Farscape Far Away

If you’re a fan of science fiction and haven’t heard of the TV series Farscape (1999-2003) you don’t get out much. If you’re not a sci-fi fan, this series might just make you one. It offers more compelling characters, action, humor, drama, weird plot twists, sudden mood shifts, poignancy, and stunning performances than any other dozen TV shows you might name.

It all begins when astronaut John Crichton encounters a wormhole on an experimental mission. He’s flung to a distant quadrant of the galaxy, encounters a gigantic vessel nearby, and docks with it. It turns out to be a living ship, know to the locals a leviathan, operated by a bonded pilot. The ship’s occupants are alien prisoners escaping from their captors. The latter, the Mr. Bigs in this area of space, call themselves the Peacekeepers, and from all appearances (externally at least) appear indistinguishable from humans.

But the escaped aliens on the leviathan (called Moya), are a mixed lot, ranging from almost humanoid to clearly not. The most prominent of the latter are Rygel, a slug-like Hynerian and (as he claims) the deposed ruler of billions (accompanying photo, front row, far left), and Moya’s pilot. While most of the show’s other main characters are played by human actors, many of them in elaborate makeup and prosthetics, Rygel and Pilot are anamatronics—basically, puppets. The show was sourced from Jim Henson Productions and Hallmark Entertainment, thus the puppet/Muppet connection. But don’t be misled; these characters have next to nothing in common with Kermit or Miss Piggy. They’re more than a little strange at first, but are so vividly realized and voiced that after a few episodes you’ll find them as “real,” intriguing, and even endearing as any other characters in the show.

Filmed in Australia with a largely Australian and New Zealand cast (American Ben Browder, as Crichton, is the most obvious exception), Farscape was distributed worldwide, including on the USA’s SciFi channel. While the show didn’t break through into the mass market, it nevertheless became a solid cult classic to millions of rabid fans. When it was unceremoniously dumped after its fourth season, dangling by the thread of an unresolved cliffhanger, the screams of its fans were palpable. A year later, a densely plotted two-part mini series, The Peacekeeper Wars, provided the show with satisfying closure.

The entire series has appeared twice on DVD and now, with this latest entry, twice on Blu-ray. As with all the previous releases, this new one, the 15th Anniversary Edition, does not include The Peacekeeper Wars. The latter is available separately on DVD (though not on Blu-ray), but mixed ownership rights have kept it from being packaged together with any currently available boxed set of the complete series.

Like many of today’s TV shows, Farscape’s plot has a near-serial continuity that works against watching it in random order. Start anywhere except season one, episode one and you’ll likely be thoroughly confused and give up. But start from the beginning, pay attention, and you’ll soon be hooked.

Does the show have any weaknesses? Sure. Like almost all television series’ it has its share of lame episodes. It also tends to fall into the “monster of the week” cliché a bit too often. But even in the latter events it usually has something important to offer— either by enhancing character development or advancing the overarching storyline.

The show does peak in its third season, building inexorably to a stunning finale that starts with the two-part, “Into the Lion’s Den.” The show’s fourth year never quite equaled this high standard, but was still solidly entertaining. When I revisited it in preparation for this review, in fact, those final fourth season shows were much better than I recalled from my last viewing some years ago.

According to an interview a few years back on the website The Digital Bits, the series, while filmed, was originally produced and edited in standard definition. This includes its very impressive (for a TV show) CGI special effects. No true high definition masters apparently exist. While it might have been possible to go back to the live-action film elements (assuming they’re available), re-master them in HD, then redo the special effects to give them comparable quality, this would be impossibly expensive for any series short of a major network franchise like Star Trek, with millions of potential sales.

Instead, the source for this transfer (and the earlier Blu-ray release) was the PAL master used for broadcast in countries that employ the standard definition PAL color TV system. Analog standard definition PAL has 576 lines of resolution—nearly 100 more than the 480 lines in our standard definition NTSC system. The 576i PAL master was upconverted to 1080p for Blu-ray, together with additional processing to enhance detail.

This sort of processing is difficult to do without creating artifacts, but the discs here are notably free of such issues. I wouldn’t call these Blu-rays a visual revelation; the results are not, and never could have been true HD given the 576i source elements. But closeups and two-shots look impressive, with the lack of true HD obvious mainly in more distant scenes. The overall result is a significantly improvement over the older DVDs (not to mention the abysmal quality of the original, SciFi SD broadcasts). The main downside is that the first three seasons were shot in 4:3, and that’s how they appear here (and in all earlier releases). Only season four is 16:9.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio on these discs is very good. It offers a clean, open, cinema-like soundstage. The bass is solid and on occasion powerful, though never truly gut-wrenching. The surround engagement is effective when used, but it’s mostly subtle. The dialogue, for the most part, is crisp, natural, and intelligible.

While the synthesized music score is often superb, the aggressive main theme sounds intrusive and out of place when it pops up an instant after the end of a sad or poignant episode—of which there are many. This abruptly breaks the mood, denying the viewer a few moments to disconnect from what has just happened. An alternate, introspective theme (or no music at all) would have been a better choice to close out such episodes. But this was a production choice, not a reflection on the disc’s basic sound quality.

Both the audio and video in this release are identical to those found on the earlier Blu-ray series set. As are the special features, which include commentaries (on something less than half the episodes), deleted scenes, “making of” featurettes, and more. The only relatively new extra here (first produced for the previous HD set but not present on the DVD versions) is a “Memories of Moya” feature, running about 30 minutes and including interviews with the major cast members.

One thing that I wish had been added to this new set, but wasn’t, is the inclusion of a “play all” option to string together the episodes on each disc without the needless repetition of the “formerly on Farscape” refresher scenes. Elimination of the fades to black between scenes (where the breaks for commercials on the original broadcasts were located) would have also been a plus. Some TV shows on disc have done such scene-stitching (notably, all of the Stargate series’), which can greatly improve the overall flow of the story when the black fades aren’t dramatically necessary.

Overall, however, Farscape remains, for me, the best science fiction television show ever produced (with due respect to Who-heads and Trekkers everywhere). It’s available not only in this boxed set, but also as individual episodes from a number download or streaming sites. Since this boxed set is a significant investment, I recommend that you try a few downloads first, perhaps of the first three or four episodes, to see if the show grabs you. If it does, and I think it’s more likely than not that it will, you’ll want to ditch the download dance and add this full series set to your Blu-ray collection. You’ll definitely want to see it more than once.

New Video Group, 2013; Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 (Seasons 1-3), 1.78:1 (Season 4); 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio; 4136 minutes; Starring Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe