Farscape: “Premiere”

11/14/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 1. Writer: Rockne S. O’Bannon. Director: Andrew Prowse. Rating: B-.

“I’m not going EVA, Dad, I’m not walking on the moon, I’m just running a little experiment,” says Commander John Crichton, IASA scientist, to his famous astronaut father, shaking out the rattlers before launching a shuttle of his own making, Farscape, in an attempt to prove a theory about gravity-assisted interstellar travel. Of course, most introductions to the modern-day hero begin the same way, with a just man letting slip a modest “just”: “I’m just going to [blank]” is science-fiction’s equivalent to horror’s “I’ll be right back.”

In case there’s any confusion in this heavy-handed intro (or as a compromise given how confusing things are one electromagnetic wave away from getting), Crichton adds: “I can’t be your kind of hero.” To which his father lays down the premise of the four seasons that will follow: “No, you can’t be. But each man gets his own chance to be a hero. Your time will come [wink wink, nudge nudge], and when it does, watch out. Chances are it’ll be the last thing you ever expected.”  This is, more or less, the elevator pitch for this show: “Man living in the shadow of his father gets the opportunity to make a name for himself in the most unexpected situations. And it’s that emphasis on “unexpected” that has me undertaking my own mission, to revisit and analyze every episode of Farscape, and to try to figure out what worked so well that, some nine years later, I still think about this show.

And OK, by the seven-minute mark of the opening episode, I know what one of those things is: Ben Browder. The strange man in a strange land concept is a fairly common trope when it comes to science-fiction and fantasy, but Browder’s comic deadpan elevated the concept (and would later allow Farscape to hit some really odd beats): upon finding himself in the middle of an asteroid belt instead of beside Earth, and with foreign ships buzzing past, we zoom in on Crichton’s face: “Uh . . . Canaveral?” After the cut to the title sequence — which also begins with a shot of Crichton’s Face of Disbelief — his next line, upon seeing the living Leviathan ship that will become his home, is more of the same understatement: “That’s big. That’s really big.”  But here’s what sells me on Browder’s performance: for the next three minutes, he has no lines, only wide-eyed and eyebrow-quivering responses to the various robots he encounters; when he first sees the blue-skinned Zhaan (Virginia Hey), and red-proboscised D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), he pulls a bravura double-take: He’s the missing Marx brother, in space; a human Wall-E.

Fourteen minutes in, we get the first of the unexpected twists — assuming that, for a show set in space, aliens are far from unexpected — as Crichton, having received the liquid equivalent of a Babel Fish injection (and yes, there’s a certainly a great deal of The Hitchhiker’s Guide running through the show), overhears from the Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu), that he’s on a prison transport. All the shooting outside and chaos inside? It’s the work of a motley bunch of escapees, from the deposed, slug-like tyrant Rygel (voiced by Jonathan Hardy), to the hot-tempered warrior D’Argo and anarchistic priest Zhaan. Oh, and another quick twist as we cut away to the jailers who have been firing on our “heroes”: they’re human, led by Captain Crais (Tupu), and though they’re called Peacekeepers, their all-black militaristic garb gives them away as the actual villains. (Oh, and Crais’s brother? Turns out Crichton accidentally killed him when his ship first materialized in the fray and “clipped” him.)

These opening twists keep coming, and they’re a little reminiscent of those found on The Twilight Zone: the second time Crichton awakes — no, this is not a dream — he finds himself locked in a cell, and when he asks why, Rygel informs him that “I can no more trust you than I can than,” then waves his hand to a black-armored monster in the corner. In “Eye of the Beholder” fashion, this turns out to be the Peacekeeper Aeryn (Claudia Black): disgusting to Rygel, perhaps, but quite appealing to Crichton. It should come as no surprise by now, then, that when he introduces himself, she beats the crap out of him before demanding, her thighs straddling his face, “What is your rank and regiment?” (His eventual reply? “I’m a damn scientist!”)

What’s most delightful about Farscape‘s pilot is that it gives you the idea not that it has no idea of what it wants to be but that it’s idea of what to be is to be something that gives you the weightless sense of being lost, i.e., having no idea. This isn’t what the theater would call a negative choice, however — the big idea isn’t that there’s no idea — because the show propels itself forward with actions and a clearly defined pursuit; Lost in Space meets The Fugitive. At this early point, Farscape is an adventure serial with comic interludes (there’s a three-minute scene gag devoted to the fact that Rygel farts helium when he’s nervous or angry: sorely missed are the days of fifty-minute-long episodes); it’s the inverse of LEXX, with which it shares many similarities in design.

Most importantly, Farscape — like Crichton telling off his father at the beginning — is a show that wants to be different from its predecessors: “Boy, was Spielberg ever wrong. Close Encounters my ass.” (As for Jim Henson’s puppets, they’re leagues beyond E.T.) I enjoy, too, that Farscape doesn’t stint on spending the money necessary to do so: unlike Star Trek, which at best might introduce a new humanoid-alien each week, Farscape veers closer to Star Wars. The first planet our crew lands on is a trading colony, populated by odd species, none of which have anything to do with the plot, but are there nonetheless to make the show both more odd and plausible within that oddness. (Arguments that a live-action Star Wars television show would be too expensive seem awfully hollow in this light, no?)

This is the same function that Crichton’s one-liners perform. For instance, when he helps the crew to escape Peacekeepers a second time, he has this to say about the ricocheting laser fire: “Don’t move, or I’ll fill you full of . . . little bolts of light.” There’s the odd thing, but also the meta-commentary on it — in this case filtered through the context of a Western — that makes it somehow less odd. And maybe television was always self-referential and I just overlooked it as a less-savvy child (because heaven knows it’s all over the place nowadays), but I don’t remember 90s television like SlidersQuantum Leap, or Stargate: SG-1 dabbling in pop-cultural touchstones like this. (Interesting aside: SG-1 would eventually borrow rather liberally from Farscape, going so far as to cast Browder as a thinly veiled facsimile of Crichton, and Black as an impish version of Aeryn. They knew what fans wanted.)

Random observations: 

  • Zhann shows appreciation for Crichton’s help not by hugging or kissing him, but by doing her species’ equivalent: pressing ear to ear and sending out some sort of static shock. D’Argo looks on with a hint of jealousy as a bewildered Crichton begins to unkink his neck.
  • Crichton delivers his final monologue, a recording for his father, while repairing one of the insect-like bots that help Moya to function. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship with these machines, one that is neatly contrasted with Rygel’s attempts to steal Crichton’s tape recorder: oh, what a wonderful rogue. (“Are you a sound sleeper?” he asks, hovering away with a smug grin on his face.)
  • Just quick note on “grades” for these episodes; these are against my memories of the series as a whole. I gave “Premiere” a “B-” because I know there are stronger (and weaker) episodes coming up this season (to say nothing of the escalating seasons to come, which will add some interesting new players and dynamics to the show). But in essence, anything rated C or higher is worth watching (Sarah Connor ChroniclesEarth-2), a D should fascinate those interested in good ideas that go horribly wrong (VR.5), and an F isn’t even laughably appealing (M.A.N.T.I.S., Cleopatra 2525). An A represents an idea that is fully executed (Battlestar Galactica, Babylon-5); a B is good science-fiction with something holding it back (Eureka, Deep Space Nine).
  • I don’t know how often I’ll have the time to drop in on the show, but I’m aiming to write about at least two episodes each week, depending on how much there is to recap or analyze. We’ll see what happens.
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