Saturday, May 21, 2011

Those Fantastic Women of "Farscape"

I'm still working my way through the last season of "Farscape" and should have a post with final thoughts on the series in the near future. But before that, I wanted to spotlight the female characters on the show, who have done a lot to help set "Farscape" apart from similar starship adventure shows. It seems appropriate to do this now, since one new female character, Jool (Tammy MacIntosh), is introduced in the beginning of the third season, and three more become recurring in the fourth season - Sikozu (Raelee Hill), Noranti (Melissa Jaffer), and Commandant Grayza (Rebecca Riggs). Along with series regulars Aeryn (Claudia Black), Chiana (Gigi Edgely), and Zhaan (Virginia Hey), "Farscape" has a remarkable track record for well rounded, interesting female characters who have a lot of agency and regularly get in on the action. Some spoilers ahead. Please watch your step.

You don't really appreciate how strong the women of "Farscape" are until you go back and look at the science-fiction shows of the 90s. The heroines could be dutiful career women like Captain Janeway of "Voyager," or sexy warrior babes like the ladies of "Cleopatra 2525," but they didn't have much depth and enjoyed little character development, even when they were the headliners of their shows. This was usually due to the nature of science-fiction programs, that often neglected character relationships in favor of more complex, high-minded plotting. Science-fiction series, especially space operas, had their roots in the boys' adventure stories and often featured military hierarchies that immediately required that personal relationships be pushed off to the side, into subplots and subtext. Romances were common, but always terribly chaste and easily put on hold during the big space battles. The real boundary-breaking genre heroines of that era, Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, came out of fantasy and horror respectively. And it took a while for this type female character to find her way into science-fiction.

Aeryn Sun is a great example. She is possibly my favorite "Farscape" character, because she gets to do so much. Aeryn is set up as the love interest of the hero John Crichton (Ben Browder) from early on. However, it's made clear from the outset that this is not her only function on the show. Far from it. Aeryn operates as a capable bruiser, and is always in the middle of the fights and action scenes. She gets a big personal arc, growing from a cold-hearted Peacekeeper soldier into a far more humane warrior, and several smaller ones involving her mother and the living ship, Talyn. To that end, she is frequently running around dealing with issues that have nothing to do with Crichton. Even when romance does blossom, it's not a narrative dead end for her, the way it often is with other science-fiction heroines. In fact, I think it actually helps her character. Crichton and Aeryn's relationship becomes so central to the plot by the third season, it puts a lot more importance on Aeryn's feelings and actions as a result. And when she goes missing for a few episodes at the beginning of the fourth season, she leaves an awful void.

And then you have Chiana, who is an unrepentant thief and nymphomaniac, but never loses our sympathies because she's so likable. And there's Zhaan, a dear, loving soul who seeks spiritual enlightenment but fears her murderous dark side. On another spaceship show they'd have relatively small roles, tailored to feature specific skills. However on Moya, there's no set formula to the adventures and no hierarchy in the crew, so they both handle a lot of different tasks depending on the situation. And since nobody is in charge, they get an equal say in all the big decisions and more opportunities to assert themselves. When Jool first shows up, there's no time for her to be the new girl, because Moya's in crisis again and it's do or die. She ends up the de facto ship's doctor for a while, because nobody else is better suited for the job. Jool is a whiner, but she carries her weight. There's a sense that in the "Farscape" universe, you have to be active and smart and adaptable or else you're not going to survive for very long.

Finally, there's the moral ambiguity. All the characters on Moya are outcasts, criminals, or people who are very, very lost. They're all out for their own interests in the beginning, and even when they start to trust each other, the hard edges never totally go away. Some characters like Stark (Paul Goddard) and Crais (Lani Tupu) are still vacillating between friend and foe. Right now it remains to be seen which side scheming Sikozu, the newest member of the crew, is going to end up on. That already makes her a lot more interesting to watch than Jool and the other newcomer Noranti, a daffy old medicine woman. And finally, the fourth season features a primary female villain, Commandant Grayza, who takes the alien seductress trope to a totally logical, and pretty terrifying extreme. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the current storyline plays out with this lot.

"Farscape" has a lot of weaknesses, but its characters are some of the most entertaining I've ever found in science-fiction. This goes for the male characters like Crichton, D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Rygel (Jonathan Hardy), Pilot (Lani Tupu), Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), and Stark as well as the female ones. It's just that great sci-fi heroines have been so rare, and "Farscape" has so many memorable women, they tend to stand out more. I've still got about twenty hours of the show left to watch and I already miss them.

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