by Caitlin R. Kiernan
After a decade as a professional author of dark and speculative fiction, it's become apparent to me that television SF is often, at best, considered the ugly stepsister of written and motion picture SF. And, in most instances, it's easy enough to understand how such attitudes have come about and why they remain entrenched among many readers, and perhaps most writers, of science fiction. Indeed, in most cases, "ugly stepsister" would, no doubt, be an incredibly kind description of what television has passed off as SF, time and time again. It hardly seems necessary to invoke Sturgeon's Law at this point ("90% of everything is crud"), though tradition would seem to demand it, but with the added proviso that maybe as much of 99% of TV SF is crud. There are notable and marvelous exceptions, of course: The Avengers, The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, the original Outer Limits, The X-Files, Millennium, Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, the better episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But, by and large, there's no sense trying to cover up for the fact that most of what we've been offered over the years is simply unwatchable drek and, far too often, we're inordinately happy when we can salvage a few mediocre scenes or concepts from the drek (the unfortunate likes of Battlestar Galactica and V, both far too fondly remembered by far too many people, come quickly to mind).
Which brings me to why I'm writing my third essay on the need to save the Sci-Fi Channel's unexpectedly superb series, Farscape, my third such essay in only seven days. Quickly, some background for those who need it: One year ago, almost to the day, the Sci-Fi Channel ordered two more seasons of Farscape. The first three seasons of the show, created by the Academy-Award-winning Jim Henson Company, had garnered the network significant critical and popular success for the first time in its history, along with an Emmy nomination and three Saturn awards. Senior Vice President of Programming Bonnie Hammer released a statement declaring, "We are excited to renew our commitment to this smart, sexy, intelligent and fun series that rewrites the book on sci-fi entertainment. Farscape is not only the most ambitious original series on basic cable, we think it's one of the best-written shows on television, period. It's no wonder that it's the top-rated series on Sci-Fi for three years running. Farscape is the cornerstone of our original series line-up . . . "
Now, I'm not going to get into a blow-by-blow account of everything that's transpired since Farscape's executive producer, David Kemper, leaked the news during a September 6th Sci-Fi Channel irc that the network had inexplicably decided to exercise their option not to renew the series for a fifth season. There are now dozens of websites whose whole reason for being is to get that news out and at the end of this article you'll find links to many of them. There you can learn the gory details and read about the almost Herculean efforts by the series' fans and creators to save the show from oblivion. Suffice it to say that viewers have responded to the cancellation with a campaign perhaps unprecedented in the history of SF television. Farscape may go, but not without a fight, and, it seems, not without one that's begun to take a heavy toll on the SFC.
In the near-infinite vacuum of TV SF, Farscape is a genuine rarity. Chronicling the misadventures of NASA astronaut John Crichton after he's accidentally launched through a wormhole into a distant part of the universe, emerges in the midst of a battle, and lands aboard an intelligent biomechanoid ship named Moya - helmed by recently escaped alien prisoners - the series has rapidly evolved from straightforward space opera to one of the most innovative and unpredictable television series to which I've ever had the pleasure of becoming shamelessly addicted. The series' writers have managed to juggle wonder and screwball comedy, sorrow and joy, terror and desperation, in ways that should leave any author breathless. Unlike many of its predecessors and contemporaries, Farscape has not shied from exploring genuinely dark themes, and, more often than not, we're left with the feeling that maybe space isn't the "grand adventure" we've been looking forward to for so long, but a deadly and haunted battleground at least as troubled as our own Earth.
Drawing upon the apparently limitless talent of the Henson puppeteers and make-up artists, Farscape has shown us some of the most dazzling and believable extraterrestrials ever filmed. And they're not just trotted out as villains or plot devices or scenery. Whether played by human actors or consisting primarily of elaborate animatronics, the alien crew of Moya, and many of the creatures they encounter and the antagonists who pursue them across the Uncharted Territories, are as fully-realized characters as one could ask for. Gene Roddenberry's old maxim that make-up must be kept to a minimum lest the actor become lost has been forever disproved by the elaborate make-up employed for such regular characters as the Delvian priestess Zhaan, the troublesome Nebari fugitive Chiana, and the exiled Luxan warrior Ka D'Argo. And, more amazingly, the characters consisting primarily of robotics and puppeteers, such as the helium-farting, deposed monarch Rygel and Moya's symbiotic insectoid Pilot, come across as no less "human" than the aliens played by humans in bodypaint and latex prosthetics.
But what newcomers to the show often find most surprising of all is Farscape's willingness to deal openly, honestly, erotically, and often very humorously with sex. Sexuality and sensuality are subjects traditionally deemed taboo by the producers of television SF, who have perhaps imagined their target audiences as eternally prepubescent males too timid to consider the reality and complexity of the role of sex in human relationships (well, human and alien relationships). The racy Canadian export Lexx may be more obsessed with sex, perhaps even at the expense of almost all else, but Farscape has used sex to enrich the story and the characters, not as a way to avoid hiring good writers.
But much of the strength and excitement of the story (and Farscape, unlike so much TV science fiction, does form a single, continuing story arc) lies in its exploration of the mounting hostilities between three clashing intergalactic empires - the Sebacean "Peacekeepers," the barbarous Scarrans, and the more mysterious Nebari. Each race is a great military power vying for control of vast stretches of space, each employing terrible weaponry, campaigns of political and social oppression, and various sorts of espionage. There really are no good guys here, save various ragtag resistance movements. Caught in the middle is John Crichton and the reluctant crew of Moya, who, for the most part, like Dorothy Gale lost in Oz, only want to find the yellow-brick roads back their respective versions of Kansas. And though homesickness and personal daemons may drive the protagonists, as the story has progressed from season to season, they have also found themselves increasingly caught up in the machinations of the stellar "superpowers," alternately fugitives, pawns, enemies, and allies. Situation has taken a motley group of miscreants and made them very unlikely heroes, necessity and shared opposition wringing from each of them a nobility and selflessness they might never have found otherwise.
Yet another element that has distinguished Farscape's scripts is the creators' sense of the tradition within which they're working, indeed, the recognition that there is a tradition, and their fondness for allusion to said tradition. It helps a great deal that Crichton is an SF/horror/pop culture geek himself, and any given episode might include references to, say, Klingons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cujo, Buck Rodgers, and the Star Wars films. But the series' allusive nature isn't limited solely to the fantastic, and has touched upon everything from Greek mythology to Charles Dickens, Cervantes to Elvis Presley. These richly-layered scripts, often featuring dizzying, rapid-fire dialogue, can easily leave your head spinning if you've become too obsessed with recognizing all the references tucked within.
In short, considered as a whole greater than its constituent parts, Farscape is not only good television SF, it's simply good fiction, albeit presented via a visual medium. It knows what makes fiction valuable and true and hasn't been afraid to do those things on a weekly basis. The many diverse voices involved - the producers, directors, screenwriters, actors, SFX techs and make-up artists - all these people and more, have come together to sound a single, improbable, exquisite note that rises loud and clear above the white noise that makes up the rest of the Sci-Fi Channel's original programming. As I've said elsewhere this week, Farscape is art, and that brings us back round to the matter of ugly stepsisters and the way we authors of written fiction, jaded and burned many times over, have become a little wary and snobbish when considering the potential of television as a valid player in the field. And it also brings us, unpleasantly, back to the title of this essay, the business of cancellation, corporate and network politics, and the tireless campaign being waged by the fans of Farscape to draw attention to its plight before it's gone forever.
What looked like a hopeless situation this time last week is looking just a little less grim. Following the constant barrage of e-mail, faxes, letters, telegrams, phone calls, an e-petition that already has in excess of 30,000 names, dismayed entertainment critics, favorable coverage of the campaign by CNN Headline News, and at least two rallies - one in Atlanta and one outside the offices of the SFC at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan - negotiations have reopened between the creators of Farscape, the network, and the show's financial backers, most notably, German EM.TV. Destruction of the sets has been halted, for now. But this sliver of hope should only be taken as evidence that the hard work is not in vain and that we likely have a long fight ahead of us. If we fail, a fabulous story will likely never be finished, as shooting of the final episode of Season Four has wrapped (and is set to air in March), and the series finale will consist of a cliffhanger intended as a bridge to Season Five.
Before I began writing this essay, when I approached sfsite.com editor Rodger Turner about doing it, I wanted to stress the part that authors might yet play in the campaign. I wanted to focus, in particular, on our collective and vested interest in all good SF, regardless of its medium, and the responsibility we have, as readers and authors, to support All That Which Does Not Suck. Since I first heard the news of Farscape's cancellation last Saturday, I've set my own writing and deadlines aside, intent on doing the little I can to help save something worth saving. Regrettably, despite a notice on Locus' website and the two previous essays, only a single other author has joined me. I've spent a lot of time pondering why this has been the case, and I still don't have an answer, only the vague hope that I might yet reach others of my profession and stir them out of that understandable apathy towards TV SF. Hope that I'm composing a plea for intervention by fellow artists, that I might not have to compose a eulogy for Farscape a little farther down the road. To put it bluntly (and there is a proper time for bluntness), if you want the right to continue bitching about the sorry state of things on the tube, it's time to get off your butt and do your part.
And if you've never seen the show, rent the DVDs. There's always an outside chance that you just might agree with me and see that this essay has been something more than a fannish rant. That Farscape is, possibly against all odds, a work of art, in every sense of the word. A thing which simultaneously puts before us a mirror and a window, so that, in the same instant, we may look into ourselves and out at creation. Something that reaffirms, even as it transforms. And, as near as I can tell, that's what art does.
Caitlín R. Kiernan Photo by Kathryn Pollnac; copyright © 2002 by Kathryn Pollnac
Caitlín R. Kiernan is the multi-award-winning author of two novels, Threshold and Silk, as well as the short fiction collections Candles for Elizabeth, Tales of Pain and Wonder, and From Weird and Distant Shores. She's written comics for DC/Vertigo's The Dreaming series, as well as the mini-series The Girl Who Would Be Death and Bast: Eternity Game. Her Nebari alter-ego, Tailah, was recently sighted by MIBs assigned to the Atlanta metropolitan area. Visit her web site at www.caitlin-r-kiernan.com.
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