Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Stargate Universe returns this Friday for the second half of its first season (and by the way, I dislike these split seasons). For those of you who don’t remember, this is the show about a group of humans who are suddenly transported to a decrepit old alien vessel in a galaxy far, far away.
As I wrote in November:
A group of persons, most of whom never really wanted to do space travel, were transported to an old spaceship whose operating code they cannot crack. Like The Flying Dutchman the decrepit old ship just sails on not needing a live crew. But the newcomers need to figure out how to replenish the power, the water, the food supply. Every day is a struggle to survive.
All of that might be realistic. If you happened to be transported to a decrepit old spaceship you probably would be concerned with those things. But it isn’t particularly fun to watch. Mostly the passengers all just want to go home and I can’t blame them. The problem for the producers is that I have no limitations on my ability to leave the ship – all I have to do is change the channel (or, in my case, turn off hulu).
I was thinking about this as I’ve been working my way through the DVDs of FarScape (I’m now in the first half of season 3). Like SGU, FarScape involves an astronaut suddenly transported to a galaxy far, far away who is stuck on a spaceship with a group of people who have a hard time getting along. Unlike SGU there are tons of great special affects to watch when the arguments get boring.

The first thing that struck me about FarScape was that it was an expensive show. The original Stargate:SG1 was laughable in its lack of effects. Every planet they went to looked like the boreal forests of Canada – because they were the forests of Canada. Most of the aliens were humanoid (and spoke English, which was never adequately explained). The first four or five years of the show I described it as cheesy because it was so low budget compared to a sci fi movie, or even a Star Trek series. Later, they got more of a budget and things improved. SGU has more effects but mostly these people are stuck on a spaceship that is visually uninteresting (and dark).

FarScape is a visual treat. I recently read somewhere that George Lucas was planning a live action sci fi television series set in the years immediately before Luke meets Obi Wan. It wouldn’t involve any of the Star Wars major characters. They ought to salvage the old FarScape sets and costumes for it because that’s what FarScape looks like (when they actually get off the ship). The aliens (created by the Henson Creature Shop) are truly alien just as they were in the bar scene on Tatooine in the first Star Wars. In fact, I keep expecting the FarScape cast to eventually walk into the bar on Tatooine. Two major characters are aliens that are depicted by puppets (as jabba the hut was). But the humanoid aliens are often very different from regular humans, especially their eyes (which make me think of something out of Dune). Even the space ship is a living character and is visually interesting.

The main characters of FarScape are interesting because none of them are human except Crichton. And, unlike, SGU, it isn’t a cast of thousands. There were originally four passengers and a pilot on the ship (and some small animal-like mechanical creatures very reminiscent of the one Chewbacca scared on the first Death Star). There were a couple of additions made over the years (and one loss, so far) and there are a couple of bad guys (well, one is reformed, we think). It’s easy to keep track of who is who, unlike on SGU where you have no idea who all those people are (I hear that they are introducing a new character who they are going to claim has been on the ship the whole time. Presumably, in the great mass of unnamed people who mill around at meetings.)

The acting on FarScape is better than the original SG-1 actors (and, so far, the SGU actors) – although maybe that’s because the dialog is written better. SG-1 had better jokes but the drama was cheesy. FarScape is almost all drama with a few jokes here and there from Crichton (that mostly the other characters don’t get). Ben Browder and Claudia Black later joined the Stargate SG-1 cast and I’m amazed at how Claudia Black’s facial expressions are totally different on FarScape than on SG-1.

But where FarScape and SGU unfortunately collide is in the plotting. Yes, being stuck on a spaceship would be hard. Yes, wanting to go home is a natural feeling. Yes, sometimes tempers flare when people who aren’t alike are stuck together. But after a while … watching it gets old. Especially in the first season of FarScape I felt like I was caught in a never-ending loop where the plot would involve some big crisis where everyone had to learn to trust each other (because otherwise they were all going to DIE!) but then the next episode would start and it was as if that other episode never took place. (Maybe this wouldn’t be so obvious if one were watching on a weekly basis rather than back to back episodes on DVD.) Recently, in my season 3 viewing the character of Pilot sent two characters off on “shore leave” because he and the ship couldn’t take their bickering any more. I approved.

Just as I said in my discussion of SGU, it would help if they had a mission. Star Trek had a mission and it worked. Star Trek Voyager didn’t have a mission and was just trying to get home and it didn’t work so well. Firefly had a mission – smuggling etc. It worked. SGU has no mission. It is, so far, not working. FarScape really doesn’t have a real mission; they aren’t positively trying to achieve anything except getting home. They are trying to achieve negatives: elude the bad guys who are chasing them.

Everyone fights a lot. Everyone tries to avoid getting killed (week after week of WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE, just like SGU). It’s a wonder I’m still enjoying it. And I am. I just keep hoping that the characters will stop fighting so much. I was very happy when, in season 3, the crew split off into two parts and half stayed on the original ship and half went with the gunship Talon. It made for a change. So far season 3 seems different than the first 2 seasons and I’m hoping that the writers finally figured out where they were going with the plot. Although it won’t matter; I’m hooked despite the flaws and will watch it all the way through.

I’ll also keep watching SGU for the remainder of season 1 in the hope that they turn things around. But I really REALLY hope they get off that ship more or at least stop arguing with each other.