Reviewed by Richard Peevers
The way the cold open to the first episode of Farscape plays out, I was certain we were in for an old-fashioned piece of sci-fi. You know, something reminiscent of Buck Rogers or the original Battlestar Galactica. The scenes on Earth could have been the opening of almost any generic sci-fi show from the seventies or eighties—and not in a good way. By the late nineties, this approach feels safe and unadventurous. It also feels slow. Even though the cold open was only six minutes long, the opening sequence dragged.
I’m not a fan of movies or episodes that dwell on backstory—you know, those movie-length pilots that tell how Bruce Banner became the Hulk or how Peter Parker got his spidey powers. As a rule, they’re boring to watch—the audience already knows the backstory and wants the show to get to interesting, new stories. I felt my heart sinking during these early sequences. The way things were playing out, I was looking at a tedious 50-minute episode—“How John Crichton ended up at the other side of the universe.” Yawn. Right when the space shuttle took off, that’s when I contemplated apologizing to Bob and saying I didn’t have time for the review.
But then, the space shuttle took off. And with it, we heard incidental music that sounded almost entirely out of place. The weird electronica didn’t fit the tone of the opening (I was expecting something more orchestral). This was a first indication that perhaps all was not what it seemed. I was intrigued.
Then—about 45 minutes earlier than I expected!—John Crichton finds himself at the other end of the wormhole. He sees the Leviathan, says “That’s big,” and everything changes. I forgot those dull few minutes on Earth and was gripped.
The way the rest of the episode plays out is quite distinctive. In many sci-fi/fantasy shows, the opening episode consists of a lead character being introduced to a whole new world by a guide. Think of the Doctor Who episode “Rose.” Here Rose is brought into a whole new understanding of the world, and the Doctor is her guide. The audience sees the new world through her eyes, but it is the Doctor who gives her introduction to that world structure.
Here, Crichton is Rose, but there is no Doctor to give any structure. We are introduced to this new world entirely through the eyes of someone who knows nothing about it. Crichton appears in the middle of a space battle. We have no idea who is good or who is bad. We have no idea where we are. It isn’t even obvious with whom he will ally himself.
Just as Crichton knows nothing, neither does the audience. There’s no handholding here. The effect is disorienting. Sure, by the time the closing credits roll, the episode has done its job setting up the characters and overarching story of the show, but the way we are introduced to the world of Farscape is quite unusual. It’s pretty daring to trust you can bring the audience along with you without explaining anything.
This approach is even more daring when you consider the nature of the alien races we’re dealing with. For the most part, the alien races we meet in sci-fi TV shows are either identical or almost identical to us. Think of Vulcans in Star Trek or the Goa’uld, Jaffa, or Ancients in Stargate. Famously, only one Doctor Who—“The Web Planet” story features no human roles beyond the central cast. Human beings pretty much always make up the main recurring cast of any sci-fi show. I don’t mean to oversimplify this: of course Star Trek, Stargate, and Doctor Who each feature a cornucopia of alien races, but so often, the main characters are all human. Look, for example, at Babylon 5. The show goes to pains to create alien species unlike humans—and it gives each one a culture and society that is impressive. Nonetheless, the main three or four recurring characters are all human.
What makes Farscape immediately distinctive is how alien-looking species are clearly going to be central to the show. This seems like another break from sci-fi norms. Sure, the extremeness of this is dialed back slightly once it’s clear Aeryn Sun is going to be one of the core team (so there’ll now be two humans in the main cast, only a little less than Babylon 5), but it’s an impressive development nonetheless. On a related note, it’s interesting how the actual humans here are clearly the bad guys.
“Premier” covers an awful lot of ground. Once Crichton had gone through the wormhole, I found myself wanting the episode to slow down. I wanted a leisurely 90-minute pilot so I could soak it all in. This, however, clearly isn’t the Farscape way. The pilot episode not only gives a bold statement in terms of its cast, it also gives a bold statement in terms of its storytelling. Pretty much anything unnecessary is pared away. Only the essentials necessary for us to grasp the basics of the situation are given.
On the whole, this is successful—instead of a flabby 90-minute episode, we have a terse 50-minute one. The drawback is that, at times, it’s exhausting to keep up with the episodes’ breakneck speed—it’s as if the production team wanted to introduce us to every possible alien race, planet, area of space, and political grouping in the episode. The pudding sometimes feels overegged at the expense of letting us build a relationship with the characters. Compare how Blake’s 7 introduced itself to audiences—the first episode focuses on Blake’s story on Earth, and the show gradually introduces other planets and people over the course of the next several episodes.
This telescoped storytelling leads to the episode’s weakest moment. The death of Bialar Crais’ brother is clearly an accident, and yet it leads Crais into an immediate and personal vendetta against Crichton. The moment is fundamental, sure, but it’s rushed and unconvincing. I just don’t buy he’d react so extremely so quickly. It’s a moment of cartoon sci-fi in the middle of a more thoughtful show. Compared the crew of Moya, Crais is already a relatively one-dimensional character. This moment serves to flatten him even more. I wanted to see him twirl his moustache.
“Premier” was made at an interesting point in genre television. Shows were moving away from disjointed “monster of the week” stories that ultimately led nowhere. Instead, led by the examples of Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, genre TV shows were developing more coherent narratives that spanned seasons or even the entire run of a show. “Premier” dives headfirst into this—introducing countless plotlines in 50 minutes and resolving none of them. This is a show that is interested not in explaining anything to us at the outset, but instead wants to intrigue us so we come back for more. As pilot episodes go, this is dissatisfying on one level; on the other it’s almost guaranteed to keep us coming back for more.
“Premier is not a perfect opening episode, then. It’s disorienting and overwhelming. The cold open feels out of place. A few moments throughout the episode are over-telescoped so the production team can cram everything possible into the short run time. That said, the good far outweighs the bad in this episode. About a quarter of the way through the episode is when I knew Farscape would be good—that’s when I thought to myself, “I haven’t noticed the incidental music since the cold open.” The music remains a little odd, sure. A little weird. But it fits perfectly with the show. It was the cold open—with its retro-storytelling and glacial pace—that was out of place. Everything else in “Premier” is intriguing, and I’m thirsty to see where the story takes us.