TV pilots are difficult- they have to introduce characters, settings, arcs and set up what a series is. The pressure is instantly on to ‘sell’ the show to the audience, hoping most of that audience will come back to the second episode. Its one thing to do this with a real-world show, but a genre show set in a totally alien environment has its work cut out for it. Think for a moment about something like Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which we knew what Star Trek was, the Federation, Klingons etc- so much groundwork was already done, yet it can be argued even that show struggled for its first year or two to establish itself. Shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape had even greater problems, in that they were not Star Trek, or Star Wars, but something else, and that was rather a problem back then in particular. They had whole new premises to establish, and Farscape would, after its first ten minutes, lose any safety-net of Earth or humans even. Once John Crichton falls through the wormhole and arrives on the other side of the galaxy, its all alien and strange from here on. Alice is in Wonderland, so to speak, only this Wonderland is full of wild and deadly danger from the first moment.
So if Farscape struggles its only natural. Indeed the story it tries to tell in the pilot ‘Premiere’ and all the background facts/histories it throws at the audience, is simply too much for a standard 50-minute episode. It really needed to be a 90-minute tv-movie; I wonder if that option was considered and if so, why it wasn’t taken. However, it would seem the lesson was indeed heeded, as the show would often have two-parters and three-parters later on in order to give larger stories the room to breathe. Farscape was always a bit demanding, frenetic and busy but this pilot is just too hectic for its own good; it sets up Crais losing his brother and his drive to avenge him by chasing down Crichton, who Crais feels is responsible- but we never ‘see’ the brother or establish his relationship with Crais. It’s as if when Crichton arrives through the wormhole we are already forty minutes into a tv movie and we’ve missed all the setting-up. Its sort of a future pattern for the show; very often we start an episode with the nagging feeling we’ve missed the first ten minutes already. Its part of what makes Farscape so fun and so special, the show always saying hold on to your hats, you’re in for a ride, so pay attention and play catch-up as we go long. Its great for genre fans familiar with some of the sci-fi stuff but rather disconcerting for many viewers I’m sure, and indeed fans coming off the comparatively safe and familiar Star Trek.
Of course, rewatching Farscape as I am, I have the benefit of knowing the characters and where the show is going to take them. In this first episode, its inevitable that some of the performances are a little awkward and some things work better than others. Already the great one-liners and comic undertone is working, and Ben Browder is clearly a charismatic actor and a sympathetic hero. There is an instant chemistry between him and Claudia Black, which will turn out to be the bedrock of the entire series. The creature effects already hint at the show being something special and the cgi (still somewhat novel at the time) have a sense of scale remarkable for television back then.
Overall it is very effective but one already can see how the shows strangeness might alienate initial viewers; it feels written for genre fans/geeks first and Joe Public second. How many of the latter would give the show a second try after this first episode, I wonder? Alas that seems the perennial problem for genres shows like this, but its surprising looking back just how full-on Farscape was from the start, and it can be argued it wasn’t even ‘proper’ Farscape until it reached episode fifteen, after which, frankly, all bets are off and you realise that Anything Goes. Its one of the great things about the show but it would also haunt it always, right up to its criminal cancellation after season four, but that’s 87 more episodes away, thank goodness…