Movie: As a devotee of the television on DVD multi-disc sets that have been gaining momentum on sales charts of late, I routinely field questions about the practice of buying shows I could get for free (off cable or network television) from people all over the world. I point out the lack of commercials, the extras, having the shows in order, and the usually drastic improvement in technical qualities over their broadcast versions as just a few of my reasons for spending some dough. I also like a lot of shows with some fantastical, often futuristic, aspects so it should come as no surprise that shows like Crusade, Quantum Leap, and Firefly (among a great many others) appeal to me and often become the subject of weekend long marathons in my home. As a reviewer though, I also get to see some a number of shows I missed when they originally aired like a great television version of an interesting movie: La Femme Nikita. Lasting five seasons (well, four and a third) due to an outpouring of support by the loyal fans, the show was one case where the television show was miles ahead of its original movie counterpart, so unlike the watered down versions we're usually subjected to. Here's what I said when I reviewed Season One last year:
"The French movie centered on a woman who was part of a burglary/murder of a pharmacy. Hoping to score some great drugs and maybe cash, she joined a few other losers and tried to knock the place off. After a grisly shoot out, she is caught and sentenced to die. In a twisted form of reprieve, she is recruited by a secret organization that does all the things that governments do, such as assassinations, with the proviso that she will be killed if she doesn't do everything she's told. Not exactly a great career choice, huh?
The television series glosses over the origin a bit and makes the lead character, Nikita (Peta Wilson), a street person who scrapes by to make a living. Caught up in circumstances beyond her control, this time innocent of murder, she is trained and put to work for an anti-terrorist unit known only as Section One. Her boss, Michael (Roy Dupuis), ruthless and cold, puts her in situations where if she really can't kill, as she has told him, she'll simply die and be done with. Sounds a bit like working in a major corporation to me (except for the death part)."
With many fans clamoring for additional seasons on DVD, I was pleased to review Season Two a few days ago, noticing that the dynamics of the season were slowly changing as the characters evolved somewhat, fleshing out the roles they were so good in previously. Now, thanks in no small part to devoted fans, I'm staring at La Femme Nikita: Season Three, the latest boxed set of this sadly overlooked cable television show originally broadcast on the USA network. Much of the character detail will be the same as my last review with some updates to describe the growth of the characters during this season. The story is about the intelligence community as it fights terrorism, specifically focusing on a secret agency so important that it's not known about by the general public called Section. Founded by the top intelligence guru of our time, Adrian, it has since been taken over by a man known as Paul Wolfe (Eugene Robert Glazer from The New Twilight Zone.) but only safely referred to as 'Operations'. He is as ruthless a man as has ever lived and demands complete loyalty of his subordinates or he cancels them (a euphemism for killing them). Under his rule, the spy agency's lead unit, Section One, recruits employees from prison who learn the score right away that they belong; mind, body and soul to him and Section One. His word is law and anything less than total obedience will put you on the fast track to a dirt nap. Operations has a lengthy (and dark) past full of secrets but those who uncover them seem to have an actuarial lifespan measured in months, if not days. He only trusts one person in this world, Madeline, and until season three, it seems as though he answers to no one. With the events of Adrian's Garden and End Game from Season Two now over, the repercussions of his actions have now brought forth his superior in Section, a man known only as George, who expresses his dismay at the possibility of Adrian's fate being somehow tied to Operations and Madeline.
Operations' leading strategist and right hand assistant is Madeline Sand (Alberta Watson; known initially for her role in The Outer Limits.). A former lover of Operations, she is not above sacrificing anything, or anyone, to accomplish a mission. She sees Nikita as too much of a loose cannon for her unorthodox ways as much as a potential rival, but the third season seemed to also have her realize that Nikita compromised Michael's effectiveness, and possibly served as a means by which he could be corrupted (even further than she suspected by this point). Season three begins with her and Operations sending Nikita on increasingly dangerous missions without Michael in order to sever the connection between Adrian and her fate since both she and Operations know that George will find out what happened if Nikita lives long enough.
Next up is a man named only as Walter (Don Francks, a well known voice actor for shows like Rock & Rule.) who is probably the oldest employee of Section One. His expertise is that of the munitions expert who can devise anything if given enough material to work with but also for his uncanny ability to figure out weapons of all sorts, including those used by terrorist organizations. His role in this ongoing drama was to befriend Nikita although with his decades of experience in Section One (and preceding groups that led up to it), trusting him completely would be a folly since the manner of the group is survival at all costs. Still, his unorthodox ways of handling things are something of a mystery to Nikita since such stepping outside of the boundaries is typically met with less than pleasing results. One characteristic shared by those operatives working outside of the usual constraints is their knowledge of something on Operations or Madeline but that knowledge proves to be a double edged sword, as evidenced by what happened to Jurgen in season two. Without something to hold over the heads of either of the two Section bosses, operatives eventually cross a line and shuffle off this mortal coil so Walter becomes even more important to Nikita as she tries to position herself better inside the agency but even he finds himself in the crosshairs for facilitating Nikita and Michael's romance (Playing With Fire.
Next in the supporting cast is Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson of Earth Final Conflict); the resident computer genius and communications operative. He's younger and smarter than the other characters in his field but his lack of cunning and street savvy mark him as something less of a player in the group. He also befriends Nikita and appears to trust her more than anyone in Section One than perhaps Walter but the downside of his trust is that it potentially gets him in trouble with those who flip the switches (and keep a close eye on him). Essentially growing up inside the agency, he knows little about the outside world that he hasn't seen on his computer terminal and human emotions are something of a mystery to him as he fumbles around trying to understand them. Season three marks his debut in the field, after a set of circumstances uses his expertise in a dangerous infiltration mission that could well get him cancelled by his own team (Any Means Necessary).
Last but not least, are the two main characters of the show: Nikita (Peta Wilson best known by non-fans of the show for her role in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Michael (Roy Dupuis). Nikita was a junkie falsely imprisoned (in the television version) for killing a police officer and given a choice; work for Section One or die. Choosing the former, she becomes an excellent field operative, second only to Michael in terms of accomplishing whatever mission is assigned, albeit in a somewhat less structured way. The series focuses on her most of the time as she seeks to successfully escape this torturous life of killing, destruction, and routinely risking her life for sometimes flimsy reasons with an on again, off again forbidden romance with Michael that endangers them both. Like a moth to a flame, she can barely resist his combination of good looks, superior intellect, and overall survival skill, although she tries to embrace other men as an escape from his ways too. The season starts off with her separated from Michael and trying to survive against all odds when Operations and Madeline appear to be setting her up (Looking For Michael) to keep George from finding out what she knows about Adrian. Through a series of twists and turns, she survives various threats (internal to Section One and the usual terrorists), only to face the music for her romance in On Borrowed Time.
Michael, on the other hand, uses all his charms and cool demeanor to enrapture his younger teammate as it is found out he has done for years. He was recruited into Section One by way of his youthful terrorist activities that included killing people with bombs, even though he came from a well off family. During season three, he is found to have a family, complete with wife and son (Looking For Michael, Someone Else's Shadow, and Opening Night Jitters), he gets in trouble for his office romance with Nikita (several episodes including Third Party Ripoff and Playing With Fire), and takes over Section One (Slipping Into Darkness, All Good Things) more than once but eventually figures out Nikita has been compromised in On Borrowed Time, thereby setting the stage for season four.
If one were to gloss over the details, they would miss the intricacies of the season three developments since the established "formula" of the show wasn't significantly deviated from. As a viewer, I learned one thing from the first two seasons; expect the unexpected as the ever shifting winds of fate led Nikita to question her own humanity in face of such personal peril. What makes her interesting is the fact that she clings so dearly onto her compassion and the attempts by those above her to extinguish it become all the more threatening as they see her becoming a threat to their position (they can more readily control a killing machine than a thinking, compassionate woman such as Nikita whose uncertainty factor makes them uneasy, despite their outward appearance of calm. This becomes more evident as the series progresses, allowing the viewer to see the increasing tension between the cast, but particularly between Operations, Madeline, and Nikita.
La Femme Nikita: Season Three also managed to show Michael in a different light since he had previously been cast as a guy with questionable motives. Season two brought up the possibility that he was simply seducing Nikita for his own gain, as he had done before, or that he was just sexually attracted to her but there were numerous times in season three, like Walk On By, Gates Of Hell, Threshold of Pain, Hand To Hand, and All Good Things, where there was little doubt that Michael was more than willing to disregard orders and/or policies in order to protect Nikita even at the endangerment of whatever mission they were on (something unthinkable in Section One, typically leading to cancellation). Nikita and Michael weren't the only ones going through changes though which made the show more interesting to me, and likely more seasoned fans of the show.
So, with all this entertainment, you have to have known I'd rate it as Highly Recommended. The season set included all the episodes, some decent extras and commentaries; further drawing me into the series that I learned to appreciate previously. For a series on the air between 1997 and 2001, it had a unique approach that worked thanks to the kind of stylish leanings it had although the acting itself was never all that involving (the deadpan manner in which the characters discuss death and killing as they seem to accept the premise wholeheartedly) but if you like spy shows or movies, this had a lot more class than the last several James Bond blockbusters. It was a lot of fun though and seeing the struggle for Nikita's soul between her desire for a normal life and the needs of Section One's soulless machine (with some interesting kinks in the armor) made the first couple of seasons a lot of fun to watch but really began to elevate the show in the third season. Another point worth noting is that on a stylish level, the show is still slightly ahead of the curve, with nothing looking dated as with many older shows, a tribute to production designer Rocco Matteo and other creative crew members employed by the show.
Picture: La Femme Nikita: Season Three was presented in the same 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was originally shot in for television. With so much material on the 6 disc set, my primary concern was still if the compression rate would require compromises in picture quality. If the original shows were lacking, all the extras in the world weren't going to make such problems easier to swallow so I was pleased when I finished watching all the episodes to report that the picture quality looked slightly better than Season One and about the same as Season Two. The colors were accurate, the fleshtones solid, and the levels of grain acceptable with few compression artifacts to be seen. There was grain in the darker scenes and you could tell the budget could've used a few more bucks to look as solid as something released by prime time network but I think it contributed to the "look" of the show in many ways so I can't be too fussy about it. There was also some pattern noise on occasion but it wasn't common and few of you will notice it unless I direct you towards it (which would be self defeating as it would take you away from the content of the writing). The bonus scenes didn't usually look as polished as those included in the aired versions but even they looked pretty good here.
Episode 1: Looking For Michael: (January 3, 1999):
Episode 2: Someone Else's Shadow: (January 10, 1999):
Episode 3: Opening Night Jitters: (January 17, 1999):
Episode 4: Gates of Hell: (January 24, 1999):
Episode 5: Imitation of Death: (March 7, 1999):
Episode 6: Love and Country: (March 21, 1999):
Episode 7: Cat and Mouse: (March 28, 1999):
Episode 8: Outside the Box: (April 4, 1999):
Episode 9: Slipping Into Darkness: (April 11, 1999):
Episode 10: Under the Influence: (April 25, 1999):
Episode 11: Walk On By: (April 25, 1999):
Episode 12: Threshold of Pain: (June 6, 1999):
Episode 13: Beyond the Pale: (June 13, 1999):
Episode 14: Hand To Hand: (June 20, 1999):
Episode 15: Before I Sleep: (June 27, 1999):
Episode 16: I Remember Paris: (July 18, 1999):
Episode 17: All Good Things: (July 25, 1999):
Episode 18: Third Party Ripoff: (August 1, 1999):
Episode 19: Any Means Necessary: (August 8, 1999):
Episode 20: Three Eyed Turtle: (August 15, 1999):
Episode 21: Playing With Fire: (August 22, 1999):
Episode 22: On Borrowed Time: (August 29, 1999):
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Surround English with optional English, Spanish or French subtitles for those who care. The audio was again well done with some separation between the channels (though best heard by using headphones) and a decent dynamic range. The vocals were well handled and the music seemed to be more important (both the score and the popular music used) to the background. I tried to determine if any of the pop music was replaced this time (over copyright issues like in season two) but there didn't appear to be any data on this aspect of the show and there weren't howls of protests like the recalled version of season two (a song or two missing there didn't break the fun I had watching it) so until I hear otherwise, this one seemed complete.
Extras: The extras were also decent this time with my favorite extras being the two commentaries included. The first commentary was for the first episode, Looking For Michael, with director Jon Cassar and actor Eugene Robert Glazer contributing their thoughts and anecdotes on the episode as well as the season in general. I would've preferred Peta Wilson, Roy Dupuis, and others join in on the commentary(s) and have more of them but I thought they added some value for fans. The second commentary was on the final show of the season, On Borrowed Time, writer Peter Lenkov joining Eugene Robert Glazer to add some further exposition on the season (though more on the episode itself) but provided a bit of detail that was missed in the first commentary.
My next favorite extra was the series of deleted scenes from various episodes, all with commentary by director Jon Cassar (who didn't direct all the episodes but had a great handle on most of them) and actor Eugene Robert Glazer. They were all short and rarely added a lot of information to the episodes, but fans will like them nonetheless, especially to see alternative takes of scenes, including;
1) The First George
2) Stay Out Of My Face
3) Lost In Thought
4) The First Martelli
5) The Devos Arrive
6) Falling For Nikita
7) Confronting Jamey
8) Dinner At Nikita's
9) Michael Fools Zalman
10) Unusual Interrogation
Seeing the process by which producers attempted to use different actors in some of the roles (deleted scenes one and four) was interesting and it showed a lot of care on their part to find the right performers for the job. The other scenes had a bit of interesting data that fleshed out the stories but nothing crucial in my book (completists will disagree though, I'm sure). There was also a gag reel that lasted a few minutes and showed the actors flubbing their lines, a short featurette on the look of the show called Designing Nikita where production designer Rocco Matteo's work was showcased as a big reason for the success of the series and a paper insert that detailed facts about the episodes, including date of release, directors, and who wrote them as well as detail the chapter titles.
Final Thoughts: La Femme Nikita: Season Three was still the highly entertaining show I enjoyed watching for the action, intrigue and character development but also for the many subtleties worked in by the cast and crew. If you look closely during many scenes, there are understated elements or comments with double meanings (not just the sexual connotations most of us have come to observe in lower quality shows designed for the LCD-least common denominator-crowd) and the replay value for this season was just as high, if not higher, due to the expansion of some concepts (like how George's role showed that everyone, even Operations and Madeline, were accountable to someone higher up the food chain). With only another 30 episodes to find their way home on DVD (perhaps it'd be too much to ask for them all in a single boxed set with more extensive extras), it's easy to see why the show developed a large following.
If you'd like more detail on the season or the show in general, you won't have to look far given the numerous fan sites all over the net but I spent a lot of time looking for the Best Fan Site. If you're interested in the show, that was as good as you'll find (with plenty of unique content) and I strongly recommend you check it out to see what dedicated fans can do to showcase a very good series.