“Whatever your crime, exile from your own kind is atonement enough.”
CN: Discussion of sexual assault.
It would be unfair to say that, five episodes in, we’ve finally hit the true Farscape, because bad and uneven episodes are as much a hallmark of the Farscape experience as inspired episodes are. It’s also not quite right to say that Farscape is finally hitting a groove, because although (not to spoil anyone) the next couple of episodes do represent a step up for the show, there are still some series lows coming down the track.
But “Back and Back and Back to the Future” is undeniably a better, sharper episode than its predecessors. It feels like the show finally snapping into focus. There’s a relationship under examination—D’Argo and John—and more vitally, a character, D’Argo, getting a real spotlight. And the mechanism used to do all of this character work is an inside-out trope that is both cleverly conceived and idiosyncratically executed.
When a distressed ship arrives with two Ilanics—allies and “genetic cousins” of the Luxans—D’Argo demands that Moya provide them with aid, and finds himself attracted to the female Ilanic, Matala (Lisa Hensley). But almost immediately, it’s clear that something strange is going on; Crichton starts to have visions of Matala sexually assaulting him. (Although, being a straight American man of the late 90s, he doesn’t really have the vocabulary to express that that’s what’s happening.) For the first third of the episode, it seems like the game is that Matala has, to quote Crichton, “a little psychic Spanish fly”—that Farscape is playing out the alien pheromone seductress trope, a la “Elaan of Troyius.”
Then, about a third of the way through, the visions shift, and the episode reveals its hand: Crichton’s visions aren’t caused by Matala, and they aren’t even all of Matala. He’s having visions of the future, caused by an interaction he had with a piece of black hole that the Ilanic ship was carrying.
That trick of dressing a trope up in another trope’s clothes is very clever, but the time travel elements of this episode are just well-structured throughout. The way that the flash-forwards are revealed—having Crichton flash to a conversation with Aeryn in which he’s clearly confused, and then immediately replay that conversation in real time, where it becomes clear that his confusion is the result of the repetition—is both efficient and funny, and establishes the rules of the episode instantly.
Later, when the future vision shenanigans start in earnest, the show uses a visual marker to anchor the viewer in the present: Every time Zhaan’s mask breaks, we know that we’ve entered a new timeline. (It was only this time through—after watching this episode at least half a dozen times before—that I realized that this is also why John breaks the mask the final time.)
In addition to the smart structure, “Back and Back and Back to the Future” really digs into character. This is the first time we’ve gotten to see any side of D’Argo other than “puffed up soldier.” He is fiercely protective of the Ilanic scientists—yes, because he’s attracted to Matala, but more vitally, because they are the closest thing to another Luxan he’s seen in eight years. Every interaction D’Argo has with either the Moya crew or the Ilanics is filtered through that fact. When he talks to Verell about the Ilanic war with the Scorvians, he asks, desperately, whether the Luxans have come to the aid of their allies. When he and Matala finally consummate their flirtation (in an unrealized future) Matala offers him the opportunity to fight alongside the Ilanics—to have something like a home again. And D’Argo is obviously incredibly tempted.
Farscape is pitched as a fish-out-of-water story, as John Crichton in Oz, trying to find his way home, but the fact is that all of the residents of Moya are stranded, separated from their homes. Crichton may be a little more lost than the rest of them, but they are all adrift. And in this episode, we start to see the cost that eight years of imprisonment and isolation has had for D’Argo.
The combination of timeline fuckery, Crichton’s genuine fear of Matala, and D’Argo’s palpable yearning for home take what could’ve been a kind of tired romantic misunderstanding plot and make it something simultaneously disorienting and heartbreaking—the Farscape special. At the end of the episode, D’Argo tells Crichton that he’s normally “unaffected by females. It’s just… it has been so long.” And Crichton says that he understands. As much as it’s filtered through the lens of romance, John and D’Argo’s final interaction—and their entire plot—is really just about homesickness, and loneliness. There is of course never any chance that D’Argo is going to ride off into the sunset with Matala—we know that from the second Matala arrives, from before we know that D’Argo has a secret, from before we even know that Matala is a Scorvian. But for a little while, D’Argo lives in the fantasy that he can be with others like him.
And more than anyone, John Crichton understands that.
- A piece of a goddamn black hole. I love Farscape and its complete disregard for science. (My wife, when, for full disclosure, I asked her because I’d just woken up, “Hey, you definitely can’t take a piece of a black hole, right?”: “Somehow, the most annoying part of this is that John is supposed to be a super-smart scientist and he never calls them on it.”)
- So, is this the episode where I’m going to talk about Farscape and gender? Because again, I could. I really could. Matala as a character almost demands it. There’s the scene between Aeryn and Matala, which I honestly don’t like very much, because it seems to sort of apply a 90s gender sensibility to Aeryn, a character who really shouldn’t have that kind of sensibility—do the Peacekeepers really have gendered stereotypes about women sleeping their way up the ranks? (Or maybe their stereotype is about women outside the Peacekeepers, which would fit with what she said better, I guess.) Obviously Matala is, in some ways, a stock seductress villain type—she manipulates D’Argo through emotional and sexual appeals—and Aeryn is very much the opposite of that, and this is sort of a way for them to talk about that, but it’s not a very deep conversation about it. It mostly seems to happen just because Matala and Aeryn really dislike each other, which again feels like a very 90s gender perspective: the sexual, feminine woman literally pitted against the masculine one. Of course, Matala is also a villain, and is acting really suspicious in a lot of ways, but again, “seductress villain uses her feminine wiles to manipulate one of the protagonists”—very 90s! It’s just complicated by her (hypothetical) actions in Crichton’s plot, which are explicitly (or, well, very close to explicitly) not seduction—they’re assault. And as much as D’Argo doesn’t understand that, and even Crichton doesn’t fully have the words for it, the narrative gets it! Which is a deeply non-traditional placement for your Straight White Male ProtagonistTM. I find this episode so strange and fascinating in the way that it pulls against the prevailing gender dynamics of its time on one hand, and leans heavily into them on the other.
This has been roughly 2 percent of my thoughts on Farscape and gender. Stay tuned for more, probably.
- The Aeryn and Matala sparring scene gives us our first good look at the Peacekeeper symbol, which was based on a Bolshevik propaganda poster. There’s also a collage of Peacekeeper symbols in the background, and I don’t have proof of what it was inspired by, but its composition and coloring always remind me of Guernica.
- Part of the reason that this episode had a leap in quality may be that it was the first episode not shot in a block. The first and third and second and fourth episodes of Farscape were shot in block format—basically, as if they were one big episode, with all the scenes mixed together. This proved to be an enormous headache, and they stopped doing it starting with episode five.
- So what exactly do you think it means for two alien species to be “genetic cousins”? Are they from nearby planets? Are they just like genetically similar? Are they like Vulcans and Romulans, where it’s basically just the product of generation ships and divergent evolution?
- Zhaan doesn’t have a ton to do in this episode—her most important scene is just listening to Crichton—but it’s really clear from this episode just how close she and Crichton have become. Not only is she the one he immediately comes to in a crisis, she also defends him. For all that she and the others are perplexed by him (Zhaan gets a good roast in while talking with Aeryn) Zhaan gets perhaps the first truly heartwarming moment of Farscape when discussing Crichton with Matala: “I’m curious about Crichton.” “Far too complex, I’m afraid, for you to know in the short time you’ll be here. I suggest you shouldn’t try.”
- Reasons why these episodes should not be watched in Amazon order: Can you imagine D’Argo saying this about Aeryn in episode 3? “She is one of us now.”
- “I’m just gonna get some air.” “We have air in here.”
- “What is the matter with him?” “He is Crichton.” ← Zhaan’s roast
- “Do you mock me?” “D’Argo, I mock all of us.”
Mivonks! Shilquin, Contala tea.
I like to call this episode “Farscape in a bottle,” because it contains, early on, so many of the elements that would go on to define the show: cosmic weapons of mass destruction; Crichton’s mind getting messed with in ways that both give him special powers and cause serious mental deterioration; aggressive sexuality; and personal violation and trauma.
Far from being just an early season novelty, you can see in this episode the show working out the things that work for it. I don’t know if the writers went back to the “piece of a black hole” idea and realized, hey, that has juice, we could easily make this work on a grander scale, at the end of season one, or if that was just coincidence. But when this episode starts writing about limitless power and application, and when the stakes suddenly scale up to include the possible destruction of all of Moya, something clearly clicks.
Meanwhile, although Crichton is perfectly within his right mind for the entire episode, he feels like he’s losing it, and the show, frankly, starts to sing. Up until now, Crichton has been out of place, off-balance, but always himself—and after this, Farscape starts to realize how much mileage they can get out of breaking him down.
Matala is a dry run for a few Farscape villains, most obviously, of course, Grayza, who takes on most of the same tropes, but subverts them a lot better, and with significantly more interiority. But this is also just the beginning of Farscape pushing its boundaries in regards to sex in general—as director Rowan Woods puts it in the audio commentary, at this point they weren’t sure what they could get away with. From this point on, Farscape just kind of goes for it. Most episodes from here on out include some element of or reference to overt sexuality, and every recurring villain except for Crais has a relationship with Crichton that is, at some point, either explicitly or implicitly sexual. For that matter, so do all of the protagonists. And this was kind of the episode where they tested that.
“You have enemies called the Scorpions.”
“I could just be going plain old bonkers here… but I guess it’s about time for that to happen.”
“Its power and application are unimaginable. It is the ultimate weapon.”
Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in comments.
Next up in the rewatch we’ll be taking a relaxing day off at the farm with 1×06, “Thank God It’s Friday Again,” which we’ll be covering on Monday, November 9.