Nov 18 2011 3:10pm

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.

This article is part of Muppet Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Joseph Kingsmill
1. JFKingsmill16
I can't agree more. I will always love this show and consider it perhaps the greatest SciFi/Space Opera TV ever.
Theresa DeLucci
2. theresa_delucci
Same here. Pilot did actually make me cry in the episode "The Way We Weren't." It's all about how he came to be Moya's pilot and his conflict with Aeryn's Peacekeeper past. Pilot showed more emotion and range than a lot of human actors. And his voice is so superb. And, like Emily, I'd much rather see people interact with muppets than CGI anything. The animatronics on Farscape were top notch.

I know some people are turned off by the muppets in Farscape or that the show was just too goofy. I think certain arcs in Farscape were darker than anything I've seen on TV. But it was also so much more vibrant than other shows.

Also: Frell > Frak in terms of made-up sf swears.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger
Agreed on all points. "It is, without any doubt, one of the greatest science fiction television series’ ever created". You can quote me quoting you.

Farscape has the best scifi slang anywhere.
Robert H. Bedford
4. RobB
I loved this show, looked forward to it every Friday and still watch my DVDs of it. It is and was one of the few SF shows my wife was as excited to watch, in fact probably MORE excited to watch, than I was. It didn't hurt that she had a crush on Ben Browder. When the final episode aired, you all know, when Aeryn and John were turned to glass, she punched my arm repeatedly for about five minutes straight.

Excellent humor, great story, and wonderful characters backed up the imaginative aliens for a superb whole that was greater than its great parts.

Fun fact, one of the episodes featured an alien baddie, the Halosian, that was suspicioulsy familiar.
Improbable Joe
5. Improbable Joe
Another cool bit is that the voice of Pilot was the same actor who protrayed Captain Crais.

My wife doesn't know it, but she's getting the Farscape Blu-Ray for Xmas. It is a gift for both of us!
Improbable Joe
6. jrt
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.

Joe Vondracek
7. joev
Much Farscape love here, and I totally agree. In comparison, most other sci-fi shows have been, well, just a load of dren.

Oddly enough, I was first attracted to the show by the music. And I much preferred the opening theme music from the first two seasons over the later theme. YMMV
Bob Weld
8. WaitingShadows
Tuning in to this week, I was not thinking of appreciating muppets or animatronics in any form. Then I stumbled across this wonderful review for a great show that I loved. I knew that they used puppets, but (as credit to the show) it blends in so well that they almost become living characters. John and Pilots interaction during The Peacekeeper Wars was astounding, and I loved that the review uses an image of it (I think).

This is a great show, with an amazing visual world that is all this review says and more, and a fantastic article for muppet week.
Improbable Joe
9. DebL
Awesome show. Just watched from beg to end (3rd time) and then Peacekeeper Wars movie (thank goodness for Netflix!) I was a trekkie forever, but this show was/is even better because of the entire SFX package and unlike Trek, there wasnt very much "cheese". I love Pilot as he is the most complex character, with the biggest heart.
Improbable Joe
10. hawkdoctor809
Agree with everyone, what an absolutely awesome show and cast, was upset by the ending of it but all good things must come to an end. Thankfully we can rent, borrow, or buy a miriad of ways to re watch this wonderfull show!
Improbable Joe
11. politeruin
Yeah...what they said really. Remember first seeing this on TV not knowing anything about it and thinking WHAT.IS.THIS.WANT.MORE. I was big in to trek until this vibrant, mad, funny, utterly alien thing came along and supplanted it. And oh man the episode titles, those beautiful episode titles. Without a doubt pilot and rygel stand up to ANY flesh and blood characters and quite easily surpass them in most cases, i mean even in the beginning i fully bought into these characters as real and part of farscape universe. That might be because the effort put in to the alienness of the world means they just belong there.

"Respect? My tiny, shiny hiney!"

I'll just put this here, again...
Improbable Joe
12. Traci (aka ScaperChick)
Not only was the show the dradest thing ever (as well as the cast and crew), but the fan base was (and still is) one of my favorite things about the whole Farscape phenomenon. I'd elaborate, but I don't want to appear any more fahrbot that I already do... ;)
Evie Manieri
13. eviemanieri
That's a lovely image of John and Pilot, and expresses your point so well. I think the audience's and the actors' ability to connect on a tactile level with the puppets trumps CGI every time. (And why I'll take Wes Anderson's stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox over even the best Pixar fare.) Farscape was genius on so many levels. Aeryn's arc over the series was absolutely astounding: a sci-fi chick who was tough, vulnerable, sexy, complicated, and absolutely relatable. Oh dear, I forgot how much I missed her!
Improbable Joe
14. Ellenvgreg
I agree, yes yes yes. Farscape is one of the few shows I can watch over and over again from start to finish. Much love from me too. Just wish they got a full 5th season... I cry everytime I watch the DVD doco when the find out it's over.
Keith DeCandido
15. krad
Just a great show. So glad to see it appreciated here.

I also would be remiss if I didn't mention the Farscape comic book that I did in collaboration with series creator Rockne S. O'Bannon that was published monthly (sometimes twice monthly) by BOOM! Studios. We continued the story past "The Peacekeeper Wars," including three four-issue miniseries, a 24-issue ongoing series, and a couple of side series starring D'Argo and Scorpius. The last issue, sadly, was published last month, but the trade paperbacks of the first five story arcs, as well as the three D'Argo and two Scorpius arcs, are available, with the remaining four trades due out in 2012.

End plug. And agreed that Farscape had some of the best made-up swear words, with frell > frak by a whole smegging bunch.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Improbable Joe
16. CamMoor
Yes. Big ditto to everyone. I watched it on SciFi and then when the reruns would come on WB late at night or whichever channel that was. Some of the best episodes involved Rygel and Pilot. Like someone else pointed out, the episode that went into Pilot's past when he disconnected from Moya. Or hell any episode that touched on how moving Pilot's relationship to Moya and her crew was. Even when it wasn't a happy circumstance. (AKA most of the crew choosing to cut off Pilot's arm to find their way home)

Or how Rygel would always be counted on to look out for his own tail but still as the series went on, he would stand by the others no matter what. And funny or serious, cowardly or brave, you always believed him. Rygel was always a "he" not a puppet.

Damn, now I really do have to rewatch the episodes now. Its been awhile.
Improbable Joe
17. Khaldun
Great show, but can't rate it above Firefly. Does kinda make me want to rewatch both though...
Ashe Armstrong
18. AsheSaoirse
I will never not love this show. Ever. Best sci-fi show EVER and then DS9. Forever.
Improbable Joe
19. Susan B. Love
total agreement. Love Love LOVE Farscape...
Emily Asher-Perrin
20. EmilyAP
Wow, everyone. Thank you for bringing all the Farscape love! It's wonderful to find the fans out there - the devotion people felt to this show is part of what made it great.

Keith's comics that continue the series after the Peacekeeper Wars are indeed a fantastic read, so I also recommend people pick them up if they're itching for more adventures....

And you're all completely right: frell > frak any day of the week. Also hezmana. I loved hezmana.
Improbable Joe
21. Qtip the Sixth
I still cannot forgive SciFi (at the time) for cutting funding mid-season. That was the beginning of the frelling dren that led to the birth of SyFy . . .
M. de L'Orange
22. LittleOrangeElephant
I keep my Scorpius/Harvey action figure on my bedside table. When a friend of mine visits she tells me it gives her nightmares. I think it's his posh accent that sets her off.

Any show that takes puppets seriously is fine by me. There is a supreme lack of puppets on tv these days. Always glad to see a little Farscape love.
Scott Abbott
23. Scott
Agree 100% Emily - its like will not be seen again.
Improbable Joe
24. Eugene R.
I miss the squag out of this show. And don't get me started on the pleebig pewnkahs who let it die!

Certainly, it brought the joys of muppetry to full life with Pilot and Rygel (aka "Sparky") as characters who were as involving as their less-externally operated shipmates.

And a small cheer for Stargate SG-1, which not only provided us with more Ben Browder and Claudia Black moments, but also embedded a Farscape shout-out in the delightful parody episode "200" during the pitching of ideas for a Wormhole X-Treme! movie when Claudia's character (Vala) describes a living spaceship with a collection of assorted odd aliens on the run, a concept that gets universally panned as unbelievable by everyone (including Vala herself).
Evie Manieri
25. eviemanieri
Emily, did you see the NY Times article on the new Muppet movie this morning? "But it’s anyone’s guess whether puppets can resonate in the Pixar era." We'll show 'em. POWER TO THE PUPPETS!
Improbable Joe
26. Ed Lazellari
I LOVED this show. It had some of the best scripts in Sci-fi TV history, and a fantastic new universe that made sense. It had enough production value to make suspension of disbelief easy as sliding into a warm bath. Loved the casting, too, and kudos for not fearing to cast interesting looking "older" (i.e., over 30) actresses either (love Claudia Black). Not complaining about the young pretty ones in most other shows, mind you, but I think it gave that sci-fi universe some added weight of realism. The last special they did where Aeryn gave birth to their baby had to be the most fun and action-packed story ever filmed for Syfy. Long Live Farscape.
Emily Asher-Perrin
28. EmilyAP
@ eviemanieri - You know, it's really depressing that critics keep insisting that kids today won't appreciate anything that isn't super shiny 3D animated special effect hoopla-land. Kids are nowhere near as discriminatory as adults where "realism" is concerned - they still believe in everything. You're absolutely right: we'll show'em!

@Ed Lazellari - I'm with you on the casting of Claudia Black. The best part is, apparently the original casting call for Aeryn asked that the actress be "18-19 years old." Claudia only scored a real audition when she read for Aeryn at Ben Browder's audition, and the casting agents saw what incredible chemistry they had. It's so heartening that they had the smarts to ditch the original call, and cast someone who really had the gravitas for the part (which I highly doubt a teenager could have brought).
Ian Tregillis
29. ITregillis
Farscape FTW. God, how I loved this show. I need to rewatch it.

I discovered this when I was laid out in bed, sick with a terrible fever. Best bout of flu EVER.

I loved it for all the reasons mentioned by everybody else. Pilot and Rygel are just as real to me as Crichton, Aeryn, D'Argo, and the others. I also appreciated the fact that this show never talked down to me-- it trusted my intelligence and my ability to keep up. It could move very fast at times, and didn't bog things down with exposition and explanation.

Great show about family. To me, the heart of the show is just as much about the friendship between Crichton and D'Argo as it was the romance between Crichton and Aeryn.
Improbable Joe
30. Salome
I heartily concur. My heart still aches for the premature loss of Farscape.
Improbable Joe
31. Salome
I heartily concur. My heart still aches for the premature loss of Farscape.
Improbable Joe
32. StellaSensel
My heart still yearns for more Farscape. I agree 100%
Scott K. Andrews
33. ScottKAndrews
Great post, Emily.

Seems to me, what with the blu-ray box set coming out, that it's high time we did a Farscape rewatch here on Tor...
Improbable Joe
34. JimArata
Great post Emily. Farscape had me in the pilot with a short but graceful explanation of why every alien understood English (translator microbes), and continued on into a excellent story with many twists and turns and unexpected endings through out the series. Rewatching season three right now with the same enjoyment as when they were first aired. Lost all respect for the Sci-Fi channel in the termination of the series, as well as increasing my respect for the fanbase to get the miniseries aired. Always had hope this would be this generations 'Star Trek' in the sense of the series being reborn several years after the original was cancelled. Who knows what John and Aeryn's kid(s) have been up to these last few years, and if Rygel has returned to his rightful place as dominar.

My favorite curse phrase, Frell me dead.

Thanks again for the article, nice to see how many people still remember the series so fondly, and regard it so highly.
Improbable Joe
35. Aleric
One of the greatest series of all times. To this day I hate and revile the Scifi channel.
Keith DeCandido
36. krad
JimArata: You need to read the comics. *nodsnodsnods*
Improbable Joe
37. Grumpy Old Snake
God, I love this show. The writing, the humor, and most especially the aliens. I don't think I'm going to get over learning that these beings were actual physical creations... I could never pull it off, but being an actor purely for the chance to get to interact with that sort of creation might be worth it. Or better yet, working to build it. :D

I agree with everything you say here. Great to hear a mention of Terry Pratchett, as well. ^_^


Couldn't agree with you more! As one of those 'kids today', I can say with confidence; we may be in the (large) minority, but there are those of us who appreciate things like Farscape. I can only say that I hope everyone here who appreciates the show also appreciates it enough to buy the disks and pass it on to the next generation. Keep them around. I saw my first episode of Farscape well after it went off the air. :D Try to give more people that chance.

What I'm saying is yes, some of us enjoy this stuff. Unless I'm completely alone... Scary thought. ;P
Improbable Joe
38. Xopher HalfTongue
I have said before that FarScape is the best science fiction that has ever been on television, period. Firefly is good, but it didn't last long enough to develop much depth.

I didn't know about the comics and will have to get them.

My favorite crossover fantasy: Huge glitch in the Stargate ("looks like another alternate universe contact, Sir"). A young boy walks through, sees Mitchell and says "Dad!" They ask him his name and (as you'll have figured out by now) he says "D'argo Sun-Crichton."
Improbable Joe
39. ChrisVC
Great blog.
Frel the rest, Farscape is still the best sci-fi series ever.
Been watching through it for the fifth time.
Improbable Joe
40. Dihjet
Once in a while a truly amazing story comes along and I feel very fortunate to be able to enjoy it.

I discovered this show by accident - I don't know how I missed it while it was happening. In any case, I speed watched this on Netflix and am now on Season 4. Already having concern about what I will do when it's all over. This was the greatest sci-fi series I've ever seen. It opens your mind and your heart. It made me rethink living on earth - where we have so many different creatures living together. I have always felt excited to communicate with other species. We don't have translator chips but we can observe and feel and get along. Watching the show made me see life over here a bit differently. But what a great premise.... John being blasted into the rest of the universe and having to instantly realize that existence as he knew it will never be the same. The moment he understands that earth has been sheltered from what lies beyond their reality, and how he makes us believe his need to instantly assimilate in order to survive is seriously brilliant writing and acting.

On the other hand, his earth referenced comments and the reactions to them from the rest of the cast is hilarious to me. Especially when they just simply ignore most of his cultural references and seriously communicate with him. His character accomplishes the great task of drawing us in - he represents us - the earth folks - and how it would be to survive such an different life in the universe, in a believable way. And the rest of the cast draw us in as well, allowing us to feel how they tick, think, feel. I was very moved by Zan especially. I don't want to give anything away in case you haven't watched yet, so I'll leave it there.

Brilliant show that makes me want more, more and more. I suppose I will have to rewatch it again as others are doing ..... until perhaps more great stories can be created and networks will be able to recognize genius when they see it and keep it going.

Thanks to Henson and Australia for such a great ride.

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