Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The First Seven of "Farscape"

In the wake of finishing "Babylon Five," the obvious science-fiction series to move on to was "Farscape," which started in 1999, roughly four months after "Babylon" ended, and is another of those cult shows with a small, but very dedicated fanbase. I had more familiarity with "Farscape," starting out, than I had with "Babylon 5." I had seen an episode or two already, though totally out of context, and I even have a few fuzzy memories of the series finale. I already knew what the major romantic pairing was going to be, and noted the absence of at least two major characters in these early episodes. But first, lets get to the premise.

"Farscape" follows the adventures of Commander John Crichton (Ben Browder), an astronaut who accidentally slingshots his spaceship through a wormhole, and into an unknown patch of the universe that is teeming with alien life. He has the bad fortune of emerging in the middle of a battle between a group of escaping prisoners and their pursuers, a military force known as the Peacekeepers. The prisoners, aboard their living ship, Moya, take Crichton onboard hoping to pump him for information. They include D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), an aggressive orange Luxan, Zhaan (Virginia Hey), a mellow, blue-skinned priestess, Rygel XVI (Jonathan Hardy), a two-foot tall Hynerian monarch, and Moya's biologically bonded Pilot (Lani Tupu). They're soon joined by a pursuing Peacekeeper, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), one of the Sebacean race that happens to look identical to humans. She's bent on dragging all of them back to her Captain, Crais (Lani Tupu). Crichton doesn't have the opportunity to choose sides, because it turns out that the arrival of his ship through the wormhole caused the destruction of the Crais's brother's ship, and the Captain is out for revenge. And Aeryn is soon branded a traitor, leaving the ragtag group aboard the Moya stuck with each other as fellow fugitives.

The first thing that jumps out about "Farscape" is the quality of the effects. They are in a word, gorgeous. '"Farscape" was partly produced by the Jim Henson Company, which was responsible for the inclusion of two puppet characters, Rygel and Pilot, and the use of alien makeup with far more sophisticated prosthetics than had been seen in television up until that time. Zhaan and D'Argo, both awash in bright primary colors, are especially eye-catching next to the more muted "Star Trek" and "Stargate" style aliens. Pilot is also an impressive creation, with a giant mushroom cap head and multiple limbs, but Rygel is a Muppet of the old hand rod and wire variety, to his detriment. Though he has a CGI stand-in and spends a lot of time in a floating armchair, his interactions with the rest of the cast are often hampered. He's also not designed very well, his features too broad and cartoonish for the subtlety required of him. Finally, Moya's organic interiors are a nice break from the industrial set design of "Babylon Five," where even the nicest living quarters were predominantly concrete or beige. Here, you get more interesting shapes and a much warmer, rosier color palette.

I wish I could say the writing was up to par, but it's not. At least, not yet. The characters that have been introduced are interesting, and have some facets that are worth exploring, but there hasn't been any real character development. Aeryn and D'Argo seem to be taking their first baby steps toward overcoming some personality flaws, but that's about it. Crichton, our everyman hero, is still settling into the "Farscape" universe and figuring out its mechanics. And this is where we hit the limitations of the show's premise. "Farscape," is far smaller in scope than "Babylon Five" or "Star Trek" right now, and the action is often tightly focused on Crichton. Seven episodes in, he's repeatedly established himself as the show's moral center and voice of reason, which is getting a little old. But far more bothersome is his habit of dropping pop culture references left and right, and laying down the sarcasm awfully thick. It's not easy to sympathize with him, and I can't wait for the series' other major villains to show up and knock him around a little, so we can see what he's really made of.

The rules of the "Farscape" universe also aren't very well established yet, which means its alien cultures and planet-of-the-week adventures tend to come off as pretty derivative. D'Argo is Klingon-ish, Zhaan is Jedi-esque, Aeryn might be a recovering Terminator, and John Crichton is the wisecracking Bruckheimer-disaster-movie hero of your choice. However, the humor is wackier than most, the tone is looser, and the whole style of the show feels open to more diverse possibilities. There have been signs that there's something bigger and more epic in the works. At this point the writers are still finding their feet - there have been multiple instances of weird pacing and clunky dialogue - but I can see "Farscape" getting better in a hurry once we break out of these episodic adventures and hit the serialized stories. On the other hand, two of the four creators of the show were responsible for a wretched mess of a science-fiction series called "seaQuest," which floundered for years in the 90s before finally being put out of its misery. "Farscape" was the show they followed it up with. We'll see if it turned out any better.

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