15 Years Later: Why Farscape still matters

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Mar 19, 2014, 10:34 AM EDT

Farscape. It never did huge numbers, and it never garnered the critical acclaim of fellow space opera Battlestar Galactica — but history needs to hold a space for John Crichton and his motley crew of alien outlaws.

As the series celebrates the 15th anniversary of its March 19, 1999, debut on the Sci Fi Channel, it remains a cult fave for a large contingent of genre fans. It had action, intrigue, aliens, poignancy and a boatload of irreverence. It was Battlestar Galactica before the wider world was ready to accept a high-concept sci-fi series like Battlestar Galactica as a mainstream hit. 

Sure, it wasn’t the first modern space opera to build a dense world filled with aliens and insanity — Star Trek: Deep Space Nine beat it to air by six years, and Babylon 5 debuted all the way back in 1994 — but you could argue it did it the best. In the span of just four seasons, plus a miniseries that helped avert a full-scale fan riot, Rockne S. O’Bannon introduced us to everything from the Peacekeepers to the Scarrens and layered them to the point that it all lived and breathed on its own. It wrote the book on how to make a space opera work in the modern era.

It also made the bold move of having just one human character among the core cast (though Claudia Black’s Aeryn Sun, of course, looked human) and populated the rest of Moya with some of the most ambitious alien characters and animatronic puppets ever conceived at the time, thanks to the Jim Henson Company. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and the writing was so damn good that D’Argo, Rigel, Scorpius and all the other far-flung characters were just as compelling (if not more so) as John Crichton himself.

It doesn’t hurt that It was also one of the best character dramas ever written, wrapped up in a massive sci-fi adventure with a moving love story at its heart. O’Bannon took a concept that almost no network would touch in the beginning and turned it into a series that was named one of TV Guide’s Top 5 cult series in the history of television, among several other accolades. Farscape made us think about what it means to be human, and it did so with a ship full of aliens.

So, what was the secret to making it all work? According to O’Bannon, it essentially boiled down to two things: Shooting in the Mad Max homeland of Australia, and the network giving them leeway to go completely nuts with the concept. Here’s how he explained it in a 2013 chat with Iconic Interview:

“There were a couple of key factors that were super-important. The lesser of the two was that while we were still developing, Sci-Fi went through a regime change and another executive came in and took over as president. He didn’t understand what it was, so he called me in and said, “Just make it as weird as you can, because I just don’t want a kids show.” The greatest words I’ve ever heard were, ‘Just make it as weird as you can.’ It took all the restraints off and that was very important to us.

Meanwhile, the other huge decision was, for financial reasons, we decided to shoot in Australia. Post-production, visual effects, everything was there. It made all the difference because Australians are just incredibly wild individuals and they embraced the insanity of the show, in terms of style of storytelling but also in terms of production design. These are people who do The Road Warrior and Mad Max and those sorts of things. They brought that sensibility to it, and, honestly, I think that shooting in Australia imbued the show with another energy.”

As the show finds new fans and lingers on thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, it’s amazing to see the elements it both pioneered and perfected along the way. Dense, compelling space politics? Check. Metaphysical questions about happiness and identity? Check. Asking the big questions about what it means to be human (even if you aren’t)? Check.

It’s sad, but Farscape will likely never be mentioned in the same breath as genre heavyweights like Lost and Battlestar Galactica — and that’s a shame. It was ahead of its time, and looking at the concepts at the heart of the series, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t pave the way and clear a path for shows like Battlestar Galactica to find fans outside of sci-fi’s typical demographic. Farscape also helped prove that a high-concept sci-fi series could be a success on cable. You’re welcome, Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.

As the network looks to the past for inspiration in an attempt to launch new space operas in the coming years, we must remember it was Farscape that helped set the stage. It’s one of the best frelling series ever, and the world shouldn’t soon forget it.