“Beware Of Dog” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 8/11/2000)
(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)
Sometimes, surprise is overrated. “Beware Of Dog” juggles a half-dozen major plot twists regarding the nature of the episode’s threat, and some of them—the phantom Scorpius in particular—remain oblique by episode’s end. The shipmates don’t have the faintest idea what the parasite even looks like until the climax, and they open the episode far more ignorant than usual. The translator microbes have unexpected trouble making sense of those on the commerce planet, and we in the audience don’t even directly witness this garbled exposition, instead having to rely on D’Argo and Chiana’s account. Structurally, this is a throwback episode, recalling the first season’s Moya-set science mystery episodes like “Exodus From Genesis” and “They’ve Got A Secret.” But the show has only gotten weirder since the last time it trotted out this format, and that means most of the audience likely spends the bulk of the episode scrambling to understand just what the frell is going on. All makes sense eventually, but one could be forgiven for not quite getting it all on the first watch. I certainly fell into that category when I initially watched it a few months back; I enjoyed the episode and thought it worked overall, but I had trouble sorting out some of the finer plot points.
On rewatching the episode, however, I was struck by just how carefully thought out the story is. What happens to Rygel is quite similar to what happened to Chiana and Crichton in “A Bug’s Life,” even if this time around his body is duplicated instead of controlled. Like that earlier story, Farscape presupposes that an intelligent killer has developed the ability to closely replicate the personality and conduct of its disguise. And yet there are subtle hints throughout that something is off about Rygel. The parasite initially refers to D’Argo as “Luxan,” which isn’t what Rygel typically calls him and perhaps indicative that this creature only knows D’Argo’s species, not his name. Later, when an ailing D’Argo tells Rygel that Chiana will receive all his possessions in the event of his death, the parasite seems to earnestly ask whether it’s possible that he could just be there to comfort a friend, as though the creature is subtly working out just where Rygel stands in the Moya hierarchy so as to fit in better. When the Vorc goes on the hunt, Rygel is weirdly convinced that the creature is after him and so demands that Crichton and Aeryn kill the beast and then that Pilot prep a transport for him.
What’s so clever about all this is that it’s really only obvious in hindsight that Rygel is acting out of character. He’s so naturally self-serving and his psychology is just alien enough that the audience is more willing to accept strange behavior from him that it is if Crichton starts acting like a virus-controlled predator in “A Bug’s Life.” Besides, Farscape doesn’t expect us to pay close attention to Rygel; his shipmates certainly don’t. Some of the differences between the real and fake Rygel really are tremendously subtle; for instance, I’m fairly sure that the writers deliberately dial back how often the fake Rygel refers to his past as a dominar, something the real Hynerian never shuts up about. “Beware Of Dog” doesn’t exactly attempt to hide the fact that Rygel isn’t himself, but it accomplishes much the same effect by not actively calling attention to it. There’s a lot of rich material here, but it’s often only apparent the second time through the episode. That said, it must be admitted that the punchline to the Rygel storyline is entirely effective the first time around. After all, just when you think that Farscape can’t possibly come up with another successful variation on the old helium farting joke, it’s used as the ultimate, unassailable proof of Rygel’s identity.
There are similar benefits to a second viewing when it comes to the Vorc. A big idea of “Beware Of Dog” is that its actions only seem to be arbitrary and useless, but it actually is following a logical course of action throughout the episode in hunting down the parasite. At all points, the episode is filmed to hide what’s really going on, with the two forms of the Vorc hidden in the shadows and out of shot for as long as possible. More than most episodes, “Beware Of Dog” strives to keep the audience just as confused as the shipmates. While that can potentially detract from the episode’s entertainment value—after all, it’s hard to judge the quality of a story if you don’t know what’s going on—this does serve a crucial dramatic purpose. The brutal final twist depends on Aeryn and John shooting the Vorc out of desperation, ignorance, and irritation, and the episode works quite successfully to replicate that feeling in its viewers. Now, that doesn’t necessarily make for a particularly enjoyable viewing experience, but it’s an experiment that speaks to Farscape’s continued confidence in itself and trust in its audience, and, crucially, the episode stands up well long after the initial shock value subsides. There’s a really strong episode lurking not far beneath all the confusion, even if it takes a couple viewings to fully reveal that fact.
Besides, whether the viewer watches the episode in initial ignorance or in eventual understanding, the episode’s essential tragedy is quite clear by story’s end. The Vorc’s inability to communicate and its admittedly irritating conduct mean that the crew’s patience is constantly tested, and it’s ultimately why Aeryn shoots the thing just as it leads her and Crichton to the parasite’s cocoon. Ridiculous as it might sound, the Vorc is arguably the single most benevolent, helpful, goodhearted ally the Moya crew has yet encountered in the Uncharted Territories, and so of course they end up killing it; Gilina Raez is the only other character who was even remotely as selfless, and she too died while trying to help the shipmates. Crichton’s bright idea to inject the Vorc with translator microbes is again something of a throwback to how he solved baffling mysteries back in the first season, and it sets up the very amusing exchange in which Aeryn, John, and Pilot try to make themselves understood to the creature. One of the funnier gags in this sequence is Aeryn’s deeply unconvincing apology to the creature after she threatens to kill it, something Crichton tetchily takes her to task for. But that line is later called back in the most brutal of ways, as Aeryn tearfully and absolutely sincerely tells the dying Vorc how sorry she is for shooting it.
And, through it all, there is Scorpius. The exact nature of his presence here can be left for the discussion of the next episode, but his role here is, like so many other things in the episode, alternately baffling and brilliant. The final reveal that Crichton has been playing the game not with himself but with Scorpius is a terrific bookend to the episode, the ultimate reminder that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Scorpius’ line about how Crichton won’t know he’s walking into a trap until it’s already closed is an apt summation of the episode in general. Aeryn and Crichton were doomed by their ignorance before they even really started to solve the problem, and they couldn’t escape without killing an innocent creature. “Beware Of Dog” is a necessary reminder that, for all their heroism and their skill, Aeryn and Crichton can easily get in over their heads, and that experience extends to the audience as well. The result is an episode that not everyone will like, particularly the first time through, but it’s hard to dispute its underlying power.
- The line I quoted up top is just the latest reason why Lani Tupu is this show’s not especially secret weapon. He already plays the dual role of Crais and Pilot, but as the latter he also has to speak for Moya and, in this case, a creature not even capable of language as we would understand it, all while staying true to Pilot’s character as well. It’s remarkable just how poignant the word “End” is in this context, and the fact that I only think of the Vorc speaking here is a real tribute to Tupu’s skill as a performer.
- Gigi Edgley is also very good in a small role here, as she finds a way to play Chiana’s latest difficult reaction without making her feel childish. We’re so used to stoic heroes on science fiction that it almost seems more alien to see a character go ever so slightly to pieces when faced with a loved one dying a slow, agonizing death. Still, she is quite honest about how she can best deal with D’Argo’s situation, and Crichton can’t help but respect that, even when she isn’t actually helping the situation any.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 8/18/2000)
(Available on Amazon Instant Video.)
“Freeze! You’re under arrest. You have the right to the remains of a silent attorney! If you cannot afford one, tough noogies! You can make one phone call! I recommend Trixie: 976-Triple 5-LOVE. Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?! Well do you, punk?!” “No.” “Then I can’t arrest you!”
Farscape has always been strategic, even conservative, in the use of its primary villains. Between Crais’ introduction in “Premiere” and his reappearance in the first season’s concluding arc—in which he played a decidedly second fiddle to Scorpius—the mad captain appeared in the flesh in only one episode, “That Old Black Magic,” and even then he was just part of Maldis’ larger plans. A hologram of Crais was moderately crucial to the plot of “Till The Blood Runs Clear,” but even there his presence was never much more than a minor part of the overall proceedings. In the final analysis, the show probably could have made more use of this initial, straightforwardly villainous incarnation of Crais, but the creative team’s caution is understandable. After all, there’s no quicker way to undermine an adversary than to have the heroes routinely evade his clutches, and the evil version of Crais was the sort of barely competent villain who needed no help undermining himself.
Scorpius is an entirely different matter. Unlike the animalistic Crais, Scorpius always thinks a couple thousand moves ahead, and he is unencumbered by any readily visible emotions, and that includes the standard supervillain traits like haughtiness or rage. The shipmates have twice given him the slip, although both stories took a long time to unspool; it took five episodes before his initial, season-spanning arc was resolved, and it took Crichton all three episodes to find a way out of his predicament in “Look At The Princess.” And, at least in the former case, Moya’s eventual escape was well-earned, involving significant sacrifice and emotional trauma for most involved. The reason why Crichton gets away from Scorpius in “Look At The Princess” is somewhat flimsier, down mostly to the fact that he’s compelled to obey Empress Novia’s wishes. Still, there’s a slight sense that Scorpius only lets Crichton escape in that trilogy because, well, that particular story was over, and all will be picked up again later because that’s just how episodic television works. That’s the sort of narrative chicanery that can work once or twice, but in the long run it risks making Scorpius look weak or, even worse, foolish.
That’s why the neural chip—hereafter referred to as Harvey, in reference to the giant imaginary rabbit that only James Stewart could see—is so essential to the show’s success going forward. On the most basic level, it provides an easy way for Wayne Pygram to appear as often as the creative team wants, and this mental version of Scorpius need do no more than sneer and coolly threaten Crichton to maintain his real-life counterpart’s effectiveness as a villain; after all, Harvey just in John’s head, so how much damage can one really expect him to do? Ah, but that’s what is truly brilliant about this development and what gives “Won’t Get Fooled Again” its final sting. Scorpius here is far more than an annoying, psychotic voice in Crichton’s ear, as he was in “Beware Of Dog” or in his embryonic form way back in “Crackers Don’t Matter.”
So much of this episode is the proverbial mindfrell, as the Scarran methodically ramps up the insanity of Crichton’s situation in order to break the human’s puny mind. And yet, Crichton never actually loses sight of the fact that all this is an illusion; after his experiences with Maldis and the Ancients, he knows a mental construct when he sees one. Even when Crichton appears on the verge of resigning himself to the fact that he won’t escape this mental prison, he at least still knows that he’s in a prison. In those terms, the Scarran’s assault seems minor, even oddly humane compared to what Harvey does right at the end of the episode, where he blocks off Crichton’s ability to even remember that the neural chip exists. This ability to deeply affect the nature of Crichton’s mind was alluded to earlier in the episode when Harvey acknowledged it was he who forced Crichton to let Scorpius live back in the “Look At The Princess” trilogy, but this is on a whole other level. It’s generally up to Ben Browder to carry this episode, but he’s never better than in those final moments, as his defiance and will to fight ebbs away as Crichton forgets what he’s defying and what he’s fighting. All that happens in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is arguably just a prologue to that final moment—the Scarrans may be a threat not to take lightly, but Crichton is facing a far more insidious threat, one he doesn’t even properly know that he must fight.
I haven’t talked so much about the bulk of the episode, in part because I’m hesitant to analyze deeper meanings that I’m not entirely convinced are there. By no means is that intended as a knock on the episode’s undeniable merits; it’s just that a major point of the episode is that the Scarran mental assault is designed to make no sense, all the better to break those who would dare to puzzle out its nature. Unlike “A Human Reaction,” in which the Ancients were running the experiment with a specific objective in mind, the Scarran just wants to destroy Crichton, which in some vague way will assist in the interrogation process. There’s plenty of psychosexual material here, but a lot of it just seems to be there in order to throw Crichton further off-kilter. The scene in which a suddenly falsetto D’Argo asks John to participate in a Luxan bonding ritual (while Chiana watches, naturally) is a good example of this, and I really doubt Crichton has any deeply suppressed attraction to Rygel in bondage gear, as seen in the image up top (which, again, you’re welcome). The more telling moments tend to be subtler, like Crichton’s tired but unmistakable excitement when he realizes the Chiana equivalent is an astronaut groupie. Then there’s the moment just before that when the D’Argo and Aeryn counterparts start getting physical almost before they have said hello; I’m dubious that this represents any substantial jealousy or whatever else Crichton might feel towards those two, but part of the fun of this episode is just how much it leaves open to the viewer to interpret.
Really, most of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is like a creative sandbox, in which the writers can do just about anything they want and push the show ten steps beyond where it can usual go, all because Crichton is entirely correct—this isn’t real. That makes this episode something of a formal experiment, and much like “Out Of Their Minds,” it’s sometimes better to analyze what’s going on in meta-textual terms. For instance, Crais’ role in this as an aggressive but oddly well-meaning police officer might be seen as an encapsulation of Crichton’s view of the good captain—a lingering distrust and resentment mixed with the small hope that the man really has reformed—and yet that interpretation seems too concrete for an episode so resolutely bonkers. Yes, the parallels are there to be teased out, but perhaps the simpler explanation—namely, that the writers thought Lani Tupu could be very funny in this particular role, which he definitely is—is the correct one.
The only character who is really present in this episode is Crichton himself, and so he really has to be the focal point for any deeper understanding of the episode. Crichton makes an admirable attempt to figure out just what is going on, and longtime viewers will be rewarded when he runs through all the possible culprits. He does his level best to take a rational approach to what’s unfolding around him; it’s not his fault that that just happens to be the completely wrong way to approach this particular trap. In keeping with his second season characterization, Crichton spends most of the episode royally annoyed with his situation, which is understandable; much as he’s convinced that none of this is real, the fantasy is still undistinguishable from the actual Earth, and it’s a violation of Crichton’s most treasured memories to create fantasy figures who pretend to be his best friends and his father.
Even that is nothing compared to the resurrection of Crichton’s dead mother; John plays his reaction to this somewhat close to his chest, perhaps because he doesn’t want to give the unseen controller the satisfaction of knowing just how much this gets to him. But Browder makes it clear that a line has been crossed when John’s mother shows up. Everything to that point had been just a typical impossible day for him, but this is something far worse. It’s heartrending to see how “Won’t Get Fooled Again” twists this particular knife, first by resurrecting John’s mother when she was healthy, then replaying her agonizing death, and finally bringing her back as an oedipal fantasy. That last bit is perhaps the one slightly false note in the episode, if only because the show hasn’t really had enough time to establish this woman in the viewers’ minds as Crichton’s mother; as such, it’s a little too easy to ignore the specifics of the scene and just think of her as the latest guest star to attempt to seduce Crichton. The better later use of Crichton’s mother might actually be when she argues with Jack about how much of a disappointment their son is. She is unmistakably Crichton’s mother here, plus the scene affords Kent McCord the most interesting material he gets in the episode.
Still, Scorpius remains at the heart of this episode. Perhaps more than anything else, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” forever blurs the lines of Scorpius’ villainy. After all, if Harvey weren’t there, John would undoubtedly have been broken by the Scarran. In the simplest possible articulation, Crichton owes his life to Scorpius. But then, it disrespects Scorpius’ towering intellect to look at this in such basic terms; on a deeper level, Harvey says the Scarrans have taken an interest in John because Scorpius has already shown an interest, so it’s he who places Crichton in harm’s way in the first place. And even if you grant that the Scarrans might well have taken an interest in John anyway after the “Look At The Princess” affair, with or without Scorpius’ involvement, it must be said that Harvey’s actions are hardly altruistic. The neural chip is simply keeping Crichton safe because Scorpius still desires the knowledge encased within the human’s mind. The point then isn’t that Scorpius is or is not a villain. The real point is that Scorpius—and Harvey—now transcend such pat categorizations. Nothing will ever be the same, even if Crichton himself isn’t allowed to fully remember that fact.
- As I suggested earlier, Kent McCord really doesn’t get much to do in this episode, which, considering that I’m pretty sure McCord was living in the United States, just speaks to how much actors enjoyed coming back to this show and how much good fortune Farscape had in getting back key guest actors. On that note, Crichton’s acknowledgement that D.K. made it this time around is a rather funny, sly acknowledgment that Murray Bartlett apparently wasn’t available when “A Human Reaction” was being filmed.
- The fake Pilot really does look so adorably happy playing in that band. If this Moya gig doesn’t work out, I think we’ve found his true calling.
Next week: Crichton and Aeryn get slightly delayed in “The Locket” and Farscape goes Rashomon in “The Ugly Truth.”