Farscape: “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory”

Farscape: “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory”

“Nerve” (season 1, episode 19; originally aired 1/7/2000)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Danger, danger, Will Robinson. Beware the chair. Beware the chair.”

Over the course of this first season, we have had a chance to get to know John Crichton. He is a resolutely decent person, someone willing to put his own safety at risk to help others. Admittedly, his impossible situation means he doesn’t always have a choice when it comes to self-sacrifice, and it’s not as though he goes around trying to solve other planets’ problems, even if he occasionally comes close. He has his fair share of flaws, and he’s shown a selfish streak when it comes to anything Earth-related, but he usually hits the right balance between pragmatism and principle. He’s definitely not perfect, but he has the strengths we might all hope to have, and he has the weaknesses we tend to forgive. He’s not Captain Kirk, but he has his moments. That’s the Crichton—the brave, selfless, fundamentally innocent Crichton—who heads to the secret Gammak Base to save Aeryn. That isn’t the Crichton who returns.

“Nerve” and its follow-up “The Hidden Memory” represent the climax of the first season, and they mercilessly tear apart all that came before them. The first half of this episode feels like a relatively straightforward caper, at least by Farscape standards. Yes, Crichton is attempting his Peacekeeper con on a scale unlike any he’s tried before, and the unexpected return of his would-be love interest Gilina presents some major complications, but this is all of a kind with what the show has evolved into over the past few weeks. It’s ambitious in the way a big, season-ending two-parter should be, but it doesn’t initially seem to be revelatory. But then Crichton’s disguise is uncovered by the worst person imaginable, and everything falls apart.

That isn’t to say “Nerve” plays it safe before Crichton is captured. When Crichton reveals his plan to save Aeryn, he interacts with his shipmates less like a driven hero than like a petulant child, coldly accusing D’Argo and the others of not caring whether Aeryn lives or dies. And as much as this story is driven by Crichton’s love for Aeryn, the episode doesn’t shy away from the sexual side of Crichton and Chiana’s relationship. In previous DVD commentaries, Ben Browder has explained how he took any opportunity for Crichton to get physically close to Aeryn in the early episodes as a way to demonstrate that bond. Now, if anything, he gets even closer to Gigi Edgley’s Chiana, who is in pure, unabashed seductress mode throughout. The episode doesn’t make anything of the obvious spark between the human and the Nebari beyond forcing us to recognize that it exists, and its presence adds extra, only mildly uncomfortable energy to the proceedings. Then again, Chiana acts that way with everybody—all part of her entirely sensible plan to keep the attention away from Crichton—but the line between fiction and reality is occasionally blurred, such as when Chiana complains to Javio about  running from system to system with a guy who’s got a talent for getting into danger.

Crichton busts out his gloriously—and, in case there’s any doubt left after last week’s discussions, I think we can safely say intentionally—awful Peacekeeper accent as he impersonates the dead Larraq. His disguise is even less convincing that it was in “A Bug’s Life,” and he doesn’t have the advantage of only having to fool a few exhausted, battle-weary commandoes. But the subterfuge works far longer than it should, and that indicates just how psychotic Peacekeeper command structure is. That’s not exactly a surprising revelation, considering this is the organization that gave positions of authority to the likes of Bialar Crais and the flagrantly corrupt Commander Javio, but it’s remarkable to see just how far Crichton can get on bluster and imperiousness alone (not forgetting some crucial assistance from Chiana and Gilina). The Peacekeepers are a fundamentally myopic, secretive outfit, one in which nobody ever knows what anybody else is doing, and, shockingly enough, that’s no way to run an interstellar military. We’ve already been given several indications that the Peacekeepers, whatever their hidden virtues, are fundamentally broken—the existence of Crais, for a start—but the success of Crichton’s ruse is perhaps the most damning indictment yet.

The one big thing working in Crichton’s favor is that he never breaks character, even when he faces seemingly impossible situations. When the genetic scan is about to reveal he isn’t Sebacean, Crichton doesn’t waver from his supercilious persona, and even after he awakens strapped into the Aurora Chair he still insists in his best Peacekeeper diction that he is Larraq. If nothing else, Crichton is a stubborn bastard, and once he commits to something, there’s no stopping him. That’s part of what makes his experiences in the Aurora Chair so heartbreaking. Crichton, whose unconventional heroism is so fundamentally intertwined with his indomitable spirit, is broken quickly, absolutely, and irrevocably. With minimal effort, Scorpius gains access to corners of Crichton’s mind that were off-limits even to its owner, as we learn Jack the Ancient from “A Human Reaction” left Crichton with hidden knowledge about wormholes.

While it will take some time for the full implications of that revelation to become clear, it’s fair to say that the show has now found a powerful driving force for its future conflicts. The original wormhole was just a plot device, an effective way to send Crichton to a weird, alien universe. But a phenomenon that allows near-instantaneous travel across such unimaginably vast distances has great potential as a weapon, particularly to the sort of person who apparently heard of the intellant virus from “A Bug’s Life” and said, “Yes, we can tame that.” As soon as Farscape acknowledges wormholes are comprehensible to and perhaps even replicable by lesser beings, they become unfathomably dangerous. In the short term, this is just a handy excuse for Scorpius to decide against melting Crichton’s brain, but that’s only the beginning.

My favorite moment in “Nerve” comes during one of Crichton’s recuperation periods in his cell. As part of his interrogation efforts, Scorpius enlists the assistance of Crais. The renegade captain hasn’t appeared much this season—before this, we only actually saw him in “Premiere,” “That Old Black Magic,” and as a hologram in “Till The Blood Runs Clear”—but he has still been the show’s primary antagonist, and his psychotic chase has profoundly shaped the decisions of Crichton and his shipmates. Before flying down to the Gammak Base, it seems fair to say that one of Crichton’s worst nightmares would be to find himself captured by the Peacekeepers at Crais’ mercy. But when that moment arrives, Crichton bursts out laughing. There’s a few ways to interpret that reaction—Crichton could be broken further at the sight of this fresh hell, he could be laughing at the idea that his current situation could possibly get worse, or he could even be perversely glad to see someone, anyone who isn’t Scorpius—but I tend to see it as a half-insane Crichton being confronted with all the fears and challenges that defined the first season and then realizing that they are nothing compared to the situation in which he now finds himself. At point, what else is there to do but laugh? It’s that moment when the Crichton we first met is lost forever.

Stray observations:

  • Back on Moya, D’Argo shows his own growth when he devises a plan to save Aeryn, despite her apparent wish to die like a soldier. D’Argo says he doubts Aeryn truly wishes to die at all, and he admits he personally can’t stand to let her die, but he also begs Zhaan to not reveal the truth to Aeryn about his decision—only for Aeryn to reveal she knows who saved her, as she thanks him for his actions. This subplot only takes up probably about 5 minutes of the episode, but it hits all the right notes.
  • I’m not entirely sold on Chiana’s disguise; it’s more obvious once she gets back on Moya that she’s wearing makeup that makes her complexion look less gray, but that doesn’t read quite as well back on the Gammak base. It’s a clever idea, and it’s not meant to be all that convincing, since Commander Javio sees through it instantly, but it’s the one element in this episode that isn’t entirely successful.
  • Let me just use this space to praise Richard Manning’s script and Rowan Woods’ direction on “Nerve” and Justin Mongo’s script and Ian Watson’s direction on “The Hidden Memory.” The look and feel of both these episodes is once again like nothing Farscape has done before, and the confidence all four show in crafting their parts of the overall experience is just remarkable.

“The Hidden Memory” (season 1, episode 20; originally aired 1/14/2000)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“I’m coming with you. If you can be an idiot, I can be an idiot.”

Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon has referred to this two-parter as “our first Farscape feature,” and it’s not hard to see why. This is an altogether more ambitious story in scale and scope than anything that precedes it; “A Human Reaction” also felt like a movie, but that was still only a single episode. And yet, for all the spectacle of these episodes, they never lose sight of what always set Farscape apart from its sci-fi compatriots, and that’s its characters. In particular, “The Hidden Memory” is distinguished not by its action and bombast but rather by its characterization.

Take Paul Goddard’s Stark, for instance. When first introduced in “Nerve,” he’s a mildly interesting but familiar type, the mad prisoner meant to remove the last scrap of comfort from Crichton as he rots away in his cell. At the beginning of this episode, Crichton testily wonders whether Stark is actually spying for Scorpius, and I’d say a healthy percentage of shows would indeed go that route. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with that creative choice; it further robs Crichton of his last vestiges of a support network, and it emphasizes both his isolation and Scorpius’ omnipotence. But the episode also respects Stark as a character, even though we’ve only just met him, and Goddard makes the most of his opportunity. Once his insanity is exposed as a ruse, he still shows a harsh edge, but he soon recognizes that he need not push Crichton towards his doom just to save himself. Stark’s speech about his strange gift and the Banik slave race only sort of made sense—and I’m pretty sure his history is going to get revised a few times anyway, so the exact words don’t really matter—but Goddard plays the scene in which he saves Crichton’s mind with vast, quietly alien compassion. Stark’s sanity may be little more fathomable to us than his insanity, but he proves an invaluable ally and someone worth seeing again.

With all due respect to Stark, the big addition to the Farscape mythos in the two-parter is Scorpius. Sporting misshapen features and wearing what can only be described as an intergalactic gimp suit, Scorpius is an intimidating, unnerving presence from his very first moment, and the scariest thing about him is that he never gets angry. As he explains to the flippant Crichton, he long ago learned the value of patience, and he approaches every decision with a cold, logical eye. Scorpius has the Aurora Chair—I don’t think it’s ever explicitly stated that he invented the thing, but that’s certainly a reasonable assumption—and it can unlock the truths in anyone’s mind, so there’s never a good reason not to use it. There might be a tactical advantage to leaving Crais alone, especially considering Crichton’s memory really is pretty obviously fake, but Scorpius shows no interest in the psychology of his opponents—or, perhaps more accurately, his pawns. He prizes wormhole knowledge above all else, and he needs both information and power to obtain those secrets, and so all his decisions logically flow from there.

Again, I’ll try not to get too far ahead of myself, but suffice it to say that as good as Wayne Pygram is in these two episodes, he is going to get so much better later on. Scorpius here is much like Crais in “Premiere,” as both are the obvious, unsympathetic antagonists of the story. Scorpius is more immediately compelling than the relatively cartoonish Crais was in his debut, but Scorpius holds such absolute power over Crichton that Pygram can only play a relatively narrow range. He’s already more than a stock villain, but his character can be reduced to the rational counterpart to the animalistic Crais. His outfit notwithstanding, there isn’t a hint of sadism in Scorpius’ torture of Stark, Crichton, or Crais; it feels like there ought to be, but every time a normal villain would betray some hint of sick glee, Scorpius simply responds with detached puzzlement at his subjects’ continued resistance. Still, we know nothing about Scorpius at this stage, so he can only be rational. It’s as we learn more about him and Pygram grows more comfortable in the role that Scorpius becomes reasonable, and that’s when the character becomes truly frightening.

With her paraphoral nerve only barely just regenerated, Aeryn Sun launches her own daring rescue mission to save Crichton. The fact that she, D’Argo, and Zhaan would do such a thing for Crichton is already an important moment for their characters, but everything we need to know about where Aeryn now stands as a character can be found in her big confrontation with an Aurora Chair-bound Crais. The scene reminds us that Crais destroyed Aeryn’s life even more completely than he did Crichton’s, and yet he’s less aware of this relationship than we are, as he doesn’t recognize the voice of the woman he declared irreversibly contaminated. Claudia Black reaches a new level with her crucial line, in which she tells Crais everything she lost isn’t worth a damn, but the entire scene is remarkable. At Crais’ most vulnerable moment, Lani Tupu plays him with primal, animalistic fury; even after being thoroughly outmaneuvered byScorpius, Crais is arguably never scarier than in the moment he vows to kill Officer Sun. Aeryn’s decision to leave Crais in psychic agony is the only proper end to this confrontation between these two characters. As I’ve observed in previous reviews, the Peacekeeper life has left both these soldiers damaged, emotionally immature individuals, and no matter how far Aeryn has come, she still has no compunction about a little vengeance.

And then there’s Gilina. Alyssa-Jane Cook finds herself in an unenviable position here, asked to pick up exactly where she left off in “PK Tech Girl” when Crichton and the rest of the show have moved so far from that point. Even though it’s only been a dozen episodes since she last appeared—and even though her debut felt like a major leap forward for the show in terms of maturity and complexity—Gilina still feels like a relic from a simpler, more innocent time for the show. After all, since the two last met, Crichton has dealt with Maldis, Namtar, doglike bounty hunters, rogue Delvians, the Nebari, the Ancients, a dimensional schism, and a body-snatching virus. In all likelihood, Gilina just returned to her fairly dull life as a Peacekeeper tech. Meeting Crichton was the most exciting thing that happened to her, but for Crichton, their brief encounter is just a distant memory, particularly when he’s had nearly a cycle to bond with Aeryn. What once seemed like an instant spark now just seems like a staid, courtly love bereft of passion; compare how Gilina’s eyebrow kisses are treated in “PK Tech Girl” with how they are portrayed here.

That assessment is a little unfair to Gilina, and the episode does make it clear that she is every bit as capable as Aeryn, albeit in vastly different ways. She shows remarkably quick thinking in getting Crichton through the genetic scan in “Nerve,” and she actually manages to outwit Scorpius with the fake memory, or at least force him to shift focus to Crais. Aeryn is only alive because of Crichton, and Crichton is only free because of Aeryn, but they and their shipmates only escape this episode because of Gilina’s efforts. She’s a loose end, but she’s also still a character in her own right, and her death feels like more than a cheap way to remove her as an obstacle to Crichton and Aeryn. The love triangle is a tricky element, in that neither Crichton nor Aeryn admits that it exists, and Cook’s biggest achievement here is making the romance not seem like a total nuisance that distracts from everything else going on.

It’s easy to sympathize with Crichton, who is too busy getting tortured to really think about his love life, and I don’t think he actually asks Gilina to come with him, at least not until the big escape; that’s just a lie Chiana tells to mollify the Peacekeeper. But as Gilina observes, there will never be a perfect, peaceful time for them to discuss their situation, and Crichton must eventually be honest, even when it’s easier to duck the issue. After all, Chiana is only in a position to lie because Crichton can’t bring himself to tell the truth during his first encounter with Gilina. I’m not entirely sure Crichton leads her on, if only because I’m not sure even Crichton knows what he really wants with Aeryn, but he clearly no longer reciprocates Gilina’s feelings. As harsh as it sounds, his reaction when he first sees Gilina suggest he’s just dumbfounded to see her again, and she means nothing to him beyond being a pleasant but half-forgotten memory of a faraway time.

As I’ve previously suggested, this two-parter draws a dividing line between all that came before it and all that lies ahead; neither Crichton nor Farscape in general can ever be the same after what happens here. But that doesn’t mean the first season becomes any less important, or that the decisions Crichton made when he was a very different person still can’t affect him later on. The past is never truly buried on Farscape, and Gilina’s death is a final, poignant reminder of the dire potential consequences of any of Crichton’s actions, especially now that he’s attracted the attention of the likes of Scorpius. Gilina isn’t the only character who dies at the end of this episode. The John Crichton we knew is gone, and there’s no easy answer as to where this shattered, damaged Crichton goes from here.

Stray observations:

  • In the midst of all this, Moya gives birth, and her son is no normal Leviathan but rather an unprecedented Leviathan-Peacekeeper hybrid. I’ll save discussion of this for subsequent reviews, but I will point to Chiana’s role in this subplot. Without Crichton or any of her competent shipmates to help out, she is forced to take the lead in saving Moya and her child, and she shows a Crichton-like flair for bravery and quick thinking. After helping out in the most Chiana way possible in “Nerve,” it’s nice to see that she is also growing as a person.
  • Ben Browder is generally great as the tortured Crichton, although I also love his bizarrely mundane irritation when he declares, “All right, let’s go bag a senior officer.” Even at his worst moment, Crichton doesn’t even think of giving up. I said earlier that Crichton is broken by his experiences here, and while I think that’s a fair assessment, I should point out that he showed unusual resistance and mental strength in blocking the memory for as long as he did. Once again, if Crichton is a hero, it’s because he never gives up, no matter how out of his depth he is; as a great alien once observed, human beings—and Crichton in particular—really are indomitable.

Next week: We wrap up the first season with “Bone To Be Wild” and “Family Ties.”

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