Critical essay

Space Opera: Melodrama, Feminism and the Women of Farscape

by Carlen Lavigne
To be published in an upcoming general issue of Femspec


Lynne Joyrich has outlined in some detail her theories regarding how television melodrama, gender, and affect in soap operas coax a “feminine” viewpoint. At the same time, Tania Modleski has criticized soap operas for directing female anger at female power. While soap operas have never been lauded as ideal purveyors of a feminist ideology, elements of the soap opera have been freely used elsewhere in genre television. Soap operas themselves remain, for the most part, unchanging, while melodrama — which supposedly appeals more to a feminine viewpoint — has been spreading, and as such, has the potential to be utilized as a strong tool for feminism when combined with, and used to subvert, other conventions. The science fiction series Farscape (199table-of-contents002) figures aesthetically as a science fiction/soap opera hybrid, which works toward increasingly empowered female representions.

Television has long suffered from the unfortunate stigma of being considered “culturally unredeemable” (Ross 106), and soap operas even more so, but Farscape uses melodrama as a tool that is only part of the greater whole. There were several reasons why this particular series was selected for study, not the least of these being Joyrich’s assertion that “soap opera has even combined with elements of science fiction (seemingly the last domain of wide open spaces)” (132). What of science fiction, then, that has combined with elements of soap opera? As David Thorburn notes, “even the simplest account of the evolution or historical development of the medium must be capable of recognizing, for example, how the genre formulas that have dominated television have altered over time” (3). Twenty years ago the genres were not so closely intertwined; Elyce Rae Helford, writing of the post-Star Wars years, notes, “film began a new trend of female representation within the science fiction genre, marked by tough, buns-of-steel heroines, such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor of the Aliens and Terminator series, respectively. However, the small screen centered on the prime-time soap opera and male-dominated action-adventure series” (4). It wasn’t until the 1990s that women on the small screen (Buffy, Xena, Lois Lane, and Dana Scully, among others) began taking more aggressive roles. Helford continues optimistically, “By the sheer number of science fiction and fantasy series featuring women in primary roles in the ‘90s, we can conclude that the tokenism of the past has given way to a recognition of a significant and appreciative audience for speculative programming that includes images of strong, independent women” (5). She has reason for optimism; prime time programs featuring strong female leads are becoming more common, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Farscape, particularly, boasts an audience that is over 40% female, highly unusual for a science fiction program (Save Farscape). Described as a “space opera,” the series has also been lauded by critics and fans for its strong female characters.

While it centers around the adventures of astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) and his journeys through uncharted space, Farscape also stars Claudia Black as Aeryn Sun, an alien soldier (who conveniently resembles human to the point where Crichton is frequently mistaken for a member of her species) who acts as Crichton’s partner, protector and love interest. With her tough-as-nails attitude and vast array of weaponry, Aeryn would be more than a match for her big screen scifi counterparts Ripley and Connor. Through a combination of narrative and televisual affect (what Lawrence Grossberg defines as “what gives ‘colour,’ ’tone,’ or ‘texture’ to the lived” [81]), Aeryn, together with her shipmates Chiana and Zhaan, is unapologetically aggressive and capable.

The premise of the show is as follows: John Crichton, an astronaut from contemporary Earth, is accidentally shot countless light-years through space while testing an experimental new technology. Alone on the other side of the universe, he is taken aboard Moya, a living ship populated by escaped prisoners: Zhaan, a healer, D’Argo, a tentacled warrior, and Rygel, the deposed ruler of an aquatic planet. The prisoners are being pursued by their former captors, a soldier race of “Peacekeepers” who startlingly resemble humans. Aeryn Sun is a Peacekeeper officer who is captured by the prisoners and subsequently exiled from her people for being “irreversibly contaminated.” The characters are later joined by Chiana, a thief who is also on the run. Led by a series of villains (Bialar Crais in season one, Scorpius in seasons two and three, and Grayza in season four), the Peacekeeper forces pursue Moya from one planet to another. Crichton must elude capture, get the girl, and find his way home.

But where does the science fiction end and the melodrama begin? And does the “space opera” part of the adventure support or undermine these supposedly tough characters? Joyrich says, “As film theorists have noted, there is a split in the American cinema between those forms considered ‘feminine’ in which a passive heroine or impotent hero suffers (the melodrama) and those deemed ‘masculine’ (by both critics and audiences) which feature an active hero immune to suffering (typified by the western)” (142). The protagonists of Farscape are both capable and vulnerable; they are aggressive and passive in turn, they experience occasional contentment within lives filled with angst. They suffer, but they are not inactive, and they constantly strive to alleviate their own difficulties. While Farscape has its fair share of pulse weapons and space battles, it also features characters that evolve and change with their emotional circumstances. In short, elements of the feminine and the masculine are both present, which may help to explain why the series’ viewership is so close to being evenly balanced in terms of gender.

Several basic conventions of melodrama have been outlined by Joyrich and Modleski, and they are easily identifiable in Farscape. Modleski, for example, theorizes that:

… soap opera stimulates women’s desire for connectedness … through the constant, claustrophobic use of close-up shots. Often only the audience is privileged to witness the characters’ expressions, which are complex and intricately coded, signifying triumph, bitterness, despair, confusion — the entire emotional register, in fact. Soap operas contrast sharply with other popular forms aimed at masculine visual pleasure, which is often centered on the fragmentation and fetishization of the female body. (99)Farscape frequently uses close-up shots, particularly in scenes of private conversation, where the camera angle often flips between individual face shots. Close two-shots are also common, concentrating on the facial expressions of both actors at once, most notably in romantic scenes between Crichton and Aeryn. However, the series is not entirely free of the female body’s fragmentation; although it is rare for the camera to focus on specific parts of a female actor’s anatomy, and the actors are generally fully clothed (without the revealing alien gauze of, say, Captain Kirk’s love interests on classic Star Trek), there have also been scenes where the female actors have been filmed from behind, wearing nothing but body paint — and Keith Thomas notes, “There is no attribute of the human body, whether size, shape, height or colour, which does not convey some social meaning to the observer” (1). Virginia Hey, who plays the character of Zhaan, shaved her head and eyebrows for the role and was covered in blue makeup. Zhaan (who was killed off in season three when Hey left the show) generally wore loose and unrevealing clothing, but was also shown from behind standing fully nude in episode four of the first season (“Throne For A Loss”). This was not the only time Zhaan appeared nude, and there have also been back-and-shoulders shots of Chiana (Gigi Edgley) and Aeryn, as well as teasing scenes where the viewer is almost, but not quite, permitted a view of Aeryn’s breasts (“Out of Their Minds,” “Suns and Lovers”). To be fair, from a feminist viewpoint, there have also been shots of some male actors, though not to the same extent — one might cite Crais wearing high heels in “Won’t Be Fooled Again,” and Crichton’s garter stockings in “Revenging Angel”. Both of these shots are notable for having, not only male legs highlighted, but male legs identified with female through the use of female clothing accessories. Crichton has also gone shirtless (“Jeremiah Crichton”).

The close-ups — whether of faces or body parts — are common but not constant; the series also uses a series of tilting and moving camera angles, particularly in fight sequences or when characters are running. Nikos Metallinos calls these “examples of tension-arousing composition, which, when done properly, produce vibrant, forceful and dynamic composition of moving images” (218). Through its combination of close-up shots, camera movement and bodily objectification, Farscape combines elements of both melodrama and action — feminine and masculine viewpoints together. It is a theme that remains common through further analysis of the show.

Certain melodramatic conventions, however, remain unadulterated. Joyrich speaks of the use of music, which “orchestrates the emotional ups and downs and underscores a particular rhythm of experience. This rhythm, in film melodrama and the TV soap opera, is one of exaggerated fluctuations, marking the discontinuities of emotional experience as the plots slowly build, amidst much delay, to dramatic moments of outbreak and collision before sudden reversals of fortune begin the movement again” (131). The music in Farscape is synthesized, and generally seems to attempt an “alien” quality. It is present particularly for suspense, sometimes for romance, and usually accompanied by other sound effects. Crichton and Aeryn kiss for the first time to the accompaniment of a musical score (“The Flax”), but the second time only to the sounds of a thunderstorm (“A Human Reaction”). In some episodes the music seems nearly without pause, while in others it is more sparely used, but it is present to the point that a CD of Farscape music was released after the first season.

Joyrich also mentions “the externalization of emotion onto representative objects that act as stand-ins for human contact” (131). This use of symbolism tends to simplify and emphasize conflicts and emotions; representative objects are not as common in Farscape as elsewhere, mostly due to the science fiction setting and the general scarcity of the domestically familiar. However, three artifacts belonging to John Crichton may fill this role. Two of them are present only during the first season: a puzzle ring that Crichton’s father lent him (for luck), and a tape recorder that Crichton uses to record messages to his father — rather like an audio diary to which the viewer may voyeuristically listen as it is recorded. Both of these objects are symbolic of Crichton’s links to his past, and his all-consuming desire to return home; he fingers the ring and speaks into his recorder instead of hugging and speaking with his father. By the second season, Crichton is less of a lonely scientist and more of a seasoned warrior; his new and more violent escapades are accomplished with the accompaniment of the third representative object, his gun (pulse pistol), which he names “Winona.” Forced by circumstance to perform cold acts, Crichton displaces emotions and becomes attached to his weapon, becoming distinctly agitated when it is missing or taken (“Green-Eyed Monster”) — it seems rather ironic that a weapon of death becomes an object of such affection. One might also make the argument that Crichton and Aeryn’s ships — individual transports which are kept stored aboard the much larger Moya — are also representative of their links home, since both are shown repeatedly to take obsessive care of their equipment. Thus, while specific objects do not commonly reappear on Farscape, those that do are imbued with a greater meaning.

Setting is also an important consideration. Joyrich states: “Action then largely takes place within the context of the home or in sites at the intersection of public and private space that are central to personal concerns (the hospital room, a hotel, the private office available for intimate conversations, etc.)” (131). Action on Farscape largely takes place on Moya, which may be termed “the home” — the ship is, after all, the only home the characters know as it takes them from one planet to another. Outdoor sets are not unusual, however, nor is Moya an entirely peaceable space: the home itself is often subject to violence and gun battles, invaded by alien forces, or, in one notable case, gutted and burned (“Liars, Guns and Money”).

Moya’s recurring state of strife fits in well with Modleski’s notion of the soap opera centering around a perpetually endangered family:

They present the viewer with a picture of a family which, though it is always in the process of breaking down, stays together no matter how intolerable its situation may get. Or, perhaps more accurately, the family remains close precisely because it is perpetually in a chaotic state. The unhappiness generated by the family can only be solved in the family. Misery becomes not . . . the consequence and sign of the family’s breakdown, but the very means of its functioning and perpetuation. (90) The characters on Moya begin as separate entities, but have evolved into a cohesive family unit by the end of the first season. In episode 13, “The Flax,” Zhaan is asked if a missing Crichton and Aeryn are family and she responds, “No.” However, episode 22, the season finale, is entitled “Family Ties” and explores the new devotion the characters have found for each other as they are threatened with separation and death. The misery (perpetual pursuit by the Peacekeepers) that causes the characters to bond into a family unit is also the only thing causing them to stay in that unit. In the finale to season three, “Dog With Two Bones,” the characters believe they have finally eluded capture, and as a result, they all split to travel in different directions, accidentally leaving Crichton drifting as he first arrived — alone and lost in space.

Modleski also contends that the soap opera family centers around the mother figure — both onscreen, and in terms of the female viewer being the ultimate mother figure, privy to omniscient knowledge of the show’s interrelating plots:

. . . the subject/spectator of soap operas, it could be said, is constituted as a sort of ideal mother: a person who possesses greater wisdom than all her children . . . this is reinforced by the character of the good mother on soap operas. In contrast to the manipulating mother who tries to interfere with her children’s lives, the good mother must sit helplessly by as her children’s lives disintegrate; her advice, which she gives only when asked, is temporarily soothing, but usually ineffectual. (92) I intend to address issues of spectactorship later in this discussion; for the moment, looking for elements of melodrama in Farscape, it is sufficient to examine only the character of the mother onscreen. Unlike its purer elements of soap opera melodrama (music, home environment, threatened family), this is another of the areas where Farscape begins to both show its hybrid nature and its resulting feminist elements. It could be argued that Zhaan is a mother figure. She is a healer and a pacifist, but she does not properly fit the mold, as she is also an escaped prisoner who was jailed for inciting riots and killing her former lover. She is on occasion subject to fits of homicidal mania (“Rhapsody in Blue”). Although she usually stays behind on the ship, Zhaan does sometimes take the lead, as in one episode where she pretends to be a bloodthirsty pirate captain in order to infiltrate and rob a security depository (“Liars, Guns and Money”). Although she is a pacifist, she is neither passive nor helpless — the mother has been combined with a woman of resourcefulness and action. Still, Zhaan is without argument the most nurturing character on the ship.

When speaking of Farscape and mother figures, however, there is also the question of the ship itself. Moya is a living creature, and while her systems support and nurture the characters within her, she is also subject to their whims and commands. If any character on Farscape is truly passive, it is Moya; though she occasionally protests the characters’ choices, her opinion is, for the most part, dismissed. In fact, Moya has no voice of her own, and must speak through a male alien known as “Pilot.” What is interesting is that Pilot is completely bonded in partnership to Moya; he is stationary, linked directly into her systems, and if she dies, so does he. Pilot’s sentences frequently begin, “Moya and I…”; Pilot, like the ship, is also completely passive. In fact, early in the first season, and against his will, the characters remove one of his arms in order to barter with a DNA hunter (“DNA Mad Scientist”). As such, if Moya is the mother, Pilot is the father, and both are completely subject to the whims of their children; there is at least a balance, since it is not only the female parent who is left ineffectual and wanting.

I have outlined several ways in which Farscape fits the soap opera genre, and a few ways in which it does not. Before continuing to dissect the areas in which Farscape has both included and stepped outside the purity of soap opera melodrama, one more illustration must be made of the most obvious parallel between space opera and soap opera: the narratives. Kathryn Weibel has listed some of the more frequent soap themes:

the evil woman
the great sacrifice
the winning back of an estranged lover/spouse
marrying her for her money, respectability, etc.
the unwed mother
deceptions about the paternity of children
career vs. housewife
the alcoholic woman (and occasionally man) (qtd. in Modleski 86) Without getting into too much detail, almost all of these themes can be found in Farscape. There are two evil women, both Peacekeepers: Aeryn’s mother, Xhalax Sun, and also Commandant Grayza, the fourth season’s primary villain. There are several great sacrifices, most notably when Crichton gives himself up for D’Argo’s son (“Liars, Guns and Money”), when Aeryn Sun dies (temporarily, of course — perhaps “resurrection from the dead” should be another common theme) at the end of season two (“Die Me Dichotomy”), and when Zhaan gives up her own life to bring Aeryn back (“Season of Death”). Aeryn and Crichton are constantly attempting to win each other back, and Chiana and D’Argo also have a relationship that later splits when Chiana sleeps with D’Argo’s son. Crichton once married an alien princess out of a sense of duty and responsibility, Aeryn and Moya have both been pregnant by unknown fathers, Crichton repeatedly tries to rectify the soldier-like Aeryn he knows with any role she might play as his wife on Earth (“Dog With Two Bones”), and at one point Crichton turns to drugs to relieve him of his love for Aeryn. In between the gunfights, Farscape weaves an interpersonal web as tangled as any prime time soap opera — which is vital for what Horace Newcomb terms “intimacy” and “continuity,” which “creates the possibility for a much stronger sense of audience involvement, a sense of becoming part of the lives and actions of the characters they see” (Newcomb 620, qtd. in Modleski 87). Its complex and constantly unresolved narratives — nearly identical to the soap opera genre — are an important part of what allows the show to draw and keep its viewers.

Having illustrated, then, that Farscape contains distinctly melodramatic elements — and yet branches away from those elements in places — I will now examine the ways in which Farscape begins to most markedly differ from traditional soap operas. Most notably, of course, there are aliens, pulse rifles and intergalactic adventure, but I am speaking specifically of the female characters on the series. Soap operas, whose female characters seem to consist mostly of helpless women or villainesses, do not provide a lot of room for strong female protagonists. It might be argued that they do not provide a lot of room for any real protagonists, as their narratives are too fractured (Joyrich 143). Farscape, however, has a lesser stable of characters among whom attention is divided, and its women, being prisoners on the run, don’t have the opportunity of being passive or needy — they are members of a science fiction action team, and as such, need to pull their own weight.

That is not to say that the character of the villainess is wholly absent from the series. Commandant Grayza (Rebecca Riggs), who was dubbed “Commander Cleavage” by Crichton and the Farscape fan base, wears a uniform that reveals a large portion of her chest area, and has been genetically modified so that her sweat is an aphrodisiac that she uses to control both Crichton and the Peacekeeper officers who serve her. Her sexuality is her weapon, she appears to have no combat skills, and she uses male soldiers to do her violent work for her. Despite the fact that she fills the villainess role, however, the role itself does not serve what Modleski defines as its soap opera function:

Soap operas, then, while constituting the spectator as a “good mother,” provide in the person of the villainess an outlet for feminine anger: in particular, as we have seen, the spectator has the satisfaction of seeing men suffer the same anxieties and guilt that women usually experience and seeing them receive similar kinds of punishment for their transgressions. But that anger is neutralized at every moment in that it is the special object of the spectator’s hatred. The spectator, encouraged to sympathize with almost everyone, can vent her frustration on the one character who refuses to accept her own powerlessness, who is unashamedly self-seeking. Woman’s anger is directed at woman’s anger, and an eternal cycle is created. (98) In Modleski’s analysis, the villainess is the only woman who actively attempts to control her own fate, even if her aggressiveness is accompanied by dubious morality. As such, women are encouraged to hate the only female character who will not settle for powerlessness.

In Farscape, though the villainess exists, she is not the only female character to show strength — even in the particular area of sexuality. Aeryn Sun finds it difficult to engage in relationships, but is frank about her sexual desires — in one episode, she tells Crichton that although her responsibilities won’t let her fall in love, she would consider it acceptable to “recreate” with him (“Suns and Lovers”). Zhaan is completely unashamed of her own nakedness (“Throne For A Loss”), and also quite explicit in situations where — because she is a plant-based life form — strong solar rays bring her sexual pleasure (“Till The Blood Runs Clear,” “Crackers Don’t Matter”). It might be argued that Aeryn and Zhaan do not use their sexuality as weapons; Chiana, however, does. Called a whore by her own shipmates on several occasions (“Crackers Don’t Matter,” for one), Chiana is unapologetic regarding both her sexuality and her enjoyment of it. She tries to seduce Crichton when she is first brought on board the ship (“Durka Returns”) as well as repeatedly thereafter, and she uses her wiles against a Peacekeeper officer while infiltrating an enemy ship (“Nerve”). Chiana’s affair with D’Argo is the closest Farscape comes to graphic sexual content, if only due to her enthusiastic sound effects. In full possession of the villainess’ manipulative abilities, Chiana is one of the protagonists, and, although her exploits may be presented as shocking or amusing, they are also on occasion useful — and the viewer is meant to be rooting for her, thus breaking Modleski’s cycle.

The least passive of the female characters, however, is Aeryn. Her strengths lie in an area unaddressed by either Joyrich or Modleski, presumably because it is simply not common to soap operas: combat. Aeryn gets the biggest guns, the best hand-to-hand abilities, and she is an elite combat pilot. Her character is almost never seen without at least one weapon close to hand, and she is even on occasion capable of subduing Crichton (“Throne For A Loss”). The enemies she fights are strong, male and frequently outnumber her — Farscape has no stereotypical catfights, where the male lead takes on the main villain while the female sidekicks ineffectually battle it out on the sidelines. Aeryn is the group’s advance scout, survivalist, and, along with D’Argo, warrior and military tactician — particularly in the first season, before Crichton acquires his gun Winona. As Crichton’s partner, she is the one who must compensate for his weaknesses in the science fiction universe — his inability to grasp the basics of survival among aliens means that she is the one who mentors and trains him. Crichton is the one who portrays “feminine” caring and sensitivity as he tries to draw Aeryn out of her soldier’s shell; for example, when he tries to get her to talk about the pain she feels over her exile:

Crichton: “On my world they say that loss is the hardest emotion to deal with.”
Aeryn: “On my world, showing pain is a sign of weakness.” (“PK Tech Girl”)

Close-ups of the expressions in this scene show Crichton as concerned and caring, while Aeryn is closed and resistant to any emotional sharing. As the series progresses, the two characters begin to bleed into each other, Aeryn picking up Crichton’s emotional openness while he in turn becomes tougher and more able to deal with his surroundings in an aggressive manner. Both, as a result, become more well-rounded. By season four, Aeryn is the one chasing after Crichton as their roles reverse; fortunately, she’s still in possession of her guns.

The women of Farscape are smart, aggressive and strong. Joyrich critiques the traditional soap opera for the helplessness of its “overinvolved female spectator”: “Unlike the man, whose voyeuristic and fetishistic distance allows him to master the image and whose cinematic counterparts control its flow through time, the female spectator is cast as too close to the image to achieve such mastery, and melodrama, the genre most often addressing a female audience, exploits this closeness through its tearful fantasies of (maternal) union” (144). Modleski blames the lack of a protagonist: “If, as Mulvey claims, the identification of the spectator with a main male protagonist results in the spectator’s becoming the representative of power, the multiple identification which occurs in soap opera results in the spectator’s being divested of power” (91). This is where Farscape’s hybrid nature becomes both truly evident, and truly useful to the female viewer. Although Farscape, as a science fiction action adventure, is crafted around the adventures of a traditional male protagonist, it also possesses the fractured narratives and complicated melodrama of a soap opera. Crichton is neither the perfect “masculine” hero, immune to suffering, nor is he the embodiment of “feminine” aesthetic television — he suffers, but he is not passive, nor are his female companions. Every character is flawed and tormented; every character is strong and actively seeks his or her own salvation. In essence, nobody — and everybody — is a victim.

It seems to me that soap opera’s tendency toward female passivity and “good mother” syndrome has been broken with Farscape, by incorporating melodrama into a different genre and including strong characters. Moreover, the combination of “masculine” action and “feminine” drama appeals to viewers of both genders — and those viewers do not suffer from feelings of helplessness, judging by the recent (September 2002) reaction to Farscape’s cancellation. Modleski and Joyrich both mention soap opera viewers who write letters trying to give advice to characters; Farscape viewers write letters to networks, asking them to pick up the show. They also deluge the phone systems at the Sci Fi Network in the United States, send thousands of emails to the network and its sponsors, organize rallies and newspaper ad campaigns, and even broadcast television advertisements trying to recruit new viewers in order to bring up the ratings (Save Farscape). The movement gained enough attention to be covered on CNN Headline News. The fan effort is led by two women who are trying to get their show back; far from losing themselves in escapism and passivity, they are empowered enough to put real effort toward saving Farscape.

As Modleski notes, “Feminist artists don’t have to start from nothing; rather, they can look for clues to women’s pleasure which are already present in existing forms, even if this pleasure is currently placed at the service of the patriarchy” (104). This is not to say that Farscape is a perfect television program from a feminist perspective. It has its share of scantily-clad extras, one-shot villainesses, and damsels in distress — but they are, at least, not the main characters. The show’s emphasis is still on the importance of preserving the family unit, though at least this is not the responsibility of any one mother figure. If anything, it falls to Crichton, as leader, to make sure everyone stays together — making the responsibility paternal rather than maternal. Necessitating from this, it is also unfortunate that, since the series is ultimately about John Crichton, everyone eventually ends up deferring to him. He is occasionally rescued, or wrong, but in the end, his plan saves the day. Despite moments of true partnership between Crichton and Aeryn, and her preliminary control, by season four she has lost her hold on the relationship and is more or less at Crichton’s mercy. There are still countless moments in the show to make a feminist wince — but there are also some truly empowered moments, and female characters that, enabled by the “space opera” hybrid, are far from helpless. With such a high ratio of female viewers, and such a vitriolic fan following of both men and women, there are certainly lessons here that can be learned — something is present that appeals to male and female viewers alike, and a solid blend of action and melodrama may be evolving as the successful television aesthetic of the future.

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