After continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “Jeremiah Crichton” and “Durka Returns,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week with the sixteenth and seventeenth episodes of Season 1.
Just one important note: if you are new to Farscape, you may NOT want to partake of these posts, as I plan on including potentially major spoilers for later events. They are written not for the Farscape virgin but more for the viewer who–if not as obsessive about the show as I am–has at least seen it once through and can appreciate the bits of foreshadowing and long-term arc progression that the show sets up often far in advance.
1.16: “A Human Reaction” Original airdate: 20 August 1999
I have said many times in the past, and will say many times again, that there never has been and possibly never will be another sci-fi show like Farscape, which consistently broke every rule imaginable but always did it with a purpose. The major subversion in “A Human Reaction” is that, a mere 16 episodes into the saga, it seems that John Crichton might be getting a chance to return home to Earth already, but unlike other shows’ similar fake-outs (which, again, would usually take place further into the show’s run), John’s trip “home” proves to be (a) an absolute nightmare, and (b) crucial not only to his character arc but to the entire show, on multiple levels.
The major strength of Justin Monjo’s beautiful script and Rowan Woods’ superb direction lies in the fact that they play this concept completely straight. Although on a first viewing, we might be skeptical about John actually getting home (Surely, if he did, the story would be over, right? And the show would echo this with an even greater subversion in Season 4, when John actually would get home and soon afterwards understand that his story doesn’t end there.), the episode goes out of its way to make it all feel as realistic as possible. From the episode’s first moment, when John is examining his first gray hair–foreshadowing his loss of innocence which many attribute to the “Nerve”/”The Hidden Memory” two-parter at the end of this season, but which actually starts in this one–to Crichton’s surprisingly protracted, heartfelt goodbyes to all of his friends aboard Moya before he readies to travel through the wormhole to Earth that they just so happen to have stumbled across–the lovely thing being that they are all unequivocally friends now, which they may not have all even realized themselves until they finally seem to be definitively parting–to how naturalistically the subsequent scenes on Earth are shot, every writing and stylistic choice seems to be reiterating in as restrained a manner as possible that this is actually happening.
The script is even full of copious, detailed callbacks to earlier events, as one might find in a final episode, Zhaan and John gently grasping the backs of each others’ heads, and she reminding him that there’ll always be a piece of her in him a la their Unity from “Rhapsody in Blue,” D’argo shaking hands with John as Crichton had taught him in “Till the Blood Runs Clear,” John later talking about having missed chocolate, as he mentioned in “DNA Mad Scientist,” D’argo reiterating his earlier vow from “Premiere” that he’d never be taken prisoner again, and so on and so forth. The genius about it all is that, even while intellectually, we might realize that it’s very unlikely that there isn’t some sort of twist coming, emotionally, it all feels so straightforward and honest that we find ourselves willingly giving into the illusion. Because, just as John willfully ignores the carefully-laid-yet-on-a-first-viewing-subtle clues that something strange is going on–namely that everyone he encounters is someone he has met before, and everywhere he goes is somewhere he has been before–we are complicit in that, as well, because we truly want good things for John. We ignore the signs along with him. When he reconnects with his “dad” for the first time since “Premiere,” we desperately want it to be true, just as his dad, “Jack” seems to desperately want to believe that his son has returned and isn’t an alien wearing his form (the irony being that the truth is actually the other way around). And it seems that way because Kent McCord is so convincing as Jack. Browder jokes in the commentary about how difficult it was to sell the emotion of the line, “It was a trout, Dad,” as it looked on paper, yet in performance, it really works because the psychology of the characters feel so legitimate and truthful.
Even as the episode convinces us of its own truth through John’s emotions, it also does so through an ever encroaching darkness, the starkness of which is utterly unlike any of the weird, alien darkness of earlier episodes. Instead it is petty, mundane, human evil that springs from fear of the unknown, something with which we are all very familiar and which further sells the groundedness of the narrative. As soon as Crichton first lands on the beach, he feels as if he has reached paradise. He is so happy to be home that he practically kisses the ground beneath his feet. This is everything he has hoped for for the past 10 months or so. And then, it suddenly starts to go wrong. Men in black suits surround him with guns and shoot him with a tranquilizer dart, and he awakens in a cell, being grilled about his identity by Wilson, a government agent he’d worked with before, among others. This isn’t the first clue that he isn’t actually home, because it feels entirely legitimate to how the untrusting people of Earth would react in this situation, but it is a jarring reminder to Crichton that Earth isn’t the perfect, rose-tinted place he had been missing all of this time.
Things get even worse when Aeryn, Rygel, and D’argo also find themselves sucked into the wormhole, after going to investigate it when the vision of Earth seemed to disappear after Crichton went through (which, again, says something about how their relationship with him has evolved; they worry about him enough to check if he is okay), and also land on Earth, at which point they are immediately incarcerated by Wilson’s men and thrown in the cell with John. The situation feels intensely real, particularly due to the POV shot from outside in which we hear what each of the aliens sounds like without their translator microbes. To the “Earthlings,” they sound like a threat. John and his friends feel like they are under a microscope, something which becomes even more menacingly and bleakly real when Wilson’s men kill Rygel and dissect him, an image that is so grotesque and upsetting in such a tactile way, it sticks with you long after the episode is over. Ironically, Rygel almost never seems more like a real person than when he seems lost to them, his guts splayed out in the name of science. This is basically John, D’Argo, and Aeryn’s worst nightmare come true: John’s world has turned on him and his friends, and rather than offering comfort, love, and peace, instead demonstrating all of mankind’s worst, most xenophobic traits imaginable, destroying what it doesn’t immediately recognize as life that is just as worthy of existence as it is. Aeryn, in particular, had at least hoped in part that Earth might be a place she could eventually call home, and instead, she is being rejected in a far worse and more terrifying way than she could ever have imagined, particularly when D’Argo is taken and shipped off somewhere, as well. As she says, this is worse treatment than the PKs themselves would ever do.