You’ve learned that you’re not alone in the universe, that space travel is possible, that a zillion of your empirical facts about science, religion are wrong… or completely suspect. I do understand. I’m not exactly what you expected, am I?
The pilot of Farscape was all about setting up the show—introducing the world and the characters, and physically getting all the pieces into place for the long haul—which means that “I, E.T.” is the episode that really establishes what Farscape is, on a week-by-week basis. And “I, E.T.” is many things: a Planet-of-the-Week escapade, an ensemble dramedy, a somewhat goofy sci-fi thriller. But most importantly, it’s an inverted sci-fi trope.
The thematic thrust of “I, E.T.” is really all in the title: Moya visits an Earth-like planet that has never had contact with aliens and plays out the plot of E.T., with John in the titular role, forcing him to confront the idea that, out here in the Uncharted Territories, he is the alien.
It’s a solid concept for an episode, and it doesn’t not work. Ben Browder eats up the barest crumb of genuine emotion in a script, and he has plenty to work with here, as he peels back the layers of Crichton’s relationship with the alien scientist Lyneea (Mary Mara). Lyneea, a planet-bound woman who has been watching the stars for her entire life, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe, is someone who Crichton has more in common with than he does his crewmates on Moya—or at least, he did until last week. Their relationship is more symbolic than it is specific (neither Lyneea nor especially her son Fostro are especially well developed beyond their roles in the E.T. trope) but it undergoes a lot of ups and down and shades and shifts nevertheless, as Crichton and Lyneea change around their understandings of “alien.”
In their initial, tense confrontation, Crichton and Lyneea both view each other as the alien. Crichton has a paradigm shift early, and in true, Farscape genre-savvy fashion, capitalizes on it: If he’s the alien in a first encounter movie, then he can act like it, and play to the excitement that he knows Lyneea must be feeling. But as time goes by, and Lyneea gets to know Crichton better, she starts to realize that he’s not really the alien he’s portraying, and that Crichton’s story is both more complicated than she understands—but perhaps more similar to hers than she thought.
Ultimately, Crichton flies away from the planet, wistful, having forged a (more-or-less) human connection with a woman to whom he is still very similar—but to whom he is an alien. And getting more alien all the time.
It should work! It’s not a bad story! That it doesn’t, entirely, is down partially to the acting. Fostro carries a not insignificant portion of the story, and his actor is not up to the task. But it’s not entirely on him. The A-plot of “I, E.T.” is just too broad. As much as it’s trying to upend the first contact narrative, it’s really mostly just playing that narrative straight, but with a human in the alien role. Once the military gets wind of Moya’s presence on the planet, very little sharp or unexpected or, well, interesting, happens in the A-plot.
The B-plot, on the other hand, isn’t trying to tackle any kind of trope. It’s just focused on the characters, and it’s better for it. There’s a beacon in Moya’s neural cluster, and the only person small enough to get in there and cut it out is Rygel, who is being, naturally, annoying about it. But his bluster is covering up for the fact that he’s never worked with his hands before, and he’s frankly not sure he’s capable of doing so. Meanwhile, the procedure is causing Moya a lot of pain, and there’s no anesthetic (that’s what Crichton’s busy trying to get from Lyneea) so Zhaan, a ninth-level Pa’u, has to share her pain, at great personal cost. And Aeryn, who would just like to shoot things, is thrust into the position of having to provide support a crewmate who she doesn’t even like.
It’s a small, contained subplot, but it immediately reveals the depth of Farscape’s ensemble. Rygel and Aeryn interact; Zhaan and Rygel interact; Aeryn and Zhaan interact. Everyone gets to play off of Pilot, and in turn, off of Moya. The stakes are high, the personalities clear, the humor is great. This is a plot that, although in theory it could take place on another sci-fi show, if you swapped out some nouns, is nevertheless distinctly Farscape in its execution. During an argument between Aeryn and Rygel, Aeryn tries to physically drag Rygel into Moya’s neural cluster, and Rygel bites Aeryn’s arm—and then chews and swallows, his teeth bathed in blood. Even if Rygel weren’t a Muppet, you could be watching no other show.
- This episode shows a lot of restraint with Aeryn’s plotline. At the beginning of the episode, she expresses to Crichton that she is uncomfortable leading a group of escaped prisoners on a mission to remove Peacekeeper technology from a prison ship. Then she’s thrown into a role that she’s completely unprepared for—that of, essentially, emotional support for Zhaan. She doesn’t flip out or anything—flipping out is not really in Aeryn’s range—but the look on Claudia Black’s face as she holds Zhaan against Moya’s walls makes it clear that this is a woman out of her depth.
At one point, Aeryn asks how Zhaan is doing, and Zhaan laughs, saying that it sounded for a moment as if Aeryn cared for her. Aeryn assures her that she cares only about whether Zhaan is capable of performing her role. At the end of the episode, when everything is over, and Zhaan’s job is done, and she lies, nearly unconscious, on the floor, Aeryn looks down at her, and says, almost gently, “Zhaan?” But then all she says is, “It’s done.” And gets up. What progress has been made in their relationship is microscopic.
- Aeryn also has some great scenes with D’Argo, as they bicker with each other but find common ground in making fun of Crichton’s backwardness. “He says that this primordial rock actually reminds him of his Earth.” “No interplanetary travel, retrograde technology, fossil fuel burning ground vehicles. He is a savage.” I believe these were the European inserts for this episode.
- Mary Mara, unusually for this show, is an American actress, and at the time a somewhat recognizable one at that. These days I think of her as the fashion reporter from that one episode of The West Wing, but at the time this episode aired, she was fresh off an arc on ER.
- Absolutely the single best part of this episode is the conversation about Yoda, though.
- I’m gonna start keeping track of the random bits of alien biology and culture that get dropped along the way. This episode heavily implies that Luxans practice adult male self-circumcision, or something analogous.
- My favorite thing about Fostro is the way he pronounces “D’Argo.”
Hezmana, chlorium, which is an atmospherically induced isotope of twinium, the Tokaar knife that Luxans use for maybe-circumcision, “arne,” and the beacon is broadcasting Moya’s position “like a two-headed Tronkan shrill singer.”
Prime has this episode listed seventh, which was its airing order. This is its production order. I’m of the opinion that, watched in airing order, it goes from being a kind of overly broad but not too bad episode to something that’s actively aggravating. By episode 7, John is already well aware that he’s the alien out here—he’s met Gilina and the bug aliens and D’Argo’s spy girlfriend and the brainwashed Peacekeeper workers. He’s simply not as innocent as the John of “I, E.T.,” and the episode stops making enough emotional sense to smooth over its rough patches. (Aeryn’s arc is at a different place, too.)
Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in comments. Also, good news—Prime has put season one back up, so those of you who were planning rewatches should be back in business!