Wayne Pygram (left), Ben Browder

“Relativity” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 7/6/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Friend or foe, friend or foe, friend or foe…” “Will you shut the frell up? Of course it’s a foe! We have no friends!”

Can people ever truly change? This is a question that television shows tend to find endlessly fascinating, albeit often only as a matter of dramatic necessity. So many episodic narratives are constructed around the essential identities of their characters; for a creative team to radically alter one character’s perspective, even personality, would be to risk undoing the show’s core premise. There’s a long list of shows—including plenty of all-time classics—where the characters remain essentially static, with the only significant long-term alteration perhaps being a certain mellowing, a smoothing out of the rougher edges. In the face of this narrative-mandated reality, creative teams often attempt to turn their characters’ unchanging nature into a thematic point, raising larger questions about whether people can ever really defy their essential natures; on most shows, it’s axiomatic that any radical change will be undone once the reset button is inevitably pushed, and the only real question is how long the show indulges in the false hope of change before reaffirming that things must be as they have always been.

Farscape isn’t like that. It’s a show that was always conceived as a long journey, one in which its central characters could not help but be irretrievably altered by their experiences. Crichton was the idealistic, all-American hero who has gone, if not mad, then at least some approximation of it. Aeryn Sun was the cold, remorseless Peacekeeper who has come to recognize the value, the necessity of compassion. The other shipmates haven’t gone on comparably radical arcs; honestly, if you wanted to classify D’Argo and Chiana’s journeys as instances of characters just being mellowed out to better fit in an ensemble, I wouldn’t especially dispute it. But the key innovation of Farscape compared to most of its sci-fi contemporaries is that it suggests that people absolutely do change in response to changing circumstances and—perhaps even more importantly—shifting allies, colleagues, and friends. So Farscape in general and “Relativity” in particular isn’t exactly concerned with the familiar question of whether can people change; instead, it’s interested in the trickier issue of whether people have the right to change.

To understand this, we need to talk about Captain Bialar Crais. Ever since his defection way back in “Family Ties,” he has endeavored to forge a new existence with Talyn. He hasn’t so much sought forgiveness for his past crimes as he has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed himself a changed man. It’s the kind of statement a man can make when he’s mentally linked with a mildly psychotic living gunship, especially when the person from whom he most desperately seeks approval—Aeryn Sun—has both a special connection with said gunship and a Peacekeeper’s endless capacity for pragmatism. Crichton, on the other hand, is doing his damnedest to think in absolutes, because people as shattered as he is can only deal so much with moral ambiguity, and most of that he uses with his own private Scorpius. Crichton suspects Crais is up to something, and John is immediately willing to buy whatever Harvey tells him about Crais’ secret plans. Crichton is willing to use Crais as an unwitting pawn against the piña coladas—uh, sorry, make that the Colartas—but he then really tries to do the hard, unforgiving thing and just leave that miserable, treacherous bastard to rot on the jungle planet.

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After all, as Crichton so eloquently puts it, Crais has stuck the knife in one time too many. Peacekeepers are purely forward-thinking strategists, which is why Aeryn, Crais, and, in his way, Scorpius have so much trouble understanding just why Crichton can’t let go of the past, especially when shifting circumstances necessitate an uneasy truce. Crichton is desperate for static, easy-to-understand characters on the one show that positively delights in altering our perception of key players, in never leaving anyone in the same place for long. At a certain point in Crais and Crichton’s big confrontation, all the latter really wants is for the good Captain to drop the act for one second, to stop appealing to Crichton’s better angels when he really, really is in no position to make such a request. Crais is forced to rely on the strictest pragmatism to win back Crichton, admitting that he has always used all his available assets—Moya and her passengers very much included—to survive, and that the very real possibility of Aeryn’s death means that Crichton must return Crais to Talyn. Even then, Crichton is desperate enough to be done with Crais forever that he thinks long and hard before again acquiescing to the tyrant of pragmatism.

Aeryn’s interactions with her mother Xhalax Sun unfold along strangely parallel lines, as she too tries to convince a Peacekeeper that she hasn’t really changed. The difference here is that, where Crichton is enraged with Crais’ perceived deceptions, Aeryn is simply desperate to prove some part of the woman who conceived her out of love and visited her childhood self in the middle of the night still resides within this battle-hardened warrior. I’m almost uncertain what to say about all this, other than that it’s just so damn heartbreaking how completely Aeryn fails. Xhalax offers not the slightest concession to her disavowed daughter; the closest she comes to anything approaching sentiment is when she tells Aeryn that she would take her back and attempt to redeem her if she could, but the corruption is clearly too advanced. It’s a poignant reminder of just how far Aeryn has come that she would even bother to appeal to Xhalax’s compassion toward Talyn. Nobody who still thinks like a Peacekeeper would waste time trying to evoke sympathy for such a “magnificent creature.” Even so, Xhalax is momentarily affected when presented with the footage of her visit to her daughter’s barracks, but all she can do is scream and rage in response, destroying the video file in the process. Aeryn tries to save her mother, but there’s nothing left to save. In their climactic confrontation, Xhalax can’t quite bring herself to save Aeryn, but I somehow suspect she would have worked up the nerve to do it if Crichton hadn’t shown up.

The more intriguing question is what the encounter with Xhalax Sun says about Aeryn, as opposed to the other way round. As a cornered Aeryn desperately explains, “My corruption began the moment I was conceived…. Don’t you see? My independence comes from you anyway!… I am the part of you that wanted to be a rebel! The part of you that knew deep down inside what was right…” There’s a small part of me that thinks this very slightly undermines Aeryn’s character arc, as it suggests the only reason she was able to evolve from her Peacekeeper training—“You can be more,” as Crichton promised way back in “Premiere”—is that she isn’t a regular Peacekeeper; she’s special because of the love her parents showed in conceiving her, and no other Peacekeeper would have discovered such hidden depths. Like I say, that’s only a small part of me, because that’s just too simplistic and reductive a reading for a show as resolutely messy as Farscape.

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The better read here is that Xhalax and Aeryn Sun represent two very similar people who, when presented with similarly impossible decisions, chose, well, different destinations. For a brief period, Xhalax was arguably a far more self-possessed rebel than Aeryn ever was; one need only compare the genuinely loving relationship that Xhalax forged with the elder Talyn with what Aeryn shared with Tam Velorek in “The Way We Weren’t.” Xhalax was forced to turn on her lover because her emotions had compelled her to foolishly visit her daughter and reveal herself; Aeryn betrayed Velorek to get herself back to her preferred detail. It isn’t hard to imagine that the early season one version of Aeryn would have made the same decision that Xhalax did if redemption—as opposed to a hideously euphemistic “retirement”—had ever been offered to her. The real issue here is the entire frelling Peacekeeper ethos; one can rebel against it from within, but there are always far too many true believers—the old Aeryn very much included—ready to inform on anyone they even suspect of free-thinking. It’s only because of all those cycles away from the Peacekeepers that Aeryn has asserted her own identity, while decades of enforced penance with the Peacekeepers has robbed Xhalax of whatever once existed of her true self.

The Crichton and Aeryn plots converge right at the very end, as they and Crais reunite in the wilds of the jungle planet to decide what must be done with Xhalax Sun. Whatever else one might think of John Crichton’s actions in this episode—I tend to think of them as justified if impractical, but there are plenty of other possible interpretations—he shows the very best of himself at the end, as he intercedes to stop Aeryn from killing her own mother. Xhalax, Aeryn, and Crais all agree that the only proper course of action with a dangerous prisoner is execution, because, no matter how far they have strayed or will stray from doctrine, there’s a part of all of them that will always be Peacekeeper; I guess Farscape is willing to concede that some aspects of us really can never be left behind, and it’s generally the worst of us. In a world like this, doing the right thing can mean little more than making sure someone doesn’t have to kill her own mother, even if said killing still has to be done. Farscape often takes us to the darkest corners of the universe, but it remains astounding just how readily Peacekeepers will run toward that darkness. If absolutely nothing else, John Crichton is there to remind Aeryn that she doesn’t always have to.

Stray observations:

  • I’m starting to suspect the main reason Stark and Rygel ended up on Talyn—beyond the fact that I believe Farscape was trying to keep all the characters needing extensive makeup on the same ship—is that they’re the show’s two most expendable characters; the fact that they don’t need full-fledged subplots means the Talyn episodes can be more strongly focused on Crichton, Aeryn, and Crais than they could if, say, Chiana was also there. Much like in “Green Eyed Monster,” the pair are kept on the fringes of this episode, though I do love that Rygel had a rare, probably regrettable moment of heroism when he lunged at Xhalax, and there’s no question that Stark and Rygel make for an excellent double act. There’s a reason I keep quoting them at the top of these reviews, after all.
  • Crichton spreading that much all over himself and Crais to mask their scent is wonderfully gross, and Ben Browder clearly goes out of his way to look as vindictive as possible in how Crichton applies the goo to his rival’s face. I’m just shocked that John manages to avoid making a more explicit Predator reference.
  • I’ve looked at both the Netflix and the blu-ray versions of this episode, and I’m pretty sure this is the grainiest episode of Farscape ever made. I’m not sure if that’s because of some issues with the extant copies of the episode—it’s my understanding that the master version no longer exists, but I could be wrong about that—or if it’s just because of the lighting in the pseudo-jungle. Either way, the murkier look of the episode ends up being a perfect match for its tone; this story really is the show’s Heart Of Darkness, and I’d say the graininess matches that very nicely.

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“Incubator” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 7/13/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“You ever think we’ve been on this boat way too long?” “Constantly. But so far, all the other alternatives have been worse.” “Well here’s to that changing.”

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Who is Scorpius? What is Scorpius? How is Scorpius? Why is Scorpius? As “Incubator” attests, those questions—some less nonsensically phrased than others, admittedly—are all really one and the same. Farscape has long hinted at the deeper, more complex motives that have compelled Scorpius to chase, torture, and otherwise make miserable the life of John Crichton. Last week’s Scorpius subplot in “Losing Time” gave us a particularly good sense of what Scorpius is really out to achieve, as he gave Braca an instructive lesson in the current state of tensions between the Peacekeepers and the Scarrans, with the grim conclusion that the threat, real or hypothetical, of wormhole weapons was the only thing holding back the Scarran onslaught. The nature of Scorpius’ identity is not exactly a revelation, considering Crais referred to him as a “Scarran half-breed” way back in “Family Ties,” and “Look At The Princess” again confirmed his interspecies lineage; more than that, the very existence of the cooling suit has long served as a potent symbol of the two sides of himself, both locked in perpetual thermoregulatory war. “Incubator” is important in the Farscape mythos because of how it fills in the vital details in Scorpius’ backstory, how it offers a suitably grim explanation for how such a biological monstrosity could exist in the first place. More than that, this is arguably the first time we’ve seen Scorpius appear vulnerable and, more worryingly, honest.

Look, “Incubator” is a big reveal episode, and that makes it particularly tricky to assess on the rewatch, because it’s hard to remember precisely what elements surprised me the first time I watched this back in 2012. As I just noted, it’s not that Scorpius was a complete mystery until this episode aired, but the story does fill in some very substantial blanks, particularly in terms of his motivations. It’s impossible not to internalize the knowledge Scorpius shares about his past here when watching earlier episodes for a second time; it’s hard to go back and watch the “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory” two-parter, where his portrayal is as close to a straightforward villain as it ever is in the series, and not have what we see in “Incubator” retroactively inform those actions. Scorpius is a Peacekeeper, just like those I discussed in “Relativity”—indeed, he’s arguably more of a Peacekeeper than any of them, considering he’s the only one of the four who voluntarily enlisted—and that means he’s ruthlessly pragmatic, with the occasional flashes of gratuitous sadism, most notably in his treatment of Crichton and the Diagnosan in “Die Me, Dichotomy.” What Farscape previously left unclear was to what end Scorpius actually worked; the acquisition of wormhole knowledge was the immediate goal, but that just raised the question of why he was so desperate to get his hands on it, and some piffling conflict between a pair of galactic powers never felt momentous enough for an enemy such as him.

Indeed, because Scorpius looks like a nightmarish, fetish gear-clad version of some old movie serial supervillain, Crichton always just sort of assumed Scorpius’ endgame was universal domination, an assertion that Scorpius angrily refutes toward the end of “Incubator.” The genius of this episode is that it places a character defined by his willingness to do absolutely anything to further his goals in a position where the only thing he can do is talk. (Well, even then, he’s placing himself in mortal peril to have that conversation with the neural Crichton and trusting Braca to let him finish his mission, but you get the idea.) Stripped of his usual tools of persuasion, Scorpius is forced to convince the neural Crichton of the righteousness of his motivations, much to the poor neural clone’s consternation; Crichton’s “Oh god” when Scorpius launches into his reminiscences is the comic line of the episode.

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More than that, Scorpius’ task appears particularly impossible when one considers precisely where this Crichton’s memories stop. As neural John makes clear, his last memories are of being on the Diagnosan’s operating table; the dialogue suggests he doesn’t remember Scorpius showing up at the end of “Die Me, Dichotomy,” but this must logically be a John Crichton who believes Aeryn Sun is dead. The script doesn’t actually hit that point as hard as it probably should; when Crichton mentions he has lost people because of Scorpius’ actions, I first thought he had to be talking about Gilina before remembering his more recent loss. Either way, the neural Crichton is a very clever reversal of the more familiar Harvey dynamic, and Ben Browder does a nice job of subtly peeling back a half-season’s worth of character development to portray this earlier version of the character.

As for the flashbacks themselves, I must admit there’s a vaguely workmanlike quality to them, as everything we see feels like a logical extrapolation of what we already know about Scorpius, with relatively few surprises along the way. Of course there would be a Scarran torturer such as Tauza, and of course Scorpius’ childhood would be one spent writhing in unimaginable agony; if anything, Scorpius’ offhand mention of his youthful wanderings through the Uncharted Territories—not to mention the unseen construction of the coolant suit, which we know involved Diagnosan Tocot—suggest another, potentially more surprising plotline. Still, that’s doing Richard Manning’s script an unfair discredit, as what I’m really saying is that “Incubator” makes it feel inevitable that Scorpius must be the result of crimes committed by the Scarrans, rather than by the Sebaceans, when it’s at least possible to imagine the Peacekeepers pulling some similarly dastardly plot under the right set of circumstances. Again, the episode perhaps could have used Crichton more actively as a commentator on these flashbacks, teasing out John’s—and, by extension, the audience’s—theories about Scorpius’ origins so that we could more directly compare them with the truth. Such a guessing game might sound a little too coolly intellectual for Farscape, but such a move might well have helped clarify the emotional reality of Scorpius’ situation.

After all, he tells us of the cruelty of Tauza and the terrible fate of Rylani Jeema Dellos—his mother, though Scorpius pointedly avoids using such familiar terms in his conversation with Crichton—to engender, if not exactly sympathy, then at least greater understanding. Because this is Scorpius we’re talking about, even an accounting of his sorrowful family history has a nakedly practical edge to it; he is not simply trying to convince Crichton of the Scarrans’ awfulness in the abstract—though that is at least part of the agenda, because Scorpius never only has one goal he’s working toward—but rather to persuade him that the horrors Scorpius and his mother suffered through are more than enough to justify his thirst for vengeance. These are all facts that Scorpius could have shared with the real Crichton cycles ago, but we’ve seen enough of Scorpius to know how unthinkable such a course of action would be. It’s a testament to his desperation that he would even go this far with a fake version of the human. What Scorpius has to tell us about himself in “Incubator” is less important than the fact that he would reveal it at all.

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Stray observations:

  • As the quote up top indicates, there’s a whole Crichton subplot in this episode that I didn’t even get to in the main body of the review, so I’ll remedy that in the stray observations. The construction of the last four episodes is telling, as Crichton and Aeryn are undeniably the focuse of the Talyn-set episodes, while Crichton’s adventures on Moya are more a sideshow to Scorpius’ work on the Command Carrier. Indeed, Farscape appears to be making use of the presence of not one, not two, but now three Crichtons by pushing the Moya Crichton into distinctly unlikable territory. He’s an obsessive jackass who has long since burned through the last of his goodwill with his shipmates, and the neural clone ends up feeling like a much more accurate reflection of who Crichton ought to be.
  • All that said, I’m not actually sure that Crichton is as in the wrong here as his shipmates all insist that he is. I mean, his insistence on spending all of Moya’s time chasing wormholes is antisocial behavior, no question, and I don’t think the others are wrong when they say that Crichton only entertains Linfer’s offer to Pilot because he selfishly wants wormhole knowledge, but it’s not as though he’s manipulating Pilot into wanting to go off with the Relgarian; if anything, Crichton’s fixation on wormholes is what forces him to consider the possibility that Pilot and Moya might well be better off without their passengers. There was a time on Farscape when Crichton tended to be right for the right reasons, then a period where he was wrong for the right reasons, and then in “Self-Inflicted Wounds” he was wrong for the wrong reasons. Here, I’m pretty sure he’s right for the wrong reasons, and the others are taking him to task for his sanctimony and his hypocrisy as much as for anything else. Which, fair enough, I suppose, but I’m really not sure that D’Argo, Chiana, and Jool are people who have any right to talk when it comes to sanctimony and/or hypocrisy.
  • Poor, poor Pilot. His consternation with the shipmates in general and Crichton in particular has been an open secret this season, but it’s really only here that the show addresses it. Pilot is rarely introspective enough to admit something like this, but I suspect the absence of Aeryn is really hitting him hard; the others are all capable of momentary bursts of compassion toward Pilot, but they all tend to view him as a servant, a thing, in a way that Aeryn never could after the events of “DNA Mad Scientist.” All things considered, it’s hard not to think that Pilot and Moya really would be better off with Linfer, if not for the fact that her skin was melting. Oh, and I suppose they still have some responsibilities to Talyn. But the skin melting is the real deal breaker here.

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Next time: Next week is July 4, and TV Club Classic will be taking the weekend off. But two weeks from now, it’s the calm before the storm as we deal with “Meltdown” and “Scratch ‘N Sniff.” I don’t remember anything about one of these, and I kind of wish I couldn’t remember anything about the other one. Still, hope springs eternal!

And one final note: As you may know, the TV network Pivot has been airing Farscape for a little while now, and the channel is currently running a fan vote to determine the 10 most beloved Farscape episodes, which will then be aired a couple weeks from now. The poll closes later today—you can vote here—and the plan is to air “The Peacekeeper Wars” miniseries if the vote count hits 10,000. Considering “The Peacekeeper Wars” is damn hard to find unless you’re willing to just buy the DVD, this would be a relatively rare opportunity to watch the conclusion to the series. So go vote, and I’ll even share my personal top 10 with you all, if people are curious.