Saturday, December 18, 2010

Review - Farscape: I, E.T. (Season 1, Episode 2)

Crichton gets to know the natives
"Aquatic – that's water, not mud! Mud is... mud! You can't breathe in it, you can't move in it. It holds you, it grabs you, it sucks you down! You wanna know about mud? I know about mud!" - Dominar Rygel XVI

"The guy knows mud." - John Crichton

Short review: Efforts to remove a Peacekeeper beacon force Moya's crew to land on an unknown planet and tangle with the natives.

Moya on a world
With xenophobic natives
Crichton meets locals

Full review: Television executives have a pretty extensive record of jerking science fiction shows around. The most recent example being, of course, the premature cancellation of Stargate: Universe by the badly misnamed SyFy channel, done at a point in which it was impossible for the show producers to even try to come up with a way to wrap up the series in any way. The mistreatment Firefly received at the hands of clueless FOX executives is almost legendary. Even a show as successful as Babylon 5 suffered too - having to shift networks in order to fund a fifth season (and the uncertainty surrounding whether there would be a fifth season cost the show the services of Claudia Christian, and thus the character of Susan Ivanova who was one of the best characters on the show, to be replaced with the forgettable Elizabeth Lochley played by Tracy Scoggins). And most science fiction fans are aware of the colossal interference TNT executives engaged in during the production of the Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade, which was probably the major factor in dooming the show to oblivion. And of course Farscape had its own cancellation screw over from the idiotic SyFy executives, which will be detailed in full when I get to Season 4.

But science fiction shows often are screwed with in smaller ways too. Many of Babylon 5's seasons were oddly broken up, destroying the narrative arc of the stories told within each of the seasons. For poorly thought out reasons, the last several episodes of each season would often be held back until just before the new season started. The theory was to "build up" interest in the new season. But each season built up more or less to a cliffhanger final episode which was intended to keep the viewer on edge for the months between seasons, and often had several character development stories in the middle of the season. So what this strategy really did was to "end" the season on a nondescript character building episode and kill the impact of the cliffhanger. So what all this has been building up to is that in the original run of Farscape the episode I, E.T. was a victim of this sort of network cluelessness. Although this episode was filmed and intended to be shown as the second episode in the series, immediately following Premiere (read review) (and is placed in that position in the Season 1 DVD set), it was shown seventh in the season by the network.

This may seem like a small issue, moving a single episode early in a show's run to a slightly later point in the initial season, but because the episode is set so early in the first season of the show, moving it creates some pretty annoying character continuity problems. Most of the early episodes of Farscape are spent establishing the interrelationships between the various alien characters and John Crichton (Ben Browder), and showing Crichton becoming acclimatized to his new environment. By the time this episode was shown in the initial run, many of these relationships had been established and Crichton was beginning to settle in to life aboard Moya, but by jumping backwards to show this episode out of order, all of that character development was wiped away. I suspect that network executives simply hold science fiction viewers in contempt, figuring that anyone who like the genre is just interested in flashy explosions and cool spaceships, so character development and world building are unimportant. If so, I'll take this opportunity to disabuse any network executives who happen to read this of this notion: Science fiction fans appear to consider these elements to be substantially more important than the average viewer (otherwise one would be hard pressed to explain, for example, the soft spot so many science fiction fans hold for the classic Doctor Who series). Fortunately, when one watches the show now, one can watch the episodes in their intended order and the idiocy forced upon us by stupid SyFy executives is no longer a problem.

Moya, the living ship
In addition to all of the character development problems caused by shifting the show later in the season, the plot of I, E.T. simply fits much better early in the series. The show opens with all of Moya ringing with the sound of an alarm, which is quickly identified as a Peacekeeper tracking beacon designed to aid in hunting down escaped Leviathans. In a bit of physical humor, the alarm also causes Crichton's eye to twitch uncontrollably. After determining that the alarm is broadcasting their position for anyone listening to hear, that it cannot be shut down with a DRD, and that the device is located in a sensitive and critical part of Moya's anatomy, the characters decide to try to muffle the alarm by setting down on a nearby swampy planet and cover the hull in mud, much to Rygel's consternation. As an aside, during this part of the show, Claudia Black playing Aeryn Soon makes a minor continuity error when she uses the mild expletive "crap" where "dren" would have been the in-character word to use. If the show had originally been shown in its intended order, this probably would have gone entirely unnoticed, as the Farscape-specific set of expletives (basically the words "frell" and "dren") would have not yet been established. As it is, it sticks out as a funny little gaffe, although an excusable one.

Once the ship has landed, Moya's crew have to figure out how to remove the beacon without killing the ship. This conundrum gives every crew member a chance to get a little character development: the beacon is in a location too confined for anyone by Rygel (Jonathan Hardy) to reach, to relive Moya's agony during the operation Zhaan (Virginia Hey) is revealed to have the ability to share another being's pain, to distract and evade some locals who turn up to investigate their arrival Aeryn and D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) are able to show off their military skills, and to hunt down a tranquilizer to numb Moya, Crichton gets to be an alien planet's first extraterrestrial contact. As John Crichton is the primary protagonist in the series, this last element dominates the show, and it dovetails thematically with the events in Premiere. Whereas Crichton was confronted with making first contact on behalf of humanity in the previous episode, here he takes on the role of the visitor from another planet. And he handles it with his usual awkwardness - botching things up, patching them together again, and generally bumbling through until he figures out something somewhat satisfactory. As it is, this provides a perfect thematic counterpoint to Premiere, giving Crichton the opportunity to deal with someone who is more provincial than himself, giving a view of the alien-human relationship that is the reverse of the one that dominated the first episode (and which will dominate much of at least the first season of the show).

While Crichton is off socializing with the natives, the story manages to pack in a fair amount of character points for the other members of Moya's crew. The show pairs Rygel and Zhaan in the operation to remove the beacon from Moya's internal organs, while Aeryn and D'Argo are paired up acting as impromptu commandos to deal with the locals. These pairings allow the characters to both develop their own character - for example Rygel's insecurity in the face of his own incompetence - and establish relationships between the characters - as evidenced by Zhaan's patient prodding of Rygel to boost his confidence enough to get the job done (which is contrasted with Aeryn's rather direct attempt to force Rygel into undertaking the task). Among the strongest elements of Farscape are the strongly defined characters and the interactions of this disparate group thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, and even this early in the series these strong personalities begin to become evident. I believe it is also not a coincidence that while the various other characters mostly work together in pairs, Crichton is isolated on his own dealing with the unknown. This serves to tie the various other crew members of Moya together via the narrative flow of the story, while emphasizing Crichton's status as an outsider.

Although the episode might seem at first glace to be somewhat bland, since it mostly takes place on a fairly uninteresting looking planet and there are few flashy special effect sequences, it is one of the critical early going episodes for establishing the personalities of the rag-tag band that make up Moya's crew. This, combined with a healthy dollop of John Crichton navigating his way through unfamiliar waters with his usual mix of humor and incompetence, makes this a very enjoyable episode.

Previous episode reviewed: Premiere
Subsequent episode reviewed: Exodus from Genesis

Previous episode reviewed (airdate order): Thank God It's Friday, Again
Subsequent issue reviewed (airdate order): That Old Black Magic

Farscape, Season 1     Farscape     Television Reviews     Home

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