The Best and Worst of Farscape: Season 3

farscape

In a previous post, I began the series covering the seasons of Farscape. Now I am continuing with season 3 which I wasn’t as particular towards: the loss of Zhaan was tough because I really liked her, and having two Crichtons with the crew of Moya splitting up really wasn’t something I preferred.

The Best:

Self-Inflicted Wounds: Could’a, Would’a, Should’a, and Wait for the Wheel, …Different Destinations, and Into the Lion’s Den: Lambs to the Slaughter, and Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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According to The A.V. Club review of Self-Inflicted Wounds:

I really have no idea what actually happens in “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” at least in terms of the precise mechanics of the plot. I can tell you that the story is kicked off by Moya’s collision with a Pathfinder vessel, leaving them both trapped in a wormhole. I know there’s a brief period where it looks as though everyone can walk away from this relatively unscathed, and then everything goes bad, and then just it keeps getting worse. There’s a marauding, interdimensional wormhole serpent, there are invisible alien saboteurs, and there’s an unfrozen Interion screamer and self-described genius named Jool. This is Farscape storytelling not just at its most baffling, but at its most cacophonous. In its broad details, this two-parter recalls earlier trapped-on-Moya, science mystery capers going right back to “Exodus From Genesis,” with “Through The Looking Glass” standing out as a particularly strong forerunner for this story. But that tale of a triplicated Leviathan had relatively straightforward rules; the precise mechanics of that episode are absurd, but predictable enough once you understand the basics, and that story quickly streamlines its disparate elements toward Crichton’s desperate plan to save the day.

The plot of “Self-Inflicted Wounds” never quite reduces in the same way, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. The title really tells us all we need to know: Unlike most random cosmic mishaps that befall the Moya crew, this one is largely, perhaps entirely, of their own making, and nobody is more to blame than Crichton. With that framework in mind, there are individual moments where the crew’s goals become clear, but the paths to those points are difficult to chart. The closing section of the story makes it painfully clear that only one of the two ships will be able to survive the escape from the wormhole, and that somebody will need to be aboard the doomed ship when it goes. The story derives so much of its conflict from the question of Moya versus the Pathfinder vessel, but it never ever pretends that even the characters really understand what is going on; it’s telling that the supposedly adversarial Moya factions come up with the exact same plan of attack in the opening minutes of “Wait For The Wheel.” As such, it’s not such a problem for the audience to be a bit baffled, as long as they’re roughly the same amount of baffled as the shipmates themselves.

Honestly, the only particular issue here is that it’s difficult to tell just how much Crichton is really to blame for the mess that befalls Moya. We come away knowing that his initial obsessive reaction to the wormhole’s appearance is the primary reason that Moya was in the right position for the collision to occur, we know that he trusted Neeyala far more than he should have, and we know that he said a lot of heartless, spectacularly ill-time dren about how the wormhole could help him get home. I’m not entirely sure how much any of that truly affected the story’s final outcome, as it’s possible that at least one of the two vessels was doomed from the very moment that they collided; Crichton might be responsible for the collision itself, but even there Pilot appeared to be strangely unable to move Moya, irrespective of Crichton’s insistence that they stay put.

But this is the issue with attempting to evaluate a fundamentally character-focused show like Farscape in strictly plot-based terms. This is a show that is always more concerned with how its characters respond to and interact with events than with the events themselves; in that accounting, Crichton is a bastard here not so much because of the specific things that he does but because of the way in which the other characters react to him. The fact that the two opposing Moya factions come up with the same plan to deal with Neeyala is a tad confusing, but the really clear takeaway from that scene is that, for once, Crichton is being lumped in with the rash, self-interested deserters like Chiana and Rygel; hell, Chiana exhibits a level of guilt about her choice that Crichton never articulates.

It’s never good when the two most perceptive statements about our supposed hero come from Rygel and Harvey. The quote up top is especially cutting, because it’s honest. It affirms that, for all the ways in which the shipmates have suffered together and forged bonds of friendship, the same desperation and self-centeredness that governed D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel’s actions in “DNA Mad Scientist”—and, to only a slightly lesser extent, Crichton’s actions in “Till The Blood Runs Clear”—are still in effect. In Crichton’s case, it’s just that the universe has spent so much time pummeling him and grounding him down that he’s forgotten what it’s like to want his own particular thing; he’s been a half-mad survivor for so long that he can’t even perceive just how much wormholes and the prospect of a trip home really do blind him. In recent episodes, Crichton has been a vessel for terrible evil and destruction; after all, Zhaan’s sickness and eventual death here play as the culmination of plot threads set in motion by the events of “Die Me, Dichotomy.” But that was when Harvey had the power to take complete control of Crichton, leaving him helpless; here, the vestigial Harvey can only be brought out of the dumpster to tell John what he wants to hear—or, in the case of the two-parter’s final line, what he cannot bear to hear.

Still, “Self-Inflicted Wounds” is not solely Crichton’s story; indeed, we really must talk about Zhaan, but I’ll save that discussion for the second half of the review. Neeyala and the Pathfinders fit in well with the two-parter’s general elusiveness, as there’s every indication that the wormholes have allowed them to come from a long, long way away. Their ignorance of translator microbes—their concerns about alien contamination aside, it’s strongly suggested that they’re not familiar with these omnipresent translators in the first place—suggests a faraway origin, even by the other aliens’ standards, and there’s precious little we can glean about the nature of their civilization. What little we do learn is horribly contradictory: namely, the notion that a people so impossibly advanced as to build a wormhole-traversing starship would be so cruel as to hold the crew’s family hostage to ensure their good conduct. Neeyala’s own mix of tremendous intelligence and unbending ruthlessness appears typical of the Pathfinders as a whole; whatever else you want to say about the Moya crew, their own plans to murder people do tend to die in committee.

Speaking of the crew, this story may take one shipmate away, but it does add another in her place. Admittedly, I can’t imagine anyone watching “Self-Inflicted Wounds” would think that losing Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan and gaining—deep breath—Joolushko Tunai Fenta Hovalis in her stead is anything like a fair trade. It’ll be fairer to wait a few episodes before really assessing her character, but it’s remarkable just how obnoxious she is in her debut; technically, Chiana wasn’t exactly presented in a good light back in “Durka Returns,” but she came across from the start as an intriguing, beguiling presence, somebody who possessed hidden depths just waiting to be explored. Jool, on the other hand, just screams and complains a lot, and she spends a decent chunk of her time trying to kill Crichton, which is only moderately justified. Considering she knows nothing of Earth—the ostensible reason, besides guilt, that Crichton brought her pod on board in the first place—it’s hard to know what purpose she could serve, and it’s telling that Zhaan’s final line to her is just telling her to shut up.

Perhaps all we need keep in mind for now is that Farscape is about what happens in science fiction when life’s intrinsic messiness is allowed to seep in. Sometimes, one’s selfishness and poor decision-making nearly get everybody killed—and get one person actually killed—and sometimes it gets you stuck with the most annoying new shipmate imaginable. Neither is a terribly desirable outcome, but at least Jool still has the chance to surprise us. Crichton has already done as much damage as he could ever hope to do. Then again, there are always opportunities to dig a deeper hole.

That title. “Self-Inflicted Wounds” doesn’t just describe the story of this two-parter; it describes a painful behind-the-scenes reality. For the better part of her time as a regular on Farscape, Virginia Hey was ill, and she was ill because of Zhaan. The extensive body makeup caused severe kidney problems, and the logistical requirements of the role reduced Hey’s ability to find relief in her time away from the set. Unlike, say, Anthony Simcoe, who could leave the D’Argo prosthetics behind at the end of a day’s work—albeit after several extra hours getting the stuff put on and taken off—and reenter the world as himself, Hey could never really get away from Zhaan. She had to shave her hair and her eyebrows for the role; in this archived post from 2004, she offers an impassioned explanation of just how fundamentally such a long-term physical transformation altered her sense of self. Elsewhere, Hey explains that the makeup-induced sickness began just three months into filming Farscape’s first season, and that it was only through extensive, daily meditation and spiritual healing that she found the inner strength to remain in the role. Zhaan didn’t die because Hey wanted to leave the show; the mere fact that Zhaan didn’t exit halfway through the first season lays plain just how completely Hey believed in the show. She left because, at long last, there was no other choice.

But Hey’s legacy shouldn’t be reckoned solely in terms of her sacrifice, just as Zhaan’s role on the show should not be understood purely in terms of her exit. Of Farscape’s core characters, Zhaan proved the trickiest to write, a topic I discussed in some detail back in the “Picture If You Will” review. Those difficulties have precious little to do with Hey’s acting choices in the role. Indeed, her efforts held together a character whose rampant contradictions too often came across not as deliberate ambiguity but rather uncertainty on the part of the writing staff: Does anyone remember how “Jeremiah Crichton” supposedly introduced us to a colder, crueler Zhaan? The Farscape writers didn’t often flail, but when they did, Zhaan tended to be involved. Although it’s difficult to say how much Hey’s real-life health issues affected the character’s ultimate development, we can look at this in strictly creative terms. The fundamental issue with Zhaan is that she’s a terrific supporting character who just never quite worked as a protagonist as well as the other humanoid shipmates did. Aeryn, D’Argo, and—admittedly to a lesser extent—Chiana can sub in for Crichton and take on main character duties for an episode. In practice, that never really happened for Zhaan; even supposed Zhaan-centric episodes like “Rhapsody In Blue” or “Dream A Little Dream” tend to marginalize her far more than would happen in their Aeryn or D’Argo-focused equivalents.

If you’ll forgive me for taking a line quite brazenly out of context, there’s something Zhaan says way back in “Throne For A Loss” that sums up both the beauty and the frustration of Zhaan: “Am I the only species in creation who doesn’t thrive on conflict?” In the moment, the line captures her eternally frustrated pacifism, but it’s also an inadvertent illustration of why Zhaan proved so hard to build stories around; after all, storytelling does rather demand conflict as one of its most fundamental elements. And, keep in mind, Zhaan said that way back in the fourth episode. Far more than the other characters, she began the show fully-formed. That made her a far better anchor for Crichton during his initial adjustment, but it also left her with no arc to play on-screen. The absolute most basic reason that Aeryn and D’Argo’s journeys register for us is that we actually got to see them happen. Zhaan might have traveled further than any of them, considering she went from Delvia’s leading anarchist to a 10th level Pa’u, but the vast majority of that transformation occurred before Crichton came through the wormhole, which means it’s all just so many lines of dialogue. She really only changed inasmuch as other characters’ evolutions shifted our perception of her; in the early days, when Aeryn and D’Argo treated Crichton with unabashed contempt and derision, Zhaan was a refreshingly understanding presence, but, as those two warmed to Crichton, Zhaan receded, becoming a more ethereal, alien figure in a show suddenly full of accessible, likeable people.

“Self-Inflicted Wounds” stays true to all that was ever right and all that was ever wrong about Farscape’s handling of Zhaan. Her role in the two-parter is defined almost entirely in terms of what she means to other people and what she can do for them; this characterization would appear to rob her of all agency, except this is precisely the role she chooses for herself. On a metatextual level, it’s only fitting that Zhaan would so decisively position herself as the helpful supporting character in her own big farewell showcase. In terms of the show’s universe, this two-parter makes it clear that she isn’t just a priest who happens to live on a starship, but rather she is very much this starship’s priest. She gets several two-hander scenes before her big goodbye: She begs her beloved Stark to tend to the shipmates in her stead, she and Rygel come to one last accord, she convinces Aeryn that she is worth the sacrifice, and she thanks D’Argo for all he has done for her. More than all that, she lives up to every possible standard the builders could have set for her when they made her Moya and Pilot’s protector back in “Look At The Princess.” Never has she been more furious with—worse, more disappointed in—Crichton than when she realizes his quest for wormhole knowledge has made him willing to abandon Moya.

Zhaan and D’Argo’s final exchange manages the remarkable trick of being both an emotional tearjerker and a bit of self-aware meta-criticism. D’Argo tries to argue that Zhaan cannot sacrifice herself, for she is still needed here, to which she responds, “At one time I believe I was, but then a family was born.” D’Argo replies, “You birthed it.” At first glance, I wasn’t sure about this line. When I think of the creation of a family onboard Moya, I think more of, say, the gradual development of Crichton and D’Argo’s friendship, something Zhaan had precious little to do with. But the verb D’Argo chooses is precise; Zhaan may not have been particularly responsible for the growth of the family, but it never would have even come into being in its most nascent form without her presence. If Zhaan—the one soul on Moya indisputably guilty of her alleged crime—had not been there, the rest of our gang of fugitives and exiles would have killed each other, possibly within a few arns. There’s just no logical way in which the show’s outlandish premise could have ever come to pass without Zhaan there at the beginning to guide and restrain her more volatile shipmates. In a very real sense, Zhaan built Farscape itself, and in so doing made herself superfluous. In that sense, she probably could have left long ago. But that sure as hell doesn’t mean I’m ready for a show without Zhaan.

According to The A.V. Club review of …Different Destinations:

Somehow, after a run of episodes that has included Crichton’s utter subjugation by Scorpius’ neural clone, Aeryn Sun’s death, Zhaan’s initial sacrifice to bring Aeryn back and her final sacrifice to save Moya, an even a relatively low-key relationship subplot that just happens to involve Chiana driving D’Argo away by sleeping with his son, “…Different Destinations” might just be the most devastating of the bunch. That this episode could pack such an emotional wallop isn’t immediately obvious while watching some of its sillier elements unfold; really, the episode’s closing heartbreak only works because the core idea is powerful enough to overcome some occasionally wonky execution along the way.

Farscape has never been afraid of failure, and it’s starting to feel like a long damn time since John Crichton has had an unequivocal victory; I was initially tempted to say you’d have to go all the way back to the first season and “Through The Looking Glass” to find one, but I guess something like “Out Of Their Minds” would count, sort of. But it’s no longer that Crichton is a victim of circumstance, as he so often was in the second season. Crichton isn’t visibly unhinged like he was in the immediate aftermath of his torture at the Gammak Base, but that’s only because he’s so completely internalized his insanity that it’s not immediately obvious how broken he really is. All of his instincts are wrong, and he can’t even effectively communicate to people why he believes in his latest, probably incorrect course of action.

Given how irresistible time travel is as a science fiction concept—seriously, just start trying to list every Star Trek episode (let alone every movie) that utilizes it, and that’s not even the big iconic sci-fi franchise that runs exclusively on time travel—it’s a little remarkable that Farscape has largely avoided it up to this point. This isn’t wholly surprising, admittedly, considering that the Uncharted Territories of the present day are already completely alien and recognizable to us. While the very presence of time travel in the storytelling enables the show to investigate fascinating ideas about fate and causality, it’s hard to see what the show would gain by visiting the past or the future; after all, a big reason that episodic Star Trek used to love its time travel stories was that it allowed the show to save a bit of money by filming in contemporary locations.

Farscape doesn’t have that option, and more’s the pity; it’s just a little too obvious that this episode’s budget left the show entirely confined to a single monastery location. In theory, this could feel claustrophobic, but in practice it just gives the episode a stage-bound quality. A visit to the Venek camp would have opened the story up, as would have just a simple shot of what’s over that wall, but that would have cost money the show likely needed to spend elsewhere. Besides, our heroes’ inability to see beyond their immediate surroundings underscores their lack of control over the situation.

Still, this means that there’s a feeling of slight artificiality that hangs over “…Different Destinations.” In fairness, at least some of that is intentional; the episode very deliberately plays with the fact that these events transpired 500 cycles before our time, and the ways in which the Moya crew struggles to engage properly with people who are suddenly all too real. Crichton talks about Sub-Officer Dacon’s history-mandated death as though it’s all part of some intellectual exercise, a final piece in a puzzle that will set time back on its proper course. He’s not totally wrong to think of a man’s death in those terms, at least not in these very specific circumstances, but then Farscape goes out of its way to make Dacon’s demise as visceral as possible. It’s not the most gruesome death in the show’s history, but his coughing up blood after being hit with the spear feels achingly real, not to mention distinctly unglorious. Both Crichton and Aeryn make the mistake of engaging General Grynes and Dacon in conversation just the two are quite precariously hanging around the wall; if either shipmate could resist the urge to offer meaningful farewells to the men, they might well have avoided their agonizing deaths.

Farscape is intent on holding up this episode as the latest example of how badly Crichton can screw things up—he says as much himself, and we’ll circle back to his own culpability later—but it’s worth pointing out that this is an episode that lets Aeryn be just as wrong, even if she only barely acknowledges it in her final conversation with John. Appropriately for an episode entitled “…Different Destinations,” this story lets us see multiple possible paths for Aeryn Sun; she is in her element in a situation that very specifically calls for a Peacekeeper soldier, but she also displays a sentimentality that would have been entirely alien to the Prowler pilot we met way back in “Premiere.” Unfortunately, both strains of Aeryn’s character serve her poorly here.

Much as this episode lets her offer rare positive spin on the Peacekeepers, as she reminds Dacon that their purpose is to defend the defenseless, she still interprets that broadly noble directive in the most violent terms possible. She insists a ceasefire can be won through force of arms, and that decision helps precipitate the nuns’ eventual deaths at the hands of the horde. But Aeryn’s martial instincts might not have failed her if she had at least been consistently ruthless, her insistence on trying to save Dacon from his fated death clouds her judgment. More generally, she lacks Crichton’s knowledge of time travel mechanics—insight doubtless gleaned in large part from repeated viewings of Back To The Future—and she has little patience for issues of abstract discussions of causality or temporal preservation. As far as she’s concerned, she’s here, people need help, and she’s going to help them, without ever quite realizing that their interference is destroying the entire planet; she even briefly entertains the possibility that their presence could improve history, before Crichton gets her to admit just how preposterous that really is.

While I promise I’m about to get to Crichton, it would be a mistake to think of this episode solely in terms of its time travelers. Again, the episode’s sense of unreality places the guest characters at an unusual remove; Dacon, General Grynes, and young Cyntrina all have great moments, but as a whole they never quite step out of the history books. The exception here is Nurse Kelsa; whereas Dacon and Grynes are generally good people who agree to do what Aeryn and Crichton ask of them, Kelsa is far less predictable. In the original history, she has no active role to play: She is simply the person Dacon is defending, then the person to whom Grynes offers the ceasefire. With no special status accorded by history, her every action plays as a hindrance, an interference with the established order every bit as destructive as the actions of the time travelers. She gets an absolutely beautiful scene with Stark in which he advises her to travel light, to cast away hate, but that advice comes too late. She set herself and her charges on the path toward their fate the very moment she pulled the trigger and killed General Grynes, and she never gets a chance to atone.

In reconstructing the chain of events that transforms the peaceful ceasefire into a tragic massacre, we can point to Kelsa’s murder of Grynes and Aeryn’s decision to engage the horde in battle, but these errors are bookended by Crichton’s screw-ups. If we accept that Grynes’ capture was an accident, a random byproduct of the time traveler’s unexpected arrival, then there really are only two decisions we have to account for: Crichton’s decision to send Grynes over the wall without informing anyone else, and his insistence to Kelsa that a ceasefire will be offered, as long as they and their weapons are nowhere to be seen when the horde arrives. His error in the first instance is neglecting to tell anyone what he’s up to, provoking not entirely unreasonable accusations that he’s a traitor.

More broadly, he errs because he, ever the genre-savvy human, treats time travel as a game, a puzzle to be solved, and a civilized one at that. He throws so much faith into Harvey’s notion that time will knit itself back together as soon as he’s gone that he ignores the actual logic of the situation. He assumes a ceasefire will come because he knows it has to, not because that would be the horde’s logical response to a humiliating defeat at the hands of superior firepower. Peace is ultimately reached and the timeline is corrected, but such a result can be achieved with a tragic massacre just as easily as it could with a noble sacrifice; indeed, such a massive disruption to history requires a more serious sacrifice than one Peacekeeper cook. Crichton’s mistake lies in thinking that history, at the very least, could remain safe from the Moya crew’s intergalactic ability to frell things up. A dozen people who just that morning might still have been alive were, by the time he was through with them, dead for 500 cycles. Yeah, that’s pretty damn devastating.

According to The A.V. Club review of Into the Lion’s Den:

By accident or by design, every season of Farscape has concluded with an epic multi-part story followed by a smaller, more contemplative finale. (Well, “Die Me, Dichotomy” isn’t exactly a quiet episode, but it doesn’t attempt the same kind of exhilarating highs of “Liars, Guns And Money.” We’ll talk about this season’s melancholy denouement, “Dog With Two Bones,” in next week’s review, but for now let’s focus on the brilliance of “Into The Lion’s Den.” Let me lay my proverbial cards down on the table: If this isn’t my favorite Farscape story, it’s at least in the top three alongside “Family Ties” and “Crackers Don’t Matter.” Each season’s climactic multi-part story represents the show putting together all that it has figured out over the preceding season, offering the finest possible statement about what the show is and, more importantly, what it can be. “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory” radically redefined the show in terms of Scorpius and wormholes, signaling a shift toward a more mature, serialized storytelling approach. “Liars, Guns And Money” was the real last hurrah for Moya’s original crew, who found themselves ripped apart by death and inadvertent betrayal over the coming stories.

And “Into The Lion’s Den”? To dust off an appellation I used on the “Revenging Angel” review, this two-parter might be the most Farscape story ever, at least in the non-mindfrell category. This story isn’t weird, or messy, or just kind of generally inexplicable, like so many episodes—so many great episodes—of this show have been. “Into The Lion’s Den” features the most straightforward storytelling we’ve seen on Farscape in a long, long time, because in this case there’s no percentage in obfuscation. At each stage, the characters’ actions are clear, but it’s their motivations and justifications that are endlessly ambiguous. This story invites us to sit in judgment—final judgment, in one case—of the show’s main characters, particularly John Crichton, Bialar Crais, and Scorpius. Really, the overriding question here is whether Crichton is right to take such extreme measures to stop Scorpius, and that in turn leads backs to a question that has defined all of his and Scorpius’ interactions since at least “Look At The Princess.” Namely, is Scorpius right? Is he justified in his belief that the Scarrans pose an overriding existential threat to this entire sector of the galaxy, and that the only way to defeat them is with overwhelming, perhaps even genocidal force? Do the Peacekeepers need to obtain wormhole weapons if non-Scarran life is to endure?

The answers to those questions could take up a term paper—or at least a comments thread or two—but I must admit I find this all rather straightforward. Of course Scorpius is right; I mean, Harvey even told us as much, and he considered the idea with none of Scorpius’ understandable hatreds and vendettas informing his opinion. Everything the Scarrans have ever done—give or take the innocent Naj Gil in the preceding two episodes, a connection this story never makes—indicates they are absolutely committed to conquest and slaughter. Hell, I even believe Scorpius when he says that he has no grander design than the defeat of the Scarrans, that he has no ambitions to conquer the universe himself. For all his sins, Scorpius really doesn’t lie. He’s open to subterfuge, particularly when he can operate remotely—the neural clone, the mind-controlled Grunchlk—but just about everything he has ever told John has been proven true or, at worst, superseded by changing circumstances; perhaps this general honesty can be attributed to his own innate ability to sense the deceit in others. Whenever Scorpius has promised pain, he has delivered, but he is also sincerely committed to guaranteeing the safety of the Moya shipmates while on board the command carrier.

So, sure, Scorpius is justified. But here’s the thing: I don’t care. Scorpius may be right, but he’s so, so wrong in the way that he’s right. Modern serialized television is frequently interested in exploring the consequences of its heroes’ decisions, and Farscape has gained particular strength from its examination of all the ways that the Moya shipmates’ jealousy and selfishness and whatever else can turn all of them into liabilities. John Crichton has had to live with the consequences of every last dumb, reckless, impetuous decision he has made in the Uncharted Territories, and he’s suffered the terrible consequences of playing at swashbuckling heroism; I know not everyone is convinced by this point, but I’ll reiterate that Crichton only came into Scorpius’ orbit because he was so damn sure he could fool the galaxy into buying his cheesy Peacekeeper disguise. If anything, this season has been a little too quick to blame Crichton for tragedies and disasters that are only tangentially his fault; I still only barely grasp how he’s so particularly responsible for Zhaan’s death, for instance. But if so many preceding Farscape stories have examined the cost of heroism, then should there not also be a price for villainy? This season’s initial two-parter “Self-Inflicted Wounds” confronted Crichton with his failings. “Into The Lion’s Den” does the same for Scorpius.

The basic problem with Scorpius is laid plain at the outset of “Lambs To The Slaughter,” during the shipmates’ arrival sequence that director Ian Watson intentionally staged to look like a twisted version of the medals ceremony at the end of Star Wars. As Scorpius warmly observes to Crichton, “At last, the rift between us is finally bridged.” For all the horrors that Scorpius has visited on Crichton and his friends, that line might as well be the most inhuman thing Scorpius has yet done, and that’s because of all the previous horrors. After all, from Scorpius’ perspective, this is the first time he has interacted with the real John Crichton since way back in “Season Of Death,” in which he tried to leave Crichton in a state of eternal, gibberish-spouting agony and then brutally used Grunchlk to allow his escape. Other than the chat with the neural Crichton, that’s the last time Scorpius set eyes on the human before now. So how the frell could anyone believe their rift had been bridged? Scorpius must assume that Crichton has found it in him to forgive his tormentor—or, more accurately, to get over his torments. Scorpius shows no understanding of the fact that, for their rift to be bridged, he would need to show even the slightest contrition or regret for his actions.

Instead, Scorpius’ interactions remain entirely transactional, with absolutely zero attention paid to past choices. Crichton can offer him wormhole knowledge, he is willing to barter plenty of Peacekeeper-backed privileges in exchange for those secrets, and so the very fact that they can make such a trade is proof enough that they can now move on as allies; the fact that they have long been enemies, with the source of malice so distinctly one-sided, is irrelevant. Indeed, “Into The Lion’s Den” explores just how thoroughly Scorpius considers everyone irrelevant. When Scorpius was first introduced, the fact that he wasn’t an actively frothing lunatic like Captain Crais made him appear a genuinely good leader—even here, he remains worthy of Braca’s unswerving loyalty—but the ensuing seasons have allowed him to become consumed by his own Ahab-like obsession to get his hands on Crichton. The disgruntled Lieutenant Reljik is symptomatic of Scorpius’ complacency; for all his genius, Scorpius has overestimated how willing a bunch of purity-obsessed Peacekeepers are going to be to follow a Scarran half-breed on an endless adventure deep into the Uncharted Territories, particularly when said half-Scarran starts making alliances with the galaxy’s most wanted fugitives.

And then frelling Servalan—sorry, sorry, Commandant Grayza—shows up. Sporting an unusually pale complexion and wearing what I dearly hope is not a regulation uniform, Grayza represents the long-awaited next phase in Peacekeeper villainy. If Crais was the raging madman and Scorpius the calculated killer, then Grayza is something even more terrifying: the ruthless politician. She is the story’s best reminder that Scorpius does not operate in a vacuum, that his own actions must necessarily carry wider-reaching consequences. As I say, I can believe that Scorpius is so driven by his hatred of the Scarrans that he is sincere in having no more insidious designs for wormhole weapons. I can’t say the same for Grayza; she is precisely the kind of person who would take such weapons and use them for evil. No, it’s worse than that: She would use them to further her own career. Scorpius only cares about the Moya crew inasmuch as his agreements force him to, but the man is absolutely committed to upholding his end of the deal, whereas Grayza is more than happy to fire upon Moya and take her passengers captive. Each of Farscape’s major Peacekeeper adversaries has been defined by time. Crais was obsessed with the past, unable to let go past injustices. Scorpius is limited by his refusal to look beyond the immediate needs of the present situation. But Grayza is the future, and that future is a scary place indeed.

After all, Scorpius’ argument so often boils down to Cato the Elder’s incessantly repeated line, “Carthago delenda est”—or, swapping out the Carthaginians, the Scarran Empire must be destroyed. The trouble is that it isn’t enough for the Scarrans to be defeated. Somebody has to actually do the job of wiping them out, and the only real option is the Peacekeepers. But what “Into The Lion’s Den” shows again and again is that this is a toxic society, one clinging to ideals long since twisted past the point of sensible understanding. There is Lieutenant Reljik, so consumed by petty hatreds that he can barely wait an arn before launching multiple assassination attempts against the Moya shipmates. There is Lieutenant Larell, who spies on Crais and weaponizes their past affections like they mean nothing to her. And, most tragically, there is Officer Yal Henta, Aeryn’s lost friend, who looks at her old comrade and can see nothing but a contemptible traitor. Not all of these are necessarily bad people, and none of them—well, except maybe Reljik—deserves to die. But if there is anyone out there who can actually be trusted with wormhole weapons, it sure as hell isn’t them. For all Scorpius’ fierce insistence on his own independence, for all his belief that everyone he encounters is either an annoying distraction or a usable tool, he is still only as good as his alliances. As his command carrier burns around him, perhaps he reflects on how his hatred of the Scarrans had left him unable to judge the good or the evil of anyone else.

Nearly 18 months ago, as I wrote my first Farscape review, I made a snap decision. I decided to throw in a quote at the top of each episode’s review. As I recall, I wanted to offer a slightly different teaser than what other TV Club Classic reviews tended to do, and I loved how Jack Crichton’s little speech in “Premiere” served as such a beautiful thesis statement for the show. But I knew then that there was one other reason: There was one specific line so powerful, so intense, so bold that I absolutely had to quote it at the outset of the review. It’s a line so brilliant that, I’m sorry, I think I’m going to have to quote it again:

“Are we all on the same page here? We came to permanently sabotage Scorpy’s project. Now, I’ve been trying to kill it from the inside, but we have run out of time. We have one option left. Only one. We blow up the command carrier.”

That line is John Crichton’s defining moment, the decision that forever makes him into, as his father once so eloquently put it, his own kind of hero. As it turns out, that kind of hero is, well, pretty damn insane. Crichton wavers and hesitates throughout “Lambs To The Slaughter,” as he struggles to figure out what he can do to sabotage Scorpius’ plans and even whether he should. He remains the universe’s chew toy, fending off Lieutenant Reljik’s murder attempt and Scorpius’ subsequent threats to make him witness the destruction of Earth. As has so often been the case in the third season, this Crichton—the Crichton of “Losing Time” and “Incubator,” of “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” and “Revenging Angel”—is drifting through the crisis, using bravado and bluster to compensate for the fact that he doesn’t have a clue what to do. It’s only when Grayza’s arrival robs him of the false luxury of time that Crichton makes his decision. He goes from the concept of a plan—“Stop Scorpius”—to the outline of one—“Stop Scorpius by blowing up the command carrier.” It’s only after that and at Aeryn’s insistence that the plan is further fleshed out to “Stop Scorpius by blowing up the command carrier with minimal casualties.”

But that’s the thing: There will be casualties. The shipmates eventually devise a plan that gives the Peacekeepers on board time to escape, but the death throes of a ship that size must have claimed at least dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives. “Into The Lion’s Den” doesn’t specify a number, but the mere fact that Crichton would countenance such large-scale violence is significant. Such actions could be justifiable in wartime conditions, but there’s no sense in “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” that that’s how the shipmates see their actions. Rather, Crichton and company do this because, for quite possibly the first time in the history of science fiction, the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few. This is a genre that often faces its heroes with terrible decisions, ones in which the universe can only be saved through great sacrifice. It’s relatively rare, however, for a story to actually follow through on that setup. Crichton’s steely resolve and matter-of-fact statement of intentions both indicate that this really isn’t a difficult decision. Even though this isn’t the Crichton of “Infinite Possibilities,” he sees and knows enough to recognize that nobody can be trusted with wormhole weapons, least of all the Peacekeepers. Secure in that knowledge, his path is all too terribly clear.

Earlier, I alluded to my past contention that Crichton found himself in the Aurora chair because of his own hubris, his own need to play the dashing hero. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, I must point out that my phrasing is imprecise: Crichton’s actions only put him in the position to be placed in the Aurora chair. The actual reason Crichton ended up in that chair is because Scorpius put him there. It was Scorpius’ choice to move immediately to the most brutal and invasive form of interrogation. It was Scorpius’ decision to probe Crichton’s mind so deeply that the human would never be truly whole again. It was Scorpius’ decision to implant a neural clone that eventually grew powerful enough to take complete control of Crichton’s body. Scorpius never had to do any of these things, and the fact that he believes all of those actions are justified by his larger goals is immaterial. Again, in narratives, we tend to think only of the consequences of the hero’s actions, perhaps because we assume he or she should know better, should find a better way. In this reading, villains only really matter as delivery mechanisms for those consequences; the Scorpius of “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory” exists as punishment for Crichton’s transgressions. But these are all lazy distinctions. As Farscape has so expertly demonstrated over the past two seasons, Scorpius is just as fully realized a person as Crichton is, and his actions cannot be boiled down to anything as simple or reductive as “villainy.” Scorpius had a choice, and he chose to take the most violent, destructive, unforgiving path. He shouldn’t be surprised when such a decision ultimately leads to him standing in an imploding command carrier.

This speaks to the fundamental issue with how Scorpius understands all other people as mere means to an end. If Scorpius treats everyone he meets as an instrument, as a potential weapon in his vendetta against the Scarrans, then it is only a matter of time before one of his weapons fires back. Really, that’s the one lesson he should have learned from his Scarran captivity, but Scorpius could not find it within himself to become something better than what his wardens intended, and now he faces the consequences of that coldness and sadism. After all, the John Crichton of season one would never have countenanced blowing up a command carrier, but then the John Crichton of season one had never met Scorpius. “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” is so fantastic because it reverses the roles that Crichton and Scorpius have played throughout the past two seasons.

As the endgame kicks into motion, Crichton becomes the antagonist and Scorpius the protagonist, and boy is Farscape ever brutal to its protagonists. All Scorpius can do is rage impotently at the man on the loudspeaker, desperately ordering somebody to do something while Crichton sits there, resolute in the knowledge of what is about to happen. Maybe Scorpius has been right all along. But the reason he loses everything, the reason that the only vengeance he ever cared about is now beyond his grasp, is that he never deemed anyone important enough to explain himself to. The tragic irony of this story is that it’s just possible that Scorpius was on the verge of some sort of breakthrough; his trip through the wormhole with John Crichton appears to leave him in genuine awe, and he observes that he has never felt so connected. I suspect that sensation would have faded, but perhaps Scorpius finally saw his place in the universe and, with that knowledge, everyone else’s place as well.

I mention the man on the loudspeaker, and so I really must close by discussing the final member of this story’s core trio: Captain Bialar Crais. He’s the last person the camera cuts to after Crichton makes his grim pronouncement, and the look on his face may well be telling; it’s tempting to speculate that Crais knows even then that there is only one way to blow up his old ship, and it requires the sacrifice of his new one. To the very end, Crais remains a Rorschach test of a character. Does he push Lieutenant Larell away because he is outraged at her betrayal, or because he wants to shield her from the horror he’s about to unleash? When he calls Scorpius the most repellent of creatures, it sounds as though he’s about to go out with a little old-fashioned Peacekeeper bigotry; he is the one who first used the term “Scarran half-breed,” after all. But no, the truth is more personal, as Crais points out that Scorpius, possibly alone among all those aboard the command carrier, chose the Peacekeeper life instead of having it thrust upon him. As for Crais’ revisionist history of his initial departure from the ship—yes, Scorpius betrayed him, but Crais deserves most of the responsibility for destroying his career—that’s just one last burst of vainglory from someone who always fancied himself a hero. With his death, does he at last become one? Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest.

Crais remains an enigma to the end. He has tried to make up for past sins, but the mere fact that he got to choose the circumstances, even the perks, of his atonement argue against his genuine repentance. His sacrifice might well be altruistic, or it might just be devastating vengeance at Scorpius’ expense. Or perhaps it’s all for the love of Talyn, whose own instability means that a hero’s death would be a welcome boon. But perhaps it’s all far more ruthlessly pragmatic than all that, as Crais himself explains:

“All that I have cared for have gone. My parents taken away from me, my brother dead. So now I live, I plan, I do, all in the service of my own interests. In that I believe I am not unique in the universe… Despite all of this, I understand the power of the technology that Scorpius is attempting to harness. I understand the horror that will wash over this galaxy if anyone wields this weapon. And, last of all, I now know that I am the only individual capable of stopping him.”

I don’t know if Crais redeems himself with that final action—or indeed with any of the previous good acts he has committed since turning traitor to the Peacekeepers—but I can say that Crais never cared about redemption on our terms anyway. The Crais of the first season could well have been called a villain, but again that term feels inadequate, particularly if it means I must then call the Crais of “Into The Lion’s Den” a hero. Maybe he is, but isn’t the right description of his arc. Instead, Crais is a madman who discovered something like sanity, a pragmatist who discovered something like idealism, a heartless bastard who discovered something like love. All three of those progressions converge with his final, desperate bid to defeat Scorpius by sacrificing Talyn and himself. Maybe Crais lived up to the other Crichton’s dying exhortation to find the best version of himself. I like to think he did, but I can’t say for certain. Crais’ death is an end that’s true to the character, as both his life and his death can be interpreted a myriad of different ways. Besides, it really is one hell of a bang.

The Worst:

Eat Me, Revenging Angel, and The Choice

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As usual, in brief:

  • Eat Me was too sadistic for my personal taste;
  • Is it really a surprise that Revenging Angel would be on this list? Considering I was not too particular to Fringe‘s “Black Blotter” or “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” which both feature cartoons as a main portion of their narrative, I just don’t have much appreciation for this cartoon-y platform;
  • The Choice also has a certain amount of despair that can make it painful to watch, though it is suppose to be.

According to The A.V. Club review of Eat Me:

“Eat Me” is one seriously sadistic hour of television. Insane as it might sound while watching the story unfold, this episode fundamentally exists as setup, a bit of necessary narrative maneuvering to enable the rest of the season to radically reshape its usual format, not to mention save a bit of money through creative scheduling. We’ll see how this all unfolds in the coming weeks, but it’s not hard to see what key new element is added at the end of the episode, and how that presence could reverberate through the rest of the season: the second Crichton. I say “second,” but that implies that there’s a first one, that one Crichton somehow predates the other, and “Eat Me” loudly insists that that isn’t the case. Again, I’m trying to hold off on discussing just where the show is headed from here, but suffice it to say that Farscape’s third season absolutely required Crichton to be in two places at once. A clone wouldn’t do the trick, nor would any other standard sci-fi trope that would make it possible to tell the two Crichtons apart in any fundamental way, to privilege one’s existence over the other.

The problem with that is that it’s completely frelling preposterous. Science fiction offers writers the most wildly unbounded storytelling canvas imaginable, but even it has its limits. The idea that a person could be doubled in a way that there is no original and no duplicate strains credulity to the point that it’s difficult to even know where to start raising logical issues with it. I mean, surely one of the two Crichtons is composed of the same molecules he had when he entered Rovhu, while the other is composed of molecules supplied by Kaarvok, but I suppose that just raises the question of how much we really care about molecular identity, considering that a person’s molecules are hardly fixed. I guess Kaarvok’s twinning process could split Crichton into two equal halves, with each Crichton regenerating the rest of himself from the same amount of new matter. But that’s, you know, completely absurd.

There’s no shortage of science fiction stories that deal with the issues of identity that the presence of a true duplicate would raise, ranging from Spider-Man’s Clone Saga to that one Doctor Who two-parter where some goop turns into an extra Matt Smith. Probably the closest match for “Eat Me” is “Second Chances,” the Next Generation episode in which Commander Riker discovers that a transporter accident—that wellspring of so, so many gleefully absurd Star Trek scenarios—created two Rikers, with no clear way to differentiate between the two beyond their divergent memories. But the crucial difference with all those episode is that they are concept episodes, stories designed to explore and wrestle with the deeper intellectual implications of these admittedly outlandish scenarios. The Lieutenant Riker introduced in “Second Chances” only exists as a vehicle for the show to explore questions of identity (and to enable a sort of pointless romantic subplot with Counsellor Troi, but that’s late-period Next Generation for you), and the show very clearly has no idea what to do with him when he rather inconveniently doesn’t die at the end of the story.

“Eat Me,” on the other hand, has the exact opposite creative priorities. The questions of identity are beside the point, something the episode has to at least feint toward in order to earn its extra Crichton. As with the euthanasia discussion in “Season Of Death,” there’s very little sense of a coherent ethical debate here. Instead, any philosophical points must be understood in terms of the characters’ priorities. D’Argo, who at this point somehow qualifies as one of Moya’s most contemplative souls, is willing to consider the possibility that the other D’Argo was really him; indeed, he won’t rule out the possibility that he is just a copy, and the actual D’Argo perished on the dying Leviathan. There’s perhaps a hint of self-loathing to be detected here; it would fit right in with D’Argo’s larger arc this season for him to worry that, after failing his son, his fiancé, and just about everyone else he encounters, he might now have failed himself. Chiana, on the other hand, dismisses Kaarvok as a liar not because she has any real proof—beyond his obvious insanity—but because she can’t bear the thought that she abandoned herself to a grisly death at his hands.

But what really matters here is that Farscape is about to require two John Crichtons, and the writers know just how insane such a scenario is. The solution? Force Crichton, D’Argo, Chiana, and Jool to endure a crucible so psychotic, so unremittingly bizarre and macabre that the presence of two Crichtons feels downright mundane by comparison. In the name of a necessary but ridiculous plot twist, Farscape forces its characters—and, depending on who you ask, the audience—to suffer through hell. The twinned Crichtons are only plausible because Kaarvok tells us that that’s what they are, and we only believe him because Farscape—never a show renowned for its sanity—makes us spend an episode in his lunatic kingdom, to the point that we’re willing to believe damn near anything he says.

“Eat Me” is careful to provide just enough supporting details that the logic of twinning comes across as vaguely sound, at least in the context of the episode. In particular, it’s important that the doubling process cannot go on forever; as Kaarvok explains, 30 or 40 rounds of duplication will rather rob an individual of whatever once made them a sapient being. “Eat Me” works hard enough to make Kaarvok’s twisted “family” structure—one in which he both loves and devours his relatives, because why the hell else would anyone ever need to go around doubling people?—fascinating enough on its own terms, and the circumstances of his takeover of the Peacekeepers impressive enough, that the audience can almost forget that it’s completely unexplained how he can twin people in the first place.

I wouldn’t really say that I like “Eat Me,” exactly, but then this isn’t an episode that particularly desires to be liked. I respect its willingness to be unremittingly grim and horrific; outside of Chiana walking in on D’Argo’s “seduction,” this episode doesn’t even offer the occasional bursts of humor that helped make similarly disturbing episodes like “Crackers Don’t Matter” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again” so palatable. Ultimately, this episode has a job to do in service of the rest of the season, and it’s so very Farscape for the show to interpret that brief as an opportunity to get as brazenly weird and off-putting as possible. Every character is pushed beyond his or her limit; Chiana goes mad here in a way that we haven’t seen outside of her encounters with her fellow Nebari, and she isn’t even one of the two main characters who decides to commit suicide. Crucially, such drastic measures are not taken because the characters encounter some weird cosmic phenomenon that scrambles their usual decision-making processes; no, the shipmates must encounter the horrors of Rovhu as they normally are, and the experience is enough to break them.

Jool gets what could well be termed a comedy suicide plot, as she quickly realizes just how ill-equipped she is to deal with any of the horrendous challenges facing her, including the challenge of working out how to kill herself. Crichton, for his part, responds to the apparent deaths of all his friends by effectively weaponizing his own insanity; it’s left ambiguous whether Crichton has any initial intention of surviving Rovhu’s self-destructive starburst, but my interpretation is that he just plans to take Daavok with him. It’s a bold—and, yes, sadistic—show that would put its characters through such a ringer. Whatever misdeeds Crichton(s) may have committed, surely “Eat Me” represents more than adequate atonement. And yet, somehow, I’m guessing that’s not how the Farscape universe works.

According to The A.V. Club review of Revenging Angel:

“Revenging Angel” is a story I want to like more than I actually do. After all, if we define Farscape as something that is fundamentally weird, irreverent, messily emotional, fundamentally concerned with character dynamics, and quite brazenly sexy, then “Revenging Angel” is the most Farscape episode we’ve yet seen this season. This is a quintessential mindfrell episode, very much of a kind with last year’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” another episode set extensively inside John Crichton’s mind and a damn classic to boot. And, if we’re looking at broader critical reputations, “Revenging Angel” would probably qualify for classic status, too; it’s routinely included in lists of Farscape’s finest episodes, and it earned a spot in Pivot’s recent marathon of 10 fan favorite episodes. Worse, I don’t really have any grand theory on why this episode doesn’t quite work for me. The core idea of this episode is so insanely ambitious that I can’t help but respect it, and there’s no shortage of beautiful, incisive moments to be found here. We come away from this episode having gleaned valuable insights about John, D’Argo, and even Jool; throw in the fact that Chiana and Harvey get some nice material on the margins of the story, and this is easily the Moya-set episode that does best by all its principal characters.

I’ll admit that some of my issues with this episode come down to a matter of personal taste. An objective review is a myth, but I try to assess each Farscape episode in terms of what that particular story and the series as a whole are trying to accomplish; the fact that I generally like what the show sets out to do isn’t required, but it allows me to set a useful baseline in analyzing the show. “Revenging Angel” represents the show’s most extreme genre shift, as the bulk of its animated segments are homages to old Looney Tunes cartoons; of all the old Warner Bros. animators, Chuck Jones is specifically name-checked, and that makes sense given his status as the primary creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The animated segments in Farscape are painstaking reconstructions of those old cartoon shorts, with several jokes here being direct callbacks to the original gags. And, well, I’ve got to admit that I’m not really the biggest Looney Tunes fan. I totally get its cultural importance, and I understand why it’s so beloved, but it’s not really my cup of tea; as such, even the best possible version of “Revenging Angel” was never going to work as well for me as it would for others.

A fairer criticism deals less with the concept and more with the execution. Mostly, the Looney Tunes riffs never quite have enough energy. The pacing of the animated segments strikes me as just a hair too slow; the zany sound effects, for instance, work best when the audience isn’t given too much time to think about them, but the animated segments unfold at a relatively leisurely pace. On this point, I suspect “Revenging Angel” is caught in a tricky place between the zippy pacing of a contemporary slice of madness like Farscape and the relative slowness of a decades-old cartoon. This episode also offers a good illustration of how voice acting is its own distinct skill; none of the cast members are bad in the animated sequences, but Ben Browder and Anthony Simcoe are able to bring noticeably more vitality to the live-action portions of Crichton’s coma dream. Wayne Pygram and Claudia Black are more successful in recapturing their characters without the benefit of physicality, but they are helped by voicing particularly over-the-top versions of Harvey and Aeryn.

I suspect none of this would matter so much if the episode were able to provide a more tangible justification for all the time spent in Crichton’s subconscious. We’re essentially dealing with that I’m going to call the Life On Mars scenario here, in which Crichton must construct the fantasies necessarily to keep him alive and, ultimately, wake himself up. That’s straightforward enough, but “Revenging Angel” unnecessarily confuses the point by skipping a beat too quickly to Harvey and his revenge plan. The problem, I suspect, is that the episode has to literalize Crichton’s internal fight for survival; the idea of having him face off against a hyper-rage-afflicted D’Argo makes good sense, given that’s how he ended up in a coma in the first place, but the episode is a little too abstract in how the various approaches suggested by his illusory friends are meant to help him, or indeed what endgame he is working toward in his conflict with D’Argo. Crichton gets a little too lost in his own mind for this to play properly. After all, it’s the coyote, not the roadrunner, that is the relatable figure in those original cartoons; the roadrunner is essentially an elemental force, an eternal source of frustration who may or may not be even aware of why his very presence so aggrieves his foe. And, yes, put that way, that sounds like a damn good parallel for Crichton’s relationship with D’Argo, especially from Crichton’s perspective. Make no mistake, everyone: I don’t dislike “Revenging Angel.” I’m just deeply conflicted about it.

Much like in “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff,” this episode would likely work better for me if I were more invested in Crichton and D’Argo’s ongoing feud. I already went over some of my particular issues with the show’s character-based storytelling in that previous review, but I would add another wrinkle here: Farscape struggles to hold D’Argo to account. There was plenty of discussion in the back half of season two about what a jackass D’Argo was being to his shipmates during the search for his son, and it can be odd that D’Argo is so quick to condemn Crichton when he’s often just as guilty. The short answer there is that D’Argo is a bit of a hypocrite, but Farscape is hesitant to call him out on that. To its great credit, “Revenging Angel” goes further than any episode this season in redressing that imbalance, as D’Argo is forced to admit his failings to Chiana, Jool, and ultimately Crichton. It’s only really the “ultimately” that I take issue with; the animated sequences mean that Crichton spends most of the episode with his conception of D’Argo as an unreasoning, unrelenting killer. It’s interesting—if unsurprising, again given how Crichton landed in his coma—that the human sees his friend in that way, but it’s not a point that can really sustain the bulk of the Crichton material in this story. At a certain point, I want to see the real Crichton and the real D’Argo talk it out.

To that end, the final scene, in which Crichton goes into outer space to give himself sufficient distance from D’Argo, is a beautiful moment for both characters, as D’Argo finally recognizes just how much a liability he is, given his capacity for inhuman rage and the general bleakness of his life. When the pair talk about how D’Argo “just” needs to learn how to control it better, only Crichton fully understands how hollow the word “just” is in this context. Crichton has spent the last two years trying and often failing to control his madness, and he at least sometimes understands just how dangerous he has been to his compatriots. D’Argo has come to believe that he is one of the dependable ones on Moya, and there was a time back in the second season—back when he was just starting out with Chiana, and before Stark made the possibility of rescuing Jothee turn into an obsession—that that might have been true. But then, most people can be counted on when everything is great. The trouble is that, when things do go to crap, most people are too busy wallowing in self-pity to realize just how useless they have become.

I mentioned this episode up top, but “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a useful comparison here. Crucial to the success of that episode is that it never leaves Crichton’s mind until the very end; it’s downright painful to imagine that episode if it featured occasional cutaways to his shipmates wandering the market looking for him. That episode’s power comes in part from its totally self-contained nature. Even once it becomes clear that none of this is “real,” it all still remains the realest thing we ever see. The audience has no choice but to stay inside Crichton’s head, and the neural clone is able to sell the idea that Crichton is in real jeopardy. “Revenging Angel,” on the other hand, tries to alternate between Crichton’s animated adventures inside his own head and the dire mess facing Moya. The audience knows that Crichton is never going to die—I actually would say that’s particularly true in the episode that comes immediately after when he does die—but it’s at least possible that the others might have to pay some terrible price for Moya’s survival, and so I always find Crichton’s predicament rather inconsequential, even though he is technically supposed to be fighting for his life. I’ve said it before, but storytelling is a magic trick, an illusion meant to convince viewers that the terrible thing that won’t ever happen could, in fact, actually happen. Here, for many tiny reasons, I remain unconvinced. But if there’s one Farscape episode I still hold out hope that I’ll fall in love with eventually, it’s “Revenging Angel.”

According to The A.V. Club review of The Choice:

This is despair. “The Choice” shows what it is to abandon hope, and not just because Rygel—Rygel!—is the voice of reason. It’s an hour of television devoid of all but the faintest glimmers of optimism, and those tiny hints of brighter days ahead—the survival of Aeryn’s father, the possible retrieval of Crichton’s soul—prove so cruelly illusory. This is arguably Farscape’s most daring episode, if only because it completely commits to depicting emotions that are neither pleasant to experience nor necessarily all that riveting to watch. A rule of thumb for effective television storytelling is that the best episodes find ways to take abstract themes or complex emotions and transmute them into clear, concrete action. Characters don’t deal with their emotions so much as work through them. While those are probably interchangeable phrases in most senses, the difference here is that the former involves direct confrontation with the emotions in question—a fundamentally internal, introspective process inimical to the demands of conventional television narrative—whereas the latter presents the latest episodic conflict as an analogy for the turmoil within. Any episode of television that attempts the former necessarily deemphasizes plot in favor of character, but plot has a way of creeping back in, even when it isn’t really required.

That’s about the worst thing you can say about “The Choice,” really, beyond a more general criticism that this episode is just too damn miserable and too damn grim to bear; that’s not an opinion I hold, but as someone who pushed back against “Taking The Stone” in part for those reasons, I’m sympathetic to that position. But, that aside, this is a fine episode, a 45-minute meditation on grief and loss that acts as one hell of a showcase for Claudia Black. She manages to captivate even as the most withdrawn possible version of Aeryn, providing tiny, riveting hints of the defiant, brilliant person hidden beneath all the anguish. Compared to such a performance, the attempt to tie up the Xhalax Sun loose end is a bit of a necessary evil. After all, all we really need from that subplot—actually, I guess it’s the closest thing this episode has to a traditional main plot—are the thematic resonances, and the narrative mechanics necessary to get are always a bit distracting. The business with the fake Talyn Lyczac and the seer Cresus is so convoluted; their plot to manipulate Aeryn basically hangs together as yet another manifestation of Xhalax Sun’s all-consuming hatred of her daughter, but simply explaining what’s going on takes valuable time away from the heart of the episode, which is Aeryn and her grief.

But then, what repeatedly justify Lyczac and Cresus’s scam—or is it!? (Almost certainly yes)—are Aeryn’s reactions. She is somewhere between inconsolable with grief and unfathomably drunk, and the combined effect is that she laughs and ridicules whatever latest bit of patter she’s presented with. There’s a temptation to say that she responds to the fake Talyn and to Cresus as Crichton would, and her mix of anguish and booze probably is a pretty good substitute for internalized trauma and a neural clone, but that isn’t really right. Crichton helped show her a greater range of possible actions and reactions—again, “You can be more” back in “Premiere” is arguably Farscape’s single most important line—but she always reacts as Aeryn Sun would.

That’s the real reason that “The Choice” is such a worthy portrait of its main character. This episode presents Aeryn at her lowest, but never at her worst. Grief is not truly a presence in this episode; it isn’t something that takes control of Aeryn or robs her of her faculties. Rather, grief is an absence. It is the absence of Crichton, the absence of hope, the absence of a tomorrow worth living. Aeryn knows exactly what she is doing at all points in “The Choice.” She immediately sees through Lyczac’s implausible story about being her father, and she is ready when her mother springs the trap. These are all elective actions—or, in keeping with the title, choices—and that’s something Aeryn makes all too clear when she walks away from Cresus and his final bit of almost certain bullshit about Crichton still being out there. Admittedly, Cresus might simply be picking up on the existence of the other Crichton, but since never acknowledges his existence in any of the scenes with Aeryn, I don’t think we can assume she was thinking of the Moya Crichton at any point here; as far as she’s concerned, “her” Crichton is dead.

In any event, while the titular choice may refer to Xhalax’s decision to save her daughter’s life by killing the father, the title is also an appropriate description of everything that she does here. That’s not to say that she could have simply banished her feelings—and the illusory Crichton—whenever she wanted to, or that any of this was somehow an act.  Grief, much like the mystical planet Valdun, is a place that Aeryn does feel compelled to visit, but the key is that she has no intention of setting up permanent residence. Indeed, part of what’s so powerful about “The Choice” is how much agency it gives Aeryn. As both Crichton and Aeryn have observed at various points throughout the series, neither is ever going to be able to stop the other from doing what he or she wants to. Both of them are just too damn headstrong to listen to the other’s advice—or to submit to the other’s more controlling personality traits, depending on your perspective. The fact that they could so blithely dismiss each other’s advice, even orders, while still fundamentally respecting each other was just one part of why they came to love each other so much; they were willing to rely on each other without ever becoming codependent.

As “The Choice” makes all too painfully clear, the same cannot be said of Aeryn’s surviving would-be suitors. Her blistering condemnation of Stark is particularly long overdue, her every line serving to remind call attention to his transgressions, none of which are any more forgivable for their lack of subtlety. Stark’s obsession with Aeryn has built slowly throughout the third season, with the very earliest hints even preceding the death of Zhaan. Until now, Farscape has generally registered Aeryn’s discomfort with these undesired advances, but it has couched these actions in Stark’s unreasoning grief for Zhaan or in his general madness; as long as Aeryn had some more pressing crisis to deal with, they could be dismissed as distractions. “The Choice,” however, shows his infatuation for her reach critical mass: His description of her to the hotel clerk offers a needlessly updated hairstyle history, and it’s painfully clear throughout that Stark is less interested in ensuring Aeryn’s safety than he is giving himself the opportunity to protect her. His ultimate decision to leave was as much a logistical consideration—Paul Goddard had booked an engagement at the Sydney Opera House—as anything else, but it does drive home the notion that Stark can only be redeemed with distance. Continued proximity to Aeryn will only feed his obsession, one that he’s only occasionally lucid enough to recognize properly.

But what of Crais? Aeryn’s thoughts on their would-be relationship really only serve as a part of her larger takedown of Stark, as she angrily points out that the worst thing about Stark is that he’s so convinced he’s better than Crais. “The Choice” isn’t all that interested in exploring Crais, but the rather expected revelation that he did lie about killing Xhalax—admittedly for what may have been the best, or at least the most logical, of reasons—underscores the fact that it’s always difficult to know what to make of him. There’s little question that he has spent the past season or so obsessed with Aeryn, though it’s up to the individual viewer to determine how much of that is sexual attraction and how much of it is Talyn-related fascination. Either way, all of Crais’ body language is about holding himself back; he tries so painfully hard to keep a respectful distance, if only because he knows he can’t trust himself. His mind may well strive to be something more, but all his instincts remain the worst combinations of Peacekeeper and wild animal. As such, it is brutally fitting that it be he who finally kills Xhalax Sun right at a pivotal moment; whereas Aeryn and perhaps even Xhalax had found another path, Crais can still only see the most efficient, most ruthless solution.

Indeed, the emotional collapse Aeryn allows herself here is the final, most powerful break from all that she was ever trained to be as a Peacekeeper. The choice her mother made all those years ago may well have been based in a kind of love, as she claims, but it was still filtered through the Peacekeeper mindset. She killed the real Talyn because she loved Aeryn, but the beauty of the motivation does not alter the ruthlessness of the action. When presented with an impossible crisis, Xhalax solved it like a Peacekeeper, sacrificing the weaker element to save the stronger. Whether the “weaker” and the “stronger” here refers to Talyn and Aeryn or perhaps to her respective feelings of them doesn’t really matter. The result is the same. Aeryn, on the other hand, makes her own choice here. Her choice is to grieve, to do something that no true Peacekeeper could ever do. Her every action—her anguish, her drunkenness, her willingness to hope against hope that any of these obvious con artists is telling something resembling the truth—is a tribute to Crichton and the love she felt for her. Yes, there comes a time to move on, a time to tell the imaginary Crichton that he has to go, and Aeryn even believes that she must now abandon all that Crichton showed her and return to being the Peacekeeper she was always bred to be. Shutting off all emotion, all love, might seem like a pretty good idea right about now. Good luck to Aeryn. She’d be the first to manage the feat.

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Next in the best and worst is Season 2.

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2 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Farscape: Season 3

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Farscape: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Farscape: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

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