“There’s never been anything we couldn’t overcome together.” “Except each other.”
“Look at the Princess” is only Farscape’s second multipart episode. (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that there will be numerous others.) The show’s first foray into longer stories, season one’s “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory,” was a cinematic bombshell that completely remade the show in its wake. Although “Look at the Princess” can’t hope to be as impactful as that two-parter, it’s just as cinematic, and very nearly as good.
I say that the three-parter is cinematic, and it is, but it’s a very different kind of cinema than “Nerve”/“The Hidden Memory.” Season one’s two-parter was an action piece, a heist movie that swerves into a tense war and rescue film halfway through. “Look at the Princess” has action—a space battle, several murder attempts, and a final setpiece involving a girl dangling over a pit of acid—but it is primarily a story of politics and palace intrigue. Most of the important beats revolve around small groups of people having backchannel conversations in elegant private rooms.
If a story is going to be built mostly from talking, the people doing the talking had better be interesting. This is where “Look at the Princess” puts its expanded runtime to good use: building a stable of compelling guest characters with understandable but competing motivations. The guest cast here are not incredibly three-dimensional. They largely fall into familiar tropes: the steel-spined, pragmatic monarch; the princess bound by duty; the conniving aspiring usurper; the star-crossed lover. Oh, and the spy.
But if they’re not deep, the guest cast is still understandable, well acted, and, most importantly, fun to watch. The scenes between Crichton and Katralla thrum with a kind of negative chemistry, as they navigate how to interact with a person they don’t know and don’t want to marry, but believe they’ll have to spend their life with. Clavor whines and snivels and schemes until he gets his very satisfying comeuppance. Jenavian runs around being purposefully and delightfully unlikeable and stabbing people with her wrist stiletto. And Empress Novia very calmly and efficiently runs the show.
It’s just fun! This is a kind of story Farscape doesn’t usually get to tell, so for its one outing into the proto-Game of Thrones genre, it tells it to the hilt. Some tropes get twisted—the eighty years as a statue thing is a clever way to up stakes, and Crichton’s extended “shoot me!” monologue in “I Do, I Think” is distinctly Farscapian. But mostly, “Look at the Princess” just delights in juicing all these fun new tropes for every ounce of dramatic and emotional potential it can.
Because, of course, like “Nerve”/”The Hidden Memory” before it, “Look at the Princess” is also a romance. (Hot tip: Nearly every important Farscape episode is, on some level, a romance.) The stakes of the story are not just Crichton’s life; they’re the future of his relationship with Aeryn. Terrified of emotions and intimacy, at the start of the trilogy, Aeryn refuses to admit or act on her feelings for Crichton. Then the prospect of Crichton marrying another woman (and being a statue for eighty years) forces her to confront just how much she actually cares about him. Though Crichton is the character holding up the vast majority of the plot, it’s Aeryn who is changed.
Aeryn’s story is almost entirely emotional; she doesn’t really contribute to the plot in any meaningful way, and in fact spends most of the final episode on a very unpleasant hiking trip. In some ways, she’s not particularly likeable in this trilogy; she spends a lot of time being angry with people whose fault none of this is (John, Chiana) and ultimately never really contributes much by way of a plan. But although she generally is, it’s not Aeryn’s job to be likeable. It’s her job to be a complicated person reaching for a better grasp of herself and her emotions, which she very much is in these episodes. There’s something very Aeryn about love and loss being the things she can’t overcome with competence.
Not to say that Crichton doesn’t have an emotional throughline, because he very much does. “Look at the Princess” is the story of how Crichton deals with losing hope. Badly, it turns out! The thing that has kept Crichton alive and arguably sane for a season and a half, the thing that more-or-less defines him as a character, is hope. But it’s hard to keep hope alive when you’re lost in space and heavily traumatized, and in “Look at the Princess,” Crichton comes up against a situation that he just can’t think or talk or shoot his way out of. And it turns out that hidden underneath the vocal optimism is a deep and real vein of exhaustion. “I’m tired,” John tells Aeryn during an argument. “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do when there’s no fight left?”
Though John does ultimately regain fight of a kind (he swings on a chain to drop-kick a Scarran into a vat of acid) and though the trilogy wraps up its romantic plot on a literally sweet note, it’s hard to argue that the events of this story represent any kind of real victory. John escapes marriage, sure, but he also loses the chance to know his child. He escapes Scorpius in the physical sense, but he remains haunted by him. As we head into the second half of the season, John remains poised on the edge of physical and emotional catastrophe.
Should be fun!
- As I mentioned, I think that this trilogy uses its extended runtime well. That said, it’s not entirely without bloat. In particular, a lot of the final episode is just about characters marking time until the big climax. “The Maltese Crichton” is also where some of the less-than-airtight plotting shows through. Novia’s decision to execute all offworlders comes out of nowhere, is never very well justified, and doesn’t make a ton of sense given what the episodes had already established of the colony’s delicate political situation. It’s really just there to give stakes to John’s return, but Clavor’s imminent takeover and the Scarran’s capture of Chiana do that reasonably well.
Plus, it’s not really clear exactly what John’s plan was for his return. He tells Novia at the end that he won’t go back into the statue, but was that always his intention? If so, how was he planning on getting around the Scorpius of it all? Come to think of it, how was he planning to get around the Scorpius of it all even in that final scene, given that Scorpius wasn’t dead? I wouldn’t care about this so much, except that I think that John and Jenavian’s fling plays very differently if John thinks he’s about to go be a statue for 80 years and then live as the husband of a woman he doesn’t even know. John is not typically a one-night-stand guy—vocally so, in later seasons—and this particular romantic entanglement has always struck me as a little out of character. But it would make sense as a “last night of freedom” kind of thing.
- Since Jenavian’s got me on the topic, let’s throw up a sign for the Farscape Gender Corner! Boy these episodes are just teeming with gender politics. I’m not going to be able to cover anywhere near all of it, but let’s start by acknowledging John Crichton, Trophy Husband as a thing.
Then there’s Katralla, the titular princess we’re looking at, who I’ve always found to be a really interesting character, especially on the gender stuff level. She—and all of the Royal Planet—are coded intensely feminine to contemporary American eyes. They wear whites and pinks, heavy makeup, clothing that reveals a lot of skin. And Katralla does take on some traditionally feminine roles, in her private conversation with Tyno, for example, or when she and Jenavian snipe at each other in the bathroom.
But the Royal Planet is also ruled by women, and Katralla is the crown princess, and the power dynamics between her and the men in her life are not standard. Yes, Katralla feels trapped into marriage with John, but unlike John, she’s not actually trapped—she has the right and the power to say no and abdicate, if that’s what she’d prefer. She is clearly the one who holds the power in her relationship with John, and it’s evident that she’s aware of that. (Insert here please several paragraphs on the scene where she hits him, and a meditation on whether Farscape understands that that’s actual abuse and is playing the traditional connotations of such a scene against it, or whether they’re playing the thing straight, or whether it’s maybe even a little bit of both.)
I also noted that for every big decision—the decision to propose and the decision to swap Tyno for John—Crichton asks what Katralla wants first. I mean, it’s just good manners, but I could also imagine many shows just kind of forgetting that Katralla has desires, or that she’s actually a pretty big decision-maker in all of this.
The relationships between women are also fascinating. The women in these episodes talk to each other, often quite viciously. Katralla and Jenavian snipe at the bathroom mirror; Aeryn and Chiana tear each other down while they argue over what John should do.
Katralla and Jenavian’s spat is, I’d have to say, mostly just a trope presented straightforwardly, although I can totally believe that those two women would hate each other; Katralla is a serious and civic-minded woman who’s willing to upend her entire life to keep her country’s peace, and (as far as she knows) Jenavian is a self-centered social climber who can barely even keep up the pretense of actual interest in her brother.
Aeryn and Chiana’s arguments, though, are I think a little more layered. In the most literal sense, they’re fighting over a guy, but although there clearly is some level of romantic jealousy mixed in there, they’re not actually fighting over getting to date John; Chiana is in a committed relationship with D’Argo, and Aeryn isn’t even willing to admit she wants to be with John. Instead, what they’re really fighting over is John’s wellbeing. Chiana is always on John’s side, throughout all three episodes; she’s acting here as a friend who feels that her friend is being ill-done-by, and who is legitimately worried that Aeryn is going to lead him to real harm. Whereas Aeryn is, understandably, on her own side. Any insults that the two lay out, gendered or otherwise, stem less from them judging each other as women and more from their competing viewpoints.
All of which is to say, Aeryn and Chiana’s arguments aren’t any great steps forward for feminism, but they do feel very rooted in the characters’ well-developed motivations.
- Another thing I think these episodes did not establish well: John goes to Clavor, mildly roughs him up, and tells him to find a way to get Scorpius out of the picture so that John can leave and Clavor can be king. Fine, okay, reasonable. But Jenavian—who believes that John is a Peacekeeper spy sent in to ensure Katralla’s succession through marriage—is right there? And John knows she’s right there? How do either of them come out of that scene still trying to keep up the ruse that John is a Peacekeeper?
(I guess Jena does at some point after that look into him and come to the conclusion that he’s not, but like, it’s still weird.)
- OKAY, let’s talk Zhaan. Once again she’s been removed from the proceedings, but I can actually see how they got backed into that one. The Builders plotline exists entirely to remove Moya from the Royal Planet so that John can’t escape. Thus, someone had to be on Moya to keep that part of the plot active. Aeryn and Chiana both have to be on the Royal Planet for emotional throughline reasons, and Rygel is weirdly extremely useful to have around for a palace intrigue plot. That leaves D’Argo and Zhaan, and while I actually think that either one of them could’ve functioned extremely well in the other’s role—Zhaan’s great at giving supportive and measured advice to John, and D’Argo defending Moya’s life could’ve been beautiful—it’s honestly just easier to justify Zhaan staying behind than D’Argo. Plus, D’Argo on the planet gives them the opportunity to move his and Chiana’s relationship forward.
(The Builders plotline is mostly pretty thin, but I love it if for no other reason than I love hearing Moya’s voice.)
- I almost forgot to talk about Crichton’s grand outer space escape! This is one of Ben Browder’s iconic unhinged Crichton performances, and it is just mag-fucking-nificent. It’s also just a beautiful collision of character and plot and politics: Scorpius monologues about John’s uniqueness, and John suddenly realizes that he is more willing to die than Scorpius is to kill him. And just like that, the power shifts!
- John’s space escape is actually one of the more scientifically realistic things the show has done, I think? It lasts about a minute, and you can absolutely survive a minute unprotected in space. But you would generally pass out after about fifteen seconds, so, you know. Don’t try it at home?
- Please excuse the unending list of quotes that follow:
- “I will not be a slave to your hormones!” “My hormones? Hey, I was lips, you were tongue!”
- “See, die. There’s the problem, there’s a ‘die’ part.”
- “I am the reverse King Arthur. I’m the one who can put the sword into the stone!”
- “Go away, Scorpy. It’s over. Find another girlfriend.”
- “Even if we’re miserable for the rest of our lives?” “I won’t make you miserable.”
- “Did you hear about the statue? Hey, Chiana.”
- “That. Is. Fascinating.” “Excellent. D’Argo discovers science.”
- “Hope. I have hope. Or I am nothing.”
- “If I do this, you have to be my best man.” “…I’m with Chiana now, John.”
- “Don’t feel bad. It’s not you, it’s me. I don’t like you.”
- “I am so filled with uncharitable rage.”
- “You don’t get the toaster!”
- “You are, so far as I know, unique in the universe. And unique is always valuable.”
- “Oh, like there aren’t some whacked-out antecedents to a chick with a stiletto in her wrist.”
- This is really the episode where they give up on trying to pretend there are no romantic undertones to the Scorpius-and-John relationship: “You underestimate the strength of a relationship even your friend does not yet understand.”
- “We’re not compatible.” “You always know just what to say.”
Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in the comments.
Next Monday, August 30, Moya gets a fun new pet, in 2×14, “Beware of Dog.”