|A Personal Moment...|
It is my privilege to bring you this review of the Farscape Season One DVD box set. I received this set (along with Season Two…another review soon to post) right before I moved. Once I started to explore this DVD set, I felt a bit daunted by the task of giving it the proper review it well deserves. It’s taken me a few weeks longer than I had anticipated to find the time to really pull this review together. However, I’m giving it my best shot and I hope that I not only manage to please many of the more ardent fans who already have a strong appreciation for the show, but also hope to extend an awareness of this truly remarkable series to those of you who may not yet be acquainted with it.
One of the things that makes reviews at HTF distinguished among so many other excellent sites is the manner in which our reviews spawn discussion by enthusiasts who share an affinity for these films and programs. I have no doubt that among our HTF membership we have quite a few Farscape aficionados, and I invite those of you with a passion for this series to post your own comments into this discussion thread where they can be archived and made available for HTF visitors present and future.
Farscape is truly a remarkable series. Similar in form to many other well regarded sci-fi series like Star Trek N.G., Babylon 5, and by slight extension--Alias, it bases its premise on an evolving story-line that combines science fiction intrigue with character-rich drama, often resulting in complex scenarios that are finely textured and entirely fascinating. Having tasted the fruits of many science fiction drama series, Farscape sets itself apart from the crowd as it explores new realms of creativity that are innovative, imaginative, and conceptually substantive. Unlike many other “science fiction” attempts, which merely reassemble familiar visual themes in order to produce their sense of “future” or “other world” appearances, Farscape boldly defines an entirely new and unfamiliar aesthetic language in which to express its world of lifeforms, cultures, and environments. My mind sees a strong parallel in this achievement with the universe that Jim Henson created in The Dark Crystal--something that is entirely new and unto itself that doesn’t feel cobbled together from rearranged icons from our own cultural world of experience. It is no surprise that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop is responsible for the puppetry and prosthetic elements used in the show and deserves recognition for much of the program’s tactile sense of artistry and design.
If one allows the series to really take hold, Farscape’s strengths combine to effect an engaging viewing experience where you feel compelled to watch “just one more episode” before turning out the lights. This is not to suggest that Farscape need take on some cult-like status of messianic proportions. Neither do I mean to imply that the show is without fault. On the contrary, at times plot lines may unfold a bit predictably, and you probably won’t confuse the screenplay writing with that of Shakespeare. Acting can occasionally feel a bit wooden and the special effects/puppetry, though generally well executed, won’t have you calling the Oscars protesting that Return of the King stole all the awards. But honestly, are these relative shortcomings any different than those of other programs we so liberally grant license to entertain us? (have you ever really watched a Start Trek episode and thought about it…*really* thought about it?) Indeed, I find the general story and special effects to be above average for a “sci-fi” series of this type so just be sure you play fair when you put on your Ebert hat. At its worst, Farscape is no more prone to critical probing than other programs that command devout followings. At its best, Farscape breathes new life into a genre stale and lacking genuine inspiration.
To the creative team who worked long and hard to make this series possible, I thank you for envisioning the unconventional and for delivering it well. To those of you who are already self-identified Farscape fans reading this review, I invite you to share your thoughts as I am certain you have much to contribute here that goes beyond what I’m able to communicate. To those of you who enjoy dramatic sci-fi or suspense series like Star Trek Babylon 5, or Alias, but who missed this program when it first aired on cable television, I invite you to take the time to explore Farscape – I think you will appreciate making the investment.
|The Disc Presentation...|
Farscape Season one can be obtained one of two basic ways: One can buy a series of 11 DVDs packaged individually each containing 2 episodes on a single disc (the expensive route), or one can by the Season One Box Set which has the same 11 discs (same silk-screen art) housed in 6 keepsake cases (the still expensive route, but less so than buying each disc separately). Each case holds two DVDs (except the sixth which holds only one) that are held on each side of the packaging when it is opened like a book.
The box-set route preserves the cover art that a collector would have enjoyed purchasing each disc separately by using the cover art for the first disc in each case as the case’s own art, and then including an insert with the printed cover art for the second disc. The backside of the insert has all the disc content listed which includes episodes, chapter stops, and bonus material for each disc. This insert is lightly held in place down the center of the case’s spine and easily falls out if one struggles to wrestle out a DVD disc without paying much attention. I think I would have preferred the more standard practice of having all insert material held into the reverse side of the front cover with a flip-out holder hinged on the spine for the extra disc (something that Season Two address, BTW), but that’s a rather small ergonomic gripe in the relative scheme of the set.
One last thing to mention: the marketing folks have not printed any obvious Earth-known numbering system on the outside of the cases which will have you feeling a bit forlorn the first time you accidentally dump your discs out and realize you don’t know which order they belong in – fearful that you’re forever doomed to watch the series out-of-order. Relax…printed in ever-so-fine print on the back lower-right of each cover is a small “FS1DVD01”, “FS1DVD02” etc. They weren’t so cruel after all. And if you open the cases you’ll find that the discs themselves are clearly marked “Disc One”, “Disc Two” and so on.
Into the DVD player…
Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first. Just about each disc greets you with a rather tiresome preview/advertisement feature that would otherwise have been interesting content (trailers for the Reboot series etc.) except for its forced-play attribute on every disc. How’s this for an idea…marketers, put your blessed previous on the first disc so we all see them…and then let us enjoy the rest of the series in peace? Less bothersome but worth a mention is that when you put each disc in (after you’ve hit “menu” or “skip” to hop over the automatic previews) the menu that comes up only displays the first episode for that disc. You have to toggle to “scene selection” to then see a more detailed breakdown where you have an option to select the second episode on the disc; this might be misleading because your may assume that the scene selection would only be for the displayed episode. My preference would have been to have the initial menu feature both episode selections…with a “scene selection” option beneath each one. Much like the mysterious case numbering system, this is a minor quibble but just needs to be said to keep an objective perspective.
One very nice feature is that when you select to play the first episode featured on the DVD, after the concluding credits roll the DVD automatically begins playing the second episode unprompted. I really like that, as having to bounce back to the menu forcing the viewer to select the next feature would interrupt the flow. In its present form, you can experience the full 100 minutes of each DVD's two episodes back-to-back as a continuous experience. And chances are that very often when you sit down to watch “just one” Farscape episode you’ll end up watching two and this continuous play feature makes it even more enjoyable. Very nice.
Selecting Bonus features brings you to a nice menu that’s easily navigable with all the special feature content clearly laid out. The special features layout is consistent from disc to disc (a good thing), which each disc providing a featurette spotlighting a particular cast, crew, or creative team member (very enjoyable, more on that in the special features section) and a few other goodies like (select episodes) feature commentary, image galleries, downloads for screen savers etc. Menu animation is acceptable but not overwhelming.
Very impressive. In case you hadn’t read it earlier in another review, I’m now reviewing on my new BenQ 8700 HD2 DLP projector, and even on the big front-projection system, where production and disc-mastering flaws would become apparent and obvious were they an issue, Farscape looks gorgeous.
Before I delve into an exposition of picture quality, let’s get this aspect ratio thing out of the way. Farscape was shot 1.33:1 and that’s the way it’s presented on this 4x3 encoded DVD. Personally, I wish that the production team had filmed this series with the expectation of 16x9. But 4x3 it is and 4x3 it needs to stay—framing is tight and Farscape makes full use of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio with meaningful image composition…no dead “safe area” above and below the 16x9 window waiting to be cropped for soft-matte WS here.
Though my own aesthetic sense tells me that Farscape might have looked even more impressive had it been shot with native 16x9 in mind and presented in 1.78:1, the 4x3 canvas is strongly employed and after a few minutes of viewing I find myself getting “lost” in the subtle details of the image composition—reminding me of older academy-aspect ratio movies that were strongly composed to make bold use of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for “big screen” audiences. Watching Farscape on my large-screen projector, I can’t help but feel that this is exactly the way the creators intended for it to be viewed. If you’ve upgraded your display chain since having watched the series on the Sci-Fi channel a few year ago, you’re in for a real treat.
note: I was only able to watch season one and two on the television so I'm not aware if a later series of Farscape ever went 16x9 WS. Please share if you know more
Colors are rich, vivid, and saturated. The color palette is so strong that I found it surprising -- and extremely satisfying. At no time do colors ever bleed or appear to over-bloom; the stunningly beautiful Delvian Priestess Zhaan is an absolute work of art with her multiple shades of blue and finely textured skin patterns. Blacks are deep and solid and shadow detail is good -- especially important for a science fiction genre. The image looks rich and sumptuous in an alluring but other-worldly way (probably the intention). Compression artifacting is nil and I see very little in the way of “crawlies” or any other digital artifact that would intrude. Textures appear natural and unprocessed. I’d venture to say the image looks “film like” in its naturalness however from what I can tell Farscape is void of any film-related “artifact” like grain. I’m uncertain as the to the medium of the source signal, but I suspect it to be film (anyone who knows please clarify). And I’m about to write a phrase that seldom finds its way into any of my reviews: I see no evidence of any electronic edge-sharpening. NONE. That’s “no edge enhancement” folks. Words cannot describe the pleasure is it to view an large-scale projected image unmarred by the almost ubiquitous “ringing” we see in the vast majority of authored DVDs. The result is a picture that is a sheer pleasure to watch.
Detail is strong and grants the image an easy sense of 3-dimensionality. Tones and gradations are smooth with no appearance of “banding” or electronic noise. I really can’t stress to you how uncommonly good this DVD image looks for a “TV Show”. What’s not so good? Well, the image has a slight soft-focus at times that leaves me wanting for that last bit of fine image detail and sharpness – it never quite reaches that “almost looks like HD” feeling like the very best DVD transfers give (thought: part of me wonders if this slight softening might be an intentional technique to help blend live-action, puppetry, and CGI animation into a more seamless visual statement. If so, it works very successfully). Also, there is a *slight* sense of “blur” that happens when backgrounds slowly pan or shift if you’re sitting closer than 1.5 screen widths (from a conventional 16x9 screen) and looking for it. Not really MPEG noise…more like a very low-level DNR effect. These are minor issues that only a few front-projection viewers may notice; from 1.75 widths, they are not apparent. Ok. That’s it for the punch list.
Farscape looks beautiful. The image quality is clearly better than most other shows of this genre that you know (Star Trek, Bab 5) and is a pleasure to watch, even on a large-scale projection system. The integration of live action, puppetry, and CGI animation is very well accomplished with no combing or digital artifacts to emphasize the blend. This DVD set brings you an image that looks astonishing natural from 1.75 screen widths (assuming you have a 16x9 display, think 2 screen widths from the actual 1.33:1 image area). The picture quality excels in almost all areas, and the effect is a pleasure to view. Rarely does a DVD produce such a satisfying visual experience and given Farscape’s “made for TV” origins I’m surprised and delighted. Well done.
Picture: 4.5 / 5
Magnificent. Remarkable. Demo Material…
Everything you ever wanted in a science fiction 5.1 soundtrack is here. You’ll find yourself constantly saying, “Wow, they really did it right” -- because they did!
To start off, dialog is clear but never harsh or strained. Voices are full-bodied and sound rounded and “life sized”. Highs are open and airy. Midrange is natural. Ok, you’ve heard that all before with lots of other excellent soundtracks that I've reviewd. Let’s get to what makes this 5.1 mix so amazingly special…
Farscape has some of the richest, powerful, solid, robust bass I have ever experienced in my home-theater. It’s really that good. This is not hyperbole. Experiencing the bass in this soundtrack at any mid to high volume level is a visceral encounter that will leave you trembling. Why more DVD soundtracks can’t sound like this I’d like to know (the audio guys mixing Alias could take a lesson ). Clearly the folks responsible for the mix on this DVD knew what they were doing.
Consistent with the superior bass impact of Farscape, the surround activity is exemplary. The soundfield is seamless and spreads wide left to right, deep front to back, and places the listener in an enveloping 360 degree acoustic environment. The sense of “space” in the soundtrack is believably real. The surround channel is employed judiciously to excellent effect in almost every scene. Whether it’s subtle ambient cues or explosive dynamics, the rear channel integrates seamlessly with the front mains to create a cohesive acoustic environment in a way that is always appropriate to supporting the on-screen action without sounding gimmicky or self-serving. Rarely I have heard a DVD make such consistent, effective use of the surround channels in a 5.1 mix. I’m extremely impressed.
Listening to Farscape I can’t help but wonder what magic is going on behind the scenes. Whatever the reason, it works, and it adds a whole new dimension to watching this series. If you just watched Farscape on “TV” the first time around, you owe it to yourself to watch the entire series on DVD just to experience the impact of the astonishing 5.1 sound. To all those responsible for the amazing audio on this set, I thank you.
Sound: 5/ 5
The bonus material on this set is abundant and I suspect it will easily satisfy most ardent fans as well as interest folks watching the program for the very first time. There are 3 main categories of special features worth noting: Feature Commentary, Featurettes spotlighting various cast/crew/production team members, and image galleries. I’m quite impressed with the commentary and video profile featurettes especially and found myself wanting to thoroughly experience everything…not just “sample” to write the review.
Feature commentary by cast and filmmakers is provided on eight episodes – the first six and last two of the series. Everything that I enjoy about good feature commentary is here: You have a nice ensemble of talent discussing the film together (typically two, sometimes three individuals) and so their natural conversation feels comfortable and uncovers more points of interest than just a single speaker might have exposed. The dynamic between the participants is casual and light, but also manages to keep focused (within reason) on the kinds of topics that someone who’s really interested in the behind-the-scenes production of the series would want to hear explored. Also, each episode features a different mix of folks, and so the commentary is refreshingly new and interesting with each new episode. The more time I spend with the commentary the more my appreciation for this marvelous series grew (when I get time I’ll post back here some more details of the commentary on each of the eight episodes, so check back).
This was the most interesting area of bonus material for me personally. Each disc contains one to two “actor profiles” or “featurettes” dedicated to an actor, crew/cast member, or member of the production team. The length of these featurettes varies but they average between 10 and 15 minutes long. I found every one of these video profiles to be of immense interest, and I appreciated the manner in which each one selects a particular person or concept to explore. These video profiles uncover all the interesting facts and details that the Farscape enthusiast would want to learn, but at the same time appeal the to interest of even the first-time viewer. It is just marvelous to learn all the effort and technical/artistic wizardry that goes into each facet of making this show a reality. You’ll tour Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, discover just how complicated even many of the “simple” scenes were to create, and gain a much richer appreciation for the whole Farscape effort and for all the dedicated talent that made it possible (when I get time, I’ll post back here the details of each of the video profiles, so check back).
In addition to all that I’ve mentioned, there are also the occasional “screensavers” which I am not able to download (no DVD drive on my PC) as well as conceptual drawings etc. Since this set has been available for a time I’d appreciate hearing your own comments so please share.
Farscape is an unconventional and imaginative series that deserves the attention of anyone who enjoys programs of this genre. It’s not perfect, but in my humble opinion it stands solidly with many other highly praised programs and in most cases exceeds them on several counts. In addition to the fascinating universe Farscape brings to you in creative content, the picture and sound quality of this DVD presentation are spectacular and serve to enhance the experience even further. Special features are abundant and of genuine quality for the enthusiast and first-time viewer alike. If you’re a fan or remember enjoying the show when it aired on television, but have been reluctant to invest in purchasing the DVD box set, I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed if you do. If you’re an enthusiast of well-executed sci-fi programming but you’ve never seen this show and would like to take a chance on the unfamiliar, Farscape will reward your investigation.