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The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

Farscape: The Complete Series

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Farscape: The Complete Series
1999-2003 (2009) - Jim Henson Co./Sci-Fi (A&E/New Video)
Released on DVD on November 17th, 2009

Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B/B


Jim Henson Productions and Sci-Fi Channel's Farscape followed the adventures of Earth astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder), who was catapulted to the far-flung regions of space amid an intergalactic war, and had to team up with unlikely alien allies in an effort to find his way home. If you're a fan of the series, you already know that it was one of the most interesting, daring and original science fiction shows ever to appear on the small screen - certainly the best series that had appeared on the Sci-Fi Channel prior to the revamped Battlestar Galactica. Farscape lasted for four thrilling seasons, but Sci-Fi shortsightedly cancelled it before its time, concluding the series' run with an absolutely gut-wrenching cliffhanger that left fans pulling out their hair.

Thankfully, a massive fan campaign resulted in Sci-Fi commissioning a 182-minute miniseries conclusion to the show, called The Peacekeeper Wars, which served as a far more satisfying ending. (It's available on DVD from Lionsgate and is NOT included in this new box set.)

Let's get down to business. Fans have been waiting for Farscape to return to DVD for a long time. The DVD rights were previously owned by ADV Films, which released the show on disc twice - an initial DVD release and a series of more elaborate Starburst Editions. The great thing about the Starburst Editions is that they included all the features from the original DVDs, along with substantial new extras. The bad thing is that they were initially released in 2-disc sets, with each disc being a DVD-18 (dual-sided and dual-layered). These quickly began to have bonding and playback problems. So ADV took steps to re-issue the sets in 4-disc DVD-9 editions that worked correctly. Unfortunately, not all of the 4-disc volumes made it widely into stores. And while some consumers were able to obtain replacement copies directly from ADV (for a limited time only), many others didn't realize they were having playback problems with their discs until the exchange offer had expired. To make matters even worse, ADV then lost the rights to the series and ALL of the sets quickly went out of print.

So now, a couple years later, A&E and New Video have obtained the DVD rights and they've returned the series to disc. The good news is that they've done so in a 26-disc Complete Series box set that, despite its $149.95 SRP, is still far cheaper than ADV's Starburst Editions were collectively. (Each season was ultimately released by ADV in 3 volumes of 4 discs each, for a total of 48 discs in all - priced at $19.99 each, the grand total for buying the series was in excess of $240). But there's unfortunately been some compromises too, which have to be taken into consideration. Read on, 'Scapers...

The first question you probably have is: How does the video and audio quality of the new A&E DVDs compare to the ADV Starburst Editions? The short answer is, the Starbursts were definitely better. To me, the differences are significant, but given the substantially lower price of this set, they may not be enough to deter you. Color and contrast on the new discs is about the same as the previous versions, but in order to squeeze 88 episodes on to a 26-disc set (down from a previous 48 discs with the Starburst Editions) the video has been compressed more. (Video data rate on the A&E episodes is about 30% lower on average than that found on the ADV discs.) What that means is that all the episodes look just a little bit softer than they did on the Starburst discs, with a corresponding reduction of fine detail. You see it in things like skin texture on faces, and occasionally in backgrounds and clothing. Titles too look a little softer, and there's a bit more visible MPEG-2 compression artifacting. Another concern is that the A&E discs appear to be sourced from broadcast masters instead of production masters, like the ADV discs were. You can tell because each of these episodes has a "Dolby Surround Where Available" bug at the start. This raises two critical concerns. First, it means that while the ADV Starburst discs were progressive scan, these are 480i only. So on some players (depending on whether and how they convert 480i to 480p) you're going to see noticeable interlacing artifacts. What's more, it raises the potential specter that these episodes are either time-compressed or edited for content or both - practices commonly used by broadcasters in order to squeeze more commercial spots into each hour. Now, I haven't gone through each episode to compare and check on this, nor am I familiar enough with them to tell if any are missing scenes. But I wouldn't be surprised if either issue were present on the A&E discs, so buyer beware. The audio on the A&E discs is still excellent in general - I'm not really noticing much of a difference in the Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks between the two editions. But the video difference is noticeable. It's also important to note that the English subtitles (for the hearing impaired) that were included on the ADV Starburst discs are NOT included here - a critical omission if you have need of them. The Starburst DVDs also included Closed Captioning in the video signal - the A&E discs don't have this either.

A few words about aspect ratio: It's important to note that the first three seasons of this show were produced and broadcast in a 4x3 aspect ratio, while the fourth and final season was shot and presented in 16x9 widescreen. So that's how they're presented on DVD.

All right... there's a video quality reduction with the new discs, but they're a lot cheaper. So the sacrifice is worth making, right? Well... there's one other issue that you need to consider: The new A&E discs have dropped a LOT of the Starburst Edition bonus content. I've gone through all the sets disc by disc, and it boils down to this: The new A&E discs include all the episodes, all the audio commentaries and all the deleted scenes. They also include all the documentary specials, all the TV promos, Re: Union, the bloopers, all the Listening In and Farscape in the Raw clips, and MOST of the behind-the-scenes cast and crew interviews. But ALL of the image and production design gallery videos are gone, nearly all of the Video Profile clips are gone, the make-up test, TV Critics Association and storyboard videos are all gone, and ALL of the text-based features have been dropped, including actor/character bios and backstories, the Cool Farscape Facts, The Farscape Chronicles and Alien Encounters features and more. The only NEW feature that the A&E discs add (that wasn't on the Starburst discs) is the Farscape Undressed behind-the-scenes TV special (aired on Sci-Fi prior to the start of the show's third season to catch new viewers up), which has never been available on DVD before.

I should note that there's one other thing that's a little frustrating about the new set: The A&E discs come in a box - a literal cardboard box. You have to open the flap to get the discs out and, each time you do, it's easy to damage the cardboard. Why not use a slipcase? Saving on price, I'm guessing. Each season comes in a typical DVD case, that's packed tight with 6 discs in swing trays. So this is not the most elegant packaging solution, but I'll grant that it DOES save shelf space compared to the Starburst versions.

In the end, A&E's new Farscape: The Complete Series offers decent (but reduced) video quality and a more budget-friendly price, but it omits a LOT of great features from the previous Starburst DVDs. So if you're a fan and you already have the Starburst Editions, I'm guessing you'll almost certainly want to keep them and pass on this new set. Obtaining the Farscape Undressed special just isn't worth the missing extras and reduced quality. If, on the other hand, you DON'T have Farscape on DVD yet but you've been wanting to pick it up... go for it. The video quality on the new set is still decent for DVD (just not as good as the Starburst discs) and there's still some good extras too. And again, it's awfully hard to beat the reduced price for the complete series. You'll also save yourself about a foot of DVD shelf space. Just don't forget to pick up The Peacekeeper Wars on DVD too, because trust me... Farscape truly isn't "complete" without it. If you don't have it on hand after watching the last episode in this set, you'll definitely regret it.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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