Farscape: “Look At The Princess”
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Farscape: “Look At The Princess”

The “Look At The Princess” trilogy feels like something new for Farscape. It’s not the show’s first multi-part episode—last season’s climactic “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory” hold that honor—although it is the first to feature a single unifying title, which becomes the norm for subsequent multi-part Farscape stories and indicates how the show’s production team intends these three episodes to be seen as a single, epic story. As such, I will first examine the story as a whole before looking at the individual episodes; generally, this will be the approach I plan to take with Farscape’s subsequent multi-part stories. “Look At The Princess” represents what is arguably the show’s biggest experiment to date. Last year’s Scorpius two-parter moved the show forward both narratively and creatively, but it was absolutely a synthesis and the natural extension of all the things the show was already doing. This story, on the other hand, is a radical departure from the typical Farscape story, not just in terms of its scale but also in terms of its structure.

“Look At The Princess” tells three entirely different kinds of story, with each neatly stacked inside each other The apparent core of the story is one of courtly melodrama and political intrigue. It’s in this more rarefied narrative atmosphere that Empress Novia, Princess Katralla, Prince Clavor, Counselor Tyno, and the Scarran envoy Cargn all reside; it’s in this story where Rygel and, rather surprisingly, D’Argo feel right at home; and it’s this story that Crichton and, to a lesser extent, Aeryn are thrown into much against their will. This is frequently preposterous plotline, one that is probably best understood as Farscape’s version of a fairy tale; the whole concept of Katralla and Crichton living for 80 cycles as statues as an essential part of the Breakaway Colonies’ political system is insane on a number of levels, but it has a certain, dreamy logic to it in the context of the story. The incessant political discussion isn’t as terminally stuffy and mannered as the tribal rivalries in “Jeremiah Crichton,” but it isn’t really that interesting on its own merits, especially when the characters tend to repeat the same basic points about dynastic succession over and over.

What saves this potentially inert material is that Farscape never treats it entirely seriously. The trilogy doesn’t mock the political aspects of its own story—Empress Novia really does wield absolute power over all that is within her purview, and she’s arguably the most dangerous character in the story, trumping perhaps even Scorpius—but it never pretends that Crichton or Aeryn would see these discussions as anything other than tedious nattering. Crichton does come to feel some responsibility for the welfare of the millions of people whose lives hang on his decision, but Farscape wisely realizes it isn’t the sort of show that could carry off such abstract stakes. Rather, Crichton changes his mind several times over the course of story, and each time his reasons are achingly personal. He initially refuses because he can’t stomach the prospect of a loveless marriage with a woman he doesn’t know, then he agrees out of a vague sense of duty, then he refuses again because his service as a royal statue means he must give up on all hope of seeing his Earth again, then he relents because he loses the will to fight, then he changes his mind after he gets decapitated (which, fair enough really), and then he finally decides to become a statue because the alternative would mean abandoning his unborn daughter. That last twist is especially brutal, as the show finally gives Crichton the perfect way out—and yet the human cost is almost too much to bear.

That visceral edge provided by the main characters is what elevates “Look At the Princess.” Writer David Kemper recognizes that the political narrative doesn’t readily coexist with a typical Farscape story, and he doesn’t betray the characters attempting to bolt one to the other; instead, he delights in the chaos caused by the collision of the divergent genres. The middle episode, “I Do, I Think,” offers the perfect encapsulation of this, as Princess Katralla and Prince Clavor’s fiancé Jenavian Charto fix up their makeup and snipe at each other about the latest royal intrigue. The scene feels fundamentally wrong on Farscape—their interaction is too straightforwardly catty, even leaving aside the fact that these are two characters we barely know discussing something we barely care about—and so it’s a palpable, even joyous relief when Aeryn Sun shows up, slams their royal heads against the wall, and threatens to kill both of them if John is hurt in any way. Aeryn is the proverbial bull in the proverbial china shop throughout “Look At The Princess,” and she consistently provides a jolt of energy whenever the story threatens to take itself too seriously.

That particular scene is especially interesting, as the audience already knows at that point that Jenavian is really a Peacekeeper disruptor, which brings in the third level of storytelling present in “Look At The Princess,” namely the spy thriller. This is a relatively minor aspect, although Crichton shows off his usual flair for quick-thinking lies when Jenavian demands to know the nature of his mission. As soon as he is saved from the threat posed by the courtly melodrama—namely, Prince Clavor’s assassins—Crichton finds his life again in peril from his would-be savior, and so he has to quickly adopt the false identity of a secretive spy. All this again plays out against the backdrop of the more conventional Farscape narrative, as Crichton makes all his moves in an effort to outmaneuver Scorpius. This abomination, as the Empress charmingly calls to him, is a wild card throughout “Look At The Princess,” as everyone assumes Scorpius is the villain of their own particular story. The royal family sees him as the latest symbol of Peacekeeper bellicosity and a threat to their carefully maintained peace and neutrality, while Cargn assumes Scorpius and his Command Carrier are there to foil the Scarran plot. Through it all, Scorpius only ever has his eyes on Crichton, yet the others’ assumptions about Scorpius’ broader evil help drive the story. In particular, it’s explicitly pointed out that Cargn fails in large part because he assumes the conflict between Scorpius and Crichton has something to do with him.

This trilogy is a fiendishly complicated epic, one that represents a major leap forward in the show’s ambition and willingness to experiment. Its length and its narrative scale give it the feel of a movie, even if the production values don’t always hold up quite as well; this isn’t as impressive visually as “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory,” although that’s at least partially because it’s much harder to make a brightly lit, stately leisure planet look as good as a dark, naturally atmospheric military base. The Sebacean fashions flatter some actors rather more than others, but the aesthetics of the planet do generally suggest a coherent, carefully conceived society. This story is a dark fairy tale, but it’s hardly a self-contained diversion from the typical Farscape adventure. Crucial seeds for the show’s future are sown here, although we’ll have to wait a little while before those become clear. In the meantime, I’m going to dig a little further into the individual episodes.

“Look At The Princess (Part 1): A Kiss Is But A Kiss” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 7/21/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“After we’re married, and I mean right after we’re married, they turn us into statues.” “That is… fascinating.” “Excellent. D’Argo discovers science.”

The typical Farscape episode establishes the basic threat before the opening credits roll; even if the exact nature of the peril isn’t made clear until later, it’s generally still possible to identify the underlying contours of the episode’s conflict. The threat established in the pre-credits sequence of “A Kiss Is But A Kiss,” on the other hand, is a complete misdirect; the Breakaway Colonies appear ready to destroy the crew, but this is quickly dismissed as a misunderstanding, thanks partially to Rygel’s oft-neglected skills as a diplomat and negotiator. Nearly a third of the episode elapses before the real problem snaps into place as Princess Katralla fatefully kisses Crichton, which sets into motion everything that follows; this is also roughly the same point at which Scorpius shows up, and Zhaan, Pilot, and Moya are forced to starburst away. Until then, there’s a real feeling that this whole episode might just represent a vacation of sorts for the long-suffering shipmates. Breather episodes aren’t unheard of in science fiction, and there’s more than enough material to be mined in the emerging relationships, as D’Argo and Chiana officially become an item and John and Aeryn drift apart for reasons neither can properly identify. The episode even briefly flirts with a love rectangle, as Crichton seems to take Aeryn’s angry suggestion to heart and decides to pursue Chiana, although he quickly realizes that won’t be possible.

For those first twelve minutes, the Breakaway Colonies seem to represent a real version of the sham paradise glimpsed way back in “Thank God It’s Friday, Again,” as our heroes hang around a bar and gradually get sucked into the hedonistic local customs. When Zhaan starts singing onboard Moya, Farscape appears to be at peace with itself; that brief moment is probably the show’s happiest since the final celebration back in “Through The Looking Glass.” But all this is just the calm before the storm, and that glimpse of quiet contentment for the crew—except Aeryn, who just doesn’t do quiet contentment—makes the ordeal that follows all the more difficult. From this point on, the shipmates are all strangers in a deeply strange land, and all the survival instincts they developed to deal with what they usually encounter can offer them no help here. Aeryn is a soldier, trained to fight and shoot stuff until the problem is solved, which is all wrong for the subtleties of intergalactic politics. Crichton is used to the possibility of death, but what he encounters here is a pair of fates worse than death—either capture by Scorpius or 80 cycles as a statue. That makes his dilemma even more impossible than usual, as both involve accepting hellish existences.

While Aeryn is quite intentionally out of sorts throughout the trilogy, other characters benefit from the change in setting. Rygel always does better in situations he can talk his way out of, and he proves himself a cunning, immensely capable courtier to Empress Novia; indeed, he is basically her de facto aide-de-camp by midway through the story. Intriguingly, Rygel seems far less duplicitous in this context than he does on Moya, and that’s all because he’s finally in a context he understands. There are rules and codes of ethics to how one royal treats another, and both he and Novia respect those rules, at least until the latter starts threatening to execute all visitors to the planet.  Back on Moya, he has no choice but to lie and cheat when dealing with those he sees as the scum of the universe.

D’Argo too proves surprisingly adept at these larger political matters, even crediting Rygel as an excellent teacher.  The scene in “A Kiss Is But A Kiss” where Crichton interrupts D’Argo and Chiana’s sex to get their advice is a telling sequence. It’s hard to imagine Crichton explaining his future as a statue to a human and being told anything other than to fight and avoid such a horrendous fate—Aeryn’s position, basically. But D’Argo, for all his newfound closeness with John, is still a Luxan, and Luxans are capable of alien perspectives. D’Argo suggests Crichton should become a statue, and that moment isolates Crichton in the worst way. His best friend will ultimately offer more unconditional support, but, for now, Crichton is forced to navigate this impossible situation with no true allies. When the only uncompromising opinion comes from Aeryn, who is quite clearly in the midst of her own emotional crisis, Crichton finds himself sliding toward marriage and life as a statue.

“Look At The Princess (Part 2): I Do, I Think” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 7/28/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“The bad news is that you’re married, and you must endure as a statue for 80 cycles in a strange world.” “What’s the good news?” “Chiana and I are having fantastic sex.”

The “Look At The Princess” trilogy is a family affair for Ben Browder, as his real-life children portray Crichton’s virtual kids, and his wife Francesca Buller once again takes on heavy prosthetics and bizarre punctuation to play the alien servant ro-NA. The treacherous alien is a good example of Farscape’s flair for subversion. Crichton generally treats her decently, even if he is occasionally a little curt to her when he has other things on his mind. But on their trip to the hidden cargo vessel, he takes an interest in her, answering questions about the nature of property and possessions. The scene plays as the classic example of the noble human teaching the poor alien, except the audience knows ro-NA has already sold Crichton out to Scorpius. While ro-NA suggests infinite naïveté in her discussions with Crichton, she is really playing with him. It feeds back into a recurrent theme of “Look At The Princess,” as characters never seem to respect the rules of the stories they theoretically inhabit. Crichton naturally assumes ro-NA is just the limited, overlooked alien servant, and he takes pity on her, which is well-intentioned if more than a little patronizing. But ro-NA wants and needs no such pity, even if she is in well over her head with respect to Scorpius.

Making his big return after nearly half of the season, Scorpius is a slightly different figure here than he was in the run from “Nerve” to “Mind The Baby.” The last time the show ignored a main villain for so many episodes, it was with Crais, who became progressively more unstable and insane with every reappearance. Scorpius, however, betrays no such frustration with his inability to capture Crichton; rather, he seems almost affable in this new context. Back in my review of “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory,” I suggested Scorpius was always rational, but he wasn’t yet reasonable; here, he discovers a silver tongue to complement his other fearsome attributes, and this is where Wayne Pygram truly perfects his performance. Admittedly, Scorpius’ appearance is so hideous he has a hard time convincing anyone of his supposedly good intentions, and he shows a cool willingness to switch alliances the moment a given situation changes, but he now does so in a way that indicates he’s keen to help all the idiots around him understand why he’s right.

It was mentioned in an earlier episode that Scorpius is a Scarran half-breed, although it’s only in this trilogy that the true meaning of that phrase becomes clear. The Scarran envoy Cargn is an instantly fearsome adversary, even if his head does stick out just a bit too far to be entirely convincing. Indeed, Cargn is so physically formidable that it seems faintly ridiculous a sniveling toad like Prince Clavor would ever dare talk back to him, so it’s important that he first tortures the young prince’s miniscule mind and ultimately kills him. “Look At The Princess” walks something of a tightrope with Cargn’s character, as it repeatedly comes close to suggest he is actually a bit of an idiot, or at least foolishly paranoid. That somewhat undercuts Cargn’s place as the episode’s ultimate menace, but it also ties back to the basic idea of “Look At The Princess,” which is that all the things the side characters think are most important pale in comparison to the concerns of Farscape’s main characters. Cargn is convinced he is locked in final battle with a deficient half-breed, one who can’t regulate his paradoxical body temperature, but he’s not even a pawn in Scorpius’ larger game with Crichton. The Scarrans emerge from this story as a potentially compelling threat, but it’s really Scorpius who proves he’s even more fearsome than previously suspected.

All that said, Crichton’s escape from Scorpius’ clutches is an all-time great Farscape moment. Lieutenant Braca, Scorpius’ best man, is on the case, which suggests there’s not going to be an easy way out for Crichton. The solution is so perfectly Farscape, as Crichton essentially uses his insanity as a weapon. Recognizing that Scorpius—and, by extenstion, Braca—can’t possibly kill him, Crichton starts threatening his own life. He wreaks havoc on the ship’s controls, all the while shouting lines from Blazing Saddles. It’s a tour de force of Crichton insanity, and it’s not something he can easily switch off; when Braca ultimately escapes, Crichton’s angry screams are distinctly more unstable than his usual reaction to his latest probably lethal setback. His eventual solution is delightfully insane, as he flings himself into open space without a suit, demonstrating the kind of knack for survival that likely comes in handy when your head gets cut off.

“Look At The Princess (Part 3): The Maltese Crichton” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 8/4/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“How Batman was that!?”

I haven’t yet mentioned the big subplot, in part because it’s wholly independent of the main story; indeed, the rest of the Moya crew never actually learns what happened out there to Zhaan and Pilot. Going back to my discussion in “Picture If You Will” of Zhaan’s place in the show, it’s perhaps telling that the show chooses to isolate her entirely from everyone else in the story, but that shouldn’t really be taken as a criticism. As previously suggested, Zhaan offers the show opportunities for a more mystical form of storytelling, and the encounter with Moya’s godlike creator would never work if Crichton, Aeryn, and D’Argo were along for the ride. Zhaan dares to fight back against a god, and that’s more meaningful when she herself has such a well-documented spiritual side.

This part of the story also reaffirms just how big a deal the creation of Tayln truly is, and that his birth will continue to have major ramifications for the show’s universe going forward. If a god is worried enough about Tayln to kill one of his own cherished creations, then the gunship is not something to be taken lightly going forward. But that’s really secondary to what the subplot accomplishes in the moment, which is its exploration of Zhaan. Kahaynu’s ultimate decision to designate Zhaan as Moya’s protector is nice and all, but it’s rather like everything going on back on the royal planet; it’s an abstract, high-minded plot development that doesn’t mean much if the main characters don’t care about it. While Zhaan unquestionably accepts this role, it’s not because Kahaynu deems her worthy; if it’s because of any outside influence at all, it’s because Zhaan is offered the transcendent opportunity to speak directly to Moya. But really, this is about Zhaan working through her own complex feelings toward faith, and she doesn’t need her own personal goddess to be in the room to recognize what’s right and what’s wrong. For all her travels and travails, Zhaan has come to understand one basic, unassailable fact, which is that life is precious and must be defended. She objects to Kahaynu’s decision to kill Moya, and she does not accept for a moment that he has the right to kill Pilot as well. Her attempt to actually destroy Kahaynu doesn’t work, exactly, but it says everything you—and Kahaynu, for that matter—need to know about Zhaan, that she is willing to kill a god to protect those she loves.

I chose a photo of Kahaynu to accompany this review, which I realize might seem like a bit of a strange decision, given all the other, far more important characters who appear in the story. But none of those characters are played by Jonathan Hardy, better known as the voice of Rygel. No particular effort is made to hide his dual role—the eyebrows alone really are an instant giveaway—although Hardy does adopt a wonderfully inexplicable Welsh accent to play Kahaynu. This is the only time Hardy ever appears on-screen throughout Farscape’s run, and his serenely hard-edged performance is both a remarkable contrast with his style as Rygel and the perfect fit for the character of Kahaynu. Helped along by a grayscale appearance and the bountiful use of a smoke machine, Hardy creates a character that feels instantly godlike, and this adds yet another dimension to a trilogy already bursting with ridiculously ambitious ideas. Hardy died a year ago next week, and it seems appropriate to finish up by remembering just how much he meant to the show. Hardy played one hell of a god and one hell of a Hynerian dominar, and there are very few people you could ever say that about.

Stray observations:

  • So, Crichton and Jenavian have a brief sexual affair. As the production team has noted, nobody ever seemed to care very much about this at the time, and in retrospect this still seems like it should probably be seen as a quick, largely meaningless fling between two people who were looking death in the face and really, really needed to blow off some steam.
  • Dregon is a funny character in that he spends most of the trilogy being a complete pain in Aeryn’s backside before she eventually agrees to go climbing with him, and then everything instantly gets far, far worse. For all his apparent silliness, however, he does show some emotional maturity, and he offers some sage advice to Aeryn about why relationships can be worth pursuing, despite the risk of emotional pain. I’m guessing he didn’t get that second date, though.
  • Any thoughts or feedback on how this trilogy review worked? I’m reasonably pleased with how it turned out, but I’m open to any thoughts on how this particular format (or the reviews in general) might be improved going forward.

Next week: Our heroes have a pest problem in “Beware Of Dog” and Crichton most seriously “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

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