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On the Tube: Sci-Fi Channel's 'Farscape' takes off after uninspired start

Friday, January 07, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In tonight's "Farscape," the first of four episodes that wrap up the Sci-Fi Channel series' inaugural season, the spaceship goes into labor.

You wouldn't see that on any of the incarnations of "Star Trek."

The pregnancy of the living spaceship Moya is just one of the distinguishing characteristics of this increasingly creative and addictive series. Amazing to look at since its premiere last spring, "Farscape" evolved over the course of its first 18 episodes.

What began as a beautiful-looking series with bland writing and uninspired stories has evolved into more sophisticated storytelling and characters who aren't immediately cuddly and don't always do the right thing. For instance, Chiana (Gigi Edgley), a white-haired and white-faced alien newcomer who prowls like a panther, may or may not be a murderer.

"Farscape" kicked off last spring when human astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) piloted an experimental spacecraft into a wormhole. When it emerged in another universe, Crichton's ship accidentally collided with a Peacekeeper vessel, killing the brother of Capt. Crais (Lani John Tupu). That led Crais to pursue Crichton, who was rescued by Moya's crew, a ragtag troop of escaped convicts.

Tonight at 8, estranged Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) suffers from a disease that can only be cured by a marrow transplant from another Peacekeeper. Crichton travels with Chiana to a Peacekeeper base, where he meets up with a new villain interested in Crichton's wormhole experiences, the sadistic Scorpius (Wayne Pygram).

Charting the course of Moya's crew throughout the show's first season was creator/executive producer Rockne S. O'Bannon. His previous TV experience was the disappointing "seaQuest DSV." O'Bannon worked only on the pilot, an experience he had no interest in repeating.

"I wasn't thrilled with the direction it went in [after the pilot], and I vowed if I ever got involved in episodic television again, I'd stick with it for a year," O'Bannon said. "From the 'seaQuest' experience I learned a television series isn't just the pilot, it's the first season."

The turning point in "Far-scape's" first season came with episode No. 9, O'Bannon said. In the first few minutes, the crew of Moya decided to cut off an arm from the ship's multi-limbed alien pilot in order to get an important piece of information.

"It happens right at the beginning, and the audience was expecting something in TV mode, with [the crew] wringing their hands," O'Bannon said. "As much as these characters are growing to be united and a team and on their way to I hope someday being a family, they're coming from an escaped prisoner mentality: I must protect myself first."

From the outset, O'Bannon said he intended to write "Farscape" in six-episode story arcs, but that didn't happen in the beginning as he and executive producer David Kemper tried to train new writers.

"One of the greatest difficulties we immediately ran into was other writers who would have Crichton be the captain. They'd have him giving orders like Capt. Kirk," O'Bannon said. But Crichton is not Kirk, and the show has no military-style hierarchy like "Star Trek's" Starfleet. "This is something far more fueled by anarchy, and also it's a show with a lead character who wasn't of his place. He's a guy like you or me dropped in another world."

"Farscape" was originally developed for Fox, but O'Bannon said the project fell through the cracks between network regimes when the incoming regime chose to place its bets on "Space: Above & Beyond."

"I think if we'd been on Fox there would have been a lot more problems and it would not be the show it is now. A huge advantage of cable is that [USA Networks president Stephen Chao] wants bold programming. He doesn't want complacent, nice television. He wanted this to be as out there as possible."

O'Bannon will reduce his involvement in "Farscape" to that of a consultant in its second season, which kicks off March 17. Kemper will run the series, but O'Bannon promised Moya's baby will have a recurring presence as a character, not just a plot device. He also promised answers to whether Chiana is a killer.

"At one level at least it's enigmatic, which is not something you see a lot of in television," O'Bannon said. "If she killed this guy, it was a pretty heinous thing to do. That to me makes a real interesting character. You never know quite what to expect of her and we trade in that a lot."

But first, there's this season's cliffhanger, titled "Family Ties" and airing Jan. 28. In previews, it appears Rygel (John Eccleston), a helium-emitting Yoda-like monarch, may betray the crew.

"It's the cliffhanger from hell," O'Bannon said. "We have four different threads left hanging. Some we knew how we'd resolve when we wrote them, some we didn't. But we managed to pull all the threads together."

(10 p.m., Sci-Fi Channel)

"Farscape" amazes -- "Lexx" simply appalls.

This Canadian-Belgium co-production, based on a story from "Tales from a Parallel Universe," follows a trio of shipmates in bizarre, and often boring, adventures.

The ship's captain, Stanley Tweedle (Brian Downey), lusts after Zev (Eva Habermann), who transforms herself into Xev (Xenia Seeberg) at some point in the series, but she still refuses to have sex with Stanley, even though she promises she will at the outset of every episode.

Xev is worshipped by a robot named 790, who has been reduced to just a head. Kai, a 2,000-year-old dead assassin, looks like Edward Scissorhands.

Evidently "Lexx" has a cult following overseas, and maybe if I were to watch the series primer tonight at 9 I'd be better prepared for the episode that follows at 10 p.m. In "Nook," the crew visits a monastery on a planet populated only by men. They're smitten by Zev, except for one guy who would prefer a close encounter with Stanley. Later, Zev licks a strawberry seductively and gets orgasmic during a massage.

It's a train wreck, and I found myself watching just to see what would happen next. But the show is so ponderous -- and the special effects in "Nook" were so pathetic -- I can't imagine tuning in again.

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