Friday, January 11, 2008

Farscape: 1x01 & 1x02

The first few scenes of Farscape’s “Premiere” did not have me optimistic. The father/son relationship between Crichton and his father felt clichéd, and the entire launch sequence reminded me of the worst episode of The X-Files: “Space.” I got no sense of these characters as real people, and the dialogue was firmly in movie world, with little connection to reality.

However, the show’s not about our world, it’s about the fantastic world Crichton finds himself transported to, and once he goes through the wormhole, the show picks up and becomes a really solid adventure. Most of the big sci-fi shows from the past few years, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 most notably, are all about big political ideas and galaxy spanning conflicts. They’re shows with a cerebral edge, that only occasionally verge into pulpy adventure. They draw from the Star Trek school of sci-fi.

After watching the first two episodes, it seems like Farscape is the descendant of Star Wars. The myriad weird aliens and general focus on a serial adventure tone reminded me a lot of what those films did. There is some of that Star Trekky trouble of the week thing to the second episode, but it seems like the series’ mythology is tied back to the trilogy. Hell, Crichton even makes a reference to Yoda in the second episode, a bit odd considering we’ve got a guy who looks like Yoda’s cousin up on the ship.

Let me first cover the issues I’ve got with the series. At this point, I just don’t really care about standalone episodes. The second episode wasn’t particularly bad, but after watching countless Battlestar, Buffy, Babylon 5 and X-Files standalones, it’s hard to find new ground. I’m not particularly looking forward to going through a whole bunch of standalones on the way to the good stuff. Now, standalones can work really well, as long as they are used to explore character and not just tell the story of the week. Season five of The Sopranos, the series’ strongest, has very little arc per se, but the stories are so tight and revealing of character, it feels like everything is building to something. That’s a luxury that a late season show has, here, it’s tougher.

The second episode reminded me of an early Buffy standalone, entertaining enough in spite of the story, not because of it. I want to get to know these characters more, and the story seemed to get in the way. Not to mention, how many different planets can they encounter along the way? I liked the moment where Crichton kissed the woman, but I just didn’t care that much about these people.

And, there is a bit of goofiness to the goings on. It’s not the muppets, they’re really expressive and fun to watch. Rather, the over the top acting of D’Argo kills the scenes with him. He reminds me of Olaf the Troll from Buffy, and that lack of subtlety doesn’t work for a long term character. Aeryn, John and the blue lady are likable, but on the whole, the acting doesn’t have the immediate intensity of recent great shows. Now, maybe this will be a Buffy situation, where we get unforeseeable depth from the players. Hopefully it won’t be like Babylon 5, where the acting is serviceable, but with a few exceptions, not particularly inspiring.

So, that’s what’s bad, what’s good? I really do like the main two characters, and they’ve got great chemistry. John is a bit of a blank slate, classic pulp hero, but he’s fun to hang out with, and a good straight man for the various wacky goings on. And, in the second episode, you get a strong sense of his conflicted feelings. He’s excited to be in this new world, but also sad when he realizes he might never get home again.

Aeryn is my favorite so far. She reminds me a bit of Starbuck, though less self destructive. I can see some good potential in John helping her discover more of her humanity, and opening her up emotionally. It’s pretty clear a romance between them is getting set up, and that should be fun to watch. When the two of them are together, the show is always solid, it’s only when they get split up that things can get a bit slow.

In the first episode, I really liked the Peacekeepers, and I think they’ll be a strong villain. They definitely recall the Empire from Star Wars, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Freedom vs. oppression is an eternal conflict, and one well suited to the kind of stories they’re telling here. The space battles in that episode had a majesty, and there were moments that just hit me on a deep level. That’s what a great show does, touch something deep in the subconscious.

The other moment that did that for me was Zhaan taking the ship’s pain in episode two. I love that metaphysical stuff, and the scene had a real magical quality. The power of that moment made up for any of the other goofiness going on in the episode. As long as the standalones deliver enough good moments like that, I’ll stick with the show.

So, I’m going to seek out some more episodes, and see where things go with the show. I’m not completely sold yet, but I’m liking it so far and hopefully things will get even better. We shall see.


RAB said...

Okay, here's the most important thing I can tell you about this: when I saw the premiere of Farscape my reaction was exactly what you say in your first paragraph -- and the rest of this post, for that matter -- but I eventually became one of the most hardcore of hardcore fanatics about the show. The thing is, it does move on from these unpromising beginnings to become something almost entirely different, and every bit as unique and singular as you found Babylon 5 to be.

The shift is gradual over the first season, and part of it was due to breaking the writers and directors of their preconceptions of what they were allowed to do. In a way, Farscape ultimately becomes the most "insider" SF television show ever, incorporating meta-commentary on the cliches of film SF by playing up and then completely subverting them. Think of the Grant Morrison of Seven Soldiers here. That second episode "I, E.T." is by a wide margin one of the crappiest episodes the series ever had, but that throwaway line about Yoda is a hint at one way the show approaches its self-commentary: in subsequent episodes you'll learn Crichton is actually an SF geek who has seen every movie and tv show the viewers have seen, and responds the way we'd want to in the same situations. And then they take this audience identification character and put him through a harrowing, psychologically hellish ordeal. And they do the same to every other character as well.

Really, I can't recommend this show highly enough.

Patrick said...

Excellent, that's got me really excited about the show. I definitely like the pop tone the show has, versus the sometimes pompous self importance of Babylon 5.

And this: "And then they take this audience identification character and put him through a harrowing, psychologically hellish ordeal" sounds exactly like Buffy so I'm really eager to check it out. Only problem is hunting down all the DVDs, why does the good stuff always go out of print?

crossoverman said...

Really, Patrick? This is the series you're going to watch next? Eh, with a side of meh.

Look, I did enjoy the show for a couple of years on a purely mindless, brain candy kind of way. But I really, really don't see what Farscape fanatics love about the series - or where they find their passion to defend what is ultimately a fairly hollow show that retreads the same ground season after season.

David Golding said...

For years I caught random episodes and just didn't get Farscape. It looked well made, but it wasn't for me.

While we were on our round-Australia trip, we borrowed Farscape Season 1 from a friend, to while away the time. We thought the first four or so episodes were pretty shaky, like you say, but after that, we were hooked.

We're now at the start of Season 3, and from here, I can tell you that Farscape doesn't really do "arc". There is a plot arc going through the three seasons so far, but it is pretty unobtrusive. What really makes the show is the brilliant character interactions. The private expressions between pairs of characters are the foundations of the show. Regarding meta-commentary, I'm not sure the show is that subversive of its stock story ideas (much less so than Futurama) but they are really just there to give the characters time and space. And also give them a stage for action, because I think Farscape makes you feel the existential reality of its world more than most shows.

Also, by television standards, there's a lot of sex, drugs, and swearing, and a generally more adult take on morality.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, lurker here. Just wanted to recommend trying your local library for Farscape DVDs. Season 1 is temporarily out of print, so unfortunately it can't be Netflixed, but the rest is available.

If ever you visit the newbie thread of the Farscape forum at Television Without Pity, those folks can help you out locating eps. Only the first half of season 1 consists of standalones, after that, you really need to see it in order.

I'm a huge fan of all the shows you mentioned, so let me reassure you that Farscape will NOT disappoint. It's definitely worth tracking down.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi. Also a lurker; you popped up in my Google alerts.

I didn't watch the first episode first--rather, it was ep 18, I think. The plot itself on that ep is so-so but the psychological changes for a couple characters who have to face reality, and the consequences of events, are what kick the show into its arc.

I'm with you in that Aeryn is my favorite, and that was from the outset. The actress herself seems to have something going on behind the surface and I find that intriguing.

If you liked eps 1 and 2, chances are good you're going to stick with the show. Ep 3 gives some good Aeryn revelations, as well as showing more conflicted John. 4 is a romp. 5 & 6 are meh again, but 7, PK Tech Girl, really gets into Aeryn's head, as well as Rygel's gives some important backstory and introduces a character who will be pivotal in the episode "Nerve". It's one of those episodes where you have to pay attention because it'll be important later.

After PK Tech Girl, the show really picks up, although there are a few missteps. ah, well. Even good shows go REALLY bad once in awhile.

Season 1 standouts: DNA Mad Scientist, A Human Reaction, Nerve/Hidden Memory, and Family Ties.

You're not going to get too much politics and religion arguments in Farscape, but you are going to get personal consequences of decisions and actions. The show really is about the characters, as you've already noticed.

Have fun! I'm still in love with this show and it's been eight years.

Patrick said...

What a conflicting series of comments to sort through. I'm glad to hear that character is the focus of the show, that definitely seemed to be the strength, and I don't mind if there's not significant plot arc, as long as there is meaningful character development and the reset button isn't pushed at the end of every episode.

I actually got the premiere from my library, and they've also got episodes 5&6 and 7&8. I bought the second Starburst collection, so I'll at least see through episode 14 or so, then decide if I want to continue on. Its good to hear that I, ET is one of the worst of the series. That second episode always seems to be problematic.

And Keith, I'll keep your opinion in mind. We're usually pretty in sync on shows, so I might go the same way as you on this one.