Starting in 1999 and ending in 2003, 'Farscape' lasted four seasons (unless you consider the 2004 mini-series 'Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars' to be the series' de facto fifth season, as many do) during what would be a massive transitional period with regard to the entire medium of television. For one thing, with the launch of HBO's 'The Sopranos,' 1999 could easily be considered the dawn of the Golden Age of television, which would ostensibly put the Rockne S. O'Bannon-created series in on the ground floor of such an innovative and productive time period that would wind up changing the way audiences and creators alike viewed the medium as a whole. But it was also the beginning of a new era in special effects; one where the tried and true method of creating the fantastical was through the meticulous handcrafting and rendering of characters/creatures through the application of latex, or mechanical creations controlled by an army of technicians and puppeteers, was slowly giving way to the (over) use of CGI.
So, because of that – and by sheer luck of when it was eventually produced – 'Farscape' found itself on the cusp of incredible change in the industry, and would, like its protagonist John Crichton (Ben Browder), essentially wind up with a foothold in two different worlds. Because the series would air on the Sci-Fi Channel (before becoming Syfy), it was ostensibly part of the great creative migration from the big four networks to the world of cable. The series also found itself between emerging technologies that would shape not only the way programs were made, but also how they were presented. This mixture of old and new technologies, the combination of the digital and the analog – especially in terms of special effects, but also with regard to being on the threshold of HD broadcasting – gave the series a unique blend of nostalgic whimsy and progressive (at least then) production values that was just a little bit 'Star Wars,' a touch of 'Star Trek,' and a dash of 'Babylon 5,' all while embracing its own unabashed weirdness.
Sometimes, being such an odd duck can be the sort of thing that leaves a show out in the cold, but in the case of 'Farscape,' and its ultimate fish-out-of-water story, the series managed to ride that nuttiness into lasting cult status with a fanbase around the globe. No doubt much of that had to do with the various oddities presented on-screen that either brought back the fond memories of (or the terrifying nightmares induced by) such films as 'The Dark Crystal' and 'Labyrinth.' Most of it came in the form of the remarkably fully realized characters like Dominar Rygel (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) and Pilot (voiced by Lani John Tupu, who would also have the role of the sometimes-villainous Capt. Crais). Neither was remotely human, nor even played by a single human – Rygel was Muppet-sized, and Pilot was so large he required a group of skilled puppeteers to bring him to life – and yet they were imbued with a full range of emotions and depth of character that's often hard to come by on a show with far fewer (i.e., zero) characters requiring assembly in some vast warehouse months prior to the start of production.
But early on that would prove to be series' biggest asset: The ability to make human and non-human entities into characters that seemed to care about one another, and that the audience actually cared about, too. As with most programs requiring that much world (or, in this case, universe) building in order to make the narrative actually function, there was a steep learning curve when it came to getting the audience onboard with the idea of an astronaut unwittingly flung to the other side of the universe, only to end up in the company of alien fugitives who'd managed to commandeer an enormous living ship named Moya. For the most part, season 1 was all about that "gee whiz" factor of setting John Crichton against the various strange, unknown, and yet still vaguely familiar aspects of alien life and the vast mysteries of space that lay far out of reach for any human who didn't have the misfortune (or was it luck?) to be sucked into a wormhole and shot out into the middle of a space war.
In that sense, 'Farscape' would work opposite to O'Bannon's 2012 series 'Defiance,' which used the vague familiarity of a dramatically changed Earth, and the memories of older characters who remembered how things used to be, to create a sense of wonder around the strange new things occupying a recognizable space. Here, or at least in season 1, Browder's Crichton is perpetually out of his element; every new obstacle he has to face within the framework of an episode is a crash course in the new world he'd suddenly become a part of. And for many of the early episodes, the series made these learning experiences something entertaining that didn’t just demonstrate Crichton's ability to adapt to his new environment; it painted a clearer picture of the cast of characters around him. In fact, by season's end, the stories involving the impetuous warrior Ka D'argo (Anthony Simcoe), blue-skinned high priestess Zaahn (Virginia Hey), and the human-looking, but not human at all Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), as well as the aforementioned Rygel and Pilot, helped turn 'Farscape' from The John Crichton Show, into a full-fledged ensemble wherein the characters actually mattered more than the show's overarching narrative.
Aside from a few rather hokey storylines, some occasionally stilted dialogue, and a few rough starts here and there, the season was largely successful at using its episodic format to hint at a larger storyline that would then become highly serialized the closer things came to the season finale. By the end of season 1/beginning of season 2, the series was ready to introduce new characters, and shuffle around a few plots, by turning the vengeful Capt. Crais into a shaky ally against the new and far more convincingly evil antagonist Scorpius (Wayne Pygram). Season 2 would be an important early turning point in the series, as Crichton, Ka D'Argo, Aeyrn, and the rest of the renegades aboard Moya would begin to become far more than unlikely, disparate individuals trapped in circumstances beyond their control; they began to operate as a team, and more than that, a family.
By the time the darkness of season 3 rolled around, the crew aboard Moya had undergone considerable changes, most of which had made them dramatically stronger characters. The season itself could have felt like something of a departure from the rest of the series, but the shift in tone made sense in terms of where the overall narrative was headed, and where it had been. This was largely due to the fact that dramatic (or sometimes traumatic) experiences continued to carry significant weight, even long after the event in question occurred. To the writers' credit, 'Farscape' refused to hit the reset button on its characters when such things happened, despite having the exact kind of storytelling toolbox that would have allowed for such a thing. The show became a unique kind of sandbox that wasn't necessarily beholden to any kind of rule, and yet O'Bannon and his writers like Dave Kemper, Justin Monjo, Richard Manning (and even Lily Taylor!) held themselves to a dramatic directive that whatever transpired, must have some kind of lasting impact on the arc of their characters. Generally speaking, this remained true throughout the series, but consequences of these events were perhaps never more weighty and significant than they were in season 3.
Although season 4 would be the series' last full season, and bring about something of an unceremonious end, the very public outcry that resulted from that inauspicious conclusion was evidence of not only the great impact the series had on the sci-fi genre, but the even greater impact it had on television and perhaps even long-form storytelling. This was a series that could have easily ridden to some middling success by virtue of the bizarre creatures at its disposal, thanks to The Jim Henson Company. Instead, Rockne O'Bannon, the writing crew, and the series' cast managed to make something that was at once fantastical, strange, a little goofy, feel sophisticated and engaging all at the same time. In the end, the legacy of 'Farscape' is that, even though it had a goal in mind (that it never had a proper opportunity to reach), the series never forgot how to experiment with its own mythology and to constantly strive to discover as much of the vast, imaginative wonders of the universe in as human a way as possible.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Farscape: The Complete Series' comes as 4 5-disc sets that include all 88 episodes of the series, as well as a host of special features. Inside the box, there is also a 15-page booklet that contains a 9-page 'Farscape' comic book, and an interview with producer Brian Henson by Stephen Christy. Each disc is a 50GB Blu-ray with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Seasons 1-3 have been remastered, but retain their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, while season 4 is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The last disc for each season contains the extensive and detailed special features that make this set well worth owning for fans of the series.
For those who tuned in during the original broadcast of 'Farscape,' the image on the first three seasons will look like a dramatic improvement. The image still retains some slight fuzziness in certain places and a small issue regarding black levels at times, but the improvement of the picture quality overall is such that these issues seem rather small in comparison. There is some nice detail that likely has never been seen in some of the episodes (yes, some to wind up looking a little better than others) that manages to show some of the intricacies of the set and character design in a way that will impress even longtime fans. Detail and texture is present in many shots and close-ups, showing facial features in both the human and non-human characters, as well as fine textures that reveal the meticulous nature of the creatures created by the Jim Henson Company.
The biggest improvement, though, is likely the bright, vivid colors that are on display in every episode. Although the color palate on Moya is somewhat drab, the rest of the show usually contains multitudes of greens, blues, and reds that are quite striking and bold here. Sometimes with a series like this, there is a tendency to make the colors a little too vibrant, so as to make them appear even more out-of-this-world, but the image here is thankfully restrained enough for that sort of thing. While the color levels are terrific, the contrast can sometimes be a little lower than expected. It's certainly not bad, by any means, but there are some places where blacks tend to eat up some detail, or the delineation creates a slightly muddled product. Once the series gets to season 4, the change in aspect ratio is really the only noticeable change, as the image quality doesn't improve too much, although there are hints of slightly more detail and a higher level of contrast – especially near the end of the series.
Overall, the image here will likely please fans, but it may not be the ultimate HD makeover many were hoping for.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix the series has been given is actually quite good, and manages to give a new life to the sound of the series. Most of the audio's focus has been directed toward the dialogue, but that actually works out to the rest of the mix's elements, as sound effects and score are allowed to exist in a more discrete manner that makes their inclusion sound much more impressive. Obviously, the dialogue is primarily directed through the center channel, but it will occasionally come through the front and rear channels for the purpose of directionality and imaging, or if someone is talking over a communications device (which actually happens pretty regularly).
For the most part, the sound manages to be surprisingly dynamic. There is a nice amount of clarity in whatever is being presented, while also integrating certain atmospheric effects in interesting ways. The score by Guy Gross is continually used to enhance the drama of any given moment, and makes full use of the lossless audio. It is typically sent through the front channel speakers, and that gives the score a robust, full-bodied sound that resonates, without overwhelming the rest of the product.
In that regard, the atmospheric and surround effects of the series manage to sound just about as good as anything else. There are some instances where things sound a little flat, or aren't quite as immersive as the situation would suggest, but, in general, there is a nice amount of atmospheric noise presented on the discs here.
Farscape in the Raw: Director's Cut Scenes
This is a series of cut scenes that are arranged similarly to cut scenes from disc 1. There is a great deal of pre-visualization work inserted here, so you can get a feel for how much vfx goes into every episode.
'Farscape' never really hit the mainstream like 'Star Wars' or even 'Star Trek' did, but that didn't keep the series from amassing a legion of dedicated fans. Part of the reason its followers were so loyal was the way the series took its characters and far-out plotlines seriously without making them seem too earnest or mawkish. The show certainly got better as the actors and writers grew to know the world they'd built a little better, so for those who haven't yet consumed the show, just give it some time, as it will likely grow on you. This box set is a fantastic way to commemorate the series' 15th anniversary, as it has given the original episodes a visual and audio upgrade, as well as some truly fantastic special features that are worth the price of the set alone. This one is highly recommended.