What a fascinating book! I’ve long been a fan of the Henson-produced science fiction series Farscape, particularly the effort the program always put in to making the alien species that populated the Farscape universe seem, well, alien. In The Creatures of Farscape: Inside Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, author Joe Nazarro takes readers behind the scenes to show with informative, straightforward prose — along with the aid of lavish photographs, sketches and concept art — just what kind of effort was needed to pull off one of the ambitious creative works ever presented on television.
There is a reason why most televised science fiction programs — the various Star Treks come readily to mind — rely on prosthetic foreheads and noses to convey alien races, and that reason is money. It is far less expensive and time-consuming to glue a latex brow ridge in place than to develop more elaborate costumes and makeup, but from the start that was discounted as an option for Farscape. The series itself was conceived by Brian Henson and Alex Rockwell as a platform for showcasing the full capabilities of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, which, unsurprisingly enough, was somewhat pigeonholed as a muppet factory. But with efforts such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Dinosaurs under its belt, there was within the company a need to show that its animatronics, makeup and special effects capabilities were as cutting-edge as any to be found in the world. The initial concept — originally called Space Chase — was turned over to Rockne S. O’Bannon, a veteran of such series as Alien Nation and SeaQuest DSV, who developed the sketchy premise into what viewers now recognize as Farscape.
The design of the show, and the characters involved, came about through equal parts serendipity and extensive planning. Pilot, the sessile symbiot forever linked with the living space ship Moya, was developed to be one of the largest, most articulate and expressive animatronic characters ever developed. As a counterpoint — again, to show off the Creature Factory’s broad range of capabilities — the deposed leader Rygel was designed to be one of the smallest fully articulated and expressive animatronic characters ever created, a muppet light-years beyond Kermit the Frog. The Luxan warrior D’Argo was designed as an organic interpretation of a Viking fighter. The complex patterns on the skin of the blue Delvian priestess Zhann (originally a male character named Zenn) were stumbled upon when a makeup artist seized upon some mesh fabric and sprayed body paint through it. That the overwhelming weight of the ambitious nature of Farscape threatened to collapse the entire production, or at least drive the crew to the brink of madness and beyond, is clearly evident from the start. That crazy, absurd and the occasional breathtakingly simple solution to solving seemingly insurmountable problems were invariably struck upon at the eve of deadlines is testament to the fact that despite the high levels of stress, this pressure-cooker environment did bring out the best in the crew.
After the opening chapter outlines the overall design of the show, the following chapters explore the various aliens that appeared, season-by-season. Not every creation merits an entry, however. The Chtuloid alien emperor that shared a cell adjacent to Rygel in “Throne for a Loss” is represented only by a single photo to open a chapter, which is something of a disappointment. For the most part, though, the most interesting aliens throughout the years are given excellent attention, with excellent photography and writeups giving their evolution from concept to finished product, along with particular technical hurdles overcome. The toothy proprietor from the premiere episode is an excellent case in point. I’d known from the commentary track on the DVD that this was the first episode-specific alien created for the series, and that the design got out of hand, with the finished product being far larger than anyone had planned on. In the episode all that is readily visible is the chitinous head and tooth-filled jaws. Workshop photos in the book show the thing without the distractions of the set, and it is amazing just how enormous and detailed the bloated body is. The fact that perhaps 90 percent of the final detail and coloration is lost in the episode — it simply never comes into play — shows how serious and thorough the Creature Shop is when it comes to a project. The innovations the designers came up with to ensure strangeness never seemed to falter. For the eyeless alien Traltixx from the second-season episode “Crackers Don’t Matter,” an actual periscope was built into the prosthetic head so the actor would be able to see on stage without ruining the eyeless illusion. With the first Scarren ever shown, in the episode “Look at the Princess,” it took a relatively simple 15 minutes to get the actor into the body suit and reptilian headgear, but putting the leather-and-buckles outfit on over the costume took a whopping two hours, leading to a change in the way aliens were dressed on the show. And there’s a good deal of frivolity as well. Somewhere there exists footage of Kabaah, a hammerhead, insect/reptilian amalgam of a muppet singing “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an otherwise pointless exercise done solely to show off the detailed lip-synching abilities of the creation.
Unfortunately, the book does not go so far as to include the creature and design work from Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, although the miniseries is referenced several times. Perhaps this is an artifact of the long lead times needed for production and editing, perhaps it is simply a rights issue. In any event, it is disappointing that the volume is almost, but not quite, complete. I, for one, would like to know why the Rygel muppet is suddenly an unambiguously green in the miniseries, whereas he is an earthy shade of gray throughout seasons one through four. Of course, that kind of criticism comes down to splitting hairs, as is my complaint that the book simply isn’t longer, so as to include more aliens and more interesting stories. In his introduction, Brian Henson describes Farscape as the most complex and ambitious science fiction series ever created for television. When it comes right down to it, Babylon 5 still holds the edge in the complexity department — that preconceived five-year “War and Peace in Space” story arc is pretty hard to top — but Farscape can probably stake a valid claim to the “ambitious” title. The aliens paraded before viewers on a weekly basis remain some of the most interesting and unique creations ever dreamed up for dramatic science fiction, be they for the small screen or the silver. That’s only fitting, as another goal Henson outlines is that every Farscape episode deliver a cinematic experience to the viewer. The Creatures of Farscape goes a long way towards proving that point, which leaves me wondering how long it will be before Farscape makes that big-screen jump itself. If it means more inventive aliens, and another gorgeously illustrated book like this, count me among the number of fans who can’t wait for that day to come.
(Reynolds & Hearn LTD, 2004)