The international co-production Farscape (Syfy 1999-2003; 2004) is perhaps best known for its extensive use of puppets and its (for the time) fairly explicit sexualised content. Shot in Australia with a primarily American writers room for the American Syfy Channel, the series follows American scientist John Crichton (Ben Browder) who is inadvertently thrown into deep space during a test flight. Crichton is a scientist who specialises in wormhole physics, meaning that he knows how to weaponise wormholes; this makes him a target for the Sebaceans and Scarrans, the two major warring powers, and he is constantly on the run from both on the living ship Moya, which houses similarly wanted individuals.
So far, so sci-fi (or Syfy).
What I would like to explore in this blog, however, is the Sebacean paramilitary force, the Peacekeepers (PKs) and their connection to supranational peacekeeping forces. Ginn’s (2013: n.p.) glossary describes them as follows:
Peacekeepers (Sebacean)—a paramilitary police force. Members are either conscripted from the general population or are bred for service. Any planet’s governing body may request help from the Peacekeepers (PK); apparently the general population does not have a say in the matter. […] They could be compared to the United Nations peace keeping forces.
Other than that brief statement, however, there is no follow through on the comparison being made. Battis (2007) argues for the PKs being an example of a panopticon (Battis 2007: 29) but there is still no real consideration for not just this idea of ‘peacekeeping’ but in the choice of the term by the production team. Other than the irony of a paramilitary force being called ‘peacekeepers,’ the Sebacean forces could have been called anything. But, as Ginn (2013) does above, by dint of the name the comparison with peacekeeping forces of supranational bodies is already available to the audience. Battis (2007) devotes a chapter to both the Sebaceans and Scarrans as colonial/imperialist forces; while that is undeniable and Australia’s status as a postcolonial state is certainly relevant (arguably the US’s status as well, cf Hall 1995), the idea of connecting the colonialist practices of the Sebaceans through their PKs and the analogy between this and the perception of the UN (or any other supranational body, e.g., NATO, the African Union, et cetera) and their peacekeepers is not explored in that book, either. While this is not meant as a criticism of either work– a single book can only cover so much, after all– the fact that the analogy between PKs and peacekeepers is simply taken as read and not further investigated seems like a fertile area for analysis.
There are a number of relevant points with regard to how the series portrays the PKs. What is the most obvious, however, is the contrast between Crichton’s Oklahoma (diegetically Kansas) accent and the other characters’ mix of British and Australian accents. While this occurs with all of the characters, the fact that PKs generally use RP or a blended RP/Australian English evokes a class difference on one hand and Others the PKs as not-Americans on the other hand. By the same logic, Oklahoman (where Browder is from)/Kansan (where Crichton is from)/American also equals human in the series, as Battis (2007: 166) notes. Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (Syfy, 2004) states that Sebaceans were early humans taken from Earth and genetically engineered by the alien Eidolons, but that does not really impact the connection Battis discusses. ‘Eidolon’ has several meanings in ancient Greek but the most applicable eidola here would be the cult statues of gods in temples as it implies that PKs are militaristic because they have lost religion, though the alien Eidolons pacify those they encounter so there’s a Marxist ‘Opium des Volkes’ reading available as well. This is relevant because, though the US does supply a significant proportion of the UN budget for peacekeepers, the US does not generally supply peacekeeping personnel to the UN or any other supranational body, with a handful of exceptions as consultants (O’Hanlon 2015). This, then, allows for a critique of supranational peacekeepers without critiquing the American military or other aspects of American culture.
At the time the series was in production, the main peacekeeping forces were UN/NATO working in first Bosnia and then later Kosovo, including the British military. While war crimes were committed on all sides in that conflict, Dixon (2000) notes that British forces engaged in reprisal attacks, something that was subsequently reported in the press. Australian peacekeepers were also present in the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, as well as several other areas (Australian War Memorial, 2023). While I have found no direct evidence of Australian forces in particular engaging in war crimes or other malfeasance during these missions, a 1996 report by UNICEF on sex trafficking and other forms of sexual abuse, especially of children, have stated that UN/NATO peacekeepers were the clientele driving the increase (cf. Traynor 2004 on this in Kosovo, though Haiti was another location in which this abuse took place). Thus, at the time the series was in production, it was known that the presence of UN/NATO peacekeepers could be detrimental in some cases.
In addition to the various scandals involving UN peacekeepers, there is also the concept itself to consider. Cunliffe (2012) gives a detailed analysis of the arguments used to differentiate UN peacekeeping from imperialism. Over the course of his discussion he notes that, not only are those arguing for a main distinction using a reductive interpretation of imperialism, but he also notes several key aspects that are relevant to how the PKs are represented. In order to keep this blog a manageable length (for sufficient values of the term), I shall focus on two related aspects in particular: consent and intent.
In the entry from Ginn quoted above, she points out that PK assistance (broadly defined) is requested by planetary governments which may or may not include representatives or consideration of the ordinary people living there. Thus consent is given by only the rulers, which then can lead to PKs engaging in repression of various groups and/or peoples. UN intervention is often requested by governments of various countries, though many of these governments are themselves repressive, unstable and/or considered illegitimate by at least some part of the population. Haiti is a good example of this and the current debates over who should intervene and/or help stabilise the country (however stability is defined) express some of the complexities of peacekeeper involvement (Phillips 2023, Al Jazeera 2023). This is not new, however; between proximity to the US, being prone to natural disasters and extreme wealth inequality, international assistance of many kinds has been omnipresent for decades.
Moreno et al (2012) engage in a specifically postcolonial analysis of the UN mission in Haiti which they describe as
…framed inside a specific UN mission pattern, grounded in a supposedly dominant francophone culture and located on the ‘outskirts’ of the United States, it has been subjected to a plurality of other pressures – such as demands from leading contributing countries – and opened to multiple re-articulations of its original mandate […] (Moreno et al 2012: 377).
As they continue to highlight, the dominant vision of peacekeeping, which sees which believes it free from ‘(neo)colonial elements’ needs to be contested.
Thus intent, as Cunliffe (2012) argues, which is perceived as a key distinction between imperialism and peacekeeping, does not seem to matter in practice. That is to say; Moreno et al (2012) argue that, even when the explicit intent is to avoid (neo)colonialist thought and/or practices when involved in peacekeeping, and even when the majority of those peacekeepers are from postcolonial states, neocolonial thought and/or practices are still present in the operations. These can include anything from the operation’s mandates and goals to its on-the-ground tactics.
All that being said, does this mean that peacekeepers are seen as imperialist on the ground? For somewhat obvious reasons, obtaining accurate information about reception of peacekeepers in an area under peacekeeper control is problematic. Charbonneau (2015: 276) argues that ‘Peacekeeping research has…largely remained shaped by the object–subject distinction – that is, that interveners know best about “peace” and about the object of intervention (i.e. “locals”).’ Moreno et al (2012) note that ‘…the attempt to modernize the “Other” is permanently questioned, dislocated and negotiated when this very model meets not only local recipients but, as emphasized here, when it is translated into practice by peace operations contingents’ (Moreno et al 2012: 387). The recent coup in Niger has featured some suggestions that foreign peacekeeper forces are connected to imperialism/colonialism (Deutsche Welle 2023, Osborn 2023) but how widespread these perspectives are is unclear.
All of this brings us back around to the initial point of comparison, between PKs and peacekeepers from various supranational entities. It certainly seems that, though not writing from a subaltern position, the Farscape production teams were connecting the idea of supranational peacekeeping forces and imperialism. It is also relevant to spoil the series’ ending (sorry); in order to end the Sebacean/Scarran conflict, Crichton weaponises a wormhole and shows the combatants that doing so would destroy the entirety of the galaxy, if not the universe. In addition to functioning very like the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine from the Cold War, it also implies that only the US, here metonymous with Crichton, can bring actual lasting peace rather than supranational, imperialist forces. While the idea of the US as (neo)colonialist is complicated, the series setting Americanness and imperialism/colonialism as opposites is somewhat reductive and connecting the US to keeping the peace in general is a rather charitable view of its history (she types from Cambodia, site of covert, extensive American bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War). Perhaps the use of the term ‘peacekeeper’ in Farscape is best understood as an incomplete critique of supranational peacekeeping forces and their inherent (neo)colonialist/imperialist connotations, impacted by the series’ need for transnational sales and its own production context, which now, with the benefit of both spatial and temporal distance, academics can begin to deepen.
Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She has joined the American University of Phnom Penh in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor of English/Humanities. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan and Armenia. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
 In 1994 the US Congress capped contributions at 25% of the UN Peacekeeping budget, though the US’ actual contributions can vary.
 Despite my oft-stated desire to one day give a conference paper or invited talk composed purely of rhyming couplets, the fact that ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ rhyme is pure coincidence.
 These include infrastructure damage, the prevalence of trauma and illness, frequent preference for informal communications that are difficult for foreigners/out-group members to be included in and dependence upon/fear of reprisals from any and all sides in a conflict (including the peacekeepers themselves).
 Anecdotally, I am aware of similar problems with the UN’s universalist approach having occurred in both Pakistan and Ethiopia, with one of my now-former students planning to write his PhD dissertation on the subject once universities in Amhara are able to resume their normal functions.
Al Jazeera (2023) Kenya considers leading a force in Haiti: What you need to know. Al Jazeera, 1 August. [online] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/1/kenya-considers-leading-a-force-in-haiti-what-you-need-to-know (accessed 31/08/23).
Battis J (2007). Investigating Farscape: Uncharted Territories of Sex and Science Fiction. London: I.B. Tauris.
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