ADV Films // 2001 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // August 23rd, 2001
The latest craze in science fiction comes to DVD.
The early days of science fiction television events can be attributed to one event, that being Star Trek, a show about a philandering starship captain who sets foot on alien worlds in order to make sweet, sweet love to green-skinned, scantily-clad alien babes. While this show might have seemed revolutionary at the time, it's only fair to point out that the cardboard sets, plastic models, cheap costumes, poorly-designed special effects and rampant over-acting only managed to last for three seasons. The franchise inexplicably flourished in reruns until series creator Gene Rodenberry sold Paramount on a new show, this time starring that guy from I, Claudius and that other guy from Reading Rainbow, which I'll point out never does really cool books like "Flat Stanley" or "The Easy Rider Pop-Up Book." This second series was much more successful (it lasted seven seasons), so, with the time-tried tradition of beating a dead horse, Paramount began to run two more series that apparently nobody watched. You might guess that I'm not really a huge fan of Star Trek.
Now before everybody starts sending me Hate Mail or pelting me with their little latex pointy ears as they pass me on the street, I'll point out that I'll give credit where it's due. The Star Trek franchise paved the way for other science fiction television series, most of which were largely unwatchable. For every decent franchise like The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, we were assaulted with even more garbage like Manimal, Knight Rider, and Baywatch Nights. I don't think I have to tell you where you can put your Hasselhoffs. [Editor's Note: Yeah, but KITT rules!]
I only mention this because it would appear that something "new and exciting" has been appearing on The Sci-Fi Network, and I'm not talking about repeat transmissions of Piranha II: The Spawning. No, this would be the brainchild of Rockne S. O'Bannon (SeaQuest DSV) and Brian Henson otherwise known as Farscape. Apparently this show began airing in 1999, which is news to me simply because I almost never watch the Sci-Fi Network. I'm not sure why that would be. It could be the constant reruns of Children of the Corn or Crossing Over With John Edward (man, that guy creeps me out) that have turned me off, but I digress. A co-worker mentioned that Farscape is a pretty decent show, so I managed to catch a couple of episodes and decided I had absolutely no clue what was going on. It wasn't for lack of trying, mind you. I am no dummy. But three years of baggage was a bit much for me to absorb. That, and I really couldn't fathom why any parent would name their child Rockne. Fortunately for Johnny-come-latelys such as myself, ADV Films has started to make the episodes available to home theater junkies, presenting two episodes on one DVD.
Commander John Crichton (Ben Browder) is a brilliant scientist and astronaut who is going to test his theories on using planetary gravity to catapult a craft through space at unheard of speeds, an idea he probably got from watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home AKA "Greenpeace in Space." John takes off in his experimental craft, and, as usual in situations like this (not to mention pilot episodes), something goes horribly awry. John is slammed to the other side of the galaxy after entering a wormhole and finds himself in the middle of a full out space battle, with his ship contributing to some of the carnage in an accidental collision. He is then pulled aboard an enormous vessel where he meets up with a vastly alien crew. There's D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a Luxan warrior who hates him; P'au Zhaan (Virginia Hey), a blue-skinned priestess who hates him; Rigel XVI (a puppet), Hynerian Dominar for 600 billion loyal subjects who also hates him; and finally Pilot (also a puppet) who only has something of a mild indifference towards him. It turns out that this vessel is a living Leviathan spacecraft called Moya, and Pilot is physically and mentally bound to the craft in a symbiotic relationship. John is soon taken prisoner as Moya makes its escape by enacting a starburst (the series' term for a hyperspace jump). Unfortunately, one of the attacking craft is caught in the starburst baffles and comes along for the ride. When John wakes up he's greeted by that craft's pilot, Peacekeeper Officer Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black -- Pitch Black), who not only hates him but beats the tar out of him immediately after setting her eyes on him. Other than that, Crichton is off to a fabulous start.
The remainder of this episode is standard "Pilot Episode" fare, and we are further introduced to these characters through John Crichton's eyes. He's a stranger in a stranger land, and any thought of getting back to Earth is secondary to his immediate survival. John learns that he is on a prison ship and the crew has escaped captivity by the Peacekeepers. Nobody seems to trust anybody else and everybody seems to have their own agendas, but they all come to realize that they need each other to survive.
After escaping from the Peacekeeper fleet in "Premiere," the crew decides to put some distance between them and their pursuers, so they head for uncharted space. This act sets off a loud and annoying Peacekeeper homing beacon that seems to be connected to Moya's neural net. Failure to disable the beacon could mean imminent capture by the Peacekeepers, but removing the beacon could kill Moya. Pilot then remembers that there is a substance that can numb a Leviathan, so he sets the ship down in a swamp on a remote world. John soon discovers a populace not too unlike that of Earth in the 1950s who are bent on contacting, capturing and dissecting an alien visitor. The episode then becomes a race against time as the mud in the swamp begins to stress Moya's hull.
Farscape was created with the intent of showcasing the accomplishments of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, which are on display in each and every episode. Pilot is obviously an intricate and richly detailed puppet, as is Rigel XVI, and each episode features a myriad of bizarre aliens. Likewise, Garner McLennan Design provides some of the best CGI special effects ever seen on television, even surpassing some of the impressive effects created for some of the later Star Trek incarnations. The shot of Moya crash landing in the swamp in "I, E.T." is impressive and worthy of repeat viewings. It's nice production value for a series on cable television.
Often times a new TV series will have its growth stunted in the first few episodes while the actors and writers struggle to reach a rhythm with the characters and situations that they involve themselves with, but this is not the case with Farscape. Ben Browder passes nicely as a human suddenly in a situation far beyond his control, and the writers have managed to concoct believable situations based on the characters, all with their own wants and needs that I'm sure we'll discover as the series progresses. Since it's Crichton that the audience will immediately sympathize with, it's nice that they've found a talented and likeable actor to fill the role. This is not to detract from the remainder of the cast. Claudia Black won me over with her brief role in Pitch Black, so that wasn't a tough sell. Anthony Simcoe probably received the worst of the roles, requiring hours upon hours of makeup to get into character, but once the filming begins D'Argo becomes a formidable warrior. I should also mention that veteran actor Kent McCord (Predator 2, Galactica 1980) lends his talents in a cameo as Crichton's father.
Fans of science fiction will recognize a vast number of ideas and themes that they may have seen somewhere else. Farscape is a vast hodge-podge of bits and pieces of several other science fiction works, but it's the manner of blending these ideas, and an infusion of rare creativity, that makes Farscape fresh and original. Characters might fall into basic stereotypes, but there's enough originality infused into these characters to keep them from seeming like stereotypes. After this, O'Bannon has managed to throw in some truly unique ideas (the plot twist for "I, E.T." springing to mind) that adds a great deal of credibility to Farscape. At first glance it seems like familiar territory, but the series manages to look far beyond anything we've already seen. The show manages to keep the viewer a little off balance with an edgy storyline that can at times be offset by some offbeat humor. It even goes so far as to become a bit goofy at times (Rigel farts helium gas when he's nervous, for example).
The DVD itself is a transfer direct from the television footage and includes a few minutes that were lost for commercial time to the North American audience. Since a large portion of the picture is digitally created, it seems only a natural fit for DVD. As I mentioned, the production value for this series seems to be rather high (or, rather, the producers get their money's worth out of a limited budget) and it shows with each passing minute of the show. The Making Of a Space Opera feature is excellent, and shows some behind-the-scenes work by the show's puppeteers, but the profile of Ben Browder contains a large portion of the same footage as the Making Of feature. Redundancy bothers me, especially when I sit down to watch all of the special features in the same sitting. The commentaries are worth a listen if you're a fan. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes information that comes out, though a non-fan might find them boring.
While there are no complaints about this DVD in particular, I really feel the need to take ADV Films to task for their handling of this series in DVD format. Each of their DVD releases to date (there are four available with two more appearing on store shelves within the next couple of months) feature only two episodes, matching the format of Paramount's Star Trek releases at premium pricing ($24.98 per DVD). This is simply a travesty, considering that other companies are condensing entire seasons into one nifty package, with The X-Files being an outstanding example. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing except that a complete season package for the first season of Farscape already exists and is available in Region 2. ADV Films is punishing the American and Canadian fans of this show by releasing the shows in small increments like this. The first season adds up to twenty-two DVDs. The cost adds up after awhile, and this has, quite honestly, cost them a sale.
Farscape: Volume One is a solid diversion if you're looking for something new and different in the realm of science fiction. You might want to sample a couple of episodes before making a purchase, just to make sure this is to your liking, but I have confidence that it will be.
The cast and crew of Farscape are acquitted on the evidence of a job well done, but ADV Films is found guilty of greedy merchandising techniques.
Review content copyright © 2001 Kevin Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Making of a Space Opera Documentary
* Actor Profile and Image Gallery Featuring Ben Browder
* "Premiere" Commentary with Rockne S. O'Bannon, Brian Henson and Ben Browder
* "I, E.T" Commentary with Claudia Black and Anthony Simcoe
* Sci-Fi Network