Farscape: “That Old Black Magic”/“DNA Mad Scientist”

Farscape: “That Old Black Magic”/“DNA Mad Scientist”

 “That Old Black Magic” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 6/11/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“You called her a warrior. You could not have cut her more deeply.”

“That Old Black Magic” is one seriously weird episode of Farscape. I realize that that’s true of every episode to one extent or another, but temporal dislocation and Genesis-created clones are nothing compared to an honest-to-goodness dark wizard. The introduction of Maldis pushes the show away from strict science fiction and into fantasy territory; the creative team has likened the character to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s similarly omnipotent Q, but that show at least offered some explanation as to how such a being could fit into its universe. Maldis, on the other hand, is given only the flimsiest of background stories, and it really just boils down to the fact that he’s a wizard (or soul vampire, if you prefer), and he’s evil. He’s also an over-the-top, megalomaniacal villain that flips between cartoonish personas and silly voices just because he can. He’s not bound by any apparent laws of the universe, at least not until Zhaan shows up to kick his ass. But up to that rather glorious moment, Maldis doesn’t so much expand the scope of the Farscape universe as he does push it to its breaking point. His supernatural powers are only part of that, as he also reveals just what the main characters are capable of if they are pushed far enough.

Maldis isn’t really a character in his own right; Chris Haywood is entertainingly theatrical as Maldis and his alter egos Igg and Haloth, but he isn’t given much to play beyond stock satanic villainy. Really, Maldis is an all-powerful plot device, one that can facilitate the narratively crucial meeting between Crichton and his accidental nemesis, Captain Bialar Crais. This is Crais’ first appearance since “Premiere,” and his character was only thinly sketched out in his debut. In particular, the death of his brother—who isn’t even given a name until this episode—happened so quickly and so immediately upon Crichton’s arrival that it never really registered as a crucial dramatic moment. The Maldis-generated flashbacks of Crais’ past are an unsubtle, vaguely clunky way to reveal why the Peacekeeper is so obsessed with revenge, but they do at least offer some insight into why Crais is so damaged. Aeryn has made it clear that she and most other Peacekeepers were born into service, but Crais was the child of a Sebacean farmer, and he and his brother Tauvo were forcibly conscripted into the Peacekeepers when still little boys. Considering how emotionally limited Peacekeeper service has left Aeryn, it’s not hard to imagine how traumatic the experience could be for someone like Crais who wasn’t bred for service. It also explains his overwhelming contempt for any authority that isn’t his own.

Still, what really makes Crais work in “That Old Black Magic” is Lani Tupu’s fearless, unhinged performance. Crais is so crazy that he almost doesn’t count as a villain, as villainy would imply some level of thought underlies the malice. The captain is an animal, a creature of unreasoning, instinctual rage. Even when Crichton makes a persuasive argument that he had nothing to do with Tauvo’s death, Crais says it doesn’t matter; he has set his mind on killing Crichton, and nothing will stand in his way. He flagrantly disobeys his superior’s commands to give up the search, and he keeps his word as a Peacekeeper for roughly five seconds before he tries to kill Crichton again. Maldis actually points out that he is far more trustworthy than Crais, even if the wizard does mislead Crichton when he says that he will let one of the two combatants go.

That line offers a neat distinction as to why Maldis is more classically villainous than Crais; the former relies on deceit and subterfuge, whereas the latter is essentially a rabid beast that fate has unwisely put in charge of a Peacekeeper Command Carrier. Crais is so obviously psychologically scarred that it’s tempting to feel sympathy for him, as there’s a pathetic undertone to his madness. But then Crais breaks the neck of Lieutenant Fenra Teeg, the only person in the universe who gave him her unquestioning loyalty. It’s a brutal, unexpected moment, and whatever happens with Crais from here on out, this action marks him forever as a cold-blooded killer.

Meanwhile, Zhaan must tap into the dark side of her psychic powers to defeat Maldis. Her violent past has been hinted at before—most effectively when she threated the Tavlek boy in “Throne For A Loss”—but this is the first time we understand just how powerful she really is. The episode presents a clumsy, overly strong dichotomy between “good” and “evil” magic, although the most effective dichotomy is actually the visual one between the serene, blue-skinned Zhaan and the angry, magenta-skinned Liko. I’m not exactly sure the episode makes a strong enough argument as to why Zhaan needs to prove she can hurt adorable little two-headed birds before she turns her attention to someone like Maldis, who actually deserves to suffer at her hands; then again, this all sets up Zhaan remotely torturing Rygel, so it’s hard to quibble too much with this. Still, while her final scene with Crichton briefly reveals the inner rage that has been unleashed, it’s difficult within the context of the episode to blame Zhaan too much for using her powers against Maldis. The episode hints at the beginning of a darker arc for Zhaan as she struggles to regain her serenity, but it doesn’t quite snap into focus here.

The other major flaw of “That Old Black Magic” is the depiction of the commerce planet. While the opening scenes give some sense of the larger marketplace, the episode almost entirely takes place inside Liko’s shop, and just about everything we learn about the planet comes from the broken priest’s dialgoue. Grant Bowler turns in a game performance, but he’s basically being asked to support the entire planet on his shoulders, and his complicated backstory—which involves a failed revolt against Maldis and a humiliating forced existence as a shopkeeper—is tricky enough for him to sell without also getting into how the entire rest of the planet works. In its previous depictions of alien planets, Farscape has achieved an impressive sense of scale, but here the planet is little more than a storefront and an alleyway.

Still, while Crais and Zhaan most clearly cross the line, the episode also more subtly pushes Crichton into darker territory. He fulfills the straightforward, morally upright role for most of the episode, believing that he can appeal to Crais’ sense of reason even long after it becomes clear that his adversary is a lunatic. Maldis delights in torturing Crichton, in proving that the human’s morality is worthless when faced with a kill-or-be-killed scenario. It’s not unusual for sci-fi protagonists to be confronted with an impossible scenario such as this, but what’s shocking is that Crichton eventually accepts Maldis’ terms. Before the wizard transports Crais back to the command carrier, Crichton is about to break his adversary’s neck, and there’s no indication given that Crichton would have lost his nerve at the last moment. For that brief instant, Crichton is a killer, and though the episode ultimately lets him off the hook, that sequence is crucial in defining the extreme limits of Crichton’s character. While the show’s resident human has generally demonstrated a straightforward heroic streak that has set him apart from the others onboard Moya, it turns out he can be every bit as dangerous as D’Argo or Aeryn. By episode’s end, he learns reason and compassion can’t always help him out here, and he must either adapt or die.

Stray observations:

  • As much as Lani Tupu’s unkempt, scraggly look really adds to Crais’ general madness, I do sometimes wonder about the Peacekeeper dress code, which apparently involves a lot of awesome leather jackets and totally lacks a regulation haircut. Or perhaps this is just another example of how those high up in the Peacekeeper chain of command can flout authority with impunity.
  • While I was disappointed with the depiction of the commerce planet, it’s worth pointing out that the set design budget clearly went towards building the interiors of Maldis’ castle. Yeah, that was probably the right decision.
  • Maldis is generally omnipotent, but I did enjoy the moment when Aeryn comes up with a plan that she thinks might work, and even Maldis himself is unsure whether it represents a legitimate threat. Of course, he can then crush Aeryn and her gun in an instant, so it’s not much of a threat for long.
  • Rygel has my favorite line of the episode, in which he performs the Hynerian Ceremony of Passage: “John Crichton, valued friend...now wait a minute, valued friend is a bit of a stretch. John Crichton, unwelcome shipmate, may you have safe transport to the hallowed realm. Actually, not our hallowed realm. No, that's for Hynerians. Go find your own hallowed realm.” He comes this close to being compassionate, and yet he still misses the mark completely.

“DNA Mad Scientist” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 6/18/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Frell you!”

When I first started watching Farscape last December, this was the episode that made me realize this would be unlike any other science fiction show I had seen. When I first watched Namtar demand Pilot’s arm in exchange for detailed star charts back to Zhaan’s, Rygel’s, and D’Argo’s home planets, I assumed this would be the big moral dilemma that would drive the episode. After eight episodes, I knew the crew of Moya had a more flexible moral code than that of, say, the crew of the Enterprise, and so I figured that our heroes would at least consider Namtar’s proposal before ultimately rejecting it. The structure of “DNA Mad Scientist” certainly suggests that approach to the story; Namtar’s demand and the crew’s horrified reactions are placed directly before the opening credits, which is the moment one would expect to see the episode’s primary conflict spelled out. But I never imagined they would actually chop the damn arm off.

It’s not just that Zhaan, Rygel, and D’Argo cut off Pilot’s arm; it’s that they do it in the first ten minutes of the episode. If they have any qualms about betraying Pilot, the episode certainly doesn’t show us. And, right up to the very last scene of the episode, none of them apologizes to Pilot or even really acknowledges just how horrific their actions have been. D’Argo does eventually find a Luxan way to apologize, and it’s not shocking that Rygel never shows remorse, but Zhaan, the ship’s supposed moral compass, never makes even the slightest conciliatory gesture. She even has the gall to cheerily ask Pilot how he’s feeling, as though she wasn’t one of the three people who cut off his arm in the first place. Farscape is hardly the only science fiction show to present morally compromised protagonists—and it certainly wasn’t the first, because Blake’s 7 exists, for a start—but what makes “DNA Mad Scientist” so bold is that it bypasses the part where the characters are supposed to wrestle with the moral conundrum. The show doesn’t meticulously lead us to the point where we can understand why these three would do something so abhorrent; it cuts right to them doing the deed, and then it dares us to keep following, even rooting for them.

Earlier, I used words like “heroes” and “crew” to describe the inhabitants of Moya, but neither of these is really accurate, at least not yet. “Crew” implies that these people are a unit, that they swear allegiance to some common cause. Before this episode, they at least shared the goals to survive and to evade imprisonment, and Crichton provided a certain lofty idealism, but it’s easy to forget how many of their seemingly actions had self-serving undercurrents. Zhaan didn’t fight Maldis just to save Crichton or to free that planet, but also because it was the only way she could hope to escape the wizard’s grasp. Nobody actually wanted to save Rygel in “Throne For A Loss,” but they needed to recover the vital crystal. In “DNA Mad Scientist,” our protagonists’ goals no longer overlap, so they instantly, unapologetically turn on each other.

The introduction of Namtar’s crystal turns the rest of the trio’s story into what is essentially Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, as they scheme, propose alliances, and then immediately backstab one another in pursuit of the knowledge necessary to return home. Virginia Hey is the standout here, adding a harsh, manipulative edge to Zhaan that keeps the audience continually off-balance. Rygel and D’Argo may be treacherous here, but they are basically forthright about their intentions; D’Argo might be lying about his promise to supply Rygel with a phalanx of Luxan warriors, but he doesn’t bother to keep up the pretense for very long. Zhaan, seemingly the most virtuous person on Moya, is also the most desperate to get back. She allows herself to be flattered by the obviously evil Namtar, and she defends his work as some of the most revolutionary in the galaxy; at least D’Argo, who also find Namtar’s work impressive, takes a cynically violent view of the research. Zhaan’s attempted seduction of Rygel is a great moment not only for Hey but also for Rygel’s operators and his voice actor, Jonathan Hardy. For all its bizarre sexuality and mixing of scale, the scene shows a new side of Rygel’s vulnerability, as he meekly admits he isn’t “a body breeder”—a term producers Rockne O’Bannon and David Kemper admit on the DVD commentary that they never quite defined, but it captures the idea that Rygel is stranded with a group of people who don’t even share his most basic anatomy. It’s one of several little moments that give us some sense of why these three would be lonely and desperate enough to betray Pilot so brutally.

While Zhaan, Rygel, and D’Argo are caught up in this psychological drama, Crichton and Aeryn face the even more unsavory task of navigating their way through a horror movie. Namtar is a particularly daring Creature Shop creation, as his proportions are massively inhuman; Ben Browder and Claudia Black detail on their commentary track the insane lengths operator Adrian Getley had to go to portray Namtar, which involved walking around on stilts and encasing his own head inside Namtar’s torso. The result is an impressively unnerving beast, although Farscape makes his design so weird that it can be hard to accept him as a real, living being. This episode revels in making the audience uncomfortable, as both Namtar’s creator-cum-servant Kornata and the transformed, Pilot-like Aeryn are memorably grotesque creations. Director Andrew Prowse, who previously worked on “Premiere,” shoots a lot of the action in Namtar’s laboratory with various obstructions in the foreground, creating an even more claustrophobic atmosphere in the dark, dingy setting. While Crichton and Aeryn don’t reveal the same sort of internal darkness as the others do, their half of the episode features more than enough external nastiness to make up for it. This is a seriously dark episode.

“DNA Mad Scientist” reveals some crucial vulnerabilities for Aeryn Sun. As she points out, her situation is arguably even worse than Crichton’s; while he may not know where his home is, she knows exactly where she should be, but she can never return to it. Aeryn has matured enough that she at least can now articulate her own limitations, as she explains to Crichton that her Peacekeeper breeding makes it impossible for her to imagine being alone. That primal terror is what leads her back into Namtar’s den, and she pays dearly for that moment of weakness. During the conclusion, she notes that her hellish transformation forced her to confront the possibility that survival in and of itself is not enough, that she has an existence and a consciousness that endure even when her body is ripped away from her, and that these are worth protecting. Crichton told her back in “Premiere” that she can be more than her Peacekeeper training, and she discovered new facets of herself in “Thank God It’s Friday, Again,” but this is the first time Aeryn has realized that she must be more than she once was. Like the others, “DNA Mad Scientist” takes Aeryn to a point from which there is no return. The only question now is how they all choose to proceed.

Stray observations:

  • I’m not sure about Crichton’s climactic speech to Namtar about Josef Mengele, if only because it seems a little too straightforwardly moralizing for Farscape. Then again, Crichton isn’t really using the power of his oratory to try to change Namtar’s way—it’s all just distraction so that Kornata can inject Namtar with the serum. Either way, Namtar’s approving reaction to Mengele’s story is an effectively chilling moment.
  • As Rockne O’Bannon and David Kemper admit on the commentary, “DNA Mad Scientist” is one of the two working titles they never bothered to replace before transmission. I’d say this has to be the worse of the two, because at least “PK Tech Girl,” bland as it was, more or less made sense grammatically.
  • So, how much did Namtar’s eye injections freak people out? I must admit that I was only moderately disturbed by it, which might have something to do with the fact that I wear contact lenses. But yeah, it’s a pretty disturbing way to kick off a generally disturbing episode.
  • “It appears your crystal is useless. Lucky for you, you didn't trade anything of real value to get it.” Pilot is an almost preternaturally calm sort of guy, but he’s still a galactic master of passive aggression.

Next week: The truth comes out in “They’ve Got A Secret” and Crichton gets in over his head in “Till The Blood Runs Clear.”

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