‘Farscape’ Star Claudia Black Revisits Aeryn Sun’s On- and Offscreen Feminist Journey

Claudia Black and Ben Browder as Aeryn Sun and John Crichton in Farscape.
Claudia Black and Ben Browder as Aeryn Sun and John Crichton in Farscape. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Leading up to the 20th anniversary of the March 10, 1997 premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Yahoo TV is celebrating “Why Genre Shows Matter” and the history of how these shows have tackled universal themes (e.g. how much high school sucks) and broader social issues.

Perhaps because they seek to imagine the world that’s possible rather than the world that is, genre shows have a long tradition of striving to expand the horizons of what’s possible for women on television. Within the realm of space operas alone, there’s a direct line that connects Lieutenant Uhura’s prominent perch amongst the Enterprise‘s largely male bridge crew on the original Star Trek to The Expanse‘s fiercely independent engineer, Naomi Nagata. And each point along this continuum helps inform the next: commanding officers like Babylon 5‘s Susan Ivanova and Voyager‘s Kathryn Janeway are linked by a devotion to duty, if not necessarily temperament, while Killjoys‘ scrappy bounty hunter, Yala, could have been a student of Firefly‘s highly-skilled soldier, Zoë Washburne. On this International Women’s Day, we celebrate the accomplishments of one such influential intergalactic heroine.

Her name is Aeryn. Officer Aeryn Sun if we’re being formal, one of the interstellar outlaws at the center of Farscape, the wildly ambitious Australian/American space serial that ran from 1999 to 2003 on the Sci-Fi Channel. Bred from birth to be a loyal Sebacean soldier in the Peacekeeper army that patrols her section of the galaxy, Officer Sun switches careers after inadvertently ending up aboard a living spaceship named Moya that’s occupied by a motley crew of jailbreakers. These convicts-turned-comrades include towering warrior Ka D’Argo, blue-hued priestess Zhaan, flatulent deposed despot Rygel XVI, and John Crichton, an Earth-born astronaut who is very, very far from home. Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon and produced by The Jim Henson Company, Farscape enjoyed a bumpy four-season stateside run that ended prematurely when the network declined to fund a fifth and final year. (Sci-Fi later aired, but didn’t finance, a wrap-up miniseries, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, in 2004.)

The cast of ‘Farscape’ (Credit: Everett Collection)
The cast of ‘Farscape’ (Credit: Everett Collection)

One of the joys of Farscape is that its defining house style is the lack of a defining house style. Episodes can range from standalone homages to body-switching comedies and vintage Loony Tunes cartoons to densely plotted multi-part stories that don’t conclude with conventionally happy endings. The primary constant amidst this narrative and tonal juggling is the turbulent love story between Aeryn Sun and John Crichton. Revisited today, Farscape stands as something of a bridge between eras of space opera, linking the last wave of episodic space adventures like Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate: SG-1 to the intensely emotional serialized narratives that later drove Battlestar Galactica and its ilk. Aeryn is both a traditional and transformational figure as well; raised to be an impersonal enforcer in the Imperial Stormtrooper mold, she comes to live out a promise that John makes to her in the very first episode: “You can be more.”

“Oh, I’ve got chills down my arm,” says Aeryn’s alter ego, Claudia Black, as she reflects on the character and those prophetic words nearly two decades later. “Her evolution as an individual takes off in an extraordinary way [after that].” Over the course of Yahoo TV’s hour-long conversation with the Australian actress, it’s clear that she does regard Aeryn as an individual unto herself, one who took on a life that sometimes superseded the actress’s own. “I was always happy to hand the character off,” Black says. “I would say [to the producers], ‘If I’m going in the wrong direction then please find someone to serve Aeryn, please. Because she deserves to have the full love of a person who can give you what you need.’ She was honestly such a privilege to play, and I never abused that privilege.”

And Black very nearly didn’t get that privilege. The role had already been cast when she first auditioned for Farscape, but the creative team encouraged her to read for Aeryn anyway. That reading later led to a screen test opposite Tennessee-born Ben Browder, who would be playing John Crichton. (Interestingly, Browder’s casting is, in part, what opened the door to Black inheriting the role from the English actress who had originally been chosen as Aeryn. “Because of the Australian co-production agreement, if they brought in a lead actor from America, the second lead had to be Australian,” Black explains. “So thank god for our union!”) Immediately recognizing the crackling onscreen chemistry between them, Browder pushed hard for her to land the role over network skepticism. “I was a controversial choice for sure,” Black says now. “I was just lucky in the end.”

Whatever the circumstances of how she got the role, Black climbed aboard Moya with strong ideas about how to play Aeryn. Superficially, the character is part of the wave of warrior women that swept through genre shows in the ’90s and early ’00s, whose ranks included Xena, Buffy, and even Cleo of Cleopatra 2525 fame. But as conceived by O’Bannon and carried forward by executive producer David Kemper, who became a driving creative force behind the show, Aeryn cuts against that archetype as well. Unlike Xena, she doesn’t necessarily relish battle; it’s something that’s been programmed into her. (Although, as Aeryn memorably remarks in The Peacekeeper Wars: “Shooting makes me feel better!“) She also reverses the arc traversed by Buffy and Cleo, which begins with them in places of perceived weakness — as a cheerleader and exotic dancer, respectively — and leads towards empowerment.

Related: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Anniversary: Joss Whedon Looks Back — And Forward

Because of her militaristic upbringing, Aeryn starts from a place of fierce strength. Her journey over the lifespan of the show, then, becomes about softening what Black describes as Aeryn’s “jagged edges” without surrendering her agency. “I’ve always loved science fiction because of the way it affords us an opportunity to look at humanity from an outsider’s perspective,” Black says. “And Aeryn really gets to experience it firsthand the best way that humans can, which is through love, in all of its forms. When I look at humanity, and my own life, we have to break before we can grow. That’s really what happened with Aeryn; she became stronger with softer edges.” (For the record, Aeryn may start out as a superior fighter to Buffy, but Black says that Sarah Michelle Gellar would easily mop the floor with her in real life. “Sarah has a black belt in karate, and I have two left feet! I always felt like a bit of an imposter [as Aeryn] just on the physical front. If I could push the reset button, I’d go back and get good at some form of martial art.”)

But that stronger-to-softer arc is also more treacherous to navigate than a traditional empowerment story, flirting, as it does, with the fanboy-friendly stereotype of the buttoned-up ice queen whose resolve (and inhibitions) melt when love, generally in the form of a strapping male hero, comes her way. The risk of falling headlong into that tired trope is something Farscape had to deal with throughout its run, especially as the core of the show was always the romance between John and Aeryn.

And while that romance takes a number of unexpected twists and turns — most boldly in a Season 3 storyline that saw Aeryn committing herself fully to a cloned version of Crichton, only to see him die and then have to re-learn how to love the original John — it ultimately culminates with two staples of a standard love story: a marriage proposal and a pregnancy. “It seemed pretty clear to me that Rockne’s intention in the pilot was that this was going to be a love story for the ages,” Black says. Not only that, but it was a love story penned by a largely male writing staff who had their own opinions about how to depict Aeryn’s gradual acceptance of Crichton’s love that sometimes ran counter to Black’s feelings. “I recall moments where they wanted me to be more vulnerable with Aeryn, and I didn’t want to be because I didn’t think it was time and I didn’t think she was ready,” she says. “But it wasn’t my place to say.”

Nevertheless, she persistently found ways to make her voice heard, whether it was by talking one-on-one with specific writers or her co-star, who was equally eager to avoid certain genre show clichés. Black recalls one instance early on in the show’s run when Browder actively pushed back against Sci-Fi’s directive that John Crichton demonstrate the same sex drive as James T. Kirk. “They wanted Crichton to have an alien girl of the week. Ben put his foot down and said, ‘No, he’s not that kind of guy. This isn’t the story I want to tell.’ And on my side I was saying, ‘Yeah, what does that say about Aeryn if she’s going to fall in love with a guy [like that]?’ We wanted to investigate and have them experience the more positive aspects of attraction, as well as what’s worth fighting for and what’s worth dying for,” she says. “Maybe the show would have continued longer if we’d been able to please the network! They know what they’re going to need in order to keep [viewers] interested and tuning in. But we’re very proud of what we managed to make regardless, because of those choices.”

The ongoing battle that Black personally waged throughout Farscape‘s run was ensuring that Aeryn maintained control over her own body. In the genre shows of her era, the female leads were stronger and savvier than ever, and that translated into fashion choices that expressed their own body confidence and sexuality. Xena rode into battle in a heaving breastplate, while Buffy fought vampires in halter tops and Relic Hunter‘s Sydney Fox always donned a tight tank top before exploring some ancient tomb. But flashing cleavage, leg, and midriff also made those characters desirable pin-ups for the male audience courted by networks and advertisers. (Farscape added its own version of a pin-up type midway through the first season in the form of Chiana, a grey-skinned con artist with a plunging neckline and a voracious sexual appetite.)

But those fashions didn’t make sense for a soldier fighting in an army where men and women’s bodies were interchangeable. In fact, Black remembers reading a very specific direction to the makeup department in the production notes for the pilot. “When I take my Peacekeeper helmet off [for the first time], the note read in big print, ‘She looks masculine.’ They thickened my eyebrows — which are already thick! — and shaded my face in very minimal makeup. All of the on-set gallery images of me in the first season are with that very masculine makeup.”

Aeryin in her ‘masculine’ Season 1 appearance (Credit: Everett Collection)
Aeryin in her ‘masculine’ Season 1 appearance (Credit: Everett Collection)

By Season 2, though, Aeryn’s appearance underwent a noticeable change; her hair got longer and straighter, and her Peacekeeper uniform gave way to outfits that walked a line between practical and revealing. Black, who describes herself as a feminist, agreed to these cosmetic changes as she felt they were part of a “natural progression” for Aeryn. “I was honoring where she had come from at the same time having to find a way to let her grow into whatever it is she was going to become,” she says. (This clip from Farscape‘s aforementioned Looney Tunes-inspired episode, “Revenging Angel,” neatly summarizes — and satirizes — the female body types commonly featured on genre shows that Aeryn deliberately defies.)

Already objectively beautiful, Aeryn’s sexuality continued to emerge as she grew into her new self. Even so, Black could sense it wasn’t emerging quickly enough to satisfy certain expectations. “I felt that I was being pushed to show more flesh than was necessary,” she admits, pointing to one incident in the show’s fourth season where it was written into the script that Aeryn would sit poolside in a bikini. “I just said, ‘I will get in a bikini for you if it makes sense, but this woman’s world is falling apart.’ It was the last thing I thought Aeryn would do [in that moment]. It felt really frivolous and superficial to me.” (Black had already donned a bikini to play pregnant Aeryn in a hallucinatory scene in the Season 4 premiere. “They not only had me in a bikini, but they gave me a pregnant belly as well, which is really hard to pull off and make it look naturalistic,” she says.)

Black remembers shooting down an even more egregious bit of flesh-flashing in an earlier episode. As an international production, Farscape frequently shot extra scenes for certain ad-free European markets that would fill the time normally allotted for commercials. The cast referred to these filler sequences as “Euro scenes,” and they rarely involved big story or character beats. According to Black, this particular episode dispatched D’Argo and Aeryn on a planetside mission, and the writers cobbled together a Euro scene that she describes as “absurd.” “They said, ‘Let’s have a scene where we cut to them by a lake, and Aeryn turns and sees a bunch of soldiers across the lake. Aeryn takes off her clothes, swims across the lake, and fights these soldiers completely naked, then comes back to D’Argo and off they go.'”

In later seasons, Aeryn naturally progressed towards more revealing fashion choices (Credit: Everett Collection)
In later seasons, Aeryn naturally progressed towards more revealing fashion choices (Credit: Everett Collection)

“There were so many things about it that were so bizarre,” she continues. “I said, ‘You know what, please explain this to me, how this honestly can fit in.’ In the end, they just said, ‘All right, fine — we won’t do it.’ That’s what I felt I was having to haggle for a lot of the time: my right to keep my clothes on until it was appropriate. I’ve always felt as an actor — and I’m sure other females have felt like this as well — that when you sign on the dotted line and enter the business that somehow you’ve given your body away as a piece of property, and you spend the rest of your career haggling for pieces of it back.” And the actress credits Browder with backing her up in her fight for Aeryn to be in full control of her own femininity and, by extension, her destiny. “Aeryn is really as feminist as I am, but she’s nothing without Crichton, which is an interesting statement to make,” she says. “So as much as we praise Aeryn, we must give full credit to Crichton and to Ben for shaping him the way that he did. It’s the space that he gives her. He’s such an exquisite champion of her growth and development, that it becomes possible for her to grow to her full size.”

In the 13 years since the concluding Peacekeeper Wars miniseries, rumors have occasionally flown about Farscape‘s return. At one point, there was talk of a webisode series following John and Aeryn’s child, D’Ago Sun-Crichton, but funding never came to fruition. (The show did continue in comic book form for a time, but publication ceased circa 2011.) Black, whose recent credits include stints on The CW genre shows Containment and The Originals, has no updates on any future revivals, and jokes that if Aeryn and Crichton ever do return, they’ll be “tired, ornery, and not really wanting another battle.”

Claudia Black as Dahlia on ‘The Originals’ (Credit: Annette Brown/The CW)
Claudia Black as Dahlia on ‘The Originals’ (Credit: Annette Brown/The CW)

In a way, though, Aeryn’s larger battle has already been won. One of the breakout characters on Battlestar Galactica — which premiered in December 2003, nine months after Farscape‘s series finale — was Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, who displays some of the same steely spine, and jagged edges, of Officer Sun. And today’s genre TV landscape is populated with women who, consciously or not, reflect Aeryn’s assertiveness, independence, and refusal to conform to societal (or genre) norms of appearance or attitude, whether it’s Orphan Black‘s Helena, Sense8‘s Nomi, or Jessica Jones.

Related: ‘Battlestar Galactica’ EP David Eick Revisits 5 Episodes That Remain Relevant

For this Scaper, she lives on off-screen as well. When my wife and I learned that we’d be having a daughter, we thought about all the things we wanted for her life. To know that she, and she alone, is in control of her body. To be strong in the face of injustice. To be confident in her own power. And to know that when she chooses to give her heart to another person, that person will be her champion, and give her the space to grow to her full size. And so we picked a name that, for us, would embody all of our hopes and dreams for the individual she’s becoming with each passing year.

Her name is Aeryn.

Farscape: The Complete Series is available on Blu-ray.

Read more from Yahoo TV’s “Why Genre Shows Matter”:
‘Battlestar Galactica,’ ‘Buffy,’ and Other Series That Genre Show Producers Believe Deserved More Emmy Love
‘Luke Cage’ Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker on Embracing Exploitation
Superheroes, Spells, and Sexual Abuse: A Conversation With Melissa Rosenberg and Sera Gamble, EPs of ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘The Magicians’