Farscape 2.18-2.19: “A Clockwork Nebari,” “Liars, Guns & Money,” Part 1

After continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “The Locket” and “The Ugly Truth,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week with the eighteenth and nineteenth episodes of Season 2.

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.

2.18: “A Clockwork Nebari” Original airdate: 15 September 2000

"A Clockwork Nebari"

“A Clockwork Nebari”

“A Clockwork Nebari” is a dark, tense episode of Farscape that returns the series to its Nebari arc for the second and unfortunately last time, and also reasserts that the creative team could still do a more straightforwardly suspenseful episode without too many crazy stylistic flourishes while still producing something that is distinctly Farscape, particularly when it comes to humor. Just as Farscape was masterful at punctuating even their “comedy” episodes with dark and disturbing elements (see: “Crackers Don’t Matter,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” etc.), it also did a brilliant job of cutting the tension in the “dramatic” episodes through the use of humor that managed to be simultaneously funny and disturbing.

The disturbing element here: a Nebari enforcement officer, Varla, and her second-in-command, Meelak, commandeers Moya, mind-cleansing all of her crew one by one in order to capture Chiana and bring her back to face punishment from their government. As disquieting as it is to see the cleansed versions of characters such as Aeryn, D’Argo, and Rygel, however (Black is particularly great at making this “kinder” Aeryn still extremely creepy, like a brainwashed cult member. For example, she begs Pilot to cooperate with Varla. “We would not like to lose you,” she “kindly” tells him, with a smile on her face.), they also manage to mine a lot of humor from these generally harsher characters instead being happy-yet-still-threatening-zombies. As John says, “Aeryn smiling for no reason…that should’ve been our first clue.” The comically weepy D’Argo is a particular highlight, as is Rygel offering to give Chiana his food, a blissed-out smile on his face.

Also, not all of the characters’ cleansing sticks for long. Because the actual process takes 100 cycles, the current cleansings are instead being simulated by drugs dispensed through their bodies via a device that Varla attaches behind their eyes by literally pulling them out of their sockets (this horrific image, by the way, is another reference to A Clockwork Orange, as it’s reminiscent of the device that forces and keeps the protagonist, Alex’s, eyes open, the first being the idea of reforming criminals by forcible means of mind control). But Pilot’s species is too advanced for the drug to work, so instead Varla has to make do by putting a pain collar around him that will instantly kill him should he attempt to starburst. Meanwhile, Rygel has such a speedy metabolism due to his three stomachs that it doesn’t take long for the drugs to be flushed out of his system, and Crichton has Harvey in his brain (although he doesn’t realize it), constantly nullifying their effects. Browder plays it in such a way that, although John isn’t cleansed, you can constantly sense him struggling against the drugs, making him seem extremely erratic, as if every moment he is being perpetually bounced between the influence of the drugs and Harvey’s subconscious commands to ignore them. This largely manifests in his hilariously affecting a California surfer/stoner dude voice when dealing with the Nebari or the other cleansed people, so they think he’s one of them.

This conceit also allows for some fantastic comedy, as well an unusual team-ups amongst the characters. For example, John and Rygel have to work together, even though Rygel at first tries to sell Crichton out, when it seems that he’s about to be put in danger, leading John to rough him up a bit. This also inspires the A+ Rygel line, “I’m nobody’s puppet!” In the end, though, the two have a ball effectively electrocuting mindfrelled Aeryn and D’Argo. The episode also affords Crichton and Pilot the rare opportunity to collaborate one-on-one on a project, which is namely to mock up a PK command carrier attack by manipulating old vid screen images and simulating explosions aboard the ship to correspond with each “hit,” in order to trick Varla into allowing Pilot to starburst. As convincing as it is, all doesn’t go exactly according to plan, as she’s so stubborn, she refuses to leave, instead threatening Chiana’s life, causing John to call off the attack. On the plus side, John is able to convince Meelak–who is secretly part of the Nebari Resistance–to finally betray and kill Varla in order to save Nerri’s sister.

Most of all, however, this is a gorgeous spotlight episode for Chiana, and as always, Gigi Edgley does a magnificent job with this impulsive and rebellious but underneath it all deeply heartfelt young woman, particularly when she discovers that her beloved brother, Nerri, is still alive, and near the end when she begs Meelak to take her to him. As it turns out, in the time that they’ve been apart from one another, Nerri has actually found his calling, having become a high-ranking member in the rebellion against the Nebari Empire, whose insidious plans for galactic domination have included infecting people like Chiana and Nerri with a contagion spread by sexual contact–a contagion that could then be activated at a particular time in order to throw countless worlds into chaos in order to ensure only minimal resistance when the Nebari arrive on these planets to take over. After finding a cure for both Chiana and him before parting from her, he has been working diligently to subvert these plans. He sent a holographic message with Meelak in order to explain to his sister that he’s still alive, so she doesn’t continue to think he’s dead–clearly he’s aware that his life disc had stopped transmitting, which likely occurred as the result of some sort of attempt to fake his death–but he also doesn’t want her anywhere near the situation due to the danger, and so refuses to allow her to follow him, and the depth of emotion that Chiana/Edgley displays is absolutely heartbreaking.

As with the end of the episode in which Chiana had thought Nerri died, however, Crichton is there to help her–

CHIANA: But I want to help!

JOHN: Chiana, he’s right. It’s for the best. If you go into Nebari territory, you will be recognized and arrested.

CHIANA: Nerri’s alive. I just gotta…I wanna see him!

JOHN: I understand, but you cannot compromise what he’s doing. Your brother’s alive. He’s alive. Take that. It’s more than you had yesterday.

CHIANA: I want to go to him.

JOHN: I know. But since when do people like us get what we want?

It’s a truly lovely scene that demonstrates such warmth and understanding between these two characters, John providing the brotherly/paternal advice and support that he’s been giving her since she first came on board but also really empathizing with her. He knows all too well what it’s like to desperately long to return to loved ones who are out there somewhere but not be able to do it. Even recently, he considered giving up all of his hopes and dreams for the greater good and for his own protection, in the “Look at the Princess” trilogy. He really gets what she’s going through, making him the perfect person to talk this out with her.

As I mentioned before, the only really unfortunate thing about this episode in retrospect is that the series sadly never got a chance to follow up again on the Nebari arc or ever show Chiana reuniting with Nerri. This was apparently a thread they were hoping to resolve in Season 5 but which they didn’t have time to cover when those 22 episodes had to be shortened into the length of a 3-hour miniseries, which is understandable (particularly given the miniseries nearly didn’t happen at all and there were so many threads to handle, as it was) but a shame, nonetheless, particularly given what a major threat the Nebari could have been. This single episode manages to make the scope of their plans feel enormous and for them to seem a truly terrifying, organized menace. As far as I’ve heard, they do however figure into the Farscape comics that continued the story after the series ended, so I look forward to checking them out when I’m done with this rewatch.

Just one other note: this is the first episode in which Crichton refers to his pulse pistol as “Winona,” presumably after actress Winona Ryder.

2.19: “Liars, Guns, and Money, Part I: A Not So Simple Plan” Original airdate: 5 January 2001

"Liars, Guns, and Money, Part I: A Not So Simple Plan"

“Liars, Guns, and Money, Part I: A Not So Simple Plan”

And now we come to the start of yet another epic Farscape trilogy, which, like “Look at the Princess,” manages to push the series’ boundaries even further, giving the saga a scope that feels more along the lines of a big-budget film than a weekly basic cable sci-fi series. There is such a sense of bigness to the sets but more importantly to the characters, the emotions, and the plot that it actually feels larger and grander than what can generally be accomplished on a TV budget. It also represents Farscape yet again dipping its toes into a different sub-genre while above and all retaining its own unique, delightfully warped voice. The last trilogy was primarily informed by fairy tale and dynastic-minded epic fantasy. This one is Farscape‘s twist on the heist film–with hints of the Western and Ocean’s Eleven about it–with Moya’s crew literally banding together to rob a bank in order to save D’Argo’s son, Jothee.

Two episodes ago, I spoke about how very Farscape it is that, whereas any other show probably wouldn’t have paid off the hint that Stark might have been able to survive his “dispersal” until at least the next season, this one restores him almost immediately. And here we have that reunion, the episode beginning with Zhaan clutching Stark’s mask and claiming that she had had a vision of him, instructing her to meet him at certain coordinates, and everyone else remaining extremely skeptical that this could actually be happening. After all, although they don’t mention it, Zhaan has been known to have visions of people who weren’t actually there in the past. To be fair, however, so does John on a regular basis with Scorpy. And as it turns out, Zhaan is proven right–just as John will be, later in this very episode–when Stark makes contact with them again, along with a plan to get the money to buy Jothee along with all of the other slaves on the docket.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about Stark in this episode is how it continues furthering the idea of him being a morally gray character. Last time we saw him, although he was helping his friends–despite the fact that not all of them trusted him yet and many still don’t–he did flat-out lie in a way that could have put Talyn in mortal danger. And this time around, although his main motivation might be in helping D’Argo save and then finally reunite with the son he has missed so much for all of these years, he isn’t being fully upfront with anyone about either his methods or his full motivations in the plan he’s concocted, which involves striking an infamous Shadow Depository–a highly fortified bank intended for criminals who want to stash or store money and/or loot that they want kept away from any official channels. For starters, he managed to gain all of the secret access codes, devices to control the automatic doors, and blueprints to the entire complex by helping the designer cross over into death–a fairly convenient coincidence for him unless he had just so happened to cause said death, which he is incapable of fully denying.

Farscape is one of the few places where spiritual/priestly characters aren’t by definition fully pure of heart and averse to law-breaking. Stark has good intentions, as well as a code when it comes to the big picture, but he’s not averse to bending certain rules for what he considers to be the “greater good”. After all, murdering the man who helped design this bank for horrible people, and was likely a horrible man himself, helps free Jothee and many other slaves, while also repurposing criminals’ ill-gotten gains for a noble purpose–kind of like if Robin Hood had stolen from other thieves to help the poor (and, in a way, he was anyway, given the shady practices of the nobility). Having been a slave himself and having come from an enslaved race, Stark takes this personally.

But what he doesn’t tell the rest of them is that this isn’t the only reason he is so invested in hitting this particular bank, which is that he knows that Scorpius keeps property there, and after years of being tortured by him in the Aurora Chair, he wants to stick it to him directly. And so while the timing might have been poor/coincidental/fated to a degree, it isn’t an utter impossibility when Scorpy later shows up while most of them are down on the planet, trying to pull their con. There was always a slight chance that he could show up to reclaim his possessions at the worst timing possible, and Stark consciously kept them all in the dark about this danger, putting them all at great risk, particularly Crichton, the very man who Scorpius had imprisoned along with him.

In order to make sure his plan goes off without a hitch, Stark even convinces D’Argo to go down and attempt to singlehandedly break in before the others agree to go. Everyone but D’Argo has legitimate concerns about breaking into such a dangerous place, but he is furious with all of them for not risking life and limb to save his son, and so he just goes down himself–with Stark’s secret encouragement–in order to force the issue, which is a thorny situation but is also extremely manipulative. Stark could and probably should have been more upfront about the whole plan, which was basically for D’Argo to get caught, so that, when the depository officials inevitably change all of their security codes as a result, Stark could then secretly link in and get them all. Afterwards, other members of Moya’s crew could follow him, masquerading as criminals with property to store there, and claiming that D’Argo was an agent of theirs who they had sent in in advance in order to test the system. But back to that in a bit.

The other questionable action that Stark takes is to lie to John. When Crichton gets understandably angry at him for not having been fully honest about the plan, Stark snaps back at him, “Now, go! Go back to your quarters, get something to eat, take a nap, do nothing…That’s what D’Argo said you do best,” a particularly cutting and manipulative statement. He likely does so out of a mixture of spite at Crichton threatening him and an attempt to galvanize him into cooperating after having let his friend down. But instead, this rightly angers John, who demands he tell him the truth: “Ground rule. You don’t lie to me. Did D’Argo say that?” to which Stark apologizes and admits that he didn’t.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that this is the sort of thing that D’Argo might have said earlier in their relationship, but which he probably wouldn’t now, unless he were so mad that he came out with accusations that he knew weren’t actually true but were just said in frustration. But I particularly like that even though it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility for D’Argo to have said that, John knows his friend and instantly assumes he hadn’t (particularly since, if D’Argo were going to insult John, it wouldn’t be about laziness, which has no basis in truth).

Incidentally, this is the sort of behavior that has caused many fans to hate Stark, as well as the fact that, when push comes to shove, he ends up freaking out too much in the end to be helpful, causing D’Argo to have to fix things himself. But I’ve always liked him, finding his often erratic behavior to be an interesting reflection of Zhaan’s attempts to balance her spirituality–in the Farscape universe, there always seem to be a precarious line between achieving spiritual balance and descending into madness–as well as for his need to keep the energy he’s literally composed of constantly in control to be a fascinating metaphor. The fact that he isn’t driven by the same agendas as the others and will sometimes perform questionable actions with good intentions also makes him very interesting to me.

It’s also significant that D’Argo is able to forgive Stark’s falling apart at the end since he is the one whose plan helps him get the money he needs to free his son–or so he thinks at this point–whereas he is still angry with Crichton at the end of the episode for not jumping to help him at first, despite the madness that his friend is descending into, which provides an opportunity for Chiana to swap her usual role with him. Whereas he is usually scolding her for being impetuous or behaving dishonorably, here she admonishes him:

D’ARGO: After all those desolate cycles, I’m about to see my son, and that tortured being there is the one who’s made it possible.
CHIANA: What about your other tortured friend?
D’ARGO: Friends support one another unconditionally.
CHIANA: They also forgive one another.

D’Argo is having trouble getting over his anger because, from his perspective, as his best friend, John is supposed to back him up unconditionally, and he’s still hurt at what seemed to be an initial lack of support when in actuality it was pragmatism on all of their parts, given that what little of Stark’s plan he had shared with them did seem not only dangerous but doomed to fail. And, as it turns out, it did nearly fall apart numerous times, largely due to Scorpius’ surprise presence.

But it does provide some wonderful comedy and incredible tension, particularly in the form of Zhaan and Chiana’s cover, Zhaan assuming the role of a badass one-eyed pirate and Chiana her sycophantic underling. Far too often, when everyone is having fun, so to speak, Zhaan is the character who either stays aboard the ship or is off mixing potions and such, and so it’s awesome that this time around, she gets to partake more actively in the adventure than usual, showing off her imposing side while also putting her skills with chemicals to good use at the same time, having not only whipped up a a batch of knock-out gas but a special antidote for Chiana and her to chew in order to remain impervious to it, as well as later a paste intended to overheat Scorpy’s coolant rods in an attempt on John’s part to assassinate him.

Zhaan and Chiana’s end of the plan involves putting Rygel into an induced coma and encasing him inside a false Hynerian statue, built around him by DRDs. They then store that “statue,” along with some other actually-worthless loot in the bank. Once Rygel awakens, he can then break out of his casing and switch their container with another, Scorpius’, which the head of the bank, Natira, had filled with borinium ingots at three times the value of what his original property had been, she having seized it for her own after assuming he had died on the Gammak Base. In actuality, however, Natira had planned to screw Scorpy over and rather than giving him the ingots, gave him ship-devouring bugs that only look like ingots in their dormant state.

Natira, a gorgeous yet terrifying accomplishment for the Creature Shop, is a smooth, blue creature who looks not unlike a humanoid crustacean, and who is every bit as kinky and seems nearly (if not just) as intelligent as Scorpius. The two have a history which we learn more of in later “Liars, Guns, and Money” installments but which is hinted in their very Farscape almost-sex scene. For now, however, we can see that she is a very cunning character who has no interest in relinquishing any wealth when she doesn’t have to and no fear of Scorpius, which is in itself intimidating. Her dispassionate manner while torturing D’Argo is particularly alarming. And, of course, the fact that she didn’t give Scorpius what she had promised means that our heroes in turn unknowingly emerge from the episode having accomplished nothing and nearly having gotten themselves killed in the process. Although they think they’re stinking rich now, they actually have nothing of any value whatsoever, which means no means of rescuing Jothee, and furthermore they brought creatures on board who are going to attempt to devour Moya from within. But they don’t know this yet, the only damper on their joy being the desperate state into which John has descended.

From the start of the episode, we learn that Crichton’s sanity had been growing progressively worse. His visions of Scorpius have been increasing, to the point that he hears whispers in his head on a regular basis and even thinks he sees Scorpius talking to Natira before the real Scorpius arrives–that moment ironically foreshadowing his connection to the bank. Aeryn even notices John’s strange behavior now as getting more and more pronounced, and she is getting worried. This comes to a head when Crichton finally decides that he has to end Scorpy, to make up for having spared his life in the “Look at the Princess” trilogy and asks Zhaan to make the aforementioned gel for him. However, when  they sneak into Natira’s quarters, where Scorpy’s rods are located, and it’s time to do it, John again finds himself incapable of even indirectly harming Scorpius. His hands shake and refuse to cooperate, no matter how much he wills them to do what he asks, mumbling crazily to himself all the way. Aeryn, deeply worried, takes the rods from him and instead does it for him.

Later on, when Scorpius’ voice in John’s head starts tormenting him, trying to drive him to go back and fix what he’s done, John kisses Aeryn on the lips and nearly tells her he loves her. Browder is absolutely heartbreaking, the desperation written all over Crichton’s troubled eyes:

JOHN: Aeryn, I have to tell you how I feel. I have to tell you–

AERYN: No, you don’t.

JOHN: Yes, I do. I do.

AERYN: No. You don’t.

Black’s line reading here is also incredible. The first time she says the line, she clearly means that he shouldn’t say it because it will make her uncomfortable. The second time, however, her softer vocal inflections make it take on a whole different meaning, which is basically, “No, you don’t, because I know.” She even manages to indicate–again, all just through her intonation–that she might reciprocate those feelings, as well, and at the same time conveys just how worried she is to see Crichton this vulnerable, this completely helpless and tormented, and yet she keeps a brave face. Their final scene together in the episode continues this motif, of Aeryn being the strong, stoic, stereotypically masculine one, with the stereotypically feminine John resting his head on her shoulder. As I’ve said many times in the past, Farscape excelled at flipping typical gender roles on their heads–even the fact that John needed Aeryn to sabotage the coolant rods for him (such a seemingly simple task) is huge and sad and scary.

I’ve said on many numerous occasions in what high esteem I hold Ben Browder’s acting abilities. Well, his work in this episode might blow all of his previous ones out of the water. There has been a definite escalation in John’s madness from immediately after the Aurora Chair to now, and it hits a level of fear here unmatched by anything that came before it. Before, what was happening to him was troubling but often more of a niggling irritation in the back of his mind, but now he is starting to become truly frightened that he is going to lose himself completely, particularly here where Scorpius finally confirms for him–his hand around his throat–that he had indeed put the clone in his head, to which John croaks out, “I got a piece of you in me, now you’ve got a piece of me in you.” Scorpius begins to freak out when he realizes that he’s dangerously overheating, ripping out the red-hot one coolant rod already in there, and commands John to save him with a fresh one. He’s in serious danger, nearly twitching on the floor, and both Scorpy and Harvey are compelling John to put the new rod in Scorpy’s head, and John fights with every fiber of his being to ignore it, the muscles in his neck straining at the tension.

What always really blows me away about this scene is not that only does it get incredibly homoerotic on a subtextual level–it’s difficult to ignore the implication of Scorpy yelling, “Take it! Take it!…Now insert the rod, John! Insert the rod!”; he wants Crichton to put a rod inside of him–but Crichton actually directly acknowledges it: “You’re really not my type, Scorpy,” just as he had told him in the “Princess” trilogy to get a new girlfriend. By the end of the scene, John actually does manage to force himself to throw the rod across the room, crawling away while loudly singing the Star-Spangled Banner in an attempt to drown out Harvey, but again it is supremely intense, dark, and troubling to behold. Browder is absolutely breathtaking in the scene, as is Wayne Pygram, again showing Scorpy in a rare, weakened state. And while he, of course, doesn’t die, it is hard to see this as an unqualified win from John as he continues to devolve further and further. But, at the same time, there is something at least slightly gratifying in the moment about seeing that John was able to beat back Harvey, if only temporarily. It gives a flash of hope for the future, although it is of course undercut by John’s desperate state in the final scene, a sign that things are going to get far worse before they get better.

Just one more thing: I have to point out the absolutely gorgeous exterior CGI shots of the Shadow Depository. The name is well-suited to the environment, which looks dark, intimidating, and almost nightmarishly spiky, a place of great danger as well as place that will force John to confront dark truths about himself and what has happened to him. It also visually adds a great deal to the epic scope of these episodes.

Next: “Liars, Guns, and Money,” Parts 2 and 3

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Author: Robert Berg

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your brilliant recap. I also believe Ben’s performance was superb. From his constant hand motions trying to bat away Harvey to the final confrontation with Scorpius.

    I also think Ben’s scene with Stark where he tells him he can guilt trip him but not to lie shows how far down the path of insanity he’s gone.

    I avidly await your next set of revies.

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