“The Way We Weren’t” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 4/14/2000)
(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)
“But I just wanted so desperately to see the stars…”
By rights, this story shouldn’t work. It’s a complete, unashamed cheat to take three characters, none of whom seemed to know each other personally prior to “Premiere,” and present a story that takes place three years before the show began in which they interact. The story reveals that Pilot has been in constant pain for the previous 26 adventures, and he never thought to mention or even indicate this fact in all that time. It reveals that Aeryn spent a week transporting Pilot to Moya, and she was one of the first people to see him onboard the Leviathan, and she either never realized or never acknowledged this in all their frequently intense subsequent interactions. This should be like revealing that, say, D’Argo once saved Rygel’s life during a military campaign, or that Chiana received some early anarchic instruction from a fugitive Zhaan, and that none of them ever thought to mention these clearly life-altering events in all the time they have been together on the ship. “The Way We Weren’t” is a flagrant attempt to rewrite Pilot and Aeryn’s backstories, and that really ought to break the reality of the episode, if not the show in general.
So then, why does the episode hold together—indeed, why is it a triumph? Crucially, Naren Shankar’s script chooses the three characters in Aeryn, Pilot, and Crais who could conceivably have interacted before “Premiere” and then plausibly put it out of their minds. Pilot has always subsumed his individual identity in favor of his role as Moya’s symbiotic guardian. And, as I suggested in my “Mind The Baby” review, Peacekeepers strictly define themselves in terms of their present situation and by their future goals, not the memories of their past. Besides, there’s already been an in-universe example of Crais forgetting a far more dramatic interaction with Aeryn. It was established in “The Hidden Memory” that Crais didn’t bother to remember the time that he declared Aeryn irreversibly contaminated, so it would actually be rather shocking if he did somehow recall that she was the precise pilot who turned in the traitor Velorek and then asked him to reassign her to Prowler duty. Crais’ obsessive focus on his special project, not to mention a mental instability that clearly long predates his brother’s death, mean the entire main cast—possibly up to and including Crichton, impossible as that would be—could have popped up in the flashbacks and the mad captain still wouldn’t have recognized them later; his dismissive “Whatever” when Aeryn names her reward for turning in Velorek makes it clear the captain is already actively forgetting his encounter with Officer Sun.
That said, there are still aspects of “The Way We Weren’t” that are, frankly, a bit of a stretch. In particular, the reveal that Crais was behind the impregnation of Moya doesn’t quite square with his initial reaction to Talyn last season; he was instantly possessive, yes, but he didn’t really give much of an indication sense that he was directly responsible for the hybrid’s existence. There’s a danger with flashback stories like this that everything becomes too neat, that every important event in the show’s past somehow directly involves this same handful of characters we see every week. “The Way We Weren’t” veers into that territory a couple of times—again, I think the Crais reveal is a slight overreach, and it’s certainly gutsy to reveal Aeryn was the one who transported Pilot to Moya—but the episode avoids the temptation to bring Rygel, D’Argo, or Zhaan into the flashbacks, save one hauntingly effective cameo. There’s a certain degree of artifice built into an episode like this, but it works because the episode always stays so firmly focused on character, not plot. The twists are never really about unveiling big new secrets about the show’s mythology; instead, it’s about reminding us just who Aeryn once was and about opening up Pilot’s possibilities as a character. Indeed, the reason why Aeryn and Pilot never mentioned these events before now isn’t just because the writers hadn’t yet devised them; these were memories the pair could not bear to relive, and so they both have had overwhelming motivation to forget and bury the past.
Rather boldly, “The Way We Weren’t” doesn’t really have a plot at all, at least not in the present-day sequences. The inciting incident for this exploration of the past is refreshingly straightforward, as Chiana simply finds an old recording and shares it with her shipmates, and Pilot only founds about it because Rygel passes it along for his own inscrutably selfish reasons. Again, it would be so easy for Farscape’s writers to overcomplicate this story, to have Crais—or even Velorek—show up in the present day to reveal the truth, or to have this personal drama run parallel to the latest hostile encounter with Scorpius or some other random alien. But this is actually one of the quiet days, and the only truly deadly threat in the here and now comes when Pilot severs his connection with Moya. The simplicity in the storytelling helps keep the focus squarely on Aeryn and Pilot’s emotional arcs, and the complete lack of any external threat clarifies the episode’s central theme, namely that everyone is responsible for their own decisions and can so easily become the architects of their own destruction—or, worse, the destruction of others.
With the possible exception of John Crichton in “A Human Reaction,” no character has had to so entirely shoulder an episode like Aeryn Sun does here, and Claudia Black’s performance is pitch-perfect. One of the great ongoing strengths of her performance is in how she portrays Aeryn’s capacity for growth; it’s possible to see how Aeryn develops over the course of a season, an episode, or even just an individual scene, and that maturation feels like a logically consistent progression rather than fulfillment of a series of arbitrary, writer-mandated goalposts. In “The Way We Weren’t,” Black essentially plays two entirely separate characters, although both reveal their own unique vulnerabilities. The Aeryn of three cycles ago is pointedly just as capable of love as her present-day counterpart, but she doesn’t understand it, perhaps even fears it in some inexpressible way. She is a person trapped in a box, as Velorek tries to show her, but she needs the security of innately knowing her place in the universe, so she stays in her box and betrays the first man she ever loved. One of the most brutal moments for Aeryn in the present day comes when Zhaan attends to her wounds, although not when the Delvian angrily admonishes her. Instead, it’s only when Aeryn admits she’s just as bad as Zhaan thinks, and she is then told that she had no choice, that she couldn’t help being a typical Peacekeeper. Aeryn did have that choice—arguably, everyone does when pressured toward some unforgivable act, although her alternative option of just leaving with Velorek was especially obvious—and it’s so much worse to be wrongfully excused than rightfully reprimanded.
Much of the episode’s character drama is rooted in Aeryn and Pilot simply struggling to process their buried mistakes. In her time aboard Moya, there was an initial period where she longed for her old life, but only in abstract terms—she missed flying missions and being part of a team, rather than specific places or people—and since then she has likely only bothered with memories when some specific knowledge was useful to the task at hand. This is the first time she has really had to process her old actions and choices using her new, expanded emotional spectrum. This is on full display in her scene with Crichton on the Peacekeeper mat, as she tenderly explains how her people handle sex as merely a way to relieve biological urges, not as a wellspring for romance. This conversation is likely the first time Aeryn has ever acknowledged just how special Velorek was to her; as a slightly chagrined Crichton points out, her vocabulary only now includes words like “lovers” that can properly describe the nature of their relationship. Aeryn is no longer the emotionally stunted soldier she once was, but she still has to carefully explain the confusing, once foreign feelings she felt for her fellow Peacekeeper before she can satisfactorily identify them as love.
Pilot is, if anything, in an even more difficult situation. Following on from “Crackers Don’t Matter,” this episode pushes Pilot further away from his symbiotic relationship with Moya, culminating with him severing the links between them. The episode initially presents him as a naïve pawn of Velorek, but it turns out Pilot is just as capable of self-serving lies of omission as anyone else onboard the ship; he effectively signed the previous Pilot’s death warrant when he agreed to take her place. That raises the possibility that his own identity has been even more submerged than what is required by the symbiosis, all the better to forget his own dark past. After all, while his conduct may well be standard practice for the Pilots of Leviathans, it has also kept Pilot so distracted that he’s been able to avoid thinking through the grim implications of his original decision to come aboard.
It’s worth noting that none of this would work if Pilot were not so phenomenally expressive; I would say that he’s like a real person in this episode, but that really only goes halfway as far as I’m concerned—he is a real person. Rygel is so much smaller than a human that it’s hard to ever totally forget that he’s a puppet, but, for whatever reason, the illusion of life works better when the creature is so much larger than a human. Pilot portrays a range of emotions both large and subtle—helped along considerably by the vocals of Lani Tupu, who is fantastic in both his roles here—as his more obvious rage and grief are supplemented by quieter moments where he appears everything from haunted to timid to overwhelmed to, at long, hopeful. In an episode full of complex, melancholy pathos, it’s a credit to Farscape’s audacity that a key player is just a puppet, and it’s a credit to the show’s tremendous skill that no fair-minded viewer could watch this episode and ever think of Pilot as “just a puppet” thereafter.
- One last trap this episode almost falls into but ultimately sidesteps is the temptation to make Velorek into a sort of proto-Crichton, especially in light of his retroactive echo of John’s “You can be more” line from “Premiere.” Alex Dimitriades deserves a great deal of the credit for making Velorek a character whose virtues and flaws stand apart from those of Crichton, especially when a significant fraction of his scenes are with Pilot, which has to be a little disorienting for a guest star.
- Speaking of Crichton, the events of “Crackers Don’t Matter” appear to have provided John with at least some temporarily regained stability; he’s significantly saner here than he’s been for a while, and that carries on into the next episode. Still, John is borderline useless here, much as he was in “Vitas Mortis,” and Ben Browder argues in the commentary that there’s actually still too much Crichton in this episode. In the first season, Crichton would have had to take a more active role in resolving Pilot and Aeryn’s trauma—compare this with “They’ve Got A Secret”—but now the show is confident enough to make him superfluous.
- Zhaan is at her most judgmental here, which is a bit rich considering her own murderous past and her own past atrocities toward Pilot. This is a relatively minor element, but this is precisely the sort of character work a show should be doing on the margins; Virginia Hey only needs a handful of lines and scenes to present this background arc.
- The execution of the original Pilot offers a clear encapsulation of the episode’s main Peacekeeper characters—the well-meaning collaborator Velorek can’t bring himself to watch, while the mad Captain Crais looks on in unblinking frenzy. And, lest we ever forget, Aeryn opens fire without a moment’s hesitation.
“Picture If You Will” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 4/21/2000)
(Available of Amazon Instant Video.)
“Johnny-O, your mind to me is an open book, full of big print and lots of pictures!” “Then read this. Kiss…”
It’s time to talk about Zhaan, because it sure feels like forever since I’ve had reason to. After her hour in the spotlight with “Rhapsody In Blue,” she has been relegated to minor roles and, at times, glorified cameos. I can think of exactly one subsequent episode—“Bone To Be Wild”—in which Zhaan plays what could reasonably be considered a major role, and apart from providing some auxiliary exposition in “Vitas Mortis,” she’s been close to entirely sidelined so far this season. Her character often seems to vary from episode to episode with little logic beyond providing whatever the episode requires: in “Mind The Baby,” that meant being catatonic from some unknown trauma; in “Taking The Stone,” that meant being the ship’s unofficial science officer; and in “The Way We Weren’t,” that meant being cold and passive-aggressive towards Aeryn. That last descriptor is crucial, as Zhaan just isn’t a character defined by action. It’s far easier to write for Aeryn or D’Argo, because, for all their alien philosophies, they are still passionate characters willing to make strong decisions. In short, they participate. But Zhaan is so distant and her reactions so frequently bizarre that it’s difficult to get a grip on her.
That’s as true for the writers as it is the audience, and there have been times when even Virginia Hey has seemed to struggle with the ever-shifting requirements of her role. Zhaan was a better fit for the show’s early days, when the reams of required exposition meant that stories were necessarily more dialogue-driven. The travelers onboard Moya needed time to understand not only whatever was going on that particular week but also each other, and Zhaan offered a unique perspective as each time Crichton gradually synthesized everyone’s knowledge and perspectives until he figured out a solution. But starting with “Durka Returns,” when the first season hit its stride, Farscape switched to a more plot- and action-heavy format, and the show’s focus tightened further on John Crichton. D’Argo, Chiana, and especially Aeryn still worked as supporting players in this subtly revised formula because they are all characters who are willing to act without much thinking, which is a real advantage when Crichton’s own thought processes are so front and center. As such, Zhaan tended to be marginalized, as her role in episodes were reduced from what might once have been entire subplots to quick, isolated character moments.
It would be an overstatement to say that Zhaan doesn’t work at all in more action-oriented stories, but it’s probably not a coincidence that “Picture If You Will,” the first Zhaan-centric story in nearly an entire season’s worth of episodes, feels like such a throwback to the early days of the first season. This is a talky episode, with multiple scenes given over to exploring the characters. For instance, Aeryn’s conversation with John about who she would throw off the ship could be excised entirely with no particular impact on the episode. Likewise, D’Argo and Chiana’s discussion about the painting really only needs to establish that the former finds the object dangerous, and a more action-heavy episode likely would have economized that scene; however, the scene here expands into a larger conversation about the nature of fate and predestination, not to mention the pair’s latent romantic feelings for each other.
Whereas other season two episodes like “Taking The Stone” and “Crackers Don’t Matter” immediately confronted the audience with a strange, off-kilter atmosphere (the latter rather more successfully than the former), “Picture If You Will” is all about the gradual buildup of tension. Everything initially appears to be fine, and even when everything starts going wrong, the characters don’t understand why or how things are going wrong. The episode can’t adopt a specific mood until the characters know the nature of the threat, and this slow escalation of the episode’s eerie, mystical tone very much recalls early season one.
Zhaan stories need this narrative breathing room, in part because the character herself is so difficult to read. That’s especially true here, because she’s essentially conning the audience for most of the episode; it’s not entirely clear just when she realizes Maldis is after them, but she plays the vulnerable, defeated mystic from the early going. She only reveals her true power for about 15 seconds, and she crumples again once she banishes Maldis. When Crichton later congratulates Zhaan for her performance, she tells him that it was all real, and she has never been so terrified in her entire life. That’s an effective enough way to underscore both Maldis and Zhaan’s awesome powers, and it makes for a perfectly good ending for the episode, but it’s also a reminder that John Crichton, the show’s audience identification figure and one of its more perceptive characters, still fundamentally does not understand the first thing about Zhaan. For all the character complexity of “The Way We Weren’t,” it’s possible to come away with clear insights into Aeryn and Pilot; hell, for all its mediocrity, “Vitas Mortis” provides one or two new pieces of information about D’Argo. But the only real takeaway about Zhaan that “Picture If You Will” offers is that she is basically inscrutable, even to her closest allies.
What Zhaan might just be is the magical equivalent of Crichton. Her demand that everyone trust her implicitly when the time comes is similar to how John saved the day in episodes like “Through The Looking Glass,” and her careful shielding of her true plans recalls Crichton’s play-acting as that ludicrously accented Peacekeeper. Indeed, it’s possible to imagine a version of “Picture If You Will” told primarily from Zhaan’s perspective, and it structurally wouldn’t be all that different from a typical Crichton episode. But it goes deeper than that—Zhaan quite possibly endured her equivalent of the Aurora Chair during the events of “Rhapsody In Blue,” and her subsequent uncertain characterization might actually be indicative of the same sort of instability that now affects Crichton. But because Zhaan isn’t the natural leader—or, perhaps more accurately, the natural meddler—that Crichton is, her arc has faded into the background.
Still, even if one could conceive of an alternate but fundamentally recognizable version of Farscape in which Zhaan is the protagonist, there would be one major difference from the actual, Crichton-focused version: It would be much, much weirder. I realize that’s really saying something, but then we are basing this on an episode that ends with Maldis thrusting his colossal hand through the collapsing portal and attempting to grab the shipmates. Even by Farscape standards, that’s entirely insane—and not especially convincing, it must be said—but this is Zhaan’s wheelhouse. The stories in which she is most naturally the hero are likely those that lie beyond our comprehension and, worse, beyond the show’s budget. In isolation, “Picture If You Will” is an effective episode, a solidly above-average entry that’s considerably better than “Vitas Mortis” and “Taking The Stone” but a step below the young season’s best entries. Yet in going to such lengths to build a story for Zhaan, the episode reveals just why she so easily drifts to the show’s periphery. Farscape isn’t done experimenting with Zhaan’s possibilities, but her character too often represents a problem without an easy solution.
- As for Maldis himself, the character is fine here in what is really a much more limited role than the one he filled in “That Old Black Magic.” The best touch comes when Crichton pointedly refuses to be scared of the soul-sucking vampire—the meta-textual implication being that John has encountered and survived far worse since then—only for Maldis to quickly, brutally cut to all the characters’ worst fears. He’s still an immensely formidable foe, and it’s a great detail that he doesn’t actually care about Crichton. Besides, Chris Haywood is still a lot of fun in the role. And yes, that’s also him as Kyvan.
- If you want the perfect encapsulation of why Aeryn is such a great, dynamic character for plot-driven stories, look no further than her response to Zhaan’s order. With zero hesitation, she pulls her gun and shoots Kyvan, triggering the collapse of Maldis’ foothold in this dimension, all because Crichton told her to do what Zhaan says. Basically, Aeryn is the best.
- I glossed over Chiana’s apparent death, mostly because the episode doesn’t really spend enough time for it to ever feel like she might really be dead. That said, Anthony Simcoe wrings genuine pathos out of D’Argo’s quiet preparation for his seemingly impending death, and his heartfelt goodbye to John carries real emotional weight.
- I can think of at least one advantage to this hypothetical Zhaan-centric Farscape I keep going on about. Just imagine a show where every episode ended with Chiana and Rygel trying and largely failing to figure out what the hell just happened to them. Indeed, I think every show would be greatly improved by a summation from those two.
Next week: The gang gets into a gutsy situation in “Home On The Remains” and everyone gets litigious in “Dream A Little Dream.”