Farscape: “Vitas Mortis”/“Taking The Stone”
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Farscape: “Vitas Mortis”/“Taking The Stone”

“Vitas Mortis” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 3/24/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“Nilaam isn’t evil.” “That doesn’t change anything.”

Scorpius isn’t mentioned once in “Vitas Mortis,” nor is Crais or Talyn. After spending five consecutive episodes stuck in the same asteroid field, Moya has traveled to some other part of the Uncharted Territories, and an unspecified, not insignificant amount of time has elapsed, considering the crew has had time to learn of the lonely Luxan during a trip to a commerce planet. After a string of tightly serialized episodes—everything from “Nerve” to “Mind The Baby” could be considered one continuous story, and “A Bug’s Life” could be thrown in as a prologue of sorts—“Vitas Mortis” is a standalone episode, one that almost seems to disregard everything that occurred immediately prior. Certainly, Zhaan appears to have shaken off the trauma that had her so scrambled in “Mind The Baby,” and if you ignore D’Argo’s new look and Crichton’s still jumpy behavior—not to mention his new, Peacekeeper-derived sense of style— there’s no particular reason why this episode couldn’t be slotted in directly after “Through The Looking Glass.” But then such a placement would set up a grossly unfair comparison, for if “Through The Looking Glass” represents a standalone Farscape episode at its very best, then “Vitas Mortis” is standalone Farscape at its most mediocre.

I say mediocre, because there’s really nothing egregiously wrong with this episode. The episode works as a moderately effective character study of D’Argo, and it offers some decent insight into Luxan culture, even if a lot of it is just Anthony Simcoe reeling off lengthy monologues (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). As suggested by its title, the first fifteen minutes or so of “Vitas Mortis” are all about death, and Grant McAloon’s script wrings some subdued pathos and drama out of Nilaam’s dying request, D’Argo’s quiet determination, and Crichton’s slow, begrudging acceptance of this probably dangerous Luxan ritual. Even then, there’s a slightly slapdash quality to the story’s construction; the revelation about D’Argo’s fraudulent tattoos is only as interesting as Simcoe is able to make it, because the show’s treatment of D’Argo long ago shifted its focus away from his past as a soldier. This is one of the first times since “Premiere” that D’Argo has discussed that part of his past in any substantial detail, and so it’s difficult to be too invested in the realization that what we think we know is wrong when we don’t actually know all that much to begin with.

It doesn’t help that so much of this story is built around Luxan magic. Farscape has brushed up against the supernatural before, but—fair or not—it’s somehow easier to accept a godlike being such as Maldis or the incredible mental powers of the Delvians than Nilaam, who is basically an honest-to-goodness witch. I don’t even necessarily object to the central use of magic in this episode, in which Nilaam continually drains Moya of life to restore herself, because that concept is huge and abstract enough to just read like the latest weird threat to Moya, with little functional difference to the vaguely more scientific craziness in, say, “Exodus From Genesis” or “Through The Looking Glass.” But the moments where Nilaam basically just does magic, like when she plunges her hand into D’Argo’s chest or deflects Aeryn’s energy blast, feel like unnatural expansions of the show’s universe, especially when magic has never really seemed like a major part of D’Argo’s culture. Farscape’s internal logic is screwy enough that just about anything could theoretically happen, with sufficient explanation, but “Vitas Mortis” asks the audience to accept on faith a few too many outlandish elements, and that’s problematic when the story these elements are meant to support isn’t especially compelling. The episode feels a little like “Jeremiah Crichton,”—never a good sign—in that the laws and structure of this episode’s universe just feel slightly off from how things should be.

Thankfully, “Vitas Mortis” is better than “Jeremiah Crichton,” mostly because it understands its characters better; even if the situations they encounter don’t make sense, their reactions generally do. The obvious character pitfall for this episode would be for everyone to miss the blindingly obvious connection between Moya’s decay and Nilaam’s rejuvenation. Instead, both D’Argo and Aeryn recognize the truth almost immediately, which allows both of them to directly respond to the actual crisis instead of wander around puzzling things out. In Aeryn’s case, her response unsurprisingly involves an attempt at extreme violence, but this is specifically motivated by her fierce protective impulse toward Moya and Pilot; Aeryn vows that Nilaam will return what she stole, and she shows zero hesitation in firing on the Orican. It’s easy to take it for granted at this stage in Farscape’s run, but it subtly strengthens the episode for Aeryn—even as a side character in this particular plot—to do what she does out of love, rather than a more abstract motivation such as a sense of duty. Despite this episode being relatively bland, the stakes for the main character are still personal, even visceral.

Indeed, even when D’Argo initially promises to attend the elderly Orican as she dies, there’s more going on than just ritualistic honor. D’Argo is palpably terrified when he first realizes just who Nilaam is, and Anthony Simcoe effectively conveys the very real danger of the ceremony. His quiet admission to Crichton that “I could die” is a line whose simplicity is matched by its pathos; there’s a real sense in Simcoe’s delivery that this ritual could mean the death of D’Argo, and the Luxan would accept that fate as a worthy one. When Nilaam becomes young again, the episode taps into a basic aspect of D’Argo’s character: He is unimaginably lonely, and he’s even more unimaginably horny. How could he possibly resist a newly young, beautiful, powerful Luxan who gladly promises to give him everything he could ever want, including a reunion with his son? That’s an impossible offer to resist, and the fact that D’Argo still recognizes Nilaam’s complicity in Moya’s decay and demands the Orican set things right all stands as a remarkable testament to the strength of his character. Nilaam was mistaken when she thought D’Argo was the most powerful Luxan she had ever met, but she might be more right than she realizes.

“Vitas Mortis” doesn’t leave much room for Crichton, who doesn’t even really get a minor storyline to call his own. This episode sidelines John in a way no episode really has before, and Ben Browder gets to play another side of Crichton’s instability as he helplessly watches D’Argo go to his possible death. His well-earned pessimism is on full display, as he wisely rephrases his question “How little risk?” as the far more appropriate “How wrong can it go?” Again, for all its imperfections, the episode does lock in on what really matters to these characters; Nilaam attempts to dismiss Crichton’s fears as a distrust of the supernatural, but the human simply responds that he’s frightened of losing those he cares about. And the decision to sideline Crichton pays off well in the end, as it allows him to act as a more impartial arbiter when a desperate D’Argo pleads for Nilaam’s innocence. D’Argo is probably correct that the Orican is not evil, but Crichton is more right when he says that doesn’t change anything, that what she is doing is killing Moya, and that’s murder. It’s a harsh, uncompromising rebuke, and it’s as good a statement as any on Farscape’s moral philosophy. People are defined not by some abstract notion of who they are but by what they choose to do, and everyone must face the consequences of their own actions. I have no doubt we’ll refine that thesis as the show continues, but that’s a pretty good lesson to learn from a rather average episode.

Stray observations:

  • You know, I think “Vitas Mortis” would work better if it were 15 minutes long. Silly as that might sound, I think the first third of the episode works as a poignant little meditation on death, and the problem with the rest of the episode is that the story’s natural conclusion is for Nilaam to die, which means her unexpected rejuvenation is a bit of a narrative cul-de-sac. It doesn’t help that Melissa Jaffer as the elderly Nilaam is rather more compelling than Anna-Lise Phillips as the younger version, although that may be more down to the fact that Jaffer is given a wider range of emotions to play.
  • D’Argo and Chiana’s sudden, unspoken attraction is another example of the episode feeling slightly off-kilter. I realize this was first hinted at in “Family Ties,” but their sudden connection here just doesn’t really feel connected with what we have seen of their interactions previously. It’s not necessarily a bad development for the show going forward, but its introduction here feels clumsy.
  • “We got lucky Sparky’s got a big ass!” I’m still a little shocked and disappointed that Crichton doesn’t make a Winnie the Pooh reference here.

“Taking The Stone” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 3/31/2000)

(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)

“And try not to be too angry about the Prowler. Be nice.” “I’m not good at nice.” “Just don’t shoot her.”

As I sat down this week to rewatch “Taking The Stone,” my memory was that this was Farscape’s single worst episode, an interminable slog through a barely coherent, offputtingly bizarre story. And while I still think the gist of that is true, I’m no longer so sure that the episode is quite so awful. It doesn’t work, and it fails in what it sets out to do far more than “Vitas Mortis” does, but it’s also trying to accomplish more than its immediate predecessor was trying to. There’s a certain vaguely admirable audacity in just how relentlessly weird this story is, and that’s worth some begrudging respect. And, if nothing else, the episode gives Ben Browder, Claudia Black, and Gigi Edgley—not to mention Jonathan Hardy and Rygel’s team of operators—some unusual material to play, and so the cast and director Rowan Woods make bits of this story work, at least in isolation.

The fundamental problem with “Taking The Stone” is its pacing. The episode isn’t boring, exactly, but it’s damn near impossible to get a grip on what’s going on. Some of that is down to how the episode depicts the Clansmen, who all appear to be a bunch of suicidal, drugged-out weirdoes. I was going to call them hedonistic lunatics, but both of those words connote a level of energy that isn’t really present here; the Clansmen seem to spend their days shuffling around the caves until it’s time for the next round of bungee without the rope, as Crichton so eloquently puts it. Chiana claims that she likes these people because they are alive in a way that the crew on Moya isn’t, and while the Clansmen certainly live without the constant burden and distraction of Peacekeepers chasing after them, these aliens really don’t seem to be more vivacious than our heroes. Admittedly, Chiana is in a fragile state of mind, and it’s entirely possible, even plausible that her opinion of the Clansmen is meant to be incorrect. But it’s difficult to see how she could even conceivably look at the cowering, zombie-like Clansmen and see a lifestyle worth emulating, no matter how big a rush taking the stone is meant to provide.

The one slight exception to this is the de facto leader Molnon, as Anthony Hayes turns in a surreally alien performance that recalls Angie Milliken’s unforgettable (for better or worse) work in “Thank God It’s Friday, Again.” Hayes takes Gigi Edgley’s speech patterns and body language to their logical extremes, which makes for a rather halting, disjointed performance. This approach can be somewhat irritating, as it adds to the general sense that “Taking The Stone” is stalling for time, as though the episode is desperately trying to stretch about 20 minutes of material to a running time more than twice as long. But Hayes is able to bring some charisma to the performance, at least to the extent that it’s vaguely believable that Chiana would indeed want to risk death after spending time with him. What’s more troublesome is that Molnon never really coheres as a single character—he’s alternatively a hedonistic thrill-seeker and a manipulative coward, and while it’s possible to connect the dots between the different versions of Molnon that the story presents, his incoherent, contradictory statements of philosophy seem designed less to reveal his own character and more to provide Crichton and Chiana with whatever message they need to hear at any given moment. Like the rest of the Clansmen, he’s often more a plot device than a clearly defined character, and perhaps that’s why it really doesn’t seem like much of an issue when the episode just sort of abandons the Clansmen’s story.

Theoretically, this episode should be about Chiana—it’s her brother who died, after all. But this episode plays like an inversion of “Jeremiah Crichton” (which, again, is never a good sign), as Chiana runs away from Moya and this time it’s Crichton’s task to retrieve the wounded, recalcitrant shipmate. And, much like “Jeremiah Crichton,” the initial, more focused story about Chiana dealing with her grief and with Crichton’s unwitting betrayal immediately gives way to whatever it is “Taking The Stone” is actually about. The episode lurches from one apparent plot to the next, and Chiana gets lost in the process. That’s essentially what quite literally happens in the apparent climax, as Crichton bursts in on Chiana’s big moment so that he can confront Molnon, and he shushes her into silence when Chiana tries to point out that this is supposed to be about her. To some extent, this marginalization of Chiana is a natural outgrowth of her initial decision to run away from her grief rather than truly confront it. Chiana changing her hairdo and taking up extreme sports are distractions from her actual emotional arc, and so the episode is limited in what it can really do with her. It’s not a coincidence that some of the best moments come when Chiana opens up to Aeryn, who shows unexpected empathy as she tries to help the suffering Nebari through her loss.

After ceding “Vitas Mortis” to D’Argo, Crichton effectively takes over this story, as he launches a rather half-assed investigation into just what is going on in the caves. Again, this plot suffers because he doesn’t really care about solving the mystery; he just wants to protect Chiana, and investigating the Clansmen’s sickness is a convenient way to do so without having to directly confront the person he let down. Admittedly, avoiding Chiana is perhaps a good impulse for Crichton, as he repeatedly makes things worse each time he tries to talk to her, culminating with him tranquilizing her and resolving to carry her unconscious body back to Moya, a plan that Aeryn quite rightly shoots down.

There’s a certain character logic to both Chiana’s and Crichton’s actions—especially when you remember that both are at least a little crazy—and it’s possible to understand why both act so strangely throughout the episode, but “Taking The Stone” never makes a good enough case as to why the audience should put in that work to understand the characters’ underlying motivations. Chiana’s successful leap is meant to be this great cathartic moment of release for both characters, and they share a final moment on the planet’s surface that’s alternatively poignant and goofy. Taken together, those moments represent a good endpoint for Crichton and Chiana, and Browder and Edgley make those scenes work in isolation, but that happy conclusion seems disconnected from the journey the characters took throughout the rest of the episode.

That’s really the great weakness and occasional strength of “Taking The Stone”—none of what happens really fits together as a coherent whole, which means that it’s possible for the odd brilliant moment to emerge from all the nonsense. Rowan Woods outdoes himself with Crichton’s mushroom-aided drug trip, which pushes the episode’s off-putting aesthetic so far that it loops back around to awesome. Besides, there’s still Rygel to consider, as the Dominar robs a royal grave and runs afoul of a curse. It’s just as silly as it sounds, and Farscape doesn’t bother to offer a scientific explanation for the helmet’s vengeful activities (although it wouldn’t be difficult to make up some technobabble-heavy rationalization if one were so inclined). But it’s a good little comic relief plot, and it’s fun to see Rygel run through a standard plot—after all, anyone can get treasure fever, but most people wouldn’t consider a giant bug crawling through the treasure as a delicious bonus. Rygel really doesn’t get many stories to call his own, but he’s shown an odd knack for being the best part of Farscape’s worst episodes. That might almost be considered a talent. Almost.

Stray observations:

  • The episode’s pacing issues aren’t helped by the incessant use of slow motion. It makes sense in a couple contexts, but it often just seems like a way to paper over unconvincing effects or to pad out the running time. Either way, it gets a little tedious after a while.
  • The single weirdest scene in this episode might be when Crichton and Aeryn decide to confront Vyna just as she’s giving birth. Even by the standards of regular childbirth, Vyna appears to be in the midst of a particularly excruciating ordeal—a sense Rowan Woods adds to with his camerawork and editing choices—and so it’s hard not to see our intrepid heroes as, well, kind of assholes for interrogating her while she’s going through all this.
  • “And anyway, if there is a curse—which there’s not!—it'll just be on me!” “Yes. It will.” Once again, Zhaan is relegated to a mere cameo in this episode, but Virginia Hey makes the most of that line. Zhaan is spiritual and compassionate, but she knows how to put Rygel in his place.

Next week: We turn our attention to what might well be Farscape’s best episode—or, at the very least, its biggest mindfrell—with “Crackers Don’t Matter.”

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