“Crackers Don’t Matter” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 4/7/2000)
(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)
“Kill her. Then we'll have pizza. And margarita shooters. Go on, John, kill her. Do it, do it!” “Nobody… has margaritas with pizza!”
In science fiction, there’s a nearly unavoidable assumption that humans are special, and, on some level, that assumption is correct. After all, of all the countless intelligent races that have shown up in sci-fi stories over the centuries, Homo sapiens is the only one that is, well, real. The luxury of existing outside the confines of fiction gives humanity some key advantage over any alien counterparts, and the first benefit is found in the construction of that last phrase—humans stand apart from aliens, and there’s a natural tendency to group all extraterrestrial races together as one giant, exotic other. As such, it’s difficult to delineate individual aliens as well-rounded, nuanced characters, and it’s even more difficult to portray alien races as something other than monolithic populations that embody just one of the many traits human possess, whether that’s militarism, spirituality, or simple greed. We intuitively know the baseline and the extremes of the human experience, so an exceptional human can show up in a science fiction story without any trouble. But each alien must shoulder the burden of being an emissary to the audience for his, her, or its entire race. And, if nothing else, everyone who has ever read, watched, or created science fiction has been human, give or take the occasional unusually attentive cat. It’s understandable that humans enjoy a special status in stories that place them among other intelligent species.
All this only becomes problematic when that natural bias towards human characters transmutes into a belief that humans are somehow innately better than other races. There’s a long history of this in science fiction; Isaac Asimov famously constructed a universe without aliens for his Foundation stories because he wasn’t comfortable with his editor John Campbell’s edict that humans—and, implicitly, that meant white, male, Anglo-Saxon humans—always be shown to be superior to alien characters. But even when stories don’t purposefully intend to make humanity appear superior, this is a common byproduct of the fact that humans are, for all the reasons previously outlined, typically the protagonists. On Farscape, John Crichton has saved his shipmates on countless occasions, and it’s usually he who solves the big mystery or resolves the underlying conflict. That makes perfect sense in narrative terms, because he’s the show’s main character and because he has his fair share of positive, heroic qualities. But there’s a tendency to see Crichton’s individual courage and insight as emblematic of his entire species, and that’s an impulse that “Crackers Don’t Matter” tackles head-on. Crichton himself finally succumbs to the tempting belief that humans are superior, and the episode kind of proves him right—except his victory is entirely rooted in the fact that humans are too stupid and underdeveloped to be properly affected by T’raltixx’s manipulations.
“Crackers Don’t Matter” is often held up as the gold standard of what are known as Farscape’s mindfrell episodes; so much so that, in subsequent episodes, characters will actually name-check these events as a comparison point for the newest insanity they encounter. Ian Watson deserves a ton of credit for his fearlessly, brilliantly off-kilter direction, as he matches a constantly moving camera with purposefully bizarre, theoretically “incorrect” music, acting, and editing choices; even if the story were half as daring as it is, Watson’s approach would still have made this one of the darkest, most subversive stories Farscape ever did. And there are plenty of plot questions that go unanswered, which keeps the audience further off-balance; T’raltixx does ultimately explain his true motivations, but the audience is clearly missing a huge chunk of context necessary to understand what he’s ranting about. The episode doesn’t obscure the really vital information—that T’raltixx is a conman and that he’s trying to keep the crewmembers out of the way so that he can create light—but it’s still anybody’s guess what he was ultimately trying to accomplish in any specific sense.
This episode pushes the shipmates to their absolute breaking point in the first 20 minutes, and then it pushes them several metras further in the second half of the episode. T’raltixx’s influence removes all their virtues and amplifies their vices, which means that all these unspeakably vile actions are things the characters really are theoretically capable of. There’s a reason Crichton recites the first couple of lines of “Humpty-Dumpty” at the end of the episode. “Crackers Don’t Matter” shatters the characters’ collective illusions about their statuses as civilized beings. Worse, it undoes all the hard work that went into building trusting, even loving relationships. The mindfrell of this episode isn’t so much what happens to the characters, but rather what they themselves do when their impulse control is removed. It’s about characters, not plot, and that’s far more disturbing. Plenty of sci-fi shows might try something like this, but very few would push their characters into such dark places, and most would then gloss over the all-important question of how the shipmates can possibly take it all back.
I mentioned the concept of baselines earlier, and that idea is crucial to this episode’s success. While the story is entertaining enough on its own lunatic merits that it could still be entertaining to first-time viewers, the episode works far better when the audience fully understands just how far out of character the shipmates go. And it’s not as though the episode wastes any time in establishing who these people are normally; Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel get a handful of lines that reestablish their default personalities, but Chiana starts the episode unusually agitated, Aeryn is in a slightly playful mood, and Pilot may already be feeling the effects of T’raltixx when we first see him, as evinced by his unusually blunt pronouncement that he’s only vaguely concerned about Crichton’s well-being. “Crackers Don’t Matter” trusts the cast to convey the escalation from irritability to paranoia to full-blown psychosis, and all involved are more than up to the challenge.
As Pilot and D’Argo observe at the end of the episode, T’raltixx brings out the worst in everybody, and so as crazily as everyone behaves, they still do so in ways that are recognizably them, and it’s possible to connect the characters’ behaviors here with aspects of their personalities on display in more normal circumstances. Some of these links are fairly straightforward; Chiana is naturally suspicious and selfish, so T’raltixx’s influence simply erases her character growth since she joined the Moya crew and essentially resets her to who she was in “Durka Returns.” Rygel has even fewer positive qualities to strip away—there’s a missed opportunity for a dark joke, which would have been to point out that there’s no real difference between normal and affected Rygel—but the Hynerian probably wouldn’t have so gleefully disregarded instructions and risked Crichton’s life if he were in his right mind. Still, these are only slightly more extreme versions of the characters’ natural selves.
D’Argo is a rather more intriguing case, because the obvious way to depict him at his worst would be to revert him to the ultraviolent, rage-driven beast we have glimpsed on occasion. There are certainly aspects of that in his transformation, most notably when he punishes Rygel for stealing the crackers and stars furiously forcing them down his throat. But D’Argo isn’t mindlessly violent, as he and Chiana temporarily ally themselves and become obsessed with ferreting out just how the others plan to betray them. Indeed, his behavior seems to match Chiana’s, and it’s possible that his actions are partially motivated by some combination of lust and a twisted desire to protect the Nebari. As recently as “Vitas Mortis,” D’Argo demonstrated how his judgment can be temporarily impaired by, for lack of a better term, horniness, but he did the right thing in the end, at great personal cost. Here, his ethical safeguards are removed, and that lack of moral structure doesn’t simply unleash his violent side; it leads him down the sorts of insane, paranoia-fueled chains of thought that end with knocking Zhaan out because she’s working with Crichton.
Aeryn, on the other hand, approaches everything like it’s a sick joke. There’s a certain grim practicality in teaming up with Rygel, but even her reasoning—for all his innate treachery, he’s the only one too cowardly to betray her—is indicative of a certain twisted sense of humor. She’s not exactly amused by what’s unfolding around her, but she does find it all ridiculous, especially anything Crichton says to her. Going back to the whole question of human superiority, Aeryn consistently treats Crichton more like a strategically shaved ape than a fellow intelligent being, and she angrily dismisses his latest efforts to save the day with some big speech. Much like D’Argo, the worst of Aeryn isn’t necessarily rooted in her violent temperament or her militaristic outlook. In her case, her greatest vices go back more to her Peacekeeper-bred arrogance, as she sees nobody else aboard Moya worth taking seriously.
No character has further to fall than Pilot. The mechanics of Farscape’s universe—not to mention the necessities of its narrative—demand that Pilot be the obsequious servant, slavishly devoted to Moya and, by extension, those who travel within her. That’s not a terribly appealing way to describe a main character’s function, and the show has not shied away from exploring its darker implications, most obviously in “DNA Mad Scientist.” What theoretically mitigates this is that Pilot, for all the indignities he suffers, does actually want to be here, and that it is in his nature to accept orders with minimal fuss. But T’raltixx forces Pilot to give into all his latent selfish, haughty impulses. Worse, T’raltixx unlocks this side of Pilot as he simultaneously unleashes everyone else’s monstrous side. Pilot might just have managed to see through T’raltixx’s manipulations if he alone were affected, but after being rudely mistreated by Crichton, Pilot has absolutely no reason to see the people he serves as friends.
This isn’t the first time Pilot has played a key part in an episode, but this is the first time he’s really had his own narrative arc with a range of emotions to play. Notably, his usual role as Moya’s interpreter is downplayed here; even in the beginning, he talks more about his own concerns for Moya rather than what the ship thinks about T’raltixx’s device. Under normal circumstances, Pilot’s symbiotic relationship with Moya likely compensates for his own compromised position, but T’raltixx appears to isolate Pilot from the Leviathan. That means Pilot is able to think more as an individual, and the frankly understandable result is barely suppressed contempt for everyone else on board.
But that still leaves Crichton. It’s left ambiguous just how much T’raltixx really gets to him, because Crichton kicks off the episode in an agitated, unhinged state, and so there’s theoretically a limit to how much worse he can get. Indeed, it’s hard to tell where his preexisting mental problems end and T’raltixx’s outside influence begins. He shows the same pathological distrust of strangers that was on display with M’Lee and Br’Nee in “Bone To Be Wild” and with Nilaam in “Vitas Mortis,” but at least in those instances he mostly interacted with them on their home turf, so he didn’t feel quite so personally under threat. Here, he is forced to allow T’raltixx onto Moya, his one last sanctuary in the entire cosmos, and then he also has to let this stranger mess around with his beloved, irreplaceable module. To add insult to injury, he’s forced to give this interloper the guided tour of Moya, despite the fact that it was Zhaan’s bright idea to bring the stranger onboard. Even if T’raltixx had been completely on the level, this still probably wouldn’t have been one of Crichton’s good days.
Without a clear sense of Crichton’s baseline sanity, it’s nearly impossible to judge whether he should be considered responsible for some or any of his actions in this episode. There’s a weird safety to watching Aeryn or D’Argo try to kill their crewmates, because we have seen them fall under murderous influences before and can feel fairly confident that they will eventually shake it off and apologize. But Crichton’s sanity level varies so wildly from scene to scene, as he swings from ranting lunatic to irascible but essentially lucid peacemaker, that it’s tempting to think he might sometimes be playing up his insanity to match that of his crewmates, as when he announces himself with the traditional, Shining-approved shout, “Here’s Johnny!” Crichton is clearly fighting to stay sane in a way the others don’t appear to be, but what precisely is he fighting? Is it T’raltixx’s influence, or the darkness in his own mind, or perhaps something else entirely?
It only gets more difficult to parse the nature of Crichton’s insanity when Scorpius emerges. Wayne Pygram is a delight as this diabolical incarnation of the character, as he tempts John into murder and rape while sporting leftover wardrobe from the Hawaii Five-0 set. Scorpius externalizes Crichton’s worst impulses, which provides some absolutely vital distance between who we believe Crichton “really” is and who he is based on his actions in this episode. His threatened rape of Chiana is the episode’s most abhorrent moment, and it was only added after the completion of principal photography when Ian Watson felt the episode wasn’t quite dark enough yet. It’s a supremely unnerving sequence, because it plays as a horrifically twisted extension of Crichton and Chiana’s typical, physically intimate interactions. It’s Scorpius who says all of the really unforgiveable things, but it’s John who refers to Chiana as “what a slut,” and it’s John who replies “I like that idea” after Scorpius suggests saving her for “dessert.”
In that moment, Crichton loses all grip on who he is, and it’s only after he finally shoots Scorpius—although not before getting in the immortal one-liner quoted up top—that he begins to repair himself, at least to the extent that he can tie everyone else up and force them to listen to what passes for reason. Again, it’s left up to the viewer to decide what is really going on with Crichton. When he vanquishes Scorpius, is he pushing back against an external force before it entirely overwhelms him, or is he pushing his own worst impulses back into the recesses of his mind? The former is the more comforting interpretation, but that’s no guarantee at all that it’s the correct one. “Crackers Don’t Matter” can turn its protagonist into a homicidal, would-be rapist, and then just a few scenes later into a puke-covered, ludicrously attired, only moderately unhinged avenger. Is the real John Crichton one, both, or neither of these people? Like all the other questions raised in this episode, there are no easy answers, and that disquieting fact is what makes this episode so enduringly brilliant. Well, that and the more simple fact that “Crackers Don’t Matter” is just all kinds of twisted fun, even if you do feel a little grimy afterwards.
- Before I finish up, I do just want to recognize again how great the acting is in this episode; there was just so much to analyze here that there wasn’t a lot of room left over for praise. In particular, Ben Browder’s big monologue about how, yes, crackers don’t matter is an absolute tour de force, maybe his best acting in the role to date, as he has to repeatedly shift from completely out of his frelling mind (“Ronaldo!”) to vaguely in control, not to mention from detestable to at least sort of likable, and the result is mesmerizing. That entire group scene is just about perfect, and if I were to argue that “Crackers Don’t Matter” is Farscape’s best episode, I would probably look to all those blasted crackers for my clinching argument.
- If you get a chance, listen to Claudia Black and Ian Watson’s commentary for this episode. They don’t actually talk much at all about the episode itself, but they instead get into a fascinating, earnest discussion about their approaches to acting, directing, and the creative process in general.
- This really should be the absolute longest review I ever do, but I think this episode was worth it. I have nothing more to add myself, but the one thing I haven’t mentioned is how insanely quotable this episode is. So, without further ado…
- “Gilligan and Mary Ann. Maybe you’re Ginger. I’d have to, uh, see you in a Wonderbra to know. Where are you guys takin’ the Minnow?”
- “I never run away! I strategically maneuver!”
- “I’m only judging on my experience with you, but I’ve never seen such a deficient species.” “Have you run a scan on the pulsar light yet?” “How do humans make it through a cycle… even half a cycle… without killing each other?” “We find it difficult. Have you run the scan?” “You have no special abilities. You’re not particularly smart, can hardly smell, can barely see, and you're not even vaguely physically or spiritually imposing. Is there anything you do well?” “Watch football.”
- “Yes, revenge is a dish best served cold, and you like revenge, don’t you?” “Shut up! I hate it when villains quote Shakespeare.”
- “I have great eyes! They’re better than 20/20 and they're blue!”
Next week: Best friends discover a disturbing secret in “The Way We Weren’t” and Zhaan finally steps back into the spotlight for “Picture If You Will.”