Reflecting back on the past decade, it’s easy to see just how far TV has come in the last ten years, especially in the area of science fiction. Sure, there’s a still a ton of bad stuff out there, but looking at series such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica, both of which could compete with major blockbusters in terms of look and production value, you can see how far the genre has come, and just how much the possibilities for success in the field are a lot more expanded than they were just a few years ago. Shows like Fringe and V may not end up having a lot of longevity to their runs, but at least they’ve got a better shot than many of their predecessors did.
The situation was not the same in 1999 when Farscape hit the air. During that period of TV, only The X-Files could really claim to be a true crossover success, the only other major sci-fi series at the time being Star Trek: Voyager, which was starting to end its run (which would conclude two years later) and begin the franchise’s eventual downward slide. On initial viewing Farscape, a series from the mind of creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, which was produced by Jim Henson Productions and Hallmark Entertainment, could be compared to other campy adventure series at the time, such as Lexx or Xena: Warrior Princess. Thankfully though, with just a little patience viewers were treated to a hearty space opera that managed to give its audience characters to care about and a journey worth taking. While the series’ visuals have not aged well since the time of it going off the air, the show is still solid entertainment and is still a great way to pass the time.
The premise for the show is a simple one. Taking pages from The Wizard of Oz or Buck Rogers, the series features an American astronaut named John Crichton (Ben Browder) who accidentally gets thrown into the far reaches of space when his ship hits a wormhole while running experiments outside the Earth’s atmosphere. He is picked up by a misfit group of fugitives, on the run from a corrupt governmental police force call The Peacekeepers. In order to stay alive, he joins up with the group, trying desperately to learn how to fit in with them as they elude their hunters, as well as learn many things about himself.
Now again, looking at the show a decade later, it’s a little tough to get used to the visuals, especially in the show’s initial seasons. The CGI isn’t even in the ballpark of today’s standards, and really dates the show more than any other element, including cinematography or costuming. Makeup at times is also a problem, as prosthetics can be pretty over the top on some alien species and gives the show a campy feel that perhaps more subtle work might have avoided. On the other hand, you can see that the series was trying to be really ambitious, even if it wasn’t totally succeeding in its aims.
Where the series is much more in its comfort zone is in the area of puppets, two of which even occupy main character status. If there was ever any production company that could ever wow you with puppetry, it would of course be the Jim Henson Company. In true Henson fashion, each creature on this show is full of expression and becomes wonderful eye candy, but on top of that they’re great enough that you eventually stop considering them puppets and just believe in them as characters in their own right. Harkening back to their work on The Empire Strikes Back or fantasy pictures such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the show constantly tries to impress you with these wonderful creatures. These would include fellow fugitives Dominar Rygel XVI (voiced by Jonathan Hardy),a diminutive, but bossy frog-like creature recently deposed as ruler on his planet, whose manner leaves something to be desired, and the pleasant and humble Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu), a multi-limbed alien who serves at the group navigator.
Both of these characters are a testament to the show’s greatest gift; its flair for imagination. For example, Pilot isn’t just a member of the crew; he’s actually genetically fused to their ship. To add to that, their ship is actually a large space traveling being called a Leviathan. The alien races are all wonderfully thought out and have unique and often wild gifts and weakness. This is in contrast to other universes, like that of Star Trek’s mythology for example, which often has alien races with different outward appearances, yet never gets too outlandish with alien abilities.
On top of all that, you get some really fine characters to be able to get behind, even when the operatic elements of the show aren’t in full bloom. In the middle of it all you have Ben Browder, who makes a terrific traditional sci-fi hero, full of humor, but never losing the sense of wonder that a character like this would need. He’s given a great supporting cast, including Rygel and Pilot, the bald, blue female Zhaan (Virginia Hey), the tentacled warrior D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), and the impish cat-like Chiana (Gigi Edgley). Most importantly, there is Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a renegade Peacekeeper and Crichton’s love interest on the show. Their sexual tension throughout the series is light, but well played out, full of banter in a way that a pulpy romance should be able to follow though.
Unfortunately, the show ends prematurely, and is never able to finish its run properly. Starting stronger than it was able to finish is a fate that a lot of science fiction has dealt with over the years, and yet there’s still a lot of charm here. Farscape isn’t Battlestar Galactica and it isn’t Lost, and heck, it isn’t even Firefly, but it was a show that managed to fill a void for sci-fi geeks left wanting after Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine went off the air. Science fiction may have found its rightful place on TV nowadays, and it’s because of shows like Farscape that those sorts of opportunities are now available. Warts and all, this is a series worth revisiting and relishing in its wonderful creativity.
Shown in their original Fullscreen format, the show looks as good as ever, and has been greatly cleaned up from their original broadcast. In fact, I can remember seeing the episodes upon their first run on TV and they each had that sort of weird foggy look you get from British Television, yet that look seems to be gone from these DVD’s. The picture and sound quality isn’t going to match watching a new show in HD quality, but it is a fairly pleasant experience, especially if you’re already a fan of this show.
Commentaries – Throughout these individual seasons, you get 29 episode specific commentary tracks from the likes of Rockne S. O’Bannon, Brian Henson, Claudia Black, Ben Browder, and others going in depth about these installment. You can tell in these commentaries that there was a lot of fun to be had on these sets, but that there was also a lot of planning and coordination, especially with a lot of episodes featuring tons of extras and alien planets. Perhaps the best thing these tracks do is that they give you a better appreciation for the hard work that went into this series to try and make it a success.
Featurettes, Documentaries, and Interviews – Each season here is loaded with all kinds of behind the scenes footage such as In the Beginning: A Look Back with Brian Henson, Making of a Space Opera and Inside Farscape: Save Farscape. Each piece can run anywhere from just a few minutes to over half an hour, and the amount of material here is an absolute treasure trove for fans of this series. You get terrific retrospectives, character profiles, and interviews with the cast and crew that are all fantastic and entertaining. I especially love In the Beginning: A Look Back with Brian Henson, where Henson breaks down the inception of the show piece by piece and how it developed over the years. Terrific stuff.
Deleted Scenes – You get over 90 minutes of deleted footage.
Trailers and TV Spots
Sure, it’s a product of its era, and at times Farscape is a little more Fifth Element than it is Star Wars, but there’s still plenty to love about this series. While it didn’t get to finish at its natural endpoint, Farscape is a show that brought us amazing characters and a lot of fun visuals to go along with its imaginative storytelling. For all those things, this series box set would get a recommendation, but on top of that you get a ton of extras to go along with everything else you get here.
A&E Home Video presents Farscape: The Complete Series. Created by: Rockne S. O’Bannon. Starring: Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Virginia Hey, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgley, Paul Goddard, and Lani Tupu. Running time: 68 hours 6 mins. Released on DVD: November 17, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Fringe, Lost, sci fi, Science Fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Fifth Element, The X-Files, V