|The Essence of Dark|
Mary Wood analyses the dark nature of Farscape...
By Mary Wood
Embrace the Darkness!
Star Trek: Generations. Fantastic movie. Fantastic series of scenes between the old and new Enterprise captains. They're in the Nexus – another dimension of sorts where life is perfect and your every wish is fulfilled – and Kirk is perfectly happy to stay there, having done his duty for God and Universe more than enough times. While playing about in the Nexus, visiting old childhood haunts, Kirk jumps his horse over a gully. That's when it hits him. It's safe here. Too safe. That jump over the gully used to be so exciting and now he knows why; because it held a little element of danger. Now, in the Nexus, that danger is gone and with it the thrill and excitement of the jump, the thrill and excitement of living.
I do enjoy Star Trek. I really do. I have my Trek communicator pin on my jacket and little Hallmark Trek ornaments hanging from my ceiling. Trek is a Nexus. It's a universe where the Human race has fought and won, where we are the morally superior beings who have learned from our mistakes and now the rest of the alien universe learns from us. We like to live vicariously through our favorite TV characters in these fantastic TV worlds and Trek is a world where I know that the characters – and subsequently, I – will always come out ok. We'll see some adventure, but we also know we won't be too badly hurt, either morally, emotionally, or physically. It's a Nexus. There's a certain comfort and safety there, but at the same time, it's missing something.
Will Riker breaks his arm during an away mission. There's no blood. He doesn't even appear to be in all that much pain. He just says "Yep, it's broken" and it's fixed like new as soon as he returns to the ship. Voyager centered an episode around B'Elanna Torres being all depressed over the news that most of her Maquis friends back home had been killed. We got great angst for an entire episode before returning to the same old B'Elanna we've always known. We even got a two-parter that took place over an entire year, during which time Voyager and crew were gutted, beaten up, and torn to shreds. But not to worry, time was reset and all was warm and cozy again without so much as a bad memory of what had happened. Every once in a rare while, a regular character will die, but not before we've been heavily forewarned with press releases. And of course, the rest of the characters move on with their happy selves within a few short episodes.
Trek, the Nexus, is a safe, warm place to be. But for this adventure-seeker, it's also lacking that element of risk. It lacks a certain thrill.
Enter Farscape. My sister introduced me to it when I moved in with her for a while in Summer, 2000, but in that hectic household, I never did get to concentrate on an entire episode until I taped it and watched it when everyone else was gone. What I taped was a chain reaction; "A Bug's Life," "Nerve," and "Hidden Memory." First, it was Aeryn getting stabbed in "A Bug's Life." No god-like medical technology and suddenly, a lead character getting stabbed in the gut means something. It becomes a real obstacle for the characters to overcome and the acting and directing convey a real sense of danger and urgency. Cool. Then comes "Nerve." Aeryn seems to recover ok, but wait - a vital organ is damaged and again, there is no god-like medical technology. John's concern for her means something. Even if they did possess god-like medical technology, here we have a ship of lost fugitives who are making do with little or nothing and don't have the best doctor in the quadrant on board – or even a doctor at all. Again, more obstacles, more adversity, more drama. Way cool. Then came the aurora chair. "What's this?" I asked. "People get hurt and they express real pain? Pain that lasts? With blood, sweat, tears, the whole works? Moreover, there's one and only one Human on this show and he does not possess the superior technology or have all the answers? The aliens come to the rescue? The hot chick didn't dump her life just for the Human and his superior morals but for other, long-term reasons like knowing she'd be killed if she stayed?" So many other elements drew me to Farscape, like Aeryn's strength coming from her character versus disproportionate supermodel looks or some inhuman power or other crutch, aliens like Chiana who act like aliens versus Humans with funny foreheads, an ongoing romantic subplot that doesn't follow the traditional and limiting pattern of kiss-bed-bliss.
But it was the darkness that really drew me and filled that gap in my viewership life that had been missing. A show that dares to put its people in ugly situations without a deus ex machina to bail them out. They have to bail themselves out. They are also not magically spared the hard decisions sometimes required to bail themselves out, such has having to execute one's own mother, or allow a loved one to sacrifice herself for the sake of the rest. Sometimes, they fail to bail themselves out at all. Their actions have consequences. They get D'Argo's son back, but at the expense of Crichton. They get Crichton back, but at the expense of the lives of some who helped them. Crichton returns, but Aeryn is soon killed. Aeryn is revived but at the expense of Zhaan's life. The timeline is reset in "…Different Destinations," but it is not reset perfectly and innocents die. In short, Farscape holds far fewer miracles and far more realism in the way characters react and interact with their environment.
|"You never would have drank my coffee if I had never served you cream."|
| ||- Prince, "What's my Name."|
I've been lamented to by the Farscape old-timers. "Ahh young one, you knew not the glory days of Season One, where episodes were safe and self-contained. Crichton was our grand, Human hero who made all the little girls swoon. Farscape was light, bright, cheery and whimsical. Ahh, those were the good old days."
I've been catching up on the "glory days" of Season One and early Season Two. "DNA Mad Scientist," "Durka Returns," the aforementioned "Bug's Life – Nerve – Hidden Memory," "The Way We Weren't," the whole arc of Talyn being kidnapped by Crais – and not being returned safe and happy. Still, these episodes are tossed in amongst the lighter fare, mere dips in the darkness contrary to late Season Two and all of Season Three, which has been a headlong dive into the darkness. But let's think about this for a moment; Farscape really couldn't start out that heavy. The impact of the darkness is in how much we care about the characters, and we had to get to know the characters first before we could really start to care that much about them.
Critics complain that we started off with stock characters, but again I ask, if the characters had been too far out there, would they have grabbed so many viewers? Instead, Farscape started out on that borderline between stock and out there. These were characters we could label and identify, but with qualities that the discerning fans noted had lots of potential for growth beyond the labels. Like the characters, the open path of the series had to have recognizable qualities. It had to resemble that mainstream Nexus we have grown so accustomed to. Then, once firmly planted in our seats, feet and arms safely inside the car, glasses and loose objects secured, Mr. Kemper's Wild Ride began it's gradual buildup; the journey out of the Nexus and into the realism which many have come to term "darkness."
So let's fast forward through the series and see where it's taken us so far. Season One said, "As per what you're accustomed to, we've tossed together a hodge-podge of characters and created a dysfunctional family. But guess what? They're just going to get more dysfunctional as time goes on!" The drift into Season Two and the season itself said, "Now that we have our dysfunctional family, let's start by having the cute little puppet betray them all. Then we'll take our recovering Nazi soldier and peek into her past – which is even uglier than you imagined – and make it clear that she's still got a long, long way to go. Then, just in case those red flags aren't red enough, we'll drive the sweet and sensitive lead hero to the brink of insanity." The drift into Season Three and the season itself said, "The hero will stay on the brink of insanity, the romanticized Nazi soldier will die and come back, but at the expense of the most peaceful and loving of all the characters – whom we'll kill off. Another character will finally find his son, only to have his lover sleep with him right before the son takes off again. And, just in case those red flags aren't red enough, we'll twin the hunky lead hero, thereby removing the you-can't-kill-off-the-central-character safety net. We'll brew a deep and passionate love affair, then kill him off, leaving her and the twin to deal with the ramifications."
Now, I suppose the Farscape producers could have prefaced every season with "Warning: This kiddie roller-coaster will appear at first to go the tried and true safe route, but will gradually morph into a wild and terrifying thrill ride." But honestly, would the ride there have been as much fun if we knew what was coming? They had to know that a few people would jump ship upon realizing they weren't in Kansas any more. But losing those few was so worth the number they gained, and the number of us who have stayed on for the ride of our lives.
|"I'm real. I have to live with what I do."|
| ||- John Crichton, "Revenging Angel"|
TV is supposed to be escapism right? It’s supposed to be a haven to take us away from the trials and troubles of real life, not bring us into another set of them. So how is this darkness, this sense of harsh realism in this otherwise fantasy world defined as “escapism?”
Consider this; would you rather watch a video game or play the game yourself? Most would rather play themselves. Why? How is that true escapism if you have to work at it? If you have to think, use motor skills, use math skills? The setting of the game itself is the escapism. Your playing it makes you an active participant. Simply put, it's more fun and exciting to play than to just watch someone else. It involves you with the game and makes you care about it. So why then do people seek more and more challenging games and levels? Wouldn't you rather play a game you know you will always win? Boring again. Obviously there must be some chance of winning as a reward for playing the game well, but the involvement and stimulation of the game comes from the challenge.
Farscape, as with any TV show, movie or stage play, is storytelling. The escapism is in the setting: Blue plant priestesses, bio-mechanoid spaceships, fantastic planets that conveniently have human-friendly temperature, gravity, and atmosphere. The realism that involves us and makes us care about the story lies in the characters' reactions and interactions with this fantasy world. It starts with John Crichton, the grounding rod through which we view and feel this fantasy world. He is not an inhumanly perfect hero or role-model from some fantastic, futuristic realm. He does not have all the answers nor does he always win. He is an everyday, 21st century guy like the rest of us. He has skills and faults. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he fails. We can identify with him, and through him we view the other characters and are challenged to identify with them and their alien cultures as well. This in turn makes the fantasy world more real to us, allowing us to participate in it vicariously through the characters. The more realistic the reaction and interaction, the more we can relate to the characters ourselves. The more they reflect our own thoughts and emotions, the more we care about their trials and tribulations, their victories and their losses. D'Argo hurts, we hurt. John cries, we cry. Aeryn feels, we feel. Chiana giggles, we giggle. Zhaan loves, we love.
So again the question is begged, "I have enough dren to deal with in my own life. Why would I want to deal with a TV character's dren week after week?" Because Farscape provides a safe and even fun forum in which to deal with that dren, but more importantly, it really does ask us to deal with it. I've had to deal with some serious dren in my life. I've been to those deep, dark places. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that pure escapism is unhealthy, whether in the form of a drug, isolation, or even hiding behind a fantasy world – a Nexus – where everything is a bed of roses. That Nexus is a nice place to visit once in a while, but it doesn't deal with the issues. What does help is to face those issues or at least the emotions involved, and shows like Farscape that stir up real reactions and real emotions provide just such an outlet. It's by far not an answer or the only way to deal, but it's one outlet, and for many people, it's an extremely safe and enjoyable outlet.
What I find far more horrifying is the constant parade of movies and TV shows where the violence is gratuitous and has no consequence. We sit our toddlers in front of cartoons where violence and gore are taken to an extreme because the animators can simply redraw the characters – and our toddlers are taught that this extreme gore and violence is funny and cute. We take our children to the movies, to see physical comedies where "physical comedy" means someone constantly being beaten up in goofy, toilet-humor kind of ways – and they are taught that this is funny and cute. Our children become teenagers and watch more "adult" fare where actions still carry no consequence: Red-shirted ensigns are expendable and not mourned. High-speed car chases plow through dozens of other cars and sidewalks full of pedestrians with no looking back to see how many people were hurt. The only deaths that matter are the characters we've gotten to know personally, and because of that, those characters are kept to a minimum. And we wonder why our children grow up with an apathy towards violence.
The popularity of such films and TV shows proves it; death, tragedy, violence, darkness –these things are entertaining and fun. Why? What is so fun about watching a man die? Well, why ride roller coasters? When did fear become fun? It becomes fun when that fear can be contained in something fantastical and ultimately not real. Violence and tragedy are somehow defined as “fun” when they're wrapped in silly humor or when we don't have to think about the persons who are suffering. So long as the hero whom we've grown attached to emerges unscathed, we can find entertainment in the other good guys and innocent bystanders who didn't. We can even take pleasure in the hero getting hurt, because we know the cardinal rule is that he'll bounce right back. I watch such movies and TV shows. I do enjoy them, largely because I do understand that they're only make-believe. But after a while, the endless array of such gratuitous tragedy without consequence becomes the real dark horror.
Farscape takes the gratuitousness out of it and makes us care. The characters are still fiction. When Aeryn gets stabbed by Larraq, we can be certain that the blood is fake and that Aeryn's cries of pain are just Claudia's good acting. Because she's ultimately still fictional, because we've heard no rumors of Claudia Black leaving the show, we can still worry less about the stabbing itself and focus on how she and the other characters will deal with it. But those cries of pain are not sugar-coated. The acting, the writing and the directing strive to draw us into the situation and make us care a little more than we otherwise would. They strive to convince us that this character's pain is real and the wound could even be mortal. We care more deeply now than we are accustomed to in this fantastical, fictional world of television. The image of someone getting stabbed is not enjoyable. What is enjoyable is the presentation – the remarkable acting, directing and writing – and the process of Aeryn and the rest of the characters overcoming this adversity and finding the greater strength and better parts of themselves to do it. Making the stabbing that much more realistic lends strength and power to the drama that precedes and follows it.
Farscape gives us another bonus in the overcoming-adversity department that few other shows offer; character growth. Another element of safety in the Nexus of Star Trek and so many other shows and movies is that however epic and deep the adversity, next week the characters will be back to their old selves. In Farscape, people are affected both by specific events and by the toll their harsh lives take on them. John Crichton is not the same man in Season Three as he was in Season One. The adversity, the tragedy, the losses and victories he's seen have conditioned him to this world. He’s become harder and he’s changed. Season Three has largely been about Aeryn's challenge to overcome overwhelming emotional adversity – this for a woman who has been raised since birth to allow no such emotions. Chiana continues to grow and develop, learning to trust this crew when she's been conditioned to trust no one.
Through the combination of realistic tragedy and character growth lies the ultimate power of the dark; light.
|"We had good times."|
| ||- Aeryn to John on his deathbed in "Infinite Possibilities: Icarus Abides"|
What an ironic statement coming from Aeryn! If you think about it, they really haven’t had much in the way of good times. Every week, they’re getting their collective ass kicked and dragged all over the Uncharted Territories. Every member of the Moya/Talyn crew has been ripped from his or her home and family to be forced into a life of exile and life on the run. They starve, they go without proper medical care, most of the characters really don’t get along on a superficial basis, and on this show, there is no holodeck to keep them entertained and they’re not exactly running into pleasure planets at every turn. A good workout on Aeryn’s punching bag or a game of rock-paper-scissors is about all they have to pass the time. And yet, in the face of this very difficult life they lead, Aeryn Sun, the hardest one of them all, the soldier since birth who has probably never known what you or I would define as “good times,” manages to find just that in her existence with John Crichton. How much impact would that statement have had if their lives really were full of good times?
Farscape’s dark nature is what lends power to its lighter moments. In “Family Ties,” Chiana comes up with the only gift she can afford to give; a favorite meal for each of the crew members. This meal would mean little if the tone of the series hadn’t conveyed to us just how hard it must have been for her to procure such items as basic as food. In “Look at the Princess I,” Zhaan gets a few arns alone on Moya and sings; a rare treat for Pilot and Moya. Much of the power in this scene is in knowing that such moments of peace are few and far between. The whole John-Talyn/Aeryn relationship meant so much more to us knowing that John could very well die any episode now. I think this whole concept was embodied in that early scene in “Infinite Possibilities; Icarus Abides” when John has just gotten rid of Harvey. Mortar fire all around them, Scarrans on the way, no one knows if Talyn and crew are dead or alive, and still, John and Aeryn manage to find a moment of happiness in each other’s embrace, just relishing each other’s presence. That embrace would mean so little if their lives were a bed of roses and such embraces happened all the time.
The proof of how effective the darkness is can be found in the split between Talyn-John and Moya-John. All over the scifi.com bulletin board, I’m seeing complaints that the John who died was the one we all cared about and that people just haven’t been able to invest in Moya-John. “He’s a clown. He’s a buffoon. He hasn’t done the heroic things Talyn-John has. He just mopes around about his failure with the wormholes and his strained relationship with D’Argo.” Interestingly, these are often the same people who complain about the continuing dark themes of Farscape. “Why can’t we have more self-contained, lighter, funnier episodes?” Let’s take a look at the two arcs up through “Revenging Angel” and find out:
Green Eyed Monster:
Talyn-John is pretty much shut out of the action by a jealous Talyn. Aeryn rescues him.
Moya-John recruits DRD Pike and saves Moya and crew from Tallip and the diseased energy rider.
Talyn-John gets lost in the jungle with Crais while Aeryn deals with Xhalax. His greatest point of action; he dispatches one half of the retrieval squad by tying Crais to a tree and using him as bait.
Moya-John, in what little screen time he gets, continues searching for wormholes on his own and it’s later proven he really did find one. Unfortunately, Linfer took its secrets to her grave.
Talyn-John pours his guts out to Stark, convincing him to give up control of Talyn. Just as distracted by the mist, he shares the hero’s spotlight with Aeryn during the climatic save-the-ship scene.
Scratch ‘n Sniff:
Moya-John and D’Argo have been ordered by Pilot – who’s sick of their bickering – to take a time-out on a pleasure planet. Together, they rescue Chiana and Jool from a sleazy drug dealer. John takes a little more of a lead role in the rescue than D’Argo – barely.
Talyn-John is contacted by Jack the Ancient. The hero’s spotlight is again shared with Aeryn and Crais when they storm the planet and events result in John having to destroy a Scarran dreadnought using the wormhole knowledge implanted and unlocked by Jack.
Moya-John is accidentally put in a coma during a tiff with his best buddy. His ultimate reason for living that allows him to break free of the coma; he loves Aeryn.
Stripping the split arc down like this, we find that Moya-John has actually done more of the straightforward, butt-kicking hero stuff while Talyn-John gets rescued a lot. Yes, Talyn-John ultimately died in self-sacrifice, but has Moya-John put himself in any less danger for the sake of his crewmates? Not at all, he just happens to have survived where John-Talyn didn’t. The Talyn-John episodes have been on a stronger arc while all of the Moya-John episodes have been self-contained and the last two have definitely been on the comedy side. So if the Moya episodes have been just what the Waltons-in-Space crowd wants – lighter, self-contained, funnier, less pain – why have they been able to connect with Talyn-John so much more intensely? Because that lighter, funnier fare takes away from the realism and the emotional connection. Both arcs have retained the darkness, but the Moya arc has disguised its darkness in much more whimsy, and even in cartoons. It’s harder to care about Chiana and Jool’s plight with the drug dealer when the episode is more like a comedy than a drama. It’s extremely difficult to care that John is in a life-threatening coma when the whole episode is a Road Runner cartoon. Going back to the mainstream of film and TV, death and tragedy become somehow enjoyable if we wrap them in enough fun and whimsy.
Darkness is not for everyone. Some people find a real comfort in being able to enjoy watching a TV character die without the responsibility of having to care about that character. Some want to wrap themselves in a make-believe world where life is wonderful, life is predictable, the bad guy is pure evil and the good guy always wins. Some do not want to have to actively participate in the shows they watch by being asked to empathize with the characters. But for those of us who do, we are rewarded with a fantasy world that feels real. The tragedy itself is entertaining in that we marvel at the superior acting, directing, writing, cinematography, music, lighting, effects, and set designs that have come together to garner such strong reactions from us. When our heroes cry, we cry with them, sometimes even venting an ounce or two of emotion from some other dren in our real lives. Moreover, it is the pitfalls of real life that cause us to fully appreciate the joys. In fluff, we are spared the burden of so much hurt when our heroes hurt, but we are also denied a much deeper experience of joy and victory when our heroes do win out. It is the darkness in Farscape which breathes life – rich, full, multi-dimensional, technicolor life – into the fantasy of this amazing world where the possibilities are … infinite.
Know the darkness.
Love the darkness.
Embrace the darkness!