A&E // 1999 // 4136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // December 15th, 2011
You'll never know the wonders I've seen.
The cult science fiction series of the early 2000s gets an HD upgrade, and while it doesn't represent a significant improvement over the standard DVD release, it does provide a perfect opportunity for anyone new to Farscape to become acquainted with one of the best genre shows of the last decade.
When astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder, Stargate SG-1) is sucked into a wormhole during a flight of his own ship, Farscape, he finds himself in another galaxy on board Moya, a living, organic ship. Moya is populated by escaped prisoners including D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe, Nim's Island), and imposing, fierce warrior with a hot temper, Zhann (Virginia Hey, The Road Warrior), a bald, blue alien priestess, and Rygel, a greedy, reptilian disgraced former "dominar" (played by a puppet from Jim Henson's creature shop). Moya and her motley crew are on the run from The Peacekeepers, a race of interstellar fascist police. When one of the Peacekeepers, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black, Pitch Black) is determined to have been "contaminated" by the other aliens, she, too, is forced to defect from her race and join the crew aboard Moya.
Over the course of the series, the crew attempts to return to their respective homes and escape the Peacekeepers, who are constantly threatening to close in on Moya. One of the Peacekeeper commanders, the villainous Scorpius (Wayne Pygram, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith), becomes obsessed with learning the secrets of wormhole technology buried deep within Crichton's consciousness, relentlessly pursuing Moya and her crew and stopping at nothing until either he or Crichton is no longer breathing.
Since falling in love with Star Trek: The Original Series a couple of years ago, I've had pretty good luck with science fiction TV shows. It was like a gateway series, paving the way for Stargate Atlantis, followed by my recent love affair and long-overdue conversion to Doctor Who and, now, the Australian-produced cult favorite Farscape. I was aware of the show back when it aired on The Sci-Fi Channel (pre-"SyFy") in the early 2000s, but really only knew it, produced as it was through The Jim Henson Company, as "that show with the puppets." How that wasn't enough for me to start watching, I don't know (I've had a fascination with all things puppet and Jim Henson since a very young age), but the show remained off my radar. Like the other genre shows for which I've been late to the party, I'm glad I finally got around to filling in this particular gap and had the opportunity to tear through all four seasons of the show. I won't go so far as to say that Farscape is the best science fiction series the medium has ever produced, but it's got to be up there. It's a quirky, exciting, wholly original show, and I loved working my way through it.
It's easy to see why Farscape has such a cult following. It sets up a complete, well-realized world, populated by strange creatures (courtesy of Jim Henson Productions, and there are traces of some past Henson puppets in several of the characters, chiefly the Podlings and Skeksis from 1982's The Dark Crystal). Though it traffics in a number of genre conventions (fans of science fiction will recognize a number of the plots and tropes used throughout the series), it tweaks most of them just enough to make them feel unique. Just the idea of a living, organic ship gives the show a lot of mileage -- imagine if The Enterprise was an actual character on Star Trek. The show gets even stranger and darker as it goes on (at times feeling like something from the mind of Terry Gilliam), and more serialized, too. For those that like their TV series to be heavy on continuity (I'm one of them), look no further than Farscape. It's not that every episode leads into the next (though that becomes more prevalent in later seasons), but rather that every episode assumes familiarity with everything that came before -- even in the most casual of dialogue exchanges. That's great for a complete series box like this, which is meant to be consumed in big chunks and all in order; it feels less like a weekly serial than a long, expansive continuous narrative. Though Farscape doesn't exactly tell one, big overarching story (it often succumbs to the "adventure of the week" impulse), it does feel like all 88 episodes are of a single piece.
What drags Farscape down from time to time is a lack of focus. I like the messiness of the world it creates: the frame is consistently bursting with strange creatures and sets and visual information, and the look of the show is very busy. It's the messiness of the themes and narrative that don't always work. Perhaps the biggest problem with the series is that it's never entirely clear what the characters want. In the beginning, there are a lot of vague references to wanting to get "home" (especially from Crichton, who remains the most consistent in this regard), but that's rarely more than an abstract idea. Yes, the characters are usually running from something -- Scorpius and the Peacekeepers, mostly -- but that doesn't quite substitute for having them run towards something as well. Some of the characterization is flawed, too. Though Anthony Simcoe's D'Argo begins the show as a no-nonsense warrior, he softens a great deal over the course of the series, which would be fine if it seemed like this change in demeanor was the result of his experiences. That's not exactly the case. Yes, he grows to care about his shipmates and trust them (one in particular), but in trying to convey that change, it feels like the writers lost sight of the character's essence at times. His arc is among the most problematic things about the show, too; when the show begins, he is driven by the desire to be reunited with his son. The way that plot is eventually resolved is some of the weakest stuff in all of Farscape, and the character of D'Argo never really recovers from the botched story.
As the series goes on, more and more characters are introduced (while others depart), and not all of them work. It took me a long time to warm up to Gigi Edgley as the grey-skinned, promiscuous thief Chiana (I'm not sure I ever did, to be honest), who joins the show midway through the first season. On paper, she's interesting -- her unique moral code and bouts of selfishness speak to the way that these characters are all flawed and capable of looking out for themselves instead of the group, an instinct they must all learn to curb -- but the show doesn't always know what to do with her. Edgley's performance is a bit too mannered a lot of the time, too -- she's all ticks and self-conscious physicality. I'll still take Chiana over both Paul Goddard's Stark and Tammy McIntosh as Jool, two characters who appear later on and are genuinely grating. Jool, at least, is annoying by design, and serves a specific function aboard Moya -- she's meant to irritate the characters, and reminds them just how far they've come as a family when confronted with this outsider. Stark is another story. He's not supposed to be annoying, but, man, is he ever; when he's not glowing from the face (literally) and screaming in telepathic agony, he all but ceases to exist as a character. He appears to have been brought aboard as the spiritual replacement for another character, but there simply is no substitute.
Luckily, the other characters are pretty great, and that's what gives a piece of genre entertainment like Farscape real staying power -- especially when a number of the stories tend to repeat themselves, as they sometimes do here. Ben Browder's Crichton is a terrific hero: dashing, arrogant, funny, determined but never taking himself too seriously. For a show as wacky as this one can be at times, he's a great ballast. Same goes for Claudia Black as Aeryn Sun, former Peacekeeper and who, along with Crichton, gives the show its "will they or won't they" romantic dynamic. Of all the characters on the show, Aeryn is the most ambiguous, playing all of her emotions close to the vest, never fully letting us know where she's been or what she wants. As a result, she's the most interesting character on the show. And, of course, there are the two puppets, Pilot and Rygel, both of whom are fully-realized characters and a major contributing factor to what makes Farscape so special. The involvement of The Jim Henson Company could have been little more than a gimmick, but it really works -- it gives the show a look and feel all its own.
Farscape: The Complete Series arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of A&E. A fairly sturdy cardboard box holds four keepcases, each containing a full season spread out over five discs (for a total of 88 episodes in all). The first three seasons are presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame TV aspect ratio, while Season Four is offered in 1.78:1 widescreen; both in upconverted 1080p high definition. Because of the scope of the series and the fact that it often packs a lot of visual information into a single frame, I like the widescreen compositions much better, but there's not much that can be done about the first three seasons -- that's the way they were made. If the episodes can be criticized for looking like little more than upscaled DVDs, it's because they pretty much are; because it was shot in one format and the effects were done in another, it would be necessary to do a full high def overhaul with the entire series in order to make this a true HD presentation. Unfortunately, the folks behind Farscape claim that none of the original prints still exist, makings such a task nearly impossible. What we get, then, are 1080p transfers that look only marginally better than DVD a lot of the time, with a good deal of digital noise throughout, some muted colors and an overall loss of fine detail. If you're new to Farscape and don't mind ponying up the extra money for the Blu-ray set, you should go ahead and do so. You'd be fine with the standard def DVDs, though, and those who already own the show shouldn't even consider upgrading. There's not enough of a difference, visually speaking, to be worth it.
The lossless audio tracks contained on all 88 shows are considerably better. For a TV show, the 5.1 DTS-HD mix is incredibly lively and cinematic: dialogue is consistently clear and audible, while the effects and music are dynamic and immersive. It may be a TV series, but the audio on the Blu-ray set often puts many action movies to shame. I'm not sure it's a sonic experience that's alone worth the upgrade -- it depends on how much emphasis you put on audio -- but it's at least strong enough to save the Blu-ray release from just being a repackaged DVD set.
And, of course, there are the bonus features, which are exhaustive and fantastic, but, truth be told, there's only one new extra to be found on the Blu-ray release. It's a 40-minute retrospective documentary on the series as a whole called "Memories of Moya," and it's a pleasant and comprehensive enough piece but hardly required viewing (it's also the only bonus feature presented in HD, though it's 1080i and not 1080p). Otherwise, all of the supplemental material has been ported over from the already-packed DVD release: 31 commentaries featuring different variations of cast and crew, a boatload of deleted scenes from various episodes, alternate "director's cut" scenes, multiple featurettes on scoring the show, behind the scenes pieces, blooper reels, interviews, TV promos, archival retrospectives, special effects featurettes, and more. There's more bonus content than I could have possibly made it through to still have a review turned around in any kind of timely fashion (it would take a month, probably), but everything I sampled was interesting and worthwhile. Fans of Farscape should be happy if they're new to the set; everyone who already owned the DVDs might be a little disappointed that there's only one piece of new content included here.
Unfortunately, Farscape was canceled before a promised fifth season could go into production, leaving the series proper to end on a major cliffhanger. Through fan support, a miniseries, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars was produced in order to wrap things up, but because it's owned by a different studio (Lionsgate), it hasn't been included on Farscape: The Complete Series. That makes this set feel less than complete. Had an HD version of the miniseries been packaged with this box set, it would have really provided an incentive for fans to upgrade their DVDs, but no such luck. If you already own the show on that format, you're fine sticking with it. But if you don't own any Farscape and are a fan of creative, compelling, original science fiction, this Blu-ray set is the way to go.
Pretty frelling good.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 4136 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* TV Specials
* TV Promos
* Official Site