Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review - Farscape: Throne for a Loss (Season 1, Episode 4)

Doesn't Rygel look regal on his trash can throne?
"That's your plan? Wiley E. Coyote could come up with a better plan!" - John Crichton

Short review: Aliens hopped up on steroids kidnap Rygel. Worse, they have a piece of Moya. Worse still, Aeryn, D'Argo, and Crichton have to work together to get him back.

Rygel is humble
But only to save his ass
Look! It's Zhaan's ass too

Full review: The fourth episode of season one aired during Farscape's initial run, Throne for a Loss was actually intended to be shown as the fourth episode (unlike most of the other early episodes, which were originally aired in what appears to be almost random order). In the actual intended order, Throne for a Loss was supposed to follow Exodus from Genesis (read review) and precede Back and Back and Back to the Future. When it aired, however, Throne for a Loss was shown immediately after Back and Back and Back to the Future and immediately before PK Tech Girl. This is just another example of network executives cluelessly mangling a science fiction show because they don't seem to understand that disordering shows in a program that has well thought-out interrelationships between characters completely destroys any attempts at having characters believably change and grow and form evolving relationships with one another. I am convinced that, to a certain extent, the undeserved perception that televised science fiction has weak character development is at least partially the fault of idiot network executives who do things like cavalierly rearrange the order in which the episodes of science fiction shows air for no apparent reason.

One element that is clear at the outset of this episode is that the crew of Moya are poor, to the point that they struggle to feed themselves, and they are willing to try almost anything to earn some cash to keep their heads above water. Obviously, they are able to live on Moya, but it is in this episode that one starts to notice how sparse and bare it is inside, and how little other than their clothing Moya's inhabitants actually have. And this poverty drives the plot here - desperate to garner some income they agree to meet with a group of Tavleks who claim they want Moya to carry some cargo for them, but without knowing what that cargo might be, or apparently much of anything about the Tavleks. In anticipation of these negotiations, Rygel (Jonathan Hardy), D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Aeryn (Claudia Black), Zhaan (Virginia Hey), and Crichton (Ben Browder) all gather in the docking bay. As a side note, this is also the first episode of the series in which the Peacekeepers, other than Aeryn, do not figure at all.

Rygel, neck deep in, that's mud isn't it? For his sake I hope its mud.
This sets up the second element that drives the plot of the episode: Rygel's continual preening and puffery as the Tavleks take the opportunity to kidnap him and hold him for ransom, mistakenly believing that Rygel is, in fact, the ruler of 600 billion Hynerians and not, as he is in reality, a penniless fugitive traveling with a rag tag bunch of other escaped prisoners who don't actually like him. And once they have captured him, they place him in a cell buried up to his waist in mud - which is yet another reason that showing the episodes out of order reduces their effectiveness, because someone watching the shows in the correct order would know that Rygel hates and fears mud from his reaction to it in I, E.T. (read review), but since that episode was originally aired as the seventh episode, after this one, viewers wouldn't know that. Once again, we see character development wasted by the inane decision to run the episodes out of intended order.

The main plot of the episode is fairly simple: the Tavleks have Rygel, and consequently unknowingly have a critical piece of Moya's infrastructure, and the rest of the crew have to figure out how to get him back. But the real meat of the story is, once again, in the character development and the blossoming interrelationships between the members of Moya's crew. And much of the character development in this episode revolves around Rygel, who is forced to confront the fact that he isn't Rygel XVI, Dominar of Hyneria, but was deposed by his cousin and is living in exile. Much of the episode seems to be more or less "take Rygel down a peg or two" (and by switching up the order so that PK Tech Girl aired immediately after it, the network put two episodes sharing this theme back to back). In Rygel's interaction with his prison mate, Jotheb of the Consortium of Trao, Rygel goes from arrogant and self-promoting as he trades boasts about the size of his domains, to self-pitying as he confronts his captors' indifference to his presumed status (including their serving him his meal in a dish made from a skull), to finally acceptance that he is not important, but is just a political exile. But the interesting thing about Rygel is that he doesn't decide to expose his worthlessness to save himself from captivity, but rather only when Jotheb attempts to claim sovereignty over him. In effect, Rygel's admission of his own worthlessness is an act of self-aggrandizement in response to being told he would be subject to another. In his admission, however, he does admit that the other inhabitants of Moya probably hate him. No matter the motivation, this is a level of self-reflection that we rarely see from Rygel, and the decision to assign a fair amount of emotional heavy lifting to a character played by a puppet (who mostly interacts with another character played by a puppet in the episode) is a bold move on the part of the creators of the show. Fortunately, the special effects work is up to the job, and the episode pulls off this difficult feat quite well.

But Rygel dealing with the fallout from his shameless self-promotion is accompanied by the rest of the crew having to deal with it as well, because it turns out that in order to make an impression upon the Tavleks, Rygel fashioned himself a scepter using a critical piece of Moya's control mechanisms. And as a result, Moya cannot leave orbit, and is actually in danger of crashing to the planet. (If one was given to thinking about such things, one might wonder at the foolishness of flying about in a spacecraft which can be debilitated by the absence or failure of a fist sized piece of crystal that the ship apparently carries no spares for). Compounding this problem, during the firefight in which Rygel was taken by the Tavleks, the crew took one of the Tavleks captive and obtained his "gauntlet" weapon - which drives the two other plot lines that flow through the episode. This is because the "gauntlet" injects what appear to be various stimulants into the user in order to make him a more effective fighter, but which seem be highly addictive and bring out some pretty negative personality traits in those who use them.

Are you ready for some football?
As an aside, I have to wonder if the Tavleks aren't this Australian-based show's way of poking fun at American professional football players. Ultra-aggressive, hopped up on performance enhancing drugs, and wearing armor that looks like a football helmet and shoulder pads, and their need to take frequent breaks to rest, they seem like a caricature of a linebacker in the National Football League. In this case, it may be no mistake that John Crichton, played by the only American in the cast, continually refers to the Tavleks using the steroid-sounding misnomer Tavloids.

But the episode is really about the characters and how they interact, and the Tavleks and their drug injecting gauntlet are more or less just a vehicle for this. Crichton opens up the episode making pop culture references about John Wayne movies while jousting with Aeryn a little bit over her desire to bring a weapon to the negotiations with the Tavleks (a level of paranoia that, as events demonstrate, proves to be justified). Though Crichton has been making pop references since the beginning of the show, this is the episode where this character quirk starts to really come to the fore - even if Crichton messes up by referring to Wayne's Mongol epic as Genghis Khan rather than its actual title The Conqueror. After Crichton saves D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) from almost certain death at the hands of a Tavlek permitting the capture of the Tavlek in the process (an interesting and completely unremarked upon development in the series), D'Argo seizes the gauntlet and attempts to use it to prevent the flight of the remaining Tavleks. This sets in motion a round robin as first D'Argo, then Aeryn, and finally Crichton strap on the gauntlet to try and use its powers to solve their problems. The only trouble is that the gauntlet appears to inject a cocktail of stimulants into the user that, well, seems to enhance the user's personality in mostly unpleasant ways: D'Argo immediately becomes authoritarian and violent, Aeryn becomes aggressive and violent, and Crichton becomes, um, more task oriented? And well, violent.

(Also, given that they all use the same gauntlet, and it injects them with some sort of drug, doesn't that mean they've been sharing needles? The only thing I can think when a new person straps the thing on is "Eew".)

Just part of Crichton's cunning plan
The real development in this episode is Crichton's growing confidence and competence. Sure, he's still a fish out of water much of the time - as evidenced by his call for Pilot to use a "tractor beam" to reel the Tavleks back in after they kidnap Rygel - but in addition to saving D'Argo's life and enabling the capture of a prisoner, he also manages to subdue D'Argo when he goes on his tyrannical rampage, and actually effects the return of Rygel. Aeryn still makes fun of how useless and clumsy he is, but when he grabs the sleep mist balloon to throw at D'Argo she lets him, and after that fails he tells her he has a plan to deal with the raging, murderous D'Argo, she goes along with it. After the fact she thinks his plan was a bad plan, but she did go along with it. (And this is another reason why airing I, E.T. out of order makes no sense, because in that episode she has no confidence in him at all, whereas by the time the events in this episode take place, she'll at least listen to him, and if this is shown in the correct order it makes sense, but if the episodes are shown out of order the characters seem schizophrenic). And her plan to recover Rygel prompts one of Crichton's pop culture references, this time to Wiley E. Coyote. During his rampage, D'Argo, among other things, threatens to rip off Pilot's arms, which is an interesting development because as of yet in the series we have not seen Pilot "in the flesh" so to speak, as he has always appeared via holographic projection. This is the first indication we have that Pilot is accessible somewhere inside of Moya, and D'Argo's threat also proves to be sadly prescient.

Eventually Aeryn, Crichton and D'Argo all end up on the planet hunting for Rygel (Crichton unwillingly, as Aeryn knocks him out and drags him onto her Prowler) which leads to Crichton accidentally destroying Aeryn's pulse rifle and the revelation that D'Argo's Quolta Blade is not just a sword, but also a pulse gun as well. The only oddity about this sequence is that D'Argo hands over his blade (which happens to be the group's only weapon other than the gauntlet) to Aeryn, who is presumably untrained in its use (since she had no idea that it could be used as a pulse gun) rather than using it himself. The weapon proves to be quite powerful when she uses it to cover Crichton and D'Argo's flight from the Tavlek camp, blasting stone formations quite handily. This sets up D'Argo getting injured, which results in another physiological quirk for Luxans (to go along with their deadly tongue lash and high tolerance for heat), that is, that if they are injured one has to whack the wound until their blood stops flowing a dark red color and instead runs clear (which, when she pulls her hand off of D'Argo's wound near the end of the episode, ends up looking like someone poured Karo syrup on Aeryn's hand). It seems strange, however, that Aeryn would know this medical quirk about Luxans and yet not know the hidden use of D'Argo's Quolta Blade. Peacekeeper military training, it would seem, includes lessons on the anatomy of alien races, but not their weaponry. Or maybe Aeryn just missed class the day they went over weapon identification. But D'Argo's quirky blood flow requirements just highlights that the aliens in Farscape are all pretty damn alien, even when they look more of less humanoid, and even more so when they look like Jotheb (resulting in Crichton, in a fit of typical cluelessness, referring to Jotheb as a "critter" when he sees the four-throated, many-tentacled prisoner).

So, using the addictive gauntlet is bad and . . . Oh!
Is that Virginia Hey's very sexy blue ass? Why yes, yes it is.
Meanwhile, Zhaan (Virginia Hey) is left up on the ship with the Tavlek prisoner caught in the opening scene, who is now bereft of his gauntlet and the drugs it provides. He's initially all bravado and machismo when dealing with Zhaan, assuming he can overwhelm the seemingly demure healer with his macho posturing. But, as we learn quickly, there's much more to Zhaan that one might have thought - especially when in response to a fairly juvenile ploy on the Tavlek's part, Zhaan casually disrobes in front of him exposing Virginia Hey's very shapely hindquarters to the viewer (in a scene that was originally only aired outside of the United States and is only available to U.S. viewers via the DVD collection). This begins to set up Zhaan as not merely a gentle ship's doctor, but also a highly sexual character - a point further reinforced by her means of calming and healing the Tavlek when he becomes agitated during withdrawl, which is to take a bit of her whitish blood, place it on her lips, and kiss him.

But the bulk of Zhaan's story line in this episode is taken up helping her Tavlek charge through his forced withdrawal following the crew's appropriation of his gauntlet. She is caring, concerned, and nurturing. Her prisoner mistakes this for weakness, and he and the viewers soon learn that Zhaan is more dangerous than the previous episodes may have led one to believe. As she says "Soft, yes. Weak, no." And since this takes place out of sight of the other crew members, we know Zhaan is tougher than she looks, but presumably they do not. As the episode progresses, Zhaan's charge is weaned off of the drugs he had apparently been on his whole life (although I'll note that the time this takes is strangely telescoped as a result of having to run parallel in time with the rescue efforts on the surface).

Finally, all the plot lines converge as Crichton catches up with the Tavlek leader just as the stolen gauntlet runs out of juice. Crichton is then forced to try to negotiate Rygel's release. After trying out some fairly weak lies, Crichton hits upon the idea of simply telling the truth: Rygel is worthless, and the crew of Moya don't have anything to trade for him anyway - a point backed up by the Tavlek prisoner's testimony. Prisoners are exchanged, Rygel manages to crap out the missing ship part (having swallowed it for safekeeping when he was captured), and the Tavlek gets his gauntlet back, disappointing Zhaan, but pointing out that using it is "his choice" this time. And Zhaan, saddened, simply says "no sermons", and closes the episode.

In a real sense, despite a pretty bland story line, Throne for a Loss marks the true beginning of the show. Though the characters have been more or less distinct up until this point, in this episode their very distinct personalities begin to come to the forefront. Crichton's pop culture wisecracks, which had been present since the outset, shift into overdrive, giving the viewer a familiar anchor to cling to in a sea of strangeness. One can also see Crichton's growing familiarity with his new environment as, despite some missteps, he shows more confidence and initiative than he had in previous installments of the show, a development that, in my opinion, is what necessitated the addition of Chiana some episodes down the line, as it was no longer plausible to have Crichton need to be protected from harm. One also sees Aeryn and D'Argo begin to accept Crichton as part of the "fighting crew", although they do so quite grudgingly. Most important in the episode, we see both Rygel and Zhaan get some serious and quite interesting character development, fleshing them both out as more than merely "the pain in the ass" and "the doctor", but giving each of their personalities a more multifaceted aspect, and giving hints as to the complexities of their respective backgrounds.

Previous episode reviewed: Exodus from Genesis
Subsequent episode reviewed: Back and Back and Back to the Future

Previous episode reviewed (airdate order): Back and Back and Back to the Future
Subsequent episode reviewed (airdate order): PK Tech Girl

Farscape, Season 1 Page     Farscape     Television Reviews     Home


  1. I've recently been trying to watch Farscape, as I missed it when it aired, and it just doesn't hook me.

    I feel like I may have missed the window of enjoyment.

    What I mean is, for example, I really like Babylon 5, but I first saw it in high school, and if I watched it for the first time now, I don't know that I'd like it quite as much. Now that I've seen all of Trek:TOS and New Doctor Who and BSG (even though I disliked much of BSG), would Bab5 still impress me?

    I've seen the first six or so episodes of Farscape, and the only one I really liked was Back and Back and Back to the Future. I want to like it, I mean, Sci-Fi! Muppets! but I am just ambivalent about it, and dreading watching another episode.

    Does it get better? I should add that I hate Crichton. I hate his dialogue, I hate his acting, I just don't have much sympathy for the character. So, in that context, does it get better?

  2. Farscape is a little like Babylon 5 in that it took a little while to really get going, but once it did, it really worked. (By the way, I think Babylon 5 would hold up for you now because the writing is so good). There's a little bit of a slog to get through the very early sections of both series, but the pay off is quite good.

    The show doesn't really find its feet until Chiana joins the crew, which happens in Episode 15 (Durka Returns) and adds a much needed character dynamic that actually makes the other characters better.

    Ben Browder's acting doesn't change, but his character does. Oh, he still makes Earth related references all the time, but along about Episode 16 (A Human Reaction) his overarching storyline starts to take a fairly dark path. Right now he's confused, but still more or less a generally happy guy. That changes.

    The other element that needs to come into place is the arrival of Scorpius, who is a much better antagonist for the Moya crew than Crais (who, to be perfectly honest, is pretty limp as a villain). Scorpius shows up in Episode 19 (Nerve). From then on, the show is pretty much on rockets with only a handful of poor episodes, but a whole bunch of really good ones.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts! Maybe I'll try a few more. The Earth reference "jokes" really grate on me, maybe it's a personal taste thing. I want to smack him every time he's surprised that the other characters don't get it.

    What I meant about Babylon 5, though, is that I know I would enjoy it if I watched it again (although I think the writing has hits and misses, and currently JMS is on my shit list for his terrible comic book writing), but I've seen it already. I know what it's like: I have remembered affection for the characters, I own action figures, etc. I'm not starting from zero, and that matters to my enjoyment. If all memories of it were stricken from my brain and I watched it now for the first time, I might still like it, but it would be a very different experience, given my knowledge and personal experience now. I wouldn't be that surprised if I recommended it to a friend who'd never seen it, and he/she just couldn't connect with the characters, or couldn't get over the old cgi.

    Some books/tv/movies/etc I think it doesn't matter when you first experience them, and some it does. I'm percolating a possible blog post about this idea...

  4. I'd give Farscape at least until Scorpius is established as the primary antagonist before deciding if you like the show or not. If you still don't like it then, then it may not be for you.

    I don't think Crichton is suprised they don't get his Earth based pop culture references, but when he uses them he's engaging in a sort of defense mechanism - everyone else knows what is going on but him, and in response, he refers to a bunch of stuff he knows, but they don't. Then he can be the expert explaining things to them.

    As far as Babylon 5 goes, that is always the question isn't it? Did I really like Dune because it is a great book, just because Ir ead it when I was 15 and identified with Paul Atredies? Did I love Citizen of the Galaxy because I was 13 when I read it, and would I hate it now? Some things hold up, others don't. I think Babylon 5 holds up pretty well.