“What are you waiting for?” “A third choice. Although I know there are only two.”
Amazon Prime’s episode order for Farscape season one is completely wrong. “I, E.T.” comes seventh; “P.K. Tech Girl” comes fifth; “Back and Back and Back to the Future” is third. If you’ve been following these reviews since the start, you know that, and you know that we’ve been going by the production order, not the order they’re listed in on Amazon.
“That Old Black Magic” marks the place where Amazon’s order and production order finally come into alignment; from here to the end of the series, we’ll just be clicking “Watch Next Episode.” It is also, as an episode, the strongest argument for why we went to all the bother of rearranging the first seven episodes into the correct order.
The John Crichton who encounters Igg, the vaguely demonic clown, in the alleys of a commerce planet, is not the same person as the John Crichton who first arrived on Moya. The changes are subtle, but they’re there: When Igg first flags him down, John’s first instinct is to walk away. When Igg reveals he knows John’s name and story, John’s instinct is that this is a scam.
When Crichton first arrived in the Uncharted Territories, he wasn’t naive, but he was approachable. Trusting. He led with curiosity. But over the course of seven episodes, he’s become more suspicious, more guarded. He’s had his ship boarded by Peacekeepers, seen visions of futures where he and his friends die, had a worm shoved in his belly button, fought off a bunch of fire-breathing frog aliens; of course he’s more guarded now. But it happened gradually, one episode at a time, so quietly you might not even notice it.
Of course, John’s not that suspicious; he does, in the end, walk off with a vaguely demonic clown. And ultimately, “That Old Black Magic” puts his increasing guardedness to the test against his innate desire to trust and forge connection. In Maldis’ mind prison, John comes face to face with Crais for the first time since the pilot. John believes, or wants to believe, or, as the episode progresses, tries to believe, that his and Crais’ differences can be resolved with discussion and diplomacy. But Crais is unreceptive to diplomatic overtures, and the deck is stacked against John; every time he comes anywhere near forging some kind of understanding, Maldis interferes to stoke Crais’ anger again.
The question of the episode is whether pacifism, innocence, and trust can survive in the face of unrelenting violence, and John isn’t the only one grappling with the problem. Zhaan, who isn’t innocent, who has committed significant violence in the past, is the only person who can breach the defenses of Maldis’ mind prison and take him down, saving Crichton, the other residents of Moya, and the entire planet they’re on. But to do so, she has to inflict pain, to act with destructive intent—something that she left behind when she became a priest.
In the end, both John and Zhaan choose violence. After overture after overture leads only to more attacks; after Crais has sliced his hand and dislocated his shoulder; after Crais has made it clear that he will try to kill John no matter what he says, even though he knows that John didn’t intentionally kill his brother, even though they may be each other’s only chance at surviving Maldis’ prison—after all of that, John tries to kill Crais.
Meanwhile, Zhaan, after much angst, decides to team up with a local shopkeeper/former priest to take on Maldis. She infiltrates Maldis’ mind prison, zaps him into corporeality, and lets John take him out with a single punch. (He is, says Zhaan, just “dispersed,” not dead.)
Farscape doesn’t exactly castigate either Zhaan or John for their decisions, but neither does it celebrate them. Instead, it portrays their individual, and mutual, turns towards violence as a kind of tragedy. They were both backed into a corner, presented with no real alternative to violence, other than their own death, or the death of someone they cared about. But they both paid a heavy price for their choice. John’s attempt to murder him has made Crais significantly more determined to hunt him down. And Zhaan’s return to violence has undone years of work at inner peace and pacifism.
John went into this episode someone who had never tried to kill someone. He went out of it an attempted murderer. And now he, like Zhaan, is changed.
- This is our first real, significant face time with Crais, and it does a lot to flesh out his character. Crais (unlike, from what we’ve gathered from Aeryn, most Peacekeepers) was not born or raised as a Peacekeeper. He was born on a planet and forcibly recruited as a child, along with his younger brother, and he and Tauvo worked their way into command from the ranks. Just from this information, you can read a whole history of characterization into Crais: how he wholeheartedly adopted Peacekeeper attitudes out of survival; how he fiercely bonded with and protected the only person he had left from his old life, and the only person he was allowed to love; how his familial bonds and willingness to go rogue in pursuit of revenge mark him as perhaps somewhat distinct from Peacekeepers born into the service.
- This is also our first time getting to see Lani Tupu really cut loose as Crais (he’s always been around doing great work as Pilot) and he is, of course, phenomenal.
- I haven’t done a whole lot of overt comparison to Star Trek so far in these reviews, because although Farscape is riffing on sci fi in general and Star Trek specifically, most of its plots stand up perfectly well on their own. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this episode seems to be heavily influenced by TOS’ “Arena,” a classic episode of sci-fi in which the hero is zapped by a powerful being to an unfamiliar place and attacked by an enemy who seems beyond reason. The difference is that Kirk ultimately comes to understand the Gorn’s point of view, and shows him mercy, and is rewarded for it—while John comes to understand Crais, and is pushed to kill him, and pays a price for it. This is probably the most clearly Farscape has been in conversation with Star Trek yet, and the differences between how the two shows handle the same set-up are illuminating. Farscape‘s message isn’t really all that far off from Star Trek’s—it’s not glorifying violence, and the ending is portrayed as a tragedy for John, for Crais, and certainly for the people working under Crais. But the universe of Farscape is far less kind to its characters than the universe of Star Trek is.
- Every time I watch this episode, I’m sad when Lieutenant Teeg dies. She was so loyal!
- Aeryn, D’Argo, and Rygel don’t get a whole lot to do in this episode, but there is something kind of wonderful about the image of Aeryn stubbornly beating at an unbreakable wall. It’s also interesting that D’Argo spends a lot of his scenes acting as a kind of translator between Aeryn and Zhaan. Like Aeryn, he’s a warrior; like Zhaan, he’s emotional, and has some understanding of people.
- Weird alien biology watch: When she and Liko are mind melding, Zhaan’s eyes roll all the way around in their sockets and reveal a blue glazed side.
- There’s a moment in the fight between John and Crais where John kind of rolls Crais over his back, and although I think Crais may have a stunt double, it’s very obviously Ben Browder in the shot. I guess all he really had to do was stand there.
(For the record, the fights are… so so. One of them is both interesting and feels tactile and real—the one where Crais and John are fighting using the chain. The others either involve very plastic props, or John being just a little bit better at fighting than I feel like he should reasonably be.)
- I really like how in this deeply philosophical episode about the psychological and ethical implications of violence, Zhaan and Liko just fucking torture Rygel for kicks.
- “Some eat plants, some meat. I consume the life essence itself. Preferably medium-rare.”
- “You can talk ‘til your tongue falls out. He’s gonna kill you regardless!”
- “You can destroy him!” “That’s what terrifies me.”
- “You called her a warrior. You could not have cut her more deeply.”
Trelkez, Klendien flu, jixit root, dried gavork, trellon oil, ointment of yuvok (which “smells like trat”).
Zhaan’s dip into violence has really interesting story potential, and it’s a shame that the show does literally nothing with it. I suppose you could argue that her actions in “DNA Mad Scientist” are a result of this episode (and I’ll probably talk about that in more depth in that review) but other than “Rhapsody in Blue,” they never again touch on the idea that Zhaan is poised to become violent at any moment. I think it’s both a missed narrative opportunity, and an undercutting of this episode. Zhaan’s storyline is already kind of inherently a little more weepy and melodramatic than Crichton’s; the thing that saves it is that it supposedly has obvious, lasting, negative effects. But when those effects don’t ever materialize, it makes all of the drama over whether Zhaan should be violent look kind of overblown.
“You lost your virginity to Karen Shaw in the back of a minivan.” “No, it wasn’t a minivan. It was a four-by.” KAREN SHAW KAREN SHAW KAREN SHAW KAREN SHAW. The glee that this fills me with. Also, I know that they weren’t planning this at all, but I love that the first Karen Shaw reference happens before we ever even meet Chiana.
Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in comments.
Also, an announcement: We’re coming up on a stretch of good/interesting episodes, plus I’m just getting really impatient. So The Wonders I’ve Seen will be going weekly on a trial basis, starting next week. Come back on Monday, December 14 to see what the crew of Moya will pay an arm and a leg for, in “DNA Mad Scientist.”