Wednesday, April 6, 2011

F is for Farscape

"Well, it's a Jerry Springer sort of family. But for what it's worth, Zhaan, you are family."
John Crichton

Of all the sci-fi series that start with "F", Farscape is superior by light-years. Okay, okay, I'm just saying that to piss off the Browncoats. Actually, Farscape is superior by light-years to all sci-fi series, not just Firefly and Fringe and... uh... Futurama, I guess. All of 'em.

The reasons could fill an entire blog, not just one post, so I'll be brief here. This was a series with brilliant writing, brilliant acting, and all-around stunning visuals. There was drama, romance, action, and plenty of humor (ranging from dark gallows-humor to outright screwball insanity). It was a show with strong continuity: everything had consequences, plans didn't always work out, and things didn't just go back to the status quo at the end of every episode. Farscape took pride in using tired sci-fi clichés, but always putting creative (or downright sick) twists on them.

The show was also pretty visceral. Lots of vomit and other bodily fluids, usually played for laughs. Enough alien swear-words and insults in every episode to make a Viper pilot blush. (Just off the top of my head: frell, dren, yotz, hezmana, tralk, eema, loomas, mivonks, fharbot, fekkik, frellnik, pewnkah, fapootah, probakto, thoddo, greebol, yobbo, welnitz, kreetata... I'm sorry, but your frak, felgercarb, and smeg just don't have anything on Farscape.) But it was all done so straight-faced that the end result never came off as immature. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But the characters... the characters were what really made this show great. And for some reason, the cast of this show looked very much like a party of adventurers in an RPG. Truthfully, your average gamer could learn much about how to create and develop a character by watching this show. It certainly wouldn't hurt any.

Let's break it down:

You've got the hero, John Crichton, the lost astronaut from Earth who just wants to get home. At the start of the show he's barely competent (compared to the aliens), relatively innocent, and full of hope and wonder. As the show progresses, he gets tougher and more jaded but never really loses who he is. The best part: Crichton is thoroughly genre-savvy. Having been raised on a steady diet of 20th century Earth pop culture, he's always got a quip, joke, or sci-fi reference on his lips, and he utters these idioms ("Crichtonisms") frequently, much to the bafflement of his alien comrades. Though a scientist and pilot by profession, in RPG terms he'd just be the "Frodo": the ordinary everyman without a class, who becomes something of a fighter as the story progresses, thanks to necessity and circumstances.

Then you've got Aeryn Sun, the sebacean solider who gets exiled from the Peacekeepers (the space-Nazi rent-a-cops who like to bully and dominate all the "lesser races" in the galaxy, and who bottle up their emotions and don't form personal ties beyond the battle-unit). So of course Aeryn and Crichton are going to fall in love: in fact, that romance is the core of the whole show. For Aeryn's part, she has to deal with the fact that she was exiled from the Peacekeeper Corps for doing what she thought was right; that her own people are the ones hunting her and her friends aboard Moya; and all the while, she has to come to grips with her emotions and learn what it is to be "human" (even though she's sebacean). At the start of the show, she can say things like "Compassion? I know this feeling. I hate it," without irony. By the end, she's probably one of the most compassionate characters in the cast.

Ka D'Argo is a case-study in character design. As an RPG character, he'd be a DM's dream. Why? Well, he's got personality, backstory, ambitious subplots, and a great character arc. D'Argo is a luxan warrior who married a sebacean woman, Lo'laan (the Peacekeepers hate aliens, remember, so you know this can't have ended well), and they had a half-sebacean/half-luxan son, Jothee. But Lo'laan's own brother, Macton Tal, a Peacekeeper officer, murdered her and framed D'Argo for the crime. At the start of the show, D'Argo has finally escaped from Peacekeeper custody with the other fugitives, and he wants two things: to find his son and take revenge on Macton. He's so full of rage and suspicion, though, that he can barely get along with his own allies. Over the course of the series, so much happens to D'Argo. He finds his son, he finds his enemy, he finds new love, and yet it never works out quite like he hopes. Through it all, he becomes steadily more trusting and likable, and he even learns to conquer his rage. If only more role-players watched Farscape, they could take their best example from D'Argo.

Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan ("Pa'u" is a clerical title) is a delvian priestess. Zhaan is another character with a great back-story and character arc. (As a priest, she even fits the mold of an RPG cleric to a tee: she has a variety of mystical powers; she doesn't usually carry a weapon, but often fights unarmed with a style that reminds one of Taiji; and best of all, her priesthood has levels: she'll refer to herself as a "tenth-level Pa'u!") It seems that delvians, who have a lot of physiological oddities (not the least of which: they're humanoid flora), also have some strong mystical or psychic abilities. But if they explore these talents too quickly, they go insane. Zhaan, meanwhile, was a rebel trying to free Delvia from Peacekeeper control, and in her quest for power she drove herself to the brink of raging psychopathy. She spent years in PK custody, meditating and "finding religion" and finally bringing herself back to sanity. When the show starts, she's the kindest and gentlest and most level-headed of the cast... but events have a way of making her control fray at the edges. The truly disturbing thing about Zhaan: on the outside, she's all goodness, and she's always striving to do right; but just beneath the surface is a seething ocean of evil that she keeps in check through sheer force of will. Her character arc is the story of how the good finally triumphs in spite of the evil.

Rygel XVI, Dominar of the Hynerian Empire. He was deposed from his throne by his own cousin, and sent into PK custody as a political prisoner. He spent 130 years trying to escape before finally engineering the prison-break that kicks off the show. As a character, Rygel is the consummate rogue: sneaky, slippery, stealthy, cunning, greedy, and utterly selfish. At the slightest indication that he might gain some advantage, some profit, or simple survival in exchange for abandoning or betraying his crewmates, he'll do it without qualm or regret. Even as his character develops and he actually starts to demonstrate that he has a heart and kind of likes his friends, escaping with his own life (and all the wealth and food he can carry) seems to be his instinctive response to danger. As the show goes on, of course, Rygel does eventually acquire some bravery and some loyalty, and this allows his best qualities (charisma, strategic cunning, and political savvy) to actually benefit his allies. In an RPG, Rygel would be that character who everybody hates, the self-serving thief who steals from the rest of the party and even tries to backstab them on occasion---but since these schemes never really work out (sometimes foiled immediately, sometimes played for laughs, and once in a while they just plain backfire), a roguish character like this could be fun to have around in a game with mature role-players and a firm-handed DM.

And that's just the main, starting cast. I could go on and on about Pilot and Crais, Chiana and Jool, Scorpius and Braca, Stark and Grayza, Noranti and Sikozu. Hell, even the minor one-off characters were more often memorable than not (here's looking at you guys, Furlow and Grunchlk and Raxil). The characters made this show brilliant. It would be a real coup to get an RPG campaign to come close.


  1. A brilliant summary of a show so near and dear to my heart. While I already realized that Farscape characters were great examples for the kind of character complexities that a good role-player needs, I never realized until reading this just how much they fit into the traditional RPG archetypes!

  2. I like this post a lot! Farscape is one of my favourite science fiction series!

    And, you'll find my frelling contribute here, with a Fading Suns twist: