Farscape 4.10-4.11: “Coup by Clam”; “Unrealized Reality”

After continuing our journey with John Crichton last week with “I Shrink Therefore I Am” and “A Prefect Murder,” our Farscape re-watch continues this week with the tenth and eleventh 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.

4.10: “Coup by Clam” Original airdate: 16 August 2002

"Coup by Clam"

“Coup by Clam”

As far as I know, “Coup by Clam” is not an overly loved episode amongst the Farscape fandom which is a shame to me, because it’s actually one of my favorite comedic episodes of the entire series. Many found it overly gross, which it certainly is, but the way I see it, it’s so gross that it reaches an entirely self aware, meta level of bodily humor excess. Whereas on most other occasions, the show sprinkled small doses of this sort of humor throughout either more serious-minded or at least darker episodes, this one goes full-tilt boogie with the gross, including everything from vomiting to piss-drinking to old lady masturbation to the dismemberment of a particularly phallic-shaped nose. At the same time, however, it’s also exceedingly clever, managing to also weave these outlandish elements into a Trekkish planet-with-laws-in-need-of-fixing plot and simultaneous skewering of such, along with a somehow completely relevant Crichton and Rygel crossdressing scenario. What I love about the episode is that while a list of everything that occurs in it might make it seem like a scattershot, chaotic, kitchen sink sort of excursion, there is method to the madness. From a narrative perspective, everything fits together perfectly and is actually coherent, while this is also a story that no other show but Farscape could have done, on basically any level, because it’s the sort of story that only makes sense within Farscape‘s very unique framework and imaginative wavelength. How many genre shows can legitimately say that?

How Fascapey is this episode? Well, it centers on a duplicitous doctor–who visually resembles the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang–poisoning Moya’s crew with mollusks simply by not sharing the crucial information that they are not to be shared under any circumstances. Apparently, each of these mollusks contains a neurally linked colony of bacteria that longs to remain together. If one person eats an entire mollusk themselves, the colony stays whole, no harm done. However, if the colony ends up in separate peoples’ stomachs, the various bacteria reach out to each other, longing to merge, resulting in severe illness, people feeling one another’s bodily sensations via the signals the bacteria send to each other, and finally, a horrible death. Naturally, pairs of the friends had shared their food–with the exception of Chiana, who didn’t eat–leaving poor Aeryn linked to Rygel, feeling everything his three stomachs are undergoing, D’Argo linked to Noranti–which gets particularly dicey when she discovers that one of the implements in the kitchen can function as a very serviceable vibrator–and Crichton linked to Sikozou, who only eats 10 times a cycle and so had stocked up on a lot of food. The doctor will only whip up cures for them in exchange for a great deal of money, said cure of which involves each person in any given pair drinking a concotion that includes the other one’s urine, and then maintaining flesh-to-flesh contact for a few hours, until a sticky, purple goo forms between their hands. That is how Farscapey this episode is.

And this being Farscape, the situaton rapidly goes further South than before: the doctor only has one of the types of mollusk so can only create an antidote for Noranti and D’Argo, and the person who is supposed to deliver him the other two types instead turns out to be an attempted assassin who nearly kills him. Which leads to John and Rygel having to go undercover in drag in order to infiltrate a gentleman’s club that’s actually run by leaders of the female Resistance who are working to stage a coup against this incredibly misogynistic society’s government by using the mollusks against its patriarchal leaders. These women are the only ones on the planet who have the mollusks. Additionally, they’ve also captured Aeryn and Sikozou who had previously tried to work a deal with them to get the mollusks. In classically Farscape style, however, the two women don’t need the male hero to rescue them, not even a man dressed as a woman, as they manage to work together and free themselves before he can–although the sight of Ben Browder looking surprisingly elegant in a dress, wig, and make-up is truly priceless, and Claudia Black’s in-character reaction even more so.

While they didn’t necessarily need Crichton, however, they all get a little help from a seeming villain, Scorpius, who–just when the situation started to seem hopeless for all of them–consumes all of the remaining mollusks back on Moya in order to temporarily alleviate the pressure that the bacteria is exerting on each of the two remaining pairs of people, and thus yet again proving himself an asset, at least for the time being. Earlier, he also helped out a secretly female mechanic who had been installing a device aboard Moya to filter out the electrostatic impulses from the many radiation sources in Tormented Space that would otherwise drive her insane. Just as this society looks down on women (to put it mildly), they also don’t allow them to take on any job deemed suitable only for men, and so this woman has to masquerade as a man in order to do her work. When Chiana discovers the truth about her and she then confides in Chi about why she does what she does, which is overheard by her male boss, Scorpius snaps his neck before he can bring her up on charges, yet another indication that Scorpy isn’t the typical bad guy. He may kill someone here without thinking twice about it, which is certainly morally dark, but he does so (a) to save someone’s life and (b) because he finds this man’s hatred of women to itself be morally repugnant. And it’s particularly interesting that he commits this murder with no real potential benefit to himself. If he were purely evil, he wouldn’t care about this woman’s life. One could argue that his eating the mollusks isn’t as purely selfless because it helps potentially ingratiate himself further to Moya’s crew, as well as saves John Crichton, who he knows must be kept alive at all costs, but this really only otherwise helps impress one person, Chiana, who is basically inconsequential to him and doesn’t really help any of his goals. As with his kind treatment of M’Lee in the first season’s “Bone to Be Wild,” Scorpy will at times exhibit mercy when it doesn’t negatively impact him. It also likely helps him justify his negative actions and helps reassure himself that he isn’t an unreasonable or evil man.

I also must mention the infamous scene in which Rygel bites off the very long end of the doctor’s nose, which, yes, is absolutely disgusting, but also not undeserved, not only due to the man’s horrendous actions throughout, but because he had actually been trying to attack Rygel at the time, which means that at least the initial bite was self-defense, even if the subsequent biting down so hard that it tears off the nose and then swallowing it for good measure was pure Hynerian vindictiveness. Again, it’s gross Farscape redux, Rygel’s act of biting Aeryn’s arm and swallowing the flesh from all the way back in the second episode of Season 1, “I, E.T.” on an even grander and more queasy-making scale. What is even more karmically fitting justice, however, is when Rygel then force-feeds him part of another mollusk, the rest of which he leaves in the garbage to be devoured by alley creatures, dooming him to the same hideous end he had almost created for them.

4.11: “Unrealized Reality” Original airdate: 23 August 2002

"Unrealized Reality"

“Unrealized Reality”

I’ve been both eagerly anticipating and dreading this episode since I first decided to do these revisiting-Farscape-analysis/review things, the former because it is very possibly the most blisteringly brilliant, mindbendingly ingenious, innovative, and audacious hour of the entire series’ run, the latter because the idea of writing a piece on it is intimidating. It’s a dense, intricate, at times deliberately overwhelming hour that is both a 45-minute-long conversation between two characters–John Crichton and a member of the species from whence the Ancients came who John refers to as “Einstein”–and an epic, dizzying magical mystery tour of time and space, bouncing between various past, potential future, and other varying forms of alternate timelines, and which is the first of a trilogy that forever changes the face of the series. I don’t think there’s any way to fully capture the power of this episode in a review. A lot of what makes it such a masterpiece is the experience of it all, and so I’m just going to do my best to discuss the salient points rather than try to cover every moment and nuance of this frankly massive episode.

Broken down to its most basic terms, “Unrealized Reality” is about an advanced alien capturing Crichton and sucking him into a wormhole with the intention of judging whether or not he poses a threat to the universe due to both the knowledge he possesses and his propensity for finding and traveling through wormholes. He creates a space in the center of a wormhole to interrogate John that looks like a lone ice floe in a blue nighttime sea and which has its own artificial gravity and breathable atmosphere. Over the course of the episode, we learn that his people are actually from a different realm of existence and that the aliens that John knows as the Ancients are an off-shoot of his race whose bodies were modified so that they could survive on the corporeal plane that Crichton, his friends, his enemies, and we occupy. He also makes John aware that wormholes are even more complicated than he had thought and that the Ancients had left out some crucial information: namely that wormholes don’t only connect between two different parts of space but rather two different parts of space-time. Each wormhole has countless openings, each of which, for any given person, opens up on a staggering number of “unrealized realities” or alternate versions of their lives, some of which are nearly identical to the ones they knew but only off by a few details, others of which are wildly divergent, and the closer one comes to emerging from a wormhole, the greater the risk of ending up in one of these unrealized realities, and although it is possible to pull oneself out and thereby collapse that reality, there is always a great danger of not being able to do so, at which point that alternate version becomes actual reality, for all intents and purposes. One could unknowingly wreak great havoc on the universe. This is why this alien, who Crichton dubs Einstein, captured Moya at the end of Season 4: in an attempt to track down John Crichton and keep him from destroying reality.

Because this is where things get complicated. Unrealized realities seem to basically be the result of someone leaving a wormhole earlier in their time stream than when they left, thus setting into motion a new sequence of events and overwriting what was meant to occur. And the greatest irony is that the reason this hasn’t happened to John or anyone we know yet is that the likelihood of an unskilled wormhole traveler ending up in a different reality is actually incredibly low. Most people traveling by wormholes aren’t taking an active role in the process. They simply get sucked up and deposited. The greater danger is when someone with a lot of knowledge about them like John creates and then travels through one with a specific end goal in mind but without knowing how to navigate past unrealized realities, because that’s basically giving someone just enough rope to hang themselves with. It seems that wormholes can’t just be reduced to scientific equations. There is also a spiritual use-the-Force-Luke element to mastering them, and it takes a great deal of perception, skill, intuition, and concentration for one to find oneself where one wants to be. It seems that one basically has to feel one’s way to the correct place.

As the episode proceeds and Einstein imparts this information to John, John repeatedly falls into various unrealized realities that his new “friend” pulls him out of as soon as he can, a brilliant method of directly illustrating the episode’s main points without bogging it down in exposition. As with other great Farscape episodes with heavier sci-fi concepts, this keeps technobabble to a minimum. Crichton experiences the concept of multiple universes in a way that is highly illustrative as well as involving, bizarre, and often funny, but which also requires attention and work on the part of the audience member to connect all of the dots and follow all of the nuances. “Unrealized Reality” throws a huge amount of details at the viewer at once, and it can take patience and rewatching to get even half of a handle on it. I’ve seen the episode at least seven or eight times and still feel that I haven’t mined all of its depths yet, a mark of truly great writing. As I’ve said in the past, the genius of Farscape is that it could be madly experimental but practically always with purpose. On the surface, a newcomer might wander into this episode and feel as if they’re watching something careening insanely out of control, and yet an afficiando of this one-of-a-kind series’ history and tone can marvel at the eyclopedic level of detail here, as well as how it can juggle sci-fi exposition and character study at once while always retaining its unique voice. As far as the latter, this might seem like an episode of crazy what-if?s, but it’s also yet another peek into Crichton’s psyche, currently plagued with fears about the dangers he could cause the universe. After all, he may be one man, but look how many lives his quest for home and attempts to just survive have cost others, both friends and strangers. Whereas “John Quixote” made him question whether his love for Aeryn could be harmful, in this one he wonders whether he himself is too dangerous to be allowed to roam the stars.

The levels of danger are illustrated through a number of unrealized realities. The first is almost identical to John’s first scenes aboard Moya in “Premiere,” when he first met Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel, and is in fact comprised of newly filmed footage of Ben Browder interacting with clips from the first episode, the major difference here being that, since John has lived through this before and remembers it, he anticipates certain events before they happen and reacts as such. There are, however, a few additional subtle differences, such as in the ensuing cell scene, in which he is wearing a white t-shirt rather than being naked as he was the first time around (which he notices right away)–a very minor change, yes, but one that indicates in a butterfly effect sort of way that the minorest of alterations can have unintended and far-reaching consequences. One of these is a reality in which John is a Peacekeeper captain, Braca his underling, and Sikozou a Scarran spy, the latter of which comments on the fact that, at this point, the crew still can’t fully trust her, further underlined by her alliance with Scorpius in this episode. He at least seems to trust her at this point (not that that would put her in John and his friends’ good graces), but should he? One might wonder what events might have caused John to become a PK, but then again, Scorpy isn’t the most likely PK, either. Perhaps this version of Crichton even agreed to share his wormhole knowledge with Scorpy and/or the PKs, and eventually pushed Scorpy out of his position, given he is actually the fount of the needed knowledge. With his Sebacean looks, he’d likely be far preferable to have that position than Scorpy, from High Command’s perspective.

And then there is the reality set on an alternate Earth, in which the Scarrans have actually taken over centuries ago. Both John and his dad, Jack, seem to have Scarran DNA in this reality. Jack is even portrayed by Wayne Pygram, to further hammer home the differences, which also makes a darkly funny comment on the strange relationship between Crichton and Scorpius. Here, he isn’t just a dark paternal figure but John’s literal father. It’s even possible that this means that the man we know as Jack Crichton was never born in this reality, and Scorpius was instead–that, in this world, Scorpy is half-human, half-Scarran, and was born on Earth. And how might this reality have come to be? Why, our Crichton might have come back to Earth centuries ago rather than the modern day and led the Scarrans after him, causing invasion, conquest, and eventually, in this new version of 1969 (the year our Crichton was born), the birth of a half-Scarran John Crichton. Not that that explanation is ever given. Again, the clues are there for us to extrapolate on our own. Furthermore, this scene also foreshadows the concept of the Scarrans being interested in conquering Earth, which we will learn over the rest of the season is a very real danger, and has a specific purpose beyond generic evil.

The other major unrealized reality–in many ways, the centerpiece of the episode–is the most out-there of them all, which is the one in which all of the actors have taken on the roles of different characters. Claudia Black (Aeryn) is Chiana, Gigi Edgley (Chiana) is Noranti, Melissa Jaffer (Noranti) is Rygel, Rygel/Jonathan Hardy is D’Argo, Anthony Simcoe (D’Argo) is Jool, and Raelee Hill (Sikozou) is Stark. And although we see neither Zhaan, Aeryn, or Sikozou, we can assume that they’re mixed up as well Perhaps one looks like Tammy MacIntosh (Jool). And who knows? Another might like Paul Goddard a la Anthony Simcoe’s genderswap as Jool! Likely the two most significant elements about this reality, though, are (a) that, in it, we learn that Stark is in love with Aeryn, and Crichton with Zhaan, and (b) the fact that Stark says the word “Katratzi” in it. As for the first, I discussed this in my “John Quixote” analysis, but in many ways, that episode foreshadows the whole latter portion of this season in microcosm. In it, John had to rescue a princess in a videogame. He expected she would be Aeryn, but instead, because the game was based on Stark’s personality/memories, the princess was Zhaan. And here, John is in an alternate reality in which his “princess” is Zhaan. Now, on a first viewing, a viewer takes no notice of “Katratzi”. It is but one of several practically unintelligible alien words Stark utters. Later on, however, after Aeryn is captured by the Scarrans, John vaguely remembers it and travels back to this unrealized reality in order to discover its meaning and by so doing help save Aeryn. Therefore, John had to return to the reality in which Zhaan was his “princess,” in other words, the woman he loved, (as foreshadowed by his having to kiss Zhaan to finish the game in “John Quixote”) in order to rescue his “princess” in our reality, Aeryn. But, again, none of this is apparent on a first viewing of this episode. Or a first viewing of “John Quixote,” either.

Another thing about this reality is that it’s probably the least easy to explain from a linear standpoint. What could John possibly have done for things to have changed so much? I believe the whole point of it is to show that there’s no way to tell or to fully unravel it. Completely innocuous actions could have ripples. I think one possible clue might have to do with the fact that one of the quick flashbacks we see is of when Zhaan was captured on the Halosian ship. That happened in “Out of Their Minds,” when all of the characters accidentally swapped bodies. While that was just their minds rather than their actual physical features altering, my guess is that this is a hint that John appearing earlier in the timestream somehow led to something of a not completely dissimilar nature occurring to create this result, albeit later on, given Noranti, Stark, Jool, and embodied by this Stark, a version of Sikozou, are there. Then again, if it was this exact situation, maybe Zhaan is the only one who didn’t swap, just as she wasn’t on Moya for that to occur in “Out of Their Minds”. There could be another explanation for why Zhaan was still alive and all of these others were still on board.

These still aren’t the only differences, however. In this reality, Pilot is extremely short-tempered, incredibly snarky, and clearly hates all of them, which in some ways is an exaggeration of how he is at his most pissed-off, but part of me wonders if this might have been due to a different outcome from “DNA Mad Scientist,” in which no one apologized and Pilot never forgave them for cutting off his arm. And all of this is but a preamble to arguably the biggest surprise: that when Crais storms Moya at the end, we learn that he and Crichton are working together, a reflection of John being a PK captain in one of the other realities (though we know it isn’t a different view of this one, since Raelee Hill played Sikozou in it), and another case meant to warn John that really anything could be changed from the mere act of leaving the wormhole from the wrong exit.

All of these zanier, more chaotic permutations are then also paralleled by interviews of various people from John’s life both back on Earth–old girlfriends, old teachers–and from the Uncharted Territories–Zhaan (Virginia Hey, in her last appearance on the series), Jool, and Crais–all of which are, by comparison, practically serene, as well as another beautiful illustration of the wormhole danger. The first time we hear them all speak, they all praise John, saying wonderfully complimentary things about him, which is likely the closest to the Crichton we know and love. Some might be a bit more overflowingly positive than we might expect, but it’s generally accurate. He is, at his heart, a very smart, sweet, and good guy. The second time through, however, suddenly, everyone is disgusted by him. The ex-girlfriend calls him bad in bed. Others basically call him loutish, repellant, and dumb. This is, of course, the potential result of an unrealized reality, while at the same time comments on John’s darkest fears about himself, particularly having to do with how his years aboard Moya have changed him. In this very episode, he realizes he’s gotten darker when he shoots at Einstein rather than initially letting him talk, and then stops himself, saying that that wasn’t like him, or it didn’t used to be. And then there is the last time, when no one knows who Crichton is at all. None remember him. Perhaps in this unrealized reality, he’s flat-out ceased to exist, which by the end, even he thinks might be the safest choice, for Einstein to finish him, so he can’t emerge in the wrong space-time.

Ironically, however, by the end, while he may have started to doubt himself, Einstein has gained faith in him and believes him capable of navigating correctly out of the wormhole. He explains to John how to find his way home by keeping where he wants to be–again, home; in other words, Moya, his Moya in his time and reality–in the forefront of his mind and feeling his way out. However, this leads to the absolutely briliant ending twist that, when John finally makes his way out of the wormhole, he isn’t at his current home, Moya, after all. He’s at his original home. Earth. And given how carefully the episode laid all of the rules out for us, we know that this isn’t another hallucination. Unlike previous times, this is real. Furthermore, as awe-inspiring as this moment is–and honestly, who ever thought the series would bring John home before the final episode??–it could also be very bad. For starters, he is alone, floating in space, with no ship, and therefore no way to get down to Earth. Although we know this won’t be the case even on a first viewing, there is a real danger at least from Crichton’s perspective that he could die the most tragically ironic death ever, right beside the home planet he has searched for for so long. And then there’s also what the entire episode has been about: unrealized realities. Einstein had even told him that people have the chance to cause the most damage when going back to their places of origin, since they could undo their very lives from the ground up. In one potential unrealized reality, the Scarrans took over Earth. John had already messed up by not navigating to Moya but to Earth. When this cliffhanger first occured (and the show didn’t return for about half a year afterwards!), we had no clue when John had arrived. And as it would come to turn out, he is too early, leading to the wonderfully-Back-to-the-Future-ish plot of the next episode, “Kansas”.

Other odds and ends:

–The image of John floating alone in space has recurred throughout the series and seems the ultimate image of his being lost in a huge and sometimes hostile foreign environment, far from home or anyone else of his species. Most often when a similar scenario occurred, however, he was in his module–the vehicle that brought him to the Uncharted Territories in the first place–such as in “Jeremiah Crichton” and “Dog with Two Bones”. There were other times, however, that he was out there by himself, so to speak. The end of “Family Ties” (in a way; D’Argo was there, too, but as soon as he lost consciousness, John was effectively there by himself), “Look at the Princess,” “Green-Eyed Monster,” and “Revenging Angel” spring to mind. And the very start of this episode, which beautifully bookends its final shot.

–Ironically, however, this time, he wouldn’t have to have been alone. In the opening scene, Aeryn is continuing to learn English. What’s so wonderful about it is how it shows how committed she is to winning John back, despite how he rejected her. She doesn’t even seem to have told him she’s decided to start practicing again. She’s doing this in preparation, in order to impress him later once she’s improved, which is lovely.

–Speaking of which, everyone has a ball playing one another in the character-swapped reality, but Claudia Black is unsurprisingly the best. She absolutely nails Gigi Edgley’s vocal inflections and movements as Chiana.

–This was actually the last Farscape episode to air before the SciFi Channel unceremoniously canceled it without warning, after having promised the series a fifth season, and when it was too late for the writers to have fashioned an ending (they were filming the season finale when the cancelation came through). I vividly recall reading the announcement on-line either the very night or the next day after this ingenious episode aired and feeling absolutely crushed. And then having to wait half a year for the final batch of episodes. Luckily, although it seems SciFi (now Syfy) chose to do it to in such a low-key way to help mitigate any public outcry, the fact that the show was on hiatus didn’t stop the Save Farscape movement from forming seemingly overnight and raising an outcry that eventually resulted in “The Peacekeeper Wars” miniseries that told in about three hours the plot that had originally been intended for the entire fifth season.

Next:  “Kansas”

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Author: Robert Berg

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1 Comment

  1. One of my least favorite episodes, followed by one of my most favorite. “Coup by Clam” is one that I don’t really care if I see again, where, like you, I could watch “Unrealized Realities” over and over.

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