Background: Television on DVD has proven to be one of the most popular genre's for the format in recent years, an almost amazing feat considering how poorly the studios treated shows released on DVD in the early years of the mediums existence. Most people are aware of how series like Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and many others were released on separate discs rather than season sets as is the most popular way to offer them now but even recent releases have had their share of problems. Some shows have major changes in the music track made (a problem for Wiseguy especially; a huge factor in the still missing Dead Dog Records arc), edited episodes (like The Andy Griffith Show), a complete lack of extras (like The Flash), missing seasons (there has been a full page advertisement circulating about the missing third season for Forever Knight making the rounds), or even poor picture quality that didn't compare to syndicated releases (like Hercules). In all though, the times have been improving as the numbers of fans grow during these tough times and the use of the internet to help ferret out problems that most people wouldn't notice keeps the studios at least MORE honest than they wish to be. There are still times when the studios get a series right; the best example coming to mind being Firefly (with a few quirks to call it's own at that) so I still hold great hope for shows I'm still waiting for to appear in pristine condition, sporting a wealth of extras, for a low price. That said, one of the delights I've been lucky enough to review has been the La Femme Nikita show as the seasons trickle in so tauntingly slowly and today's review is on the last FULL season of the show, La Femme Nikita Season Four. While I would have thought Warner would've tacked on the remaining eight episodes, perhaps they will include a wealth of extras on that set to make up for it. Otherwise, here's some general information on the series followed by some season specifics that fans will already have analyzed in great depth.
Movie: 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:
"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 and Season Three last summer (boy does time fly), 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 Four, 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. If you've been a fan of the television shows Alias or 24, you'll likely find this series even more appealing as the network constraints those two shows have were rarely problems for the USA Network.
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. In the fourth season, we find that not only is Adrian still alive, but she is closely guarded by the couple, a double edged sword since their lives will be forfeit if George finds out what has happened to his beloved. That sets in motion an important arc of episodes where Adrian is used as leverage against them, showing that even the master chess players can get caught short at times. This is followed up by his offering a special inducement to Nikita and Michael if they take care of some personal business for him. For most of us, that might mean picking up the boss' dry cleaning or going out with his ugly kid sister but with Operations, it means protecting an old colleague of his from Vietnam. The internal workings of Section come into play though and a surprise stance by Walter renders their assistance somewhat moot but this episode also benefited by the audio commentary track with Glazer and director Brad Turner.
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. Madeline finds the use of a new brainwashing technology useful by the end of the season to effectively reduce Nikita to a compliant operative with no feelings of remorse or regret, essentially the perfect operative for her needs. As the fourth season opens, the main arc deals with the rest of the team trying to restore Nikita while staying alive, but Madeline also faces the threat that George presents to her and Operations in the usual manner too.
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. Of all the cast, he appears to be the most conflicted when it comes to some of the actions the various factions take against one another as it is clear that he is friends with both Operations and Nikita (complete opposites in terms of almost everything they do and believe in).
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. The fourth season was supposed to wrap up the series so a few new things were tried with the character; including detailing his history and how he ended up in Section. The revelation of a family tie and his unwillingness to protect a colleague from her own desire to escape Section shows that while he's smart and loyal, he is relatively timid in most cases too. His shining moment comes in Abort, Fail, Retry, Terminate when he puts it all on the line to protect Section against his own interests, proving that he was more of a team player than any of the others.
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. In season three, Nikita had been brainwashed of all her humanity by Madeline, leaving a coldhearted, destructive killer in the wake. Michael set out to determine what happened to her (the project was done in secret) and upon finding out, tries to fix her. The results of his attempt are mixed with the audience left to interpret the results, but throughout the season, Madeline and Operations try their best to eradicate the two with a range of missions that went from overt attempts to cancel them (as in Time To Be Heroes; what would've been a perfect spin-off series by the way) as well as more subtle methods such as in a host of other episodes. The season ended on a surprising note but the rollercoaster ride took her through hell and back multiple times as the series became even more about the salvation of Nikita than anything else, including the volumous material devoted to Michael.
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 was found to have a family, complete with wife and son (Looking For Michael, Someone Else's Shadow, and Opening Night Jitters), he got in trouble for his office romance with Nikita (several episodes including Third Party Ripoff and Playing With Fire), and took over Section One (Slipping Into Darkness, All Good Things) more than once but eventually figured out Nikita has been compromised in On Borrowed Time, thereby setting the stage for season four. That was when the primary arc of the show, lasting four full episodes and bringing back Adrian into the picture, revolved around his attempts to save Nikita from the brainwashing she underwent. Michael also found himself on the firing line numerous times, as much due to the way he played the initial season arc as his willingness to ruthlessly do whatever he needs to in order to further his own ends (with a splendid episode devoted to his wife in Kiss The Past Goodbye). His future was interestingly looked at in the closing episode too although the network decision to give the series a handful more episodes kind of weakened it a bit.
If one were to gloss over the details, they would miss the intricacies of the season four developments since the established "formula" of the show wasn't significantly deviated from. As a viewer, I learned one thing from the first three 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, Nikita, and Michael. If left alone, Nikita and Michael would stay lovers and be resourceful members of Section One but the flip side is that romantic entanglements leave open the possibility that one of them might jeopardize a mission if it meant that they'd lose the other (and there's always the control aspect of the matter; if you have anything precious to you, those seeking to control you need to control it or destroy it to prevent it from getting in the way). In many of the episodes, especially the latter half of the season, it looked like the writing focused on wrapping up threads or at least setting them up for such a conclusion. The USA Network intended on cancelling the series early on from what I've read and while there were precious few filler scenes in the season (even some new life brought in on the production and creative side of the show), it was almost as if it were planned in advance to finish it out.
For a show that ended five years ago, La Femme Nikita certainly had a loyal fanbase and while the final eight episodes from the "brought back to life season five" ended any possibility of using most of the characters again, I wish that the show, like the more recent Firefly, had been given a chance to make it on the big screen. It relied on writing, character development, and a mood rather than splashy special effects and lame one-liners like some other spy franchises and could have been done on the cheap by comparison. Also, given the current status of TV shows, Nikita on a major network (and properly advertised/promoted) would be a no-brainer these days. Still, it was an excellent show and I thought the La Femme Nikita Season Four boxed set was worthy of being Highly Recommended; but keep in mind that getting into the show will be far easier if you start at the beginning. Here's an episode list with airing date for those looking for one:
Episode 1: Getting Out of Reverse: (January 9, 2000):
Episode 2: There Are No Missions: (January 9, 2000):
Episode 3: View of the Garden: (January 16, 2000):
Episode 4: Into The Looking Glass: (January 23, 2000):
Episode 5: Man in the Middle: (February 20, 2000):
Episode 6: Love Honor & Cherish: (February 27, 2000):
Episode 7: Sympathy For The Devil: (March 3, 2000):
Episode 8: No One Lives Forever: (March 12, 2000):
Episode 9: Down A Crooked Path: (March 19, 2000):
Episode 10: He Came From Four: (April 2, 2000):
Episode 11: Time To Be Heroes: (April 16, 2000):
Episode 12: Hell Hath No Fury: (April 23, 2000):
Episode 13: Kiss The Past Goodbye: (June 25, 2000):
Episode 14: Line in the Sand: (July 2, 2000):
Episode 15: Abort, Fail, Retry, Terminate: (July 16, 2000):
Episode 16: Catch A Falling Star: (July 23, 2000):
Episode 17: Sleeping with the Enemy: (July 30, 2000):
Episode 18: Toys in the Basement: (August 6, 2000):
Episode 19: Time Out Of Mind: (August 13, 2000):
Episode 20: Face in the Mirror: (August 20, 2000):
Episode 21: Up the Rabbit Hole: (August 27, 2000):
Episode 22: Four Light Years Farther: (August 27, 2000):
Picture: 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 as other shows have had issues with in the past (not distant past either). 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 the previous seasons of La Femme Nikita. 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 a 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. In general, it looked very polished considering the budgets worked with and the amount of pressure placed on the producers to knock out a weekly series.
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. There were a couple of glitches with the subtitles not always playing properly but it wasn't very common (I stumbled onto this by accident).
Extras: With the entire season on the discs, most shows have opted to keep to a limited budget these days, at least older shows, from my experience. There were some juicy extras here though starting with two audio commentaries; one on Episode 7: Sympathy For The Devil by Eugene Robert Glazer (Operations) and episode director Brad Turner. The two seemed to have a wonderful time reminiscing about their time on the show as well as provide a few comments about how some things were changed on the episode in question even if it was clear that they hadn't seen the episode in a very long time. The other audio commentary was on Episode 11: Time To Be Heroes with Eugene Robert Glazer (Operations) and episode writer Peter M. Lenkov. I think adding in commentaries by the writers is probably an even better idea then the directors but it is always sensible to have one from each side of the camera to provide different viewpoints of the episode. It was clearly designed to be a spin off series and I think it would've attracted a whole new audience to the failing network if it had been given even a passing nod since the youthful bunch portrayed in the episode had a lot of spark/chemistry with one another. If it had taken place in an earlier season, it may have had a better chance than in what was billed as the last hurrah for Nikita by some. Okay, on the sixth disc, there was also a gag reel full of flubbed lines to enjoy (something fans have appreciated in the past) and the book-like boxed set was fetching too. A lot of fans will likely enjoy the multitude of deleted scenes for some of the episodes on discs 1, 2, 5, and 6 as explained by Christopher Heyn (the assistant to the creative lead for the show, Joel Surnow) too. Some of them were edited out for better reasons than others but I could see why they were cut in most cases (they either assumed the audience was a bunch of idiots, didn't fit well, or provided information that weakened another scene of more value). The 16 page paper insert was also an invaluable extra that I wish other companies would add in their boxed sets more frequently, containing individual episode information in a nicely made form.
Final Thoughts: La Femme Nikita Season Four continued all the usual traditions of the La Femme Nikita saga as it showed the spy business with more plausible characters, more realistic situations, and more drama woven into a tightly knit comprehensive story than those that went before it. The only episode that I felt jumped the shark was the introduction of the psychic kid in Episode 10: He Came From Four as the series had no need to go into the supernatural phenomenon arena given the otherwise fine quality of the writing. In short then, if you find Alias intriguing, 24 appealing, and like watching shows where the writing and mood are more important than car crashes or special effects, you're going to really enjoy the show.
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.