Friday, March 11, 2011

Review - Farscape: Back and Back and Back to the Future (Season 1, Episode 5)

It is always a bad day when your ship disintegrates into glowing green stuff
"He says he is experiencing the future." - Zhaan
"The future? He can barely function in the present." - Aeryn

Short review: Moya's crew rescue a pair of Illanics from a dying ship who turn out to be a lot more than they seem to be.

Illanic rescue
Crichton nearly goes insane
As he hops through time

Full review: It usually takes a little while for a television show to really find its feet and reveal what the show is going to be like in its maturity. It just takes a little bit of time for the characters to be defined and for their relationships with one another and the wider fictional world they inhabit to take shape. Some shows take six or seven episodes, some take a full season, a precious few hit the ground running. For Farscape, this moment came in Back and Back and Back to the Future. To be sure the characters are still not yet fully formed, and one long-time crew member hasn't even joined the cast yet, but by the time this episode comes up, enough expositional groundwork had been laid in the previous episodes that elements like character development could take a back seat to story telling.

Digressing a bit, this is yet another reason why the decision to air the early episodes of Farscape out of order is simply inexplicable. Without the foundational character development from I, E.T. (read review) and Throne for a Loss (read review), this episode just doesn't work as well. Moving Back and Back and Back to the Future forward to third in the viewing order serves to accelerate the developing relations between the characters so quickly that they make no sense. For example, without the interaction between Zhaan (Virginia Hey) and Crichton (Ben Browder) in I, E.T. and Throne for a Loss, there seems little reason for him to turn to her when he finds himself embroiled in a crisis, or for her to trust him enough to accept his very odd story. Without the character development established in Throne for a Loss, D'Argo's (Anthony Simcoe) rigid and authoritarian streak that dominates much of this episode comes out of left field. Without establishing the poverty of the crew in previous episodes, Rygel's (Jonathan Hardy) demands for payment from their unwilling passengers seems cruel and harsh, rather than desperate. And D'Argo's rebuff of Rygel's attempts to extract compensation serves not to establish him as an ally of the newcomers, but merely makes him out to be a courteous host.

The episode starts in media res, with Rygel, Zhaan, and D'Argo watching an unknown ship seemingly disintegrate before their eyes. We get a little character development as Rygel advocates abandoning the unknown crew to their fates, and Zhaan suggests that they should try to render aid. Interestingly, D'Argo sides with Rygel until an escaping shuttle signals Moya, showing a pair of Illanics, whereupon D'Argo does an immediate about face and insists that the castaways be taken on board. D'Argo explains that the Illanics are genetic cousins and close allies for "over a thousand cycles" of the Luxans and places Moya at their disposal. The interesting (and uncommented upon by the other characters) piece of character development here is that D'Argo immediately asserts authority over Moya, and the other inhabitants of the ship simply accept this. At several points in the episode, D'Argo essentially orders another one of Moya's inhabitants to do something, and they somewhat reluctantly let him get away with it.

D'Argo loves these two. Esepcially her.
The two Illanics, a scientist named Verell (John Clayton) and Matala (Lisa Hensley) his, well, it isn't really ever defined what her position is, state that they were the only people on board the now destroyed ship, and that they had been conducting experiments in deep space for a year and they were on their way to rendezvous with another ship and deliver their data. While John is inside the Illanic escape shuttle checking to make sure that there were no others on board, he receives a shock while touching an instrument panel, and then has a surreal experience as D'Argo tells him the same thing repeatedly. Although Rygel raises the possibility of seeking compensation from the Illanics, D'Argo brushes this aside (despite Verell's apparent willingness to pay) and states that Moya will do this for his "friends". As Matala and D'Argo head off, Crichton has a vision of himself in flagrante delecto (or close to it) with Matala.

One thing that is kind of odd throughout the episode is that Hensley, as Matala, speaks in a very affected voice. In addition, when D'Argo offers them food, she refuses more than once to eat, but suggests that Verell should eat. Matala also repeats a couple of times that someone speaking to her should "rest and revitalize", almost using it like a mantra. I suspect that at some point there was a draft of the script in which all of these elements were going to contribute to unraveling the mystery of her true identity, but that was apparently excised from the final version. The result is that Matala has a host of off-putting personality traits that make her seem almost drugged and make D'Argo's apparent fascination with her somewhat perplexing. And D'Argo's fascination with Matala, combined with his intense sense of race loyalty, is necessary for making the plot function.

My name is D'Argo. I'm a criminal.
My crime is worse than you think.
At this point Verell finds out that D'Argo and the rest of the crew are escaped prisoners, but assures D'Argo that unless his crime was treason, he does not care. Verrell also reveals to D'Argo that the Illanics have been at war with their hated enemy the Scorvians for an extended period of time, and have been aided by the Luxans in their fight, and issue that is clearly of great concern to D'Argo. Verell tells a clearly choked up D'Argo that getting him to the rendezvous point will aid the war effort. In a brief scene, Aeryn is confronted by Matala when she is searching through the Illanic shuttle, ostensibly attempting to repair its damage. Matala expresses concern that Aeryn might damage the data she and Verell had collected, and almost comes to blows with Aeryn before D'Argo intervenes, siding with Matala. Once again, D'Argo's authoritarian streak surfaces and he essentially orders Aeryn off the Illanic shuttle, and once again, Aeryn accedes to his wishes.

Aeryn's suspicions aren't allayed though, and she raises them to Zhaan and Crichton, but during the conversation John is distracted by increasingly violently erotic visions of himself with Matala. This leads to the first example we have of mentally unbalanced Crichton, a sight that will become more and more familiar as the show progresses. To this point in the series, Crichton has been dealing with strange experiences, but nothing that has gotten inside of his head, and we start to see the beginnings of the cracking of the cocky, wise-cracking smart aleck that we've seen before. After a couple visions, Crichton excuses himself to "get some air", prompting Aeryn to complain "We have air in here. What is the matter with him?". To which Zhaan replies simply, "He is Crichton", as it seems she is beginning to accept what is, for her, his strangeness. Interestingly, later in the episode, when Matala begins asking questions about Crichton, Zhaan tells her he is too complex for Matala to understand in the short period she will be on Moya. It seems that Zhaan has developed an understanding of, and appreciation for, the wayward astronaut.

Sex? Maybe. Assault? Probably.
Disturbed by the increasingly violent visions he has been having of Matala, Crichton consults with D'Argo to find out if Illanic women have some sort of special affect on males. This encounter goes badly, as D'Argo denies any such abilities, and comes to the conclusion that Crichton is lusting after her. Once again, D'Argo jumps straight to ordering others about, this time commanding Crichton to remove Matala from his thoughts. Following this, the mystery of the episode begins to be solved, as Crichton is approached by Aeryn who asks him if D'Argo is still behaving like Matala's personal servant. Twice. Crichton, it seems, is seeing the future, and the future isn't looking very good because when he sees the future, Crichton sees Verell dead and Matala killing both him and D'Argo.

Crichton consults with his closest friend on Moya, Zhaan, who also has the most sympathetic ear. And then things really get underway as Crichton experiences repeated replays of the critical events surrounding Verell's impending death and Matala's apparent betrayal of Moya's crew. The sequences become increasingly disturbing, as Cricthton gets killed a couple times, and Moya is completely destroyed once. While the earlier sequences gave us a glimpse of slightly insane Crichton, as he becomes increasingly distraught we get full bore mentally screwed up Crichton, who says that it is about time he started losing his mind. And this is one more reason why shifting the order the episodes were aired in was stupid. If this episode is viewed third in the series (as it originally was aired), then Crichton's statement makes less sense, as he's only been away from home for a short period of time. But airing it a few episodes later, we can feel Crichton's growing loneliness and isolation creeping up on him as he deals with being away from everyone and everything he has ever known.

Crichton is having a glowing green bad day.
Again and again and again.
But the silver lining of the time shifting is that each time, Crichton ricochets back in time to his discussion with Zhaan he returns with a bit more information, and also drops and breaks a blue mask that she has in her quarters. Eventually, after several failed attempts, Crichton returns with the information that lets him transform D'Argo's loyalties from being aligned with Matala back to the crew. Each time he returns, they try another plan, and Crichton gets increasingly agitated as the plans just end up making the situation end more and more badly. Finally, Crichton takes the initiative for himself, deliberately crushes Zhaan's mask in a symbolic statment that he is taking control of the future, and sets about changing what he thinks is the key element: D'Argo's loyalties. It seems that D'Argo is hiding a secret - the true nature of the crime for which he was imprisoned - and Crichton uses this knowledge to convince D'Argo that he is telling the truth, and earns D'Argo's trust by revealing that he knows about D'Argo's deception in private. This moment, when he waves off both Zhaan and Aeryn, and confronts D'Argo head on, is the beginning of Crichton's emergence as at the very least a coequal among the crew (as opposed to a humored pet). This is also interesting because D'Argo has told the other members of Moya's crew that he was actually imprisoned for killing his commanding officer. And D'Argo has not told them his true crime because he considers it to be worse than that. One has to wonder at this point just how heinous D'Argo's true crime will turn out to be.

I will fight you with my stiff armed ballet steps!
I have to note that one particularly silly scene in the episode is a somewhat ludicrous sequence as two women, Claudia Black and Lisa Hensley, with limited martial arts training try to make a sparring session look real. For story reasons, both women are supposed to be trained combat veterans, but neither of the actresses really appear to know what they are doing, making for an unintentionally hilarious scene. At one point while "fighting" with Aeryn, Matala begins doing ballet dance steps. The director tries to minimize the silliness by using some tight camera angles, but the whole scene just looks goofy. In the end, Matala uses her special (and important to the plot) "nerve strike" to knock Aeryn out, revealing to Aeryn that she is not an Illanic, but one of the hated Scorvians. This seems like a fairly stupid thing to do on Matala's part, because if this particular combat technique is, as Aeryn later asserts, so uniquely Scorvian that anyone who sees it will become immediately aware of Matala's deception, that means that even without the time shifting, which she could not have been expected to predict would happen, Matala gave herself away just to win a petty and meaningless bit of exercise, making her a terrible undercover agent.

The time shifting is explained when, in one of his jumps forward, Crichton confronts Verell who admits that he was not merely taking deep space measurements, that he had captured a piece of a quantum singularity, or as it is more commonly called, a black hole, which Verell describes as "the ultimate weapon". I don't think the actual physics of a black hole work quite like the writers think they do since a "tiny piece" of a black hole would have only a "tiny amount" of gravity. If its mass was large enough to cause time dilation and crush and entire ship, then it would be too heavy for a shuttle to move it (or for Moya to move it for that matter). But Farscape is space opera, so some suspension of the expected laws of physics is probably in order. This does presage, just a little bit, the developments in the plot arc that comes to dominate the series in later seasons as Crichton actually does figure in the pursuit of technology that everyone acknowledges truly is "the ultimate weapon".

But the core of the episode is not the time shifting, as much fun as that makes the story. It is about loyalty and trust. D'Argo immediately places his trust in Matala, assuming that because he identifies her as an Illanic, that she has a claim on his loyalty that supersedes that he might have to the other crew members of Moya. In one of the future sequences he even sides with Matala and kills Crichton himself. Though he mostly does not appear in the episode, Rygel's primary contribution to the story is to demonstrate how little he trusts D'Argo by greedily eating his share of the food to prevent the possibility of D'Argo offering any of it to the Illanic passengers. In the end, Crichton begins to win over D'Argo by revealing that he knows D'Argo's secret, but keeping it from the rest of the crew. And D'Argo begins to come around to understanding Crichton, after Crichton reassures him that he isn't mocking D'Argo, but rather mocking everyone on Moya. Then he begins to build a rapport with Crichton, sharing with him the fact that he isn't usually so easily affected by a woman, but it has been so very long for him, a point that Crichton agrees with. This is a touching "guy camaraderie: moment, but it does have a little oddness. First, while D'Argo has been "away" for eight cycles (which in Farscape terms seems to translate to eight years), Crichton has only been on Moya for a couple of months at most. Second, one might notice that there are two women on Moya - namely Aeryn and Zhaan. Even if D'Argo regards Aeryn merely as a soldier, she is still female, and theoretically should affect him the same way Matala did (a point that will be especially salient once more of D'Argo's background comes to light). Zhaan, being the overtly sexual priestess that she is definitely should. Even if Crichton is unaware of the rampant interspecies sex that goes on in the Farscape universe, D'Argo should be.

This is not an Illanic ship.
Digressing a bit - in another odd consistency error, when the false Illanic ship is approaching, D'Argo informs Aeryn that Scorvians look nothing like Illanics, and that if they do not establish visual contact, then they will know the ship is Scorvian. But Aeryn established earlier that she can identify a Scorvian in disguise just by the way she fights. Wouldn't she know that a Scorvian looks nothing like an Illanic, making D'Argo's fact dumping somewhat redundant? Yes, I know, it is an info-dump for the viewer's benefit, but it is fairly clumsy nonetheless. During the ensuing pursuit, we also see Moya starburst for only the second time in the series.

As is typical for a Farscape episode, the best the crew can hope for turns out to be mere survival, and for the Illanics, if Verell's claim that the very future of his race rides on the successful completion of his mission, maybe not even that. Even the best outcome Moya's crew are able to come up with still results in Verell dead and the weapon lost to the Illanics (although not in the hands of the Scorvians either). I have to wonder though, if the very future of his race did actually ride on the successful completion of his mission, why was Verell out in the middle of nowhere with a single companion along for the ride? One interesting unresolved question is the outcome of the Illanic-Scorvian war and the impact on the Luxans, which as far as I know is never followed up on. It would have been nice if this had been referenced back to as part of the larger Scarran-Peacekeeper conflict, but that may be asking for too much consistency. In the end, the crew survives, slightly worse off then they were before, but we begin to see the first signs that they may begin to be coalescing as a crew not merely because they are forced to work together, but because they might be beginning to trust one another.

Previous episode reviewed: Throne for a Loss
Subsequent episode reviewed: Thank God It's Friday, Again

Previous episode reviewed (airdate order): Exodus from Genesis
Subsequent episode reviewed (airdate order): Throne for a Loss

Farscape, Season 1     Farscape     Television Reviews     Home

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