The Wonders I’ve Seen: 1×09, “DNA Mad Scientist”


“You attacked one of your own. Would you do the same to the rest of us?” “Of course.”

Farscape has never been particularly coy about the kind of show it is—though on some level, it’s still coming to understand what kind of show it is—but “DNA Mad Scientist” is basically a coming out announcement.

“I will require… one of your Pilot’s arms,” NamTar says, heading into the credits, which sounds like the set-up for the conflict of the episode: How will we get NamTar’s navigational data without giving him one of Pilot’s arms? Except that two minutes later, Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel have teamed up to forcibly remove the arm and deliver it to NamTar. Problem solved.

There’s a lot going on in this episode beyond the arm removal, and it deserves discussion, but it’s hard to move past that scene. They cut off Pilot’s arm. Our friends, Zhaan and D’Argo! It’s completely askew from what viewers expect of most shows in this situation, especially what they expected in 1999. This was before the rise of the antihero, before watching conflicted men do bad things became de rigeur. The Sopranos had only just aired its first episode; Game of Thrones was only two books into its run; the rebooted Battlestar Galactica was but a twinkle in Ronald D. Moore’s eye.

This is not to say that protagonists behaving badly, or simply complexly, was a complete revelation. Deep Space 9, the most morally grey Star Trek, finished up its run in the same month that this episode aired. Babylon 5, a show that, among other complicated ethical quandaries, asks the viewer to sympathize with a genocidal series regular, had been off the air for six months. And making deeper cuts into sci-fi/fantasy as a genre, older, less well-known shows like Blake’s 7 had been playing around with ambiguous morality for decades.

But Farscape clearly expects that its audience expects a certain baseline level of civility from its protagonists. Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel cutting off Pilot’s arm is a subversion of the idea that this ragtag crew are the good guys, and more importantly, that they’re friends—that they care about each other enough to choose each other’s bodily autonomy and safety over their own goals.

It is, on some level, a shock tactic. “Hey, look at the kind of show we are, look at the things we’re willing to do.” (Farscape: It goes there.) And as such, it should be evaluated for what value it has beyond shock value. Does it say something about the characters? Is it in character? Does it have repercussions that are well-integrated into the story, or does it just sit there, alone, being shocking?

The biggest question about Zhaan and D’Argo’s decision is whether it’s in character. (It seems to go without saying that it’s in character for Rygel.) These people haven’t known each other for a long time, but Zhaan is a priest who preaches nonviolence, and D’Argo consistently values allies and loyalty. On the other hand, Zhaan struggles with inner darkness and a violent past, and D’Argo, in addition to being somewhat of a pragmatist in battle, has that secret.

So ultimately, Zhaan and D’Argo cutting off Pilot’s arm doesn’t so much completely contradict their characterizations as it does layer them, and reveal where the characters stand with each other. Yes, the crew of Moya are allies; yes, they’ve become increasingly close; no, they are not family. Whether they like each other, whether they fight on the same side, they are fundamentally not yet a team, and cannot trust each other.

That lack of trust haunts the rest of the episode. Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel, having teamed up to take on Pilot, turn on each other once it becomes clear that only one of them can get a map to their home. They slip into alliances that shift as quickly as the scenes change: D’Argo and Rygel, then D’Argo and Zhaan, then Zhaan and Rygel, and finally, when Rygel escapes with the navigational data, every alien for themselves. No one trusts anything the others say, and why should they? They’ve all proven that they’re willing to betray a crewmate for their own ends.

Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel’s actions also have a profound effect on Crichton, and—perhaps more surprisingly—Aeryn. Crichton is naturally shocked and dismayed and angry over what his crewmates have done. He’s a peaceful and optimistic person, by nature, and people who he’s coming to see as friends have hurt someone else he’s coming to see as a friend. If nothing else, it’s unsettling, and chips away at the fragile sense of safety that he’s starting to build aboard Moya.

But Aeryn, who comes from a background full of violence and devoid of compassion, is equally outraged. She doesn’t have Crichton’s innate sense of empathy, but she understands that Pilot is an ally, and you don’t attack your allies. It speaks to the progress Aeryn has made as a character: She has begun to see the crew of Moya as her people, and being on her side. And now, what Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel have done upends that.

Fearing the loss of her crewmates to their home worlds, not feeling particularly at home on Moya, Aeryn goes back to visit NamTar, to try to find an independent Sebacean colony that she can live in. And that rockets the episode into its ostensible A-plot.

The DNA-splicing plotline is about scientific ethics: What are the acceptable purposes of technology, what are acceptable means of development, in whose hands should it fall? This isn’t the first time that Farscape has engaged these questions—it flirted with them in “Back and Back and Back to the Future”—but it’s the furthest the show has ever waded into this particular thicket.

It’s effective. Farscape likes this thicket, and this thicket is a good fit for it, and the surrounding emotional stakes of Aeryn’s feelings of isolation (and, as always, Aeryn and John’s relationship) are a surprisingly good blend. NamTar is not a particularly subtle villain—he’s pretty much evil, and John even gets a Captain Kirk speech to that effect—but he’s a good villain, from his character design to his delivery.

It would be easy for an episode with an evil scientist and a Kirk speech to fall into hamminess, but “DNA Mad Scientist” never really does. Aeryn’s vulnerability is so palpable and unexpected that it makes up for the silliness of her pilot prosthetics; NamTar’s oiliness and design overcomes his obvious evilness; and the unresolved emotional throughlines offset the fairly cut-and-dry ethics.

The episode never pretends that what Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel did was okay—when Crichton and Aeryn are unified against you, ethically, you basically know you’re wrong. But it also provides ample space for every character to react to what happened. Zhaan and D’Argo self-justify: Aeryn and Crichton would have done this if they had been able to go home, Pilot is there to help them, it was a difficult decision. Pilot, interestingly, forgives—he is there to help them, after all—but still clearly holds on to simmering resentment throughout the episode.

And that’s where the episode leaves them: Aeryn feeling alone and unsettled (if comforted by John), Pilot torn between forgiveness and anger, and D’Argo insisting that he would make the same choice again. The episode’s closing scene, between D’Argo and Pilot, is the best one the show has yet produced. But D’Argo doesn’t apologize. All he does is play his shilquin for Pilot, sharing a piece of himself—not enough to make up for the piece he took, but enough to bring them that much closer.

So yes, I’d say that Farscape got something of value in return for its shock.

Random Bits

  • This is a really efficiently constructed episode, with an A- and B-plot that play off of each other and share at least some common themes (ends justifying means), so for the first time, I’m not relegating any plot line to the Random Bits section!

  • NamTar is Rat Man backwards.

  • What was up with this episode’s obsession with eyes?

  • I touched on this in the review, but this is a big episode for John and Aeryn’s relationship. Aeryn opens up to Crichton significantly, and Crichton offers to bring her home to Earth with him, if he ever gets there. (There’s also a wonderful moment in the first scene after the credits where Crichton puts his arm around Aeryn’s waist and Aeryn throws it off.) You can see the impact that “P.K. Tech Girl” had on their interactions: It put their attraction out in the open, and established a precedent for emotional communication between them.

  • I really love that John is drunk for half of the first act.

  • Alien biology: Pilots have “superior regenerative capabilities,” meaning Pilot can grow his arm back. Also, Hynerians are not “body breeders,” so go ahead and run wild with that. (And their earbrows are erogenous zones.)

  • “I will never understand you people. How can you not be angry? Insanely angry?”

  • “This is the tradeoff we make for the chance to see the galaxy.”

  • “Compassion? From a Peacekeeper?” “For a comrade.”

  • “You would pervert NamTar’s genius into a weapon?” “Why not? Somebody will. Why shouldn’t it be me?”

  • “And you? What would you have given?”

  • “I believe talk is very overrated as a means of connection between two consenting beings.”

  • “You must be willing to push off from the riskless shore in order to reach heady new lands.”

  • “It was me. Inside. The real me.”

Alien Words

Nooma, filgran, the festival of Predrar, “chopped mellet,” shilquin, and, DRUM ROLL PLEASE… frell! Yes, folks, we have our very first frell sighting. Wonderfully, it’s just kind of tossed off, while John and Aeryn are fighting and she snaps “Frell you,” as she walks off to interrupt him.

Spoiler

You can really see Farscape growing into the themes that it likes; scientific ethics and the dangers of misapplied technology are a huge part of the show, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the best early episodes deal with that.

I think that Aeryn’s Pilot DNA thing is one of the coolest bits of ongoing Farscape continuity.

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Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in comments.

Next Monday, a condom breaks, in 1×10, “They’ve Got a Secret.”