FarScape: The Complete Series (1999 - 2004)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 11, 2011  | 
DVD
Beyond | All Regions, PAL | 4:3 | English DD 5.1 | 4010 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Directors: Tony Tilse, Rowan Woods, Andrew Prowse, Ian Watson, Peter Andrikidis, Geoff Bennett, Catherine Millar, Pino Amenta, Ian Barry, Brian Henson
Starring: Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgley, Wayne Pygram, Virginia Hey, Lani Tupu, Paul Goddard
Country: USA / Australia
External Links
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John Crichton is an astronaut with an interest in wormholes – mysterious and powerful tunnels between different and faraway parts of the universe. Unfortunately for Crichton, he gets pulled through one in his experimental module, the FarScape 1, but fortunately for us, his misadventure gave the audience of the show four more years of basically one of the most interesting and intelligent science fiction shows to ever screen on TV.

Crichton's ship is inadvertently responsible for the death of a Peacekeeper pilot, and that pilot's brother Bilaur Crais immediately sets on Crichton's path, intent on revenge. The FarScape 1 is drawn aboard Moya, a prison leviathan – a living ship working symbiotically with another being called Pilot, who is organically linked to Moya's body. Crichton is followed on board Moya by Peacekeeper pilot, Aeryn Sun. Let me explain: the Peacekeepers are a highly disciplined and hierarchical race called Sebaceans, human-like beings with a military stranglehold on this faraway galaxy – and as such are hated by most, including three prisoners currently attempting to break away with Moya and escape Peackeeper incarceration – although each of them has their own agenda, a plot device that never fails to cause friction between the crew throughout the series. Our crew: Zhaan (Virginia Hey, who some of you may remember as the Warrior Woman in Mad Max 2), a Delvian priestess, Dominar Rygel XVI, a deposed Hynerian ruler, and Ka D'Argo, a bad-tempered Luxan warrior. Zhaan is a kind of sentient plant life-form, blue skinned and hairless (the make-up became a problem for Hey later in the series; it made her kidneys bleed and assaulted her immune system), Rygel a slug-like being (one of the many remarkable puppets we meet in the show) with a voracious appetite and a keen sense of placing himself and his desires before that of any others, D'Argo is physically imposing, looking as fierce as he's capable of being (courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Shop's appliance make-up), and with a keen sense of right and wrong. And that's the core of your crew.

If you're thinking, "Hmm, a bunch of misfit prisoners aboard a living ship, each with a different agenda, but also out to fight against an evil fascist human empire – didn't I see that before in Blake's 7?" Yes, you did. And FarScape does show a range of the same ideas that Blake's 7 explored back in the day: the nature of good and evil, ambiguous and often deeply flawed characters, sacrifice, loss and grief, nobility, appearance versus reality, obsession, power, greed, morality's often uneasy relationship with technology – well, you get the picture. Like all of the best science fiction, FarScape is talking about our world – the here and now of when it was made, not the world of distant planets, or the world of the future; all that stuff's just incidental. But what sets it apart from other shows of a similar ilk is its intelligence, its grittiness, as well as the excellent ensemble acting – actually it's the blend of the these factors that stops FarScape from being just another Star Trek wannabe. It's what gives it its individuality and own personality.

What you'll find when you watch the show is how easily it sucks you in to its world. I'm not going to use the word "realistic" due to its subjectivity, but the way that the creators have drawn this world in such fine detail is really quite impressive. The "rules" of this galaxy are laid down pretty quickly and efficiently, and the only deviation you'll find is in the course that certain characters follow. Our heroes, as mentioned before, are not without flaws – there's no Captain Kirk or Doctor Who here – and are quite often distrustful of each other and each others' motives, when not actually at each others' throats. The script is unflinching in the way that it deals with the main characters, some ending up suffering greatly, some dying, some watching their dreams disappear irrevocably, some switching their allegiances with varying results.

And then of course, there are our villains. By the time we've hit season two, we've already been introduced to the Scarrans, a savage reptilian race even more militaristic than the Peacekeepers, and even less pleasant to be around. Somewhere between the two is Scorpius, a half-Sebacean, half-Scarran hybrid high-ranking Peacekeeper officer (strange enough given the Peacekeeper High Command's adherence to ideas of racial purity) with an obsessive desire to capture Crichton's wormhole technology, to use it as a weapon against the Scarrans (not to mention a strange likeness to black metal/industrial musician Mortiis). In some regards the villains we meet in season one, Scorpius and Crais, are two of the most interesting characters in the series, displaying a constantly shifting ability to be either almost understandable, or completely detestable. But at all points they're presented with identifiable desires and singularity of purpose (if a rather circuitous way of attempting to achieve them), unlike our heroes – D'Argo, haunted by his past and with a difficult relationship with his estranged son, for example, makes some blundering choices due to his erratic passions, as much as Crichton does with his yearning for home and his obsessive study of wormholes in his desire to achieve this – the likeness in this obsessive drive for wormhole technology between Crichton and Scorpius becomes quite a frightening one by the end of season two – but I'll leave you to discover why for yourself.

One thing that must be noted about FarScape: its sly, irreverent and quite inter-textual sense of humour. It's clever without being overly clever, and as Crichton acts as our guide through the Uncharted Territories, more than just a few references to popular culture get dropped along the way, often for a knowing laugh, but also often as a ready reference to help as a kind of audio-visual shorthand for a science-fiction/fantasy-literate audience. It's also equally cleverly done as a way to bring the audience closer to Crichton – our shared knowledge is denied the other main characters, kinda putting us in his position. And that's emphasised by his homesickness for Earth, and even more so via his off-again/on-again/etc relationship with Aeryn, who raised as a Peacekeeper to have no emotional contact with others finds it difficult to deal with his emotional honesty. That's not to say that the other characters don't get any good one-liners (Chiana's unpredictable, impish manner is positively infectious), and when all else fails – we can always rely on slap-stick, innuendo and fart jokes (Rygel's race farts helium when nervous, with the obvious cheap gag results – doesn't mean it ain't funny). And the half-animated, half-live action episode where Crichton is trapped in a Looney Toons world as a Road-Runner to D'Argo's Wile E Coyote is some of the smartest, funniest writing I've seen in a TV show for some time. Impressive stuff. Incongruity also provides some good cheap laughs – snooty princess-like Jool's inability to fit in with the crew of the Moya is always good for some schadenfreude, usually at the hands of Nebari bad-girl Chiana. Crichton's frequent conversations with "Harvey" (I'll let you find out, but the reference should be an obvious one to you) are also a constant source of black humour. The writing generally is whip-smart, pulls no punches, and best of all: FarScape never talked down to its audience. I honestly think this is why it has such a strong appeal for its fans.

One of the major selling points of FarScape when it originally aired was its use of special visual effects, both in terms of CG animation courtesy of the company Animal Logic, alongside prosthetic and creature effects by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (that's right: the company originally created by the brain behind The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock and the like), supplemented by the work of folks from Digital Pictures. To me season 1 of the show varied greatly in terms of the effectiveness of the creature design and the animation, but I must be in the minority there, as the show's escalating audience and almost unanimous good critical notices would indicate. One thing is undeniable – from the start of season 2 and more noticeably in 3 and 4, the quality improved greatly. If you have a look at D'Argo's and Scorpius' make-up and costuming from the beginning of the show until its unfortunate end, the improvement is particularly undeniable – and you can never fault the designers for a lack of imagination; even at the closure of FarScape, the inventiveness of both the practical and computer design of the effects was truly praiseworthy.

But that appeal should never be seen as being at the cost of the appeal of the human cast: Ben Browder's Crichton is a likeable All-American boy, out of his depth, but trying to overcome – although a dark side is definitely present; Claudia Black as Aeryn Sun manages to be the perfect female action star, beautiful, sexy and deadly – but emotionally insecure in her relationship to the devoted Crichton; Gigi Edgley as Chiana, a late season one addition to the Moya's crew is a real find – an impishly sensual daredevil on one hand, but sometimes a sensitive little girl lost who can never go home. Anthony Simcoe's portrayal of Ka D'Argo is all the more impressive when the see guy being interviewed without his make-up and costume, as is Wayne Pygram as Scorpius who tries to achieve balance between his Sebacean and Scarran halves, to varying degrees of success – as a villain he is top-notch; all silky eloquence at one moment, like a cat playing with a prospective victim, then the descent into savagery shocks the audience at what he is capable of. Morally, one of the most complex characters is Crais, who throughout the series is nearly impossible to pin down, seeming to have three or four equally strong drives to his character (the actor portraying him, Lani Tupu actually portrays the voice of the Pilot, too, although to hear it, you'll be doing the audio equivalent of a double-take). Similarly, Virginia Hey's Delvian priest Zhaan is a more multi-faceted character than most, and certainly a more complex one. As I said – a true ensemble cast with no weak link for the majority of the series (although the introduction – thankfully briefly – of Jool made certain episodes – i.e. the ones she was in, an absolute chore to endure; her nasal whine could cut glass).

But surprisingly enough, given its critical acclaim and its pole position on the Sci-Fi channel's roster, at the end of season 4, FarScape was cancelled – and the similarity of the situation at the end of the original Star Trek's third season should not be lost on you – and its devoted fanbase immediately went into action, with the Save FarScape campaign beginning, both in the real and the virtual world. I won't talk about that here, as its dealt with more than adequately in the special features, but eventually a final full season was not forthcoming, and as fans we had to hope that FarScape: Peacekeeper War, two feature-length films released as a mini-series as an attempt to wrap up all of the diverse story arcs to some degree of satisfaction.

This was a daunting box set to review. 29 discs of a science fiction show I only had some vague fond memories of from ten years ago. I'm recommending right now that unless you're the keenest of FarScape fans that you don't try watching the whole lot in one hit. I did, and that was silly – after all, each season was 22 episodes long, and each episode was about an hour or so in and of itself, with the end of the series being two feature length films long, crammed together as a mini-series. I managed to get through two seasons over three days and then I had to walk away for a couple of months. It's a lot of science fiction to take in, especially when trying to write a review, even one that (through trying not give any spoilers) is alarmingly non-specific, let alone interact with the outside world on a daily basis. But on the flipside of that, FarScape is generally all quality. Sure, sometimes the appliance work is a bit intrusive, or the puppetry grates, or you're left wondering why so many aliens have Australian accents, or the presence of prominent Australian actors (under a great deal of make-up or bunging on American accents) from stage and screen jolts you out of the show (and the latter two points are probably only noticeable to me through being Australian myself), but really, they're pretty minor quibbles when considering a show that presents fully rounded characters, rich layers of moral ambiguity, social commentary without being heavy-handed, intelligent and literate scripting and strong performances from lead and supporting roles alike. And, unlike a lot of modern science fiction, it's actually innovative – not just in terms of some of the content, but also in terms of the way that it's been delivered – as one of the fans states in the special features disc in season four, it used the medium itself to maximum effect. The story of FarScape could not be told in five feature length films. It needs the epic nature of the big, intertwining story arcs developing and progressing across the four and a bit seasons to really give it the 'oomph' requisite to the tale itself. It never outstays its welcome.
Video
Made for TV in the last 20 years, the picture quality is good, as you'd expect. The original three seasons of FarScape are presented in their 4:3 OAR, with season four and FarScape: The Peacekeeper Wars presented with an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen picture. The picture is never less than crystal clear, although the series itself has a prevailing darkness to the image – that's not a criticism, by the way, as I think it suits the equally prevalent dark tone to the show. Just thought I'd mention it. Oh, and sometimes early on, the CG occasionally slips a little and what we're left with is maybe not as impressive as what the producers were aiming for. But those instances are few and far between. Generally speaking, FarScape is visually highly impressive, with a cinematic style that makes sense when you find out (via the special features) that the majority of the crew were from a film background.
Audio
Again, the relatively contemporary nature of the show means that the people making it had reasonably ready access to modern technology, so what you get is a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 track throughout the whole of the series, as well as its two-part coda. Given the epic nature of the show, that's really quite a good thing, particularly through some of the space battles and other action scenes – of which, thankfully, there are many.
Extra Features
Season 1: Two documentaries: "In the Beginning: A Look Back With Brian Henson", which is quite spoiler heavy for the whole series, not just season 1, so you have been warned, and it's in big bloody letters on the back of the box too, so pay attention! The other one is "Making Of A Space Opera", which isn't quite so spoiler-tastic. There are also audio commentaries with cast and crew for eight episodes here, as well as our first installment of "FarScape In The Raw" – scenes that didn't make the original broadcast cut.

Season 2: This season only features six audio commentaries, a blooper reel and another installment of "FarScape In The Raw".

Season 3: "From The Archives: Composer Guy Gross Discusses the Season 3 Theme" is a featurette that does exactly what the title suggests. Then there are 5 audio commentaries, some of the animation that really gives the show its distinctive look is explained, and another documentary, this one ("Season Three: A Look Back With Executive Producer David Kemper") as the title suggests gives us another perspective on the show – but with no less of the positivity and pride which the other cast and crew show.

Season 4: A series of featurettes: "FarScape: The Story So Far" (the hint to the subject is in the title), "Farewell" (again, this is little self-explanatory – the impact on the cast and crew of the show's cancellation), "Save FarScape" (this repeats some of the footage from "Farewell", but with some added footage and fans, cast and crew – the efforts some people went to in order to save this show from cancellation is impressive, bordering on the inspirational) and "Season 4 Visual Effects" (a commentary track over images of shot "blocks" and final shot comparisons of the animation, narrated by members of Animal Logic, the visual effects company – although many of the examples shown are actually from season 3). There are also some deleted scenes to round things out.

FarScape: Peacekeeper War: For the two discs that comprise the actual Peacekeeper War miniseries, you get cast and crew interviews, some deleted scenes and a trailer. But the other three discs (FarScape: The Archives) in this set will give the discerning FarScape fan the bang for their buck. Disc one has a featurette called "FarScape Undressed" (hosted by Ben Browder and Claudia Black and filmed between season 2 or 3, aimed more at enticing new fans than preaching to the converted – think of it like a narrated "greatest hits" package), another "Listen In" With Composer Guy Gross (basically, he talks you through the scoring of eleven episodes using extracts from those episodes), some video character profiles for Crichton, Aeryn, D'Argo, Moya and the Pilot and Zhaan (all done by the actors on set and in costume, obviously from the time of season 1 – producer Matt Carroll, production designer Ricky Ayres and executive producer Brian Henson speak for Moya and the Pilot), and the final featurette is "Villains", which again as the name would indicate gives us some interviews with the villains of FarScape, if you consider them to be so – I like to use the word "antagonist" instead; morality, as we're told in the introduction to this feature, in this show is rarely black and white. And so we get some interview footage with Wayne Pygram (Scorpius), Lani John Tupu (Crais) and Rebecca Rigg (Grayza) as our main villains. Anthony Simcoe (D'Argo) also turns up to offer some insights – this is all with a villains' greatest hits reel from across the show's duration.

Disc two: This presents us with a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew (Anthony Simcoe, Wayne Pygram, Jonathan Hardy (the voice of Rygel), Rebecca Riggs, Lani John Tupu, David Franklin (Braca) and Paul Goddard (Stark)), video profiles of creator/executive producer/writer Rockne S O'Bannon and executive producer/writer David Kemper, as well as the featurette "Zhaan Forever" with actress Virginia Hey, quite comprehensive in terms of her role – but there are spoilers present.

Disc three: We've started to move into the real trainspotter's stuff now – however: there's the alternate cut of "Re-Union" (the opening episode from season two, here as a comparison with the broadcast version), presented from a VHS without final edits, special effects, and voiceovers for the puppets, also with different dialogue and different takes from the ones you'd be familiar with. There are more behind the scenes interviews, this time with Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Ben Browder, Wayne Pygram and Gigi Edgely. These interviews all seem to come from a range of different times, best as I can tell from the beginning of season three through to the hiatus between season four and Peacekeeper War. To round things up, there's a 5.1 music clip (this has had the dialogue extracted) of one of the more iconic chase scenes from the series – but telling you which one would be a spoiler, but I can tell you, it's a pretty important one, and rather climactic for one of the major characters. Besides that, we get a brief visit to the Australian creature shop (FarScape was shot in Sydney, at Fox Studios, for the better part for the interiors), being seen about by some of the folks working on the show (let's face facts – making monsters for a living would be kind of neat) and we finish off with some make-up tests for D'Argo, Zhaan (who was originally going to be a male character), Zhaaan and D'Argo together, a lighting test for the set of the Moya's galley, and some early development shots of Chiana.

*slumps in armchair, exhausted*

Plus, the whole thing comes packages in a sturdy hard cardboard case. That in and of itself makes it a preferable purchase for me. First and foremost for storage, secondly for budget – collected sets of a whole series are usually cheaper than buying individual seasons, but also, quite importantly in terms of the show itself rather than just the release, the show works as a series, not as a bunch of stand-alone stories. Sure there may be a few episodes per season that have a one-off feel, a la an episode of the original Star Trek, but more in line with a show like Blake's 7, FarScape has an over-arching story arc (or series of them, more accurately) and needs to be viewed in its entirety for it to fully reward its audience. Previous R1 and R2 releases have split each season up into multiple box sets each, which to me just doesn't make sense either economically (except to drill the fans for cash) or in terms of appealing to a genre fan's collector mentality. You'd have known before reading this review whether or not you'd be really interested in reading about FarScape, or whether you're having a casual perusal of the website over a coffee break at work. Is a fan of a show like FarScape not want to buy the whole thing? Particularly with the special features that used to be in a bunch of different places all here together in one big package? What a silly question.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Last of the great space operas? I'd say yes. I've certainly not seen anything in the last few years to give FarScape a run for its money, and besides shows like Blake's 7, UFO, Space: 1999 and Babylon 5, very little before. Science fiction made for TV is hard to do well, and moreso hard to maintain, in terms of quality of acting, script and equally importantly, production design. If the show starts to look cheap, the ratings will fall because audiences will tune out. Similarly, if the performances don't cut it, then you fail to care about the characters and the situations they're in. And if the script is on the level of "Is this the emotion you humans call love?", then the writing is similarly on the wall. FarScape had the acting chops, had some really quite impressive special effects and an intelligent script to see it through. Its cancellation may have been a sad moment for lovers of intelligent science fiction everywhere, but given the wealth of quality viewing in this box set, there's at least some consolation for the fans. Ignore the single releases of this impressive series and go for the big box instead.

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