Brian Henson, chairman of The Jim Henson Company
"For our first foray into science fiction, we were determined to do something that was truly exciting. The characters and the stories are, and continue to be, of the utmost importance - and we're delighted that they turned out to be every bit as wonderful and compelling as the astonishing special effects."
* * *
In the mid 1960s, Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and the brave crew of the USS Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before, and changed the face of television science fiction. In 1993, nearly thirty years after Gene Roddenberry had overseen the production of Star Trek's first episode at the Desilu Studios in Hollywood, Brian Henson and Rockne S. O'Bannon met to discuss what eventually would become Farscape. Ironically, this meeting also took place at Desilu Studios -- since renamed Raleigh Studios -- the former home of the Jim Henson Company.
From the very start, Farscape was going to be different from any other show. Elsewhere in Hollywood, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 had just been launched. Chris Carter was creating The X-Files, and Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain were flying high in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Henson elaborates on Farscape's genesis: "We wanted it to be more alien than any other television series -- bolder, more emotional -- and to have stronger, richer characters than on other SF shows. We knew we needed a concept that allowed the characters to be a little more dialled up."
After several months of discussion, Henson realised that he needed someone who knew how to bring humanity to science fiction. That someone was Rockne S. O'Bannon, whose work on the revival of The Twilight Zone and the 1988 movie Alien Nation had established him as a screenwriter able to produce science fiction that was more than just spaceships and lasers.
"I had a call from my agent, Bill Haber, who also used to represent the Henson Company," O'Bannon remembers. "Brian was looking for a television series that would really show all the facets of what the Henson Company could do in terms of developing animatronic characters, and also the then very young industry of computer generated imagery. He had a darker, more adult point of view than was traditional for the Henson Company. They wanted to do something on board a ship that had an animal team -- a more Star Wars-like series. They had no idea who the characters were or anything like that, but basically said that they could bring some animatronic characters into this equation on television in a way that, obviously, Star Trek could not. So I went away and came up with the basic notion of the show. We all want to be Gene Roddenberry, so the idea of doing a ship show had always intrigued me, but I had never really given it a great deal of thought.
"I came back and told them my notions. At that point, definitely in place, was the idea that it would be very dissimilar from Star Trek. Rather than have the Star Trek military hierarchy and all that, it would be a situation of anarchy. The crowning glory of the idea, which is sustained to this moment, is the concept of a man from our time dropped into the middle of this world at the other end of the universe. There's nothing else that does that. Star Trek takes place 500 years in the future, and Star Wars was 'a long time ago'. Buck Rogers falls asleep and wakes up in a future time. The idea of Farscape is taking essentially any one of us, and dropping us into Star Wars. John Crichton has seen Star Wars; he's seen all the Star Trek films. He's seen all the same television shows, movies, books and all those things that we all know, like Monty Python, and can bring that to bear on the world that he's in."
Farscape now moved into development. Or rather, Space Chase did, as the name Farscape wasn't chosen until 1998, very close to when filming began. In order to help sell the series to a network, who would broadcast the programme and provide the money for the Henson Company to make the episodes, Jamie Courtier of the Creature Shop was brought in to create a conceptual presentation. Drawings were prepared, and after discussions with Brian Henson and Rockne S. O'Bannon, maquettes (miniature sculptures) of the various characters were made, along with models of the spaceships that might populate this part of the universe.
Space Chase was conceived as an even more complex animatronic project than Farscape turned out to be. D'Argo was initially a much more lionesque being with, as O'Bannon recalls, "an animatronic head, but that would have been impossible on a TV series schedule, and we didn't want to do that with a regular character." There were plans to have a robot on board Moya, which Jamie Courtier remembers being envisaged as a comic character. Zhaan was conceived as a rotund man. Scorpius, an insect-like character with claws and mandibles, would have been a regular. Of the Creature Shop-created regulars, only Rygel and Pilot made it to the screen in their original form -- except for a change of colour scheme and control panels.
Henson and O'Bannon took their presentation to the Fox Network, which in autumn 1993 was trying to establish itself as the fourth major network in America, alongside ABC, CBS and NBC. Fox was interested enough to ask for a pilot -- a try-out episode -- to see if what looked great on paper would actually work on screen. But Space Chase was going to be an expensive show to produce. It involved live actors, aliens prepared and operated by the Creature Shop, and all kinds of special effects. Everything -- even simple things like knives and forks -- had to be invented from scratch, which all cost money.
While the Henson Company would have loved the opportunity to shoot an hour of television to prove the viability of Space Chase, it was impossible to do so without funding. At that time, Fox would only have ordered six episodes, but the Henson Company would need money for eleven episodes to cover their costs. Fox wasn't prepared to go that far, but did offer development money to produce four more scripts, which would demonstrate other aspects of the show's potential, and take the Creature Shop designs a stage further.
During this period, O'Bannon was sharing his office with a fellow writer, David Kemper, who had been the CBS network executive assigned to O'Bannon's first professional writing job, The Twilight Zone, in 1985. The two men had remained good friends ever since and, now a freelance writer himself, Kemper was delighted to help on the project. At this time, Kemper was working on the season finale of seaQuest DSV, a series that O'Bannon had created for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Television, and was also in the midst of writing an episode for the new Star Trek series, Voyager, which would debut the following spring. "We met up on Super Bowl Sunday," Kemper recalls. "I had the flu and Rockne had this office with a gas heater against the floor and 1 was shivering. We turned the heat on, and I was sitting up against the heater trying to get warm. We ended up doing five hours, coming up with a bunch of stories -- and 1 missed the Super Bowl. It's the first Super Bowl I've ever missed. I said, 'Oh, man, this had better be worth it…'"
Though the four stories that O'Bannon and Kemper created -- 'Awakening Dragons', 'Instinct for Survival', 'The Light of Truth' and 'Into the Lion's Den' -- didn't end up on screen in their original form, elements from them, such as the Aurora Chair and Scorpius, appeared in Farscape's first season, and 'The Light of Truth' was rewritten for the second season.
With these four scripts now ready (in addition to the original pilot script), O'Bannon and Henson returned to Fox in June 1994, hoping for a green light. Unfortunately, a change of executives at Fox meant that the project no longer had a champion. Undeterred, they tried elsewhere. "We pitched to Bob Iger and his top people at the ABC network," O'Bannon says, "and everybody liked what they saw. But again, everybody was just terribly afraid -- 'Can this show really be made?' -- because what we were presenting was really daunting. To be candid, science-fiction television has never really found success on regular television networks. The appeal isn't general enough."
ABC turned it down, so Henson and O'Bannon returned to Fox, and pitched to the man at the very top -- Rupert Murdoch himself. However, in the intervening period, Fox had committed to another science-fiction series, the short-lived Space: Above and Beyond, from The X-Files writers Glen Morgan and James Wong. It looked as if this was the end for Space Chase.
But Henson was determined not to let the concept die. While O'Bannon went on to other projects, Henson and Marcy Ross, former senior vice president, creative affairs, continued to pitch the series. "Our presentation package -- drawings of characters and interiors, models, a sort of representation of what this world might be -- went on a slow march around the world for about three years," Jamie Courtier recalls. "Every now and then somebody would ask, 'Do you know where the Space Chase maquettes are?' So we'd find them in Los Angeles or New York and then dispatch them."
"Every once in a while we'd go out and talk to people about it," O'Bannon recalls, "but what we were suggesting as a weekly series was always too daunting." Brian Henson takes up the story: "We started to rework the series for an off-network approach and though we didn't actually think it was something that the SCI FI Channel could afford, luckily they were very ambitious in their thinking."
Rod Perth, president of SCI FI Channel, had received two of O'Bannon's scripts, and excitedly told his wife that he had found what he was looking for. At the same time, the Henson Company was trying to find co-production finance outside America. As discussions continued with the SCI FI Channel, another key player entered...