Farscape is awesome. It ran from 1999 to 2003, and, thanks to Jim Henson (yes, that’s the guy behind the Muppets and many other puppets) even had some aliens that weren’t just Rubber Forehead Aliens. And, although the science is rather squishy, there is plot. Much plot.
Which is spoiled below. You have been warned.
Politics and Politics
There is intrigue and betrayal. Lots and lots. And lots. Including one villain who does a full-on heel-face turn, and another who moves into enemy-of-my-enemy territory. But that’s the small scale. On the grand scale, we have massive interplanetary empires duking it out for dominance, or politics between factions on a single planet.
Some of it works. Some of it… strains credulity.
On the grander scale, it eventually develops that the Peacekeepers, who are the initial antagonists, are perhaps not as bad as the more powerful and equally grumpy Scarrans. Both are chasing down a “wormhole weapon,” which can supposedly be made with the knowledge of John Crichton, the series’ hero. There’s plenty of discussion of mutually-assured destruction, “peace” with a single superpower holding such a weapon, and the issues of galaxy-destroying devices. There are also many deals back and forth — and plenty of backstabbing — as the people involved go back-and-forth for power.
On the other hand… the politics on Earth are a little wonky. When Crichton gets back to Earth after being away for several years, it’s post 9/11, and the US is being… well, xenophobic and self-centered, and refusing to share science stuffs learned from the visiting aliens with other countries. John objects, but the local Americans are very stubborn. Very, very stubborn. Unreasonably so, in fact. Especially given that in today’s world, secrets like that aren’t going to be kept for very long anyway. Heck, the workings of nuclear fusion weren’t. I wonder how much of this shortsighted nationalism on the part of the fictional US reflects on the fact that the show was produced in Australia — and if the strained presentation of the US government is indicative of how the US is viewed internationally. A bit disturbing.
This is a major contrast to Star Trek. At least in the original series — it touches more closely to the tone of DS9, where there was also a war on.
Scorpius is one of the key examples. Whose side is he on this time? When we first meet him, he’s trying to find Crichton so he can brain-drain him to get at wormhole tech. We get to see a sympathetic side to him, when we learn that he’s half-Scarran, and was badly abused by them before joining the Peacekeepers. And then he plays mind-games with Crichton. And saves his life. And threatens his friends. And the Scarrans think Scorpius is their spy in the Peacekeeper ranks. And when Scorpius gets dumped by the Peacekeepers for a particularly large debacle, he goes looking for Crichton… ostensibly to protect him and his knowledge. In sum, Scorpius is a delightfully creepy and ambiguous character. With the result that the scariest image of him is at the end of the final miniseries, where he is grinning, showing all his sharp pointy teeth, watching his enemies admit defeat.
Meanwhile, our heroes are often less than completely heroic. A few characters — notably Rigel and Chianna — have issues with greed and stealing things or lying because they can. Others have issues with rage and a desire for vengeance. In the midst of this, Crichton is often playing the role of the one clear-headed party member, although as time passes, others also take on that role. But even Crichton is not immune — he threatens. He plots. He helps destroy a Peacekeeper carrier… which also carries civilians and children unrelated to his problems except for being in a bad location. We never learn how many of them didn’t make it off before the ship blew. Perhaps most jarring is when he goes to an alternate universe to get information which he can only obtain by killing someone. He tries to convince himself that it’s okay, because they were going to die in an hour anyway, and the information will save many lives… but… well. It’s pretty dark.
The Shape of an Alien
On a cheerier note, this actually varies. A bit. The show is still constrained by the fact that most of its actors are human, but the regular use of puppets helps break the stereotype of using human actors with varying makeup. We have Rigel, who’s a small alien that likes to ride around in a puppet-convenient hover chair. There is also Pilot, an alien with four arms who is physically joined with Moya, the alive and artificially engineered living ship who ferries our crew around.
On the other hand, we are still left with a question: With all the aliens in the galaxy, surely there are some that don’t have bilateral symmetry? All the vertebrates on Earth do, due to having a shared ancestor. But, there are no intelligent aliens descended from something like starfish? Or, perhaps more interesting, something similar to the trichordates that went extinct on Earth long ago? They had tri-lateral symmetry. I’d love to see what a good puppeteer could come up with for that.
Speaking of the aliens…
Some Aliens Are Human
This is one of the few cases where some kind of ancient alien abduction makes some kind of sense. (Contrast: the Known Space setting.) In this case, a bunch of ancient humans were abducted by aliens, deliberately from a remote and backward planet. They were genetically engineered, in order to serve as Peacekeepers and, well, maintain the peace as a species . (Politics shifted over the following millennia.)
This works great. By having humans actually evolve on Earth (as all the evidence suggests) rather than be deposited from elsewhere, it’s actually reasonably consistent. For a bonus, it gives us a nearly-human spacefaring group (the Peacekeepers) to interact with. The main issue I have is with some of the modifications to the Peacekeepers. One of humans’ big advantages is the whole sweating business — we’re better at marathons and persistence hunting than most other animals in part because we’re good at dissipating waste heat. The Peacekeepers? Lack sweat glands, and have health issues if they get too hot. This seems… silly.
Science Goes Squish and Wormholes Glow Blue
A lot of elements remind me of Star Trek, actually. For the most part, the science is equally squishy. Even leaving aside the obvious issues with faster-than-light travel, the biology is extremely strange. If Rigel eats certain compounds, his pee is highly combustible. He farts helium. D’Argo has a super-long tongue with knock-out venom. Where does that tongue fit inside his head, anyway? And it gets better: Zann can do something called “sharing unity,” which is somewhat reminiscent of the Vulcan mind-meld. Both Stark and Zann have some mystical capabilities. Stark can survive being vaporized. There’s an alien who can duplicate people without apparently needing to conserve mass. And so on. On the positive side, at least they’re usually good about re-using capabilities that show up earlier in the show. Even if they are bizarre.
Meanwhile, having the wormholes glow blue may actually make some sense — it ties nicely into Cherenkov radiation, which is emitted by particles that are traveling faster than the speed of light in a given medium. (Quick recap: nothing travels faster than light does in vacuum, but light goes more slowly through matter than through vacuum.) So, maybe that’s just Cherenkov coming off of particles that are just escaping the wormhole edge. Cool.
Some of the wormhole properties bother me, though. As is done in many sci-fi franchises (including DS9), wormholes look like doors, with a front and a back, and from the side, they look like a narrow edge. I don’t think this is what they would actually look like. (Skipping over the problems of making them, of course.) Consider the two-dimensional case — you’ve got a wormhole punched through a folded-over sheet, like the diagram in the Wikipedia article. If you were a bug inside the sheet, you wouldn’t see a circular doorway. The wormhole entrance would look like a line from every direction; after circling it, you could tell that it was a circle in shape. And there wouldn’t be walls for you to notice. It would be like looking into a window (if you could have a line segment be a window) to wherever the wormhole goes, with distortions at the edges.
If you translate that idea into three-dimensions, you don’t get a hole that looks like a tunnel. Instead, you have a sphere. Let’s call the place where you are, the entrance. You can look into the entrance-sphere from any direction. That lets you look out in the corresponding direction from the exit sphere. And, of course, vice-versa. The geometry would be more complicated for the kind of wormhole-network that we see in Farscape, but I think this basic idea would still hold.
I think this would be an awesome, if somewhat tricky, effect to implement in a TV show. If somebody’s actually done this somewhere… let me know. I’d like to see it.