After continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “Coup by Clam” and “Unrealized Reality,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week with the twelfth episode of Season 4.
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.
4.12: “Kansas” Original airdate: 10 January 2003
Back in Season 1, whoever would have expected that John Crichton’s return home wouldn’t be the culmination of the Farscape story but rather another important transitional chapter in the life of the series’ protagonist? When the show began, going home was Crichton’s main quest but his character had changed a great deal over the years, experiencing the great wide world in all of its wonder and sometimes terror, gaining deep, abiding friendships, and falling in love, none of which was compatible with a normal life back on Earth. And yet, even up until the fourth season, many fans still thought that a return home would still be the series endgame. In many ways, this arc is designed to tell the audience, “No, we weren’t kidding around when we implied that John might not be able to go home.” Because in it, he does indeed return only to definitively discover that he can’t stay. Only by truly going home and having the options presented to him not in dreams, not in alternate realities, not in hallucinations, not in meticulous simulations, but in his actual place of origin can he know this with 100% certainty. In the end, the Earth arc is less about saying “hello” again and more about finally being able to say “goodbye,” this time on his own terms. In the past, there were two things truly holding him back from being able to let go: his mom and his dad. The time travel scenaro in “Kansas” (named, of course, for Dorothy Gale, whose journey John Crichton has been mirroring since all the way back in “Premiere”) allows him to put some of his trauma surrounding his mother’s death to rest, as well as to confront some of the darker issues of his home life as a kid, and the present day visit in the next episode, “Terra Firma” allows him to finally make peace with his dad. At the same time, the time travel construct is also a fantastic way of uprooting audience expectation further. If anyone had ever thought John Crichton would finally actually get home, very few likely could have predicted that it would occur in quite this way. Yet again, things don’t go according to plan. In Farscape’s typical low-key method of getting out of seemingly inescapable cliffhangers, the method of reuniting with his friends actually isn’t as it otherwise would have seemed. We learned over the course of the last season or two that wormholes aren’t “created” so much as brought out of hiding. They seem to wink in and out of existence, when in actuality the moment before they are visible, they were technically there, only on their side, so to speak. And so Moya’s comms and John are actually able to connect to each other through the wormhole, even though it isn’t visible. Which is how John is able to walk the others through meeting up with him–which D’Argo, Aeryn, Chiana, Rygel, and Noranti do via Lo’laa, while Sikozou and Scorpius stay aboard Moya with Pilot (Speaking of which, director Rowan Woods’ attention to detail is so meticulous that the opening shots aboard Moya are exact mirrors of the opening shots of “A Human Reaction,” which he also directed.). Shortly after they rescue him, however, John learns that he did screw up after all. He may be back on Earth but he isn’t in the right time. This is 1986, and furthermore, an unrealized reality in which everything is the same except for the fact that Jack Crichton has been chosen to pilot the infamous Challenger mission, whose spacecraft tragically exploded shortly after take-off, killing its entire crew. Therefore, if Jack decides to go through with this mission, he will die, which will set off a chain of events that will undo the lives of everyone aboard Lo’laa. It’s amazing to think how the loss of this one man on Earth would affect them, countless bazillions of light years away. And yet, if Jack dies on this mission, John likely never goes into the space program and becomes a pilot himself, meaning he never goes up in the Farscape One, meaning Moya’s escape from the Peacekeepers likely proves unsuccessful, meaning Aeryn remains a PK, and D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel prisoners. Furthermore, without John, Chiana would likely be incarcerated or executed by her people. And Noranti would still be a prisoner, as well. And so on and so forth. Which is a brilliant thing for the show to point out, because while on the one hand, Crichton’s friends are helping them because they are his friends, it also gives them each a personal stake in setting the timeline right. Their own lives hang in the balance due to the life of this one Earth man who they had never met. At first, after they all land near the house he grew up in, in Florida–and I would just like to take a second to commend the show’s production team for their choice of locations, for they managed to make it really feel like Florida, despite the fact that it was filmed in Australia–John’s plan is to simply get his teenage self, and then, when that doesn’t work, his mom to convince his dad to turn down the mission. However, in his desire to fix everything, he had forgotten a crucial problem: the fact that his dad never listened to anyone, least of all his rebellious son, who was always mad at him specifically because he felt his dad didn’t treat his mom well. That isn’t to say that there was ever anything approaching abuse, either physical or verbal, but that Jack is a stubborn man who was obsessed with his work, which probably often led to him shutting down, which in turn led to being emotionally neglectful towards his wife and kids, which itself likely led to frequent arguments. Furthermore, young John’s anger towards him regarding that only exacerbated the issue, as illustrated by the nightmare sequence in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in which his mom and dad are fighting over him and implying that he ruined their lives. Now, to reiterate, that was a nightmare and therefore a reflection of John’s deepest fears and gross distortion of what actually occurred, however one can see where these fears sprang from. Therefore, finally realizing that neither of them will be able to talk Jack out of something he is determined to do, John comes up with a clever alternate solution and that is by bumping up a different event that happened to him a bit later, when his dad was assigned to an alternate space mission. A day or so before he was supposed to leave, young John was caught in a housefire and Jack rescued him, an event that brought Father and Son closer together and which inspired his dad to stay home. Because Einstein had told him in the previous episode that time tends to self-repair once it’s nudged in the right direction–also echoing Harvey’s words to Crichton in “…Different Destinations”–this is a fantastic solution, as it uses knowledge about his life and how his dad reacted in a similar circumstance in order to manipulate the current situation back on track, so to speak. Furthermore, there is also the added implication that this is actually how it always went down, after all. Right before Noranti knocks young John out with a sleeping potion, she hypnotizes him into forgetting everything that has happened up to this point, which implies that this false fire created by Noranti’s potions was the fire John remembers from childhood, after all, the details surrounding it and the fact that the mission his dad turned down due to it being the Challenger amongst the things that her spell wiped out. And there’s another big clue, namely the one thing that Chiana whispers into his ear to remember, and that is “Karen Shaw, in the four-wheel drive.” All the way back in the first season, John had made reference to having lost his virginity to a girl named Karen Shaw in the back of his dad’s four-wheel drive. In this episode, the young John meets Chiana, and due to her (to his ears) garbled alien accent, hears the name “Karen Shaw” instead of Chiana. Later on, sure enough, Chiana takes young John’s virginity, meaning she was Karen Shaw, all along. Or that, at the very least, she is now in the self-corrected timeline, although I verge towards embracing the former explanation. As to why John didn’t immediately recognize her back when she first came on board, I wouldn’t be surprised if, due to the nature of Noranti’s drugs, John’s memories surrounding the entire experience are incredibly hazy, i.e. he remembers that he lost his virginity to a woman named Karen Shaw in the back of the truck, but can’t quite recall her face–or, any time he starts to think about it too closely, his mind wanders as a result of the hynopsis so that he never notices anything strange, in order to prevent the paradox. Basically, what this all implies is that John was always meant to be sucked through that wormhole and then return earlier, in order to save his dad and himself. It’s also, of course, just wonderfully Farscape that Chiana actually has sex with teenaged John Crichton for numerous reasons. First and foremost, it’s perfectly in character for Chiana to push those boundaries, and because she is Chiana and an alien, the scenario works in a way that it wouldn’t with anyone with any Earthly sense of morality. If this were a story about a group of human time travelers, this would be questionable at best, flat-out wrong at worst. But with Chiana, it’s naughty, yes–it’s why she does it–but it’s also playful and funny and perfect, as well as being a terrific twist. All of those years that Chiana repeatedly came onto Crichton and he never gave into her because he saw her as a younger sister of sorts, and little did he know that not only had they already had sex–she had ushered him into manhood, so to speak–but that she had been chronologically older than him at the time! Absolutely genius. The episode does a lot of really fascinating things with age. Another terrific example is the adult John’s interactions with his first girlfriend. Ben Browder does an absolutely incredible job with this material, because on the one hand, he is a grown man and in the episode, he is coming dangerously close to flirting with a teenage girl, but at the same time, he has such a masterful control of his character that it never comes across as anything but fully innocent. As viewers, we don’t see a man in his late thirties/early forties leching on a teenage girl, but rather a man who, in the moment where he locks eyes with his first girlfriend, suddenly finds himself transported back to his own teenage years. He’s in awe, and isn’t at that moment thinking as an adult but as that gawky kid he once was. This is incredibly difficult to pull off well, and it’s yet another of countless examples throughout the series of what an effortlessly brilliant actor Browder is. He does similarly beautiful work when he gives his own unconscious teenage self a gentle kiss on the forehead, telling him to try not to frown so much, a self-mocking joke about his own frown lines on one level, but also a comment on the fact that he should enjoy his innocent, young life on Earth while he can before things truly spiral out of control in a way he could never predict. In this way, this episode allows him to also really say goodbye to his own former innocence. He looks at this boy he used to be and knows he has a lot of darkness in his future–and also remembers the anger he had at this point–and so the kiss can be seen as a way of almost protecting him, psychically trying to convey to him that he loves him and that one day, things will turn out okay. Browder’s other best work in the episode is with Carmen Duncan, who plays his mom, Leslie Crichton, whose death had a major impact on John four years before the show began (and it does wonders for the emotional continuity that they were able to get Duncan back from her previous appearance two seasons before). We know from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that her slow death of cancer was an extremely difficult time for him, and that in the end, he was too upset to be with her–something which he never stopped regretting and which ate away at him, feelings he often did his best to suppress and ignore beneath his jovial, quippy exterior. Even now, when he has the chance to actually interact with her again, we can see the push-and-pull between awed joy at getting this impossible opportunity that anyone in his shoes would do anything for, as well as pain at seeing her standing right there before him, because (a) she doesn’t know who he is, (b) he’s afraid that if he embraces this wholeheartedly, the idea of losing her again will be too much to bear. And Browder conveys these complex emotions through alternating between a breathless sense of innocent yearning on his face, and also a subtle flinching, repeatedly turning away, as if he’s afraid that the very act of looking her in the face will cause her to disappear. One of the most intelligent characterization choices in this episode, then, is also Leslie Crichton’s fascination with tarot cards and astrology, firstly because it puts her at odds with her scientist husband and even loving son who otherwise defends her, because they both find it silly, but secondly because it allows the adult John to speak to her and have her take him seriously. The first time he comes to her under the guise of a concerned person also interested in astrology, telling her that he had done a reading that indicated that her husband would be in danger if he went into space. Often, in similar stories, the protagonist will run into the problem of how to convince people to do what he says. In this case, however, she is already someone who is open to strange phenomena, so appealing to her in this manner works, as he knows it will–another sign of Crichton’s deeply perceptive, empathetic nature. At the same time, however, it’s something that won’t work on Jack, and John has clearly overestimated her ability to influence her husband’s decision in this regard. It also allows for that great moment when he reassures her to not pay attention to her son pooh-poohing her interests. It’s clearly something he wishes he could have told her back when she was still around. This also sets up the second time he interacts with her, which he basically does as a ghost. When Noranti first gives the teenage John too much sleeping potion, and it nearly kills him, causing adult John to begin to fade out of existence. Once she has solved the problem, however, there is still some time before Crichton recorporealizes, and he takes the opportunity to go his mom as a spirit, telling her that he is currently in danger and where his dad has to go to rescue him–a great scene for him because it allows him to actually talk directly to his mom, as himself, one last time. It’s punctuated by a great final moment when he almost tries to warn her about the cancer, to not ignore the pain when it starts, but he stops himself, knowing what havoc it could wreak with the timeline, despite his own overwhelming personal desire to change things. Again, you can see the struggle on his face, and it’s just beautifully done on every level. Meanwhile, to counterbalance the episode’s more serious drama, the show also takes fantastic advantage of the comedic potential inherent in Crichton’s alien friends actually finally being on real Earth, albeit slightly-past-Earth. All of the material regarding the Gladys Kravitz-esque nosy neighbor next door spying on them, as well as the cops who start to investigate the premises on her behest is, of course, wonderful. And then there are the details about them learning about Earth culture: the great running gag regarding how they all come to think that giving the middle finger is a friendly way to say “Hello”; a terrifically understated sight gag in which Noranti casually pretends to read the inside of a pizza box in order to seem nonchalant; Rygel’s crazed addiction to sugary treats; the perfect decision to set the episode at Halloween, which both allows the characters to go outside since people assume they’re wearing costumes and acts as a great reference to Steven Spielberg’s E.T., which actually came out around this time. And then there is the TV viewing, with Aeryn at first being horrified by Vanna White’s plastic features on Wheel of Fortune, and then gleefully watching Sesame Street–a watershed moment in which th Jim Henson creatures from Farscape first encounter an actual Muppet for the first time, in the form of Kermit, a moniker Aeryn later applies to Rygel! The best part is that the clip they’re watching is the classic scene in which Kermit and a little girl sing the ABCs, only for the girl to keep saying “Cookie Monster” and erupting into giggles. Aeryn, however, is actually trying to practice her alphabet, and gets competitive with the girl, and decides she must be slow if that’s the response she keeps giving. It’s a brilliant example of hilarious comedy coming from superb character writing. And there’s also another level to it, which is that Aeryn is finally getting a chance to experience some of the Earth pop culture that John has been referring to for the past four years, which finally starts to put them on more even footing. He has spent four years learning everything about her part of the world, and now it’s finally her turn to get a taste of his. And returning to the idea of Rygel as a puppet, there’s also that great moment when the cop enters and Aeryn tosses him across the room, to demonstrate that he’s a toy, only for Rygel to call her a bitch for nearly breaking his rib as soon as the man leaves. Classic Farscape. And the episode continues to keep us on our toes up to the very end, when John talks Pilot through meeting up with him, and Pilot instead ends up outside modern-day Earth. John and the others then hop the wormhole to the proper space-time, and John steps aboard Moya only to discover a group of humans in uniform waiting for them, one of them being his dad. Apparently it’s been quite a few months that Moya has been waiting for him, which is again such a perfectly Farscape thing to do. And, befitting how much John has changed, particularly in regards to drawing his weapon, as well as how many times various aliens have screwed with him when it comes to the chance of reuniting with his dad, when Jack walks over to embrace him, John pulls out his gun and asks him “Bass or trout?” a question that goes all the way back to the fishing trip story that “Jack” told him in “A Human Reaction” in the first season. What other show would expect its audience to remember such a relatively minor detail from three years ago as the cliffhanger final line to a major episode? As well as to give such a seemingly silly line such weight. God, I love Farscape. Other odds and ends: –One might ask why John decided to go down to the planet instead of trying to leave right away in order to try to keep this unrealized reality from becoming permanent, and I think it’s a mix of two things: (a) After so long away and not being so close to his home, he can’t help himself, just in case he isn’t able to get back to Earth in his own time ever again, and more importantly, (b) his possible fear that going back won’t actually stop this from becoming “actual” reality, which, as we know could have disastrous consequences. –I also love how Ben Browder plays both John drinking milk for the first time in 4 years, as well as how excited he gets when John sees a pair of jeans. It’s the little things that he possibly didn’t even realize he missed so much that almost have the biggest impact, and Browder conveys that beautifully. –The thread of that one cop who retains his memory is paid off in the later episode, “A Constellation of Doubt”. For now, I just had to mention the wonderful little X-Files reference, in regards to the backs of the two agents observing his testimony. –One of my favorite little details of the episode: one of the boats in the water right outside the Crichton family home bears the name, “Prowler”! –The show always did such a superb job of threading Jack Crichton throughout the narrative, in variant forms, that it’s almost difficult to recall that this episode actually features the real Jack for the first time since the teaser from “Premiere”! –One might wonder whether there is a bit of an inconsistency regarding the fact that both Moya and Lo’laa were able to travel through the wormhole without the passengers turning to goo. And it’s possible. It’s also possible that John either installed the proper stabilizer aboard Moya and Lo’laa by this point, given he was actively chasing wormholes, or even that once he got all of the Ancient knowledge that this became moot because of whatever specific instructions he gave D’Argo and later Pilot to navigate through it. –I also can’t skip the brief time Grayza is aboard Moya in this one, during which time she plants her secret weapon, the Skreeth, which pays off in the following episode, as well as the revelation that Braca has been Scorpy’s man this whole time, as illustrated by Scorpius giving him a kiss on the forehead, and Braca clasping Scorpy’s face in his hands, a moment during which the homoerotic subtext of their (as Ben Browder calls it) Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship comes raging into the forefront. It’s this moment where you also realize that Braca isn’t just a mindless sycophant clasping to whoever is highest on the totem pole at any given moment. He is, in fact, loyal to Scorpius, which I would think has to do at least in part with how short-sightedly Grayza seems to be handling the Scarran issue. Scorpius is still a better long-term prospect for the future of the PKs. But, wowzas, that kiss!
Next: “Terra Firma” and “Twice Shy”
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