Long before Battlestar Galactica and Sharknado, Farscape was the crown jewel of Syfy’s original programming. It was a strange show that definitely rocketed to the beat of its own drummer, eschewing the military/humanistic approach of scifi TV series in the 90s for something that was wilder, woolier, and definitely weirder.
On the spectrum between, say, Star Trek and Firefly, Farscape lands square in the middle. It’s definitely a ship-based show where characters explore “strange new worlds,” meet bizarre aliens, and encounter strange anomalies. But it’s also a show about a ragtag group of misfits that often make serious mistakes, are pretty hilarious, and have ongoing story arcs. Farscape may share a few traits in common with each of these franchises, but in the end it was its own beast.
Our everyman for the series is Earth astronaut John Crichton, who accidently goes through a wormhole on a test mission and ends up… somewhere else. Almost instantly he’s in trouble, because his appearance causes the death of another fighter pilot who happens to be related to a powerful military commander. John is only saved by a tractor beam of a large ship in the vicinity.
The ship is Moya, and this is not Enterprise or Serenity. For starters, Moya is one of a race of living ships that is piloted by an alien called Pilot. For another thing, Moya had been used as a prison vessel until just recently, as the few inmates staged a coup and took over things. Finally, Moya has no weapons and can only make a starburst jump as a defensive tactic.
Crichton looks a lot like the race of aliens who were the wardens, so he’s initially treated with extreme suspicion. He eventually proves himself and is accepted into the crew, which includes love interest/soldier Aeryn, Luxan warrior D’Argo, religious leader/plant person Zhaan, arrogant deposed ruler Rygel, and the aforementioned Pilot. The crew did change over the years, most notably to add more females. In fact, Farscape is one of the few TV shows I can think of (and certainly one of the only scifi ones) where women matched men one-for-one in the spotlight — and not just as love interests.
It stands to mention that Farscape had the backing of Jim Henson’s Workshop, which means that if you love aliens that aren’t just people sporting bumpy foreheads as in Trek, you’re going to love this show. Both Pilot and Rygel were main characters that also happened to be puppets, which is no mean feat. It’s actually hard to think of them as puppets after a while because they’re so well-done and their characters (especially Rygel) are very memorable.
Over the course of four years, the crew of Moya had no greater mission than to survive and try to hold things together. Farscape had such a different tone than Star Trek in almost every way, really. The crew didn’t have central leadership (rarely did the ship have a captain, so group consensus was often needed), people often bickered and worked against each other, and there was just loads of shouting and chaotic craziness. It didn’t help matters that Crichton was soon hunted by Scorpius, another military commander who was obsessed with drilling the wormhole information out of the earthling’s noggin.
As an anti-Trek show, Farscape constantly kept things off-kilter. You never knew when friendships would dissolve, when good fortune would turn to bad, or if people would die. Moya’s crew changed a lot over four seasons, even splitting up into two groups for the better part of season three (with a “twinned” John Crichton on each mini-crew).
Personally, I loved it. I got into the show around season 2 and was caught up in all of the cliffhangers and the ongoing drama. It helped that, generally, Farscape looked great (especially in seasons 2 on), had tons of action, and reveled in multi-episode plot threads. Plus, it was funny — really, really funny. Having the only human character being at the center of the series kept relatability high, especially as John would crack jokes and make pop culture references that no one around him could understand.
But it all came crashing down at the end of season 4, when the series was abruptly canceled — and right on a cliffhanger, no less. Fortunately, a strong fan campaign convinced the studio to create a two-part wrap-up mini-series called Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars. If Farscape does come back as a TV movie that will be great, but I’m pretty content with the way things shook out. It doesn’t seem to have generated as strong of a cult following as both Trek and Firefly, but doing its own thing and going its own way was always Farscape’s motif.