“There’s life out here, Dad. Weird, amazing, psychotic life. And death. In Technicolor.”
For a show that will eventually get so expansive and strange, Farscape has a slim pilot. The episode quickly establishes John Crichton’s life on Earth and scientific mission, then ditches them by the six-minute mark. Once Crichton is through the wormhole, not all that much happens, really: The inhabitants of Moya (not yet permanent or cohesive enough to be called a crew) Starburst away from the Peacekeepers. They visit a commerce planet. John and Aeryn escape. They meet up with Crais; it turns sour. John and Aeryn escape again, this time with the prisoners aboard Moya. They use John’s theory to outrun a command carrier; now we’re all outlaws together.
The characters of Moya’s ragtag band of escaped prisoners are established with brisk efficiency: Ka D’Argo is violent and impatient; Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan is calm, even-tempered, but unyielding; Dominar Rygel XVI is greedy and conniving and gross; Officer Aeryn Sun is cold, competent, and ruthless. All of that comes through in the very first scene they appear in, and remains consistent throughout the episode. A memorable one-on-one scene between D’Argo and Zhaan does some work to shade in backstory and some nuance to those characters—D’Argo, at thirty cycles, is still an adolescent, and Anthony Simcoe plays him as one throughout the scene, stumbling over his words when he discusses sex with Zhaan, and puffing up his chest when he proudly declares that he has taken part in “two battle campaigns.” (“Only two?” says Zhaan.) Meanwhile, Zhaan, the peaceful priestess, has been imprisoned by the Peacekeepers because back on her homeworld, she was “the leading anarchist.”
As wonderful as the D’Argo and Zhaan scene is, it’s an outlier, in a literal sense; the scene was filmed for the European broadcast, which had to run longer than the American broadcast. (All season one Farscape episodes have a similar scene.) It can be, and for Americans was, excised from the episode without any loss of sense. The character whose nuances cannot be cut from the pilot is John Crichton.
Crichton is a man of both action and intelligence—an astronaut on a mission to test his own scientific theory. He’s an optimist, approaching novel and confusing situations with a sense of curiosity and determination. He’s unfailingly compassionate, to the escaping prisoners who have jailed him, the Peacekeeper officer who gets tangled up in his mess, and a poor little DRD with a broken eye stalk.
He is Farscape’s answer to James Kirk. Right down to the phonetic similarities in their names, and their heartland roots. (Browder’s Southern accent doesn’t come through particularly strongly in this episode, but it doesn’t have to; he looks like a model that central casting keeps on hand to measure whether candidates are corn-fed enough.) Though I can’t recall ever hearing it confirmed, I assume the parallels are intentional. Farscape is in direct conversation with Star Trek on many levels, and Crichton is hardly the only character to have a Trek analogue. (D’Argo in particular is very clearly riffing on Worf.) One imagines that Crichton, who grew up in the 60s and 70s with an astronaut father and a clearly rich diet of sci-fi films and TV (“Close Encounters my ass”) may have consciously modeled himself after Kirk.
But Crichton’s world is not Kirk’s. What “Premiere” spends more time and effort on than anything else is establishing the strangeness of the alien place that Crichton finds himself in. Crichton is deposited from the clean, ordered hallways of IASA headquarters, and the empty skies above Earth, into an active firefight in alien space, and from there, dragged into an ongoing prison escape. Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel initially speak unintelligible gibberish, until Crichton is forcibly, and inexplicably, injected with what he only several scenes later finds out are “translator microbes.” Rygel spits and farts (helium!); Zhaan’s hands move faster than the eye can track; and when Crichton finally gets fed up with the nonsense going on around him and demands answers, D’Argo’s tongue shoots six feet out of his mouth and knocks him out. No one sits Crichton down and explains what’s going on, who and what these people are, and what’s coming next. Without the European broadcast insert (whose events Crichton is not present for) we would never learn Zhaan’s species; we only learn Rygel’s because Aeryn insults him. At any moment, anything could happen.
Moya is home to strange, alien lifeforms, and uncertain, shifting allegiances, and Crichton has no basis for dealing with any of it. He is at a physical and cultural disadvantage: Not only does he seem to be physically weaker than most of the crew, the people around him understand the world they are in, and he does not.
Nevertheless, Crichton muddles through. He steals a fork, outwits a Peacekeeper grunt, and in escaping from the command carrier, proves his original theory correct. He may be a fish out of water, but he is not without abilities—and for better or worse, he will adapt.
Random Bits (Is Almost as Long as the Review)
- The other character who gets a smidge of an arc in the premiere is Aeryn, who breaks out of her standard Peacekeeper conditioning for just long enough to try to defend Crichton from Crais—only to have it backfire on her horribly when Crais, overcome with rage at Crichton, declares her “irreversibly contaminated.” Claudia Black is immediately compelling in an extraordinarily buttoned-down role, and several of the best, most memorable moments in the episode center around Aeryn. Fans tend to remember the “you can be more” scene, and it’s a great scene, indicative of so much about both Crichton and Aeryn, and full of thematic import without being overly grandiose about it. (In this rewatch I also noticed, and liked, that Ben Browder’s delivery of the line isn’t really as inspirational as you’d expect; for want of a better word, it’s not Kirk-ian. He sounds both matter-of-fact and a little sad.) But my favorite Aeryn moment in this episode is the scene where Crichton asks her to have some compassion for the escaped prisoners on Moya. After Aeryn is confused by the word, Crichton explains the concept, and Aeryn’s face clears: “Ah, I know this feeling. I hate it.” I love this scene. It’s funny; it establishes both Crichton and Aeryn’s characters, and their dynamic, beautifully; and it’s an example of how Farscape has characters talk around cultural concepts. Farscape may have translator microbes, but the microbes aren’t perfect; not all words exist in all languages, and not all concepts translate perfectly.
- In direct opposition to Moya’s farting, sniping, riotous escaped prisoners are the Peacekeepers, a rigid, black-and-white-and-red military outfit full of gleaming leather and sharp angles. We know very little about their formal structure at this point, but we know that they are violent, strict, xenophobic—and, to outward appearances, human. (Though the name of the species that makes up their ranks is Sebacean.) The Peacekeepers were fashioned, aesthetically, after Bolshevik symbols. (Moya was designed aesthetically to look like a Gaudí building.)
- Just as we know very little about the Peacekeepers at this point, we know very little about their primary representative and our primary antagonist, Bialar Crais, who despises Crichton because Crais’ brother died when his Prowler crashed into Crichton’s module approximately 15 seconds after Crichton got dumped out of the wormhole. But Crais is played with effective scenery chewing by Lani Tupu, who also voices Pilot.
- Jack Crichton is in very little of “Premiere,” but Crichton’s father hangs over the proceedings; to the extent that Crichton misses Earth as a specific place, rather than a general concept, Jack is really the only aspect of his life on Earth that we ever get to see. (We also meet his lifelong friend D.K., but their relationship is barely sketched in. I could not name for you a character trait that D.K. possesses.) The scene between John and Jack is short, and somewhat expository, but it’s also really effective at quickly building a father-son relationship that’s loving, and largely supportive, but tense in unexpected areas. The writers and actors have about two minutes to build a sense of history, and they largely manage to. Farscape’s producers credit Kent McCord and his screen history on Adam-12 for that, but I’m entirely unfamiliar with that show, and the scene and character still work for me. It’s the acting, and the detail, that do it—John cutting his father off to say, just a little pettily, “Guts, and the seat of your flight suit,” and then immediately looking contrite, or refusing to take Jack’s lucky charm because “Yuri Gagarin gave you that.” It smooths over the broader exposition in the scene, and makes Jack and John’s relationship feel, not just like a box that needs to be ticked off, but like something approaching a real thing.
- Some fan sites call this episode “Through the Eye of the Needle,” although that is not its official title anywhere. It’s a reasonable enough title!
Intellilan interface, Kemlac mines, iriscentant fluid, Hetch 2 (it’s a speed), janeray syrup, metras, frag cannons (they have a range of 45 metras), the Hurlian stone, and if you insult Rygel, he’ll have you disemboweled with a dull Lashan spade.
- It’s kind of amazing that “frell” doesn’t show up in this episode. I don’t remember which episode it makes its first appearance in.
- Black and Browder have immediate chemistry—they really do spark well on screen together, and although John/Aeryn shipping is not really the lens through which I tend to approach Farscape, you can see, even in this episode, why the romance works so well for the show. Similarly, Simcoe and Virginia Hey as Zhaan have a nice dynamic going as D’Argo and Zhaan in their one-on-one scene. It’s more sexual—because it’s D’Argo and Zhaan—but it’s not as overtly romantic, and it reminds me of that brief, pre-Chiana period where it seemed like the show was going to go in the direction of D’Argo/Zhaan. What a different show that would’ve been.