Farscape: “Through The Looking Glass”/“A Bug's Life”

Farscape: “Through The Looking Glass”/“A Bug's Life”

“Through The Looking Glass” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 9/10/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Listen sunshine, you want to be part of this crew?” “On your good days.” “This is one of the good days!”

“Through The Looking Glass” is a frelling masterpiece. As great as both “Durka Returns” and “A Human Reaction” are, this episode represents Farscape reaching another stage in its growth. Those two previous episodes represented the show figuring out how its own formula works, what makes an hour of television distinctly Farscape. They are unique stories, ones that could only work in this show’s universe, and they represent the show’s emergence as a creative endeavor that can stand on its own two feet without having to define itself in terms of Star Trek, Star Wars, or whatever else. That’s all vitally important, but “Through The Looking Glass” pulls off what might be an even more impressive feat. This episode takes one of the Star Trek universe’s favorite story structures—specifically, the mysterious space anomaly that seems to tear at the very fabric of the universe—and it puts an unmistakable Farscape stamp on the story.

That’s not exactly surprising, considering David Kemper originally conceived the basic story as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it represents the show at its most confident. Where before Farscape had aped other shows—including The Next Generation itself in “I, E.T.”—because it was still working out what Farscape even was, here the show is strong enough to borrow an iconic Star Trek narrative structure while still proudly maintaining its own identity. That’s evident from the opening scene, in which our heroes share a terrible meal and a tense conversation about their future plans. The scene emphasizes their divergent agendas, as D’Argo wants to leave Moya to find his son, Zhaan and Rygel both fear Moya’s pregnancy makes her an ineffective vessel in which to evade the Peacekeepers, and Aeryn pledges to remain by Moya’s side, in part because she has nowhere else to go. Crichton is the only one who really tries to convince the others to follow his lead, but as D’Argo pithily observes, his arguments are “selfishness masquerading as reason.” The real reason Crichton wants to stay in the Uncharted Territories is because he wants to find a wormhole back to Earth, but he’s the only one unwilling to be unflinchingly honest about his real motivations.

All this talk of abandoning Moya frightens the ship so much that she attempts immediate starburst in order to prove her worth, and that mistake sets the rest of the episode in motion. Again, it’s one thing to say that Farscape is different from Star Trek because the former’s characters disagree with and distrust each other, but it’s something else to see that concept actively drive the story. It’s possible to imagine the Enterprise getting stuck mid-warp just as Moya gets stuck mid-starburst, but this would be down to some freak spatial anomaly or some error in engineering. Here, the characters’ plight is a direct result of their infighting and their failure to communicate, and the ship itself is arguably the biggest culprit. Crichton and company are the architects of their own destruction, which lends their desperate attempt to escape—not to mention their celebratory meal afterward—extra impact. On other shows, the main characters cooperating to solve a problem would represent a status quo so basic that it wouldn’t even be worth explicitly acknowledging. Here, that cooperation provides a readymade character arc for everybody on the show.

Much like “A Human Reaction,” this episode is told more or less entirely from Crichton’s perspective, as we only see the other characters when he shares a dimension with them. Though this episode doesn’t provide Ben Browder with as much of an acting challenge as its predecessor, he does nicely capture Crichton’s growing frustration with… well, with everything. Crichton gets some great one-liners, including his advice to Chiana on how best to piss off the monster and his rejoinder to Zhaan when she muses what might lie beyond the normal dimensions. Mostly though, Crichton just has to anchor the episode, providing a steady, competent presence that eventually becomes heroic through sheer determination. This episode also reminds us that Crichton is fundamentally a scientist, which explains why he keeps locating the portals between dimensions whereas his more action-oriented compatriots just wander around aimlessly. In one of the episode’s best ideas, Crichton repeatedly and inexplicably refuses to fire at the creature, which prompts harsh criticism from the soldierly Aeryn. But then Crichton recognizes the creature is using prime numbers—one of the most basic ways to demonstrate intelligence, and quite possibly how we really would initiate contact with extraterrestrials if we ever encountered them—and trusts that his otherworldly tête-à-tête won’t end with his horrible death. Although, as he points out, everyone is going to be dead soon enough anyway, so what does it really matter?

A big part of this episode’s brilliance lies in its handling of the supporting characters; everyone has a distinct, clearly defined reaction to the insanity that unfolds around them. Zhaan doesn’t get much to do in this episode, but Virginia Hey conveys such abject terror in her characters’s reactions to the others’ disappearances. She is scared beyond words, and she recovers only insofar as she spends the rest of the episode quietly preparing for death. Chiana is similarly petrified, and while her revelation about the destruction of Nebari colonies is little more than an afterthought amidst all the other ideas, Gigi Edgley plays the scene well enough for it to have some impact in the moment, even if it’s quickly gets lost in the shuffle. D’Argo benefits from his time in the red dimension because it effectively cancels out his usual obstinacy. He’s in too much pain to sit in constant judgment of Crichton or to maintain his constant rage, so he just shifts to wearily irritated, which proves much more relatable. He orders Crichton not to throw up in Pilot’s den, which Crichton completely fails to do. Anthony Simcoe gets in a reliably great delivery with his, “No, I do not want that here,” and his subsequent mocking sigh is a great comedic moment in an episode full of them.

Let’s return to the hypothetical episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the Enterprise gets splintered between dimensions and Picard has to go hopping from one to the other. I can imagine Picard enduring such an experience, but I can’t imagine it being as, well, annoying as what Crichton goes through. It’s particularly bold to feature deafening noise as the defining trait of the blue dimension, and it’s down to Farscape’s growing faith in its audience that they even attempt such an endurance test. Aeryn is the perfect one to get stuck in this dimension, and not just because she and Crichton prove adorable charades partners. She makes the most progress in Crichton’s absence, rigging up headsets that allow them to communicate over the din. While the pair’s experiences in “A Human Reaction” aren’t directly addressed, their relationship is portrayed differently here than in previous episodes; there’s a playfulness to their interactions that suggests, even in the midst of all this hell, they enjoy spending time with each other and trust each other implicitly, something that wasn’t true even a few weeks back.

“Through The Looking Glass” is a joyous, triumphant exploration of all the things Farscape can do that no other show could. The show encapsulates all that right at the end of the episode, as the gang sits down together for another dinner, which this time around is full of laughter and communal spirit. The two meals are the perfect bookends for this episode, as they emphasize how important the groups dynamics are to Farscape, and how much they can change over the course of a single episode. This time, at long last, our heroes get a complete, unqualified victory, and they respond with appropriate jubilation. Enjoy it now, because it isn’t to go last for long.

Stray observations:

  • Another of Farscape’s strengths when compared to other sci-fi shows is its aversion to technobabble. Indeed, I believe a commenter used this very episode as an example of that in an earlier review—so feel free to step forward and take credit—as the show never explains what’s going on in much more detail than that Moya is stuck mid-starburst, the first plan calls for them to starburst backwards, and the second plan calls for them to starburst forwards. Really, that’s all the detail you need, and it manages to be both comprehensible and wondrous in a way that spouting a bunch of nonsense quasi-scientific words just isn’t.
  • This is one of a few episodes in season one in which Chiana speaks with an Australian accent, as opposed to the more American accent she used back in “Durka Returns” and eventually settles on. For whatever reason, this was more distracting the first time I rewatched it than the second. I prefer the more American accent for Chiana’s character, but I suspect the Australian accent does help Edgley give a more relatable performance early on in her tenure in the role.
  • I didn’t even mention Rygel and the yellow dimension, but that’s no reflection on its quality; his scenes as a good-natured jokester offer another chance to connect with Rygel and to think of him as a character rather than just a puppet. It’s not so much the jokes he tells as the moments in which he manages to be serious, like his fright when he admits he saw the beast too or when he solemnly admits that he doesn’t joke and that this isn’t normal behavior… although that’s really just the setup for his next joke. Still, to apologize to everyone’s favorite Hynerian for omitting him from the main review, I’m turning the rest of the stray observation to some of his best quotes, because there’s just so damn many of them.
  • “Look, I gotta get out of here before I end up like you.” “What, handsome with a great sexual prowess?”
  • “Oh, there is no expanse of the mind, the will cannot traverse or physically the distance laid across the universe! There’s blessings, many in the stars, save one lamented curse, that 16th Rygel, glory me, must travel in reverse! There’s a little dance that goes with that, but I can’t do them both at the same time.”
  • “Should I disrobe so it’s memorable?”

“A Bug’s Life” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 9/17/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Twisted as it sounds, what we have right here is exactly what we need: guns in a lot of hands, pointed in every direction.”

If you judge a work environment in terms of how effectively an intelligent, body-snatching virus can hide in plain sight—which I’ve always considered a crucial criterion when evaluating any workplace—then Moya isn’t looking too good right now. On any sane starship, the virus wouldn’t have been able to pass itself off as the person whose body it had stolen, because any sane starship wouldn’t be home to multiple factions constantly lying to one another. Indeed, on any sane starship the virus would have never escaped in the first place, because no sane starship would allow two passengers who are as self-centered and untrustworthy as Rygel and Chiana to remain onboard. And, perhaps more important than anything else, no sane starship would ever turn to John Crichton for its plans.

Like “Through The Looking Glass,” “A Bug’s Life” feels like a story that could easily have happened on Star Trek—indeed, I’d wager this basic premise of a parasite hiding inside crewmembers’ bodies did happen on all five shows at one point or another, although I’ll leave it to you the readers to provide the appropriate examples. But once again, such a virus would get loose because of happenstance, or because of some enemy’s interference, or perhaps—just perhaps—because of some crewmember’s honest curiosity. It would not get free because two of the show’s supposed heroes decided to steal it (well… maybe if we’re talking about Quark on Deep Space Nine, but you get the basic idea). “A Bug’s Life” is another crazy space mystery episode, but everything that happens is so fundamentally driven by the main characters’ flaws. Just look at Chiana, who lies as a matter of course even when not under the virus’ sway; she initially says she’s fine when Zhaan asks how she is doing, only to then admit that she is indeed dizzy. It’s a quick moment, but it’s indicative of how deep the mistrust really runs.

Crichton’s plan in this episode—to deal with a visiting Marauder full of special ops Peacekeepers by putting on a spare uniform and pretending he and Aeryn are in charge of a wayward research vessel—is a plan that seems brilliant right up to the moment that you actually think it through. It’s the type of daring plan that Crichton almost certainly got from watching TV and movies, where such paper-thin disguises always worked because, well, those were TV and movies. Farscape may not yet qualify as real life, but it’s certainly messier than your average TV show, and while Crichton’s ruse goes undetected until long after the intelligent (sorry, intellant) virus has escaped, his plan still repeatedly encounters dangerous complications.

The simple act of putting on the uniform and affecting a wonderfully silly accent—I guess we’ll call Ben Browder’s accent British, I guess—is a huge risk when Crichton’s only real exposure to Peacekeeper society is through Aeryn. He knows just enough to get by and, when in doubt, he simply acts as pompously and officiously as possible, but one false comment could give the game away to the actual Peacekeepers. “A Bug’s Life” falls back on the idea that the galaxy is so big and the Peacekeepers so secretive that the special ops team’s ignorance could conceivably make sense, and at least Crichton knows enough to leave the bulk of the talking to Aeryn. Still, if anything, the episode underplays just how foolhardy his plan really is, especially when he decides to keep going towards the science base in the name of gathering information. Each of his decisions makes a certain amount of sense in isolation, but taken together they become appallingly reckless.

What’s more, that erratic decision-making is part of why the virus is later able to pass himself off as Crichton. He has shaken D’Argo and Zhaan’s faith in him enough that they don’t notice anything amiss when he comes up with a flimsy excuse to lock them up once again instead of letting Zhaan work on an antibody. The real Crichton would surely trust Zhaan to find the antibody far more than he would the Peacekeeper scientist Hassan. But Crichton has taken such a domineering approach throughout the episode that it’s easy to miss when he becomes unreasonable; one might think that the real Crichton wouldn’t willingly lock D’Argo and Zhaan up in the midst of a crisis, particularly given how much both hate captivity, but then his entire original plan hinged on them being imprisoned once again. The only other big clue that something isn’t right with Crichton is his sudden obsession with Hassan’s lips, but the others don’t immediately notice anything is wrong because Crichton is constantly spouting what they consider nonsense; indeed, they might have reached the point where they recognize “Hot Lips” as some reference to Earth culture that they could not be expected to understand.

This is tricky, because I just came dangerously close to arguing that Crichton’s unreliable behavior helps the virus evade capture, which makes Crichton indirectly responsible for everything the virus does while in control of his body, including the brutal murder of Hassan. Even if Crichton isn’t in his right mind, it’s still shocking to see the hero (or at least his body) beat somebody to death with a pole. The episode doesn’t dwell on this incident, although Crichton’s haunted stare when forced to stand next to the corpse conveys everything the audience needs to know. While there’s territory here that the show could have explored in more detail, Chiana’s line really does sum up the issue: “Lighten up. You didn’t do it. Well, you did, but… it wasn’t really you.”

That line is also a key character moment for Chiana, as it’s the first time that she really puts herself out there for a shipmate and tries to make someone feel better. Her straightforward words of comfort couldn’t have come from Aeryn or Zhaan, and certainly not D’Argo—some or all of them might have agreed that Crichton shouldn’t feel responsible, but their advice would have been like that something an adult would impart to a foolish child, as all of them tend to lecture Crichton when he screws up. Chiana is more willing to speak to him as an equal, and while her attempt at comfort is pretty terrible here, it bodes well for their relationship going forward.

Placing Crichton under the virus’ control also allows him to play the hero in the final act of the episode, as his newfound immunity means he’s the one person anyone else can trust to take charge of the situation. The standoff as Zhaan prepares the antidote is a marvelously tense sequence, and then everything goes completely bonkers when Larraq is revealed as the virus’ new host. Crichton redeems himself somewhat with his plan to defeat the virus, which involves using some starburst energy to blow up Larraq’s ship. While the kill makes sense given the danger the virus poses to the galaxy—indeed, I think we can take it as a given that Larraq would have ordered Crichton to blow up the ship—this still represents the first time Crichton has unambiguously, intentionally taken a life, and he meets this moment with a simple, callous one-liner: “Boom.” As with everything else in “A Bug’s Life,” Crichton’s decision is justifiable, even commendable, but it still raises the question: Just how long can Crichton survive in this strange new galaxy while keeping his essential humanity? Last week’s “A Human Reaction” tackled that question in terms of loss and alienation, but “A Bug’s Life” presents a dark, scary universe, and then it suggests that Crichton fits in far better than he would ever admit. Crazy as it sounds, the fact that Crichton is a constant screw-up might actually be more important than his human morality when it comes to keeping him on the side of good.

Stray observations:

  • Once again, I didn’t even mention my favorite scene of the episode, in which the virus-controlled Crichton asks Larraq how he ever managed to track down the virus. The scene is so wrong on so many levels—Ben Browder’s performance is especially fearless—and I love it all.
  • Aeryn and Larraq hit it off enough that a recovering Aeryn suggests Larraq didn’t miss her heart. I’m not totally convinced by this subplot, mostly because there’s so little of it, but this is probably equivalent to Crichton’s instant attraction to Gilina. Both situations are built on an instant connection, and it’s based as much on finally meeting someone with similar interests as anything else. If you take D’Argo out of the equation, Larraq is the first soldier Aeryn has really interacted with since she was declared irreversibly contaminated, and it’s easy to see why she would enjoy getting to be a Peacekeeper again, even if it’s just a deception.
  • Larraq raises some intriguing points about Peacekeeper science when he discusses the plan to study, tame, and weaponize the virus, but let’s just say I think I can safely leave that topic alone until next week. Speaking of which…

Next week: Crichton makes some new friends and takes a seat as we reach our first two-parter, “Nerve” and “The Hidden Memory.”

More TV Club