Farscape: “Home On The Remains”/“Dream A Little Dream”

Farscape: “Home On The Remains”/“Dream A Little Dream”

“Home On The Remains” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 6/16/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“Chiana, you’re a thief and a tralk, but you’re not a killer.” “I’m evolving as an individual.”

If nothing else, “Taking The Stone” and this week’s “Home On The Remains” have given me renewed appreciation for Gigi Edgley’s skills as an actress. Both of this season’s Chiana episodes have featured trips to alien locales inhabited by people whose personalities, speech patterns (and, in this case, their rather bizarre pseudo-American accents), and off-kilter body language all resemble that of the Nebari. In the earlier episode, the guest characters reflected her grief-driven hedonism, while here the Budong miners match Chiana’s opportunism and greed. As such, the guest cast has to find an acting style that can exist along the same continuum as Edgley’s, and while all involved give it their all, the results are decidedly mixed. All of the unearthly choices that Edgley makes look so natural come across as varying degrees of stilted when attempted by this episode’s guest performers. It’s possible to understand what John Brumpton is trying to accomplish as B’Sogg or what Justine Saunders is attempting to do as Altana—hell, it’s even possible to see what Rob Carlton is going for as Vija, if you’re feeling a little generous—but it’s much more difficult to connect with their performances.

That also creates problems with the episode’s atmosphere and tone. While Chiana can be a lot of fun in the context of her more straitlaced Moya compatriots, it isn’t particularly pleasant to explore a world entirely populated by people who share her moral compass and alien perspective. The story becomes an off-putting slog, and the episode strains mightily to maintain some semblance of the suspension of disbelief. The mannered performances pull the audience out of the episode’s reality, but this world doesn’t seem especially solid to begin with. A Budong carcass is a fantastic idea for a setting, but in practice the episode only occasionally manages to convince that the mining camp is inside the remains of a living creature; mostly, the Budong’s insides just look like a bunch of corridor sets. Admittedly, that’s what just about everything is on Farscape, and certainly that description could be applied to Moya—except I’d never say Moya looks like a set, because the show has convinced me that it looks like a starship. Farscape is generally so good at disguising its budgetary limitations that it becomes considerably more difficult, fairly or unfairly, to overlook the occasions when an episode does end up looking a little cheap.

This also becomes something of a vicious circle, as there are elements I probably wouldn’t notice if the episode’s production design were more convincing or if the performances were more compelling. But because it isn’t and they aren’t, it becomes harder to ignore that the layout of the mines is almost impossible to grasp. Now, that is sort of the point; B’Sogg makes it clear that the mines are a maze and nobody knows them like he does. But because director Rowan Woods only has the one large set to use as the mining camp’s base of operations and then a handful of interchangeable corridors for every other scene, it’s a real struggle for him to convey scale or geography. When D’Argo and Altana go off in search of the latter’s bonanza, they could have traveled 50 feet or five miles. Also, I’m really not sure about the logic behind the Keedva. The creature certainly appears to be a mammal, and the dialogue suggests it feeds off dead Budongs. It’s seems deeply unlikely that such a species would evolve inside a Budong, so how did it get there? One plausible explanation is B’Sogg secretly brought the Keedva to the Budong years ago, but even that has its share of logical problems, and there’s no real evidence to support that hypothesis in the episode itself.

Some of those critiques might sound like outrageous nitpicks, and, honestly, they sort of are. In a better episode, I wouldn’t give the Keedva’s origins a second thought, but there aren’t nearly enough strengths here to distract from the flaws. Science fiction stories, particularly those made on the budget of episodic television, require an ongoing negotiation with the audience, as viewers are asked to accept occasionally unconvincing execution because the underlying ideas are so fascinating and so completely impossible to explore in any other genre. The Budong sequences don’t really have that sort of conceptual hook. The fact that our heroes are nearing the point of starvation is a great idea worth exploring, but only the Aeryn and Zhaan story really does anything with it. The main, Budong-set plot handles this idea much as “Jeremiah Crichton” handled John bugging out; it’s a way to kick off the story at the mining camp, but it doesn’t really shape the characters’ actions much beyond that. The hunger has clearly made Crichton grumpy, but he’s still reasonably sane by his recent standards, and so he mostly just complains his way through his latest round of potentially fatal irritations. Rygel is so hungry that he can’t cheat properly against Vija, but neither Chiana nor D’Argo really shows any particular sign that the hunger is getting to them.

The episode isn’t required to tell any particular story, but if this is going to be the big exploration of what happens when Moya runs out of food, then the trip to the mining camp ultimately feels like a distraction. There’s the foundation of a far more interesting episode in Crichton’s line about the “Donner Party of the Uncharted Territories,” especially since that’s basically the ultimate twisted inversion of the famous description of Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” The only real vestige of that is in Zhaan’s reaction to starvation, as her natural biological defenses kick in on the faulty assumption that she is surrounded by hungry animals that must be eliminated. Virginia Hey and Claudia Black—plus the voice of Lani Tupu—make the absolute most of the Moya-set sequences. While starvation makes everyone else marginally tetchier, it brings out the mindless carnivore in Zhaan, suggesting the vast gulf between her carefully maintained, mystical sophistication and her basest, most ancient impulses. But it isn’t just that she wants to feed indiscriminately; her sudden savagery unlocks all her resentments and hatreds, particularly those she holds against Aeryn. This subplot is tense, atmospheric, and rooted in a fine understanding of the characters, even those acting far from normally; it’s not enough to save the rest of “Home On The Remains,” but it’s the big reason this episode isn’t a total loss.

The other major character development is the further progression of D’Argo and Chiana’s relationship. Anthony Simcoe effectively brings out the Luxan’s wistful longing and his determination to avoid being hurt by a woman who he’s not sure if he can trust. A clever exchange sees Chiana dismiss D’Argo’s efforts to be her brother, directly recalling her similar rebuke to Crichton in “Taking The Stone,” except this time D’Argo pointedly says he doesn’t want to be her brother. After previously being led astray by lust, D’Argo is clearly trying to deal with his feelings as maturely as possible; that’s laudable for the character, but it doesn’t necessarily make for particularly riveting drama. The final kiss back onboard Moya is a nice moment, but it’s all a little too staid for Farscape. D’Argo and Chiana have potential as a couple, but the buildup to such a pairing hasn’t really produced memorable storytelling in the same way Aeryn and John’s relationship has up to this point. Like so much of this episode’s Budong-set sequences, it’s a good idea that proves underwhelming in the execution.

Stray observations:

  • Ben Browder takes an amusing approach to Crichton’s role in this episode by dialing up the character’s frustration, which reaches its apex when Crichton faces off against the Keedva. In a rather nifty dual reference, Crichton declares “no more Captain Kirk chit-chat” before very, very gradually reenacting Luke Skywalker’s defeat of the Rancor in Return Of The Jedi, as he makes three attempts to impale the beast on a closing door before he finally gets the positioning just right.
  • The more I think about it, the more the Budong- and Moya-set sequences feel like completely different episodes. Director Rowan Woods does a masterful job dialing up the suspense as Zhaan disappears off of Moya’s spore-infested sensors, and yet he really strains to pull off the action sequences involving the Keedva, and he uses a lot of quick cuts to compensate for what just aren’t terribly impressive sequences. It’s not as though he suddenly forgot how to direct between scenes, so it’s a good reminder of how challenging it is to consistently turn out great work on television’s budgets and schedules, especially when the director has to deal with new sets and costumes every week.

“Dream A Little Dream” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 6/23/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“We haven’t lied yet. Of course, the trial’s only been on for a few microts.”

“Dream A Little Dream” is a failure, but the reasons for its failure go right back to the very beginnings of Farscape. It’s easy to dismiss this episode as an afterthought, a misfiring attempt to tie up a loose end that had long since been forgotten. It’s an episode whose framing device—where Zhaan reveals to Crichton the reasons behind her earlier trauma and detachment—only barely matches up with the episode’s actual story, in which Rygel and Chiana navigate a deeply silly legal farce while Zhaan goes to pieces in the background. And yet “Dream A Little Dream” is arguably the most important episode in the show’s history. The original version of this story was actually one of the first four scripts Rockne S. O’Bannon and his initial team worked on when Farscape was in early development, and it was this particular script that convinced Sci-Fi Channel executive Rod Perth to buy the show. Without that script, what O’Bannon described as “a very funny, loopy episode about a planet completely made up of lawyers,” Perth might not have been convinced of Farscape’s potential, and even if the show had ultimately been picked up at some later date, it likely would have done so with a different writing team, a different cast, and a different crew. The Farscape we know and love arguably only exists because of “Dream A Little Dream.”

There’s a sad irony to that, as “Dream A Little Dream” has no good place in the very version of Farscape it helped create. The writers could never find a place for it in the first season, and they ultimately hit upon an audacious way to incorporate it into season two—as the season premiere. While the second episode, “Mind The Baby,” would reveal the fates of Aeryn, D’Argo, and Crichton in the aftermath of “Family Ties,” this episode would focus on the rest of the Moya crew as they dealt with the very real possibility that their friends had died in the aftermath of the Gammak Base attack. Except that that wouldn’t have been a real possibility at all, as there’s no way in hell Farscape would have killed off its three most important characters off-screen between seasons, then spent an entire episode focusing on the supporting players’ ignorance of said deaths. It’s difficult to imagine viewers greeting such a season premiere with anything other than consternation, waiting impatiently for the show to get back to the story suggested by the end of “Family Ties.” Indeed, even if the story of Zhaan and company had been a gripping thriller—which this “loopy, very funny” episode most assuredly isn’t, and was never intended to be—it still would have been less immediately compelling than the story of the main three characters left behind in the asteroid field.

Yet the bulk of this episode was filmed first with every intention of using it to kick off the season. Some of this was due to logistical considerations, as the move to a new studio meant access to the standing Moya sets was greatly limited, which would have made “Mind The Baby” pretty much impossible to film first. Rockne S. O’Bannon has admitted that all these external pressures—not to mention the fact that the show had vastly changed from its original, more openly humorous conception—distorted the episode, and the end result is a weird mishmash of conflicting narrative, stylistic, and logistical considerations. The ultimate decision to move the episode to later in the season necessitated one final awkward twist, with the inclusion of the framing device in which Zhaan reveals to John what happened to her during their time apart.

Of all possible character combinations for such a framing device, Crichton and Zhaan carries the most obvious dramatic potential; this story would have felt even more frivolous than it already is if it were presented as, say, a story Rygel tells to a bored Aeryn. The only other potentially effective choice—and the only one that I think might just have salvaged this episode—would have been to position this as a story Chiana tells D’Argo, and thus the episode could have further explored their trust issues and nascent relationship. Still, Crichton is the main character, and Zhaan is the one clearly traumatized in “Mind The Baby,” so framing device duty is theirs. The only problem is that the story she tells offers no particular insight into her trauma. Yes, she hallucinates the comrades she assumes have died, and she makes a vague point back in the present about how she concluded her spirituality was lacking. It’s just about possible to get that from bits and pieces of what we see here, but Zhaan isn’t telling the story of her grief-stricken fall from grace; she’s relating a fitfully amusing legal drama starring Rygel and Chianna.

Zhaan’s own experiences are at best tangential to the story we actually see. That’s explained by the episode’s bizarre behind-the-scenes journey, but it isn’t excused. This story might just have worked slotted in before “PK Tech Girl,” with Crichton and Aeryn combining to take on a version of the role now fulfilled by Chiana. The episode likely wouldn’t have been much better, but its goofiness and its shamelessly outlandish premise—seriously, a society in which the ruling intellectual class comprises an absurd 90 percent of the population really should collapse overnight, and most of the guest characters with speaking parts aren’t even lawyers!—would have fit in more easily with that early period of experimentation and qualified successes.

The grading curve has grown more unforgiving over the ensuing season’s worth of episodes, and this episode feels like even more of a detour from the season’s larger story than “Vitas Mortis” or “Home On The Remains” did. Neither of those episodes are anything better than mediocre, but they at least include subplots or character moments that help the show progress. “Dream A Little Dream” forces the show to circle back to a period nobody in the audience likely cares much about, and it doesn’t even place the one truly dynamic character at its disposal—Chiana—into situations that challenge her as a character. “Taking The Stone” is still probably this season’s least successful episode, but it was still trying to say new things about Chiana and Crichton. “Dream A Little Dream” is the season’s most pointless episode, which is a far worse thing to be.

The best that can be said for “Dream A Little Dream” is that it’s at times moderately clever, particularly with the crew’s final victory using a Moya-assisted Light of Truth. Rygel and Chiana can be a funny double act, but the episode leans too heavily on silly, gimmicky jokes like Chiana’s drug-induced and the helium-farting joke to end all helium-farting jokes. I have a slight soft spot for this episode much as I did for “Jeremiah Crichton,” as both recall different strands of classic Doctor Who stories. “Dream A Little Dream” recalls the intentionally over-the-top social satire of “The Sun Makers” or “The Happiness Patrol,” with a little “Trial Of A Time Lord” thrown in. But Farscape is wary of adopting the arch tone required to pull off a story like this, and there are too many stretches that try to play the story straight but just come across as tedious. “Dream A Little Dream” failed when shared with the general public, but it succeeded long before that when its audience was a single television executive. If the latter’s success necessitated the former’s failure—and, with it, the success of the show as a whole—then I’ve heard of worse tradeoffs.

Stray observations:

  • The one character who actually is well-utilized here is Moya. The episode reminds us (or, as was originally intended, simply illustrates) how broken up she is over the loss of Talyn, and her willingness to abandon her crew to find him is revealing; as Pilot, Lani Tupu does an unsurprisingly fantastic job interpreting these roiling emotions. And yet, for all her desperation, Moya still believes in justice enough to help the others exonerate Zhaan.
  • I’ll be honest—the Litigaran makeup is pretty silly. Also, the name “Litigara” is right on the borderline between winningly silly and just sort of stupid.
  • Speaking of classic Doctor Who, do please check out Christopher Bahn’s reviews, which resumed yesterday in their new timeslot, as Christopher has very graciously allowed Farscape to make Sunday its permanent home. He kicks things off with “The Ark In Space,” which is one of the all-time greatest sci-fi stories in television history, not just Doctor Who. It also provided my favorite ever encapsulation of what makes the human race special, and one I think about a lot when writing about John Crichton.

Next time: TV Club Classic is taking next weekend off for July 4th, so the next review will be in two weeks on July 14th. When we get back, the show picks up again in a big way with the deviously fun episodes “Out Of Their Minds” and “My Three Crichtons.”

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