Farscape: “Self-Inflicted Wounds”
Virginia Hey
Virginia Hey

Farscape: “Self-Inflicted Wounds”

Journey’s end for our wisest, bluest shipmate

“Self-Inflicted Wounds (Part 1): Could’a, Would’a, Should’a” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 3/30/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Does it ever bother you? Being selfish?” “It’s self-preservation. And no.” “What about our friends?” “What friends? We were thrown together against our will and we’re all just trying to make the best of it until we can get the chance to screw the others and get what we want.”

I really have no idea what actually happens in “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” at least in terms of the precise mechanics of the plot. I can tell you that the story is kicked off by Moya’s collision with a Pathfinder vessel, leaving them both trapped in a wormhole. I know there’s a brief period where it looks as though everyone can walk away from this relatively unscathed, and then everything goes bad, and then just it keeps getting worse. There’s a marauding, interdimensional wormhole serpent, there are invisible alien saboteurs, and there’s an unfrozen Interion screamer and self-described genius named Jool. This is Farscape storytelling not just at its most baffling, but at its most cacophonous. In its broad details, this two-parter recalls earlier trapped-on-Moya, science mystery capers going right back to “Exodus From Genesis,” with “Through The Looking Glass” standing out as a particularly strong forerunner for this story. But that tale of a triplicated Leviathan had relatively straightforward rules; the precise mechanics of that episode are absurd, but predictable enough once you understand the basics, and that story quickly streamlines its disparate elements toward Crichton’s desperate plan to save the day.

The plot of “Self-Inflicted Wounds” never quite reduces in the same way, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. The title really tells us all we need to know: Unlike most random cosmic mishaps that befall the Moya crew, this one is largely, perhaps entirely, of their own making, and nobody is more to blame than Crichton. With that framework in mind, there are individual moments where the crew’s goals become clear, but the paths to those points are difficult to chart. The closing section of the story makes it painfully clear that only one of the two ships will be able to survive the escape from the wormhole, and that somebody will need to be aboard the doomed ship when it goes. The story derives so much of its conflict from the question of Moya versus the Pathfinder vessel, but it never ever pretends that even the characters really understand what is going on; it’s telling that the supposedly adversarial Moya factions come up with the exact same plan of attack in the opening minutes of “Wait For The Wheel.” As such, it’s not such a problem for the audience to be a bit baffled, as long as they’re roughly the same amount of baffled as the shipmates themselves.

Honestly, the only particular issue here is that it’s difficult to tell just how much Crichton is really to blame for the mess that befalls Moya. We come away knowing that his initial obsessive reaction to the wormhole’s appearance is the primary reason that Moya was in the right position for the collision to occur, we know that he trusted Neeyala far more than he should have, and we know that he said a lot of heartless, spectacularly ill-time dren about how the wormhole could help him get home. I’m not entirely sure how much any of that truly affected the story’s final outcome, as it’s possible that at least one of the two vessels was doomed from the very moment that they collided; Crichton might be responsible for the collision itself, but even there Pilot appeared to be strangely unable to move Moya, irrespective of Crichton’s insistence that they stay put.

But this is the issue with attempting to evaluate a fundamentally character-focused show like Farscape in strictly plot-based terms. This is a show that is always more concerned with how its characters respond to and interact with events than with the events themselves; in that accounting, Crichton is a bastard here not so much because of the specific things that he does but because of the way in which the other characters react to him. The fact that the two opposing Moya factions come up with the same plan to deal with Neeyala is a tad confusing, but the really clear takeaway from that scene is that, for once, Crichton is being lumped in with the rash, self-interested deserters like Chiana and Rygel; hell, Chiana exhibits a level of guilt about her choice that Crichton never articulates.

It’s never good when the two most perceptive statements about our supposed hero come from Rygel and Harvey. The quote up top is especially cutting, because it’s honest. It affirms that, for all the ways in which the shipmates have suffered together and forged bonds of friendship, the same desperation and self-centeredness that governed D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel’s actions in “DNA Mad Scientist”—and, to only a slightly lesser extent, Crichton’s actions in “Till The Blood Runs Clear”—are still in effect. In Crichton’s case, it’s just that the universe has spent so much time pummeling him and grounding him down that he’s forgotten what it’s like to want his own particular thing; he’s been a half-mad survivor for so long that he can’t even perceive just how much wormholes and the prospect of a trip home really do blind him. In recent episodes, Crichton has been a vessel for terrible evil and destruction; after all, Zhaan’s sickness and eventual death here play as the culmination of plot threads set in motion by the events of “Die Me, Dichotomy.” But that was when Harvey had the power to take complete control of Crichton, leaving him helpless; here, the vestigial Harvey can only be brought out of the dumpster to tell John what he wants to hear—or, in the case of the two-parter’s final line, what he cannot bear to hear.

Still, “Self-Inflicted Wounds” is not solely Crichton’s story; indeed, we really must talk about Zhaan, but I’ll save that discussion for the second half of the review. Neeyala and the Pathfinders fit in well with the two-parter’s general elusiveness, as there’s every indication that the wormholes have allowed them to come from a long, long way away. Their ignorance of translator microbes—their concerns about alien contamination aside, it’s strongly suggested that they’re not familiar with these omnipresent translators in the first place—suggests a faraway origin, even by the other aliens’ standards, and there’s precious little we can glean about the nature of their civilization. What little we do learn is horribly contradictory: namely, the notion that a people so impossibly advanced as to build a wormhole-traversing starship would be so cruel as to hold the crew’s family hostage to ensure their good conduct. Neeyala’s own mix of tremendous intelligence and unbending ruthlessness appears typical of the Pathfinders as a whole; whatever else you want to say about the Moya crew, their own plans to murder people do tend to die in committee.

Speaking of the crew, this story may take one shipmate away, but it does add another in her place. Admittedly, I can’t imagine anyone watching “Self-Inflicted Wounds” would think that losing Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan and gaining—deep breath—Joolushko Tunai Fenta Hovalis in her stead is anything like a fair trade. It’ll be fairer to wait a few episodes before really assessing her character, but it’s remarkable just how obnoxious she is in her debut; technically, Chiana wasn’t exactly presented in a good light back in “Durka Returns,” but she came across from the start as an intriguing, beguiling presence, somebody who possessed hidden depths just waiting to be explored. Jool, on the other hand, just screams and complains a lot, and she spends a decent chunk of her time trying to kill Crichton, which is only moderately justified. Considering she knows nothing of Earth—the ostensible reason, besides guilt, that Crichton brought her pod on board in the first place—it’s hard to know what purpose she could serve, and it’s telling that Zhaan’s final line to her is just telling her to shut up.

Perhaps all we need keep in mind for now is that Farscape is about what happens in science fiction when life’s intrinsic messiness is allowed to seep in. Sometimes, one’s selfishness and poor decision-making nearly get everybody killed—and get one person actually killed—and sometimes it gets you stuck with the most annoying new shipmate imaginable. Neither is a terribly desirable outcome, but at least Jool still has the chance to surprise us. Crichton has already done as much damage as he could ever hope to do. Then again, there are always opportunities to dig a deeper hole.

Stray observations:

  • It really is so, so perfect that the artifact of Earth that Crichton discovers is an old The Three Stooges short. Apparently, the Marx brothers were also considered, but I’d say they’re just a tad too highbrow for Farscape in this instance.
  • Here’s my periodic reminder that the puppetry is just astounding on Farscape. One of the final big emotional beats of this two-parter is a scene that’s strictly between Rygel and Pilot, and their reactions are absolutely crucial to selling Zhaan’s farewell scene. Also, I think we can safely say that the Rygel puppet is paid off by this point, because Crichton gives it a beating.

“Self-Inflicted Wounds (Part 2): Wait For The Wheel” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 4/6/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“No. No more. If I am so needed, and so valued, and so wise, then you will honor my words. You will obey me. For the longest time I feared physical demise, because my spiritual essence was suspect. But now I know I’m worthy. Now I know the transgressions have melted from my soul. Now I know I shall meet my Goddess, and be accepted to her bosom. Sensitive D’Argo, exuberant Chiana, wise Rygel, selfless Aeryn, innocent Crichton. My children. My teachers. My loves. There is no guilt. There is no blame. Only what is meant to be. Grow through your mistakes, and know that if patient, redemption will find you.”

That title. “Self-Inflicted Wounds” doesn’t just describe the story of this two-parter; it describes a painful behind-the-scenes reality. For the better part of her time as a regular on Farscape, Virginia Hey was ill, and she was ill because of Zhaan. The extensive body makeup caused severe kidney problems, and the logistical requirements of the role reduced Hey’s ability to find relief in her time away from the set. Unlike, say, Anthony Simcoe, who could leave the D’Argo prosthetics behind at the end of a day’s work—albeit after several extra hours getting the stuff put on and taken off—and reenter the world as himself, Hey could never really get away from Zhaan. She had to shave her hair and her eyebrows for the role; in this archived post from 2004, she offers an impassioned explanation of just how fundamentally such a long-term physical transformation altered her sense of self. Elsewhere, Hey explains that the makeup-induced sickness began just three months into filming Farscape’s first season, and that it was only through extensive, daily meditation and spiritual healing that she found the inner strength to remain in the role. Zhaan didn’t die because Hey wanted to leave the show; the mere fact that Zhaan didn’t exit halfway through the first season lays plain just how completely Hey believed in the show. She left because, at long last, there was no other choice.

But Hey’s legacy shouldn’t be reckoned solely in terms of her sacrifice, just as Zhaan’s role on the show should not be understood purely in terms of her exit. Of Farscape’s core characters, Zhaan proved the trickiest to write, a topic I discussed in some detail back in the “Picture If You Will” review. Those difficulties have precious little to do with Hey’s acting choices in the role. Indeed, her efforts held together a character whose rampant contradictions too often came across not as deliberate ambiguity but rather uncertainty on the part of the writing staff: Does anyone remember how “Jeremiah Crichton” supposedly introduced us to a colder, crueler Zhaan? The Farscape writers didn’t often flail, but when they did, Zhaan tended to be involved. Although it’s difficult to say how much Hey’s real-life health issues affected the character’s ultimate development, we can look at this in strictly creative terms. The fundamental issue with Zhaan is that she’s a terrific supporting character who just never quite worked as a protagonist as well as the other humanoid shipmates did. Aeryn, D’Argo, and—admittedly to a lesser extent—Chiana can sub in for Crichton and take on main character duties for an episode. In practice, that never really happened for Zhaan; even supposed Zhaan-centric episodes like “Rhapsody In Blue” or “Dream A Little Dream” tend to marginalize her far more than would happen in their Aeryn or D’Argo-focused equivalents.

If you’ll forgive me for taking a line quite brazenly out of context, there’s something Zhaan says way back in “Throne For A Loss” that sums up both the beauty and the frustration of Zhaan: “Am I the only species in creation who doesn’t thrive on conflict?” In the moment, the line captures her eternally frustrated pacifism, but it’s also an inadvertent illustration of why Zhaan proved so hard to build stories around; after all, storytelling does rather demand conflict as one of its most fundamental elements. And, keep in mind, Zhaan said that way back in the fourth episode. Far more than the other characters, she began the show fully-formed. That made her a far better anchor for Crichton during his initial adjustment, but it also left her with no arc to play on-screen. The absolute most basic reason that Aeryn and D’Argo’s journeys register for us is that we actually got to see them happen. Zhaan might have traveled further than any of them, considering she went from Delvia’s leading anarchist to a 10th level Pa’u, but the vast majority of that transformation occurred before Crichton came through the wormhole, which means it’s all just so many lines of dialogue. She really only changed inasmuch as other characters’ evolutions shifted our perception of her; in the early days, when Aeryn and D’Argo treated Crichton with unabashed contempt and derision, Zhaan was a refreshingly understanding presence, but, as those two warmed to Crichton, Zhaan receded, becoming a more ethereal, alien figure in a show suddenly full of accessible, likeable people.

“Self-Inflicted Wounds” stays true to all that was ever right and all that was ever wrong about Farscape’s handling of Zhaan. Her role in the two-parter is defined almost entirely in terms of what she means to other people and what she can do for them; this characterization would appear to rob her of all agency, except this is precisely the role she chooses for herself. On a metatextual level, it’s only fitting that Zhaan would so decisively position herself as the helpful supporting character in her own big farewell showcase. In terms of the show’s universe, this two-parter makes it clear that she isn’t just a priest who happens to live on a starship, but rather she is very much this starship’s priest. She gets several two-hander scenes before her big goodbye: She begs her beloved Stark to tend to the shipmates in her stead, she and Rygel come to one last accord, she convinces Aeryn that she is worth the sacrifice, and she thanks D’Argo for all he has done for her. More than all that, she lives up to every possible standard the builders could have set for her when they made her Moya and Pilot’s protector back in “Look At The Princess.” Never has she been more furious with—worse, more disappointed in—Crichton than when she realizes his quest for wormhole knowledge has made him willing to abandon Moya.

Zhaan and D’Argo’s final exchange manages the remarkable trick of being both an emotional tearjerker and a bit of self-aware meta-criticism. D’Argo tries to argue that Zhaan cannot sacrifice herself, for she is still needed here, to which she responds, “At one time I believe I was, but then a family was born.” D’Argo replies, “You birthed it.” At first glance, I wasn’t sure about this line. When I think of the creation of a family onboard Moya, I think more of, say, the gradual development of Crichton and D’Argo’s friendship, something Zhaan had precious little to do with. But the verb D’Argo chooses is precise; Zhaan may not have been particularly responsible for the growth of the family, but it never would have even come into being in its most nascent form without her presence. If Zhaan—the one soul on Moya indisputably guilty of her alleged crime—had not been there, the rest of our gang of fugitives and exiles would have killed each other, possibly within a few arns. There’s just no logical way in which the show’s outlandish premise could have ever come to pass without Zhaan there at the beginning to guide and restrain her more volatile shipmates. In a very real sense, Zhaan built Farscape itself, and in so doing made herself superfluous. In that sense, she probably could have left long ago. But that sure as hell doesn’t mean I’m ready for a show without Zhaan.

Stray observations:

  • “Wait for the wheel.” “Thank you, John Crichton.” I know this plays as a sincere moment, but I’d like to think that John and Zhaan’s parted in the same manner as they so often interacted: with Crichton saying something that Zhaan politely pretended to understand. Also, it’s fascinating that Crichton’s very last gesture to Zhaan is to restrain Aeryn, allowing her to complete her task. It’s hard to imagine the more straightforwardly heroic Crichton of early Farscape could have made that kind of decision; indeed, I’d be almost certain that, two seasons ago, it would have been Aeryn holding John back.
  • “We love you, Zhaan!” Chiana has her faults, but emotional inaccessibility isn’t one of them. It’s so fitting that she of all characters is the one to make this most basic, most important statement.
  • It’s heartbreaking to see Stark racing toward his beloved, finding hatches blocked at every turn. Then again, Stark’s madness takes on a lecherous, potentially violent aspect here that is far more disturbing than anything we’ve seen previously. I’m going to go ahead and say things are going to get worse for Stark before they get better.
  • One final note, and a request: It’s so great to see everybody again, but I’ve got to think that there are even more Farscape fans out there who would enjoy our weekly discussions. So please, if you’re so inclined, spread the word about these reviews! It certainly can’t hurt to build up an audience. 

Next week: The past haunts the Moya crew—actually, make that the Moya crew haunts the past—in “…Different Destinations,” and we get double trouble in “Eat me.”

“Welcome to the Federation starship, S.S. Buttcrack!”

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