After continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “Mental as Anything” and “Bringing Home the Beacon,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week with the seventeenth and eighteenth 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.
4.17: “A Constellation of Doubt” Original airdate: 10 February 2003
And now we come to another one of my all-time favorite episodes, “A Constellation of Doubt,” an innovative, formula-defying hour that addresses the Farscape saga in a way that had never been done before, explores the crew’s time on Earth from a different angle, and manages to push the seasonal arc forwards in surprising ways, particularly given that it easily could have been a standalone designed to stall until the big finish, when in fact it proves crucial, in terms of plot, character development, and worldbuilding.
Its premise is that Pilot has intercepted a signal from Earth that is actually the first episode of a new documentary series called “Alien Visitation,” whose purpose is ostensibly to examine Earth’s recent visit by aliens but whose paranoid fears and biases against the outsiders are only thinly veiled, thus reasserting all of John’s worst thoughts about humanity during his time back home. Aeryn had bought him a TV for Christmas, and he spends days obsessively rewatching the show. Upon hearing that Grayza–and therefore Aeryn, as well–was to be brought to Katratzi, which he assumes is a heavily fortified Scarran military base, John had found the word extremely familiar, but can’t remember why, particularly given that no one they contact has any information on this place. How could John have heard this word in the past when no Scarran contact they make seems to have heard of it? (Incidentally, this is another case of Farscape not drawing all connections for its audience. The reason Moya’s crew can make these inquiries and expect honest answers is because they are using the device procured in the previous episode that masks Moya’s actual signature and makes it read as a Scarran ship, and furthermore, Sikozou is posing as a Scarran over the comms, since she can speak the language. For all these Scarrans know, they’re communicating with other Scarrans. But the show offers no expository recap dialogue to explain this to newcomers or people who didn’t pay enough attention to the previous episode.) And for some reason, his instincts tell him that the answer lies somewhere in this footage, but each time he watches it through, he can’t quite put his finger on where or why. At the same time, his unstated reason for watching and rewinding it over and over again is that it is both comforting and painful for him to see Aeryn on the screen, conflicting impulses that are drawing him in like a moth to the flame.
The episode is so conceptually strong and beautifully produced that it’s easy to suspend disbelief in the moment regarding Pilot’s acquisition of the footage. On a first viewing, one might find it curious but quickly find oneself absorbed by the emotions of the episode, which are always of greater importance on Farscape than plot mechanics. However, later on, it actually makes even more sense. It’s been established in “Kansas” and “Terra Firma” that radio communications can be sent through the Earth wormhole, which, don’t forget, is always there, even though it’s invisible. However, it seems that it requires a connection through Moya’s comms. We know from “Bad Timing” that John left one with Jack, in case he ever needed to reach him, so the odds are that somehow that connection can be used to send the signals to Moya. Which means it’s likely that it wasn’t coincidence that Pilot picked this up, but that Jack had specifically sent it to them. We don’t know much about comms technology, but it’s possible/likely that it’s complex enough to receive a more complex video transmission, as long as Pilot sends it to a screen. It’s also possible that once Moya had been to Earth and learned how to pick up the signals that she was able to continue to do so through the wormhole afterwards. But, anyway, the reason the show doesn’t go into this stuff is it isn’t important. All we need to know is that John is devastated by the loss of Aeryn, determined to rescue her despite the odds, and has a TV, as well as this documentary to watch on perpetual repeat.
And what’s fascinating about the documentary is that while it’s ostensibly meant to show how hostile the human race is overall to this friendly visitation by peaceful aliens due to how their very presence uproots their sense of self and how they’ve always defined their places in the universe, it also allows us, as viewers who know and love the alien characters, the chance to see a more fleshed-out view of their reactions to life on Earth, via the footage shot of them by John’s nephew, Bobby (who, incidentally, was referred to as a cousin in “Terra Firma,” but as in my family, cousins who have that wide an age difference are sometimes referred to as uncles/nephews, I don’t have a problem with that seeming inconsistency). While many of the talking-head commentators–a motif that parallels the fantasy interviews of people from John’s life in “Unrealized Reality”–interpret each of the character’s either honest or innocuously intentioned comments with fear, moral outrage, or anger, interpreting them in the most out-of-context, negative light imaginable, John and we see his/our friends observing a backwoods planet that, despite its primitive nature, has some very positive elements but which often squanders its potential on petty hatred, rivalry, xenophobia, and greed. We are seeing our world through the Farscape aliens’ eyes and possibly feeling a bit ashamed of it, from this outsider perspective. For example, while war is an unfortunate truth even amongst more advanced societies, the people of Earth seem unique in their distrust and hatred not only of other species but of each other. The fact that members of a species would fight, kill, and enslave one another simply due to a few minor external physical differences such as skin tone is baffling to them. As Sikozou discovers by reading Earth’s history books, our past is rife with cultural setbacks of hundreds, if not thousands, of years occuring due to this sort of bigotry, discrimination, and fear. And as Aeryn points out, if Earth isn’t ready for the advice and help from friends such as them, how would they possibly survive if and when hostile aliens arrive?
And yet the majority of the commentators take their every statement as negatively as possible. For example, although D’Argo actually behaves very gently with Bobby throughout, all that most of the talking heads latch onto are the fact that he acknowledged how easy it would be to conquer Earth–that even his small ship, Lo’laa, has offensive capabilities that Earth’s best weapons couldn’t withstand–as if he had meant this as a threat and not as a simple statement of truth that people should know in order to be prepared for what is out there. All they see is what to them is a frightening, warrior-like visage, refusing to listen to his words. Meanwhile, when Bobby encourages him to knock him out with his tongue–which we learn for the first time here is actually accomplished via a small level of venom within it, rather than the force of the flick– which he reluctantly agrees to do, people are up in arms about how he could do this to a child, as if D’Argo had been encouraging it, as if he would suddenly turn on this boy who was the nephew of his friend for no reason, and as if this sort of pearl-clutching Earth morality applies to all species.
The same occurs when Chiana asks Bobby whether he’s ever had sex. The priest in particular is horrified by how she’s corrupting this young boy with her very question when the fact of the matter is that she’s simply perplexed as to why our culture holds childhood to be so sacrosanct. Earthlings refuse to understand or accept that their way isn’t the only way, and that a completely alien species might develop biologically/sexually/psychologically at a different pace. Technically, at 13, Bobby is old enough to father a child, and while in our modern culture, we are against this, not only is he scientifically and genetically equipped to have sex but his natural drives are likely encouraging him to do so. And so to Chiana, again, a completely outside observer, the fact that he’s not allowed to is random and arbitrary. She’s not amoral. She would have to have grown up in and understood Earth’s society, and then rejected its teachings to be amoral. She scares the priest because she simply grew up unaware of it, and that implies that are potentially countless billions of worlds out there with no knowledge of Earth’s religions and values, meaning that our religions and values might be either wrong, flawed, or just a small piece of a much larger puzzle that we are too young and inexperienced as a planet to comprehend. Noranti’s discussion of religions on other planets also, naturally, shocks him. And so he stubbornly holds onto his position that Earth is the center of the universe, shutting himself off from the possibility that there is much more out there to learn. Which is a shame, because Chiana also points out the hypocrises she sees on this planet. For example, if people aren’t supposed to have sex when they’re children or with children, why is there an entire industry designed to dress young girls in sexually provocative clothing?
Gigi Edgley is also particularly powerful in a short scene in which she mourns the loss of a rat she had befriended outside the house (likely the victim of rat poison we saw Noranti cooking up earlier in the episode), holding it in her arms and even kissing it on the head. To her, this creature was a friend, regardless of human concepts of which animals are and are not acceptable as pets. And it’s even more complex than that, because she didn’t view it as a pet or something to take ownership of, but simply a friend. And then there is the classic bathroom scene, in which she speaks about Earthly greed, and how Earth’s culture is too excessive–and coming from a thief, that’s really saying something. The moment in which she starts to wash in the toilet because the water from there is the same as that from the sink and shower is especially great because, as viewers, we can’t help but wince when we watch her do it even while knowing that she’s essentially right–as long as the toilet is kept clean, that is. One interesting nuance, however, is that not all of the interviewed humans are awful. A few of them actually are entranced by these aliens, Chiana in particular. However, even the positive voices either seem to overanalyze the aliens’ every minor exhalation or behave with some level of condecension towards them. Chiana is referred to in terms one might attribute to a child, which is particularly galling, given how much more of the outside universe she knows than they/we do. They are still thinking of everything in terms of Earth being central, whether or not they realize it.
The episode culminates with two very important scenes, the first in which Crichton confronts Sikozou, who tells him definitively that no one has heard of Katratzi, something which he doesn’t accept because he seems to vaguely recall she having been the one to say the word to him. And so he demands she tell him the real reason she had been on board all along, pointing a gun at her–that action that he himself admitted to Grayza in “Into the Lion’s Den” and Einstein in “Unrealized Reality” that he likely does too readily lately–all of his paranoia about the secrets he thinks she’s been keeping flooding out. And that’s when he looks up at the screen and notices a clip of her in which half of her face is obscured by a reflective dish she is holding up, his brain connects that image with that of Sikozou in front of him, pleading for him to not shoot her, and he suddenly realizes why he had thought he had heard her say “Katratzi”–he had in a manner of speaking, but it hadn’t come from the lips of this Sikozou but rather the Sikozou-as-Stark who he had encountered in the body-swapped unrealized reality, the way her face was obscured on the TV jogging his memory of her face within Stark’s mask. He apologizes to her and then in the breathtaking final scene makes a deal with the very devil that Sikozou has been allying herself with in recent episodes.
After nearly half a season of deliberately avoiding Aeryn in order to protect her from Scorpius, he goes to his old nemesis and lays all of his cards on the table, revealing that he doesn’t care about the Peacekeepers or the Scarrans or war or wormholes. All he cares about is Aeryn, and he will willingly give Scorpy all of the wormhole knowledge he has in his head–with no more holding back or cheating–in exchange for his help in rescuing her. This is, of course, an earth-shattering moment (no pun intended), and Ben Browder makes us feel just how huge this is for Crichton, this realization that Aeryn is the most–the only–important thing to him and he would even give Scorpius of all people all he had ever wanted if he will only help him save her, a direct reversal of the events of the nightmare scenario in “John Quixote”. The fact that Scorpius remains entirely silent for this entire scene, simply processing what Crichton is saying to him, increases its magnitude fourfold. Wayne Pygram’s facial reactions throughout speak volumes. Here he is, about to get everything he has ever wanted, and this time, he didn’t have to do anything for it. He didn’t have to threaten Crichton. He didn’t have to manipulate or cajole. All he had to do was sit back, watch his most hated enemies capture Crichton’s love, and then John approached him. The only thing we don’t know in this episode yet is why John feels he needs Scorpius’ help, of anyone’s, to go back through the Earth wormhole into that unrealized reality, but it all becomes apparent soon enough.
Other odds and ends:
–It has actually been longer since they have left Earth than it had seemed, as both the people aboard Moya and the documentary refer to it as having been quite a while since the visit. From the tone, I’d guess at least half a year/cycle, which is interesting, as it makes one wonder when this gap of time occurred: before “Twice Shy,” before the concurrent following episodes, “Mental as Anything” and “Bringing Home the Beacon,” or even if more time has passed since the last episode than we might have thought.
–This episode also puts into perspective how long John and his friends were on Earth. “Terra Firma” doesn’t make it exactly clear, but from the documentary, we realize it was at least a span of a few months, as there was enough time for Moya’s crew to go on various goodwill trips across the planet, along with hundreds of hours of footage that Bobby had filmed of them.
–This was actually the final episode of Farscape to be filmed, and so a lot of the scenes with Bobby are the actors’ last days on set and last filmed scenes as these characters for the series proper, which adds another level of poignancy to many of these beautiful and introspective scenes. I would also highly recommend anyone with access to the DVDs to check out the deleted footage for this episode, which includes the uncut versions of a number of these scenes which in the finished episode were often interrupted by the talking heads (one of whom, by the way, was played by series exec producer, Brian Henson!). There are about 16 minutes of bonus scenes here and they are all well worth watching.
4.18: “Prayer” Original airdate: 17 February 2003
If I were to make a list of most emotionally devastating episodes of Farscape, “Prayer” would be right up there near the top, possibly sharing a space with the similarly Aeryn-centric “The Choice”. It is no secret that whenever Claudia Black is given truly psychologically wrenching material to play, she always knocks it out of the park, and yet here she reaches whole new levels of devastation. The scenes in which she is interrogated and tortured at the hands of the Scarran are absolutely brutal, and while we have seen her in dire straits before, it has never been to this extent. She suffers in this episode and comes close to breaking–she cries, she screams, she foams spittle at the mouth, in absolute agony–and it is extremely difficult to watch, while at the same time, her fearless performance is absolutely enthralling. This is the sort of acting that would win an Emmy award, were the actors of basic cable genre shows generally afforded such honors. Because anyone can cry and scream, but few people could chart the intricacies of the particular arc Aeryn has to go through in this episode. She has to be afraid–perhaps truly afraid for the first time, as she isn’t only worrying for herself but her unborn child–and nearly shattered but, underneath it all, convey an inner growing strength and resolve, as well as ultimately utter desperation. These twisting emotions are what keep Aeryn, even in captivity, from being simply a victim in need of rescuing. She fights until there is no fight left in her, and then when it seems that all may be lost, she rallies herself around again. She even resorts to praying to a Sebacean god for whom most others in her species had abandoned belief in ages ago.
Some have argued that the fact that after her brilliant final soliloquy, an extremely operatic yet stark moment in which she disavows any allegiance to said god, vowing to make whatever deals she has to in order to protect her child, is dramatically undermined to an extent by the fact that this possibility never actually comes up in the episodes that follow it. While I think that could have been a fascinating note to play, I don’t agree, however, that it was narratively necessary. Aeryn’s intent here to me is far more important than whether or not she ever attains an opportunity to follow through on it. And while we can’t know whether this not being directly followed up on was due to a change of heart on the writers’ part between episodes, an accident, or if it was a deliberate misdirect to throw viewers off guard as to where the story would be going, I still find the manner in which her declaration mirrors John’s deal with the devil in the form of Scorpius in order to save her immeasurably powerful, and as the culmination to all of the suffering she endures over the course of this episode, it remains blisteringly brilliant, particularly since it occurs immediately after Aeryn commits an act of murder meant to declare her refusal to let the Scarrans destroy her or her child.
Before that point, Aeryn had shared many scenes with a fellow prisoner, an alien woman who, like her, was pregnant, but, unlike her, had been there so long that she had become suicidal. According to the woman, the Scarrans had repeatedly attempted to breed with her. Her species’ saliva has the ability to dissolve thin metals, and the Scarrans had wanted to try to combine those genetics with their own in order to create an even stronger offspring, but a number of them had been miscarriages, and, as we actually see in one of the most shocking moments in the series’ history, others had been aborted in the womb due to not possessing the desired traits. And, yes, we do actually see the Scarran use his heat power to kill her current fetus, a sign of either how much creative freedom SciFi had granted Farscape at this point or perhaps how little attention they were paying, in favor of the higher rated Stargate: SG-1. It’s one of those scenes that reasserts Farscape’s status as one of the darkest, most cutting-edge series in sci-fi (the genre, not the channel) history. And one of the main reasons it was likely allowed to happen is the revelation at the end that it had been staged. Not only is this woman actually a Scarran spy planted in order to convince Aeryn to reveal John Crichton’s location to her, but she had never been pregnant at all. Thus another one of what seems like the series’ darkest scenes, in which Aeryn and this character start taking a series of sleeping pills as part of a shared suicide pact, is twisted in on itself. Aeryn reveals herself to have realized the truth all along. Too many parts of her story either hadn’t added up or had been too convenient–another prisoner with such a great deal in common with Aeryn who just so happens to be positioned next to her; the fact that she was able to free herself from her bonds using a code she claimed to have swiped from the nurse; her always saying what seemed like just the right thing at just the right moment to convince Aeryn to trust her. Even these so-called sleeping pills are harmless. And so Aeryn makes a boldly defiant statement to her captors by snapping this traitor’s neck. Before doing so, she asks her if she had ever been a mother, to which she finally admits that she hadn’t. “Good,” Aeryn says, as she kills her, “then I orphan no one.”
What is so compelling about this whole thread is that this “cellmate” of sorts is so convincing by the end that, although we might be inclined to agree with Aeryn’s initial suspicions, elements such as her pleading to spare Aeryn’s life and the abortion bring us around again to being totally sold on her lies until that final moment. The fact that Aeryn never is–she had actually been playing her, as well, all along–reminds us what a canny character she is and reasserts both her stength and her experience. She may have exposed emotions to us over the course of this episode far removed from the closed-off soldier she once was, but that doesn’t mean that she has either grown complacent or gullible or has forgotten her PK training. Aeryn also shows remarkable resolve when dealing with the hardened Sebacean nurse, a truly fascinating character who has managed to survive all of these years by remaining fully faithful to the Scarrans and who wouldn’t do anything to outwardly implicate herself but who makes some small gestures to help Aeryn. At the same time, even these “kind” actions that aid in lengthening Aeryn’s life are complicated because she has no compunctions about potentially dooming Aeryn’s unborn child. She may be willing to grant the barest minimum of assistance to a fellow Sebacean when she can but she is a survivor, first and foremost, and considers anyone who isn’t to be a fool, treating Aeryn roughly without a hint of compassion when the Scarran is around.
Meanwhile, John brings Scorpius along on his excellent adventure to what he dubs Bizarro Moya, via the wormhole. This is another subplot that has always impressed me greatly. Who ever would have thought back when “Unrealized Reality” aired that not only would John end up returning to one of the unrealized realities later in the season, and with Scorpius in tow, no less, but that the body/gender-swapped one wasn’t just a crazy bit of fun but would revealed to be crucial to the huge, final arc? And although John never explicitly says why he wants Scorpy on this journey, I think it’s because, although he can’t know for sure, he has a feeling that it might require some morally questionable actions that his other friends might have trouble with, particularly since they would be confronting sort-of doubles of themselves, whereas neither he nor Scorpy have duplicates there. And it certainly does lead to a major moral dilemma. When he tracks down Sikozou-Stark to ask about what he knows about Katratzi, he learns that the Stykeran rules are a bit different in this universe than the one he came from–namely, Stark has access to the memories of other beings he crossed over as he is crossing over another, but not at any other time. And so Scorpius drags Noranti-Rygel to him and shoots him to death, to John and Stark’s horror. As it turns out, it’s also a pointless death, as this Stark can only cross someone over who he loves–although, clearly it’s not simply relegated to romantic love, or he’d only be able to do it for one person in the world. This also clearly isn’t our Stark for another reason, as our Stark would never have loved a Scarran. And we know that he crossed Aeryn-Chiana over in “Unrealized Reality,” and therefore he feels love for her, which is why Stark next pressures John into killing her.
Now, this is a fascinating moral dilemma, because John has brought Scorpy and himself back to about half hour before he knows they are all going to die from his previous visit to this reality, and so it shouldn’t actually matter whether he kills Aeryn-Chiana now, because she is doomed regardless. And yet, looking at this woman who resembles both the woman he loves and one of his dearest friends, he realizes he can’t bring himself to do it. Just before, he had shot and killed D’Argo-Jool, but that situation was slightly different, as she’d been threatening him with her pulse rifle. It certainly wasn’t something the younger, more innocent John would have done, but it wasn’t cold-blooded murder. Incidentally, it can be easy to forget that Claudia Black is also playing Chiana here, and doing a remarkable job capturing Edgley’s performance as well as conveying her fear and betrayal at the hands of Crichton, her supposed friend. The fact that she slipped into this alternate character the same week that she had to play all of the emotional turmoil aboard the dreadnought is nothing short of remarkable. Returning to the scene at hand, while John can’t bring himself to do it, Scorpius can. He grabs John’s hand and presses his hand down on the gun, killing Aeryn-Chiana, and compelling Sikozou-Stark to tearfully cross her over, at which point she again speaks the word, “Katratzi,” and is able to give them the location, which just so happens to correspond with a location in “our” world that Scorpy is aware of, implying that it will synch up correctly back aboard the “real” Moya.
And so, again, this is some awfully compelling material, philosophically speaking. In some ways, John isn’t culpable for Aeryn-Chiana’s death, as he didn’t pull the trigger, but at the same time, he had to know, just by bringing Scorpius along, that people might get hurt. And, again, on some level, I think that that’s why he brought him, whether or not he could admit it to himself fully at the time. He unleashed this monster on this other world, knowing what he was capable of. But at the same time, (a) this world is an unrealized reality that would effectively only exist if Crichton stayed there too long, (b) even if he did stay, the characters would still be doomed due to what’s due to happen later that day, and (c) he does get the results he needs. It says something about Crichton, though, that even knowing this world isn’t “real,” Scorpy’s actions and his own part in them trouble him greatly, but that at the same time, he was willing to do them to save Aeryn, thus setting up far darker actions that he will have to willfully perform over the course of rest of the series in order to keep both her and the rest of the universe safe, while up until the end, potentially corrupting his own soul in the process.
Also just want to mention the awesome scene in which Crichton and Scorpy are ejected out of the wrong wormhole exit. You can tell Rowan Woods directed the episode due to how artful it is, and unlike anything you’d see on most other shows. While Crichton performs some quick repairs to the module, it spins in space, and unlike other space shows where the inside of the ship would likely look still, the camera continues to spin around and around, turning Crichton and Scorpy upside down and right side up over and over again throughout the scene, a literally dizzying effect that places the viewer right in that tiny, claustrophic module with our hero and his nemesis and which is the sort of filmmaking you see more often in indie, arthouse cinema rather than cable genre shows.
Add thig about finally revealigng john as father – whil also toying withaudience about other options velorek – and fake guy -lentesh? – and why excited about baby
Next: “We’re So Screwed, Part I: Fetal Attraction” and “We’re So Screwed, Part II: Hot to Katratzi”
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