“A Human Reaction” (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 8/20/1999)
“What? It’s just a tiny blue planet. What are you getting so worked up about? It’s got no particle rings, no red moons.” “Totally unimpressive.”
Earth has lurked in the background since the very beginning of Farscape. As John Crichton explains in his opening credits monologue, “I’m just looking for a way home.” Returning to Earth has been his one overarching goal, even if it hasn’t been much of a motivating factor outside of “Till The Blood Runs Clear.” Still, it’s a tricky goal for the show’s protagonist to have, because he seemingly can’t return to Earth without invalidating Farscape’s entire premise. The show is all about Crichton exploring this bizarre new universe, but if given the choice, he would instantly abandon his new life and his new friends to return to Earth. That narrative tension can usually be ignored, as long as Crichton is distracted by whatever alien threat is trying to kill him this week, but if were to just forget about returning to Earth, it would severely undercut the show’s careful development of his character, particularly the notion that he’s an everyman lost in space. That desire to return home, to return to a normal life, is a key part of who Crichton is—not to mention his dream of bringing Aeryn back to Earth with him—but it’s an uneasy fit with what Farscape is all about. As such, “A Human Reaction” has a very simple goal. It has to destroy Earth.
Much like this episode opens with a particularly fraught moment onboard Moya, as Zhaan accuses Chiana of stealing something or other. However, this time around, Crichton doesn’t have a meltdown, and he instead appears resigned to his fate. That moment of grim acceptance adds to the power of the next moment, as a wormhole opens up in front of Moya… and Earth is visible on the other side. Against all odds, the fugitive stranded furthest from home is the first to see his world again. Now, from the very beginning, the audience is probably suspicious of this Earth; its appearance is too convenient and, more to the point, too early in the show’s run for this to really be Earth. And while that’s proven absolutely correct, “A Human Reaction” commits entirely to its deception, only tipping its hand toward the very end of the episode.
In particular, Farscape doesn’t just blow right past the emotional, heartfelt goodbyes. We may suspect that this is all pointless, that Crichton will be right back where he started by next week, but the characters don’t know that, and it’s a sign of the show’s respect for them that every main character—save Chiana, who still hasn’t really been integrated into the ensemble—gets his or her own individual farewell moment. Crichton and D’Argo part as friends and equals, signaling a shift in their relationship that has been in the works since their alliance in “Till The Blood Runs Clear.” In what turns out to be her final scene of the episode, Virginia Hey dials up both the emotion and the alien in Zhaan’s goodbye, particularly her tearful, slightly off-kilter pronunciation of “John Crichton,” and it’s a beautiful moment when she reminds him that a piece of her is inside her, and he must take care of it.
That’s a callback to “Rhapsody In Blue,” one that recaptures the entire emotional impact of that episode in a couple dozen words, but it’s also a line worth remembering as we go forward with Zhaan and Crichton’s relationship. Indeed, that’s generally what makes this scene so effective, even if its apparent purpose of bidding farewell to Crichton is soon rendered moot. Farscape recognizes that relationships are often at their clearest in goodbyes, and so Crichton’s ostensible departure affords the show a chance to crystallize what each character means to him and vice versa. It’s taken half a season, but between this and last week’s “Durka Returns,” Farscape has finally snapped firmly into focus.
In the commentary for this episode, Ben Browder says director Rowan Woods had two main stylistic influences for this episode: The X-Files and independent film. We’ll talk about that second influence later, but The X-Files looms large over Crichton’s capture in Australia. The loud, bright camera flashes work as brilliant punctuation for Crichton’s interrogation, as the sinister government operative Wilson refuses to say anything to Crichton other than repeatedly asking him whether he has been here before. The sudden cut to a man speaking a foreign language, with Crichton sitting there in bored comprehension, is a great way to remind us of what the translator microbes mean now that Crichton is back on Earth, as all its thousands of languages are instantly understandable. Everything about the scene makes Earth feel like the most alien planet Farscape has ever visited, and a lot of that is down to how Woods directs the Earth sequences in a totally different way from any other planet we have yet seen. Farscape has already shown a wide aesthetic range, but the way “A Human Reaction” presents both Crichton’s short-lived elation on the beach and his subsequent incarceration violate the show’s supposed visual rules. This suddenly feels like a completely different show. Crichton—and the audience—feels more lost than ever.
But then Kent McCord shows up, and the episode pivots again. Picking up where he left off in “Premiere,” McCord imbues Jack Crichton with a rock-solid, all-American decency that instantly makes Earth feel like home again. While Wilson and Cobb are sinister villains with unfathomable motivations, Jack is just a man hoping to be reunited with his son… except when he isn’t, but we’ll get to all that later. If “A Human Reaction” ever manages to fool the audience that this really is Earth, it’s when Jack and John tensely share their memories of the latter’s tenth birthday, with the son correcting his father that their fishing trip ended with him catching not a bass, but a trout. As Browder admits on the commentary, the “trout” line really shouldn’t work as a big emotional moment, but it does because McCord, for all his character’s old school toughness, conveys such palpable relief and joy when John proves he isn’t an impostor. Browder and McCord both play the relationship as one that has taken years to reach a healthy place—it’s implied both here and in “Premiere” that Jack has cast a long shadow over John’s life, and they have only really come to understand each other as adults—and Jack repeatedly proves himself to be his son’s stalwart ally, no matter how dangerous the situation becomes. This must be Earth, because Jack would never betray his son like that—and that’s part of what gives the episode’s final sequence such emotional impact.
The arrival of Aeryn, D’Argo, and Rygel signals another gearshift for “A Human Reaction,” most obviously when Rygel suddenly dies. That’s probably the point where just about everyone watching the episode decides that this can’t possibly be Earth, and a big reset is coming. After all, even if you don’t technically consider Rygel a main character—mostly because he’s, well, a puppet—there’s still no way that Farscape would kill him off this early in the show’s run, and even if it did, it wouldn’t be so unceremoniously. If absolutely nothing else, it wouldn’t happen so early in the episode and then seemingly be forgotten. But that last point proves important, as Rygel’s death happens early enough that “A Human Reaction” has time for not only the characters to forget about it, but also the audience to do so as well. By the time Aeryn and John have escaped, shared beers in the safe house, and had sex, Rygel’s death seems like just another plot point, rather than something that basically invalidates everything that follows. This episode is rather like a magic trick, in that the audience knows all along that it’s being deceived, but it succeeds because it makes us want to be deceived.
D’Argo and Aeryn also serve a crucial purpose during their incarceration, as they force Crichton to realize that he can either ally himself with Earth or with his friends from Moya, but not both. The episode suggests that fact from the moment we hear the aliens speak with Earthlings’ ears, as we temporarily lose the boon of the translator microbes, but it runs deeper than that. For all the indignities D’Argo has suffered, this is actually the first time we’ve seen him properly imprisoned since the series began (not counting the times he was briefly tied up in “I, E.T.” and “Till The Blood Runs Clear”). Anthony Simcoe’s grimly determined delivery makes it clear just how devastating his imprisonment is for him, especially when the only reason he came to Earth was out of innocent, genuine concern for Crichton; he swore he would never be a prisoner again, and he implies he is even willing to kill himself rather than spend the rest of his life in human custody.
Much like in “Till The Blood Runs Clear,” Crichton desperately tries to have it both ways, promising his friends that the humans mean them no harm, but he is once again proven hideously wrong. Aeryn quietly observes that the humans’ brutality to Rygel surpasses even that of the Peacekeepers. The Moya passengers have encountered some violent, corrupt alien races, but none have been this savage, this barbaric. The Peacekeepers and the Nebari might trample on the rights of others, but they at least acknowledge other species have a right to exist. Wilson and his cronies don’t even go that far.
Earlier, I mentioned this episode’s stylistic debt to independent film, and that becomes most apparent during Crichton and Aeryn’s escape, when they spend a stormy evening in a Sydney house. After all the plot twists and sudden reveals, “A Human Reaction” slows its pace down to a crawl, as Aeryn and Crichton suddenly have nothing better to do than stand around, drink a beer, and watch the rain. On paper, that probably sounds unbearably tedious, but on the screen, it’s absolutely brilliant. The more naturalistic lighting and the actors’ unhurried deliveries make this scene feel more immediately Earth-like than any previous scene, because Crichton is comfortable here in a way that we have never quite seen him before in the series. Yes, he is on the run from Wilson and his faith in his own species is shattered, but he knows what beer is supposed to taste like and what a Sydney rainstorm is supposed to look like. His world may be collapsing around him, but it’s still his world, and the episode allows us time to process all that that must mean for John. Television, particularly genre television, so rarely offers the audience a chance to catch their breath like this, and this respite makes “A Human Reaction” feel like a much larger, more movie-like story than if it had packed another dozen plot twists into that same amount of time. The fact that Aeryn and John finally have sex becomes little more than an afterthought—as Aeryn herself says, “It’s fine, John, it’s just not top priority right now,” and who am I to argue with Officer Sun?
If there’s any significant weakness to “A Human Reaction,” it’s the final reveal. Just to be clear, Crichton’s sudden realization that he already knows every place he has visited and every person he has met—that he’s not encountered a single piece of new information during his time on Earth, down to the months-old newspaper headlines—is a great reveal, one that builds off the earlier scene in which he unexpectedly recognizes one of Wilson’s tech assistants. Crichton grabbing a gun, screaming about people being in the wrong context, and opening a women’s bathroom door to discover an orange void are all great freak-out moments in the grand Twilight Zone tradition, but the problem is that the episode has to explain why this illusion was created. Kent McCord is an asset here, overlaying Jack Crichton’s intrinsic decency with a more ancient, alien benevolence, as he explains why his people regrettably had to force Crichton through this ordeal. Still, the episode hinges on the idea that the aliens have enough power to create a fake vision of Earth, including a mostly complete recreation of Sydney, but not enough power to travel through the galaxy. It’s not as though that’s wrong, because everything about this scenario is made up, so it’s impossible to say one way or the other, but that’s sort of the problem; none of what the alien Jack says can be grasped on any intuitive level, and it doesn’t help that Jack’s true form is one of the Creature Shop’s less convincing efforts. There are a few too many logical questions left open—as Claudia Black points out on the commentary, it really isn’t clear what happened to Aeryn after John ran off—but these mostly reduce to nitpicks.
“A Human Reaction” can’t quite explain itself intellectually, but it works so well emotionally that it really doesn’t matter. The point of this episode lies not in exploring this mysterious alien race or their motivations—although I’d advise not forgetting about them entirely—but in forcing Crichton to confront the harsh reality about what Earth really is. His idealized vision has been forever shattered, and he must confront the possibility that he is becoming every bit as much an alien to his own people as any of his shipmates would be. He has nowhere to go but forward into the unknown, and all he can do is try to represent the best of humanity as he does throughout this episode. After all, Earth may be lost to Crichton, but it is worth remembering—as Aeryn poignantly observes during the rainstorm, Earth is beautiful, with or without the sunshine.
- Sebacean is just English spoken backwards, and Claudia Black apparently did really speak backwards for the episode. This seems like the appropriate place to link to this linguistic analysis of the Sebacean language.
- Briefly returning to the episode’s logical problems, I think it’s best not to interpret the whole thing super literally, as surely the aliens couldn’t have recreated everything we see in the episode purely from his memory; one would imagine that there are at least a few gaps in his knowledge of Sydney geography that the aliens had to fill in. I kind of suspect the aliens could have generated a women’s bathroom if they had wanted to, but they no longer needed to fool Crichton, so they left it blank after he realized the truth.
- To answer John’s question to Cobb—and assuming Crichton left in March 1999, which is when Farscape premiered—the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in the subsequent Super Bowl. My goodness, Crichton missed an all-time classic there.
- Following on from the opening “Premiere” review, this is the second of what we might call spotlight reviews, in which I devote the entire article to a single, crucial episode. I’m going to try to do at least a couple of these for each season, especially since this helps ensure things line up so that the two- and three-part episodes are covered all at once. In terms of the upcoming schedule, the next episodes to get the spotlight treatment could potentially be a trio of episodes early in season two: the premiere “Mind The Baby,” “Crackers Don’t Matter,” and “The Way We Weren’t.”
Next week: Our heroes go “Through The Looking Glass” and Crichton plays Peacekeeper in “A Bug’s Life.”