Sep 18, 2012

What can Farscape teach you about writing?

Farscape (1999-2003) was an Australian space opera about a merry band of interplanetary misfits. Warren Ellis described it as "The story of one American's descent into Australia's BDSM scene." Others have called it the anti-Star Trek.

The series was developed by Rockne O'Bannon and Brian Henson, Jim Henson's youngest son who, in case you didn't know, was the guy who put the Muppets on bikes.

Moving on.
First there is the ship of adventure herself, Moya the Leviathan, a pacifist biomechanical being created in a mysterious cosmic region, steered by a perfect altruist known only as Pilot, whose flesh is bound with Moya's. Only under exceptional circumstances can one survive without the other; separation is mutilation. Moya and Pilot exist in symbiosis, with Pilot acting as Moya's spokesperson.

Moya too is a runaway, having broken a control collar to escape her captors. The Peacekeepers used her as a prisoner transport.

Moya's crew:

There's Zhaan, a blue plant person and self-styled anarchist, who for the first couple of seasons takes up the healer/spiritual guide slot.

Zhaan, played by Virginia Hey

Pilot was immature and agreed to a clandestine bonding with Moya, replacing another, more experienced member of his species. Pilot sometimes regrets the deal he made.

Pilot, voiced by Lani Tupu
and operated by
Sean Masterson, Tim Mieville, Matt McCoy,
Mario Halouvas and Fiona Gentle.

Ka D'Argo, big man with a short temper, tentacles on his head and a darting, venomous tongue.

Ka D'Argo, played by Anthony Simcoe

Chiana: thief, seductress, survivor. While not exactly callous, her emotional immaturity often leads her, and the rest of Moya's crew, down dangerous paths.

Chiana, played by Gigi Edgley

Rygel, deposed amphibian emperor, gluttonous and venal, who farts helium if you stress him out.

Rygel, voiced by Jonathan Hardy
and operated by
John Eccleston, Sean Masterson,  Tim Mieville,
Matt McCoy, Mario Halouvas and Fiona Gentle.

Aeryn Sun, played by Claudia Black*. Sun was ejected from the Peacekeepers, a militaristic, ultra-regimented police force of Sebaceans who look like humans because... because that's what Sebaceans are. There's a bit of ancient astronaut backstory to the Peacekeepers, but Farscape never dwells on it.
*Who only rarely had the chance to display her range as an actress on the show.

Claudia Black, left, plays Aeryn Sun.

John Crichton of Earth, fish out of water, whose unique gift it is to possess none, save for human adaptability. Moya's crew regard him as daft or insane. Over time he earns their respect.

Ben Browder, right, plays John Crichton.

So, what can Farscape teach you about writing a novel, story or play? Let's take a look at some of the principles the show adhered to.

1. Make the crew members complement each other

The people on Moya aren't totally incompatible, no. While their personality styles allow them to work together, that doesn't mean they always get along.

Ka D'Argo and Chiana both come across as fiercely sexual but, whereas D'Argo is monogamous and possessive, Chiana's eye tends to wander, and this injects drama into their relationship.

Rygel is an egotist (you might claim his physical stature reflects his pettiness) with an overblown ego and not above treachery. At first he views the situation on Moya as a temporary arrangement and his travel companions as means to an end. This is in stark contrast to Pilot, who lives to serve.

Aeryn Sun is disciplined and focused, not given to humor or sentimentality. John Crichton, on the other hand, likes to improvise, nickname everyone and make pop culture references nobody else gets.

Later additions include Jool, a bit of a spoiled child whose screams melt metal, and Sikozu, a bioloid* spy who "controls her personal gravity" (she sometimes goes for upside-down walks on Moya's ceiling).
*biological + android.   

2. Give them all a chequered past

Nobody on Moya is a paragon of virtue. You've got killers, thieves, liars -- yet "virtue" hardly comes in monochrome. The big Luxan warrior, Ka D'Argo, married a Sebacean woman (a big no-no with Peacekeepers, who frown on interspecies contact) and was later falsely convicted of murdering her. Zhaan, the Delvian, had also been accused of killing her lover.

Rygel, ousted ruler of myriad planets, dealt in nefarious plots of sexual conquest and assassination. Not only was he a glutton but also a snob, constantly reminding everyone of his status. The independent Chiana hailed from a society of conformists and would have been brainwashed by her government if she hadn't stowed aboard Moya.

3. Throw in some alien words

Mostly for fun, this trick gives your universe a little more flavor. So you had microts for seconds, arns for hours and cycles for years. Metras, I believe, corresponded with a thousand meters. Though if you're going to introduce a measurement system, use it consistently. Follow your own rules.

4. Keep the love carrot dangling in your characters' faces

That sounds... tawdry, but I'm sticking with it. "Love carrot." Hmm.


Farscape learned a trick or two from soap operas. You rooted for John and Aeryn, you knew they were meant to be, but the obstacles just cropped up.

When things finally seemed solid between them, Farscape yanked the bliss out of their rosy daydream -- you see, at one point there were two Crichtons -- nobody knew who the original was -- and the one that Aeryn took up with eventually died of radiation poisoning.

At that time, the crew had split up to pursue different objectives, and one of the Crichtons had stayed behind on Moya. Of course, that Crichton loved Aeryn as well. Aeryn returned to Moya under a shadow -- her lover had died in her arms, and the surviving Crichton reminded her of what she'd lost.

John stayed out of her way for a little while, but...

Would their relationship survive jealousy, cultural prejudice, cloning mishaps and the dangers of life on the run?

5. Invest in your antagonist

Scorpius remains as the ultimate face of evil in Farscape. But nothing on the show is black and white. Scorpius's evil, on closer inspection, proves rather banal: nothing but will to absolute power, megalomania, manipulation of others, loyalty only to himself.

Scorpius, played by Wayne Pygram.
Believe it or not, this picture is the reason
I started watching Farscape.

What can I say, I like odd-looking villains.

Among other misdeeds, Scorpius plants a simulation of his thought patterns in Crichton's brain (the characters call the simulation a 'neural clone') to get at knowledge planted in John's subconscious by a dying race. Gradually, the neural clone asserts dominance over John until things come to a head and people get hurt. Seriously hurt.

Scorpius never lets up. He wants the secret to wormhole technology buried in the lower strata of Crichton's mind, a secret that will eventually lead to the weaponization of wormholes.

And then there's the non-stop innuendo about what Scorpius does behind closed doors. Maybe hyperspace is the limit when your sexual partners look like this.

6. Tension is your best friend

You were almost scared to peek around the corner:

Crew members mutilated Pilot because a sleazy trader wanted Pilot flesh in exchange for his maps.

Beings from other dimensions trapped you in pocket realities. Alien devices found in remote systems created biologically warped versions of you that then ran amuck, endangering everyone. Uplifted surgeons tried to turn you into a different species.

Your spaceship's baby fired on his own mother.



As a show, Farscape wasn't uniformly brilliant. But start looking for 'uniform brilliance' and you're not likely to find it anywhere.

A good deal of it was people in silly costumes talking to puppets -- exceptional puppets, thanks to the Jim Henson's Creature Shop -- my point being that Farscape sometimes opened up to you and let you see past the pew-pew, past the bug-eyed beasties, to rediscover love, loss, joy and justice. Farscape may have been a loud, unsubtle, almost vulgar show, but sometimes it punched you in the gut, grabbed you by the neck and made you look at the stars.  

None of which are exactly safe for work

There's a body switch episode.

There were hallucinatory sequences with sadomasochistic... undertones.

Also sarcasm and wounded pride. Plenty of.

Later in the series, big bad Scorpius is compelled to seek asylum on Moya. Here you have him doing his trademark lizard scowl/hiss/grunt. 

To cap it off, a video on the cancellation of Farscape and its brief return to life as a miniseries.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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