Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Farscape: 1x03 - 1x06

After watching a few more episodes of Farscape, I’m really impressed with the show. I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi shows, so I’ve seen most of the concepts behind these episodes before, but the show has such engaging and likable characters that the old material feels fresh. I would like to see some more ongoing storylines, but the show has a sense of history that makes you at least feel like they didn’t just forget what happened last week. It’s like Buffy in that respect, the characters change, and that’s what the show is centered around.

The thing I like most about the show is definitely the characters. Crichton started out as a kind of blank slate generic hero, but over these episodes we’ve got to see some of his flaws and personality quirks. The thing that makes him interesting is that everyone thinks he’s dumb, so the role we’d expect him to play, that of strong male leader, is undercut. He can’t lead, and when he tries to, he frequently is unable to deal with the specifics of the universe he’s found himself in.

His primary counterpart is Aeryn, whose intensity and business only attitude makes Crichton play the traditional female role in their relationship. I think that’s what makes the dynamic between the two of them so effective, the subversion of expectations. She’s the one who’s prone to violence in defense of her honor, while Crichton has a more grounded attitude. Crichton is an ordinary guy who finds himself transported from our reality to a sci-fi genre universe. He is aware of the conceits of the genre, but recognizes that people don’t need to use violence to solve their problems. So, his solutions to the problems usually run counter to our genre expectations.

Aeryn is always a joy to watch, though I’m unsure how they’ll keep her mix of heavy intensity and slight vulnerability as the series goes on. The further you go, the more humanized a character becomes, and that will change the dynamic. This may be a good thing though, if she’s outside the peacekeeper world, she should change. She’s had this culture of war instilled in her over the years, how easy will it be for her to change? It’s a bit head on, but the end of ‘Thank God It’s Friday Again’ addresses this, with her pride at solving a problem with science, not violence.

That episode is a good example of what I like about the show. Rather than just use the standalone stories as something to fill the time, most of them have some kind of interesting philosophical underpinnings. The question behind this story is what is happiness? Is a false happiness better than real sadness? They are suspicious of what happened to D’Argo, but when you see him and Zhaan out in the fields, they seem more at peace than they are on the ship. There’s a pull between wanting them to stay there and enjoy life, and the inevitable conclusion in which the false happiness is debunked.

For once, I’d like to see a sci-fi story about a utopia that isn’t built on a lie. Where would the tension come from? Perhaps it could be from our inherent resistance to anything that appears too good to be true. At the end of this story, we find out that the characters were making weapons for the peacekeepers, drugged into submission, but wasn’t that submission on some level great? Is it better to be happy and a slave, or free and unhappy? At the end, D’Argo wonders this, and there’s no easy answer. It’s a sign that the show is working that there’s great moral ambiguity in my feelings about the planet and the world they build over the course of the episode. When Crichton asks to get the worm out, is it about regaining his freedom, or is it about his desire to feel like D’Argo and Zhaan do about the world.

The revelation that the peacekeepers are behind the colony ties the episode into the overall plot nicely, and also puts what we’ve seen in perspective. It’s easier to enslave a contented populace than a troubled one? The drugs in the food are the same as the societal distractions we have that prevent us from looking deeper into the problems in our society. Aren’t all of us complicit in the production of weapons like those being built here? Every day we continue our illegal invasion of Iraq, we’re like the people on the planet here. But, it’s hard to do anything about it, perhaps our best prerogative is just to be happy.

“Throne For a Loss” features a similarly interesting philosophical subplot with Zhaan and the soldier. I didn’t particularly like the soldier’s performance, which was all bluster, but the points made were interesting, the way Zhaan is able to fight with love, not hate. It’s very Invisibles, this idea that exposing your humanity is going to do more to deter the enemy than hurling hate at them. By injecting that seed of doubt about their mission, you can change the nature of the war. The soldier may go back to fighting at the end, using the glove to try to eradicate the ambiguities he felt on board the Moya. But, you can tell that what Zhaan said made an impact on him.

Another thing that really impresses me about the show is the Muppet work on Rygel. He’s a fully realized character, and as key to the ensemble as any of the four human actors. I love the craft that goes into him, he’s a great testament to the power of old school technology over CG. He’s more ‘real’ than even a great CG character like Gollum, there’s a tangibility that CG can’t match, and that helps you accept him more as just another character, not an effect.

“Back and Back and Back to the Future” was another really strong episode. There was a lot of trippiness with Crichton’s views of the various futures, and underlying it all was this weird sexual dynamic. The episode made you think more about the Moya as a living thing, and all these emotional beings going around in it. Going into this episode, I was thinking that D’Argo was a bad character, but we got a lot more humanity out of him here.

Crichton’s uncertain feelings about Matala were interesting as well. Too many sci-fi shows avoid sex entirely, and it’s nice to see one delving into the possibilities of interspecies coupling. It’s weird territory, but worth checking out. Even Aeryn got in on things, all of a sudden wearing a cut off shirt. It’s not particularly true to the character, as I see her at least, but she wears it well, so I’ll forgive them. Her and Crichton seem to be the central relationship on the show, and I’m sure there was a ton of shipping for them back when the show was on. They’re great together, and I’m frequently wondering why they don’t just fuck already.

So, I’m really enjoying the show. It’s not as outright great as something like The Wire or The Sopranos, but it’s hitting that Buffy spot of great character based storytelling, throw in a sprinkling of interesting philosophy and it’s looking good for the future. And, notably, most of the episodes have gotten better as they go along, I’m eager to check out the next batch.


David Golding said...

Good post.

Though I think someone else said 'I, ET' was the worst episode, 'Throne for a Loss' did a lot more to put me off with its anti-drug message. Happily, this is the clumsiest the show ever gets.

One of the great things about Farscape is its approach to aliens, and 'Thank God It's Friday, Again' has a great example: the white lady's makeup, body language and speech patterns, are very striking. There's really a lot of thought put into this by the make-up people, directors and actors that makes it genuinely alien and interesting.

As I said before, what I think this show is truly about is the character interactions, and that ep also has one of my favourites: Pilot revealing to Aeryn that, despite being a biocybernetic interplanetary spaceship pilot, he doesn't really understand science, and gets his knowledge from books. Those small gifts of secret fragilities are the heart of the show.

Anonymous said...

"For once, I’d like to see a sci-fi story about a utopia that isn’t built on a lie."

You should try some of the Culture novels, by Iain M. Banks. The basic premise of the main character of "Consider Phlebas" is sort of a Utopia and its Discontents thing.

Patrick said...

If 'Throne for a Loss' or 'I, ET' are as bad as the show gets, that's a good sign. I saw PK Tech Girl last night and really enjoyed that, probably the best episode of the show yet. It really maximized the character tension, and played to the show's strengths. Time for another episode tonight.

Gil said...

Hi Patrick,

I'd second arcus's recommendation of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, and you could also try Greg Egan.

~ Gil

Patrick said...

I'll have to check out the Culture books then, see how they stack up.