Farscape 1.08-1.09: “That Old Black Magic,” “DNA Mad Scientist”

Even as it demonstrates the depths of Crais’ madness, the episode also starts to go on a dark route with Crichton, which–as in “Back and Back and Back to the Future”–can be seen as foreshadowing his later arc. For the first half of the episode, John retains his pacifism, continuing to only fight defensively and struggling all the while to reason with Crais. But by the end, he falls victim to Maldis’ influence, as well. Maldis’ argument that Crais won’t stop trying to kill John, no matter what he says or does, starts to get to him (exacerbating the psychological toll of having been hunted for so long), as does Maldis’ indication that only one of them needs to die, and eventually a mentally weakened John gives in and starts to battle Crais to the death, only for Maldis to pop Crais back to his body, having renewed Crais’ hatred and determination to kill John all the more. The odds might have been against Crichton convincing Crais of both his innocence and sorrow regardless, but by turning his back on his philosophy, he makes matters far worse. At the same time, one can tell that John has certainly begun to crack almost as much as Crais by that point.

So, in this episode, John’s mind is hijacked by an extremely pale, malevolent force, clad in leather, who proceeds to chip away at his pacifistic, moral code, eventually leading John to give into his baser instincts. This is basically John’s future arc with the similarly pale, malevolent, leather-clad Scorpius told in microcosm, although Scorpius will come to reside in his head (similarly trading Earth pop culture references with him) rather than basically the other way around. Like Maldis, Scorpy will cause John to progressively snap, wearing away at his resolve and even humanity. He is the main reason John will eventually go from a relatively innocent pacifist to a veritable soldier himself. And it’s all set up right here, early in Season 1.

Another character whose capacity for darkness is exposed here is Zhaan, who finally begins to show us a bit of the “savage” she once was before returning to the path of a Pa’u. In addition, we learn that Zhaan is much more powerful than we had ever realized. Maldis is strong enough not only to take over an entire planet but to reach out into deep space with those powers, but Zhaan–with the help of former high priest, Liko (played by Grant Bowler, more widely known in the US today for roles on True Blood, Ugly Betty, and Defiance)–is stronger still and can entirely dismantle him if she taps into the darkness she has repressed for so long. The prospect of doing this terrifies her. She spent so many years getting her emotions under control, and letting herself go in this way, even temporarily, could irreparably harm her.

And that is a fascinating concept. So often in these sorts of stories, characters are effectively instantly absolved from any negative moral implications of having performed necessary evils because they are done for the greater good. It is even what D’Argo argues here. Zhaan can either allow evil to flourish, continue draining this planet, and destroy her friends, or she can unleash another evil to defeat it. Many stories would reward her for making the hard decision, and in fact here, it is truly her only choice (just as one could argue that John has no choice but to fight the relentless Crais, if he wants to survive), and yet once she opens that door, it is not so easily closed. She does the wrong thing (the only thing, but still the wrong thing) for the right reasons. Instead of using her powers to share another’s pain, as we have seen in the past, she subverts them to hurt another–her eyes rolling back and turning into blue orbs, just as when she’s doing the former, the effect now turned threatening and frightening–and that is a violation that truly damages her soul (and costs Liko his life, albeit willingly) to the point that, at the end of the episode, she lashes out at Crichton, the very friend who she had been initially trying to save, hurting his wounded arm before stopping herself from going further.

On Farscape, even the “right” choice can have serious, lasting consequences for the person who does it. And, unlike on some other sci-fi shows, these consequences won’t be forgotten by the next episode. In fact, they are a major driving factor in Zhaan’s actions in “DNA Mad Scientist” and her continued struggles to restore and maintain her spiritual balance represent a huge aspect of the remainder of her arc. And that alone is a hugely unique idea. I can’t think of any other depictions–at least on a TV sci-fi drama–of a mystical character who has to struggle so hard to keep herself centered for fear of descending into savagery, and it’s what takes Zhaan from being a lovely character in the first set of episodes to being a brilliant one.

Other odds and ends:

–I’ve always liked that, although both are warriors, D’Argo accepts from the start that their weapons can’t defeat magic, whereas Aeryn completely scoffs at the notion. It says a great deal about the fact that D’Argo–and Luxan society, as we learn later in “Vitas Mortis”–has a much more developed spiritual/mystical/religious side, whereas the Peacekeepers believe in nothing but tangible weapons and violence.

–The moment at the end of the episode in which Aeryn tries to compliment Zhaan is also a lovely piece of writing. She tells her that she was wrong about her, and that Zhaan is “more of a warrior” than she ever realized. The acting on both Claudia Black and Virginia Hey’s parts are brilliant, Black infusing Aeryn’s lines with true respect and even a bit of awe–to a Peacekeeper, this is the highest compliment you could pay someone–while Hey gives Zhaan a look of absolute horror. As the perceptive D’Argo tells her, “You could not have cut her more deeply.” To Zhaan, it is akin to Aeryn having told her that she really was a murderer all along. It’s a great example of how people from different cultures can utterly fail to understand one another, despite best intentions. It could have been a warm moment between the two that fails due to that divide.

Author: Robert Berg

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1 Comment

  1. Although I have not finished with all of your reviews (I am starting from the beginning) I do hope you continue with all the episodes. You have perfectly encapsulated why I love this show. Even now it is still my favorite.

    Farscape forever.

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  1. Farscape 1.10-1.11: “They’ve Got a Secret”; “Till the Blood Runs Clear” | DreamPunk - […] continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “That Old Black Magic” and “DNA Mad Scientist,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week…

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