Farscape - Season 3
D. W. McKim (6-3-2002) - I could easily save everyone a lot of time here and simply type the word "Wow" and slip out for a cappuccino, but given all the hard work that the cast and crew put into the show, I won't shirk in this review either!
Season three can be thought of as the year that Farscape went epic. The first year saw John Crichton's journey to an unknown part of the galaxy and discovering the world while introducing him and the viewer to the Peacekeepers and especially Scorpius, a Sebacean-Scarren hybrid. In season two, we got to learn about the Scarrens. What Season three has done is taken the various histories that have been established thus far and started tying them together. This includes the progression of the Sebacean (Peacekeeper)/Scarren conflict and its wider implications on the Uncharted Territories while filling in more history on the cultures. One episode in particular, "Incubator" was a fascinating look at Scorpius' back story answering many questions that Scapers have been curious about since his debut, especially the reasons why Scorpie has been so relentless in his pursuit of Crichton's wormhole knowledge and why he has supposedly free reign within the Peacekeepers to do so (and for that matter, how he became a Peacekeeper.)
Though not without some flaws (which will be explored later), this year has so far been Farscape at its height. I remain committed to my statements in past years' reviews that this is one of the best cast shows on television and several of the actors have given their finest performances to date (even while due to the story structure of half of the year, most of their screen time was reduced.)
Though the ensemble remains in top form, special mention must go to Anthony Simcoe as Ka D'Argo. The first episodes of the year gave him the opportunity to delve into the more tragic aspects of his character as he witnessed the ultimate betrayal of his fiancée and his son and then as the season progressed. Anthony's gift of comedy had a chance to flourish. Also particularly notable this year has been Lani Tupu as Bialar Crais. Crais has been more of a regular presence on the show this year (and Tupu was added to the billing in the opening credits as a result!) and viewers have been treated to one of the most intriguing complex characters on the show. The ex-Peacekeeper always keeps things interesting as one can never quite be sure what his motives are and he constantly surprises everyone on a regular basis - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Tupu's Crais is a person that I always thrill to see on the screen.
Lani Tupu also provides the voice of Pilot and both Pilot and Rygel (the two regular animatronic characters) have had more of a chance to develop as rounded characters this year even though their screen time still has remained slightly less than satisfactory. Pilot has been showing much more attitude this season - both in terms of confidence and arrogance. His time away from Peacekeeper captivity has finally allowed him the chance to become more of his own person in addition to the symbiotic relationship that he shares with Leviathan Spaceship Moya which has provided such wonderful moments as outright frustration with the crew's bickering forcing him to ban them to a pleasure planet for 10 solar days and allowing himself some evil glee when he shares in the destruction of an antagonist.
Rygel, thankfully, is also starting to develop more as a character though one can't help but feel that most of the writers - at least in the first half of the season - still can't quite completely allow themselves to think of him as more than "The Puppet". One of this year's first new developments for Rygel came from the show's first episode to be penned from series star Ben Browder, "Green Eyed Monster", where Browder pairs Rygel up with Stark. The duo work together as a marvelous comic pair throughout much of the season and while I often bemoan the fact that Rygel often is too relegated to the Comic Relief role, this particular pairing seems to serve both characters quite well, ultimately making both stronger individual personas. Then right in the middle of the season, something I've been praying for has finally started to happen. Rygel's finally started to be written in the manner that he's always deserved to be. He discovers the heroic side of himself in the two-parter "Infinite Possibilities", provides a passionate heartfelt plea to Aeryn in "The Choice" when she appears suicidal, and gets his best moments ever as his superior negotiating skills are highlighted when he arranges a deal between Crichton and Scorpius while simultaneously dealing with homicidal hostages in "I-Yensch, You-Yensch". This episode alone should be required viewing for all Farscape writers before they pen any scene with the Dominar royal.
Interestingly enough, that particular episode was written by Matt Ford, who had previously been responsible for the year's two weakest episodes, "Eat Me" and "Meltdown". These two episodes were the only ones that didn't seem to live up to the standards set by the rest of the season so it was interesting to note that not only were they by the same writer, but also that said writer managed to redeem himself so well with his third try. In all fairness to Ford, the relative failures of "Eat Me" and "Meltdown" can't be faulted strictly to the writing as the direction and overall approach by all involved seemed to dilute the execution. "Eat Me" was an attempt to do a horror-movie inspired telling which seemed so wrapped up itself to do something different that it ironically succeeded in that it just didn't seem to have that particular "Farscape Quality". "Meltdown" just seemed overall rushed; like everyone - actors, writer, director, and production crew - didn't give their all and just went through the motions. Unlike "Eat Me" that fell flat because it tried too hard, "Meltdown" didn't seem like it was trying much at all.
Still, the former episode can be forgiven because it at least continued the Farscape tradition of taking risks - taking inspiration from different genres and seeing how they can twist them into something uniquely Farscape. They make the attempt and as several cast and crew has said in interviews, at least if they do ultimately fail, they're at least willing to fail gloriously. The polar opposite to "Eat Me" could be found in one the series' highlights, "Revenging Angel". Like "Eat Me", "Angel" devoted itself to an outside genre, in this case Chuck Jones-style cartoons, and established a sustained conceit that not only was an absolute delight and risky experiment, but also ultimately served as one of the best homages and tributes to the great Jones who would pass away soon after.
Overall, the writing team has been at the top of its form, with several wonderful offerings from the show's veterans and some delightful rookie efforts - Steve Worland demonstrated a clear understanding of the Farscape tradition of adding a new unexpected twist to a clichéd concept in the time-travel episode "...Different Destinations" while Carleton Eastlake managed to throw in and tie together so many of the various plotlines and developments from throughout the show's history in his "Infinite Possibilities" two-parter that one could hardly imagine it coming from anyone but the head writers themselves. Ben Browder also got a chance to demonstrate that he truly earned his spot in the writing team as he delivered a character piece that saw some influences in Shakespeare and added several insights into the motivations and psyche of each highlighted character which both filled in the dimensions of the characters and advanced the relationships. I look forward to future episodes by all three writers!
The writing ensemble - new and familiar - generally kept up the pace throughout the year, often offering up several episodes that on most shows would serve as either season or even series finales. The twinning and ultimate death of one of the two Crichtons and the end of the "Infinite Possibilities" arc offered a possible "alternate ending" to the series as a whole but still managed to progress the story much more than end it, while the two-parter "Into The Lions' Den" that aired just prior to the season finale proper, seemed like the perfect place to both end the season and the series. But with the show being renewed for two more years (at least), we're only at the halfway mark in the show's story.
In fact the actual season finale, "Dog With Two Bones" marked a bit of a departure to past years as instead of the usual "everyone's-lives-in-immediate-peril" approach, this episode was more introspective and surreal - leading the viewer to question how much of it was real and how much was inside Crichton's mind...and of the parts inside Crichton's mind, how much was being manipulated by the mysterious Old Woman introduced in it. It was a very intriguing way to set up season four and I'm extraordinarily curious to follow where the series is headed. This Old Woman (whose name is yet to be revealed - the entire character itself is One Big Mystery) looks to be a huge driving force for what's to come and between her and the other new character introduced toward season's end, Mele-On Grayza from Peacekeeper High Command, I'm incredibly excited to see what's in store!
The world of Farscape has been rapidly expanding since the beginning though certainly more in evidence this year than before, but while certainly desirable, that also means that the possibility exists that the show could ultimately have a hard time keeping up with itself. There have been a couple of places evident throughout this season that are indicative of this starting to happen.
Mostly this is occurring in the show's design of its characters. Now I must preface this criticism by stating first that Dave Elsey and the Australian branch of the Jim Henson Creature Shop have done outstanding work overall and have created some absolutely amazing characters this year, most notably Moordil in "Suns and Lovers", the Hodgi in "Scratch 'N' Sniff" and the Seer in "The Choice". However, there's also been a number of species that have appeared that don't have much different identifying factors to them other than different eyes or extreme hair styles or colors. On the one hand, given the constraints of a weekly series as well as budget limitations, this can be understandable. However, I'm sensing that there's not enough internal keeping-track of the various human-like creatures - and this unfortunately results in a fair amount of confusion for the devoted viewer - are the characters in "Thanks For Sharing" and "Scratch 'N' Sniff" from the same species for example? Are characters working for Scorpius like Niem in season one and the nurse in "Incubator" different races than Sebaceans or do Sebaceans have more variation in eye and hair color than humans? (This is a legitimate question given the established xenophobia that exists within Peacekeeper society.) Either way, are these characters related to anyone else we've seen? If there are so many different species in the Uncharted Territories that seem so human-like, how come everyone naturally assumes Crichton is a Sebacean as opposed to one of these other species?
This whole issue isn't just for the sake of nit-picking. Instead, this apparent laziness takes on paramount importance considering some of the plot threads introduced this season especially in the form of new cast member Jool the Interion. During last season's cliffhanger, it's revealed that of the myriad species that exist in the Diagnosian's archives, Interions are the only ones compatible and seemingly related enough to Humans to serve as a viable tissue donor for Crichton. Putting aside any other species for the moment, this whole development alone is apparently crucial to several of the long-term big-picture mysteries of the program: Are Humans truly isolated in the universe or do they have any kind of relationship or place in evolution compared with the rest of creation? Did Crichton travel through time as well as space when he was thrown into the Farscape world? When one considers one of the show's biggest open-ended questions of why are Humans and Sebaceans so similar in outward appearance, the introduction of Jool/the Interions begs further question as to why Interions are seemingly more related to Humans when Sebaceans are a closer physical match. With these issues so central to the show's background, it therefore becomes much more essential that everyone involved with character design pay the utmost attention to any species that carries more of a human-like appearance. If they grow in number and appear more by virtue of randomness than design, than the show may eventually never be able to satisfy its overall mythology continuity.
Although not a living creature but still another example of inconsistency in the show's established mythology has been the discovery of D'Argo's new ship. He comes across a vessel that seems oddly familiar to him in "Suns and Lovers" and as the season progresses it appears to have some historical significance to Ancient Luxan culture. Yet, the ship appears to be more technologically advanced than most others we've seen so far which seems odd since from what we know of Luxan culture is that they aren't as technologically advanced as much as they are a warrior and spiritual race. It's odder still that the advanced ship appears to stem from ANCIENT Luxan society. I am really hoping that these apparent inconsistencies have some deeper thought-out relevance and not just a fluke that slipped by everyone involved. Some of the issues mentioned in terms of character design seem to suggest that ship design may share the same flaws, but I'm really hoping that there's more of a game plan at work here - that maybe Ancient Luxan culture might be more akin to Ancient Greece in the history of Earth - a time of great advancement that was ultimately in many ways wiped out as survivors largely started from scratch.
It's not just inconsistency or incongruency that has bothered me throughout this season but also the fact that sometimes more attention is given in a character's design as to what looks "cool" or distinctive than what's actually functional or fits within a character's culture. I touched on this in my season two review in terms of how the way the Nebari were treated in "Clockwork Nebari" seemed to sacrifice what was established previously in order to satisfy a desire to appeal more to fans of the anime-style look. This year, the big form-over-function faux pas occurred in the look of Mele-On Grayza. I mentioned earlier that I love the character based on what little we've seen of her so far but I really wonder what the production team was thinking by giving her such an obviously in-your face low-cut costume. Why would a member of Peacekeeper High Command wear her uniform in such manner? On the one hand, it could tie in with cultural mores; the Peacekeepers (and even non-military Sebacean culture in general - as evidenced in last year's "Look at the Princess" trilogy) seem to be a very visual culture and there's been several examples of Peacekeepers using their sex appeal to get ahead (usually within their ranks), however functionally it makes no sense at all for a member of High Command to maintain such an obvious target of exposed flesh, being that this would be a person largely susceptible to assassination attempts. Given Rygel's observations the episode just before Grayza's introduction of the likelihood of higher-ranking Peacekeepers like Scorpius of wearing bullet-proof protection, Mele-On's wardrobe just seemed more like a desperate grab at demographics than a well thought-out design.
Another area where the show could really get into trouble if it's not careful - and one that must be commented on when this year's debut episode was titled "Season of Death" is in the way the show handles the finality of its deceased characters. This year saw the first loss of one of its regular characters, that of Pa'u Zotah Zhaan. We also witnessed the revival of Aeryn Sun in the season's inaugural episode (which resulted in Zhaan's demise), the passing of one of the two Crichtons and finally the heroic sacrifice of Crais and Talyn. Along the way, we also met Aeryn's mother Xhalax Sun who was at one point believed to be dead only to resurface later. (On a side note, I must continue the praise I heaped on the show in last year's review of how well it does at casting character's relatives as Linda Cropper was the absolutely perfect choice to play Aeryn's mother!) Even within the fantastic realm of science-fiction, I generally like my "dead" characters to stay honestly and truly dead. When too many characters are revived so often as too make the whole series look like a bad clichéd soap opera, it cheapens the writer-viewer relationship. Granted, being that as early as the show's fourth episode, a character was introduced that was able to breathe life back into Rygel shortly after he was choked to death, it was obvious that at least to some degree death would not be as final in this universe as we know it to be here on earth. Still when too many characters presumed dead later turn out not to be, it becomes much like the boy who cried wolf and the viewer is led to feel taken advantage of and devalued by the show's charters. This year, Farscape really tread a thin line from being the "Season of Cop-Outs" more than the "Season of Death" and indeed if they continue the route that they've been going on, it will ultimately ruin the show.
Having said all that however, in almost all the instances that the show dealt with death this year, I felt that they actually did well! I don't think there was a fan in the world who believed that Aeryn would remain dead from last year's cliffhanger and the clues as to how she may be revived were already laid in place. Aeryn was brought back but the means by which it happened had a direct consequence in the demise of another major character. I really must applaud the show here not only for what it did in terms of story but also from a strategic angle. In these internet information-savvy times, it's near impossible for a show to keep its surprises and spoilers from getting out. There was some initial buzz last year that Virginia Hey might be leaving the show but it was all quickly squelched by Zhaan's life not being in peril in the cliffhanger, the emphatic declarations and evidence that Zhaan would be back in season three, and the emotional involvement with seeing the death of Aeryn. By taking all the attention off of Hey's Zhaan and diverting it to Claudia Black's Aeryn, when it came time for Zhaan to leave, it was so unexpected that it allowed her death to carry the full emotional punch that it deserved. I also applaud the program for having the bravery to kill off one of its trademark characters (even though it was brought about by the actress wanting to leave the part more than a planned choice by the writers.)
Likewise, the twinned Crichton's death hardly seemed a cop-out since the whole concept and storyline was one that took place for half the season whereas most shows that would twin a character would not see the other one live on for more than an episode. It also was written so well and its place in the larger storyline made so much sense that it was a strong choice. Talyn John died a hero and gives the viewer an "alternate" look at one way the series could have ended. Story wise, the death of one Crichton would have lasting repercussions on Aeryn's relationship with the remaining John and from a performance angle, allowed Ben Browder his finest performance to date. The resurrection of Xhalax Sun also felt like a natural choice when it happened since there was an open question as to whether or not she was really executed at the end of "Relativity" and a subsequent episode even offered a quick tease that maybe she wasn't killed. It was instead a joy to see her return for one more appearance when we met up with her again and every decision concerning her character was completely logical and well done.
The reason I'm devoting so much attention to this issue is because I have a large fear that Farscape will eventually resurrect the character of Crais. He's one of my favorite characters and I love it when he's on the show, but given the number of characters we've already seen "return from the dead" and the whole manner in which his death was written - giving full character arc and heroic closure to his storyline, any continuation, no matter how it's explained, would severely cheapen the program beyond the point of no return. I love Crais - I hope we get to see him in flashbacks, but I also want more than just about anything to see him stay dead.
Finally in discussing the show's flaws, I must mention the music. The original composers, SubVision, were replaced with Guy Gross during the middle of last season. This has not been a change for the better; it may well have been the worst creative decision the "Farscape Powers-That-Be" have made. Gross does some good work, and there are rare occasions where he achieves brilliance such as last year's music for Aeryn's funeral, this year's new opening theme, and the scores for "Losing Time", "Scratch 'N' Sniff", and "Revenging Angel". These unfortunately stand out because they're exceptions. By and large, on a show where every department commits itself to innovation and pushing the series beyond what's the norm for television, Gross' underscores are typically painfully average. They simply don't belong in such an arena and many times bring otherwise brilliant scenes and episodes down. If we're to be stuck with Gross' music for the rest of the series, I can at least put in one wish that should the long-rumored Farscape movie ever come into fruition that they'll bring back SubVision to score it. Their music was such a wonderful part of the show's success during their tenure that it makes it all the more unforgivable to hear it replaced with what it was. Even when Gross does the great job that he does with "Scratch 'N' Sniff" for example, I can't help but wonder how much more awesome would it have been had SubVision done it. Maybe if we're lucky SV will return to the show and Gross can go on to write music for animation which seems to be his true calling.
The flaws Farscape has exhibited this year only stand out due to the mostly outstanding job that the series continues to perform. This season really has been its best thus far and if I've harped more on the weaknesses, it's only because the show appears to be at its height and I would hate for it to ultimately turn out to be its peak when it still has at least two more guaranteed years to go. Everyone has set some rather impossible standards to continue to top and I really hope that all involved remain able to maintain the upward trend. I realize that there's other aspects of the show or people involved that I may not have given ample praise to in this year's review (such as Claudia Black, Gigi Edgley, Tammy MacIntosh, Wayne Pygram, Tony Tilse, the veteran writers, and O'Bannon/Kemper) and if it appears that I've slighted them it's only because they all do consistently exemplary work and I wanted to balance my praise with my criticism and didn't want to overkill the gushing that may be due to the extraordinary work that the entire Farscape team has devoted itself to this year. With the possible exceptions of Matt Ford and Guy Gross, every single contributor to this season - from series regulars to guest actors, writers and directors to editors and sound/visual effects has worked together to create something that has both entertained and stretched the boundaries of what episodic television can ultimately produce. To bring back the word I considered using at the beginning, I can only sum up by saying "WOW!"