For all of science fiction’s ability to show us strange new worlds and wildly imaginative ideas and creatures outside of our feeble human understanding, it’s in the realms of sexuality and queerness that sci-fi—especially on television—often falls short. Sci-fi TV can be oddly sexless and heteronormative. The Star Trek franchise didn’t have openly queer characters until Discovery. Even intergalactic horndog James T. Kirk only snogged alien princesses, and that was for just a couple of seconds before a tasteful cut to commercial. All too often, the Boy Scouts in pajamas exploring the stars were more concerned with tachyon radiation than anything outside the typical boy-meets-girl mode of sexual and gender expression.
And then there was Farscape, one of science fiction’s weirdest, strangest, and campiest television shows. The four-season space opera ran from 1999 to 2003 on the Sci-Fi Channel. It also happens to be one of the queerest, kinkiest, most overtly pansexual TV series to hit the airwaves in the 1990s. That meant a lot to little old bisexual me.
For those unfamiliar, or who haven’t caught up with the series now that it’s finally streaming on Amazon Prime Video, let’s review. Farscape tells the story of Earth astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder). He’s flung to the far side of the universe during an experiment. That puts him on the run aboard a living ship along with several escaped alien prisoners. Animatronic Muppets (The Jim Henson Company produced the show) bring to life many of those prisoners. It’s Buck Rogers meets Mad Max, with a dash of The Muppet Show.
The show was a miracle for a lot of reasons. It took its characters seriously, drawing out uniquely serialized storylines and compelling personal stories. All the while pumping shockingly high production values into its tale of intergalactic, interpersonal intrigue. But for a show often derided as “Muppets in space,” Farscape, in the parlance of our time, f**ks. (Or rather, frells.) And in so doing, it explored queerness and the abject in ways that would make other science fiction shows of the time blush.
From the moment our corn-fed Iowa boy Crichton crashes into the world of the Uncharted Territories, viewers know they’re not in Kansas anymore. Aliens aren’t just humans with bumpy foreheads; they’re strange, mercurial, and don’t carry the same taboos about sex and violence as we do. There’s Zhaan (Virginia Hey), an alien priestess who meditates in the nude. She killed her lover during sex and went to prison for it. Chiana (Gigi Edgley), a young thief whose sex-positivity borders on nymphomania. Even the Muppets, like deposed royal (and treacherous hedonist) Rygel XVI, get in on the rutting action sometimes.
Granted, Farscape is hardly the fabulous one hundred percent gay fantasia its reputation often implies. It was weird within the comparative standards of ‘90s – early ’00s sci-fi, so we still didn’t have any canonically outright LGBTQ+ characters, with a few exceptions. Season one’s “The Flax” revealed that a male-passing alien guest character was actually a woman (though that gag teeters on the transphobic). Body-swapping episodes allowed our main crew to play with gender, and even Crichton and alien warrior D’argo (Anthony Simcoe) tease out a love scene when the former’s mind is thrown into a fractured nightmare version of Earth for interrogation.
But even within those confines, Farscape’s attitude toward identity and desire allowed for a world where virtually every lead character could be plausibly described as bi- or pansexual.
This wasn’t the squeaky-clean world of the Federation, and our heroes weren’t space explorers on a unified mission. Circumstance thrust this group of criminals and misfits together and forced them to make a life for themselves. All of this while they ran from authoritarian orthodoxy that hated them for who they are. For queer viewers, that concept of the found family can resonate deeply; many young queer folks can’t rely on support and protection from their biological family because of who they are. That makes finding a sense of community that much more important—not just for solidarity, but for survival.
And oh, boy, the leather. The wardrobe makes the show feel as though it’s exploring S&M. That’s what it felt like watching the show—especially from the isolated comfort of my small town, deeply straight upbringing in central Illinois. By season two, everyone on the show donned tight, revealing leather outfits. These ensembles were one metal buckle shy of outright fetish gear. Series baddie Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) effectively spent the entire series in a gimp suit.
No tasteful pans over bedsheets here. Sex was messy, in your face, and very often part of the scene without feeling gratuitous. It wasn’t just there to titillate; this wasn’t Game of Thrones. The show, in many ways, was about sex and sexuality, or at least used it as a means to explore the dynamics of gender and power that often inform our interpersonal relationships. That deliberate weirdness soaks into every frame of Farscape. It makes Farscape a show that, for its time, offered a singular feeling of solidarity for anyone who felt a little weird themselves.
Though I didn’t come out as bisexual until adulthood, I can trace some of the first stirrings of my curiosity to Farscape’s merry band of outsiders. Farscape offered science fiction fans of years past the chance to open their minds and let their freak flag fly, in whatever form it took.
Featured Image: Sci-Fi Channel
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