Farscape: “Into The Lion’s Den”

Farscape: “Into The Lion’s Den”

Radical times call for radical measures

“Into The Lion’s Den (Part 1): Lambs To The Slaughter” (season 3, episode 20; originally aired 4/12/2002)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Infamous? Two points, Commandant. One, your boy here has made a lot of promises which you should keep, because two, when my friends are threatened, I am infamous for making really stupid moves. Yes?” “Mmm.”

By accident or by design, every season of Farscape has concluded with an epic multi-part story followed by a smaller, more contemplative finale. (Well, “Die Me, Dichotomy” isn’t exactly a quiet episode, but it doesn’t attempt the same kind of exhilarating highs of “Liars, Guns And Money.” We’ll talk about this season’s melancholy denouement, “Dog With Two Bones,” in next week’s review, but for now let’s focus on the brilliance of “Into The Lion’s Den.” Let me lay my proverbial cards down on the table: If this isn’t my favorite Farscape story, it’s at least in the top three alongside “Family Ties” and “Crackers Don’t Matter.” Each season’s climactic multi-part story represents the show putting together all that it has figured out over the preceding season, offering the finest possible statement about what the show is and, more importantly, what it can be. “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory” radically redefined the show in terms of Scorpius and wormholes, signaling a shift toward a more mature, serialized storytelling approach. “Liars, Guns And Money” was the real last hurrah for Moya’s original crew, who found themselves ripped apart by death and inadvertent betrayal over the coming stories.

And “Into The Lion’s Den”? To dust off an appellation I used on the “Revenging Angel” review, this two-parter might be the most Farscape story ever, at least in the non-mindfrell category. This story isn’t weird, or messy, or just kind of generally inexplicable, like so many episodes—so many great episodes—of this show have been. “Into The Lion’s Den” features the most straightforward storytelling we’ve seen on Farscape in a long, long time, because in this case there’s no percentage in obfuscation. At each stage, the characters’ actions are clear, but it’s their motivations and justifications that are endlessly ambiguous. This story invites us to sit in judgment—final judgment, in one case—of the show’s main characters, particularly John Crichton, Bialar Crais, and Scorpius. Really, the overriding question here is whether Crichton is right to take such extreme measures to stop Scorpius, and that in turn leads backs to a question that has defined all of his and Scorpius’ interactions since at least “Look At The Princess.” Namely, is Scorpius right? Is he justified in his belief that the Scarrans pose an overriding existential threat to this entire sector of the galaxy, and that the only way to defeat them is with overwhelming, perhaps even genocidal force? Do the Peacekeepers need to obtain wormhole weapons if non-Scarran life is to endure?

The answers to those questions could take up a term paper—or at least a comments thread or two—but I must admit I find this all rather straightforward. Of course Scorpius is right; I mean, Harvey even told us as much, and he considered the idea with none of Scorpius’ understandable hatreds and vendettas informing his opinion. Everything the Scarrans have ever done—give or take the innocent Naj Gil in the preceding two episodes, a connection this story never makes—indicates they are absolutely committed to conquest and slaughter. Hell, I even believe Scorpius when he says that he has no grander design than the defeat of the Scarrans, that he has no ambitions to conquer the universe himself. For all his sins, Scorpius really doesn’t lie. He’s open to subterfuge, particularly when he can operate remotely—the neural clone, the mind-controlled Grunchlk—but just about everything he has ever told John has been proven true or, at worst, superseded by changing circumstances; perhaps this general honesty can be attributed to his own innate ability to sense the deceit in others. Whenever Scorpius has promised pain, he has delivered, but he is also sincerely committed to guaranteeing the safety of the Moya shipmates while on board the command carrier.

So, sure, Scorpius is justified. But here’s the thing: I don’t care. Scorpius may be right, but he’s so, so wrong in the way that he’s right. Modern serialized television is frequently interested in exploring the consequences of its heroes’ decisions, and Farscape has gained particular strength from its examination of all the ways that the Moya shipmates’ jealousy and selfishness and whatever else can turn all of them into liabilities. John Crichton has had to live with the consequences of every last dumb, reckless, impetuous decision he has made in the Uncharted Territories, and he’s suffered the terrible consequences of playing at swashbuckling heroism; I know not everyone is convinced by this point, but I’ll reiterate that Crichton only came into Scorpius’ orbit because he was so damn sure he could fool the galaxy into buying his cheesy Peacekeeper disguise. If anything, this season has been a little too quick to blame Crichton for tragedies and disasters that are only tangentially his fault; I still only barely grasp how he’s so particularly responsible for Zhaan’s death, for instance. But if so many preceding Farscape stories have examined the cost of heroism, then should there not also be a price for villainy? This season’s initial two-parter “Self-Inflicted Wounds” confronted Crichton with his failings. “Into The Lion’s Den” does the same for Scorpius.

The basic problem with Scorpius is laid plain at the outset of “Lambs To The Slaughter,” during the shipmates’ arrival sequence that director Ian Watson intentionally staged to look like a twisted version of the medals ceremony at the end of Star Wars. As Scorpius warmly observes to Crichton, “At last, the rift between us is finally bridged.” For all the horrors that Scorpius has visited on Crichton and his friends, that line might as well be the most inhuman thing Scorpius has yet done, and that’s because of all the previous horrors. After all, from Scorpius’ perspective, this is the first time he has interacted with the real John Crichton since way back in “Season Of Death,” in which he tried to leave Crichton in a state of eternal, gibberish-spouting agony and then brutally used Grunchlk to allow his escape. Other than the chat with the neural Crichton, that’s the last time Scorpius set eyes on the human before now. So how the frell could anyone believe their rift had been bridged? Scorpius must assume that Crichton has found it in him to forgive his tormentor—or, more accurately, to get over his torments. Scorpius shows no understanding of the fact that, for their rift to be bridged, he would need to show even the slightest contrition or regret for his actions.

Instead, Scorpius’ interactions remain entirely transactional, with absolutely zero attention paid to past choices. Crichton can offer him wormhole knowledge, he is willing to barter plenty of Peacekeeper-backed privileges in exchange for those secrets, and so the very fact that they can make such a trade is proof enough that they can now move on as allies; the fact that they have long been enemies, with the source of malice so distinctly one-sided, is irrelevant. Indeed, “Into The Lion’s Den” explores just how thoroughly Scorpius considers everyone irrelevant. When Scorpius was first introduced, the fact that he wasn’t an actively frothing lunatic like Captain Crais made him appear a genuinely good leader—even here, he remains worthy of Braca’s unswerving loyalty—but the ensuing seasons have allowed him to become consumed by his own Ahab-like obsession to get his hands on Crichton. The disgruntled Lieutenant Reljik is symptomatic of Scorpius’ complacency; for all his genius, Scorpius has overestimated how willing a bunch of purity-obsessed Peacekeepers are going to be to follow a Scarran half-breed on an endless adventure deep into the Uncharted Territories, particularly when said half-Scarran starts making alliances with the galaxy’s most wanted fugitives.

And then frelling Servalan—sorry, sorry, Commandant Grayza—shows up. Sporting an unusually pale complexion and wearing what I dearly hope is not a regulation uniform, Grayza represents the long-awaited next phase in Peacekeeper villainy. If Crais was the raging madman and Scorpius the calculated killer, then Grayza is something even more terrifying: the ruthless politician. She is the story’s best reminder that Scorpius does not operate in a vacuum, that his own actions must necessarily carry wider-reaching consequences. As I say, I can believe that Scorpius is so driven by his hatred of the Scarrans that he is sincere in having no more insidious designs for wormhole weapons. I can’t say the same for Grayza; she is precisely the kind of person who would take such weapons and use them for evil. No, it’s worse than that: She would use them to further her own career. Scorpius only cares about the Moya crew inasmuch as his agreements force him to, but the man is absolutely committed to upholding his end of the deal, whereas Grayza is more than happy to fire upon Moya and take her passengers captive. Each of Farscape’s major Peacekeeper adversaries has been defined by time. Crais was obsessed with the past, unable to let go past injustices. Scorpius is limited by his refusal to look beyond the immediate needs of the present situation. But Grayza is the future, and that future is a scary place indeed.

After all, Scorpius’ argument so often boils down to Cato the Elder’s incessantly repeated line, “Carthago delenda est”—or, swapping out the Carthaginians, the Scarran Empire must be destroyed. The trouble is that it isn’t enough for the Scarrans to be defeated. Somebody has to actually do the job of wiping them out, and the only real option is the Peacekeepers. But what “Into The Lion’s Den” shows again and again is that this is a toxic society, one clinging to ideals long since twisted past the point of sensible understanding. There is Lieutenant Reljik, so consumed by petty hatreds that he can barely wait an arn before launching multiple assassination attempts against the Moya shipmates. There is Lieutenant Larell, who spies on Crais and weaponizes their past affections like they mean nothing to her. And, most tragically, there is Officer Yal Henta, Aeryn’s lost friend, who looks at her old comrade and can see nothing but a contemptible traitor. Not all of these are necessarily bad people, and none of them—well, except maybe Reljik—deserves to die. But if there is anyone out there who can actually be trusted with wormhole weapons, it sure as hell isn’t them. For all Scorpius’ fierce insistence on his own independence, for all his belief that everyone he encounters is either an annoying distraction or a usable tool, he is still only as good as his alliances. As his command carrier burns around him, perhaps he reflects on how his hatred of the Scarrans had left him unable to judge the good or the evil of anyone else.

Stray observations:

  • For the record, tubby dude with a chainsaw strapped to his arm is the single least intimidating adversary in Farscape history. I like to think that his vaguely risible appearance is an intentional way to signal the decay at the heart of Peacekeeper society, but, um, that may not actually be the case.
  • D’Argo, Chiana, Jool, and Rygel are generally left on the sidelines of this story, but it is interesting to see what precisely they would want from the Peacekeepers, and it’s also neat to see another Luxan. Indeed, the makeup is so thick that I always wonder whether the ambassador is just Anthony Simcoe doing a slightly different voice in a slightly different wig, but, no, that would be silly.

“Into The Lion’s Den (Part 2): Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” (season 3, episode 21; originally aired 4/19/2002)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Are we all on the same page here? We came to permanently sabotage Scorpy’s project. Now, I’ve been trying to kill it from the inside, but we have run out of time. We have one option left. Only one. We blow up the command carrier.”

Nearly 18 months ago, as I wrote my first Farscape review, I made a snap decision. I decided to throw in a quote at the top of each episode’s review. As I recall, I wanted to offer a slightly different teaser than what other TV Club Classic reviews tended to do, and I loved how Jack Crichton’s little speech in “Premiere” served as such a beautiful thesis statement for the show. But I knew then that there was one other reason: There was one specific line so powerful, so intense, so bold that I absolutely had to quote it at the outset of the review. It’s a line so brilliant that, I’m sorry, I think I’m going to have to quote it again:

“Are we all on the same page here? We came to permanently sabotage Scorpy’s project. Now, I’ve been trying to kill it from the inside, but we have run out of time. We have one option left. Only one. We blow up the command carrier.”

That line is John Crichton’s defining moment, the decision that forever makes him into, as his father once so eloquently put it, his own kind of hero. As it turns out, that kind of hero is, well, pretty damn insane. Crichton wavers and hesitates throughout “Lambs To The Slaughter,” as he struggles to figure out what he can do to sabotage Scorpius’ plans and even whether he should. He remains the universe’s chew toy, fending off Lieutenant Reljik’s murder attempt and Scorpius’ subsequent threats to make him witness the destruction of Earth. As has so often been the case in the third season, this Crichton—the Crichton of “Losing Time” and “Incubator,” of “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” and “Revenging Angel”—is drifting through the crisis, using bravado and bluster to compensate for the fact that he doesn’t have a clue what to do. It’s only when Grayza’s arrival robs him of the false luxury of time that Crichton makes his decision. He goes from the concept of a plan—“Stop Scorpius”—to the outline of one—“Stop Scorpius by blowing up the command carrier.” It’s only after that and at Aeryn’s insistence that the plan is further fleshed out to “Stop Scorpius by blowing up the command carrier with minimal casualties.”

But that’s the thing: There will be casualties. The shipmates eventually devise a plan that gives the Peacekeepers on board time to escape, but the death throes of a ship that size must have claimed at least dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives. “Into The Lion’s Den” doesn’t specify a number, but the mere fact that Crichton would countenance such large-scale violence is significant. Such actions could be justifiable in wartime conditions, but there’s no sense in “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” that that’s how the shipmates see their actions. Rather, Crichton and company do this because, for quite possibly the first time in the history of science fiction, the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few. This is a genre that often faces its heroes with terrible decisions, ones in which the universe can only be saved through great sacrifice. It’s relatively rare, however, for a story to actually follow through on that setup. Crichton’s steely resolve and matter-of-fact statement of intentions both indicate that this really isn’t a difficult decision. Even though this isn’t the Crichton of “Infinite Possibilities,” he sees and knows enough to recognize that nobody can be trusted with wormhole weapons, least of all the Peacekeepers. Secure in that knowledge, his path is all too terribly clear.

Earlier, I alluded to my past contention that Crichton found himself in the Aurora chair because of his own hubris, his own need to play the dashing hero. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, I must point out that my phrasing is imprecise: Crichton’s actions only put him in the position to be placed in the Aurora chair. The actual reason Crichton ended up in that chair is because Scorpius put him there. It was Scorpius’ choice to move immediately to the most brutal and invasive form of interrogation. It was Scorpius’ decision to probe Crichton’s mind so deeply that the human would never be truly whole again. It was Scorpius’ decision to implant a neural clone that eventually grew powerful enough to take complete control of Crichton’s body. Scorpius never had to do any of these things, and the fact that he believes all of those actions are justified by his larger goals is immaterial. Again, in narratives, we tend to think only of the consequences of the hero’s actions, perhaps because we assume he or she should know better, should find a better way. In this reading, villains only really matter as delivery mechanisms for those consequences; the Scorpius of “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory” exists as punishment for Crichton’s transgressions. But these are all lazy distinctions. As Farscape has so expertly demonstrated over the past two seasons, Scorpius is just as fully realized a person as Crichton is, and his actions cannot be boiled down to anything as simple or reductive as “villainy.” Scorpius had a choice, and he chose to take the most violent, destructive, unforgiving path. He shouldn’t be surprised when such a decision ultimately leads to him standing in an imploding command carrier.

This speaks to the fundamental issue with how Scorpius understands all other people as mere means to an end. If Scorpius treats everyone he meets as an instrument, as a potential weapon in his vendetta against the Scarrans, then it is only a matter of time before one of his weapons fires back. Really, that’s the one lesson he should have learned from his Scarran captivity, but Scorpius could not find it within himself to become something better than what his wardens intended, and now he faces the consequences of that coldness and sadism. After all, the John Crichton of season one would never have countenanced blowing up a command carrier, but then the John Crichton of season one had never met Scorpius. “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” is so fantastic because it reverses the roles that Crichton and Scorpius have played throughout the past two seasons.

As the endgame kicks into motion, Crichton becomes the antagonist and Scorpius the protagonist, and boy is Farscape ever brutal to its protagonists. All Scorpius can do is rage impotently at the man on the loudspeaker, desperately ordering somebody to do something while Crichton sits there, resolute in the knowledge of what is about to happen. Maybe Scorpius has been right all along. But the reason he loses everything, the reason that the only vengeance he ever cared about is now beyond his grasp, is that he never deemed anyone important enough to explain himself to. The tragic irony of this story is that it’s just possible that Scorpius was on the verge of some sort of breakthrough; his trip through the wormhole with John Crichton appears to leave him in genuine awe, and he observes that he has never felt so connected. I suspect that sensation would have faded, but perhaps Scorpius finally saw his place in the universe and, with that knowledge, everyone else’s place as well.

I mention the man on the loudspeaker, and so I really must close by discussing the final member of this story’s core trio: Captain Bialar Crais. He’s the last person the camera cuts to after Crichton makes his grim pronouncement, and the look on his face may well be telling; it’s tempting to speculate that Crais knows even then that there is only one way to blow up his old ship, and it requires the sacrifice of his new one. To the very end, Crais remains a Rorschach test of a character. Does he push Lieutenant Larell away because he is outraged at her betrayal, or because he wants to shield her from the horror he’s about to unleash? When he calls Scorpius the most repellent of creatures, it sounds as though he’s about to go out with a little old-fashioned Peacekeeper bigotry; he is the one who first used the term “Scarran half-breed,” after all. But no, the truth is more personal, as Crais points out that Scorpius, possibly alone among all those aboard the command carrier, chose the Peacekeeper life instead of having it thrust upon him. As for Crais’ revisionist history of his initial departure from the ship—yes, Scorpius betrayed him, but Crais deserves most of the responsibility for destroying his career—that’s just one last burst of vainglory from someone who always fancied himself a hero. With his death, does he at last become one? Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest.

Crais remains an enigma to the end. He has tried to make up for past sins, but the mere fact that he got to choose the circumstances, even the perks, of his atonement argue against his genuine repentance. His sacrifice might well be altruistic, or it might just be devastating vengeance at Scorpius’ expense. Or perhaps it’s all for the love of Talyn, whose own instability means that a hero’s death would be a welcome boon. But perhaps it’s all far more ruthlessly pragmatic than all that, as Crais himself explains:

“All that I have cared for have gone. My parents taken away from me, my brother dead. So now I live, I plan, I do, all in the service of my own interests. In that I believe I am not unique in the universe… Despite all of this, I understand the power of the technology that Scorpius is attempting to harness. I understand the horror that will wash over this galaxy if anyone wields this weapon. And, last of all, I now know that I am the only individual capable of stopping him.”

I don’t know if Crais redeems himself with that final action—or indeed with any of the previous good acts he has committed since turning traitor to the Peacekeepers—but I can say that Crais never cared about redemption on our terms anyway. The Crais of the first season could well have been called a villain, but again that term feels inadequate, particularly if it means I must then call the Crais of “Into The Lion’s Den” a hero. Maybe he is, but isn’t the right description of his arc. Instead, Crais is a madman who discovered something like sanity, a pragmatist who discovered something like idealism, a heartless bastard who discovered something like love. All three of those progressions converge with his final, desperate bid to defeat Scorpius by sacrificing Talyn and himself. Maybe Crais lived up to the other Crichton’s dying exhortation to find the best version of himself. I like to think he did, but I can’t say for certain. Crais’ death is an end that’s true to the character, as both his life and his death can be interpreted a myriad of different ways. Besides, it really is one hell of a bang.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of which, the direction of this story by Ian Watson and Rowan Woods really is unreal. The sequence in which the Command Carrier floods around Scorpius is a definite contender for the most impressive visuals in Farscape history. Part of the reason “Into The Lion’s Den” is easily my favorite story of season three is that it couches such a powerful character piece inside a massive action thriller story. This is the rare story that works just as well with your brain switched on or off. Farscape always tended to break the bank with its climactic stories, and this one is probably the biggest story the show ever told. Hopefully you all can discuss the more technical aspects of the story in the comments, as they really are sensational.
  • I mentioned the Aurora Chair several times, and it’s worth pointing out that the thing makes an unexpected return appearance as poor Co-Kura Strappa insists that Crichton wipe all knowledge of wormholes from his mind. In an episode well short of nobility, it’s revealing that the one genuinely selfless act taken by the command carrier crew comes from one of its only alien members. As Crichton says, he’s not sure he could make the kind of sacrifice that Strappa makes.
  • The acting across the board is just fantastic in this story. Among the regulars, Ben Browder, Claudia Black, and Wayne Pygram deserve special mention, and there are so many great guest turns both large and small: Rebecca Riggs as Grayza, David Franklin as Braca, Danny Adcock as Strappa, Marta Dusseldorp as Officer Henta, and more besides. But first among equals here is Lani Tupu as Captain Crais. Interviews and behind-the-scenes materials consistently say that Tupu always sought to find the complexity in Crais, even in early episodes where he was little more than a frothing lunatic. It’s so great that his character’s swansong gives him all the complexity he could ever want, and he brings out every perplexing, beguiling aspect of Crais’ endlessly contradictory character.

Next week: We finish up season three and wrap up our coverage for the moment with “Dog With Two Bones.”

“Talyn. Starburst.”

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