Sunday, April 3, 2011

'Farscape' Season One (1999)

Starring Ben Browder, Claudia Black and Anthony Simcoe
Created by Rockne S. O'Bannon

Farscape: The Complete Season 1After being thoroughly disappointed by the godawful "Babylon 5," I knew there was another series I had been wanting to dive into and explore and that was the Australian sci-fi show "Farscape."  Like "Babylon 5," I have seen a handful of episodes and am generally aware of the characters and situations.

John Crichton (Ben Browder) is an astronaut flying an experimental shuttle named Farscape 1 when he's suddenly sucked into a wormhole and blown halfway across the universe.  He exits in the midst of a battle between a military force ironically called the Peacekeepers and a living starship called a leviathan.  The leviathan, named Moya, is a prison transport and the prisoners aboard are staging a daring escape attempt.  Crichton's ship collides with a Peacekeeper ship, killing the other pilot.  Crichton is brought aboard Moya and meets the strange beings that live there: Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a perpetually angry Luxon warrior, Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey) a peaceful blue-skinned Dhelvian priestess with a dark past, and Dominar Rygel XVI (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) the diminutive and deposed ruler of the Hynerian Empire.  Moya is controlled symbiotically by Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu), a multi-armed creature connected to Moya's nervous system.

Moya performs a maneuver called "starburst" in order to escape the Peacekeepers, and one of their ships is caught in the wake and pulled through space with her.  Aboard that ship the crew finds Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper who intends to give them up to her comrades at the first chance she gets.  Unfortunately, Aeryn comes to decide that the prisoners aboard Moya are not a threat to her, and when she questions her commanding officer, Bailar Crais (Lani Tupu, who also voices Pilot) about killing Crichton, she is stripped of her rank and position.  It seems the pilot Crichton accidentally killed when he arrived was Crais' brother, and Crais is not of a mind to be making rational decisions.  With Aeryn joining them, the crew of Moya take off into the Uncharted Territories, a dangerous, lawless area of space where they might evade the Peacekeepers and find a way home.  But Crais, hell-bent on vengeance for the death of his brother, will follow them at every turn.

And then there's the fact that the prisoners don't exactly like each other all that much, either...

"Farscape" is superior to "Babylon 5" in every fashion, from the quality of its technical production to its scripts and cast performances.  Over the course of this first season, the crew of Moya goes from almost outright hating each other to becoming a family.  Indeed, in an early episode, two characters commit an egregious act of violation on another in a desperate hope to get home, an act that has consequences for another character that could not have been foreseen.  And yet, by the end, these folks would give their lives to save each other.

Crichton serves as our main protagonist and audience surrogate.  Through him, we witness and learn what we need to know in order to understand the other races and characters.  Crichton is often at a loss to the strange things going on around him, and must be taught "like a child" by the other characters to do simple things like operate their technology or how to navigate various other cultures.  He's also the one who gets to have our reactions to them, as well, commenting on how absurd or ridiculous many things are.  Browder does a fine enough job with his quips and with performing stunts required for the show's action sequences, but he's an actor of limited range, despite his likability.  I'm also convinced that he's got a lazy eye and sometimes his face totally bugs me.

The other actors all have fine chemistry with each other, though each has their own limitations.  Anthony Simcoe has to act through all kinds of heavy makeup, leaving only his eyes and his voice to truly convey emotion.  His character is most often written to convey only anger, giving him little opportunity to do much else.  Virginia Hey is also fine as Zhaan, often a calming presence among the crew.  She's the one who gets to be positive most of the time, a striking contrast to when she has to do things that are cruel or awful.

One of the weirdest things about "Farscape" is that it's co-produced by Jim Henson's Creature Shop.  There are a number of characters throughout the show that are, instead of CG special effects, brought to life by puppetry.  Rygel and Pilot are two main characters who are puppets instead of actors or effects, and while these puppets can seem kind of awkward, they're quite well executed and the characters themselves are fun and charming.

One problem I had, and it's not even a fault of the show, but with Netflix - the first dozen episodes of the season are presented out of order!  I found conflicting lists online about what order the episodes should be in, so I did my best, but it still led to a bit of confusion.  Things in one episode would seem incongruous with the next or the previous, but eventually I figured it all out.  And the second half of the season is in the proper order, so the progression smooths a great deal.  But even with this confusion, the quality of the episodes was enough to keep bringing me back for more.

"Farscape" is a great series, full of fun characters and intriguing storylines.  The last handful of episodes really kicks into high gear, bringing together a number of story threads and creating new ones that lead into a very satisfying cliffhanger for Season Two.