TV on DVD 11/17/09 – Far away to Farscape, on the road to Rome

The first trademark hit for the Sci Fi channel (long before they rebranded themselves SyFy), Farscape spanned four seasons (1999-2003) plus a mini-series to wrap the story that should have been the fifth and final season (fans were close to revolt when the Sci-Fi Channel abruptly cancelled their cult space opera). ADV, a home video label that otherwise specialized in Japanese anime and a smattering of live action Japanese genre cinema, has released the show in any number incarnations, constantly repackaging the episodes in larger and larger sets but never pulling it all together. Farscape: The Complete Series (A&E) finally does just that. If you missed the trip through the wormhole, here’s the gist of it: Ben Browder is John Crichton, an American astronaut flung to the far side of the galaxy through a wormhole and into a living ship filled with fugitives from a Fascist authoritarian force ironically named Peacekeepers.

Farscape, circa Season Two
Farscape, circa Season Two

There’s the usual panoply of exotic aliens, marbled worlds, and spacescapes that look ripped from the cover of Amazing Stories, but Farscape was more than space opera and pulp adventure. There’s huge cultural gap between the crew of six motley fugitives who band together to survive, all with their own (often clashing) agendas, and they are desperate: in one episode in the first season, DNA Mad Scientist, they’re offered a way home in exchange for a sample of their DNA and one of Pilot’s arms. They hack the appendage off with mercenary efficiency and then turn on each other. The crew is filled out by former peacekeeper soldier Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), the blue-skinned plant woman and priestess Zhaan (Virginia Hey), lion-maned, hot-tempered warrior Anthony Simcoe (D’Argo), overthrown emperor Rygel (a furry, self-involved Muppet), the giant mantis-like Pilot (another impressive Muppet, this one a huge creature whose scale we only discover in the above-mentioned episode DNA Mad Scientist) and, joining late in the first season, wild-child Chiana (Gigi Edgley). That’s right around the time that Scorpius, the ash white half-breed alien with an SS streak in him and the best villain on sci-fi TV of the past 20 years, starts his obsessive hunt for Crichton and the wormhole technology that is hidden somewhere in his brain, and their wanted status makes them a target any time they try to land. As you can guess, the totalitarian worlds and mercenary survivors they meet are a far cry from the Federation friendly universe of Star Trek and the dark art direction and wild, often grotesque creatures (courtesy of Jim Henson studios) made this the most imaginative and unpredictable science fiction show on TV in its pre-Battlestar Galactica day.

There isn’t a sci-fi show that has done more with less: dark, textured sets, organic designs, colorful worlds and races, and dense plotting with more twists and turns than any other sci-fi show on TV. This ain’t the cool, uncluttered, well-lit womb of The Enterprise. This is an action packed show, with ingenious narrative nooks and crannies and chaos as the normal state of being for the crew of Moya and the lost-in-space American astronaut John Crichton. And the tangled relationships just keep getting knottier and naughtier through the run. There are interstellar heists, royal intrigues, clones, resurrections, family feuds, alternate realities and even an animated episode where Crichton replays his conflict with an enraged, adrenaline-booted D’Argo as a bizarre Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote-style cartoon dream. Each season ends with a wicked cliffhanger and the fourth (which turned out to be the final) season ends on an episode called Bad Timing (a dig, surely, at the last minute cancellation of the show) that leaves the series on a bizarre cliffhanger and a “To be continued…” A subsequent 2-part TV film wrapped things up rather hurriedly, but this is really the show’s last blast. All of this and more is in the A&E set: 88 episodes on 25 discs divided into four seasons (each with its own case) and a collection of bonus discs. It features all the commentary tracks (29 of them), featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes of the previous releases, plus the TV special Farscape: Undressed, a “crash course primer on Farscape,” as host Ben Browder says, that makes its DVD debut. The mini-series Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (Lionsgate) wrapped up everything that the series promised, a season’s worth of revelations and complications compacted into a three hour climax that is so overstuffed that it loses the sense of character and personality that made the show work. It’s still available separately but A&E has made a deal for a limited special edition version of the box set that includes the mini-series in the set, available exclusively at Best Buy.

Rome: The Complete Series (HBO) is the most expensive production in HBO’s history, a Roman epic shot on location in Rome with lavish period detail and a contemporary sensibility. It was a co-production with the BBC and featured a largely British cast and lasted only two seasons, but they were impressive seasons. Season One chronicles the rise and fall of Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), the conquering hero Gaius Julius Caesar, who breaks tradition and law by marching his army into Rome and making himself Emperor, ending 400 years of the Republic. While political alliances and power plays are plotted in the halls of power and houses of the wealthy, the story of Centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), a respected field leader in Caesar’s army with great ambition, and loyal but impetuous legionary Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), a foot soldier who becomes Lucius’s ally and friend, plays out in the streets of Rome.

The first season ends on assassination of Caesar and the second season opens seconds later, with the corpse of Caesar is still bleeding on the Forum floor, and then follows the rise of his nephew and legal heir, Octavian (Max Pirkis as the teenage Octavian, Simon Woods as the young man who marches on Rome) and his defiant challenge to Mark Antony (James Purefoy). Yet the political alliances and Empire-spanning power plays are secondary to the more gripping drama surrounding Lucius (Kevin McKidd), the one-time soldier whose personal tragedy transforms him into a ruthless gangleader in the most lawless quarter of Rome, and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), his gentle friend, loyal ally and brutally efficient enforcer. Their stories spill out from the streets of Rome to all points of the Empire, including the royal house of Egypt, where the secret of Cleopatra’s heir has a delicious twist. This show has as much blood and sex as it has scheming plots and melodramatic complications and but is like no costume epic you’ve ever seen, with dense writing, vivid characters from all castes, a dynamic portrait of political gamesmanship and military strategy, and a lusty evocation of ancient Rome. The eleven-disc set features 24 episodes (with commentary on over half of them) and seven featurettes on the show and the historical record, collected in a booklike case with album sleeves.

Ally McBeal: The Complete Series (Fox) was released in October but I didn’t get my set until a couple of weeks ago. Calista Flockhart became a star when David E. Kelley cast her as the funniest and skinniest lawyer on TV: the neurotic Ally McBeal, unlucky in love and unafraid to wear microskirts in the courtroom. It made for most the offbeat legal show on TV, filled with romance and goofy detours into fantasy and cartoonish gags, and for one season Robert Downey Jr. joined the firm. The show is packed with music and had a fondness for classics that echoed off the scenes; Fox held off releasing the show until they could clear the song rights and keep them intact. And in a reversal of the usual releasing patterns, Fox offers the complete series in one go: all 112 episodes of the five seasons on 30 discs plus a bonus disc featuring vintage featurettes, the crossover episode of “The Practice and the original “Bygone Days: An Ally McBeal Retrospective” and a CD soundtrack. Each season is collected in a separate case (plus a sixth case for the supplements) and packaged snuggly in a sturdy box. It’s a handsome case but if space and/or easy access is an issue, you can simply take the individual cases out and line them up on your DVD shelf.

The Steve Coogan Collection (BBC) gather the unique creations of writer/performer/producer Steve Coogan for the BBC, the famous, the infamous and a few characters making their stateside home video debut. His most famous character is Alan Partridge, a guy who wants to be a talk show host so badly it’s almost too painful to watch. Coogan makes that pain hilarious as the amiably shallow, try-too-hard Partridge, an unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe convinced of his right to blathering celebrity despite his singular lack of talent, taste, or intelligence. The humor of Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge is sly and the whole show played so straight that it’s hard to tell if it’s a brilliantly scripted parody or a real, absurdly inane talk show. Not that there was any hope of renewal by the end of the six episode run: Alan sends off the series with a real bang. Partridge did return, however, in I’m Alan Partridge, reduced to being a morning DJ on a rural station while he prepares his big comeback. In another universe entirely is Saxondale, starring Coogan as retired rock band roadie and one-time counter-culture creature Tommy Saxondale, now a middle-aged bloke with an ex-wife, a girlfriend and a gut, trying to hold on to his ideals while getting by in suburbia. Pudgy, gray and often to be found behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Mustang Mach 1, Tommy is not a genius but every once in a while the wisdom of his years comes through. For the rest, he has his anger management classes (which, frankly, only seem to make him more upset). All of these shows have been released on DVD before but this collection supplements them with some of Coogan’s more offbeat comedy experiments, such as Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible, a bizarre spoof of horror anthologies with Coogan as both host and star, and Coogan’s Run, a comedy anthology of genre take-offs, plus a handful of specials and live appearances with Coogan reprising such characters as Tony Ferrino and Paul and Pauline Calf. There’s commentary on most episodes, deleted scenes, featurettes and other bonus footage. 13 discs in a digipak with bookleaf trays.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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