The Wonders I’ve Seen: 1×12, “The Flax”

“It appears my training is failing me. I don’t want to die alone.”

I hate this episode.

On the one hand, it’s not skippable, really. The John/Aeryn plot line is a major turning point for them, and it’s a really good showcase for both characters, and a necessary example of how and why the relationship works.

On the other hand, the D’Argo plot line is ugly. It’s not, I think, intentionally ugly—I have no reason to believe that writer Justin Monjo, or anyone else involved in the production, hates gay or gender nonconforming people. (Showrunner Rockne S. O’Bannon would go on to create or executive produce numerous shows that presented queer people much more matter-of-factly.) But Farscape is a show with a transgressive heart. It wants to push boundaries, to turn expectations inside-out, to be weird. Staanz is the product of that ethos. She exists because the creative team thinks that she’s weird.

Which is all well and good—D’Argo is weird, and so is Zhaan, and so is Rygel—but as the episode ends, Staanz’s weirdness is judged. She’s made unusual, undesirable, other, in a way that D’Argo and Zhaan never are, despite the fact that D’Argo has a six-foot-long venomous tongue, and Zhaan orgasms in bright light.

The effect of that is two-fold: One, it’s a big glaring sign to queer and trans and gender-nonconforming viewers that the show considers them weirder, and somehow less human, than literal aliens. But two, it makes the Uncharted Territories feel less alien. If D’Argo has the same reaction to Staanz that just about any 1998 sitcom would, then what, frankly, is the point of being in space at all?

Again, I don’t think that this was a product of hatred, at least not in the traditional sense. Fundamentally, I think that Staanz as a character exists because the writers and producers of Farscape didn’t understand, or it never occurred to them, that a human being like Staanz could exist, right here on Earth.

So Staanz is ultimately reduced to a joke, and a poorly thought-out one, at that: She claims that she’s “quite the Zenetan beauty,” but Zenetans were the pirate syndicate she used to belong to, not her species, which is specifically Yenen; she used to be a Zenetan, but she remains Yenen to this day. Now, maybe all the Zenetan pirates are Yenen, but the pirates who Staanz worked with for ages don’t seem to know her gender. Nor, apparently, do the Peacekeepers who imprisoned her for years. Everything—all worldbuilding, all characterization—is thrown out in favor of the joke.

Which is a shame on a lot of levels, because Staanz isn’t a bad character! She falls right into the favored Farscape mold of “not a bad guy, but not trustworthy either.” She riles up the crew of Moya in interesting ways; she has a great clunker of a spaceship that she powers by burning, essentially, outer-space Barbie dolls; and Rhys Muldoon plays her with a boisterous confidence that walks a line between irritation and charm. It’s a shame that every time she speaks, all I can think about is the ugly joke that caps her story.

Meanwhile, in the much better half of the episode, John and Aeryn hook up. Or anyway, they sure do make out a lot, when they think they’re about to die. But that’s just the culmination. Most of the plot is about who they are, individually, and how they interact. It’s just twenty minutes of the two of them stuck together in one room, working through a problem in their different ways, talking about life and death and the afterlife. This episode is proof of concept for their relationship; no other evidence is needed to explain how and why these two people would become interested in each other.

John and Aeryn’s plot in this episode is really the culmination of the style of Farscape storytelling that’s just about getting two characters to open up to each other and discuss their respective cultures and attitudes. Yes, okay, there’s a ticking clock for part of it, and there’s some drama over John’s potential death. But largely, the plot is about John guiding Aeryn through technology, and Aeryn revealing more insight into her upbringing. John talks about Southern slang and the head-on collision he was in as a teenager. Aeryn talks about Peacekeeper flight training and the camaraderie that she misses. (Left unstated: Aeryn is training Crichton to fly, in the hopes that he could be part of giving her back that sense of teamwork.) They trade quips, they trade stories, they trade information—and by the end of the episode, they’ve gotten close enough that the threat of death brings them together.

This is the kind of understated character work that Farscape isn’t flashy about, but that underlies every important relationship, and every major character arc. Two characters hanging out in a room, talking about their lives, should be interesting, if the characters are well-drawn and their perspectives are divergent enough. And on Farscape, it is.

It’s a shame that Farscape’s failure to extend that thoughtfulness to Staanz sours the episode.

Random Bits

  • D’Argo’s story here is also fairly meaningful; he gives up on a chance to find maps out of the Uncharted Territories, so that he can save John and Aeryn. That’s a pretty big step for someone who helped cut Pilot’s arm off in exchange for similar maps, just a few episodes ago. Together with “Til the Blood Runs Clear” and “They’ve Got a Secret,” this represents a major shift in how D’Argo views the crew of Moya. Perhaps they’re not, as Zhaan says, family—but they’re also not people he’s willing to turn his back on.

  • Rygel gets to be shockingly competent in this episode, tricking the Zenetan pirates into leaving Moya with false information. I think Rygel is at his best when used comedically—that’s sort of the point of him—but as with his plotline in “P.K. Tech Girl,” stories like this are a nice way to round him out and keep him a person, not just a joke.

  • I like that John at one point says “hours” and then corrects himself to “arns.” Just a nice little touch that shows how he’s adjusting, linguistically.

  • This is also just a generally interesting episode in regards to John’s competence: He’s pointedly learning how to interact with alien technology, and everyone seems to think that he’s something of a slow learner. But he’s getting there, and there are areas where he’s better than Aeryn, not because he’s more capable than her, but because he’s willing to put in the work.

  • John says that four minutes is roughly equivalent to 180 microts, which indicates that either a microt is slightly longer than a second, or the writers fucked up the math when they multiplied 60 by 4.

  • “This is Top Gun, this is the need for speed.” “I have no need for speed.”

  • “You miss the adrenaline of combat flying.” “I miss the teamwork of combat flying.”

  • “They’re not family?” “No.” “Good. There’s nothing worse than losing family.”

  • “Sebaceans believe when you die, you die. You go nowhere, you see nothing.”

  • “You’ve gotta be looking forward to seeing your son.” “Yes. But when I do, I wanna be able to look him in the eye.”

Alien Words

Tadek, trads, “Onyxxi play parts,” peunkah, Kelvic crystals, “interspecies tugg wrestling.”

Spoiler

In “Look at the Princess,” D’Argo has a line of dialogue—mostly there as a joke, but there, nevertheless—that indicates that he would be open to the idea of sleeping with John, if he weren’t with Chiana. From a Doylist perspective, this happens because as the show evolved, the writers got a lot looser with their approaches to sexuality and transgressiveness, and started inserting a sort of background bisexuality into the ethos of the show. From a Watsonian perspective, it’s pretty hard to reconcile with the end of “The Flax,” unless you assume that D’Argo’s taboo is against being gender nonconforming, and not against homosexuality, per se. Frankly, the “Look at the Princess” characterization is much more in line with the way that the show characterizes D’Argo on the whole, and with the feel of the world that Farscape eventually builds. Which is yet another reason not to like this episode’s ending.

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Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in comments.

Next Monday, John and Zhaan find unity, in 1×13, “Rhapsody in Blue.”