Farscape: “Meltdown”/“Scratch ‘N’ Sniff”
Francesca Buller
Francesca Buller

Farscape: “Meltdown”/“Scratch ‘N’ Sniff”

Wait, where did Crichton find fishnet stockings in the Uncharted Territories?

“Meltdown” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 7/14/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Godlike aliens! Man, do I hate godlike aliens! I’ll trade a critter for a godlike alien, any day.”

The opening scene of “Meltdown,” in which the “truth” of Crais’ execution of Xhalax Sun is revealed—only for the good captain to turn to camera and amusedly ask whether this is what Crichton thinks actually happened—offers some subtle foreshadowing of what lies ahead in the episode. The relevant question here is just when the viewer recognizes that this could not possibly be true. Yes, the bit where Crais turns to camera is a fairly good indication, but that just indicates that Crais denies the veracity of this particular account. Depending on one’s opinion of Crais—and we’ve at least seen, if not experienced, everything Crais has done to John, so it’s possible for us to align fairly closely with the human’s distrust—the scene may not become completely unbelievable until Crais ruefully points out that there never can be any forgiveness, any redemption for him, irrespective of whether he wants it in the first place. That’s a purely practical consideration, and so the individual viewer can be left to speculate on whether Crais is still at least theoretically capable of such betrayal, especially when there’s a damn good chance someone as relentlessly self-serving as Crais wouldn’t even think of such an action as betrayal in the first place.

The reason this ties into what happens later is that this episode dusts off a familiar sci-fi trope, namely the weird space phenomenon that causes our heroes to act out of character. That immediately places this episode in conversation with the all-time great “Crackers Don’t Matter,” something Crichton cheekily acknowledges when he asks Crais if everyone is about to go crackers. Indeed, the broad strokes of this episode are similar to those of its spiritual predecessor, as Mu-Quillus and his siren star aren’t a million miles away from T’raltixx and the pulsars. Thankfully, “Meltdown” is far more than a rehash of the original, and not just because the presence of the captive Sierjna spikes the plot in a very different direction than that of “Crackers Don’t Matter.” The bigger difference is that the changes in this episode aren’t as uniform as those in the earlier story, in which all of the shipmates became the worst version of themselves. Instead, the drexim mist turns Crichton and Aeryn into incorrigible sex freaks, Rygel into an insatiable food monster, and Crais and Stark into… well, this is why I mentioned the scene with Xhalax at the outset. With Crais and Stark, they appear to become more unhinged as a result of exposure to the gas, but how can you really tell?

That question is a little easier to answer in the former case, as the good captain does become more aggressive and trigger-happy as the episode wears on. And yet, for all his protestations, this is still the same man who once broke the neck of his most loyal subordinate in order to protect his own transgressions. When we talk about fictional individuals behaving out of character, we’re implicitly placing boundaries on their possible range of behavior, but Farscape has shown us enough to know that Crais is capable of absolutely anything. Crais’ actions are only remarkable because they are discontinuous with his more recent conduct, but it’s already been ably demonstrated that there are scenarios in which he would behave far worse than this; by the time he starts accusing Rygel of mutiny, there’s little doubt left that the drexim has got to him, but it’s only brought out of an aspect of his existing personality that could naturally arise under slightly altered circumstances. The situation likely wouldn’t need to be that more desperate for Crais to cross these lines entirely of his own accord.

“Meltdown” essentially confirms this with its treatment of Aeryn and Crichton and of Rygel. In his past life as Dominar, the Hynerian has almost certainly gorged himself like he does here. Given his seemingly endless supply of stomachs, it’s not hard to imagine him sustaining such exorbitant feasts if he truly wanted to. His problem is that the context is all wrong; even he would likely want to help about a bit with the current crisis, and, besides, his feasting isn’t voluntary. John and Aeryn are luckier in that regard, as their unbridled lust for each other isn’t that far off from how they would like to treat each other anyway. It’s a most clever way to let the pair work through their feelings, especially since said feelings are treated as unambiguously positive outside of their inappropriateness in the current situation. It’s a well-worn storytelling tack for characters to use lulls in the latest crisis to discuss their issues—there’s a hell of a super-cut to be made of people saying variants of “You want to talk about this now?”—but it’s trickier to pull that off when the emotions involved are actually a good thing. After all, there’s no conflict there, unless acting on said positive emotions would endanger the lives of everyone involved. “Meltdown” then serves an absolutely vital function, reminding both the audience and the characters themselves of just how powerful the bond between how John and Aeryn truly is. The drexim just strips away all the excuses and the complications that too often leave them uncertain how to proceed.

That just leaves us with Stark, who is crazy here even by his own redoubtable standards, even though “Meltdown” is least clear about just how the drexim affects him, if at all. Way back in the “Picture If You Will” review, I suggested Zhaan could be seen as the potential protagonist of her own, more magical version of Farscape. That goes double for Stark, who here acts much like we would expect Crichton to if placed in an analogous situation; after all, Stark’s actions are baffling enough to his crewmates that they assume he has just gone rogue, but how insane must Crichton have appeared in, say, “Back And Back And Back To The Future”? As acknowledged here, the two share a kinship, both having been broken during their time in the Aurora Chair. And like his former cellmate, Stark is apocalyptically terrible at explaining what he’s up to, and he’s driven by a desire to help Sierjna that probably isn’t as altruistic as he would wish it to be. Paul Goddard plays Stark’s scenes with Mu-Quillus’ captive with a demented edge that suggests Stark sees himself as a kind of dashing, romantic hero. The obvious inference here is that Sierjna is a replacement of sorts for Zhaan; if you remove the former’s long hair, there’s at least a superficial resemblance in look and bearing, and the phonetic similarity between “Delvian” and “Delfarion” may not be a coincidence.

Oddly though, “Meltdown” holds off on firing its Zhaan bullet until the last possible moment, only invoking her name as Crichton tries to talk down the Talyn-fused Stark. There’s precious little sentiment in the way that John talks about Zhaan, given that he confidently proclaims “She would piss on your grave right now!” and tells that freakazoid psycho bastard that he is killing Crichton’s Zhaan. Nobody is really interested in engaging in earnest reminiscence about Zhaan; Aeryn’s claim that the Delvian is speaking through her and that violent action is her wish is the gag of the episode—hell, maybe the gag of the season—but it’s also indicative of just how readily our heroes move on from past traumas. It’s not that John and Aeryn don’t grieve for Zhaan, but her memory is not so sacred that they would not happily exploit it if it’s the only way to stop a deranged Stark. That’s a shame, if only because it makes clear just how vast the divide is between Stark, who is still reeling from pain and trauma that even he can barely understand, and the rest of the crew, who uniformly see him as a nuisance and a liability. I mean, they’re right, but the same could be said of Crichton (or Crais, or Talyn, or Rygel, or…). The Aurora Chair is what forever links Crichton and Stark. It’s to Stark’s great disadvantage that neither his shipmates nor the audience got to see him as we once saw Crichton, before his sanity was stolen from him. It might make it easier to sympathize with him, even if he does insist on crashing the ship into the occasional star.

Stray observations:

  • I realize I didn’t talk a ton about Mu-Quillus here, but he’s a terrific villain, largely because it fast becomes clear that he’s not nearly as impressive as he wants everyone to think that he is. With the siren star, he’s got one hell of a trap at his disposal, but it’s fairly apparent that he’s never really had to come up with a backup plan before. It’s so wonderfully Farscape when his threats turn into him begging for his life.
  • I said I didn’t remember this episode at the end of the last review, but this is actually a pretty darn terrific entry! I’m not totally sure how I forgot about this one, but it really is a wonderfully balanced character piece, and it’s the best use of Stark we’ve seen in a good long time. Not a classic, maybe, but I’d actually say this is a better-executed hour of television that either of last time’s more ambitious entries.
  • One quick digression: As mentioned in the last review, the TV channel Pivot has been running a fan vote to determine the 10 fan favorite episodes of Farscape, and it will be running a marathon of all the winning episodes—plus “The Peacekeeper Wars”—throughout next week. It’s a damn fine lineup: “Premiere,” “PK Tech Girl,” “A Human Reaction,” “Crackers Don’t Matter,” “The Way We Weren’t,” “Out Of Their Minds,” “The Locket,” “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff,” “Revenging Angel,” and “Bad Timing.” You can check out this post on Pivot’s blog for the full list of showtimes. And now I suppose I really ought to firm up my own top 10 list.

“Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 7/21/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“I don’t believe you.” “Why not?” “Too many inconsistencies. Too much obfuscation.” “Obfuscation? How the hell does that translate?”

Last week, I offered a relatively negative teaser for “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff,” suggesting it was a story I wished I couldn’t remember—a fitting observation given the episode’s drugged-out subject matter, but not actually a good summation of the story itself. Indeed, much of this episode is excellent; it’s a definite contender for Farscape’s funniest episode, or at least the funniest episode that doesn’t attempt anything more ambitious (thus removing something like “Crackers Don’t Matter” from this ranking, though that does still leave “Out Of Their Minds”). This episode is apparently a bit of a fan favorite—it just earned a top 10 finish in the fan poll, after all—and I can see why, if only because it’s one of the few Farscape episodes this season that isn’t afraid to cut loose and have some fun. After the likes of “Season Of Death,” “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” “…Different Destinations,” “Relativity,” and “Incubator,” I think we’ve all earned some shore leave. And yet, for all that, I can’t help but be a bit grumpy about “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff,” and it’s for much the same reason I have some issues with another well-regarded Moya-set episode we’ll be getting to in a couple weeks: I just have never quite understood where Crichton and D’Argo’s conflict comes from.

To understand why, I’ll need to dig rather deeply into the structure of the third season; before I get there, let’s talk about what actually happens in “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff.” More than a decade after its airing, it’s basically impossible to discuss this episode without invoking The Hangover as a point of comparison for its plot. Stalwart director Tony Tilse pulls out every cinematic trick at his disposal to create an appropriately trippy atmosphere, with smash cuts, repeated shots, nonlinear editing, and some unusually funky background music all used to keep the audience as disoriented as John and D’Argo. Ben Browder’s wife Francesca Buller again dons heavy prosthetics to portray Raxil, her third untrustworthy alien in as many seasons. Her use of a Cockney accent is a noticeable shift from the show’s usual antipodean tones, implicitly positioning Raxil as someone outside the normal spectrum of Farscape aliens. That could mark her as a more caricatured, less serious creation, but there’s also the distinct possibility that the offbeat accent, much like her diminutive stature, is part of the general misdirection surrounding her character. Raxil might well be a joke, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be dangerous.

Indeed, even in one of Farscape’s more purely comedic efforts, there’s a sliding scale of weirdness. Raxil represents the more straightforwardly comedic efforts, but Fe’Tor and his “milking” process are as disturbing as any threat the show has presented; the Han-jee Kabaah sits somewhere in the middle, given his hammerhead shark-like appearance and peeping Tom tendencies. This is an episode that could very easily be played as straight-up horror, a point that is most evident with Chiana’s rather brutal vengeance against her captors. What keeps “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” from ever getting too serious is the behavior of D’Argo and Crichton, who wander through the story in a drugged-out daze, to say nothing of the rambling, fitfully coherent narration Crichton provides in the framing sequences. Our theoretical heroes barely understand what is going on at any given point, guided only by what is left of their instincts and their general annoyance with everything, each other very much included.

The bickering between John and D’Argo is meant to define the episode—it’s why they get thrown off Moya in the first place, after all—but this is where the story never quite reads properly. The pair’s fraying relationship has been commented upon in all of the Moya-set episodes, but the show has always been quicker to tell us about how the two don’t get along than to really show us. Much like the final scene of “Losing Time,” the opening conversation at the bar features John and D’Argo remarking about their inability to get along in relatively collegial terms; yes, D’Argo is trying to convince John of his Sebacean-like bigotry against non-humanoid aliens—a point Crichton rather confirms by calling Raxil “it” later on—but the two come across as more tired of everything than actively in conflict. The show finally starts playing this tension when the pair argue about how many steps they need to reach the milking machine, but I’d argue the true pointlessness of their arguing isn’t really made plain until their very last scene, in which they senselessly debate who should leave Pilot’s chamber first. The two are at loggerheads, but there’s a distinct sense that that’s only the case because Farscape can’t think of anything better to do with them.

Let me pull back for a moment. At this point in the third season, the decision to split the crews has proven a resounding success. The Talyn-set stories have justified the move on its own, allowing the show to dig into specific character dynamics in a way that just wouldn’t be possible when juggling about a dozen characters; Crichton’s relationships with Aeryn and Crais are the two of the show’s most sharply defined pairings, and Rygel and Stark are combustible, unpredictable characters who can slide from ally to antagonist or from comic relief to cameo as the plot demands. The Moya characters aren’t as finely balanced, but that just allows Farscape to shift the focus of their episodes to Scorpius, who has received character development in “Losing Time” and particularly “Incubator” that likely would not have been possible if the audience were more invested in the main plot: Can you imagine breaking away from the main action of “Green-Eyed Monster” or “Relativity” for some random, disconnected business on Scorpy’s command carrier? Splitting the crews was the right decision for the show as a whole, and it has served well far more characters than it has hurt.

But this does mean that the Crichton on Moya is something of an afterthought, narratively speaking, subordinate both to his Talyn counterpart and his arch-nemesis Scorpius. This Crichton was the one who got left behind, and that sense of abandonment carries over to his shipmates. All of them are defined by the things denied to them: John pines for Aeryn and a wormhole that will take him back to Earth, D’Argo has again lost his son in a way perhaps even more devastating that the original separation, both he and Chiana are deeply uncertain what they should do now after their acrimonious split, and Jool wants to go home almost much as her shipmates want her to go away. But it’s damn difficult to construct dramatically satisfying stories defined by the absence of something; even the most gifted actor can only portray yearning for so long before the plot demands some new dimension. Crichton’s desire to return home was so obvious in the first season that it required precious little additional explanation, but his arc has so completely departed from that original goal that we now need something concrete to anchor his quest for Earth in the show’s larger emotional stakes.

On that point, Farscape has struggled. “Self-Inflicted Wounds” tried to sell the idea that Crichton’s obsession with wormholes made him a liability to the rest of the crew, perhaps even responsible for Zhaan’s death, an argument that D’Argo reiterated in “Incubator.” But that doesn’t really solve the underlying problem—Zhaan is gone, after all, which means we’re still looking for a direct, immediate conflict—and “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” for all its power, was a bit too baffling in its plotting to really land that point. So then, what are we left with? This John Crichton finds himself in a situation where both Aeryn and Zhaan are gone—one more permanently than the other, but there’s no guarantee he will ever see Officer Sun again—and where he has lost the trust of his friends because of his repeated willingness to place Moya in danger in pursuit of wormholes. Crichton’s issues are defined by his failures with respect to Aeryn, Zhaan, and Moya. Which of his shipmates is most directly connected to those three? Who would most logically be drawn into conflict with Crichton over his recent decisions regarding them?

If we’re looking at this in strictly narrative terms, the answer really ought to be Pilot. But more practical considerations mean that Farscape has to force the answer to be Ka D’Argo, and that’s where “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” gets weird. Well, weirder than it already would have been.

It’s telling that the episode’s character dynamics are at their sharpest in the framing scenes, in which a dazed, possibly addled Crichton tries to convince an irate Pilot to let him and D’Argo back onto Moya. In rapid succession, Pilot has lost both his Builders-appointed protector and the closest thing he has to a kindred spirit; it’s natural for him to be unbalanced and in need of some sympathy, all of which must make his status as a glorified plot device all the more exasperating. Worse, Crichton’s story is patently ludicrous; indeed, if we align ourselves with Pilot’s disbelief, then the mere fact that Crichton would dare to tell such a preposterous tale reinforces the idea that he views his alien compatriots as inferior. The only time John forces some begrudging respect from Pilot is when he demands to know whether he has ever lied to Pilot in all the time they have known each other.

But then, the capacity to lie implies the capacity to recognize truth, which in turn requires both participants to share a compatible perspective of the reality before them. At this point, I’m not sure that can really be said of Pilot and Crichton. This is a point that the latter alludes to when he says Pilot can’t know the kind of things that go on outside his chamber, and the disconnect between these particular characters is exacerbated by their vast culture gap. D’Argo is willing to adopt Earth expressions like “slam dunk,” even if he does mangle it into “slim duck,” but Pilot still speaks just as he did when we first met him, albeit in a more irate tone. Even with translator microbes, Pilot and Crichton are speaking different languages, give or take the occasional “obfuscate.”

Theirs is the show’s most organic Moya-set conflict, but Pilot’s immobility makes him far from ideal as an antagonist for Crichton. “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” plays their tension to the absolute hilt, but it can only provide five or so minutes of framing sequences. John needs someone who he can spar with while on the move, and D’Argo is the best of a trio of imperfect options. Jool isn’t a great pick, given that she’s still more annoying than anything else, and Chiana is too strange and too confused with herself to really have time to take issue with Crichton. D’Argo, for his part, shares much of the same self-importance and prejudice that he accuses Crichton of, offering a thick sheen of hypocrisy to his criticisms. Raxil comes the closest to defining the central mystery of Crichton and D’Argo’s relationship, as she lists all the remarkable mayhem they have caused together and peevishly asks whatever happened to those two notorious criminals.

That’s a question worth asking, but it isn’t one that “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” answers all that convincingly. The most logical explanation again goes back to the losses that both have experienced: Zhaan, Aeryn, Jothee, and so on. But their anger at each other can only ever be an indirect manifestation of that pain, and neither is introspective enough—not with each other, certainly—to dig down and recognize what is really pushing them to argue. Ultimately, the pair are great friends who just aren’t feeling very friendly these days, and that’s definitely something that can happen in real-world relationships. But that’s a relatively tepid emotional beat compared to the other Crichton’s love for Aeryn and distrust of Crais, Scorpius’ hatred of the Scarrans, and even Pilot’s utter exasperation with Moya’s passengers. The fact that D’Argo and John don’t even consistently appear remember that they’re supposed to be fighting only makes it more unconvincing. As trippy comedy, “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff” is damn impressive. But as a character piece, as with the previous two Moya-centric plots, the episode flails around trying to sell something that just isn’t really there.

Stray observations:

  • As my subhead indicates, it’s left gloriously unexplained just how Crichton woke up in the holding cell wearing some rather fetching fishnet stockings. It’s one of the more human fashions we’ve seen, though at least everyone in Fe’Tor’s band is wearing something equally kinky, so it’s not too hard to explain. Honestly, his guards’ getup needs to be seen to be believed; one can only imagine how much his henchmen sweat over the course of a given working day. Either that or his air conditioning bills must be through the roof. In any event, Crichton’s stockings is a tiny mystery, but it’s hardly Red Dwarf’s orange traffic cone.
  • You’ve got to feel a bit for Anthony Martin as Fe’Tor’s main henchman Mitols. He cuts a reasonably villainous figure, but he’s the kind of baddie who should be wearing some kind of faintly militaristic uniform. His costume makes him look like an accountant who decided to try out some basic fetish gear and then realized he’d lost the receipt to return it, meaning he might as well wear the damn thing.
  • One last point about the Crichton and D’Argo relationship: I think I might find it a bit more compelling if the show were more willing to acknowledge the actual ways in which the two act like assholes. The show is so concerned with their bickering with each other that it kind of skirts past more obviously troublesome behavior, like D’Argo’s initial attempt to “rescue” Chiana and Jool. His instincts are right, in that anyone not currently in a drugged-out stupor could recognize Fe’Tor is up to no good, but he’s so horrendous at even the most basic diplomacy that he again tries to force others to do what he commands. As ever, it isn’t a good look for the Luxan, but Farscape has been presenting him as a domineering jerk ever since he really began searching in earnest for Jothee, and we’re still waiting for the show to properly call him out on that behavior.
  • John and Chiana share a moment of real, earnest compassion for one another. In what might actually be the best illustration of the episode’s faltering emotional themes, this moment of genuine emotion just ends up weirding both of them out. Still, nice to see they remain friends.

Next week: Remember how heartbreaking “Self-Inflicted Wounds” was? Well, buckle up for “Infinite Possibilities.” At least we’re going to get to see some old friends and/or enemies again.

Filed Under: TV, Farscape

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