FarScape: impressions partway through Season 1

Farscape - Moya

I missed FarScape when it originally aired (1999-2003). There are several reasons for this. The most important is that the SciFi Channel had already become a roost for several low-budget, low-rated shows like First Wave, so I had stopped watching the channel regularly, only coming back for events like the first Dune miniseries. (I still haven’t seen the second–I should.) When I did see commercials for SciFi shows, the promos for FarScape didn’t grab me. I thought the puppets looked goofy, and based on the commercials alone, the show didn’t seem that different from Lexx, which I was pretty sure was rancid bullshit. It’s also possible that with Star Wars movies at the theaters and Dune on TV, my sci-fi itch was already getting scratched. It’s also possible that I was a bit of a Star Trek and X-Files snob back then.

Anyway, I missed it. But over the years I kept hearing good things about it, that made me think I should put it on my life list (with about a million other shows that I also have not seen, like The Wire, Lost, etc.). And then this summer Eric and Kim Scott got me the whole series on DVD for my birthday. We were in the midst of a big Alias rewatch here at Casa Wedel, so we didn’t start in on FarScape until a week or so ago. We just watched the ninth episode tonight.

We’re hooked: really, really digging the show. I’m writing this to record my thoughts about the show now, so I can see how things will change in the future–both the show, and thoughts about it.

Farscape - transformation

The thing that I am enjoying the most is that the show is really, genuinely weird. Most of the aliens come from the Mos Eisley human-in-a-mask school, and frequently they’re just regular-ass humans with colored skin and contact lenses. But they frequently act in ways that, well, I’ve never seen on TV before. Weird, wacky stuff happens, and not all of it is explained. Just about every episode has at least one moment where London and I turn to each other and say, “What the heck!?”/”Did you see that?”/”Gross!”/”This show is awesome” in some combination.

I think it probably helps that the show was made in Australia, with mostly Aussie and Kiwi actors. Its paced and shot just a little differently from most American shows–scenes end one beat early or go on a few seconds longer than expected; uncomfortable silences are given space to just be uncomfortable, and therefore disortienting; and the camera does always go where I think it will. To be fair, I don’t know if this is a cultural difference from the show being made Down Under, or if it’s part of a deliberate atmosphere of weirdness cultivated by the producers, or maybe a bit of both. Whatever the reason, it’s effective–the show is so far beyond my ability to predict that I have given up trying to second guess it, and now I’m just along for the ride.

Not only are the actions of the characters sometimes inscrutable, there is a lot of throw-away weirdness in the show. In the episode we just finished, the characters visit a renegade scientist working on an asteroid. When the camera pulls back to show the surface of the asteroid as seen from space, it is littered with insanely huge bones–a whole city nestles up against a toothy jawbone that must be several miles long. The bones on the asteroid are never mentioned during the episode, they’re just a little extra kick in the brainpan to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. I love that.

Haven't met this one yet but I like it.

Haven’t met this one yet but I like it.

Also, since I raised the point earlier, my apprehension about the puppet characters was misplaced. The puppetry is excellent, especially for Pilot, and the voice actors bring a lot of reality to those characters. (Possibly I am also more willing to be accommodating, given that my two favorite movie characters this year were a sentient raccoon and a talking tree.) It helps that one of the characters, Rygel, is a pretty consistent WTF-moment generator.

It also helps that the show is so RPG-esque. I mean, fer cryin’ out loud, the pilot starts with a group of escaped prisoners taking over their prison ship and flying it into uncharted space. That’s pretty much perfect for either a one-shot or a campaign-starter: you can play anyone or anything you want, but you’ll start session 1 having just gotten out of your cell. Go roll up characters. I’ll probably steal that.

One last thing about the show now–way back in a comment on about the third day of this blog’s existence, Mike made the point that the Star Wars prequels were mostly about rich, powerful people, whereas the original trilogy was about lovable rogues on the run. Considered on that axis, FarScape is to almost any flavor of Star Trek as the OT is to the prequels: the reigning government is evil, not benevolent; the characters are on the run from it, not serving it; their sentient ship is stolen and itself a refugee, not the flagship of the fleet; the ship is unarmed, not a heavily-armed capital ship; constant poverty forces the characters into questionable interactions with shady figures, rather than putting in at a Starbase whenever they need to fuel up; the crew are a small band of untrained, squabbling individualists, not an organized and deliberately assembled team. But they still get to run into weird stuff in space every episode, usually because of those very factors.

Farscape - confrontation

So, my main question for the future–and if you’ve seen the show, please try not to hit me with any spoilers–is this: can the writers and producers keep up this level of invention and off-kilter-ness? Will the weird settle down and become predictable? Will the characters stay complex or suffer Flanderization?

I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.

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5 Responses to FarScape: impressions partway through Season 1

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    I watched the first episode of this a couple of years back and it completely failed to engage me. So much so that I put off reading this post. But, OK, you got me, sounds like it’s at least worth a second shot. I’ll try it.

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    Huh. I almost always hate pilot episodes, even of shows that I go on to love. It seems to me that in all of the best TV shows, there is an element of discovery of what the show is about by the writers and creators as the show goes on, so that shows typically hit their stride later on, maybe partway through the first season (Agents of SHIELD), maybe not until the second or third season (Star Trek: TNG). First seasons usually feel rough by comparison (I’m looking at you, Scrubs), and pilot episodes are the worst.

    So I am not surprised that the pilot didn’t grab you, but that’s because I don’t usually rely on pilots in deciding whether or not to watch a show.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    This discussion is confused by the filthy American habit of sometimes using “pilot” to mean the first episode in the first regular series, as well as what I always assumed was the only meaning, a standalone episode intended to be seen first to draw people into the series.

    Thinking about shows that I love …

    In retrospect, the first episode of New Doctor Who (2005) looks pretty weak, but only because of what’s come after it. At the time it seemed magnificent — even Andrew Rilstone was pretty much unreservedly positive.

    Firefly hit the ground running, whether you consider the “pilot” to be the initially unaired two-parter Serenity or the first-to-air Train Job.

    The first episode of Veronica Mars was an absolutely killer, sucked me in instantly, and seems to do the same to everyone who watches it.

    My first experience of Dollhouse was the unaired pilot (“Echo“), which I loved. By comparison, the first-aired episode (the one with the kidnappers) is less compelling. In introducing others (Fiona, Dan) to Dollhouse I’ve skipped over the unaired pilot, because it introduces too much plot too soon, and so functions as a long-running, slow-burning spoiler for the series proper. But I wonder now whether that was a mistake (for me and for Joss Whedon) because by exposing more of the concepts earlier on, that pilot makes the whole show more compelling.

    I loved Arrested Development pretty much immediately.

    On the other hand, I had to watch quite a few episodes of The West Wing before it caught — I think not because of a failing of those early episodes, but because it took a while for me to fall into its rhythms and thought-patterns.

    Hmm, what else do I love? I’m not sure I see much of a pattern emerging here.

  4. soundquake says:

    It’s sorely missed and it never stopped being inventive and bold. You will love what it does to the characters and they all have their own unique journeys. It just gets better and always ticks all the Sci Fi boxes

  5. Matt Wedel says:

    That is welcome news, soundquake — thanks!

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