After continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “Kansas,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week with the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes 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.
4.13: “Terra Firma” Original airdate: 17 January 2003
This is it. After three and a half seasons and numerous dreams and nightmares about coming back to Earth, “Terra Firma” is the episode where that finally happens, and as one should always expect from Farscape, it isn’t nearly what a viewer ever might have expected, because not only is getting home not John Crichton’s endgame anymore but this is the episode in which John Crichton realizes once and for all that Earth isn’t his home anymore. He has always clung so hard to his Earth reference points as a security blanket of sorts only to realize, when he gets back, that there is very little left here for him anymore, and perhaps most distressingly, that he’s ashamed of his people, these deeply divisive, combative cultures clinging to a little rock in an endless expanse with no sense of perspective as to the countless alien species and civilizations out there, as well as what little grasp they truly have of science, philosophy, or anything, really.
One might have thought that when John was finally reunited with his dad, it would result in a huge hug and tears. But John has lived through false reunions with his father before, twice, and this time, he has even more initial trouble acclimating to the idea of being in a room again with Jack than he did in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. He keeps his pulse pistol aimed at his dad, is very reticent to lower it, and even once Sikozou confirms the truth for him, he remains on his guard. This is not a happy reunion or a relief but instead extremely unsettling. A part of John seems to resent his dad and the other Americans’ presence aboard Moya. This is his turf, not theirs, and the image of them standing there in their Earth attire is both incongruous and even disturbing to John, given what he remembers of the nightmarish occurences of “A Human Reaction”.
And what’s very interesting is the way in which these two encounters parallel and diverge from one another. In many ways, that worst-case-scenario does prove to have been an exaggeration. The aliens aren’t kept in a prison cell, killed, nor dissected, and John doesn’t end up on the run for his life with the last of his friends to survive. However, the American government still remains very suspicious and distrustful of them, and if not outwardly hostile, underlyingly, passive aggressively so. They may not keep them locked in a literal cage, but they do keep them largely confined to a mansion with 24-hour armed guards ostensibly there to protect them but actually meant to protect the human race. Rather than embracing their new visitors’ technology and larger perspective, they are resentful of them, because they can’t understand them, and furthermore, their fierce xenophobia leads the Americans to want to maintain proprietary control over all of this information that they, again, don’t actually understand, anyway.
This leads to a great deal of conflict between John and his dad, which is fascinatingly rooted both in the zeitgeist of this new era in which John has returned to Earth and the loving but in some ways contentious relationship they’ve always had. As for the former, having been produced in 2003, the events of 9/11 cast a shadow over the entire episode. While away in space, John missed one of the most horrifying terrorist acts in modern history, and from that perspective, Jack isn’t completely wrong about it possibly having been dangerous at that point to share alien technology with the entire world, or at the very least that point-of-view is understandable. They may have informed John about the events that occurred, but since he wasn’t there during the aftermath, he can’t ever fully understand the sense of overwhelming fear shared by the majority of people on the planet in the days after that horrific occurence. At the same time, the fact that it happened at all is yet another sign to John of the inherent brokenness of his home planet. To him, regardless of the circumstances, it is still wrong for the U.S. to try to take control of something that everyone on Earth should have the right to partake in. To him, space exploration is about sharing the wonders he and any other astronaut has seen with everyone on the globe, in order to help inspire and enrich them, and make them more aware of their place in the larger universe out there. To him, any less would be a betrayal not only of his own ideals but the philosophy that his dad ingrained within him from a young age.
But this, of course, isn’t only just about space travel but the relationship that has always existed between the Crichton men–a mix of deep love, mutual respect, and a shared power struggle. As much as Jack truly meant what he said to John in “Premiere” about becoming his own kind of hero, that doesn’t negate the fact that John had felt his entire life that he was struggling to live up to his dad’s accomplishments, nor that his dad wasn’t used to being the alpha male of the Crichton name. Part of the problem is that John is now inarguably more experienced in space travel and even the workings of the greater world than his dad–the former astronaut hero–ever was, but Jack still has trouble relinquishing his role as the wiser, more worldly one and acclimating to a new normal where his son is more accomplished than he is (that moment when Aeryn flies him out to Saturn in her Prowler and his first instinct is to say that no human has ever been farther than he has, at which point Aeryn reminds him that his son has is an incredibly telling one), and John struggles with having been through all of that wonder and terror in the uncharted wilds of space and now once again being back at home, treated like a kid by his dad.
Farscape is often very surreal, in a very out-there, bizarre, extraterrestrial kind of way. The most significant accomplishment of “Terra Firma” might be how writer Richard Manning and director Peter Andridkis conjure up an entirely different sort of surreal, perfectly capturing the strange sense of hyperreality one experiences when revisiting a childhood home that one hasn’t occupied in many years. There is a hazy sense of familiarity, but as John explains to his sister while leafing through old family photo albums, it also feels as if happened to a different person whose memories you can access but who you somehow feel that you can no longer fully identify with. His entire time back on Earth, it’s as if he’s sleepwalking through a dream territory, which is an incredible twist on how present he was during his visits to false Earths. Here, however, he deliberately isolates himself. When he first came on board Moya three and a half years ago, he spent a lot of time by himself, recording messages to his dad on a small tape recorder. Now, finally “home” on Earth, he largely cuts himself off from contact with other people, spending time alone, recording his thoughts on paper in a journal. At the beginning, being on Moya made him feel like the loneliest person in the universe, and now that’s instead how he feels on Earth. The only relief he seems to get is actually during his short visit to Moya, at which point he has already made up his mind to leave. He was one extremely meaningful yet deliberately understated line to Aeryn in this scene. She tells him that she’s not fitting in, and he responds, “You’re fitting in as well as any of us are”. He could almost be saying those words about any other alien planet they were all visiting together. He’s lumping himself in with his friends here, not with his family or the other people of Earth, as if it isn’t even a question who he now belongs with. It was one thing to travel to his actual past in the previous episode, because it gave him the opportunity to revisit his own childhood, and say the goodbye to his mom he never got to back then, but this current Earth…this is a place that has moved on without him and that he can no longer even fully recognize. In actuality, of course, it’s the same it’s always been. He’s the one who has grown and changed.
And there is another way in which his return to Earth isn’t as he imagined and that is in regards to his relationship with Aeryn. In the past, he had always imagined returning with her as his girlfriend or wife, taking her the places that were important to him when he was growing up, and getting to experience his planet through her eyes. Why, the last time they had thought they were really on Earth together, the two of them ended up having sex for the first time, whereas now that they’re actually here, it seems to her like he can barely look her in the eye, the irony being that she is making herself completely available to him. Why, shortly before he was sucked up by the wormhole in “Unrealized Reality,” she had been practicing English in order to prepare for the day that they would go to Earth together, never thinking it would be so soon or that he would have continued to erect an impregnable wall around himself when they arrived there. From her perspective, he is still furious about the pregnancy and she has missed her chance, evidenced by the fact that he again takes up with an old girlfriend, Caroline, who we first met as one of the “talking heads” in the interview portions of “Unrealized Reality”. She, of course, doesn’t know the whole truth, that he is taking drugs in order to block out his feelings for her–though she learns this at the end of the episode, once they are once again on Moya–and that the reason is that he’s trying to protect her from Scorpy seeing her as a potential pawn to use against him. There is probably also an emotional level to it where–as Caroline tells Aeryn–John is trying his old life with her on for size, to see if he could make himself fit again the way he once did. He certainly knows it would be safer for both of them, but at the same time, part of him has to know that would never work. Speaking of which, while Aeryn and Caroline’s conversation doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, since it’s about John, it is wonderful to note the level of maturity with which both women handle the situation. Although Aeryn begins in a defensive posture, not knowing what Caroline is going to say, Caroline soon sets her at ease, conceding that it’s no contest: John wants Aeryn, not her, and she accepts that. She even explains to Aeryn that men from Earth sometimes hide their feelings, or repeat the same lie over and over in order to convince themselves that it’s true.
Aeryn also gets good advice about John from her future father-in-law, Jack, while she takes him on a ride around the local stars, an aspect that I particularly love, because even though this is actually the first scene the two characters have ever shared, it’s easy to forget that, since Aeryn and other versions of him also had lovely moments together in “A Human Reaction,” “Infinite Possibilities,” and “Dog With Two Bones”. I love that, in whatever permutation we see, these characters share a kinship, which makes sense–they’re both pilots; they both love John and know him better than anyone else. Furthermore, since each previous version of Jack was based on John’s memories of the real Jack, it makes further sense that she would get on just as well with him. What we might not expect is that, up until later in the episode, she would do so better than John does.
Returning to Jack, however, he does eventually say the right thing, possibly due to finally listening to Aeryn’s advice, and at a meeting of all of the top Americans involved in the learn-about-the-alien-tech project, agreeing to honor his son’s wishes and support the whole world being let in on the information, despite his misgivings. Sadly, however, reconciling with his father isn’t enough for him, and neither is the bond he shares with his sister, because (a) as I went into earlier, he no longer feels at home here, and (b) he learns that even back on Earth, he isn’t safe, which he discovers when Grayza’s rather horrifying alien agent, the Skreeth, bursts into the Christmas he is trying to share with his family and nearly destroys the house and everyone in it. If there’s any better symbol for John’s life in the Uncharted Territories intruding on and disrupting his ability to ever feel satisfied or safe back at home on Earth, it is this. There is probably nothing in pop culture more redolent of home and family than Christmas, and Farscape completely demolishes it. In other words, you can’t go home again. Or, as Aeryn says, “Merry frelling Christmas”.
The episode’s saddest irony is that John and Jack Crichton don’t finally have that moment of openhearted reconciliaton and love, along with a big hug, we had been hoping for until the very end, when John is leaving. He can’t stay. It isn’t home for him anymore. And yet his tough, brave dad breaks down into tears in front of him–perhaps for the first time?–at the prospect of his leaving again. It’s a beautiful, raw moment, particularly given that at the time, Jack has a terrible feeling John won’t be coming back, and that certainly seems to bear out by what happens in the series finale, “Bad Timing”. And yet at least this time around, John isn’t just randomly disappearing from his life with no warning nor goodbye. This time, they can express their love for one another, and this time, Jack knows John survived and is doing great things out there in the universe, and even knows how to get home, which is far more than he got the first time around.
Other odds and ends:
–This is a remarkably tight episode in which a great deal of major events occur and while it does do a phenomenal job of handling all of this information economically, I always did think it was a bit of a shame that, due to time constraints, John never has the chance to react on-screen to the Skreeth’s murders of his (former) best friend, D.K., and his wife, although it’s certainly an underlying aspect of his sadness in the final scene. With that said, the episode does a good job of demonstrating just how much he and D.K. have changed and grown apart. Interestingly, we got hints of that from John’s own subconscious in previous episodes–clues including his absence in “A Human Reaction,” the elements of rivalry between the two in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and even his line about helping D.K. cheat on his SATs in “Kansas,” indicating that John was always smarter and further along than he was, which probably ate away at D.K. underneath the friendly exterior. And even here, he and his wife grow frustrated with John for not being able to help them figure out the new technology that they are baffled by, as if just by returning, he’s messed up their lives. After all, he’s proven much of what they believe about science to be wrong, yet can do nothing to help them replace it. Still, given how humanistic a show Farscape is, I think this loss should have visibly affected John a bit more. The show didn’t just kill off a random standalone character here, but one of John’s last links to Earth…which is, of course, also part of the point.
–It’s also a bit of a shame that we don’t get to see as much of the aliens’ experiences on Earth here, however it was also the right choice, as it keeps the focus on John and his very insular story. And we do get more of a view of their time on Earth in the later “A Constellation of Doubt,” in which John watches a documentary about their visit, which contains more footage of his friends’ exploits. At the same time, it also gives a broader perspective to how the average person reacted to the discovery of alien life. Significantly, just by returning home with aliens in tow, John Crichton surely becomes a crucial person in Earth’s history, just as he has become famous in the Uncharted Territories.
–I also always really liked John’s cousin, Bobby, a wide-eyed little kid who records his interactions with the aliens, and whose footage shows up again in “Constellation”. In some ways, he reflects the young, innocent boy Crichton was when he first arrived on board Moya–he actually looks a bit like a young Ben Browder–as well as looks forward to the child John and Aeryn will one day have.
4.14: “Twice Shy” Original airdate: 24 January 2003
“Twice Shy” has the inenviable task of immediately following three of the greatest, most surprising episodes in Farscape’s history. It’s the “first one back” after the colossal Earth trilogy and as such, it was probably never going to measure up to what immediately preceded it. Furthermore, the writers had the right impulse, in making a good, old-fashioned alien-threat-attacks-Moya-and-everyone-on-the-ship-goes-bonkers standalone story, since it gives the performers, the creative team, the crew, etc. a bit of a respite after a very difficult set of episodes. The problem is, however, that it’s also a fairly unmemorable episode. There has never been a Farscape episode I didn’t like, and this is no exception. It’s a perfectly watchable entry with some good moments. However, no matter how many times I’ve seen the series all the way through, I usually can’t remember this one, other than a few broad elements and the sense that it was the sort of episode that the show had done before and far better, at that.
The plot of the episode, in short, is that Chiana rescues what seems to be a young female sex slave from a crew of brutish traders but what actually turns out to be a carnivorous arachnid hell-bent on devouring everyone on board, and whose main offensive weapon is to steal the quality that most defines any given person, leaving them defenseless against her. With John, it is his sense of optimism and drive, leaving him a depressed, fearful wreck sure that they are all irrevocably doomed. With Aeryn, it is her ability to control her emotions, meaning that all of the feelings she otherwise keeps in check come flooding out, unabated. With D’Argo, it is his anger. You could literally punch him in the face–as Chiana does–and he hardly raises an eyebrow. For Rygel, it is his hunger, for Scorpius, it is his “humanity,” leaving just the raging Scarran side, and for Chiana, it is her sex drive, which probably angers her more than anything else, as shortly before, the “woman” had seemed to be putting the moves on her. And the episode mines a lot of excellent comedy from all of the characters basically playing the antitheses of their usual selves, while also flirting with some genuinely edgy and dark stuff, a la some of Farscape’s great darkly comedic episodes. The idea of a seemingly victimized female character who was actually herself a camouflaged predator all along is both a terrifically subversive twist as well as one that could have been controversial under a different context but which here is completely divorced from any Earth mores and so feels more twistedly alien in Farscape’s grand tradition of sometimes deliberately uncomfortable or jarring sexual material. At first, when we think she is helpless, Chiana starting to get a bit sexual with her feels a bit wrong, too, not because of the bisexual behavior but because it seems that the woman is behaving the way she had been taught and therefore Chiana was taking advantage, whether or not she meant to, but the eventual revelation turns that around, as well.
But overall, again, the problem here is that Farscape has done this sort of thing, most notably with Crackers Don’t Matter, and while this episode has some strong, funny, and suspenseful bits, none come even close to matching the mad genius of that one, and so it comes up short not only in comparison to the Earth arc but to other episodes of its type. The whole “Opposite Day” aspect is entertaining enough, but none of it says quite enough about the characters at this stages in their journey. The only real emotional meat to the story is Aeryn’s anger at John over her discovery of his taking Noranti’s drugs, and the main plot simply pauses that in its tracks until it can be picked up in the tag rather than doing anything to comment on that thread or push it forwards at all. That final scene is great, though, John finally explaining his reasoning to Aeryn about throwing Scorpy off the scent, and his “paranoia” being proven right when, a moment after asking Pilot to run a diagnostic on the comms so that they’ll be off-line, Scorpius asks why they’re down, implying he’s been using them to spy. Which leads to the sweet and sexy moment that John and Aeyrn kiss, secretly renewing their relationship and naturally dooming them to much heartache and trauma in the season’s last big arc.
Now, there is the question of whether we should fully believe Crichton. After all, Scorpius knows that John loves Aeryn. He used that knowledge only recently simply to get on board. At the same time, though, don’t forget that John started taking the drugs in “John Quixote,” the very episode in which Crichton’s worst fears about Scorpy using Aeryn against him played out. With that in mind, I can at least buy John thinking this might work, even as a precaution, to make Scorpy think he’s left his feelings for her behind. Even back on Earth, he wanted to keep Aeryn safe, not wanting to reignite feelings they’d just have to set aside when they returned to Moya. But I also definitely think that John was sincerely hurt by her and that at least part of his impulse came from that, as well, regardless of what he says. However, it’s clear that their feelings for each other are too strong to ignore. And earlier in the episode is one of the few times where I feel Aeryn was fully justified in her decision to punch him in the face. Because she was trying to do everything right, and, as she said, he was cheating in trying to cut off his emotions.
Next: “Mental as Anything” and “Bringing Home the Beacon”
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