Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Prefect Slog
Beginning a series of odes to TV shows that, for one reason and several others, afford me greater viewing pleasure than Doctor Who. By which, of course, I mean New Who. Doctor Who in toto (and now I have images of the TARDIS materialising in Dorothy's faithful little dog) will always command a special affection by virtue of my having grown up on a weekly diet of its peculiar brand of Saturday night sf adventure and horror. But there are many areas in which New Who, like several eras of the Classic Series, fails to come up to scratch, areas which are only highlighted when it comes to appreciating some of the other treats on offer. Comparisons of chalk and cheese are something of a fruitless exercise, but make no mistake, New Who is invariably the chalk and I know which I'd rather be consuming. More to the point, the shows under discussion are ones I've been enjoying or have enjoyed relatively recently and it's fun to sit back and reflect on what it is about them that appeals. So, I come not to bash New Who, but not to praise it either. This is about said other shows.
And we'll kick off with Farscape, both because that's the show my wife and I are currently watching through from the beginning and because it's the show more than any other that I think is everything new Doctor Who should be. Okay, it lacks the Doctor and a TARDIS, but it has pretty much everything else. This is not something that's just occurred to me either; this is an impression that struck back when I first followed the series avidly, back when New Who wasn't even a glimmer on the TV horizon. Farscape filled the hole and, like a sci-fi Snickers, really satisfied.
In rewatching, the impression hasn't gone away and the thing that most surprises - and mystifies - me is that it took me as long as it did to get hooked on the series first time round. I can't recall exactly how long, but safe to say it was 'several' episodes before I had warmed to it. Now, I discover that everything was there right from the beginning, but my wife - who is seeing it all for the first time - offered a helpfully fresh perspective and came up with an answer: it was a while before she properly engaged with the characters. And that's fair enough - they're a strange and diverse bunch, and only two of them are sufficiently human to immediately identify with - and perhaps that's true of my own experience on the first watch.
Small wonder, I was about to say, except that's a phrase that just doesn't apply to Farscape. It's absolutely bubbling over with wonder. It's colourful, vibrant, fearlessly inventive and, especially considering just how colourful it is, remarkably dark. It's occasionally wacky and sometimes completely bonkers. It does start out by playing entirely familiar sci-fi riffs, but you can tell right away it's playing them with such flair and creativity that it's like seeing a tribute band that has managed to outclass its role models.
The role models in this case are fairly clear and the show's detractors will be heard deriding it as Buck Rogers or Blake's Seven with Muppets. In fact, that's about all they apparently have to say. The truth is, it's easy of course to encapsulate any series in like manner, and yes, it has a very similar opening premise to Buck Rogers, but it steers a wildly different and frequently courageous course through incredible new territory. Yes, it boasts a surprising number of elements in common with Blake's - criminals on the run in an advanced alien ship, villains in bondage and even its very own Servalan a bit later on - but it carries it off with a vitality that leaves Blake and his RADA-trained chums looking all stilted and stage-struck. Yes, it has (gasp) Muppets - or rather, creatures from the Jim Henson Creature Workshop - but (gasp) so does Star Wars and they enable this show to field a wonderful array of aliens and critters as standard that series like New Who can only long for. Their ability to invest latex with character is astounding and I have no trouble accepting - even embracing (figuratively!) - them as real characters. They put the creat in creature.
The whole production is on a creativity high, in fact, and the 'Muppets' are just one of the resources to hand to bring this universe to life. The design is consistently rich and innovative - that's like a minimum requirement here - and there is a similar energy in the writing, with the scripts lively and dynamic as a rule and the actors so immersed and enthusiastic in their roles that some life is always breathed into even the most average stories. There are duff episodes - every show has them (I'm looking at you, Taking The Stone) - but they're kept afloat by the cast and crew and sheer creative drive, and they're thankfully rare, pretty sure to soon be followed by an outstanding piece of sf adventure TV (The Way We Weren't. Wow.). A lot seems to happen in each 45-minute instalment, the pacing frequently spot-on for any given story and it doesn't lapse into any weekly formula. There's generally a fair share of action for each of the characters, and because this is a show that understands character conflict - and is never afraid to use it! - it's invariably invested with real emotion and drama, with a canny ability to surprise.
A surprising number of episodes are shipbound, but when your ship is Moya, you have a ready alien landscape before you've even landed anywhere. She's a living ship and yes, she's the Liberator, if you're still intent on those Blake's Seven parallels, but she's a character - they actually make sure this living ship is alive - and this is a crew - a Seven, if you will - who would cut off one of Zen's limbs if the need arose - and if he had any. The relationship between the crew and 'their' ship is fascinating, as is the relationship between Moya and Pilot (Farscape's Zen, but oh so much more, and quite possibly the best screen alien creation ever). The special relationship between Pilot and Aeryn Sun is nothing short of beautiful.
Amid the focus on the sf adventure story, plenty of attention is paid to character growth and, interestingly, the show explores all the separation from home and loved ones that New Who sought to do in its more pedestrian, Eastenders sort of way, but steers us very definitely in a different direction: outward. It's tough for Crichton, all this 'strange shit' to come to terms with, but he rises to the challenge, but even as long as he is out there and as much as he adapts to this new life, he never loses that sense that the universe arond him is weird. And it still has more weird to offer. He greets it with wisecracks, certainly, but as laid back as he becomes, he can rarely afford to relax enough to quit respecting it - and it never ceases to be dangerous.
There's strong and convincing growth in evidence for all the characters, as it happens, but I'll be good and confine myself to little thumbnail sketches: Aeryn, with all her authority and command, coming to terms with losing everything she knew and having to become something other than a soldier; Dargo the warrior (every sf show should have one - but this guy is a real Aslan, for any of you who ever played the Traveller RPG) and his quest for freedom, peace and his son; the beautiful and, ulp, really quite dangerous Zhaan (who did that makeup!) with her spiritual journey (and yes, the photogasms); Chiana - aka Pip - with her exquisite puppet-like stances and gestures and her frankly brilliant ability to put something more alien than contact lenses into her gaze, and her growth from little-girl-lost, thief and, to put it bluntly, prostitute to heroine in her own right in her search for security; Rygel - aka Sparky - with his lordly airs, disgusting habits, utter selfishness and rampant kleptomania, and his voyage - well, ours really - to discover whether he has any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Not to mention their collective journey in reaching a closer understanding of Crichton and their growth as a family.
The only characters I really don't much care for are Stark, who as a regular lacks the interest he had as a one-off (as River demonstrated in Firefly, it's very tricky to incorporate a mad character without them becoming annoying), and Jules, who is essentially a parody of all those screaming companions we were used to in Doctor Who, and I would happily space them before I ejected dear old wouldn't-trust-him-as-far-as-anyone-could-throw-him Sparky.
And a discussion of Farscape's characters wouldn't be complete without mentioning the villains and the series is unusual in that it successively supplants its choicest baddies with someone/something bigger and badder, while allowing us to follow their journey, threaded - often closely intertwined - with that of the heroes. The lines are nicely fluid, and the enemy of Crichton's enemies is not his friend, but there's room for some of those uncomfortable and temporary alliances we used to get in Doctor Who between the Doctor and the Master, say. Crais, the vengeful Peacekeeper, is a nasty piece of work, but seems tame by comparison to Scorpius, and in fact improves as a character - if not altogether morally! - once forced to jump ship. Scorpius is a nastier piece of work and you can tell right away he's one of those villains of rare quality, Wayne Pygram steps wholeheartedly into the role and you just know he's relishing every minute; and he perhaps relishes it even more when his character (in a thread surely half-inched by Battlestar Galactica) is split off as a kind of Scorpius emulator, embedded as a chip in Crichton's brain - and allowed to become a distinct and separate personality in his own right, known as Harvey. Then we're subsequently introduced to the formidable Scaren, and you don't need to be told they're a force to be reckoned with - we're shown; and later on, as previously mentioned, Farscape's very own Servalan.
But at this point I'm somewhere in Season 2, and I really shouldn't start getting ahead of myself. Although I have already seen the concluding Peacekeeper Wars mini series, I have not seen any of Season 4 (yet!) and I have heard some people remark that the show's creativity spirals a little out of control, away into the realms of pretentiousness, perhaps managing to distance itself from its audience. I'll have to wait and see for myself on that. But if a series must spiral, I guess I'd rather have it spiral upwards out of control than swirling down a plug hole. So for now I'll carry on enjoying the ride and look forward to looking back on the whole journey - even though I'm already familiar with the ultimate destination.


Carly said...

Hey, Saf; great summary of the show, and I agree entirely (also can't bear Stark). It was the originality and sheer weirdness that got me into it (I picked up a cheap DVD of PKW , saw Harvey, thought "ok, this is different . . .")

Season 4 is great, apart from the first few episodes. The last few episodes in s4 would be almost my favourite in the entire series . . . I hope you get to watch it soon, and enjoy it!

SAF said...

Thanks, Carly. More discs arrived today, so the journey continues. At this rate, I can't imagine S4 is that far off...