“He thought it was about his doomsday device—about wormholes. It wasn’t. It was only about the time I kissed a girl.”
The basic story of “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory” is pretty simple. John breaks into a Gammak Base to find a tissue graft to save Aeryn’s life; John gets captured; Aeryn breaks into the base to rescue him. There and back again, in three easy steps.
And in fact, the logistics of the plot are fairly streamlined. John pretends to be Larraq, and encounters only the briefest of obstacles (and that, largely in service of introducing Gilina). Aeryn’s infiltration is even smoother; there’s only brief discussion of how she’s going to get into the base, and once she does, pretty much everything goes her way.
That’s because the plot—the ins and outs of how the characters navigate the base, the shootouts and the showdowns—is largely just scaffolding for the real purpose of this two-parter, which is to raise the physical and emotional stakes of every single ongoing plot that Farscape has.
There’s a remarkable economy of storytelling to “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory.” Gilina is the unexpected element on the Gammak Base that allows John, Aeryn, and Chiana to maneuver, but she’s also the titular hidden memory that John is desperate to block from Scorpius, and in many ways the emotional fulcrum of the episodes, going on the clearest emotional journey of any character, and pushing John and Aeryn to reassess their relationship. Crais provides a handy fall guy for Crichton while demonstrating Scorpius’ relative danger and bringing Aeryn’s season-long arc to an emotional climax. Moya’s labor is an obstacle to healing Aeryn and escaping, and an emotional resolution to a season-long arc, and a way of further raising the stakes of the situation. These elements provide logistics and obstacles and stakes simultaneously. In the way of the best television, the disparate characters and story beats seem to move inexorably towards a shared conclusion. Their interactions don’t distract from each other, but deepen each other.
Because of this efficiency, there’s room in the episodes for stories that enrich the narrative without really contributing to the overall ending. Chiana gets a little story of her own in “Nerve” that fills out her character; Aeryn and D’Argo get a moment of connection and understanding; Zhaan and D’Argo get to talk about histories and violence, and Chiana and Rygel get to breathe some helium (and some humor) into the proceedings.
But at the heart of the episode are John, Aeryn, and Gilina, and the ways that a very simple plot—John into the Gammak Base, and what he found there—heightens everything the show has been doing since its premiere.
First, and most obviously, there’s the torture of it all. John has been on the run from the Peacekeepers, specifically Crais, since day one. He’s been profoundly changed by that time, for sure—the last time John saw Gilina, he wouldn’t have held her at gunpoint, and that was before he knew her—but the changes have been gradual. John has never really had to face the reality of what would happen if the Peacekeepers captured him.
Now he does. He’s captured by Scorpius, who, Crais’s entrance immediately makes clear, is significantly more dangerous than Crais ever has been. And the consequences are devastating. It ends, obviously, with Gilina’s death, but the physical and mental toll that the events of the episode take on John are just as significant, in their way.
If Crais’s presence sells the danger of Scorpius, it’s Ben Browder’s acting, and Farscape’s willingness to engage with the gross and grimy aspects of life, that sells the import of Crichton’s time in the Aurora Chair. The sprays of mucous from Crichton’s mouth, the swollen redness of his face, the frankly strange noises that he makes both in the chair and after it—the level of visceral ugliness that the show brings to an ugly thing—sells that this plot matters, that its effect on Crichton is profound, that we are in territory that is deeper and more dangerous than any we’ve encountered so far.
Similarly, the stakes have never been higher for John and Aeryn’s relationship. Not only does the plot hinge on both of them putting themselves at considerable risk to save the other’s life, but Gilina’s presence, and the danger that she is in, force both John and Aeryn to reckon with what their relationship, precisely, is. They can’t give themselves the plausible deniability that they’re just trying to save a comrade-in-arms—or rather, they can, but Gilina is going to push them on it.
And then of course, there’s the secret wormhole knowledge that, it turns out, John has been carrying in his head since “A Human Reaction.” With wormholes the only clear path that John has back to Earth, this provides both opportunity and danger. For the first time, there seems to be some real goal that John can work towards to, as the credits say, find a way home. But wormholes are as valuable to the Peacekeepers as they are to John. So now the price on his head is not just from a rogue captain following a personal vendetta; John has become a target to players significantly more powerful than Crais.
With greater dangers, a traumatized hero, a romance that is suddenly very real, and the death of Gilina—the first death of a character the audience cares about—Farscape has crossed a threshold. Things will never be the same.
- So let’s talk about Gilina. She is, if anything, more likeable in these episodes than she was in “P.K. Tech Girl”: clever, resourceful, compassionate, and above all, self-aware. She’s not angry with Crichton or Aeryn for the direction their feelings have gone in, but she’s also not willing to let herself become victim to them—until that choice is taken away from her.
It is, unfortunately, probably true that there wasn’t a lot of space for the character to grow, had she survived; we already have one reforming ex-Peacekeeper who’s in love with Crichton. Gilina would have been, at best, a redundancy, and at worst, a terrible drag of a romantic false lead. It’s interesting to think about the world where Gilina stays behind, survives, and becomes a kind of recurring ally on the inside—but Aeryn and Gilina are ultimately both correct that it would have strained believability that Scorpius wouldn’t have figured out who John’s accomplice was.
So killing Gilina is both narratively convenient, in that it rids the show of a character who has come to the end of her usefulness, and a way of fundamentally upping the tension of the show. (I could probably put some stuff in here about symbolically killing the last vestiges of a more innocent era in both Crichton’s and the show’s life, but while I don’t think that’s incorrect, I also don’t think it’s really the most important thing about Gilina’s death.)
Technically, I guess you could say that Gilina was fridged, in that her death serves to further John’s story (and to make him feel just incredibly guilty). But I think this is an example of why no trope—no, not even fridging—is inherently bad. Because really, what was the alternative? Let Gilina’s plotline just kind of fade from memory?
Moreover, Gilina’s death is, fundamentally, an expression of her character arc. She’s killed because she sides with John—for reasons both sentimental and practical—but she’s also killed because unlike John, Gilina has not been hardened in the time since their last meeting. When faced with the option of killing Scorpius, she’s simply not prepared.
That said, there’s something that feels a little unfinished about Gilina’s arc and death, and I think that ultimately, what’s missing is the moment where Gilina decides to leave with John. It’s a huge and pivotal decision, the most important one that Gilina ever makes, and given that I do care about Gilina as more than an extension of John and Aeryn’s stories, I would have liked to have seen it.
- Let’s talk about Stark, too! He’s another grace note, as it were, that the episodes’ efficient plotting allows for. Stark plays almost no role in the logistical plot; the most he contributes to any part of the breakout/effort to deceive Scorpius is that he briefly distracts the Peacekeepers from entering the cell, allowing John a few more seconds to talk to Gilina. But he enriches the episode with his very presence, as a cautionary tale of what the Chair could—arguably does—do to Crichton. Stark’s madness is at least partially put-on, but he’s still visibly, almost aggressively traumatized: suspicious, violent, temperamental, always walking a knife’s edge between wild fits of emotion. The growing depth of his and Crichton’s relationship is both affecting in its own right, and a subtle way of showing Crichton crossing gradually from the world he’s used to into Stark’s world. (Not to get too cute with the symbolism again, but we go from “My side, your side” to John and Stark literally sitting on the same side of the cell.)
By the end of the episode, these two men are on the same wavelength. Nothing is perhaps a clearer demonstration of the places that captivity has pushed John to than the moment when Stark tells him, “Let’s give them something to remember us by,” and John plants a bomb—while both of them laugh maniacally. Not that John, prior to this, was incapable of violence. “That Old Black Magic” took him to a place where he was willing to make the clear-eyed decision to murder an enemy, and just last week, in “A Bug’s Life,” he engineers Larraq’s death. But John’s decision to kill Crais was a tortured one, and if he didn’t exactly sob over killing Larraq, he also didn’t revel in it, either. The side of John that can plant a bomb and laugh about it is a new one—and one he shares, perhaps exclusively at the moment, with Stark.
- Actually, you know what, I take that back. John shares that new aspect of his personality with Chiana, as these episodes also make clear for the first time. The idea of Chiana killing to escape trouble isn’t revelatory; after all, “Durka Returns” ends with the mystery of whether she killed Salis. But that question has not been answered. “Nerve” may not clear up that particular mystery, but it confirms that Chiana is perfectly capable of killing. And unlike, say, D’Argo, she seems to get some kind of real enjoyment out of killing someone who seems to deserve it. Not that D’Argo wouldn’t get satisfaction from murdering Macton, for instance, but he doesn’t seem the type to laugh about it. Whereas Chiana burns a man to death and smiles.
Chiana’s arc in these episodes is great precisely because of moments like that. It takes a lot of traits that we’ve assumed of Chiana, or been informed of, and shows them in action for the first time. Chiana is Junior Miss Tough Chick of the Universe, as long as it’s something she can kick or kiss or cry her way out of—and “Nerve” shows exactly what that means.
- Most of the John/Aeryn/Gilina threesome energy from “P.K. Tech Girl” has dissipated, but it’s not entirely gone. Aeryn and Gilina maintain a certain level of both rapport and tension, and Gilina’s goodbye (at least the first time around) is with Aeryn, not John; it’s Aeryn who she fully explains her reasoning to. I think ultimately, there’s something about building a story around the way three people in a romantic situation interact, and giving all three people weight and some level of investment in the others’ stories, that kind of just inherently gives off threesome vibes. And Aeryn, John, and Gilina are the three people who carry almost all of the story in these episodes, both logistically and emotionally.
- Farscape Gender Corner: In part out of necessity—for all its action and guns and spycraft, “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory” is at its core the story of a love triangle—and in part just because that’s how Farscape rolls, the plot of this episode is moved, oh, let’s say 80% by women. Crichton, our nominal hero, is removed from the action about a quarter of the way through; from the moment he’s taken by Scorpius, his physical agency is limited to the choice to resist or not, to endure or not. Most of the things Crichton actually does for the bulk of the story are, well, kind of feminine-coded actions. He walks an emotional tightrope with Gilina, trying to keep her invested enough to help him and Aeryn without outright lying to her about his feelings. He keeps tally of the wellbeing of his friends, to the extent that he’s able. He forges a personal connection with Stark.
The tenor of John and Stark’s relationship is worth noting, from a gender perspective. Yes, they’re initially adversarial, even violent. But at their moment of deepest intimacy, John is lying with his head in Stark’s lap, crying, while Stark strokes his hair. Unlike a lot of intimacy in Farscape, there’s absolutely no sexual charge—this is not homoeroticism—but there’s real tenderness there, of a kind that is to this day not typical of male friendships on television. The physicality of it, the softness of it, is striking.
Meanwhile, outside of Scorpius, pretty much all major plot machinations are made by women. D’Argo and Zhaan are largely absent from really impactful plot stuff; they both watch over Aeryn, but their efforts to keep her alive don’t really do much one way or another, and D’Argo’s primary influence on the story is to make an emotional connection with Aeryn, not to materially change anything at all. But Aeryn, Gilina, and Chiana all do, well, lots of stuff. Lots of different kinds of stuff. Aeryn breaks into the Gammak Base, tricks an officer, and knocks him unconscious. Gilina enables Chiana to get the tissue graft to Aeryn, and keeps John alive. Chiana takes on probably the most traditionally feminine role of the three, seducing Peacekeepers and keeping an emotional check on Gilina’s investment, but she also burns a man alive, and delivers a baby with a gun. The women in these episodes get to be smart and dangerous, sexy and emotional, wary and determined. And more than pretty much any of the male characters, they get to make choices that drive the story.
So while there are definitely some decidedly heteronormative elements of these episodes—the love triangle, Chiana’s seductress routine—the story is still notable for both the way that it prioritizes its female characters’ agency, and for how much of the emotional load of the story rests on the men.
And then, y’know, there’s Chiana stuck in a pod with Rygel being lecherous. Farscape, man.
- Chiana’s Peacekeeper disguise is the least convincing thing I’ve ever seen, but I kind of love that. They could’ve just had Gigi Edgely go without makeup, but instead they made it look like someone had actually put makeup over Chiana’s grey skin.
- Aeryn’s moment with Crais is great. It’s great writing on a sentence level, it’s great acting from both Claudia Black and Lani Tupu, it’s a great acknowledgement of how far Aeryn has come, and what that does and doesn’t mean. I don’t have all that much deeper to say about it—as a scene, it really speaks for itself—but that had to be mentioned.
- Wayne Pygram, who plays Scorpius, is terrific. Immediately imposing, and deeply chilling, he projects danger and cold, unflinching will. Seeing him up against Crais makes the way that he outclasses our previous Big Bad clear, but it wouldn’t work at all if Pygram weren’t an absolute presence, right off the bat.
- “Gotta love a man in a uniform.” “Yeah? I love a girl in grey.” (Followed by John spinning Chiana around by the waist so that they can speak intensely with their mouths an inch from each other. Farscape has a problem.)
- “You should see my Immelmann.” A question: How many of Farscape’s first run viewers actually got that reference?
- “The more they look at me, the less they look at you.”
- “Crichton… This is a very good friend.”
- “Come home alone!”
- “If a warrior cannot die in battle, she can at least die alone.”
- “Despite her words, she really didn’t want to die.” “I don’t even believe she wants to die alone.”
- “How will I know if it works?” “You won’t get blasted out of the sky.”
- “If you can be an idiot, I can be an idiot.”
- “Don’t you like your past, Crais?”
- “That is the radiant Aeryn Sun.”
- “How many Peacekeepers do you know on this base?”
- “Even the lock they just put on, you need an ident chip from a senior officer.” “All right, let’s go bag a senior officer.” (I just love how resigned Crichton sounds in this one.)
- “What I know deep inside, Peacekeepers will never see.”
- “Do you think if things had been different, that you could’ve loved me?”
Parapherol nerve, magra (as in magra-fahrbot), razlak, velka, lerg, sakmar, froonium (which may or may no be made up, given the context), and I can’t remember whether we’ve heard mivonks before, so I’m going to list it just in case.
Okay, with that out of my system. One of the things that struck me this time through is how great Scorpius’s character design is, but also how out of place it looks among the rest of the Peacekeepers. That was, presumably, intentional, but it’s interesting because, as far as I know, at the time these episodes were written they didn’t have any particular explanation for why Scorpius looks and dresses the way he does. You can sort of see that in the character of Niem, who never gets much development, but who seems to be fully Sebacean—yet who also dresses more like she’s stepped out of a BDSM club than like any Peacekeeper we’ve ever met.
Outside of perhaps the “Liars, Guns, and Money” trilogy, I don’t think that Farscape ever again uses Stark as well as he’s used here. But I love the memory he’s keeping, and the way that they find a way to integrate it into the season four plot. Farscape didn’t really plan out arcs long term, especially in the first two seasons, but it had a fantastic show bible, and was really terrific at looking back on the details they’d left behind and capitalizing on them. (See also: Karen Shaw.)
TALYN! Talyn is here, my beloved fucked-up child.
Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in the comments.
Next Monday, March 8, Zhaan vegges out, in 1×21, “Bone to Be Wild.”