series. Cinematography, the way things are placed on the screen, the way transitions are done, the colours and sounds used, are all a sounding board for the mental state of the character in focus, usually Crichton. It is actually so intense that at one point during Season Two, my speakers messed up and I watched on for another fifteen minutes, blithely assuming this was just how the episode was meant to be!
At some point in the first few seasons, one of the main bad guys catches up with Crichton, and tortures him horrifically to try and get the nonexistent wormhole information from his mind. After the inevitable escape, things sort of follow a downward curve in Crichton’s mental space until, quite suddenly, you realise he is having an entire mental breakdown. I was surprised, not by the breakdown, but by the fact that I was by now so engrossed in viewing things from Crichton’s perspective that I never even noticed it happening.
Our hero is not the only one to go through this. Other characters, at certain points, lose people close to them, and suffer something similar. Again, in each case, I never noticed the psychological drama playing out until it was too late and -BAM- All the feels.
And just in case you weren’t feeling insecure enough, the writers make a habit of not apologising for an alien’s attitude or views on some topics. I am a big supporter of this, because as humans we know that some actions, like hurting people, are not nice things to do, but when all the aliens in the show disagree and there is no resolution, you are left with only Crichton to sympathise with, and you feel his isolation all the more sharply.
The show’s creators then leave you to get used to the varied alien ways over the next few seasons. Then when the inevitable encounter with Earth happens, suddenly you realise you are sympathising more with the aliens than with the other humans that meet them. It’s a double culture-shock moment. I remember getting very angry with the humans on Earth, politically driven and unable to look past their own marketing of the phenomenon, when this episode came round!
With all this in mind, you can sort of forgive the iffy writing of some episodes. Everything, the colours, shapes, sounds, mindscapes, end up combining beautifully with the bright and hyperactive universe so that it ends up feeling like a very strange, terrifying and exciting dream. And if it all gets too weird, you can always fall back on the fart jokes.
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