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Farscape Season 1

Boo, get off the stage!

D. W. McKim (8-17-99) - Had things been different, I could easily have been a Trekkie. The main reason I've resisted getting into Star Trek is because I'm the type of person who doesn't like seeing a sequel if I've not seen the original and between the myriad episodes, films, and spin-offs there's simply too rich a history. I've seen the odd episode at friends' houses and found them quite enjoyable but not enough to motivate me to keep up on my own. There's been other sci-fi shows I've tried to get into but either they verged too much on generic action-based chase plots, interesting concepts but weak storytelling, direction, and/or acting, or were just flat out cheesy or pretentious. (As classic as X-Files may have eventually become, I found the first couple episodes to be lacking and tuned out then.)

Imagine then my excitement upon hearing that the Henson Company would be taking on this genre. Though some Henson fans may have been surprised, the two seem perfect for each other conceptually. The company's expertise with the Creature Shop, character makeup, and CGI would ensure a diverse landscape of alien cultures. Sci-fi would be a natural progression from the fantasy productions Henson has become known forever since "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth". (Indeed the only real separation between the two is that while fantasy relies on mysticism, sci-fi relays stories where the fantastic is grounded in scientific theory.) While such a show may be a showcase for these abilities, Henson is also known for works that focus on the characters and the storytelling. Add to that the fact that once again Henson would be collaborating with Hallmark and all the potential was there for something truly special. (Plus of course here was a chance for me to be in from the beginning!)

I'm happy to say that Farscape not only exceeds that potential, it starbursts past it. All admiration or bias toward Henson aside, I can truly say this program is among the best television series airing today - all genres included. The Henson name may have encouraged me to tune in but the shows own merits keep me anxiously looking forward to each new installment. Each episode is consistently excellent; I've yet to see any "filler" entries (though the recent "Jeremiah Crichton" did come awfully close.) Sci-fi fans have definitely taken notice. In its few months on the air, the program has become the Sci-fi Channel's top rated show and the network is set to air its second marathon.

Just what makes the show so incredible? Consistently high production values all around, brilliant acting, direction, and writing, rich characterizations and development, and a script that knows how to laugh at itself even when the tone gets dark. In short, Farscape is one of those rare programs that apply to the small screen the high standards generally associated with cinema. This is the type of show that one turns the volume up to hear all the subtleties in the audio mix!

Obviously, there's a lot to comment on here but being that most people reading are Henson fans, let's feature the Creatures. Among the main cast, two are animatronic. Rygel XVI, the deposed slug-like king and Pilot, a navigator being that's symbiotically linked with Moya, the bio-mechanoid Leviathan ship. Viewer reaction to Rygel has been mixed. Some sci-fi fans are a little unnerved to see a "puppet" actor but chalk this objection up to "foamaphobia". Most outer space tales are filled with alien races that all bear an extraordinary resemblance to homo sapiens so a cast that includes animatronic races in the mix are more than welcome in my book! As a creature, Rygel is engagingly performed by John Eccleston and Jonathon Hardy et al, alternately gross and dang cute what with those priceless facial expressions. The other more valid criticism is that Rygel's used too much as comic relief - and often reliant on body function humor. (In one episode, a planet's food turns Rygel's body fluids explosive and he saves the day by - I kid you not - relieving himself! And here we all thought the potty episode of Bear in the Big Blue House was a big deal!) Thankfully, this has settled down since the first seven episodes.

Yes, Rygel's primary function thus far has been as comic relief but I have a great amount of faith in the writers that they have a larger game plan; that Rygel's going to end up becoming more important. There have been a number of subtle hints that underneath his greediness exist signs of a great ruler. He's demonstrated strong diplomatic skills, had managed to crack the codes that freed the other prisoners aboard Moya, negotiated contact with other aliens he thought could be of assistance, and rescued the cast by bluffing through a high tech chess-like game. His more selfish eccentricities may just be the side product of being used to being waited hand and foot on and finding himself a prisoner among other races that have a difficult time taking him seriously.

Pilot, on the other hand, has become a surprise favorite. Bonded with Moya, he's both a part of her as well as an individual being, a navigator, a mediator/translator between ship and passengers. The design is absolutely stunning - a huge (originally) six-armed plated being with wonderfully expressive eyes surrounded by a gigantic control console. Most of the time we see him though, it's as a holographic monitor type image in a clamshell like display that makes him look a bit like a transparent turtle. On the surface, Pilot seems like he may be robotic in form and function but being a living species bonded with a sentient ship he often has interaction with the crew and it's during these personal exchanges where the character shines. This being's the most mysterious and these occasional glimpses of Pilot the person are golden. He can be sarcastic, cunning, unsure of himself and Moya, but ultimately gentle and caring. His best moments are those with ex-Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black). Oddly enough the two have been striking up an interesting friendship, especially intriguing being how Sun's people had captured Moya and her passengers in the first place. Pilot may soon be flexing his acting tendrils due to the revelation that the living ship is PREGNANT (how's THAT for an original plot?) and Pilot has no idea what kind of behaviors or effects to expect! Pilot's stunning visuals are complemented perfectly by the soothing vocals of Lani John Tupu who just happens to be the same live actor who portrays the show's main antagonist, Captain Crais. So help me, if I could have any dream piece of Farscape merchandise, it would be a giant Pilot beanbag chair that could wrap its arms around me! Don't know if Pilot can (or would) sing, but if this came with a recording of Pilot crooning a lullaby, I'd be in heaven!

But of course the advantage of having the Hensons handy (or is that the handy Hensons?) is that each new alien culture encountered can have a distinct look be it through animatronic wizardry or prosthetic makeup technique. D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), one of the series' regulars, owes his Worf-inspired appearance to the latter latex work which allows Simcoe varied facial expression even though only his eyes and mouth are exposed. (Of course, the fact that Anthony's eyes are unbelievably expressive to begin with doesn't hurt either!) The makeup actually extends beyond just the face to Simcoe's body allowing for bulging arms and the appearance of hooks that were once implanted near D'Argo's neck as a restraining measure. Although Henson's involvement may be minimal here, also certainly noteworthy is the makeup job of Virginia Hey's Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, the Delvian priestess. Not only is turning a woman bald and blue a formidable challenge, but the detailing of the various spots and markings on the face is body is truly Emmy-worthy.

Of the guest Creatures, the standout creation so far has been NamTar, the "DNA Mad Scientist". A technological marvel, his design incorporates a costumed actor with fully animatronic head and stilts. The design is a true tour-du-force, as the character looks cunning and yet oddly trustworthy when he looks one in the eye. An amalgam of various creatures, NamTar appears mostly wolf-like and yet when we realize by episode's end that he had evolved from a lab rat, we can see these design elements in hindsight. In the same episode, Aeryn undergoes an amazing transformation as NamTar injects her with Pilot's DNA. (I can't help but think this episode was the result of Simcoe and Hey secretly bribing the writers to put Claudia Black through a complex makeup job after getting her to look normal for so long!)

Series creator Rockne S. O'Bannon recently described the actors as a "dream cast" and it's clear this was not just lip service. I'd go as far to say that Farscape is presently the best cast show on television. This is a true ensemble cast; there's no weak link. Each of the main characters has shown extraordinary depth and subtlety turning in consistently multi-layered performances. Chances are viewers may first notice the colorful (no pun intended) Hey as a 10th level Pa'u struggling to control her darker side or Black's high-energy warrior forced into confronting the unfamiliar terrain of her emotions. Indeed, Hey continually exerts tremendous control over her portrayal even as Zhaan's own grip on herself is weakening. In addition to demonstrating dramatic brilliance rarely seen by actresses in similar roles, Black's at her best when she's given humorous moments, as she possesses marvelous comic timing. Such as when she's frustratingly trying to find out why no one's returning to Moya after spending time on Skylar while simultaneously being forced to smile so as not to appear suspicious to the planet's inhabitants.

Simcoe's excellence is so subtle that it may take viewers a while longer to take note. D'Argo is a deceptively complex character. A seemingly fierce, intimidating Luxan warrior, D'Argo struggles with what he's supposed to be and what he wants to be - a loving father/family man with musical appreciation. He tries to assume a leadership position despite his inexperience. He prefers to tell the others that he was imprisoned for killing his commanding officer when in reality he was set up for murdering the Peacekeeper mother of his illegitimate child. To convey all these qualities and do so underneath a fair amount of makeup requires a skilled actor and Simcoe is more than up to the task. Simcoe's D'Argo has his inadequacies and one can see his lack of confidence guiding his rage but by no means is D'Argo an incompetent boob. He is still a fierce, loyal fighter made all the more dangerous by his unpredictability. The Luxan may be a big teddy bear underneath it all, but you still wouldn't want to roll over onto his bed space or steal the covers from him.

"And then/I will count Ben/for Ben ranks a Number Ten". As Earthling John Crichton, Ben Browder holds his own just fine thank you although because the rest of the cast is so colorful, this fact may go unnoticed. Indeed quite a few reviews initially dismissed Browder as being out of his element. As a scientist unexpectedly sent through a wormhole to a strange distant part of the universe; the character of Crichton would very well be in a state of confusion. Perhaps reviewers may have been quick to confuse this with actor inadequacy due to Browder's hunk quotient. Ben Browder is that rare animal that the world isn't used to - a gorgeous male actor who can actually act. Playing a human may not be as juicy of a role than that of alien, but Browder's talent is by no means underused. John is every man in this strange world that the audience is supposed to identify with. Browder's Crichton is readily likable, good-natured, intelligent, funny, charming, and just the kind of guy that you'd want to hang out with or take home to Mother. Ben even goes farther and enhances the stock hero with a refreshing sensitivity and wit. The only real flaw with the character is that he falls too much along the usual genre stereotype of an unbelievably perfect hero. Somehow who always manages to get the crew out of danger while changing their surroundings for the better five minutes before the closing credits with nary a hair out of place! This is more of a writer weakness than any neglect on Browder's part. But I bring this up here because apparently there's been a great deal of communication and input between the writers and actors and I would like to see them both work more on making our token human more human. Showing more of his shortcomings or quirks... or at least having the guy fail at something just once.

As this review goes to press, a new cast member has just been added, Gigi Edgley as Chiana, a young delinquent thief that escaped a world that favors conformity and favors mind control to seek their goals. From her debut, I can say that she's up to the already established level of quality of the main cast and she looks to be a wild addition to the ship. It's possible after enough episodes, she could easily become some viewers' favorite character. The only potential shortcoming I noticed in her premiere episode was that her accent tended to waver. But I've learned not to second guess this show too much - it could very well be intentional. Her whole manner of speech tends to slide back and forth as if she's actually a split personality and it wouldn't surprise me to discover that they're going that route. (In her guest role as Matala, Lisa Hensley also used such vocal technique as a Scorvian spy posing as an Illyanic.)

Put all of these characters together and you have a classic Henson concept; a diverse group of quirky beings doing their best to get along. However here we're treated to a deliciously darker variation. Farscape presents a world where nothing can be taken for granted - just when you think you have a character pegged, they'll do something completely unexpected. No body is quite who they seem. Not only can different alien cultures spawn various mores, but also there exists an underlying question of just who are the "good guys" and "bad guys" if such steadfast labels can even apply. (Moya's passengers are, after all, escaped prisoners.)

Certainly the series' most disturbing moment was in the "DNA Mad Scientist" episode where the cast asks NamTar what his price would be for providing his star chart maps. Immediately after NamTar gives his answer - one of Pilot's arms - the scene cuts to D'Argo, Rygel, and Zhaan amputating the gentle Pilot against his will. Once he finds out, John is naturally outraged yet when he confronts Pilot, he's just as shocked at Pilot's lack of anger. In Pilot's moral code, his own needs come behind that of Moya's and the passengers. Even John himself can't completely be trusted in recent episodes. When he has a chance to recreate the wormhole phenomena, he dangerously attempts to try to leap home without consulting anyone else including Aeryn who's in the prowler with him. At another time, when his assistance is desperately needed in tending to the expectant Moya, Crichton gets fed up and blows off steam (and the crew) by going out for a joy ride.

Yet despite its darker moments, the show is overall a lot of fun. Farscape is not a parody (though it often pays homage to other like works) or even what would be called "sci-fi lite" but like most Henson projects, doesn't take itself too seriously. The script is seasoned with wonderfully funny moments and even tries to simultaneously explain and poke fun at the genre's usual implausibilities such as the dentic D'Argo presents to John - a leech like caterpillar that cleans teeth by eating away at plaque and bacteria. Obviously the characters are well written but so are the stories.

Farscape writers often lead the viewers into thinking they know where they're going and then hit them with a completely unexpected plot twist that's both surprising and yet avoids veering into Melrose Place style sensationalism. I can always count on at least one moment each episode that elicits a large physical response. I cheered when Zhaan graduated to 10th level priesthood. I groaned when the Tavlek, Kyr, chose to regress to the addictions of his gauntlet chemicals. I howled in hysterics for minutes at Aeryn's attempt at human slang ("She gives me a woody" - she meant to say "the Willies"!). I bolted out of my chair in horror at Pilot's arm and when Captain Crais leans in to kiss his lieutenant and instead snaps her neck. But without a doubt, the most splendid surprise came in the form as guest Rhys Muldoon as Staanz, an eccentric garbologist who leads D'Argo through a mission to rescue John & Aeryn from the Flax, an anti-matter trap. Just when we think we've experiences the episode's climax (John & Aeryn, thinking they're minutes from death start going at it like rabbits), Staanz begs D'Argo not to part with him - revealing that "he's" actually the female of the species and desires the Luxan's company. Not only was the set-up and subsequent payoff perfectly executed, but also once again Farscape successfully provided another alien creature that transcends human ideals.

Alternate sexualities are rarely touched upon in similar shows though to imagine every alien race as following the traditional male/female pairing. When such is not even always the case among Earth's creatures is quite limiting and here not only does Farscape take the lead in stretching the barriers but does so in a manner that's both lighthearted and wonderfully unexpected and imaginative. The scene is further punctuated by a range of emotions that flash through D'Argo's eyes in the short time it takes to fade to commercial, not to say there aren't the occasional cracks in the usually tight writing. Though rare, inter episode continuity lapses do occasionally occur.

John introduces D'Argo to the concept of hand shaking in episode 11 even though we've seen him shake hands with a youngster back in the second installment. Other times a concept is introduced and then conveniently forgotten about like the translator microbe that's injected into John once he's brought aboard Moya. This was an initially clever way of getting around the "communication problem" without having to spend half a story explaining how characters learn each other's tongues every time new races are encountered, but then once they gave themselves that way out, the concept got way out. When it fits the mood, we still hear native tongues such as D'Argo's cursing and Delvian chanting, even Rygel throws Yiddish terms in his vocabulary. And they're still able to perfectly understand and be understood by the inhabitants of Denea, a planet that supposedly has had no previous contact with other space beings. It's sad to see a show so concerned with attention to detail suffer from "Gilligan's Island syndrome".

On his experimental flight, John was supposed to take off and be back on Earth by dinnertime and yet we've seen him in three different colored T-shirts. We know he has at least two different pairs of undershorts (maybe Calvin Klein's global domination is just that!) And he never seems to run out of tape when recording his reflections on his micro cassette recorder. After taking the time to introduce answers to dental hygiene questions, which probably wouldn't have been at the top of anyone's minds, they've yet to explain how Crichton's hair stays shortly cropped and how he remains clean-shaven. That is until he's abandoned on a planet for three months and then sprouts a ridiculous fake beard (hair length is still the same!) that's overcompensates for the length of time it would have taken to grow it. (Maybe the makeup people just wanted to make Ben look like a Muppet.) I'm hoping that one day they'll get around to noting all these inconsistencies in as gut-busting a manner as they did with the dentic. Of course, these are just minor irritants - the little glitches that keep the show from being perfect and will be laughed about years later at fandom gatherings should Farscape garner the cult status it deserves. Henson (and Hallmark plus Nine Network) has aimed for the stars with this one and it looks like we're in for a long satisfying, gratifying trip. Hopefully as Moya cruises past the unknown regions of the universe, she can make a quick sail past heaven - if Jim could see this, he would no doubt be ecstatically proud.

 
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