I’m of the opinion that the word “epic” is fairly overused when attempting to describe most science fiction space operas. Yet here in retrospection, I find myself quite unable to coin a more fitting term to describe the endlessly twisting romp that is the Farscape saga.
Let’s begin this review by immediately dismissing one of the most ridiculous and laughable criticisms I’ve encountered surrounding the property: the fact that many of the creatures inhabiting the Frascape universe are in fact puppets (or more specifically complex computer controlled animatronics). To steer clear of this series on that fact alone is simply ludicrous and equivalent to protesting Return of the Jedi due to the construction of Jabba the Hutt.
This is a science fiction series with a heavy slant toward fantasy; coming up with creatures that border on the very edge of human imagination is a feat accomplished through either computer generated imagery (CGI) which, in case you’ve been living in a cave this past decade, has pretty much taken over modern filmmaking or through practical (physical) effects, be it puppets, props, suits, or dummies. In this case The Jim Henson Company, under the stewardship of late Jim’s son Brian Henson does it the old fashioned way with mechanical creature designs that are remarkably lifelike. And perhaps I’m biased, but actual physical characters on set tends to provide the human actors a realism to play off that even the finest CG efforts struggle to duplicate. Truly this modern day puppeteering effort is every bit as dazzling in action as Jim Henson’s original vision in classic films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
That said, Farscape deviates from the aforementioned films by taking a fairly realistic scientific swing to establish the fantastical worlds and characters occupying them. Since the most effective reviews tend to be those which draw useful comparisons, let me take moment to attempt to liken Farscape to some other contemporary science fiction efforts. Structurally, the series resembles the tones found in shows like Stargate Atlantis with a bit more emphasis placed on rich and lavish visuals (both in its characters and settings). There is a sociological and political undertone, especially early on, that harkens back to the original Star Wars trilogy. And finally there could certainly be some loose comparisons drawn (especially in the later seasons) to the likes of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica once earth becomes a predominant factor to the once-distant-conflict taking place.
To summarize the plot (and considering it requires a full 4-seasons and a 4-hour feature film to do properly), I will do my best to condense the endlessly twisting prose into a few brief paragraphs while avoiding any major plot spoilers.
John Crichton is a modern-day IASA (International Aeronautics and Space Administration) astronaut involved in a top-secret experimental project dubbed "Farscape One". During a test flight above Earth orbit, a random wormhole appears, swallowing Crichton and his module while instantaneously transplanting him to a distant region of the known universe. Upon his molecular reassembly, Crichton's module inadvertently clips another passing craft, a light-armored fighter, causing it to spin out of control and collide with a nearby asteroid. The resulting impact kills the craft’s pilot instantly while Crichton escapes with only a nick in the fuselage of his ship.
Dazed and drifting amidst a heated interstellar conflict, Christon’s tiny craft is detected then rescued by a nearby organic-ship, named Moya, which it turns out has been hijacked by escaped convicts of various alien species. As such the earthen transplant suddenly finds himself aligned with a band of intergalactic outlaws and further complicating matters is the fact that the police force in hot pursuit (the Peacekeepers) just so happen to be led by a fellow named Crais. When Crichton made his untimely appearance through the wormhole, it was the craft of Crais’ brother he collided with and destroyed. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot!
Like any serial, perhaps the utmost important factor to consider is the level of viewer trust required in the writing. After all, embarking upon a series of this magnitude is quite a large commitment both in terms of time and emotional attachment. It’s easy to start forming bonds with these characters and poor writing, if even only temporary, can cause definite ripples on the proverbial water. Fortunately the collaborate effort of Rockne S O’Bannon and David Kemper is such where suspension of disbelief occurs very early on and the inevitable rotation of cast that occurs when a show runs this long is handled believably and properly. Perhaps the greatest strength of the team is their ability to traverse so many episodes without stumbling into the usual snafus and pitfalls associated with doing so: formulaic plots, recycled themes, dead-end story threads. In fact, it’s tough not to be impressed with the fact that little plot threads set up very early on in the series are revisited and expanded upon in the later seasons flawlessly (and often unexpectedly). Truly no part of the plot structure is wasted here.
Of course this isn’t to suggest the entire run is without flaw. The show does suffer from the usual slumps and growing pains just like any other. Of particular note are those episodes that spend a great deal of time (sometimes whole episodes in fact) within Crichton’s mind; one that mimics an episode of Loony Tunes and another that was essentially a virtual video game stand out as examples. The transition of certain characters is equally topsy-turvy from Gigi Edgley’s odd initial portrayal of the character Chiana to the ridiculous introduction of the mystic Noranti. Finally, some characters (such as the loathsome Stark) manage to do little more than annoy the viewer from their introduction to the series’ conclusion. However, and perhaps rarer still, is that even the most annoying characters the show throws at you are revealed to be so remarkably different from their real life counterparts, which just further proves the acting range of the incredible cast.
A&E’s release of the entire series (save the final miniseries/ feature film- more on that later) actually marks the second domestic release of the series on DVD. The first was handled by ADV Films (AD Vision) in the form of small volume releases that were later grouped into box sets. The trouble was distribution was fairly limited and, not unlike the anime titles they shared catalog space with, quite expensive compared to other domestic television releases. Further complicating things, ADV lost the rights to the first season of the show to Sony, which prompted miscellaneous collections to hit the market.
A&E snagged then released all 88-episodes of the show (and 15 hours of bonus features) across 26-discs and packaged them up as either individual season releases or as a single complete box set. While robust in the ADV releases, A&E actually managed to add more material to the special features set. Additionally A&E’s box set makes use of thin pack cases and takes up about 1/10th the shelf space of ADV Films’ bulky release and perhaps even more impressive still is that the complete series, (which was going for as low as $54.99 brand new), comes in at just a little over what ADV was asking for each 4-episode release. About the only disadvantage to the newer box set comes in the form of the bit rate which is roughly 2/3 that of ADV’s on account of compression required to fit nearly double the number of episodes on each disc. However, it is barely noticeable save for occasional slight pixelization.
Now about that miniseries snafu; try as they may to finally place the entire saga into a single collection, A&E, like ADV before it, couldn’t wrestle away the rights to the final chapter of the saga (“The Pacekeeper Wars”) is yet a separate entity meaning unless you enjoy ending a show on one of the worst cliffhangers imaginable, be sure to order the Peacekeeper Wars DVD set from Lion’s Gate.
And no, this is no mere marketing gimmick to soak a few extra dollars out of fans; in truth the show’s broadcast run on SyFy (then Sci-Fi Channel) was scheduled to go five seasons, but was cancelled due to lack of network financing after only four. The response from fans was both immediate and overwhelming yet Sci-Fi refused to budge on the issue. In fact so intense was public outcry that various financial backers in Europe stepped in to offer their support to Brian Henson, so that in 2004, The Jim Henson Company was able to produce a four-hour mini-series event to properly wrap up the series story arc; this is what we now call The Peacekeeper Wars.
In all, it is difficult, if not impossible, for me not to recommend this series to science fiction aficionados of all disciplines; it manages to combine some of the best elements of space opera, drama, fantasy, and hard science into a romp with a storyline that is nearly impossible to predict. In fact it’s equally hard not to recommend it to fans of solid entertainment, regardless of the genre. Well-developed characters, realistic interactions, unique sets & locales, intricate societies and alien races, interesting technology, and even a nice dose of genuine humor round out the show’s attributes. Highly, highly recommended entertainment. Epic even.
What did you think of this review?