Farscape: “Rhapsody In Blue”/“The Flax”

Farscape: “Rhapsody In Blue”/“The Flax”

“Rhapsody In Blue” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 7/23/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Whilst in your mind, you have showed me the ember of my own virtue.” “Next time, ask.”

Moya is a ship of escaped prisoners, but that’s not the same thing as a ship of escaped criminals. After the revelations of “They’ve Got A Secret,” we now know that D’Argo was framed for the murder of his wife. As Dominar of the Hynerian empire, Rygel probably had more than his fair share of tyrannical moments, but he was the victim of his cousin’s palace coup, not some democratic movement. And while Aeryn might well be hiding some atrocities in her Peacekeeper past, she and Crichton are only fugitives because of Crais’ insane capriciousness. These characters may be untrustworthy, even dangerous, but on some level, they are all innocent, at least in the sense that none of them deserve to be in Peacekeeper custody. But then there’s Zhaan, who is completely, unequivocally guilty of her crime. Indeed, as a horrified Crichton learns, she actually murdered the last man she loved in cold blood.

The main purpose of “Rhapsody In Blue” is to flesh out Delvian culture and Zhaan’s place in it. Since the Moya crew is still lost somewhere in the Uncharted Territories—and, just as importantly, the show’s budget places a fairly strict limit on how many blue-skinned aliens can actually appear—the episode has to explain Zhaan’s world without ever visiting it. In its place, the episode presents a breakaway sect of priests and priestesses, who fled the Peacekeeper-assisted oppression of their home planet.  There’s a ton of backstory to get through here, especially when it’s only split amongst five Delvians, and the end result are a bunch of moderately stilted scenes in which the various priests swap thinly veiled exposition. For instance, Darlene Vogel and Michael Beckley try their best with the early scene in which Hasko lectures Lorana about the perils of Tahleen’s approach, but the scene is ultimately two characters we have only just met talking about some other character we have only just met. The actors don’t know their characters—or even their characters’ species—well enough yet to convey the complicated emotions the scene would require to really work. Hasko is petulant and Lorana is dismissive, but there isn’t much nuance beyond that.

Admittedly, these problems could theoretically be extended to just about any Farscape guest alien, although the Delvians are unusual in that they don’t actually interact with the main characters for much of the episode; Zhaan has some scenes with Tahleen, but once they share unity and Zhaan is driven insane, Tahleen mostly just deals with her fellow missionaries. David Kemper’s script gives the Delvians tremendous power, which they use to distract the Moya crew and keep them away. While that makes sense from a story perspective, it’s more questionable in terms of the individual characters; with Crichton or the rest of the crew unable to act as a focal point, it’s harder for the audience to connect with the Delvians. It doesn’t help that the Delvians’ defining features are their telepathic abilities and their spirituality, which are both difficult to make into compelling television.  It’s especially hard to convey clear dramatic stakes when so much of the action takes place in the characters’ minds; it’s revealed that Zhaan is unique in her ability to explore her dark side without going mad, and Tahleen hopes to augment her own powers with this skill, which Tuzak says his daughter will use both to kill and possibly to liberate her fellow Delvians. These plot points all make sense in the abstract, and they are defined well enough to justify Tahleen’s villainy, but they don’t carry much weight emotionally.

Despite all that, “Rhapsody In Blue” is a largely successful episode, and a lot of that is down to Virginia Hey’s performance as Zhaan. Hey is far more experienced than the other Delvian actors in finding the emotional core that underlies her monologues. She makes the most of her showier scenes, like when she explains why she committed her crime to Crichton or when she, newly insane, playfully reveals her plans to kill Tahleen. But she also is able to lend much-needed weight to quieter exchanges, as when she praises the mad Tuzak for his teaches and he commends her for her choice of murder victims. “Rhapsody In Blue” gives Zhaan the spotlight much as “They’ve Got A Secret” did for D’Argo, and if this episode is not as immediately accessible as the previous one, that’s likely because the Luxan has shown a more human emotional register. Zhaan goes straight from serene to murderously insane, and the script doesn’t even really try to make these two facets of the character coherent. Tahleen’s betrayal during unity effectively robs Zhaan of part of her mind, part of her very soul, so the madwoman who emerges is not the Zhaan we know. Virginia Hey fully commits to each different Zhaan, creating the emotional arc that drives “Rhapsody In Blue.”

Zhaan’s crewmates spend much of the episode distracted by the Delvian mindfrells. It’s instructive to look at the different ways in which the priests mentally cripple the crew. D’Argo, unsurprisingly, forgets about everything else when he believes his son Jothee is being chased by Peacekeepers. The episode makes explicit Rygel’s latent insecurities when he believes he has shrunk to an even smaller size. The way that Aeryn is immobilized is particularly revealing; whereas the Delvians manipulate the other characters’ deepest fears and desires, Aeryn has no such vulnerabilities to play on, so a more direct approach is required; the priests simply knock out the part of Aeryn’s brain that knows how to use a weapon. It’s a fiercely logical, unemotional approach to a character, and it implies that, for all Aeryn’s growth over the last few episodes, she is still a shallow person. She’s quickly learning about her emotions and her potential, but she doesn’t yet have a history that can be abused.

Crichton, meanwhile, spends most of the episode hallucinating Alex, an old girlfriend from back on Earth. Neither the script nor Ben Browder and Darlene Vogel’s performances suggest this was some epic romance. Instead, Alex represents a love that just never quite worked out, and a connection to a world Crichton may never see again. “Rhapsody In Blue” is at its most daring in its treatment of Crichton’s fantasies; every time it appears our great human hero is on the verge of figuring out the deception, the Delvians push again, and his memories rearrange to accept the new reality. Crichton’s personality and concern for Zhaan remain unchanged, but he is forced to split time between her and Alex, who he soon believes to have been his copilot on Farscape-1. That fantasy lasts right up to when, in the episode’s cleverest move, he tries to convince Alex that she is real, that her claim that she doesn’t exist is itself Delvian trickery.

Crichton’s fundamental decency is what ultimately convinces Lorana to release him—although he does quite understandably reprimand her for invading his mind to discover that decency—and it’s his belief in Zhaan that allows him to survive unity and restore his friend’s sanity, as he shares with her how he sees her. It’s a great character moment to build the climax around, especially since there’s no real guarantee that Crichton will survive Delvian unity with his mind intact. “Rhapsody In Blue” isn’t entirely successful, but the episode works because it ably explains just who Zhaan is and why she matters so much to Crichton.

Stray observations:

  • “Little long for a starburst, don't you think?” “Hail prince of the obvious.” Rygel’s line there is one of Farscape’s most successful instances of putting a little alien spin on a familiar turn of phrase.
  • Crichton and Aeryn share a scene early in the episode in which the former marvels at a creature living in the Delvians’ pond. The scene doesn’t have anything to do with the plot—I’m guessing this scene was cut for the shorter American edit—but it’s a worthwhile reminder of just how wondrous and alien this universe still is for Crichton. He isn’t just reminding Aeryn to be amazed; he’s telling us not to take all this for granted either.
  • Zhaan’s explanation of why she killed Bitaal features an interesting detail about the Peacekeepers’ role in this galaxy; while they are happy to oppress Zhaan and her fellow dissidents, they only invaded Delvia because the conservative Pa’us invited them to come and impose their own fascist brand of order. Like Aeryn and even Crais, the Peacekeepers in general aren’t evil, exactly—they’re just utterly amoral.
  • “It's like Disney on acid! Ten years of really great sex all at the same moment!” Unity already succeeds on a visual perspective, but Crichton’s line—and Ben Browder’s delivery—really sell the thing as a concept.
  • One of the more intriguing aspects of this episode is Darlene Vogel’s dual role, as she plays both Alex and Lorana. While the Delvian makeup is so good that it’s not immediately obvious (at least not to me) that the characters are played by the same person, it is a little weird that Lorana is the only Delvian who spoke with an American accent; I do kind of wish Vogel had affected an Australian accent for Lorana to match the others. It’s a minor point, perhaps, but it doesn’t help my general reaction that something is a bit off about the episode’s portrayal of the Delvians. Anyway, the big reveal also calls into question whether Alex actually looked that much like Lorana, or whether that’s just more Delvian trickery—indeed, it’s been suggested that Alex might just be a figment of Crichton’s imagination.

“The Flax” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 7/16/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“I thought Peacekeepers were trained to fight alone, survive alone. Die alone.” “Well, it appears my training is failing me. I don't want to die alone.”

“The Flax” is about as close to a straightforward Farscape episode as any we have yet seen. The episode opens with Aeryn giving Crichton a flying lesson, which goes really well right up to the point where their transport pod is ensnared in a gargantuan energy web, leaving them completely isolated from the rest of the universe. The episode is designed to trap Aeryn and Crichton in a confined space and see how their relationship progresses, which means Crichton doesn’t really get a chance to grapple with some impossible scientific mystery like he did in previous space-based episodes like “Exodus From Genesis,” “Back And Back To The Future,” or “They’ve Got A Secret.” This episode is one of the first to take the incredible nature of this universe for granted, or, perhaps more accurately, it skips past the part where Crichton or the other characters have to grapple with the latest unfathomable phenomenon and slowly understand how it works. Crichton and Aeryn never learn on-screen just what they are trapped within—they just know that they have no chance of escape, which is all that matters—and D’Argo and the others are helpfully told all about the Flax by the ex-pirate Staanz.

John and Aeryn’s story reaches one hell of a climax, but it takes a little while to get there. Until the moment when the pair realize they need to vent all the atmosphere out of the transport pod in order to affect life-saving repairs, their time together is fine but not exceedingly compelling. The two talk some more about the differences between humans and Peacekeepers, with Aeryn mentioning that even the worst recruit is a quicker learner than Crichton, and once they are caught in the Flax, they spend most of their time fixing the ship, trying to escape, and sending out a distress buoy. It’s after the last of these that the episode acknowledges how little Crichton and Aeryn are really interacting; after Crichton observes that all they can do now is wait for their crewmates to rescue them, they share a meaningful stare and then immediately decide to get back to work on the propulsion system and environmentals. That exchange makes it clear that a lot of their story is about what is not being said, but as effective as that moment is in capturing their awkwardness, it does make it clear that the most compelling part of Aeryn and Crichton’s story has been left in the background.

Aeryn’s discovery that they have only one working spacesuit between them—and Crichton’s subsequent realization that his is the cracked one—ratchets up the tension, setting up a climax where Aeryn has to kill Crichton in order to save him. Crichton treats the prospect of temporary death with the gravity it deserves, musing about human and Peacekeeper conceptions of the afterlife and teaching Aeryn CPR, which proves an extremely good idea. Crichton places an unprecedented amount of trust in Aeryn here, and she repays him by choosing to save both of them temporarily rather than sacrifice Crichton so that she can complete the repairs and survive. It’s a very non-Peacekeeper decision, particularly when she admits that she doesn’t want to die alone. That admission leads to their big romantic embrace, one that we know will be interrupted by D’Argo showing up to save them. To Farscape’s immense credit, “The Flax” doesn’t interrupt Aeryn and Crichton just as they are about to kiss, as tends to be the norm in these situations; the two blast right by their kiss and are about to have sex before they are interrupted. The two ultimately dismiss this as a mistake made in the heat of the moment, but this is still a great early example of Farscape’s frankness regarding sex.

Elsewhere in the episode, the rest of the crew is left to deal with the Zenetan pirates. Rhys Muldoon turns in a fun performance as the fast-talking scoundrel Staanz, with the character proving a particularly effective comedic and ultimately dramatic foil for Ka D’Argo. The Luxan is angrier than usual, ostensibly because his species’ enhanced olfactory sense makes it particularly unbearable to be onboard the pregnant Moya and Staanz’s disgusting wreck of a ship. But just when it seems D’Argo is about to kill Staanz for looting a dead Luxan’s boots, the show once again pivots away from the honorable warrior archetype. D’Argo might not be happy about Staanz stealing the boots, but he reveals that his primary interest is in just where they came from; when Staanz tells him that there’s a Luxan ship still caught somewhere in the Flax, D’Argo puts aside his misgivings about this ex-pirate for the sake of finding the ship and its star charts. It’s a great moment because it once again personalizes the episode’s stakes. It allows Anthony Simcoe to play D’Argo as a devoted father rather than as some alien warrior, and it sets up the beautifully played moment when D’Argo abandons the Luxan ship in order to save Crichton and Aeryn. His code as a Luxan warrior might well stretch enough to let him abandon them, particularly if he does it for the sake of family, but it’s his love for Jothee that forces D’Argo to save them, as he wants to be able to look his son in the eye when he finally sees them.

While Staanz and D’Argo prove a funny pairing, their last big joke doesn’t really land. The one major bit of alien weirdness in “The Flax” is Staanz’s gender, as she explains she is the female of the species, and indeed quite the Zenetan beauty. This twist is set up earlier in the episode when Zhaan comments on Staanz’s apparent missing genitalia, but that’s not enough setup for the reveal to work. Staanz’s old captain Kcrackic refers to her using a male pronoun, which might suggest Staanz pretended to be male while serving onboard the pirate ship—certainly something with plenty of precedent here on Earth—but that feels like cheating, an unfair misdirect meant purely to hide the big reveal. With so little context, Staanz’s big reveal plays more like a bad sex joke, especially when her honesty is wrapped up in passionate, pathetic declarations of love for D’Argo. The whole thing is deeply silly and has some rather uncomfortable implications. It doesn’t hurt the episode unduly, but Farscape can do better than this—indeed, between this and Aeryn and John’s final scene on the pod, “The Flax” simultaneously features some of the show’s very worst and very best depictions of sex.

Unexpectedly, it might actually be Rygel who gets the best story in “The Flax,” which is particularly impressive when you consider he spends the entire episode playing a board game with incomprehensible rules. All the audience really needs to know about tadek is that bluffing is a crucial aspect of gameplay, and Rygel hoodwinks everyone when Kcrackic and the Zenetans board Moya. To Zhaan’s mounting horror, Rygel loses badly to Kcrackic, and his one good move reveals that Staanz did indeed visit Moya. Rygel tries to bet the entire ship to stay in the game, but when Kcrackic restates that he wants nothing to do with a pregnant Leviathan, Rygel gives up Staanz and D’Argo’s whereabouts instead. The con is so effective because neither Zhaan nor the audience can really gauge Rygel’s motivations; he’s clearly sly and arrogant enough to try to fool the Zenetan captain, but he’s also stupid and arrogant enough to get in over his head. The ultimate reveal that his plan all along was to make Krackic think he had won, feed the pirate misinformation, and then send him on his way is a terrific character moment, because it doesn’t change the fact that Rygel is a complete bastard. It’s just that he’s our complete bastard… at least, he is for now.

Stray observations:

  • While I can certainly understand why Farscape didn’t do this, I almost wish that “The Flax” had focused exclusively on John and Aeryn, with their last-minute rescue being the first time we see their crewmates since the transport pod got stuck in the Flax. Admittedly, that would have put a lot of pressure on Claudia Black and Ben Browder (though I think they could have handled it) and it would have meant the Zenetans probably could not have been included, which if nothing else would have left some significant plot holes. But such singular focus would have given the episode a claustrophobic feel that would have better captured Aeryn and Crichton’s isolation on the pod.
  • This episode was produced after “Rhapsody In Blue” and the more official viewing order—the one used on the Blu-ray release, which is what I’m working from—places this one after that episode, although it did air before it and some sources do appear to place this before “The Flax.” This doesn’t matter too much, though I prefer this episode to be after “Rhapsody In Blue,” because it adds an extra layer to the scene where D’Argo points out to Zhaan that not all prisoners of the Peacekeepers were innocent.
  • “I never robbed anybody… well, I used to rob anybody… but now I'm an honest garbologist. Ask anyone. I can give you a list of names… well, it's a couple of names…” Staanz sure knows how to argue her case.
  • “Slicker than snot.” “My microbes had to have translated that wrong.”

Next week: Just about everything goes wrong in “Jeremiah Crichton” and just about everything goes right in “Durka Returns.”

Filed Under: TV, Farscape

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