Farscape

There are people who love this show. I’m gonna say right up front, I had trouble getting through the pilot — I thought it was awful. It premiered in 1999. I had to look that up to be sure because, watching it with no prior knowledge, I was estimating something closer to 1989. I’m going to plead, “You can’t judge a show by it’s pilot,” on this one because apparently it improves.

According to TV Tropes, “While its premise began as a fairly standard science fiction show, Farscape quickly distinguished itself with a focus on complex, evolving characterizations, jaw-dropping plot twists and movie-quality special effects and cinematography.” Continue reading

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Defying Gravity

I knew when I first saw this show it was going to break my heart. It was too cool to hold up on network TV. It blends science fiction with relationship drama and a hint of philosophy, somewhere between Firefly and Being Erica. It started airing during the summer of 2009, it went away, it came back it went supposedly on hiatus, and in the end the only place to see the last episodes was on DVD.

The story is partially in flashbacks, but the “present” is the year 2052 and a group of astronauts is about to embark on a landmark journey to seven planets, over six years. The story is told primarily through the eyes of the first character we meet, Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston). The opening scene is dark and concerting, showing us a sad picture of Donner’s life at home with his father, who is either an alcoholic or senile, or both. The dreary room is lit only by the television where a group of smiling astronauts is introduced. Donner’s father asks, “Which one are you?” A flashback shows us the tragic end to Donner’s space travel career, as he is forced to leave the surface of Mars amid a storm with two crewmates still on the planet’s surface.

Although the next scene is one of exuberant celebration, opening the pilot this way sets a tone that we, the viewer, cannot shake. Heartbreak lurks beneath the glossy, high-tech surface in this future. The episode is sprinkled with mentions, by the ground control team, of an “it” that is being kept secret from the crew. To be honest, these didn’t catch my attention on first viewing, but in hindsight they hold much significance.

The next character we meet is Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris, playing the polar opposite of her Dead Like Me character). With a simple look between her and Donner, the romantic tension is established. Later in the episode it is suggested, if not spelled out, that the two characters have a history.

Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba) was Donner’s partner on the Mars mission, and though the two of them still work for the International Space Organization, they are marked forever as the men who abandoned their crewmates.

The Mission Commander is Rollie Crane, whose new wife Jen is also part of the mission. Also on the crew are Nadia, Paula, Ajay, Evram, and Steve. We get a snippet of each one as they talk into a camera, reality show-style.

The show’s creators didn’t waste time or energy making the future look “futuristic.” A bar still looks like a bar, and people still wear jeans and tees. They saved the budget for the ship, The Antares. There are beautiful images of the expanse of space, seen through panoramic windows in a shining, pristine vehicle.

The business of explaining the technology is accomplished by having one of the crew members, Paula, carry around a mini-DV camera and talk to an audience of school children. There are holes in the science, of course. It is explained that the astronauts’ suits have special fibers that pull them toward the floor of the ship in the absence of gravity. Yet, their hair lays flat. Not being a physicist, I am probably missing other problems as well, but the story is exciting enough to let those go.

Odd things are happening to both Donner and Zoe. Donner is having dreams about being on the mission and seeing Zoe float naked out into the vacuum of space. Zoe is hearing the far-off sound of a baby’s cries. In flashbacks, we are filled in on the fact that Zoe got pregnant during training, but had an illegal abortion. These moments are just breadcrumbs at this stage but promise to lead to something amazing, possibly frightening.

The twist in the plot comes when two of the crew members, Rollie and Ajay, already aboard the space station orbiting the Earth, suddenly develop identical and unusual heart conditions. Before the ship can start on the mission proper, Donner and Ted must be subbed in for the two ailing astronauts. Ted  knows the secret—whatever it is—that mission control is keeping from the crew.  The question raised, the theme of the episode, is whether fate determined who was on the mission and who was not. We are promised more back story about the training, which may answer that question. But the show appears to be one that will raise as many questions as it answers.

Though many viewers blinked and missed Defying Gravity, I’m not the only one to appreciate it; here is a good analysis from Spill.com.

Lost in Space

With a show set in a future that is now the past, it would be easy to simply pick apart the inaccuracies and laugh at the technology (and ask the age-old question, “Where is my jetpack?”) But I won’t do that. I’m going to examine the pilot of Lost in Space for what it is—a first episode designed to introduce the premise for a series.

Okay, I lied. First I have to make fun of one thing.

It’s 1997 as the Robinson family is being loaded aboard the Gemini 12 for a 100-year voyage to Alpha Centauri where they hope to colonize a sort of overflow zone for the bustling Earth. By setting this technologically advanced endeavor in 1997, the creators showed great faith and ambition in the abilities of mankind. Not so much for womankind. This is “the first time in history that anyone but an adult male has passed the International Space Administration’s grueling physical and emotional screening.” They could foresee space colonization but not female astronauts? Crikie. 

Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams), his wife Dr. Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart), their three children, Judith, Will, and Penny, and their assistant Donald are put into suspended animation and launched into space. An 11-minute introduction explains all of the circumstances, narrated by a news anchor. The mood is ominous as the world watches a historic moment. The set is a busy space station, filled with tense-looking individuals and complicated-looking machinery. The mood as the ship lifts off is more somber than celebratory. Shortly after launch, the ship encounters an asteroid field, it’s passengers are jostled around in their slumber, and the Gemini 12 is reported lost in space.

The tone then shifts as we jump ahead to 2001 and find the Robinsons surviving on a distant planet. The set up for this section is also narrated, as Dr. Robinson reads from a journal. At last, 12 minutes in, we hear the characters speak on screen and finally start to get a sense of their personalities.

Spooky music continues the air of foreboding introduced in the opening, but there are moments of levity. The children bicker and goof off, like any siblings. The whole family falls instantly into societal patterns recognized by the show’s 1960s audience. Mother and older sister prepare dinner and do laundry, the younger kids play with toys and pets, and the menfolk work outside the home.

What we know about the planet is that it has extremes in temperature, a variety of flora and fauna, and at least one sea. And as in nearly all science fiction shows, the air pressure, oxygen level and gravity are exactly comparable to Earth. We can assume it’s not Alpha Centauri, since our heroes have journeyed for just three years to get there (and because Alpha Centauri is a star system, not a planet, but there I go nitpicking). Nevertheless, the Robinsons seem to have brought all the right equipment.

The homestead is complete with appliances and alien pets. Things are powered with solar batteries. (Why couldn’t Gilligan’s castaways have thought of that?) The show has fun demonstrating the fantastical advances of the future. The washing machine, for example, washes, dries, and packages clothes in plastic wrapping all in seconds.

Naturally there is a hook-up in the works between 19-year-old daughter Judith and the hot young Ph.D. How could her parents not have seen that coming? Shark jumping is inevitable with a cast of six.

By the end of the episode, the travelers have stumbled upon some kind of tomb that suggests other human-like beings live here, or did. So, it looks like they will have plenty left to discover, enough to last a few seasons. The action is intense and some of the special effects aren’t terrible. The episode leaves us in suspense, always a strong move for a pilot. This is actually an unaired pilot, so there is a character not introduced until the actual pilot. Either way, it stokes the imagination—even today—and sets the stage for high adventure. And unlike its contemporary Star Trek, it introduces characters for each member of the family to relate to. So if you can suspend your disbelief in accept it as fantasy, it’s pretty fun.