Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Ten Percent: Farscape (1999-2003)


“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.

What do you get when you produce a television show across three continents, combining financing and “notes” from three very different networks in three very different time zones? What if this show was also an intricately plotted space opera — with puppets? Well, if you’re Rockne S. O’Bannon and Brian Henson, you get Farscape. In the US the series ran from 1999 – 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, with a follow-up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars airing in 2004. Starring Ben Browder (John Crichton) and Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun), Farscape traces the (mis)adventures of American astronaut Crichton, who is inadvertently catapulted into the distant reaches of the galaxy while test-piloting his experimental space engine. Crichton finds himself a true stranger in a strange land, surrounded by species that are technologically far in advance of Earth, and generally much, much older than humanity.


Ben Browder & Claudia Black as John Crichton and Aeryn Sun

So far, so not-so-unusual. Yet Farscape quickly becomes something more than a standard, episodic, good-guys v. bad-guys space show. It turns out that real life, even in the vastness of space, isn’t nearly that clear cut, and shades of grey predominate. Despite undeniable technological advances, and supposed socio-cultural ones, the strange alien polities Crichton finds himself in the middle of have the same old problems: arms races, cold wars, greed, corruption, and special interests abound, and in-between are billions of people on thousands of small worlds who become conquests or colonies of hungry empires, or proxies in their conflict, or are simply ground underfoot, unnoticed as titans clash.

Crichton and his new pals are definitely in this latter category. A group of escaped supposed criminals aboard a living ship which was itself enslaved as a prison barge, they are the definition of flotsam and jetsam in this wider universe, people with little or no value to the galactic superpowers, but priceless to themselves and each other. Much like Firefly (about which much more later!), Farscape is about chosen family, and about the capacity for change inherent in even the most twisted of souls. The main cast (for seasons 1 – 3) is rounded out by Anthony Simcoe as Ka D’Ago, a Luxan warrior prone to hyper-rage; Gigi Edgley as the sensuous and dangerous grey-skinned Chiana; and Virginia Hey as Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, a blue-fleshed priestess, but not always a gentle one.

Then there are the puppets, brought to brilliant life by the puppeteers at the Jim Henson Company. Several generations removed from Jim Henson’s original felt-covered creations, the Farscape puppets are incredibly intricate, often enormous constructs requiring multiple puppeteers to operate. The most central of such are Pilot, the, well, pilot of the living ship Moya, multi-limbed, with a massive head and carapace, Pilot is literally gown into the ship. Voiced by Lani John Tupu, Pilot is the crew’s direct line of communication to Moya, and the heart of the fragile family. At times teacher, confidant, confessor, or scold, Pilot is the moral center of the series, dedicated to the protection of Moya, and therefore the only character whose core motivation is the preservation of another’s life. Perhaps Pilot’s polar opposite is Dominar Rygel XVI a stubby, rotund ex-monarch and kleptomaniac. Given a royally entitled voice and personality by Jonathan Hardy, Rygel looks out for himself before all others, and often to the exclusion of everyone else.


Pilot and Rygel XVI

Some of the crew will leave, and other will arrive, but all share the same fate of being lost, of looking for home, or for something like it. Each eventually will find that place aboard Moya, at least for a time, and discover that chosen family can be much stronger than one cast together by the randomness of DNA. The crew moves through dangerous spaces in dangerous times, and slowly becomes the obsessive interest of great powers for knowledge they are believed to possess, knowledge that can supposedly bring final victory and dominance for whichever power controls it.  Such knowledge is worth having at any cost, particularly when it comes to the lives of Crichton and the crew, and their desires are inconsequential, particularly when it comes to a preference not to be dominated by anyone.

Farscape is the Cold War writ large, where something called “Mutually Assured Destruction” seems to be a viable and desirable policy, even if it means the destruction of entire planets. It is also a look at how the machinations of the powerful can all too often become divorced from the goals of civilization, and how the really important things: love, family, a productive life lived in peace can wind up being considered not just tertiary concerns, but irrelevant in the face of “larger issues.” Ultimately, however, Farscape is also about the power that the really important things actually have, and how dangerous the ignored can be when they are forced to fight for them. Farscape tells these tales with true style, incredible performances, effects, and writing, and uses the genre of science fiction to ask some really big questions and postulate some answers along the way. It is intricate, beautiful, gripping, sexy, and intensely moving, and that is why it is part of The Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, science fiction, television, The Ten Percent Tagged: anthony simcoe, ben browder, brian henson, claudia black, cold war, Farscape, Firefly, gigi edgley, Jim Henson, jonathan hardy, lani john tupu, puppets, Rockne S. O'Bannon, sci-fi, The Ten Percent, virginia hey

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Ten Percent – Of Food, Love, and Rats

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Ratatouille Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.

We’ve said before that genre doesn’t matter to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy has a place, along with high-toned drama. Quality animation rubs shoulders with science fiction and – oh, look over there! – you can find bloody horror chatting with dazzling musicals.

In America, November is dominated by Thanksgiving, a national holiday set aside to give thanks, revel in an abundance of family (and perhaps football), and to eat, eat, eat! In keeping with this theme, let us look at a member of the Ten Percent that is concerned with food and its ability to forge communities and help us build ties with each other.


Yes, I’m talking about Pixar’s 2007 gem, Ratatouille. The title is a lovely play on words, as a “ratatouille” is a French eggplant casserole – a “peasant dish” which is code for “comfort food” – and, while that kind of ratatouille does make a notable appearance in the film, the main character of Ratatouille is a creature you normally never want to see in a kitchen – a rat. But this is Pixar, so Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is an adorable critter with a huge heart and a burning drive to succeed in Paris as a high-end chef. Remy’s longing to make quality food that is beautiful and memorable, as well as being delicious, is at the heart of the film. He is aided in his quest by the ghost of his idol, Auguste Gusteau, whose bywords were that “ANYONE can cook!” (He tempers this just a little at one point, saying “What I say is true – anyone can cook . . . but only the fearless can be great!” This is an echo of the great visionary Julia Child, who demystified French cuisine for Americans and cheerfully admonished her readers and viewers to charge ahead boldly – to “be fearless!” I feel sure she would have enjoyed Ratatouille.)

Remy has allies and enemies in his quest, of course. He works with a young cook named Linguini (I kept waiting for a cousin named Pesto to show up), directing Linguini’s movements by perching on his head, carefully hidden from view under Linguini’s toque blanche and tugging on his hair to guide him. This eventually leads to nigh-disaster, but it all turns out right in the end.

The supporting cast in this film sparkles – Ian Holm is the villainous Skinner; Brad Garrett is the bluff and hearty Gusteau; Brian Dennehy is Remy’s well-meaning father, Django; and Janeane Garofalo is Colette, the lone female in the male-dominated kitchen, who teaches Linguini the basics, including the cardinal rule – “messy apron, clean sleeves.”

Ratatouille - Ego

And then there is Peter O’Toole voicing the cadaverous restaurant critic, Anton Ego. (Don’t you love that last name?) Ego despised Gusteau’s down-home approach to cooking, preferring that it remain mysterious and out of reach of the masses. Ego is whetting his poison pen to take down the restaurant that bears Gusteau’s name. But a simple, perfectly cooked dish of ratatouille takes the haughty critic back to his childhood, when the dish represented the safety of home and a mother’s love.


For, at its best, that’s what food does for us. See, it’s not just Nana’s borscht, or Cousin Charlie’s pimento cheese, or Mam-Maw’s biscuits, or Daddy’s fried chicken. It’s home. It’s why we pull out all the stops at holiday dinners, or when the student comes home from university, or to show sympathy in times of grief. As the sand runs through the glass of our lives, we all need home.

In addition to reveling in food and how it brings people together, Ratatouille also contains what may well be the single best monologue about the symbiotic (maybe parasitic) relationship between critics and artists ever put to film.

While theoretically a “kids’ movie,” Ratatouille is thoughtful and beautiful, asking several Big Questions. Why can’t we move beyond what other people think are our limitations? Why can’t a great artist come from humble beginnings? And why is Paris so gorgeous, even in animated form? Brad Bird (who also brought us The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) and his co-director Jan Pinkava were determined to create a film that dealt head-on with the desire to create being found in the least likely of creators. Their efforts were amazingly successful. The audience actually cares about Remy and Linguini’s twin searches for meaning and belonging. Further, the hand-drawn end credits following the slick computer animation of the film feel almost like another kind of going home.

So this Thanksgiving, as you eat that second slice of pie, watch Ratatouille. It clearly deserves its place on the Ten Percent Shelf.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: General, K. Dale Koontz, The Ten Percent Tagged: k. dale koontz, The Ten Percent

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Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian (2015): Now With 75% Less Science!

Matt Damon in The Martian.

Or something like that. I expect a film based upon a book that relies heavily on things like math, biology, and orbital mechanics for its plot to get dumbed down for the big screen, but with The Martian, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Ridley "Go Home, You've Been Drunk for Thirty Years" Scott managed to gut the driving force of the plot, and turn a gripping story of human ingenuity, perseverance, and bravery into just another basic survival movie where even the science they leave in is at best half-assed, and at worst just plain wrong. Matt Damon does a solid job, but lacks the power to captivate for long periods alone on screen (see Tom hanks in Castaway for an actor who actually can), but the cut-aways to an Earth full of big movie stars in supporting roles manage to support Damon's performance handsomely. All in all, the movie is fine, but if you really want a gripping, edge-of-your seat space thriller, read the book.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Housebound (2014): A Dark and Funny Kiwi Fruit

Left to right: Rima Te Wiata, Ross Harper, Morgana O'Reilly, and Ryan Lampp in  Housebound..

To make up for the trauma of Fantastic Four (2015), tonight we watched Housebound, a quirky, laugh-out-loud-funny, and really creepy horror film from New Zealand, directed by Gerard Johnstone. This was a delightful film with wonderfully developed characters and very human relationships that were well and quickly drawn. Great camerawork, tremendous use of lighting (or the lack of it) with more than a few twists in the very original story. It's streaming on Netflix right now. You should go watch it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015): Just Don't

These people had careers once.
Just back from Fantastic Four, which is (unbelievably) even worse than Fox's 2005 attempt. Not only it it an insult to the source material, it is an insult to the medium of film itself. Bad CG, bad acting, bad editing, appalling storytelling, nonexistent direction, baffling musical score, and writing that was turgid enough to clog an industrial toilet, which is where this film belongs. Do not go see this movie. Do not rent or stream this movie in the future. Instead, slam your foot in your car's door over and over again for 100 minutes while shouting "flame on!" and you will enjoy the same experience for much less money.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello again Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Tuesdays with Mollari!" This is the place where I natter on about the greatness that is Babylon 5, and the various adventures associated with writing a book about the show. We're calling the project Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5, and we're looking at a publication date in the fall of 2017, but we may manage to be ready to go earlier. Our publisher is ECW Press out of Toronto, and this will be our second book with them, following Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad (available wherever fine books are sold, and probably in some other places too!)

First off, I want to give a big Centauri shout out ("VALTOOOOOOO!!!!") to the UK's own John Joshua. You'll remember in my last post about the B5 comics, I mentioned that I have been unable to obtain a copy of the tribute mini-comic Beyond the Rim. Well, the day that post went live, John e-mailed me and offered to send me hi-res scans of his copy, which were in my inbox the next day. That was really, really awesome, and you can bet we'll be thanking him in the book and sending a signed copy across the pond come the day! Thanks very much, John!

Marshall Teague as Nelson Drake in "Infection" (1.04).
Babylon 5 is rightly hailed for bringing the long, or grand arc to television, but not every episode was so directly dedicated to advancing the overarching stories of the series. Straczynski balanced his grand arc with episodes that were far more traditional and episodic, where a problem arises, is dealt with by the protagonists, and at the end of the episode things pretty much reset to the status quo. Babylon 5 even did this differently, however, as the series had a memory, and viewers were often asked to remember events in previous episodes in order to fully understand what was happening at a given point in the show. Even seemingly non-arc episodes.

The formula of grand arc/season arc/and episodic storytelling would be refined a few years later in Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003), and fans of that show would coin the term "monster-of-the-week episode" to denote an episode that really did nothing to advance the larger season or series arcs, and were almost entirely focused on Buffy and the Scoobies taking down a random threat o' the week. So when I began to sit down and write the episode guides for Dreams Given Form I expected to use the "monster-of-the-week" phrase relatively frequently when dealing with episodes like "TKO" (1.14), "GROPOS" (2.10) "Grey 17 Is Missing" (3.19), etc. I figured these would be relatively short write ups along the lines of "well, a few titbits for the larger story were scattered here and there, but basically this one is a monster-of-the-week" and then move on.

The thing is, it is turning out that I'm wrong. Thus far, in any given episode written by J. Michael Straczynski (an important caveat), information that is either deeply relevant or even fundamental to the larger arcs is included. Take "Infection" (1.04) for example. At first it seems like a placeholder episode, but when you look at it critically with an eye to the entire series, several really important things become clear. Interplanetary Expeditions (IPX) is introduced in this episode. Non-human biomechanical technology is first mentioned (Shadows, anyone?). The fact that Earth is looking for alien tech to turn into weapons is dropped into a conversation, and this is the episode where JMS introduces his recurring themes of ideology, militarism, and fanaticism v. science, faith, and lawful armsbearing. All in this easily overlooked episode about a guy who gets gobbled up by bad CGI and tries to kill everybody for the thinnest of reasons.

Again and again, the intricacy of JMS's plotting and storytelling, the sheer painstaking details of his arc continue to astound me, and I am reminded of why I study television. That's it for this go-round, folks. For all of the latest B5 and pop-culture news that comes across my screen, be sure and follow me on Twitter or Facebook, and check out our bi-weekly column, "The Ten Percent" over at Biff Bam Pop! Until next time...

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello Readers Mine! After yet another hiatus, I have returned! (Seriously, you should follow me on the various medias of sociability if you want daily doses of me. Linkage to the top right of this page.) This week, I thought I'd take a closer look at a sometimes disparaged part of Babylon 5's groundbreaking transmedia storytelling: the Babylon 5 comics!

Babylon 5 numbers 1 - 11, DC Comics, 1994-1995.
As season 2 of Babylon 5 kicked off, so too did the briefly-lived regular Babylon 5 comic book series from DC. Issue 1, "In Darkness Find Me" was written by Straczynski, while issues 2 - 8 and 11 were plotted by JMS with Mark Moretti and Tim DeHaas fleshing things out. Issues 9 and 10 were scripted by David Gerrold, and are considered only semi-canonical, but feature Garibaldi and G'Kar in a race against mechanical death which requires them to sacrifice their clothing a piece at a time, so you don't want to miss 'em.

The comics fill in some important gaps in the larger B5 plot, and also connect with some of the canonical novels. Issues 1 -4 detail Sinclair's adventures on Earth after his recall, and during his first few months as Earth's ambassador to Minbar, with issue 1 taking place between "Crysalis" (1.22) and "Points of Departure" (2.01) and 3-4 between "Revelations" (2.02) and "The Geometry of Shadows" (2.3). The events in this first comic arc also ties into the canonical novel To Dream in the City of Sorrows, by Kathryn M. Drennan, who also wrote the episode "By Any means Necessary" (1.12), and was married to Straczynski from 1983 - 2002.

Issues 5-8 take place before "The Coming of Shadows" (2.09), and provide details about Garibaldi's first meeting with Sinclair and more details about his encounter with the Shadow vessels on Mars as seen in "Messages from Earth" (3.08). Issue 11 "Silent Enemies" even drops a bit of foreshadowing about the horrific past of Talia Winters, the culmination of which is revealed in "Divided Loyalties" (2.19). The details surrounding Garibaldi's first encounter with Shadow vessels is especially interesting as the issues were published between 5 and 8 months before "Messages from Earth" first aired, though the episode may well have been plotted/written/in production at the time JMS plotted the comics. Straczynski's famous long-rage plotting of B5 again allowed him to take advantage of transmedia storytelling in ways that broadened the canon and deepened the story, making the comics canon, rather than the usual licensed-but-unofficial storytelling common in the comic adaptations of SF shows like Battlestar Galactica (the original series) and Star Wars.

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales mini-comic.
Besides DC's monthly series, in 1998 JMS also wrote the first issue and plotted the rest (with Peter David completing the scripts) of the three-issue miniseries In Valen's Name, which takes place after "Into the Fire" (4.06) and recounts the final fate of Babylon 4 and fills in some of the history of Valen and the previous Shadow War. Finally, in 2007, a special mini-comic, "Beyond the Rim," was released with the Babylon 5: The Lost Tales DVD when purchased from Best Buy. "Beyond the Rim" is a kind of tribute to Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin) and Andreas Katsulas (G'kar), and recounts the galaxy-spanning adventures of the two men after the time of Babylon 5 and between G'Kar's return from deep space with Lyta Alexander, but before his final meeting with Londo on Centauri Prime.

On a side note, I was able to get a really great deal on the floppies of both the monthly DC series and In Valen's Name (thanks Atomik Comiks!), but I have as yet been unable to acquire a copy of the Lost Tales mini-comic. So if you have one you might be willing to part with for a reasonable price, let me know!)

The Babylon 5 comics are thus not a side-note, but an integral part of the Babylon 5 universe that allowed JMS to greatly expand his overall narrative, and bring new stories to fans who remain hungry for more tales to this day. Who knows, with talk of a big-screen B5 reboot, and JMS's own award-winning comic writing experience, we may yet be treated to a further expansion of the four-color canon. I certainly hope so. Until then, and until next time -

Hold the Line!