Farscape: “The Locket”/“The Ugly Truth”

Farscape: “The Locket”/“The Ugly Truth”

“The Locket” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 8/25/2000)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“I am getting too old for this shit.”

At first glance, “The Locket” appears to be Farscape’s riff on the granddaddy of all Next Generation episodes, “The Inner Light,” with maybe a pinch of Deep Space Nine’s own all-time classic “The Visitor” thrown in for good measure. Like those two all-time Star Trek classics, this episode deals with main characters living out entire lives while next to no time at all passes for others, and all three play heavily on the idea of whether certain characters can carve out meaningful existences for themselves when cut off from the lives and the people they once knew and cared about. Indeed, this episode closes with what feels like a quintessential latter-day Star Trek ending, as the time anomaly is undone and most of the characters forget all about their past experiences. That seems like an especially strange ending for an episode of Farscape, considering the show is so explicitly focused on forcing its characters to live with the consequences of their own actions. And yet “The Locket” is hardly just a sexier, messier, generally more ornery riff on “The Inner Light.” It’s much, much weirder than that, for good or bad.

The episode starts as late in the story as it possibly can, using Zhaan’s days-long meditation as a convenient excuse to skip over some not strictly necessary setup. The clunkier example of this is the reintroduction of Stark, whose original departure after the “Nerve”/The Hidden Memory” two-parter was dealt with in a line ultimately deleted from “Bone To Be Wild.” As such, his first words to Zhaan aren’t so much a heartfelt greeting to a kindred soul as they are a transparent attempt to crowbar that bit of deleted exposition back into the show. In fairness, this is more a delayed criticism of “Bone To Be Wild” than a real problem with “The Locket,” because the fact that it’s not clear why Stark is there ultimately proves vitally important when he does reveal just what news he brings. The episode might have benefited from Rygel or Chiana responding to one of Stark’s more bizarre pronouncements with a matter-of-fact “Why are you here?” rejoinder, but that’s a minor thing.

Beyond the shocking news he shares with D’Argo in the closing moments, Stark is here because this episode is going to get even more mystical and borderline incomprehensible than ever before, to the extent that Zhaan won’t be able to carry it off alone. “The Locket” ultimately hinges on the idea that Zhaan and Stark can form a psychic bond so strong that they can tap into time itself, forcing it to flow normally while the anti-temporal mist hardens around them. That’s abstruse, even by Farscape’s standards, and the show benefits by having a second person around to say all these flagrantly crazy things. Making Stark the repository of this bizarre knowledge is also a quick way to build up his own mysterious nature, which in turn allows him to make still wilder claims about the nature of reality later on, something that comes in handy when he’s discussing his survival chances in the next episode.

But all that weirdness takes a backseat for much of the episode to all the years Aeryn spends on the mysterious planet, building a life and a family before ultimately being joined by Crichton. The decision to introduce Aeryn as aged from the start is a wise one both in terms of narrative and the makeup. The Jim Henson Company provides some astonishingly good old-age prosthetics, and Aeryn’s aged look is especially convincing because, outside the opening credits, the audience doesn’t actually see the younger Aeryn until the very end of the episode. This obscures the viewer’s usual reference point for how Aeryn is supposed to look, and the almost total focus on the older Aeryn provides Claudia Black with more time to fully inhabit the character. If that sounds like a roundabout way of saying that Claudia Black and the elderly Aeryn are more convincing than Ben Browder and the older Crichton, then, yes, that’s at least partially where I’m going with this. Black is given more of an opportunity to flesh out her character, and a key idea of “The Locket” is that she really has changed and grown over her 165 cycles on the planet, finding someone she was willing to marry and then building a family with that man. The vast gulf of years separating Aeryn from her crewmates is never clearer than when she breaks down weeping at the sight of John, tearfully observing just how beautiful he is… before also pointing out how wrong he always is. She’s still Aeryn, no matter how many cycles elapse.

It’s fascinating that Aeryn appears to be the only crewmember even theoretically willing to accept a lifetime on the planet. Admittedly, she didn’t have much choice in the matter, but it isn’t until John is trapped alongside her that she appears to put any particular effort into working out a means of undoing this timeline, and even then that all happens off-screen. Aeryn believes that she as a Peacekeeper must return to space to die, but that appears to be little more than one last instinctual drive she can’t quite ignore. The way D’Argo articulates life on that planet is crucial, as he states he is not willing to live without a past. Aeryn is unique in that she had her past irrevocably ripped away from her; unlike the others, it isn’t just supremely difficult for Aeryn to return home, it’s actually impossible. Aeryn’s disciplined military mind long ago forced her to accept that reality, whereas Crichton can never give up his comforting fantasies. In this case, at least, those comforting fantasies allow him to save the day, as his utter obstinacy is what ultimately leads to Moya pulling off the rare reverse starburst.

While there apparently was once a planned sequence featuring a 50-year-old Crichton, the transition from young to old isn’t really necessary; the brief scene in which an only slightly older Crichton stares away into nothing in particular while Aeryn and her granddaughter wonder what to do with him really does say it all. Browder’s interpretation of the elderly Crichton as a horny Southern grandpa verges into caricature territory—honestly, how could it not?—but it does seem like a logical extension of a Crichton who has been tortured for five decades by his own existential uselessness (not to mention Harvey). Justin Monjo’s script gives Crichton two really incisive monologues, and Browder delivers both perfectly. I’ve already touched indirectly on the second one, in which Crichton, mourning the death of Aeryn, tells his reunited friends that it isn’t worth living a life without context, without some meaning that transcends the eternal present. The earlier little speech, in which he explains to Aeryn that he’s an astronaut, not a gardener, is an eloquent, if crotchety, distillation of just why Crichton was able to survive, even thrive, in this universe; for all the pain and suffering he has endured, he was still essentially doing what he always wanted to do.

In the midst of that carping, Aeryn interrupts Crichton, asking whether he regrets spending 50 cycles trapped on this world with her. Crichton’s straightforward answer is that she is the only thing that has kept him sane all these years, and that leads us back to the titular locket. John can’t bring himself to open it until after Aeryn dies, but she’s probably right that he always knew whose face he would find in there. The specific events of this episode are undone and the non-magical characters carry forward no memories of all those years, but “The Locket” makes it clear, in case there was any doubt, that Crichton and Aeryn are each other’s true love. The only hope is that it won’t always take Aeryn two centuries to admit that fact. In the meantime, the two will always have that afternoon stroll through that anonymous, time-lost planet, even if neither could possibly remember it. Not everything important needs to have actually happened.

Stray observations:

  • In case you didn’t notice, the second season is now up on Hulu, which is likely the most straightforward streaming option for American readers. So, if you’re in the US and are looking to get caught up on this season, here’s your chance.
  • “So this means everyone we know—Crais, Scorpius, my son—they’re all old now?” It has to be said, the extended lifespans of science fiction characters can sometimes undercut a line’s natural dramatic heft. If Crichton had said that, he would have been able to realize that everyone he knew back on Earth is dead now, which is rather more impactful.
  • It’s a neat little trick for Aeryn’s granddaughter Ennixx to greet Crichton by realizing her grandmother wasn’t just making it all up, which spares John having to say those same lines for the umpteenth time.
  • If I have one overriding criticism of this episode, it’s that the whole setup with the colony planet is never terribly clear. Some of that is by design, admittedly, but the entire world is depicted with one small garden area, which makes it difficult to get any sense of how people could build lives here. Even a quick shot of some random hut would have helped. As it is, the episode basically just entrusts Crichton to describe the world at length, which isn’t terrible but does make the whole story feel a bit smaller than it should.

“The Ugly Truth” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 9/8/2000)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Look. Tell us who the guilty one is, and we’ll spare the others.” “Otherwise, we will commence the executions with you!” “There's just nothing new in the universe, is there? It’s the same everywhere. Good cop, bad cop.”

Everyone believes he or she is the hero of his or her own story. That guiding principle seemingly explains much of “The Ugly Truth,” as Crichton, Aeryn, D’Argo, Zhaan, and Stark are forced by a particularly unpleasant bunch of aliens known as the Plokavians to explain just how Talyn’s cannon destroyed one of their ships. A conscious homage to Akira Kurosawa’s essential film Rashomon, the episode presents five subtly—and, sometimes, not so subtly—different interpretations of the same basic chain of events. The episode is instructive in the ways it reveals how the shipmates see one another, how they see themselves, and how they feel it’s best to deal with truth-obsessed, weapons-dealing aliens; director Tony Tilse subtly reconfigures the camera angles and the performances in each scene, all the better to illustrate the crew members’ divergent recollections. But this isn’t just an exploration of the subjectivity of memory, as the real underlying motivations of “The Ugly Truth” don’t truly snap into place until the end of the episode, when the characters finally reveal just why they told their stories the way they did. The characters regain some of the nobility they seemingly lost while telling what appeared to be their self-serving versions of events. The characters on Farscape really are heroes, but they are heroes on their own maddening terms.

There are only a handful of conclusions about the crewmates’ interrelationships that can really be easily drawn; almost everything we think we learn here requires qualification and further consideration. It’s readily apparent that Aeryn still has little patience for Zhaan, as indicated by her unique recollection that the Delvian needed to meditate on everything said before so much as volunteering a preliminary opinion. It’s the most obviously wishy-washy characterization on display in the episode, and it’s hardly surprising that Aeryn, for all her growth and increased tolerance, still finds Zhaan to be so useless when it comes to matters practical. What is rather more surprising is the fact that Zhaan seems to see Crichton much the same way as Aeryn sees her. That portrayal of John doesn’t seem to square with the amount of faith Zhaan displays elsewhere that John will make the right decision—most notably in “Out Of Their Minds,” an episode that happens to be mentioned quite a bit over the course of this story.

There are four main possible explanations to explain this apparent inconsistency. The first is the least interesting; namely, the writers decided it would be funny to portray Crichton this way during one of the testimonies, and Zhaan’s seemed as good as any. The second possibility is that Zhaan does trust John implicitly once his mind is made up, but she finds his decision-making process nigh incomprehensible, and so his attempts to puzzle out the latest unfathomable situation strike her as foolish. The third explanation is an obvious one, but it’s frequently overlooked in narrative fiction, particularly in sci-fi: Zhaan’s opinion could always have changed. She might have taken note of Crichton’s increasing instability and decided he’s not nearly as dependable as he once was. Admittedly, that would require her to draw some fairly sizeable conclusions from “My Three Crichtons,” “Beware Of Dog,” and “The Locket”—after all, they didn’t really interact at all in the “Look At The Princess” trilogy or “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—but those episodes actually do show John growing ever more unreasonable and unreliable. On balance, I’d say this is at best a small part of what’s going on in Zhaan’s recollection, but it’s a good reminder going forward that Crichton could be gradually alienating those who trust him.

The final possibility is that Zhaan makes John look like an idiot for much the same reason why she makes Stark appear ignorant of an alien race he knows and despises; she is trying to protect them both. We have seen time and time again that it isn’t difficult to get strangers to dismiss Crichton as an idiot, and making him appear useless might be the best way to save his life. This interpretation only really clicks into place at the end of the episode, when Zhaan admits that she saw Stark fire the cannon, which means if she was willing to lie to protect one person she cared about, then it’s possible she lied about another as well, even if the lie was hardly a flattering one with respect to Crichton. This also makes interpreting her statement even more fiendishly complex than previously anticipated. The viewer’s natural assumption is that Zhaan is simply mistaken, filtering her observations through her own biases but still essentially telling the truth. Amusingly, that actually sort of is what she’s doing, except she really was mistaken about what she saw, and she actively chose to lie about it.

Indeed, this goes back to a point I made in my review of “They’ve Got A Secret,” which is that there is an ongoing assumption in science fiction that characters don’t lie. The Plokavians, with their insistence that the truth is absolute and that errors of interpretation do not exist, might be seen as a particularly uncharitable depiction of anal-retentive fans who view any incongruity between characters’ statements as evidence of a continuity error, or at least as proof that one or both characters is actively lying. As I suggested in the previous review, this assumption that characters tell the truth is really just a necessity of world-building, and this phenomenon is hardly restricted to science fiction; there’s a reason why Rashomon remains so vital, after all. But “The Ugly Truth” goes a step further by fooling the audience into thinking that most of the characters are telling self-serving versions of the truth, when in fact all are really telling carefully chosen lies. Even Crichton, who claims to offer the real, unaltered truth, is in fact omitting the key detail—that deactivating the weapons console also turned off Talyn’s manual override, which means he knows damn well that Moya’s son is responsible. And, just to add to the tragedy, Pilot reveals the only reason Talyn attacked was out of a misguided need to protect his mother from one of the six forbidden cargoes.

There’s really only one person in this whole mess who doesn’t lie, and that’s D’Argo. But even then, he quickly, even unthinkingly commits to the truth as he sees it—namely, that Stark panicked and fired the cannon—because he too has someone to protect: his son Jothee. This is only briefly alluded to in the episode itself, so much so that it would be easy enough for someone watching out of order to miss the significance of D’Argo’s final guilt. As he observed back in “The Flax,” D’Argo wants to be able to face his son without the deaths of others on his conscience. And now an innocent man sacrificed himself to save D’Argo and everyone else, a man the Luxan dismissed as an unstable lunatic who basically deserved to die. D’Argo might be forgiven for being unusually single-minded, even ruthless when a reunion with his son—albeit one likely fraught with difficulty—is so close at hand, but he recognizes that isn’t really an excuse. In an episode full of wonderfully nuanced, ever-shifting performances, it’s that final bit of acting from Anthony Simcoe that crystallizes the real lessons of “The Ugly Truth.” The shipmates can see whatever they like in each other, particularly in a crisis, but all they are really seeing are reflections of themselves. And what they see is seldom pleasant.

Stray observations:

  • It has to be said that the whole business with Stark being able to survive dispersal really is a horribly arbitrary narrative cheat. Yes, his claim does at least seem to tally with the mystical energies contained by his mask—something the episode draws attention to earlier on—and Stark himself does admit that even he doesn’t think it will work. Still, that doesn’t really change the fact that this is a magical power invented more or less out of nowhere to provide a potential way out of an otherwise unwinnable scenario. On the other hand, I do rather like Paul Goddard as Stark, so I’m all right with the Farscape writers coming up with a transparently flimsy way to bring him back.
  • I could write an entire extra review just focusing on the subtly different ways that the crewmates see Crais. Lani Tupu’s performances make it clear that none of them exactly trust the man, but there’s some fascinating nuance between the different testimonies. To Zhaan, Crais comes off like a used car salesman, someone not precisely worthy of trust but also not necessarily a dangerous villain. D’Argo, on the other hand, recalls Crais matching his own Luxan aggressiveness, with both engaging in a particularly tense tête-à-tête.
  • Another great little subversion of standard sci-fi assumptions comes when Crichton points out that Stark has never been aboard Talyn and would have no idea how to even find the weapons console, let alone use it. This is a deeply obvious point to make, yet it’s so natural to assume that all characters in space opera are instantly expert in whatever technology they happen to encounter.
  • It makes good sense why Rygel and Chiana are left out of the main action; they make a good duo for the supporting plot, and it wouldn’t really do to have a pair of pathological liars take on the Plokavians. That said, I can only imagine just how insane that pair’s recollections of the others might be. I imagine a ton of gross sex being heavily involved in both memories, quite frankly.

Next week: We take a closer look at just what makes Chiana’s people tick with “A Clockwork Nebari.” (Pun not initially intended, but now I’m committing to it.)

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