What’s that? A series canceled before it could complete its story, brought back for a hasty, overlong wrap-up because those involved just couldn’t leave well enough alone?
I could have sworn I’d heard of something like that before. Maybe I’m thinking of Firefly? Or perhaps Futurama? Definitely begins with an “F,” I’m pretty sure.
Yes friends, nearly three years since I reviewed “Dog With Two Bones,” Farscape reviews have returned. This is my final weekend at the A.V. Club, and I couldn’t stand to leave my greatest passion project from my time here forever unfinished. So, with the very generous indulgence of TV Club editor Erik Adams, we’re doing two last entries for Farscape. This one deals with the entire fourth season, which after this rewatch I might now consider my favorite of the show. It can’t quite match season one’s sense of discovery or season three’s bold, sometimes artsy experimentation, but like the second season this year distinguishes itself by knowing exactly what kind of show it wants to be and just how to achieve it. The season can be a little offputtingly weird in the early going, and there are two all-time bad episodes back-to-back in the middle, but overall this is such a fundamentally solid and sound season of television.
The main characters continue to grow and evolve—D’Argo and Chiana have particularly strong years in that regard—while new Moya additions Noranti, Sikozu, and (gulp) Scorpius move swiftly past any bumpy beginnings to become unique presences on the show. And whenever the show flirts with playing it safe, of losing its edge, it finds way to subvert expectations, as the Scarrans become an ever more present threat to the shipmates and the galaxy at large.
But enough preamble: It’s time to talk about the individual episodes. While I can’t write entries at the same kind of length I did for previous seasons, I want to make sure every last story gets its moment for in-depth consideration, albeit in condensed form. I can’t cover everything—I never could, really—but I’ll have something to say for each episode. Of course, even shorter reviews for 22 episodes is a frelling ton of reading material, so I’d recommend treating this entire thing as a reference, something to read in chunks and to return to as you watch the relevant episodes. And with all that out of the way, let’s do this thing.
“Crichton Kicks” (season 4, episode 1; originally aired June 7, 2002)
“I’m not obsessed.” “Mm. Wormholes, Aeryn, Earth, Aeryn, Scorpius, Aeryn. I’m out of fingers. Want me to keep counting on hers?”
When Crichton tells Sikozu, the newest addition to the Farscape cast, that he used to be happy, he’s not talking about his time aboard Moya with his friends. No, he’s talking about the time he has spent alone aboard the dying Leviathan Elack, working on wormhole equations and growing a beard at least a bit better than the one in “Jeremiah Crichton.” (At least Ben Browder actually grew one this time.) It’s hard to know how to read Crichton as the fourth season begins, other than to say he’s every bit as broken and traumatized and occasionally dangerous as he’s ever been, and he’s mostly guided by his obsessions and a general cussed refusal to make anything easy for himself, ever.
The episode theoretically turns on his refusal to let the Grudeks kill Elack and its Pilot before they can die peacefully in the sacred burial ground, but this Pilot is too weak to have much of a presence in the episode. Crichton does the right thing in defending them, but his motives are trickier to parse. Is it out of a sense of gratitude? An awareness that neither the Grudeks nor Sikozu is trustworthy enough to try to bargain with? The end of the episode implies Crichton sprang into action out of a sense of kinship with his protectors: They dreamed of their sacred death just as he dreams of a reunion with Aeryn. That Crichton abandons that as a goal at episode’s end is significant for his overall arc, but it doesn’t feel like the full explanation of why Crichton makes life so difficult for himself here.
There’s a temptation to say that the morality of the Farscape universe has become so completely twisted and fractured that only a madman would try to do anything good or altruistic. But as Chiana and Rygel point out in their return, Commandant Grayza’s reward posters mean the Moya shipmates can’t abandon the course they’re on even if they wanted to, and Rygel at least definitely wants to. Like a lot of fourth season episodes, “Crichton Kicks” has some inchoate storytelling, with the big plan at the end to use Chiana’s power remaining particularly underexplained. That’s a weakness, but the premiere is most effective as laying out who John now is: A man who simultaneously doesn’t know what he wants and wants things to the point of obsession, stuck playing the hero if only because he has no other ideas.
“What Was Lost (Part 1): Sacrifice” (season 4, episode 2; originally aired June 14, 2002)
“Why did you knock that guy out?” “If he’d seen me with her he would have attacked and then he would be dead. I saved his life.”
From its beginnings—certainly from the moment Scorpius put Crichton in the Aurora Chair—John has been Farscape’s grand deconstruction of the classic sci-fi hero. There have been stories before this defined by Crichton’s mental instability, his unreliability, his refusal to admit how in over his head he is, you name it. But “What Was Lost” represents the most comprehensive removal of Crichton’s control in Farscape’s history. Throughout, he’s confused by what the situation even is. He’s threatened by a surly security guard and dressed down by a real jerk of an archaeologist. Next, he has mystical powder blown in his face by a mad old woman with her own inscrutable moments. Then—and I mean this just as the last in the sequence, not as an implication of comparability—Grayza sexually assaults him as part of his interrogation. And even that latest horror just leads to him being mind-controlled into trying to kill himself and the sea creature Oo-Nii roughly demanding he give up the secrets of the Darnaz stones.
To so completely strip a protagonist—particularly a male hero—of his agency remains rare in pop culture, so the fact this all happened 15 years ago is a little remarkable. One could be forgiven for thinking during “Sacrifice” that Crichton’s rough treatment is to some extent a byproduct of the story’s byzantine plotting, but the opening scene of “Resurrection” with him, D’Argo, and Sikozu underlines that his suffering is conscious storytelling decision rather than mere act of narrative convenience. Ben Browder’s closed-off body language after his first encounter with Grayza also indicates just how much the violation has affected him. The two-parter ultimately lets Crichton revert to his righteously pissed, wisecracking self when he turns the tables on the commandant, which feels like an abdication of responsibility for putting a character in such a traumatizing position. Even if you want to argue Crichton has experienced so many horrors before this that it makes sense this wouldn’t register as a long-term source of anguish, the storytelling is awfully pat with how it removes Grayza from the story to turn its focus elsewhere.
But then, this story is meant to establish the commandant as Crichton’s latest primary foe, and her sexual assault as interrogation means there now exists just as unbridgeable a gap between them as the death of Crais’ brother created between John and the good captain or as the Aurora Chair put between him and Scorpius. Crichton has his moments where he really is his own kind of hero, as his dad once put it, but he needs the right context. He needs his friends—Chiana, D’Argo, and even Rygel are a good start—but he also needs a villain. With Scorpius buried, Grayza is the new threat, at least for now.
“What Was Lost (Part 2): Resurrection” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired June 21, 2002)
“Maybe that is the reason?” “Maybe that’s the reason what?” “It could not be!” “You know her. She starts sentences and then she doesn’t finish ‘em and it’s very annoying!”
This two-parter is such an unholy tangle of agendas. The haughty Interion archaeologist Vella wants to find the Darnaz stones to reactivate them, so Noranti is prepared to take extreme actions to stop her, except it’s really Oo-Nii who has been plotting for 26 cycles to get his hands on them as a weapon. Grayza has no particular interest in the stones or the site but wants whatever information she can obtain from Crichton—hers is basically just a fact-finding mission. Our old friend Braca appears entirely loyal to his new superior, but Scorpius proves more in control of his basic functions than one would expect, so it’s pretty much guaranteed we have some Peacekeeper intrigue on our hands.
It’s a situation where terms like “good guys” and “bad guys” don’t readily apply, not because there are no villains here—Grayza’s use of sexual assault as an interrogation technique puts her at least on equal footing with Scorpius among Farscape’s antagonists—but because it’s all so confusing that it’s a struggle to know what even would be the good outcome here. That context is an asset when it comes to Sikozu, as a viewer can come away still unsure whether her treachery was entirely part of D’Argo’s plan or her subsequent double cross was a bit of quick thinking when the deal went south. (It’s probably the former, but the fourth season is notorious for being bafflingly complex, and I’m still not sure why those two Peacekeeper guards just stood around silently while Jool, Sikozu, and Chiana discussed their plans.)
The clever thing about “What Was Lost” is that it gradually simplifies the story, restoring Crichton’s agency only when there’s a clear objective for him and his friends to work toward. In this case, it’s the classic option: survival. The Darnaz Triangle might well have been either a tool to restore the peaceful priests or a weapon of mass destruction—a term ensconcing itself in the lexicon when this episode aired back in 2002—but those abstract hypotheticals stop mattering when its restoration is the only way to save everyone from the death of a magnetic summer. The story even entertains something akin to a happy ending, with the stones bringing back the priests and Jool and D’Argo making up before the latter departs. Then again, the aimless despair sets for Chiana—and, given time, everyone else save maybe Crichton—once they leave the planet. Individual stories on Farscape can end happily, but this is a series defined by reckoning with the failure and futility of a frequently cruel universe, one that in this case is now home to a thoroughly humiliated and furious Peacekeeper commandant.
“Lava’s A Many Splendored Thing” (season 4, episode 4; originally aired June 28, 2002)
“I think we should burn her.” “You burn your old folks?” “No, it just sounded like a good idea.”
This is close to the idea planet-of-the-week episode, at least if you don’t mind Farscape being all square and conventional for once. After three episodes of compelling but frequently confusing storytelling, this episode is admirably straightforward, as the villainous Raa’Keel acknowledges when he sums up the entire situation in a sentence. The central premise that Noranti has mistaken a bunch of robbers for the Tarkan freedom fighters themselves is especially nifty, as it lets the shipmates wander into their latest disastrous predicament without entirely abandoning the notion that maybe, on occasion, there are good people in the universe. Save the dying Pilot and Elack, this season has introduced us to nothing but unpleasant and unsavory characters thus far—and you better believe I’m including Sikozu on that list—so it’s refreshing to end on a small break from the cynicism, with the real freedom fighters showing up and our Pilot calling in to say Moya is still out there.
The whole story is the kind of breezy fun that typically comes only when Farscape deigns to explain itself. While the show is its truest self when it’s heading into mindfrell territory, that often means accepting that the sacrifice of clear logic also harms the sense of momentum. Think of the last time the Farscape gang wandered around a bunch of volcanic caves in “Taking The Stone” and how much of a slog that was. By contrast, “Lava’s A Many Splendored Thing” sets up readily understandable problems for the crew to solve, then comes up with quintessentially Farscape solutions, just in case you were worried the show had lost its edge. No Star Trek captain is about to smear vomit all over their hands to operate their friend’s ship, after all. Even the business with the body armor is admirably free of technobabble, as Crichton’s reasoning about thermal and kinetic energy sounds dangerously close to real physics.
This episode also more clearly establishes how the new shipmates fit into the operations. Noranti is totally unpredictable, with the show piling quirks on top of her—the narcolepsy probably should be a bridge too far, but it’s just so perfectly ludicrous. What makes this work is she plays against the two most grounded characters, Crichton and D’Argo, who are consistently exasperated and slightly murderous in response. While Noranti can play as a random plot beat generator, there’s a very slowly emerging sense of consistency to her action. That she alone knows of the Tarkans suggests at least a portion of her madness is just a product of coming from a very different part of the galaxy than anyone else, meaning her knowledge base and expectations are fundamentally different. As for Sikozu, I’ll say right now that Raelee Hill has the most expressive eyes in the business, especially the eyerolls. The air of superiority she exudes is something else.
“Promises” (season 4, episode 5; originally aired July 12, 2002)
We’ll talk about Aeryn soon, but let’s talk about Scorpius and Sikozu, especially since I shortchanged the latter in the previous section. The show isn’t coy about how openly it’s reusing a plotline in having Scorpius come aboard Moya, but the episode moves quickly to dispel any Crais parallels. Whereas Bialar quickly saw his time aboard Moya and Talyn as a redemption opportunity—one he could largely dictate the terms of—Scorpius does not bother with such sentiment. As ever, his relationships are entirely transactional, animated neither by kindness nor cruelty. He saved Aeryn to gain asylum aboard Moya, and he treated her well because her gratitude is the one thing that might stop Crichton from killing him on sight. Scorpius removes Harvey from Crichton’s mind for similar reasons, even if he does have the gall to argue that the clone killed Aeryn whereas he saved her, as though he somehow isn’t entirely responsible for Harvey’s actions. Scorpius exists in an eternal present, the past only mattering to the extent it informs his foresight and preparation for the next crisis.
It’s telling that it’s Sikozu, not Scorpius, who angrily points out the shipmates are being foolish in not starbursting away from the Peacekeeper missile. Hers is a cold, calculating rationality, but she is led astray by her belief she’s smarter than all these idiots. Scorpius knows enough to respect the resourcefulness of Crichton and company, but he’s also a more emotionally intelligent strategist: There’s no percentage in trying to convince them to abandon Aeryn, so he doesn’t even float the idea. Instead, he focuses on coming up with a plan to the crew’s liking, because his continued usefulness is what could earn him a place aboard Moya.
It’s understandable Pilot articulates such distaste for Sikozu—he actually speaks more harshly of her than he does of Scorpius!—but she’s a better character than Jool. Whereas Jool was a bit imperious and whiny, she basically meant well, which is nicer in-universe but less interesting than the current effort to write a legitimate heel shipmate in a way we haven’t seen since early Rygel. And even the Dominar at his worst at least had the courtesy to know that siding with Scorpius meant actually betraying the crew. Sikozu is drawn to Scorpius, perhaps a byproduct of their shared Scarran connection, and her fascination with him could spell serious trouble before long. Somehow, even knowing all I do about Scorpius, I’m more concerned about Sikozu. That’s a tribute to how both the writing and Hill and Wayne Pygram’s performances weave ambiguity and uncertainty into these most unpredictable new arrivals.
“Natural Election” (season 4, episode 6; originally aired July 19, 2002)
“John, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never actually put into words before. I love shooting things.”
The previous episode set up the election for the Moya captaincy as a major unresolved thread heading into this story, and the title would suggest it’s a big deal. And yet it barely registers as a big deal at all, with Rygel the only one for whom the role seems to matter for most of “Natural Election.” Crichton especially doesn’t intersect with this story much at all, despite the fact a person putting Farscape in conversation with other sci-fi shows might naturally compare him with captains—even then, I almost wrote “other” captains—from James T. Kirk to Malcolm Reynolds.
That the job ultimately goes to D’Argo feels right, especially after that scene where he shows real leadership in getting a despondent Rygel to snap out of it. Crichton might theoretically be more qualified, but that ignores his instability and well-established willingness to prioritize his own projects over the safety of the crew. Aeryn is the other plausible candidate—it’s left uncertain who voted for whom, but I’m almost positive Pilot voted for her, which should say a lot—but her problems with Crichton are a microcosm of what would be her problem as a captain. She has shown time and again how worthy she is of others’ trust, but that’s only half the equation. Aeryn struggles to trust others, and those she does believe in can be oddly judged. It’s hard to say why anyone would tell Chiana anything if that person didn’t want the whole ship to know in short order, to say nothing of the fact Aeryn alone among the non-Sikozu shipmates places some trust in Scorpius.
There’s a certain coherency to all that: For all her incredible emotional growth, Aeryn’s worldview is still filtered through her Peacekeeper training. She trusts Scorpius more than the others not just because he saved her, but because she doesn’t see any tactical reason for him to betray them, whereas the others need no reason beyond he’s frelling Scorpius. But Aeryn’s interpersonal skills remain more suspect. Each individual decision makes sense, but they are all premised on the assumption she can only rely on herself. And really, if I were forced to put my life in the hands of anyone aboard Moya, it’d be Officer Sun. We know Crichton certainly would. But that isn’t all of what a relationship is built upon. “Promises” revealed Aeryn was willing to kill herself to resolve a situation instead of bringing others in. Her position in “Natural Election” is less extreme, but no more conducive to healing the wounds in her and Crichton’s relationship.
Incidentally, if Farscape had real guts, the writers would have made Chiana the captain. That would have ruled. I’m not joking at all.
“John Quixote” (season 4, episode 7; originally aired July 26, 2002)
“Have you wasted my death, and the deaths of so many others?” “I don’t know.” “Then I suggest you find out - before anyone else dies for the love of you.”
It’s been a while since the show has asked us to think about Stark. For viewers at the time, he had last appeared nearly a year beforehand—I haven’t seen him since I reviewed season three way back in 2014—and Farscape has a knack for piling incident upon incident. The world of the game is unapologetically one stuck in a time Crichton and viewers alike have left behind, one with Crais, Jool, and Gilina but without Sikozu or Noranti. The episode then holds us at some remove, as we are required not only to reconnect with a character who exited a few iterations of the show ago but also left to wonder how much the game truly reflects the actual Stark’s feelings. The episode provides no explanation as to where Chiana found the game, how Stark was involved in its creation, or really anything else. No wonder people speculate Maldis might have been involved somehow.
This is very much a designated mindfrell episode, and the success of the early going very much turns on how much you enjoy Crichton as a Max Headroom parody or Rygel using fiery farts as a weapon. This is weirdness—silliness, even—for its own sake, and it’s all a little too unmoored to any recognizable emotion to land properly. This isn’t like, say, “Revenging Angel,” which used its cartoon setup to dig deeper into Crichton and D’Argo’s relationship. Here, the most you can pull out is stuff like “Stark or possibly Crichton doesn’t like Crais” or “Stark or possibly Crichton thinks Jool is annoying,” which is rather less revelatory. That said, everything Claudia Black does as a southern-fried princess is equal parts fearless and hilarious, so I’m not complaining too much.
The episode picks up considerably once Crichton and Chiana believe they have escaped the game, finding themselves aboard a Scorpius-controlled Moya. This section offers a little bit more insight into the characters, with Scorpius explaining his plan is to rob Crichton of his hope—his friends—systematically until he sees reason. This is one instance where it doesn’t matter whether that take on Scorpius comes from Stark or from Crichton’s own perceptions, as if there are any two people who should be in complete agreement about Scorpius’ ruthlessness, it’s two people who met while splitting time in the Aurora chair.
It’s a brilliant misdirection to leave Virgina Hey’s name until the closing titles. Frequent Farscape director Rowan Woods’ turn as the male Zhaan would likely make viewers assume this is the show covering for the fact they couldn’t get Hey to come back, which makes her brief appearance at the end all the more affecting. Even in this deranged world, Zhaan is far too serene to be anything but herself, as she once more appears to help Crichton by pushing him to be better. Like the rest of “John Quixote,” the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether that ending reflects Stark’s view that Crichton’s selfishness dominates and destroys all those around him, or whether those like Zhaan have made their own choice in sacrificing. Thinking back to Zhaan’s final moments in “Self Inflicted Wounds,” I’d say the truth lies in the middle, but then Zhaan did always strive to find the most positive outlook.
“I Shrink, Therefore I Am” (season 4, episode 8; originally aired August 2, 2002)
“You’ve studied but you haven’t experienced! You know nothing of life!” “And you do?” “I’ve been around long enough to know how ignorant I am. I don’t assume the universe obeys my preconceptions. Hah! But I know a frelling fact when it hits me in the face.”
This is the third Moya-bound story in four episodes, which feels like a lot even by Farscape standards. Still, defending the ship from attackers is the show’s most reliable format, and this is an especially good example of the genre. Duncan Young’s performance as Axikor, a Scarran of the Ruling Order pretending to be a Coreeshi bounty hunter, is a particular standout, as he oozes a calculated menace that distinguishes him from more mercurial villains like Raa’Keel. The reveal of his true identity ups the stakes nicely, as the episode had built up the Coreeshi as imposing, intelligent foes even before one of them revealed himself as an especially intelligent representative of the galaxy’s most fearsome race.
As Crichton is all too happy to tell us, this is the Die Hard episode, with a bit of Lethal Weapon mixed in as John and Scorpius are forced into an unlikely partnership. Here again we see the seemingly guileless honesty of Scorpius, as he freely acknowledge he could have broken out at any time but chose not to until circumstances forced his hand. He is done trying to persuade Crichton, but only because he recognizes the only tactic left to him is to not try to convince the human of anything. And it does work, as Crichton’s trust grows over the course of the episode until he is forced by episode’s end to admit there really isn’t any way forward except to give Scorpius a measure of freedom. Neither Crichton nor D’Argo have forgotten what Scorpius is capable of when he wants something, but for now all he wants is his continued survival, which makes them de facto allies. They just have to be ready when Scorpius starts wanting something else.
The shrinking conceit is brilliantly handled, a good reminder that Farscape can be admirably clear when it wants to be. Rygel and Sikozu’s exchange underlines the preposterousness of the situation and then lets the story get on with it. The show is mostly up to the task of pulling off the visuals of shrunken shipmates—Aeryn riding 1812 into battle is a bit much, but points for audacity, I suppose. Even the world-building is on point, as a pulpy old-school sci-fi concept like a shrink ray makes as much sense as it’s ever going to with a bunch of biomechanical bounty hunters who want to keep their targets safe and under wraps until they are delivered. This is a solidly excellent episode… but tormented space awaits. Gulp.
“A Prefect Murder” (season 4, episode 9; originally aired August 9, 2002)
“I’m getting a really bad bribe.” “Oh God, she’s talking English. Vibe! It’s a really bad vibe.”
So help me, I think I’m about to defend “A Prefect Murder.” Frequently cited as an all-time bad Farscape episode, there’s certainly plenty here to pillory. It employs a kaleidoscopic structure for the first 20 minutes that keeps showing scenes over and over for no obvious reason. Best case scenario, the repetition was meant to keep audiences off-balance and add to the general sense of confusion around what Aeryn had done, but this approach doesn’t actually track with how E’Alet’s bugs affect people. More likely, this is some combination of the episode running short and wanting to cover the fact that the early going is dull even by this episode’s lackluster standards.
The episode recalls “Jeremiah Crichton,” as both are built around political struggles on alien worlds that are deeply, deeply boring. Science fiction can absolutely do politics effectively, but it’s not politics to keep repeating basic terms like “peace,” “war,” and “power.” There’s slightly more meat on the bones with the mention of 3,000 warring clans and the complexity of holding the peace with a constant rotation of prefects, but that should be the beginning of world-building, not the entirety of it. The silly hairdos sure don’t help, especially when last episode gave us such impressive designs for the Coreeshi and the Scarran.
“A Prefect Murder” is also weirdly obsessed with honoring the memory of the peace-loving prefect-elect, with D’Argo in particular looking to honor his memory at every turn. Maybe sharper writing or a more compelling performance by Ivar Kants as Gaashah—who is plenty decent, but the episode seems to need him to be this planet’s Nelson Mandela—could have made this work, but his feckless son Zerbat doesn’t exactly inspire belief that we’re witnessing some grand generational story of idealism realized. Sikozu is also bizarrely characterized here, falling in love with this young loser when the show had given us no previous sense that this is something she would care about.
I know I said I’d defend this episode, and here’s all I can say: Underneath all that considerable crap, there’s a solid episode lurking inside here. The Moya crew being manipulated to act as assassins is well-handled and logically presented. Even here success mixes with misstep: Crichton recognizing he’s about to shoot the priest and removing himself is clever, but the episode can’t figure out how to not let the tension immediately deflate. Still, unlike Farscape’s worst efforts, you can see a basically workable vehicle for storytelling, in this case exploring John and Aeryn’s fractured relationship. Once you get past the pointless repetition, “A Prefect Murder” is an easy enough watch, even if a lot of the surrounding context feels like bad classic Doctor Who or a bad Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. I still can’t decide which.
“Coup By Clam” (season 4, episode 10; originally aired August 16, 2002)
“Let me explain the qatal mollusk.” “Please don’t. We give up, we’ll pay.” “Each mollusk harbors one colony of neurally linked bacteria and each colony acts as one organism. So much so that if the mollusk is halved, its bacteria alternately transmit each halves’ sensations to the other half.” “Why?” “Who. Cares.”
Yeah, even I can’t defend this one. About the best I can say is that it initially plays as an intentionally bad Farscape episode. The shipmates are openly exasperated with Dr. Tumii, and both the script and Barry Otto’s performance are entirely self-aware as he keeps getting into absurd, unwelcome detail about how the mollusks work or the planet’s unstable political situation. Whereas “A Prefect Murder” was too self-serious, “Coup By Clam” knows it’s ridiculous, and as long as the targets of its mockery make sense, the episode works as meta parody. Any story where D’Argo psychically experiencing Noranti almost orgasming really shouldn’t be a total loss.
The problem is that this episode—you know, the one with the doctor extorting people with psychic mollusks!—decides to be Farscape’s big exploration of patriarchal repression and societal misogyny. At that point, it’s hard to call it just harmless fun. Science fiction already has a bad track record of depicting these literalized battles of the sexes without getting bogged down in essentialism and general tastelessness, and “Coup By Clam” is no exception. I won’t say it’s an unworkable premise to have Crichton and Rygel disguising themselves in the world’s most unconvincing drag act in order to infiltrate a revolutionary movement that looks like a bunch of Eleanor of Aquitaine impersonators running a lame nightclub. I would never say that!
But the presentation is all so deeply, deeply stupid in every conceivable way, which makes it a bad match for a story that should at its core be about a defiant minority righteously casting off the shackles of oppression. Crichton calling the officer a pervert for wanting to dance with him and buy him a drink is also a bad moment. I’m not sure whether the episode is even coherent enough to say that’s an example of homophobia or perhaps transphobia, but whatever it is, it’s not a good look for the ostensible hero.
There are other, less loaded civil conflicts “Coup By Clam” could have built itself around—hell, the political situation of “A Prefect Murder” would have been the perfectly tedious thing for Dr. Tumii to ramble about to a bored Aeryn and Crichton. But after that initial period of self-aware silliness, “Coup By Clam” is too stupid for its chosen backdrop, and that context makes it hard to get on board with silliness that might work if this were, say, the planet of the lawyers from “Dream A Little Dream” or the goofy party world from “Scratch ‘N Sniff.”
Also, that mechanic is only convincingly disguised as a man if you’re not familiar with the fact that women can have short hair. That she turns out to be wearing a “male” wig to hide her real long locks is maybe the funniest gag in the whole episode. All right, fine, that’s being mean to the genius of Dr. Rygel. But other than that, yeesh, this one is a disaster.
“Unrealized Reality” (season 4, episode 11; originally aired August 23, 2002)
“I am not Kirk, Spock, Luke, Buck, Flash, or Arthur frelling Dent. I am Dorothy Gayle from Kansas!”
In theory, this is Farscape’s big explanations episode, in which it lays out a previously mysterious yet all-important aspect of its mythology for us to better understand. The best comparable I can come up with for “Unrealized Reality” is the BattleStar Galactica reboot’s “No Exit,” which answered just about every outstanding question about the Cylons. But that episode took the form of an hour-long lecture, which isn’t the most dramatically compelling way to hide an infodump. “Unrealized Reality,” on the other hand, keeps the exposition as short and baffling as possible—every choice John Bach makes as Einstein is perfect in that regard—preferring instead to send us on a madcap tour of demented alternate realities.
There’s a tradeoff here. While you can criticize episodes like “No Exit for their dramatic inertness, at least you come away with a clear sense of what the frell (or frak, as the case may be) is going on. This episode has basically one big idea it wants to get across, that a wormhole traveler should never arrive at a point before they left it, and it makes it wraps that point in enough technobabble and disorienting presentation that you could be forgiven for coming away from the episode feeling like you know less than when you started.
All of which is to say that this episode is brilliant. Its goal is to move forward the audience’s understanding of wormhole technology without making the Ancients and their realm appear any less incomprehensible than they were before. This isn’t even strictly a mindfrell episode, as Crichton remains remarkably balanced throughout. This isn’t like, say, “John Quixote,” where the object is for John to rebel against the universe’s latest insanity. This episode lies beyond mundane notions like “sanity” or “the universe.” The first unrealized reality, which reuses footage from “Premiere,” might make one think this is about exploring what would have happened if Crichton had made different choices after first emerging from the wormhole.
But nah, this is about having the cast swap roles—Claudia Black as Chiana is wrong on so many levels, but not as many levels as Anthony Simcoe as Jool is right and perfect and beautiful—or having John find himself working with the Peacekeepers or imagining an Earth where the Scarrans enslaved and interbred with humanity centuries ago. If this is Farscape’s big attempt to explain itself, then it succeeds beyond all reason, because the whole point of this show is asking how you survive in and make peace with a universe that refuses to be understood. For Crichton, he finds a path somewhere between accepting his responsibilities and rejecting his destiny. After all, he just wants to go home.
And then there’s that shot of the moon, and all is about to get far, far stranger.
“Kansas” (season 4, episode 12; originally aired December 30, 2002)
“You’re a little old to be dressing up for Halloween, aren’t you pal?” “No. Yes. Uh, bite me?”
It took four seasons, but Kermit the Frog finally made it onto Farscape. It would have felt wrong if the Jim Henson Company’s most iconic creation never found some way to share the screen with the likes of Dominar Rygel and Pilot. Seriously, his little cameo always makes me sentimental.
In any event, I wasn’t planning on making another comparison to a rival sci-fi show, but “Kansas” has an obvious kindred spirit in the all-time classic Futurama episode “Roswell That Ends Well,” which I’m frankly shocked aired a full year before this one. (Futurama has just the weirdest lifespan.) Both stories use an unexpected visit to 20th century Earth to generate fish-out-of-water laughs and deeply wrong sexual complications for the main character. And it’s easy to engage with “Kansas” as pure comedy, as the shipmates adjust to hiding out on Earth with varying degrees of success. Rygel and D’Argo, who are both the proudest and the most obviously alien characters, face the steepest learning curve, with the former’s candy obsession and manic pumpkin-carving a particularly hilarious highlight.
But the episode wrings a ton of pathos out of its scenario, as Crichton gets to go home again in multiple senses. That he’s back on Earth alone is cause for celebration—the scene of him joyously stealing and drinking some milk says more than any monologue about being home at last ever could—but he also gets an unexpected opportunity to see his mother. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” offered a onetime window into just how heartbroken and guilt-ridden Crichton was over the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. Even those without that context—I’ll be honest, it’s been long enough that I had to look up whether this was Leslie Crichton’s first appearance—can see in Ben Browder’s performance just how much it means to talk to his mom again, to offer her nonjudgmental support for her tarot card hobby while still pushing her to be more assertive with Jack. Maybe Crichton doesn’t change anything, but he gets to make some measure of peace with himself. Ironic, I suppose, considering his mom is repeatedly referred to as a peacemaker.
What we see of the young John Crichton is enough to conclude he’s a total shithead, even by moody teen standards, but never mind that. Instead, focus on Chiana, who slips into the all-important role of Karen Shaw. Pip’s relationship with John has long been akin to that of a little sister—with, admittedly, a ton of unresolved sexual tension that I guess does technically at last get resolved here. But some of Gigi Edgley’s best acting as Chiana is just in how she looks at the young John talk about his frustrations and his dreams, assuring him that he will make it into space someday. For once, she’s the mature, guiding presence, and everything you need to know about how much Chiana loves and cares for Crichton can be found in “Kansas.” That she takes his virginity is so perfectly her, a reminder that just because her sexuality is more freely shared doesn’t necessarily make it less meaningful.
“Terra Firma” (season 4, episode 13; originally aired January 6, 2003)
“Merry frelling Christmas.” “Amen.”
After fake Earths and fake Jack Crichtons in episodes like “A Human Reaction” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” it makes sense that John’s first impulse upon seeing his dad is to draw Winona and demand he prove who he says he is. Even after “Kansas,” it’s easy to watch this episode expecting a twist, one last reveal that John hasn’t really made it back to Earth. We get more than we need to conclude otherwise—like how John and his dad fight in a way too realistic for any simulation, idealized or nightmarish, to say nothing of Jack’s tears at the end as he realizes he’s losing his son again—but such skepticism is understandable. After all, Crichton’s overarching goal, one he has stated again and again in the opening credits narration, is to make it home, a wish he repeated in “Unrealized Reality.” To have him properly make it back would, at first blush, rob the show of an essential aspect of its identity.
The answer is an obvious one: John has changed far too much in his time away to ever fit in on Earth again, and he doesn’t have to be home long to realize that. But it’s not just him who has been forever altered, as any lingering doubt that this is really Earth disappears when Jack mentions September 11. Farscape is such an odd time capsule. While all Crichton’s pop culture references are consistent with someone who left Earth in 1998, one could be forgiven for looking at the slightly futuristic edge of “Premiere”—NASA having gone international as IASA, the module itself—and thinking the show is set in the indeterminate near future. Farscape’s depictions of Earth add to that sense of unreality, with Australia forced to double for Florida and many of the American characters letting slip some distinctly antipodean sounds.
But September 11 shatters the illusion that, nearly 15 years removed, this is some simplified, abstracted Earth we’re looking at. Jack’s abandonment of his optimism after September 11 is grimly familiar, and the fears he articulates recall horrors his son has already experienced. Terms like enhanced interrogation were still a few years away from entering the public consciousness when Scorpius put John in the Aurora chair, yet here we can see the convergence between Farscape’s imagined politics and those that would come into focus after John first went through the wormhole. This episode aired in January 2003, while the Battlestar Galactica miniseries would air in December of the same year—in between, the Iraq War would begin.
Honestly, it’s hard to know what to do with all that. I won’t pretend “Terra Firma” or Farscape in general is some prophet of the last 15 years of geopolitics. I can only guess what it was like to watch this episode at the time it first aired, though I can imagine the discomfort of those who had come to see this show as escapism from a world knocked off its axis. Watching it now, this is the one episode of the series that feels genuinely dated in a way that goes beyond ropey special effects or old pop culture allusions. Everything in the Uncharted Territories is essentially timeless, but this episode transports one back to a period when the effects of September 11 were their still at their most visceral. So much has happened since, but the resolution of John and Jack’s story, with the recognizing ideals matter most when they are hardest to live up to, remains a good lesson. It’s one the world still needs to learn, and it makes “Terra Firma” still relevant 15 years on.
“Twice Shy” (season 4, episode 14; originally aired January 13, 2003)
“I know you can see me. Bad guys always see me, because my plans suck. People die. It’s always a mess.” “Crichton.” “Yeah that’s me. The dumbass. I help someone and they screw me.” “I have no remorse. You are food and I eat.” “There’s always an excuse, lady.”
I didn’t set out with the last few reviews to keep making comparisons to other early-00s sci-fi shows, but one last parallel occurs. The initial premise of this episode, with some nefarious traders unloading a young woman onto the crew as a de facto sex slave, recalls Firefly’s “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” which now makes me imagine a world where the giant CGI spider had gone on to play Joan on Mad Men. (I may be going mad from writing so many of these, which is very on-brand for Farscape.) Anyway, a season four episode of this show doesn’t even bother pretending that things might not be worse than they appear, getting straight to business as Talikaa reveals her nefarious intentions in the first 10 minutes.
This is a solid episode—even allowing for the lackluster one-two punch of “A Prefect Murder” and “Coup By Clam,” this season is generally better than I remembered—but it does suffer some from overfamiliarity. After the Earth trilogy, a Moya-set episode is inherently a bit of a letdown, and this story is a fairly basic variation on the “threat makes the shipmates act bizarrely” premise that Farscape has done several times before. Subtracting all the characters’ defining traits is a good innovation, though. D’Argo’s sudden commitment to pacifism and conflict resolution is the funniest of the bunch—Anthony Simcoe has always been a comedic asset for Farscape, but he turns it up a notch this season—while Crichton’s sudden defeatism is so wrong and so brutally out of character that it’s legitimately unnerving. Talikaa isn’t always the most compelling villain, but she is most affecting toward the end when she explains her sole purpose is to eat and she feels no remorse for this fact.
What distinguishes this episode from similar ones in seasons past is the presence of Scorpius. It’s bizarre just how normal it feels having him aboard—even Crais moved to Talyn almost immediately—which can feel like both strength and weakness. While Scorpius’ ability to recognize trouble early and his relationship with Sikozu are intriguing additions to the formula, does it reduce his mystique to have him wrapped up in a standard Moya threat-of-the-week plot? But then, perhaps that’s all part of the game, as we see in the final scene between John and Aeryn. The show’s handling of Scorpius as just the token evil crew member works to lull the audience into the same mindset as Aeryn, believing John’s explanation is just paranoid dren meant to deflect from his actual cowardice. And Aeryn might still be right about that! Crichton can have multiple motivations. But as Scorpius unwittingly confirms when he breaks in over the comms, he’s absolutely still a threat. Never has anyone smiled as big as Aeryn does afterr she realizes it really is only paranoia if they’re not all out to get you.
“Mental As Anything” (season 4, episode 15; originally aired January 20, 2003)
“He’s trapped in a coma with his own nightmares. Killing him would have been merciful. I’m not that enlightened.”
This one shouldn’t work as well as it does. Even allowing for the line about Macton following up on D’Argo’s death threats, it’s a bit of a contrived setup to have D’Argo and his wife’s killer, her own brother, show up at the same glorified weekend retreat. More than that, Farscape doesn’t have a great track record with this breed of shore leave episode, which is basically any story where the shipmates are stuck in a single location interacting with an alien custom that at least some of the characters who aren’t Crichton have respect for.
Maybe it’s D’Argo’s prominence in this episode that has me thinking of “Vitas Mortis,” which shares a few of the same very broad structural contours. Here’s the short version: Whenever Farscape has its characters go somewhere new and they don’t immediately get drawn into some madcap caper or dire existential threat, there’s a danger the story is going to get drab and dour quickly. The black and gray set design and John Brumpton’s laconic performance as the master Katoya don’t exactly push against that.
And if we’re being honest, D’Argo’s tortured past has been a bit of a mixed bag for the show, dramatically speaking. It had its uses early on in adding complexity to his character and making him more than “just” a Luxan, as explored in the first season’s “They’ve Got A Secret.” But D’Argo has never been Worf-like than when he’s dragging his useless son through theoretically sound but ultimately lackluster storylines, and it feels telling the episode elides Jothee’s existence right up to the moment it’s forced to acknowledge that Lo’Laan would never leave her son without a mother.
But the episode succeeds, largely on the strength of Anthony Simcoe’s performance as D’Argo and Blair Venn’s as Macton. The former has often focused on providing comic relief and emotional support for Crichton this season, even as D’Argo has taken on his new role of captain, but here he fully commits to D’Argo’s tortured uncertainty about his own culpability. He presents a character who has lived with guilt and prejudice so long that it takes no great effort for Macton to get inside his head.
The script and Venn’s performance are careful not to pitch Macton as a mustache-twirling villain. He didn’t kill his sister out of some arbitrary hatred for her, and it’s understandable—wrong, but understandable—that even after killing her in overpowered self-defense and beating her corpse to frame D’Argo he could still see the Luxan as the guilty party. More than anything else, “Mental As Anything” works because it never entirely lets D’Argo off the hook, making him recognize that he was violent during his hyper-rage episodes, even if he didn’t kill her. Twelve cycles after Lo’Laan’s death, there’s no real hope of a satisfactory resolution, whatever Rygel thinks of the value of revenge.
“Bringing Home The Beacon” (season 4, episode 16; originally aired January 27, 2003)
“If that really is Grayza’s intention, we can’t let her go through with it.” “I doubt we could talk her out of it, Aeryn.” “I wasn’t thinking of talking. I have a gun.” “You would assassinate Grayza?” “She’d do the same to us.” “All right. Then what? Do you have any plan of escape?” “Run.” “Anything more detailed, Aeryn?” “Run quickly.”
Never has Farscape so brilliantly lulled audiences into a false sense of security. Positioned as the distaff counterpart to the guys’ adventure in “Mental As Anything,” this episode figures to be, if not exactly light—D’Argo confronting Macton was plenty serious—then at least similarly standalone. And everything in the early going suggests that. A trip to a shady market in a Leviathan corpse is a classic premise for a standard-issue Farscape caper, with the business about shape-changing the perfect plot device for some mad one-off storytelling. Even that silly pun of a title suggests nothing too serious is afoot. Then Grayza shows up, and everything goes to hell fast, culminating with a crumpled Crichton next to a destroyed bioloid replica of the woman he loves, with no way of knowing if Aeryn is still alive.
This crux of this episode is a peace negotiation between unscrupulous representatives of Peacekeeper High Command and the Scarran Hierarchy, and you only need look at this season’s other forays into political territory to know how drab that could be. But the entire exchange is a master class of tension. Some of that is in the basic stakes, as this discussion represents an existential threat to the entire galaxy rather, say, some petty local squabble between would-be prefects. But the specific contours matter too, as the specific offer to sell out the Luxans, D’Argo’s people, in exchange for peace gives the shipmates and the audience a specific stake in the situation. While Aeryn is entirely capable of thinking in terms of overarching galactic security, she makes a point of discussing the matter in terms of her friend.
The performances also elevate the potentially dry premise. Aeryn and Sikozu are intriguing characters to have listen in, as they are two of the most emotionally reserved shipmates. That they are so concerned signals just how big a deal this is, and Claudia Black and Raelee Hill play that to the hilt. Rebecca Riggs’ affectations as Grayza aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but her mannered delivery is well-suited to this role as imperious, falsely confident negotiator.
Francesca Buller, Ben Browder’s wife, makes her debut as her fourth and most important Farscape character, War Minister Ahkna. She drops the eccentricities of her past characters, leaving only the danger. While this episode only gives us a small sense of what to expect from her, she instantly appears a match for Grayza or any of the shipmates, Scorpius included. But the episode is smart to establish her not just as a villain because she’s a Scarran. She’s a threat because, like Grayza, she has designs on upending her government and becoming leader, and is prepared to risk galactic war in pursuit of her goals. Scarran biology may make them an inherent threat, but it’s their society—and the dangerously ambitious individuals atop it—that makes them so scary.
Technically speaking, this is a table-setting episode for what’s to come, but it’s one of the finest table-setting episodes in television history. That every significant character except Braca in the main portion of the story is a woman, and just about every interaction aces the Bechdel test, is just a lovely bonus.
“A Constellation Of Doubt” (season 4, episode 17; originally aired February 10, 2003)
“They never even gave it a chance.” “Well, what do you expect?” “It’s not what you expect. It’s what you hope for.”
It was during the production of this episode, the last one to be shot for season four, that Farscape received its cancellation notice. I suppose there’s some irony that the show got the ax right as it was making a story about the people of Earth fearing and rejecting these alien weirdoes. The real shame isn’t just that episodes as smart and good as this one make the argument the show should have gotten as many seasons as it wanted, but also that “A Constellation Of Doubt” makes a hell of a case for an Earth-set spin-off, or at least an annual check-in on how humanity is dealing with the knowledge that it’s not alone in the universe.
At the risk of making another comparison to roughly contemporaneous sci-fi show, I can’t help but think of new Doctor Who. (Which, actually, I also did classic reviews for the first three seasons followed by a condensed season four review, though I suppose there’s nothing “condensed” about this gargantuan review.) In the early going, the revived Doctor Who flirted with the idea that now is the time humanity at large becomes aware of aliens, with visitations and invasions making it impossible to ignore the truth. The trouble was always that depicting a modern world where people are conscious of aliens’ existence undercut the relatability of the humans who came aboard the TARDIS. The show solved this by making people oddly blasé about the whole thing before ultimately retconning that awareness.
But because Farscape doesn’t require an ongoing connection with a recognizable Earth, it’s free to engage more seriously with the implications of the shipmates’ visit. While “Terra Firma” gained strength from acknowledging a real-life horror like September 11, this episode goes in the other direction by acknowledging our planet would be forever changed by even the most benign of visits. If anything, the fact the shipmates had no discernible agenda beyond saying hello and hanging out invites people to project their own preconceptions onto them.
That as much as anything is why Crichton is right when he says humanity isn’t ready. Faced with something so much bigger than themselves, people can only respond by making it small enough to fit back inside their boxes. While a couple of the interviewees appear prepared to accept the aliens as they are and argue for someday joining the galactic community they represent, most just filter the beliefs and actions of the visitors through their own assumptions, be they positive or negative.
There’s a lot of cynicism about humanity in this episode. It’s damn hard to see R. Wilson Monroe as anything but a sensationalist, but then we have the advantage of getting to know the shipmates over the past four seasons. It’s hard to know how Farscape could manage a sufficient perspective flip to make us recognize that a lot of Monroe’s questions and concerns represent justifiable skepticism, even if his tone and presentation betray his own preconceptions. Maybe that’s why I suggest an entirely hypothetical spin-off: For as long as we’re watching Farscape, we can only interpret an episode from the perspective of our heroes, most of whom spend the episode various shades of heartbroken.
“Prayer” (season 4, episode 18; originally aired February 17, 2003)
“With these wormholes, anything is possible. Somewhere the Cubs are winning the World Series.”
Huh, guess we’re all living in an unrealized reality now. Explains a lot, really.
Anyway, just as “Bringing Home The Beacon” took an apparent standalone off-ship episode and brutally incorporated it into the season’s larger Scarran arc, “Prayer” does the same with a mindfrell episode—two of them, in fact. While Aeryn’s bid to survive an interrogation where even her fellow prisoners might be trying to break her would be plenty disturbing even if the Scarrans weren’t involved, Crichton and Scorpius’ field trip to the bizarre, mixed-and-matched Moya is such a gleefully bizarre clash of tones. That Moya wasn’t exactly played for laughs in “Unrealized Reality,” but the archness of the premise invited distance, with viewers focusing less on the death of that Chiana and more on what it said about Crichton to merge her and Aeryn, or the quality of Claudia Black’s Gigi Edgley impression.
It’s already such an audacious contrivance to have the only clue to Aeryn’s whereabouts be in the entranced ramblings of an unrealized, Sikozu-looking Stark. That really must be a contender for the stupidest plot point in Farscape history, yet it becomes grimmer and scarier the harder the show commits to the premise. Crichton’s decision to ally with Scorpius at all suggests he knows, if only subconsciously, the terrible things they may have to do to extract the information they need. His inability to shoot the Chiana-Aeryn hybrid—though her Aeryn-like qualities are explicitly more important—confirms there are still lines he won’t cross. Yet there’s a reason he didn’t ask D’Argo to be standing beside him when his nerve failed. Farscape has long been willing to dig deep and find the real horror lurking within a given madcap premise, but the casual, ruthless practicality with which Scorpius murders these alternate shipmates is so grim.
Aeryn’s story is often unbearably tense. It says a lot when the Scarran interrogator is the least scary part of the proceedings, as at least he is what he seems to be. The Sebacean nurse Vreena, by contrast, remains impossible to read. Maybe she’s simply as defeated and cynical as she says she is, looking for tiny moments of compassion when possible. Maybe she’s the real brains of the operation, in a way Jenek doesn’t even fully realize. But the final scene with the spy Morrock is the hardest to watch, as the show makes no secret of her game when she starts asking Aeryn who the child’s father really is. When a main character snapping someone’s neck counts as the episode’s big rousing moment, you know you’re dealing with a seriously brutal episode. “Prayer” might just be the darkest episode in the show’s history, and it’s frelling brilliant for it.
“We’re So Screwed (Part 1): Fetal Attraction” (season 4, episode 19; originally aired February 24, 2003)
“A Luxan assistant?” “Oh yes. Luxans make fine pilots, exceptional bodyguards, and superlative lovers.”
Noranti didn’t come into focus right away. In the early going, she was amorphously eccentric, less a character and more a device to guide Crichton to various revelations without needing the show to bother with exposition. Once Farscape settled back into more linear storytelling after “What Was Lost,” Noranti’s role shifted to that of comic relief, with D’Argo’s open disdain for her one of the season’s funniest running gags—one that gets a beautiful payoff when he has to play assistant to the healer.
But somewhere along the way, the mad old woman turned serious. The Noranti of “Fetal Attraction” isn’t so different from the one of her early appearances, except the show now lets us see enough from her perspective to understand her motivations. For while she might surpass even her predecessor Zhaan as Farscape’s most mystical character, she is ruthlessly logical in a way that Scorpius himself would approve of. The quarantine needs to remain in place, and there’s no way to convincingly fake the disease Rygel has claimed. So what else is there to do but to reactivate the bacteria and trust she can figure out a way to cure it later?
Noranti’s morality came into focus during one of the most compelling sections of “A Constellation Of Doubt,” as she decried the hypocrisy of saying it’s wrong to kill and then doing it anyway. Better to recognize its necessity and then get on with it, like when she chides Crichton for not killing the Kalish functionary. But as Rygel observes, she’s a Moya shipmate now, which means she cannot hope to be so discriminating in her killing. She does the only logical thing to give everyone a chance to save Aeryn, but the harshness of her course leaves innocents dead. And the show has grown to respect Noranti enough over the course of the season for that to mean something to her, and thus to the audience.
“Fetal Attraction” is classic endgame Farscape storytelling. After the heartbreak and horror of “Prayer,” the relative breeziness of the shipmates running grifts within cons within scams to save Aeryn is a relief. Not that it lasts. By this point, Farscape has outgrown the need to alternate darker and lighter episodes. It’s far crueler and far more effective to combine the two in one, offering the illusion that our heroes have any idea what they’re doing before everything inevitably spirals out of control. And, in fairness, both Noranti’s plan and that of her compatriots work. The shipmates know how to win, but it’s all so messy. The best Crichton can do is pick and choose when it’s time to add to his body count, and the best Noranti can do is vow to seek forgiveness for the lives her actions have taken.
“We’re So Screwed (Part 2): Hot To Katratzi” (season 4, episode 20; originally aired February 25, 2003)
“Then why are you here?” “Because I am an American. And what does an American want? Democracy? Capitalism! I want to sell out and settle down. For one day only, it’s a blue light special on aisle three! My wormhole technology and a free set of steak knives for all the tea in China. And anything you can imagine to pay me.” “Pay” “Yes! Pay! Cash!” “He’s crazy!” “Isn’t it fun?”
Somehow, this is the most fun episode Farscape has done all season. Whereas “Fetal Attraction” saw the shipmates lose control of the situation by roughly the halfway point, here our heroes stay a step or three ahead of Scarrans and Peacekeepers alike until Scorpius’ shocking—yes, somehow, after all this, shocking!—betrayal right at the end there. This has been Farscape’s recompense to John for enduring the Aurora chair at the end of the first season: In all the climactic multi-parters since then, Crichton and company have had a chance to kick some serious ass. The team is masterful at turning the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta—sorry, sorry, the Charrids and the Kalish—against one another. Like most of the other characters, Rygel has settled into a seriously enjoyable groove this season, with his manipulation and negotiation skills actually proving useful more often than not. He and D’Argo are natural partners in their insurrection-sparking grift.
But then, everybody plays their parts perfectly. It’s foolish to parse when Crichton is pretending to be crazy and when he’s being the genuine article, but suffice it to say he once again outwits foes with superior resources simply by being willing to do things no one else would countenance. His opening move is to strap a nuclear bomb to his person, and he just escalates his audacity from there. For all the suffering he and his friends have experienced because of his wormhole knowledge, he can now turn it all around by dangling the secrets before his tormentors.
It’s all immensely satisfying, and a welcome alternative to the storytelling approach that has become all too common in contemporary genre television, including on one show I’ve written about for the past five seasons. There’s this idea that the only way to build sufficient stakes for a season’s endgame is to depict the protagonists as hopelessly overmatched, outwitted at every turn by a foe who seems preternaturally gifted in anticipating what the heroes will do. While the payoff for defeating such an invincible enemy could theoretically be enormous, too often it’s just underwhelming, as the antagonist makes some foolish mistake and the hero manages to capitalize. Farscape, by contrast, cuts Crichton and his friends down to size more than often enough that they don’t need to tangle with seemingly omnipotent opponents for them to face a real challenge. The Scarrans—and Grayza, I guess—are already more than threat enough, and the knowledge they can turn the tables at any moment simply adds dramatic tension to the shipmates’ successes in playing them. But until that reversal, it’s all just so damn fun to watch.
It also helps that John and Aeryn never stop grinning at each other. Aeryn’s smile is worth waiting 20 episodes for.
“We’re So Screwed (Part 3): La Bomba” (season 4, episode 21; originally aired March 3, 2003)
“Grasshopper, it’s time.” “No!” “We got to go. Do the math, it’s over!” “I do not lose!” “Be happy to give you lessons. Now, you in or out?”
And in that moment, Scorpius truly becomes, for better or worse, a shipmate on Moya. Sure, it doesn’t last long—not even through the credits of the next episode. And sure, Scorpius is never going to get the same kind of affirmation Sikozu gets from D’Argo, when he assures her that they are all part of the team. But to be a shipmate is, most fundamentally, to embrace losing. John Crichton and his friends have spent four seasons running from those who presume that they can dictate terms to the universe, that they can win without sacrifice. For the last three episodes, they ran right toward some of the worst offenders on that score: Emperor Staleek, War Minister Akhna, Commadant Grayza.
By the end of “We’re So Screwed,” all have lost to varying degrees. Grayza especially receives a richly deserved comeuppance, with Crichton acknowledging what she did to him in “What Was Lost” for what it is: rape. The commandant can be a difficult character to interpret, as despite that early atrocity she has proven perhaps the show’s least effective antagonist. Perhaps that’s the point though, as she is compelling not because she is so much more cunning and dangerous than Scorpius, but because she is so convinced she is. She represents the danger when the artifice of power begins to break down and rank incompetence starts to asserts itself. She is left ranting at nobody in particular about what she could have achieved if the cosmos and everyone in it were just willing to do what she said.
Scorpius has always been a little more practical and a little less grandiose than the likes of Grayza, but he still labors under the assumption that sufficient foresight and preparation will allow him to achieve any victory he desires. This isn’t the first time he has learned that particular error—John did blow up his damn command-carrier last season, after all—but it’s here the audience is invited to feel at least a small measure of guarded sympathy for him. We at last learn just why Stark was Crichton’s cellmate all those cycles ago, as it was all building toward the destruction of the Scarrans’ precious plant. But, at this moment of triumph, a forcefield blocks Scorpius’ path. He is defeated.
Crichton has a solution though, as he always does. It’s rash and absurd and stupid, but it’s a solution. He drops a nuclear bomb down a mineshaft, taking out most of the Katratzi installation and potentially crippling the galaxy’s greatest threat. That might look like a victory. To Scorpius, it surely is, and he would likely credit John for the presence of mind to ask to be released from his wormhole promise. Therein lies the fundamental difference between John and Scorpius, though, as this was still very much a defeat for our hero. To win, he had to blow up a bomb, had to add so many more names to his body count, and now he has to live with his ever-compounding moral debts. John loses by winning and wins by loses, because there simply is no alternative. At least he has Aeryn there to hold his hand and face the horror along with him.
“Bad Timing” (season 4, episode 22; originally aired March 10, 2003)
“Tell Susan and Liv that I love them. And I’ll contact you if I can. Tell everyone.” “I will, son. You tell my grandkids about me.” “That’s a no-brainer. They got to know who my hero is.”
Before we go any further, this episode has the best starburst in series history. If I could figure out how to quote Moya’s starburst segueing into the opening titles, I’d have put it in there. But since I started this journey with John and Jack Crichton, seems appropriate to circle back to them.
If you remove that big honking cliffhanger at the end, “Bad Timing” could work perfectly as the series finale it once was, even if it wasn’t initially intended to be one. (Farscape is nothing if not complicated.) Not so much because John and Aeryn have their happy ending, however short-lived, or because the shipmates close the wormhole and sever Crichton’s last connection with Earth. Rather it’s because this episode has a simple point to make. It’s the unspoken answer to Scorpius’ demand that John explain the logic of facing the Scarrans without allies. It’s simple: John already has all the allies he needs, and they’re with him aboard—and including—Moya.
Every shipmate save Stark, who is frankly at pretty close to his worst here, contributes in some way to the success of John’s plan. D’Argo doesn’t shirk the responsibilities of his captaincy even as he places his trust in Crichton and Pilot. Chiana refuses to let John give up, even when he’s ready to. Rygel asks Pilot to do something he knows he could never do. Noranti does what she can to ease Moya and Pilot’s pain as they make a tremendous sacrifice for, as she puts it, the good of the family.
This is mostly about Pilot, though. I’ve mentioned several times now how good a season this has been for D’Argo, Chiana, Rygel, and ultimately Noranti, but Pilot has been a little overlooked. Unless an episode specifically spotlights him, Pilot’s role is largely that of dispenser of exposition. Still, the show has made no great secret how much Pilot and Moya have suffered because of those traveling with them, and Crichton’s wormhole obsession has been especially destructive. Maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff,” but one could be forgiven for thinking that Pilot low-key dislikes John. Yet, for all his misgivings, and at the express urging of Moya, Pilot makes the biggest, most dangerous sacrifice he can, all so that John can lose his last real chance of ever seeing his home again.
As John says to Scorpius, he is no longer a chess piece. None of his friends—his family members—are. “Bad Timing” is hardly the first time John rebels in those terms, but it’s his most definitive rejection of the notion he can only survive by playing others’ games. He has made it this far because he has found people willing to back him on whatever latest mad gambit he has come up with. And that’s the beauty of this episode, as it reminds us that Farscape isn’t special because it’s dark or weird or tragic, though those things help. It’s special because it dares to be hopeful in the face of all that. But it’s not hope as some inborn sign of great personal strength.
The story of John Crichton is one long rejection and deconstruction of the entire premise that heroes triumph because they are “strong” enough to overcome any obstacle. Rather, hope on Farscape is something found in one’s friends. It’s the hope that, even if every plan is inevitably frelled and failure is a constant companion, it’s worth struggling on if you have the right people by your side, even when you kind of hate them all—again, as Noranti said, they’re family as much as anything else.
In previous seasons, Farscape has illustrated that as much in the absence of that hope as in its presence, as the shipmates fought, separated, fractured, and occasionally died. But the fourth season has been perhaps the show’s most powerful embrace of the fact that these shipmates really are meant for one another, whether they like it or not. Perhaps that’s why I come away from this season counting it as my favorite. Perhaps this is a time where I’ll take optimism wherever I can find it. Perhaps I’ve marathoned 22 episodes and written 22 reviews and no longer quite know where I am. No matter. This is a frelling excellent season of television.
Next time: I’ll be back tomorrow to take a more normal-length look at “The Peacekeeper Wars,” and then my work is done. I seriously need to lie down after all that. My goodness.