There’s a bit in the The Thick of It where hapless junior minister Ben Swain succinctly writes off the entire nation of Australia as “just a load of blokes in khaki, squinting. It’s essentially the world’s largest collection of poisonous things”.
Now, i’m sure that’s far from the case, but for some reason the deep recesses of my subconscious where I store these bizarre audio clips couldn’t help dredging this quote up as I watched Farscape, a largely Aussie made sci-fi serial from the late nineties and early noughties.
As far as I can deduce, the main reason why I kept being reminded of it was that somehow the idea of Australian science fiction strikes me as more than a little bizarre. Rightly or wrongly, the image of the archetypal Aussie firmly etched into my brain actually is a man in khaki shorts, wearing a cork hat, with a cricket bat in one hand and a can of Fosters in the other, and for me at least, that doesn’t seem to translate well into a world of spaceships and extra terrestrials.
Even they seem to be faintly aware of this, casting as their male lead more or less the only non Australian in the show, Ben Browder as chiseled all American man hunk John Crichton, an astronaut sucked into a worm hole and transported to a distant part of the galaxy populated by a series of exotic alien life forms who, surprise surprise, all just so happen to have faintly Australian accents. Funny that.
Of course, when I say exotic, what I really mean is that the aliens of Farscape are farcically camp as balls in a way which is about one step up from the cardboard and papier mache baddies on 1970s Doctor Who. Amongst the main cast are a flatulent, froglike deposed monarch (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) who flies around in a little floating chair and a large, barbarian fellow (Anthony Simcoe) who looks like, and this is really the closest I can get to describing him, a Viking berserker crossed with a Kraken’s clitoris.
Rounding off the shows cast is a rogue Peacekeeper soldier (Claudia Black), the series’ stock militaristic, authoritarian killjoys who look exactly like humans, (read The Alliance from Firefly or The Empire from Star Wars) and whose sassy, no nonsense demeanour and kick ass combat skills lead her to serve as Crichton’s hard to know, hot in a slightly odd way love interest, a bald, blue woman from a race of magical, nymphomaniac hippies (Virginia Hey) who were doing the whole Avatar thing before it was cool and a multi limbed creature (voiced by Lani Tupu) who serves as the pilot of the ship and looks like something I once created on Will Wright’s Spore.
They all reside on a former Peacekeeper prison ship which also happens to be alive, named Moya. It’s a kind of mechanised space whale; I’m a bit sketchy on the particulars. Crichton arrives through the wormhole just in time to witness the convicts (although it later transpires that most of them ‘never done it’) take control of the ship and escape, bringing Commander Crichton along for a wild old ride through a remote and lawless part of the galaxy known as the Uncharted Territories (read The Border Planets from Firefly or The Outer Rim from Star Wars).
I suppose it’s actually rather fun, and I’m reliably informed the series’ darker tone when compared to the likes of Star Trek was considered genuinely ground breaking at the time, having said that, Farscape is certainly something of a slow burner. The initial feeling I got from the first few episodes was that of a poor colonial imitation of other, more successful sci fi franchises, only with puppets, which gave it a kind of space Muppets vibe (not surprising, Brian Henson was the chief puppeteer).
After a spell the characters do start to grow on you, particularly Browder’s Crichton and Claudia Black’s Aeryn Sun, both of whom put in fine performances. And the world eventually fleshes itself out to the point that you can become immersed in a science fiction universe which wasn’t quite to my tastes, but which made an effort.
In truth, I think my real unwillingness to give Farscape too much of a ringing endorsement stems from wanting it to be the show Firefly never got to be, and it isn’t, but it’s not trying to be (It’s an unfair comparison anyway, Farscape predates it by several years). As a take on the genre it’s certainly interesting, taking the line of humanity as an underdeveloped race unknown and inconsequential to the great space-faring civilizations amongst whose company Crichton finds himself, even if it is largely used as a set up for the same joke of Crichton making an Earth specific pop culture reference and Claudia Black looking at him with a mixture of confusion and disgust. Admittedly it has aged a touch poorly but as a product of its time it looks no worse than the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I loved and which also had some early teething problems before it really found its stride.
The bottom line I guess is that I’m still watching it fifteen episodes in, and there are a lot of shows I can’t say that about. So if you like your sci-fi and you find yourself low on shows to watch during this summer televisual lull, certainly give the often overlooked Farscape a try.