Farscape: “Out Of Their Minds”/“My Three Crichtons”

Farscape: “Out Of Their Minds”/“My Three Crichtons”

“Out Of Their Minds” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 7/7/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“No, no, that's all right. We do that sort of thing all the time, here on Moya. I just peed in the maintenance bay!”

Body switch episodes are always, on some level, a bit frivolous. By their nature, a major part of such episodes’ appeal is the curious thrill of watching actors impersonate one another. In narrative terms, such an exercise might help illuminate the fundamental aspects of characters, revealing what elements of these fictitious beings exist irrespective of the real people playing them, but this component of the episode is generally a distant second to discovering which cast members are the most gifted mimics. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but it’s worth recognizing that an episode like “Out Of Their Minds” engages viewers on a more meta-fictional level than most others; it asks the audience to forget about the suspension of disbelief in favor of a keen awareness of the episode’s dizzying technical complexity, most obviously for its actors.

This episode is something I often consider the third part of a loose trilogy of standalone, Moya-bound Farscape episodes that also comprises “Through The Looking Glass” and “Crackers Don’t Matter.” All three turn the show’s focus squarely back on its central cast, and all three episodes force the shipmates through some bizarre, not terribly pleasant gauntlets. The specific contours of each ordeal are quite different, but all feature a generous heaping of Farscape’s fearlessly abrasive weirdness, and both of the season two examples lean heavily on the show’s willingness to infuse standard sci-fi stories with sex, albeit often in rather disturbing ways. Any halfway mature exploration of the body switch story really does have to acknowledge the temptation for a wayward mind to play around with or otherwise misuse its new body. There are thorny, fiendishly complicated issues of personal space, ownership of one’s body, and consent that underlie such stories, and “Out Of Their Minds” essentially decides to play all these for laughs. That could prove disastrous, but the horniness of the Moya crew is long established, so their libertine view of each other’s inter-body hanky-panky seems entirely in character.

Michael Cassutt’s script makes one particularly clever decision by splitting the crew into two groups of three and containing any switches to within those two groups. On a purely practical level, it’s much easier to remember where, say, D’Argo is when the only options are Pilot and Chiana; there’s still a lot for the audience to keep track of in this episode, but it’s slightly easier here than if it had been a total free-for-all. More importantly, there’s a clear difference in how the episode treats the two groups. The trio of Crichton, Aeryn, and Rygel is primarily comedic, whereas the trio of Pilot, D’Argo, and Chiana sets up more opportunities for drama and pathos. The episode’s handling of each trio seems to flow from the respective puppets involved. Rygel’s Hynerian mind might make sense in a Hynerian body, but both are utterly ridiculous when involved in any mixing or matching, which sets up plenty of opportunities for winningly silly comedy. Pilot’s psychology and physiology, on the other hand, are so utterly unlike those of anyone else onboard that he can barely survive the experience of being in someone else’s body. It’s also worth noting that while the shipmates’ minds might switch, their physical brains don’t, and a major plot point in “Out Of Their Minds” is that the characters have to get used to experiencing the world using totally unfamiliar cognitive architecture.

But let’s delay no longer in tackling the question on everybody’s, well, minds: Who impersonates who the best? There’s plenty of room for debate here, but I’d have to say the winner is Gigi Edgley as Pilot. She has some advantages, admittedly; the simple fact that she’s impersonating a puppet means there’s more room for a performance as opposed to mimicry, and the scene in which Pilot and D’Argo discuss the value of their memories and experiences is the episode’s best-written, most insightful exchange. But it isn’t just that conversation that makes her work so good; Pilot’s initial, weakened attempt to talk D’Argo through Moya’s higher functions leaves no doubt that Chiana is no longer in residence in her own body. Edgley is able to submerge her usual persona in a way that sometimes eludes the other cast members.

For instance, Anthony Simcoe’s initial performance as Chiana is a fraction too campy and over-the-top, as though this person isn’t Chiana but rather D’Argo doing a mildly mocking impersonation of Chiana. It’s definitely not a bad performance, but it goes back to my initial point; it draws more attention to body switch episodes as an acting exercise. It’s tremendous fun watching Claudia Black impersonate Ben Browder and vice versa, but there’s a reason I talk about that in terms of the actors instead of the characters. For those two, they are slightly hamstrung by the fact that Aeryn and Crichton are too busy saving the day to have much time for character moments—well, except when Crichton decides to spend some quality time with Aeryn’s breasts, which really has to be considered one of the dozen or so perfect encapsulations of what Farscape is all about.

When the script can find time for character scenes, the results can be stunning. Simcoe is fine as Chiana for most of the episode, but he really locks into the character when Chiana decides to seduce Rygel and try to leave the ship. Refreshingly for a show made in 2000—hell, it would still be refreshing in 2013—no mention is made of the fact that Chiana’s latest offer of sexual companionship involves a pair of male bodies. Simcoe is suddenly deadly serious in his realization of Chiana, and Ben Browder nicely matches the scene’s deeply bizarre energy as a tempted but resistant Rygel. Part of why the scene is so fascinating is that neither character cares much at all about their friends; Chiana’s suggestion that she and Rygel should just run away with D’Argo’s and Crichton’s bodies really must be her most selfish moment, or at least one of the final contenders for that prize. Unsurprisingly, Rygel’s ultimate refusal has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with practical politics; he can’t reclaim his throne in anything other than a royal Hynerian body, and he has no reason to live without the dream of someday reclaiming his birthright.

Zhaan is the only main character to sit out the body-switching fun, although she does set up one of the episode’s best little exchanges as Rygel, Crichton, and Aeryn convince her to fire on Moya one final time. Again, it’s fun to look at that scene just from an acting perspective—after all, Ben Browder has to impersonate Aeryn impersonating Crichton—but Rygel’s rather justified complaints about how no one ever listens to him adds a strong character component. Zhaan also learns some vital new information from her time onboard the Halosian vessel, as she discovers that Talyn initially crippled the alien vessel. This is an ingenious way to tie a resolutely standalone story into the show’s larger narrative, as the body-switching is just an indirect—make that very indirect, given the insanely specific combination of factors needed to initiate the switching—effect of Crais’ continued exploration of the universe. For now, he is vindicated, as it turns out the Halosians were the aggressors when they crossed paths with Talyn. But that’s an ongoing story that can safely be left for another time, because “Out Of Their Minds” is a gloriously fun hour of Farscape. That’s something worth cherishing, as there’s always the potential for something much, much darker next week.

Stray observations:

  • A dark horse contender for best impersonation: Lani Tupu as D’Argo. It helps that Tupu’s voice is fairly close to Anthony Simcoe’s, but he has to carefully avoid making his D’Argo voice sound too much like the one he uses for Crais. Some credit also needs to go to the puppeteers, who subtly alter Pilot’s mannerisms to reflect whoever occupies his body at any given point.
  • For all you Dark Crystal fans out there—yes, the Halosians are very much based on the Skeksis, according to creature designer Dave Elsey.
  • The one minor unanswered question I have about this episode: why exactly does Crichton have a bunch of headshots of his shipmates just lying around?

“My Three Crichtons” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 7/14/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“Oh, please. This is not me. This is some kind of clone or something, gone wrong.” “Yeah, but how does he... how does he know everyone? It's like he's got your memories.” “Chiana, half of this galaxy has my memories.”

Science fiction has a well-documented, frequently laudable history as a means to explore challenging social and moral issues. That’s pretty much the precise, if oversimplified, reason why Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone, and the original Star Trek in particular and the franchise in general frequently used its space opera setting to launch thinly veiled examinations of difficult, hot-button topics. More recently, the Battlestar Galactica reboot is arguably the definitive examination of last decade’s most pressing political debates, for better or worse. For its part, Farscape hasn’t really made social commentary a major part of its storytelling toolkit, but it certainly likes to present its characters with fiendishly difficult moral conundrums.

“My Three Crichtons” is unusual in that the dilemma it presents—whether John should sacrifice his caveman duplicate to save everyone onboard—is hopelessly abstract to everyone except John. It’s possible to see this episode as an allegory about the ethics of cloning, but I think that would miss the point. Instead, the focus remains on Crichton as a character, not just in how he approaches the problem but in how he defines it in the first place. Crichton recognizes the problem as insoluble—the only morally unambiguous solution would be to turn himself over to the probe, and he sure as frell isn’t going to do that—but he can’t bring himself to murder those who are essentially himself. He leaves himself at the mercy of his future self, and he requires a noble sacrifice from his past self to resolve everything neatly, but it says a lot about just who John Crichton is that he would rather die than cross certain moral lines, even if none of his friends can really understand why he would act in this way.

After a few episodes of moderate stability, this episode brings out the crazier side of Crichton once again. Although he’s not as volatile or twitchy as he once was, he is stubborn well past the point of reason, and he even projects some subtle menace when Aeryn takes vital equipment out of his module to fix her Prowler. Basically, he’s now fundamentally unreasonable, whereas once he was someone who relied on reason to guide him through an insane universe. If the probe had enveloped him back in season one, he undoubtedly would have objected to killing the caveman duplicate. The only difference is that he might have been able to at least vaguely articulate why he couldn’t allow his primitive alternate self to die. He might also have greeted the savage with slightly less hostile indifference. He treats this entire story as a massive pain in the ass, which really does seem like a reasonable reaction. It’s a good reminder that Crichton and company may be travelers, but they aren’t really explorers. The basic premise of this story could have worked quite well as a Star Trek story, and it’s easy to see Captain Picard or Mr. Spock greeting the duplication process with earnest fascination. Crichton’s scientific curiosity was extinguished long ago, and his difficulty dealing with all aspects of this latest burst of insanity ends up shaping much of the plot.

The episode leaves some mystery as to the exact nature of the duplicates, but the behavior of the future Crichton—referred to in Grant McAloon’s script as Futuro, while the Caveman was Neandro—suggests that all three duplicates start out mentally as the Crichton we know. It’s possible that Futuro had already initiated his subterfuge from the moment he first popped out of the bubble, but that interpretation makes him a tad too Machiavellian and undermines what makes him so fascinating as a character. When the naked Futuro first emerges from the bubble, he acts just like the normal John. In his later exchange with Zhaan about his sudden ability to comprehend in moments topics that had baffled him for months, Futuro implies that he is effectively growing into his new mind, tapping into the sudden boost in cognitive resources. This then dovetails neatly with how “Out Of Their Minds” approached the nature of identity. A person is hugely defined by his or her memories, and so Futuro can’t help but initially see himself as Crichton. But the mind isn’t some ineffable abstraction; it is rooted physically in the architecture of the brain, and if the brain changes its structure, then so too must the mind.

This also helps explain why Neandro initially behaves so differently from Futuro. While the latter emerges from the bubble acting much like Crichton, Neandro flies off into the bowels of Moya, acting every bit the mindless savage. That adjective may well be particularly apt, because Neandro’s brain is vastly less developed than Crichton’s; even if he still possesses all of Crichton’s memories and sees himself as Crichton, his mind has essentially collapsed in on itself, and that violent contraction leaves only blind, animal instinct. This is most obviously on display as Neandro struggles to regain the power of speech. At first, it takes tremendous effort for him just to work his mouth and vocal cords to form names like “Crichton” or “Chiana,” and it seems as though the challenge isn’t so much mental as physical, or perhaps more precisely in the mind’s control of the body. Eventually, Neandro regains—or gains, depending on one’s perspective—enough of Crichton’s intellect to understand that his existence is wrong and, more impressively, to convey this concept to his genetic template.

This is an oversimplification, but Neandro can be seen as a Crichton stripped of his intellect, while Futuro is Crichton without morality or emotion. Such a statement demands instant qualification—Neandro shows plenty of intelligence, particularly towards the end of “My Three Crichtons,” and Futuro’s homicidal drive to survive isn’t strictly logical, whatever he might think—but it’s an idea the episode itself suggests on multiple occasions, most obviously when Chiana observes that Neandro embodies all the things she ever liked about Crichton. These other Crichtons aren’t just glimpses of humanity’s evolutionary past and potential future; they are who Crichton might have been if he had been born 50,000 years too early or too late. Chiana’s words aren’t just revealing about Neandro, as she proves to be the only one other than Crichton who isn’t willing to sacrifice the caveman to save everyone else. An intriguing possibility is that she is finally living up to Crichton’s challenge in “Family Ties,” that she has found that someone else who needs help and is returning the favor. The episode never explicitly acknowledges it, but it’s such a perfect, Farscape-style symmetry for Chiana to repay Crichton by saving someone who is essentially Crichton—and someone who Crichton doesn’t really want saved.

“My Three Crichtons” is the first Farscape episode without any guest actors (with the possible exception of the voice of the probe), but Ben Browder’s brilliant triple performance masks that quite effectively. Futuro is the showiest of the three characters, and it’s amusing to note that Browder based his performance and especially the voice on Bill Clinton. To many audience members—not to mention the mostly Australian production team—this would have been an almost imperceptible tweak on his normal light Southern accent, but Browder’s choice does make Futuro a wonderfully, uniquely late-‘90s vision of human perfectibility. Browder pulls off a remarkably difficult acting trick with Crichton and Futuro, as both characters are quite obviously him, yet they always feel like two distinct individuals, even when just talking over the comms. The makeup does plenty of the work—indeed, the Neandro makeup completely submerges any obvious sign that Browder is also playing that part—but this episode is a powerful reminder of just how much Farscape can get out of its star.

Stray observations:

  • The probe itself is a wonderfully inexplicable creation, an extra-dimensional entity that must attune itself to human brainwaves before it can communicate at all. It’s not quite as utterly alien as the being in “Through The Looking Glass,” but it’s damn close.
  • “The first Crichton I see gets this in the back of the head!” Nobody does ruthlessly practical quite like old Rygel.
  • It just so happens that this episode first aired exactly 13 years ago today. I have no idea if such a coincidence will repeat itself, but it’s rather nifty that that even happened once.

Next week: It’s time for Farscape’s first three-parter as we “Look At The Princess.”

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