Muppet Week

Weird, amazing, psychotic life. In technicolor.: Farscape and Henson’s Lasting Legacy

I could go on for more pages than anyone would care to count about Farscape. It is, without any doubt, one of the greatest science fiction television series’ ever created. Please quote me on that.

Since I only have so much room here and it is Muppet Week, instead I’ll begin with a memory: I watched the Sci-Fi Channel back in the day when it wasn’t a network you made fun of for hosting wrestling and ghost hunting. One day, when a YA-aged me was watching Star Trek: The Special Edition (the Original Series with some extras), I saw an advertisement for a brand new television show that Henson Productions was heading up called Farscape. The spot was trying to pack a lot into the obligatory sixty-or-so seconds, but they lingered on a shot of this four-armed alien, the one pictured above.

And there’s no cool way to put this — I teared up a bit. I couldn’t say why, other than the fact that he was beautiful and knowing that he existed at all had somehow moved me. For the uninitiated, this is Pilot. That’s what he does, and that’s also his name. He became one of my favorite characters on television for the next five years.

And he, my friends, was just the very tip of a gorgeous, innovative iceberg.

There are so many elements that made Farscape the litmus test that I judge other SFF television by. The scripts were daring and beautifully written, the actors were a spectacular ensemble, it turned tried and true genre tropes on their heads, and it was funny. The power of comedy can still be underestimated in genre despite the lessons of Adams and Pratchett, yet this show could make me laugh for 45 straight minutes.

But without the contributions of Jim Henson Productions and the Creature Shop, it would have been—at best—a cute little sci-fi show.

Farscape had two main characters who were puppets. But unlike The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth where puppets make up their own societies in fantasy worlds, or the Muppet universe where these strange creatures live side by side with humans and we accept it as an alternate reality of sorts, Pilot and Dominar Rygel the XVI (pictured in his element, above) were aliens. They had to feel like living, breathing beings in their own right, representatives of entire species who were also expected to interact every minute with a primarily human cast.

Pilot and Rygel felt more real than any towering blue 3D digitally-enhanced CGI goons could because they were real. They could be touched and touch in return. If you listen to interviews, Rygel was considered by the Farscape writers to be one of the most intelligent characters on Moya’s crew, and you believed it. He was a schemer with a brain ever in search of an exit strategy, and there was never a moment where you doubted those slippery smiles and mad, quirked eyebrows. But there was no motion captured actor sitting on set with dots all over his face, giving the lines. Rygel could give that performance all by himself.

That wasn’t all that the Creature Shop brought to the table. From the prosthetics covering the actors to what must have added up to dozens of animatronic and puppet alien designs (including one incredible homage to the skeksis in the episode “Out of Their Minds”), Farscape was was believable because you could see and touch everything — and there was so much to get your hands on. No show in the history of science fiction has ever provided more for the eye in color, depth, and matter. The Uncharted Territories had a richness that you are only typically granted by your own imagination.

And that is exactly what Jim Henson was a master of: bringing imagination to life. Farscape did something that Henson had always hoped for — it was a story that utilized CGI, special effects, and puppetry all together. There has never been any reason why these elements should be mutually exclusive. Instead of making a work of art using only oil paints, or only clay, we should be spending more of our time putting every talent we possess to use in the service of creating something that no one has ever seen before. Farscape excelled in just that.

Jim Henson may not be alive today to see what his vision continues to bring into the world, but I’m sure this is one creation that he would be incredibly proud of.

Emily Asher-Perrin agrees with John Crichton — if she ever met aliens, the first word out of her mouth would probably just be, “Hi.” You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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