Episode VI: Journey To Oz

Said in my best Rod Serling voice: Consider the contradiction that is Farscape, a program produced in Australia with an almost entirely Australian cast and crew. A program that, thanks to the inability of its Australian broadcaster to figure out what to do with it, has been shown only sporadically in its native land. Imagine a professional sports team whose fans only come to its away games and you'll have some sense of the conundrum that is Farscape fandom.

And yet there are some Australian Scapers: the few, the proud, the possibly demented. They almost had a local convention a couple of years ago, until the organizer absconded with the registration fees. And even that didn't stop the fans from getting together anyway and having a good time at the first of a series of fan barbecues. Or even getting some of the cast and crew to show up. Guess they like burnt offerings as much as the rest of us.

But proper Farscape conventions were mostly limited to my side of the Pacific. (And the Equator for that matter.) At least until word went out in mid-2004 of a convention in Sydney called OzScape. It would take place in April of 2005, it would be in Lidcombe, which has the distinction of being near the Homebush Bay site of Farscape's production, and it would bring together cast and production people, some of whom had never attended the Burbank cons. It would be a chance to meet some of those few, proud Aussie Scapers, as well as to reconnect with the more dedicated fans from the US and UK. It would be awesome.

At first I didn't think seriously about attending; Sydney's a long way from Silicon Valley. But then the guest list started firming up. And I decided to give the folks at American Airlines a call. If they could get me a free flight on Qantas using my miles, well, I was about due for a holiday. Anyway, they did. So I did. What follows is a small taste of what happens when Scapers get together on Farscape's home turf.

Friday: Setting the tone

The con sort of began on Friday. I say sort of because the only major event was a cocktail reception for that evening. Arriving at Dooley's Lidcombe Catholic Club (really!), I could find no sign of any convention activity. My fault; I arrived at 1PM, but registration wasn't supposed to open until 2. Their fault: it didn't actually get going until 3. But never mind; eventually I ran into some Scaper friends from the Burbank cons and we regaled each other with travel stories until it was time to check in. Which took but a moment; there were only 110 of us in attendence. And the organizers seemed to know each of us personally. Quite a change from the hundreds and hundreds at the Burbank affairs.

As was the cocktail party. Open bar; yeah! (I like Aussie beer.) And waitstaff coming by with hors d'oeuvres. And then some of the con guests arrived to mingle with us common folk. It was a lovely low key sort of evening.

No pictures, I'm afraid. I was way too busy chatting and laughing and drinking. But I promise to do better tomorrow.

Saturday: Getting into gear

The first event of the first full day was a workshop with Dave and Lou Elsey of the Creature Shop, now part of something called Image Creative Partnership. These are the folks responsible for making Farscape's aliens look, well, alien; no bumpy foreheads for this show! Dave talked about the Hammer horror films that began his passion for prosthetics and the work that went into some of Farscape's more memorable creations. He and Lou showed off some samples of their work, including a Scarran and an amazing Scorpius, the latter applied to a mold from Wayne Pygram's very own personal head! They tried out some Luxan appliances on a willing Scaper. Even better, they passed around some bits so we could all see how we'd look as D'Argo's kin. It suits me, don't you think?

Next up was conceptual artist Marco Nero from Animal Logic, the folks behind visual effects for Farscape from season 2 through Peacekeeper Wars. Marco talked about the challenges of designing all that 3D hardware, flashing a napkin with a black silhouette that was the starting point for one of the Scarran battlecraft. He played video of the stages of animating a swimming Rygel, as he collected little bits of Aeryn and Crichton from the seafloor. Marco also described the process of inventing spacial phenomena like the wormhole weapon, an effect that had to be scaled back in the end if they were to meet PKW's insane production deadlines. Later in the autograph room, he used his PowerBook to show examples of Animal Logic's effects work on the show. (A Mac fan; why am I not surprised?) This is a guy who loves his work. And proof, if we ever needed it, that artists these days work in three dimensions. (Four if you count time.)

Marco was followed by the radiant Virginia Hey, celebrating her visit to her native Sydney by talking about her new business selling scented candles, soaps and meditation aids, and by sharing stories about adapting to life in Los Angeles. Apparently, Americans don't know how to take Australian teasing, which sounds to the uninitiated a lot like abuse. Like calling people a dag, which she claims is a term of endearment Down Under but, once she explained it to us furriners, is actually pretty disgusting. (Trust me; you don't want to know.) Virginia also talked about the panic of the first Burbank con in 2000, where she was told just before walking out onstage that they'd expected her to give a speech. (I was there; if she was panicked, it didn't show.) The rest of her time on stage here was more seeming randomness, randomness which somehow she always managed to wind back to her original point. Even answering questions would send Virginia off on a tangent or two, as when she revealed a joke message in an obscure language hidden in one of Zhaan's chants. Apparently, Farscape's writers left some things an an exercise for the user actor.

Raelee Hill is petite, pretty, soft-spoken, sweet, a little bit shy. She's a grown up version of the little red haired girl Charlie Brown mooned over in the comic strip. Which makes her performance as the hypercompetent and contemptuous Sikozu all the more entertaining. Asked about her character's dramatic change in appearance for the miniseries, Raelee described the new punk look Sikozu as making her more obviously Scorpy's bitch. In fact, she'd have liked to explore that relationship further. Scorpy wouldn't just put his mark on Sikozu; he'd have branded her. With a proper brand. And she would have liked it.

(If the preceding was a little too weird for you, well, weird is some of what Farscape does best. Enterprise is safe. Safe is boring. Farscape is hardly ever boring.)

Unlike Raelee, these two are most definitely not shy. Anthony Simcoe and Nathaniel Dean are old friends. Anth played Luxan warrior Ka D'Argo; Nat took over the role of D'Argo's son Jothee for the mini. (Why the original actor didn't reprise the role was never explained. Well, it was; I just don't think we were supposed to believe the explanation.) Nat's description of getting the part and telling his mate Anth about it and asking if he's heard of somebody called Jothee, followed by Anth's, "Yeah, he's my son", was just the start of a raucous stream of consciousness from these two. Remember how wild and goofy you were in college? (Well, I certainly was.) These two seemed determined to extend that stage of life as long as possible. But in a good way.

Good news for those of us following the saga: Wayne Pygram did finally get to keep a pair of Scorpy's boots. He's not supposed to have them, so nobody tell Henson.

Wayne has a proprietary interest in the character of Scorpius. He described his regret that Scorpy was allowed to soften even a little through the run of the series, that his relationship with Sikozu seemed to mean something more to him than a means to an end. Wayne wanted Scorpy to care only about his agenda, to never let weakness (and he would have seen affection as pure weakness) get in the way of his determination to succeed. He also was disappointed that time constraints required the use of latex prosthetics in Scorpy's makeup in the mini. The hot flesh developed for the series was much more realistic; it allowed his facial responses to be visible through the makeup, permitting a much more subtle and layered performance.

More than any other actor on the show, Wayne inhabited his character in every way he could. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Unlike the previous two cons where I'd met him, the OzScape folks knew better than to ask anyone to share a stage with Jonathan Hardy. This time, Jonathan told a long, rambling tale of traveling the world, making appearances, trying unsuccessfully not to be identified as Rygel (not possible with those eyebrows), finally visiting the WWII grave of the father he never got to meet. It was funny, odd and incredibly moving by turns. Much like the man himself, an accomplished writer, director and performer who gave more than voice to his animatronic counterpart: he gave him a soul.

Last on the day was Matt McCoy, the lead puppeteer on the team that gave Rygel XVI everything but his voice. Sadly, unlike Dave and Lou, Matt didn't have any visual aids. But he was full of stories of the challenges of working with the little Dominar, among them the perils of working in an environment full of pyrotechnics. At left, Matt demonstrates good puppeteer posture; he spent way too much time at or below floor level with his hand acting as Rygel's spine. At right he displays a poster from his current gig, moving from the most sophisticated animatronics to a supermarket chain's sock spokespuppet. All in a day's work for this highly animated character. Chatting over way too many glasses of Toohey's New at the club that evening, I told Matt the world lost a great standup talent. If you ever meet him, ask him to move Like The Ninja. Trust me; it'll be worth it.

Sunday: What do you mean, it's almost over?

One of the pleasures of any con is the chance for a personal encounter with some of the guests. In addition to the scheduled talks, OzScape had an autograph room where we could buy autographs on photographs or other items (just no body parts, m'kay?), take pictures and maybe even have a chat. It was a pretty casual place, much more so than at a big event like Creation's Burbank cons. Which turned out to be a bit of a problem; some people enjoyed themselves so much on Saturday that they missed a bunch of the talks. That prompted the organizers to redo the schedule for Sunday and give us a big chunk of free time with the cast. You have to hand it to the OzScape guys: they may not get it right at first, but they're determined to do so at last.

I don't know where it started, but there's a long standing tradition of making convention books for the cast and crew. Some dedicated Scaper takes responsibility for each guest's book and then begs and pleads with the rest of us to contribute letters, notes, poems, photographs, drawings; pretty much anything that will turn the blank pages into an embarrassing show of affection for the folks who fed our Scape addiction. In one case, the con book tradition collided with another more recent one: Scaper holiday card exchanges. The most recent of those was a Valentine's Day exchange, a huge international (well, the US and Canada) success that was named in honor of that hopeless romantic, Commandant Grayza. I was deputized to carry Rebecca Riggs' con book to Australia, which meant that I got to deliver it to her and watch her stunned and slightly teary reaction to this outpouring of love from Scapers all over the world. Including a whole bunch of notes from Bulgaria, translated to Strine by my Bulgarian Scaper friend Mippippippi. Which makes me wonder: is Farscape more or less weird after it's been translated to Bulgarian?

Spend a little time in the autograph room and it becomes obvious how much the cast likes spending time together. Rebecca didn't have long to skim through her con book before David Franklin was demanding to see what she'd got. At right, my Scaper friend Gillian from the UK wanted a picture with a couple of the cast; I don't think she expected quite so many people to pile in. (That's Rebecca and Linda Cropper in front, David Franklin and Lani Tupu bringing up the rear.) And that's the way they all were: friendly, unpretentious, maybe a bit bemused by all the attention but not taking it terribly seriously. With some of them, I was left feeling they were as interested to meet me as I was to meet them. Then again, they are actors...

There was also a chance to drool over some real Farscape artifacts, courtesy of a fan who knew some people in low places and managed to collect some bits that just fell off the truck. At left is a real DRD with lights and electronics, along with a pulse pistol and a Luxan qualta blade. (No, the pistol didn't shoot little yellow bolts of light. Nor did the qualta blade convert between sword and rifle. They never built a convertable; just two separate props.) We all took turns waving the weapons around and looking fairly ridiculous. Or was that just me?

At right is an American Scaper with a rather rare and unfortunate deformity. Okay, it's not. Mreen's wearing one of Pilot's claws. I guess you could collect all sorts of goodies if you were in the right place at the right time. Thanks to a Scaper who did manage that trick, I'm now the proud owner of a small hunk of Moya skin. Which joins that little bit of Amon Hen I collected in Queenstown, New Zealand two years back.

Back in the auditorium, it was time for Paul Goddard and Duncan Young to face the crowd. Paul and Duncan are both low key, gentle people, which is pretty funny for the manic Stark and the testosterone-powered Scarran Emperor Staleek. Paul talked about Stark's abuse at the hands of the rest of the crew, and about how much he enjoyed episodes like Meltdown and John Quixote, where he got to play someone more in control of himself. He also discussed acting with Rygel, which I think are some of Stark's most effective scenes. Somehow Stark makes Rygel feel even more real, more inhabited than usual. For his part, Duncan talked about the joys of prosthetics (in addition to Staleek, he played the diagnosian in the mini and one of the baddies in I Shrink Therefore I Am), the need to re-record all of his dialogue (those prosthetic teeth; who would be frightened by a Scarran with a lisp?) and having to get help when nature called while he was in costume. He called it "truly a bonding experience." Of that I have no doubt.

Linda Cropper and Lani Tupu played two Peacekeeper officers with serious family issues. At least Lani's Captain Crais had an arc to his story; Xhalax Sun started mean and stayed that way. Still, Linda enjoyed at least part of the experience; she described with some amusement Xhalax's hotel room departure in The Choice, blue screen, flying rig, kicking legs and all. Nothing to Crais's exit from his former command carrier; Lani described saying Starburst at the end of Into The Lion's Den as perhaps his most satisfying moment on the show.

Rumour hath it that Brian Henson has promised to get us more Farscape. Now we just need to find a way to revive Xhalax and Bialar. Why not? They deatomized John and Aeryn!

Gigi Edgley certainly knows how to take the glamour out of show business. She spent half her time on stage telling a long comedy of errors story about trying to get some laundry done in a Fawlty Towers sort of hotel, the kind of tale that certainly wasn't amusing at the time. Gigi also described the fun of Chiana's new cat's eyes, which kept rotating away from vertical. And of which there was only one at the start of filming, which meant putting her hair over her other eye and standing so the camera wouldn't catch her unenhanced eye. Like several of the others, Gigi felt that her character's best stuff either didn't make it into the script or got cut to fit into a three hour mini. (No argument here; it's hard not to wonder what a full season five would have brought us.) Gigi also went back to the beginning, remembering her early days on the show. And being accosted by this big blonde guy who asked if she was going to the wrap party. It was only when he dropped his voice into the D'Argo register that she recognized Anthony Simcoe; she'd never seen him out of costume!

Last on the bill: David Franklin and Rebecca Riggs. Who began their session by announcing the existence of a lost scene from the mini. Desperately trying to keep straight faces, David and Rebecca revealed the truth of Braca and Grayza's relationship, as well as their plans for the future. (I won't say more, except to mention their claim that Ewoks taste like chicken.) David had both Rebecca and the audience in stitches as he recounted this immortal exchange on set one day:

How these two ever filmed a scene together is a mystery. But it went on from there, as Rebecca told of auditioning for a part on an Aussie series. She needed something motherly; all she had was footage of Grayza. Somehow she got the part.

And that was the end of the con for me. There was a small costume competition, followed by a closing ceremony that was hosted by Rebecca and Virginia. But I had to miss those. My friend Tom and I had to catch a train back to our hotel, drop off stuff and then head into Sydney. It seems that Anth and Wayne's band Signal Room had a performance that evening at a hotel (English translation = pub) near the central railway station. We had just enough time to find a good Thai restaurant for some dinner before settling in for the concert with a few dozen Scaper friends. Apologies for the quality of the pictures; the camera I brought along wasn't up to the task of pub lighting. (Fortunately, others were better prepared.) But there was music, there was alcohol, there were good friends. And all too soon OzScape was over. Early the next morning I was off to Tasmania for the part of the holiday that didn't involve Farscape.

Take me home:
Back to Burbank 2004:
On to Burbank 2005:

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Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California