'Farscape' Was Feminist Sci-Fi Before It Was Cool
Twenty years on, the space serial still holds up thanks to its cast of complex, flawed, interesting female characters and its intelligent approach to gender politics.
Image via Jim Henson Company
Warning: This piece mentions sexual assault.
As of last week, Farscape—a cult sci-fi series made in collaboration between the Jim Henson Creature shop and the Sci-Fi channel (before it was Syfy!) is officially 20 years old and newly available to stream on Amazon Prime in glorious 4K. You might have heard of it if you move in nerd circles, maybe referred to as “Muppets in Space” (but not Muppets From Space), or the thing superstar video game voice actor Claudia Black did before she was in all the Uncharted games.
It broke barriers in some meaningful ways, first as a serialized show before that was cool (especially in genre TV), and perhaps most importantly as feminist-leaning sci-fi. It was a show so campy and daring that it was allowed to be a little weirder and more progressive than its more straight-laced forebears, especially in its era of latter-day Star Treks. Farscape—which is my favorite TV show of all time, just FYI—was filled to the brim with complex, flawed, interesting female characters, and it played with gender politics in smarter and darker ways than most genre fiction has dared both before and after it aired.
I don’t want to throw Star Trek under the bus here. Voyager and Deep Space Nine (both still running when Farscape premiered in 1999) had plenty of strong women characters, and even some mildly complex ones. These were characters I grew up with as a kid and a young teen, who were role models in many ways, and I’d go to bat for several of their portrayals (what’s up, Captain Janeway and Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres. I see you).
But they are still 90s Star Trek characters. Their growth was often stilted by the episodic format that dominated TV at the time, and the famously not-really-queer ethos of that universe kept a whole lot of interesting stories and avenues of representation firmly in “very special episode” territory. Enter Farscape with costumes and character designs and a general vibe so campy they’d make a Bushwick burlesque troupe blush. With its purposeful playing on gender roles and traditional femme/masc dynamics, its ever-so-light-but-still-super-there foray into kink and leather aesthetics, its queerness, and—on the far more serious side—its raw depictions of trauma, healing, and difficult relationships, Farscape was all the way out there. Sometimes, the show fell flat on its face. But largely it succeeded, and it’s well worth experiencing 20 years on.
Through the widest lens, it’s an action-y, sometimes soap-y space serial. In the pilot, an astronaut named John Crichton (portrayed by Ben Browder) takes off in an experimental spacecraft, goes through a wormhole, and ends up in the middle of a prison break on the other side of the universe where a bunch of weird aliens are taking over their prison ship in a coup for freedom. Everyone here is a criminal or a misfit of some kind (or they’ve been co-opted into said misfit band), and no one here is expected to be perfect. They go on adventures, get hurt, fall in and out of love, and lose and make friends along the way.
I like to tell people who are first dipping their toe into the series to skip a lot of season one, because, with respect, the team didn’t quite get it together at first. I also tell them that the appeal of this show, inherently, is in its characters and the way the show cares very deeply about their interior lives. It’s primarily interested in this little petri dish of weird people and how they mix and bounce off and cling to one another, given the larger-than-life events of living in a wild space serial. The show loves to take classic sci-fi tropes (body-swapping, time-traveling, alien politicking, you name it) and twist them in unfamiliar ways, especially where it concerns gender, sex, and notions about heroism and doing the right thing. Nowhere is this more evident than in its principle woman characters, all of whom look like they could’ve been bought out of an (especially colorful) sci-fi stock catalog, and all of whom are actually fleshed out, complex, and fascinating.
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) is a badass soldier who kicks the male lead’s ass in the first episode. She looks and sounds like the sorta-sterile badass lady stereotype made famous by Sarah Connor and the short-lived Tasha Yar. But she also enjoys (or endures) the longest emotional journey of anyone on the show, grows in ways that are consistent with her temperament and her desire to be, fundamentally, a protector and a fighter, and gets to have a relationship with a man who actually respects her for who she is.
At first blush, Chiana (Gigi Edgley) is a classic femme fatale sexpot and artful dodger who slinks her way in and out of wild situations. But Farscape doesn’t deny her pleasure or punish her for it. Everyone on the crew knows how much Chiana loves to fuck. It’s only a problem, per se, when she uses that sex bomb to hurt people (which, yes, she does). She’s also kind, loyal, smart as hell, and crew MVP in dozens of sticky situations.
Zhaan (Virginia Hey) is a priest and the ship’s doctor, an anarchist who was imprisoned for a major political coup, who sometimes meditates naked when she feels like it. If there’s a stereotype here, its the Earth mother/healer, but Zhann is also capable of terrifying violence and incredible acts of both selfishness and selflessness. She’s spiritual, she’s a scientist, and yes, she, too, likes to fuck.
Later leading ladies include Jool (Tammy MacIntosh), who first appears to be a stuck-up princess/bimbo type who also has something like four PhDs. Noranti (Melissa Jaffer), who looks like an old hag and also has hilarious ideas about healing materials. But she enjoys a good lay too. And Sikozu (Raelee Hill), a hyper-capable spy who got super into leather and kink.
There’s an obvious through-line here about gender and pleasure. By the time the series has run its course, you’ll see just about every main character on this show enjoy sex in some form, and interestingly, women are mainly framed on top. It’s a subtle element, but wildly effective in communicating the series’ ideas about sex, who owns sex, and who is allowed to enjoy it without punishment. There’s very little slut-shaming to go alongside all that fucking on Farscape, which was revolutionary in a time where the most sex you’d see on a mainstream sci-fi show is a little kissing with a strategic pan to a space blanket. And that was almost always exclusive to heterosexual couples, wherein Farscape has queer scenes and masturbation, and yes, Virginia, puppet sex.
I don’t linger on the sex element to highlight the series’ horniness, rather that it had a refreshing attitude toward sex in a pretty prudish time. And there was a difficult fourth-season arc about sexual assault and trauma that intelligently, I think, played on notions about gender and power that was also unexpected at the time.
Farscape does a lot of other things right that earned it its place on my all-time favorite list. It’s very, very funny, and alternately quite dark at times, and rides those highs and lows in ways that allowed its storylines and characters to resonate so strongly. Its colorful aesthetic is wild at times, and never not fun to look at and just kind of soak in. And goddamn, this show can tell an action story.
But it’s primarily those characters that have stayed with me through two decades of my own life, who were formative for me to watch as a young woman and queer person navigating a pretty terrible time to be queer and a woman. And despite some missteps, it’s still a joy to check back on today, this goofy, funny, dark, wonderful, creative show about a bunch of weirdos on a spaceship.
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