We’re already destroyed, Aeryn—it’s just that some of us don’t know it yet.
There were only ever two serious contenders for the pull quote for this episode. I went with the one that I did because I feel that “Goodbye, you big, beautiful, blue b****” loses some of its impact when you can’t write out the final word, but oh, what a wrench it was to lose it. It’s so quintessentially Farscape: crass and sentimental, tragic and funny, lovingly characterized and delivered by a Muppet.
For many of the same reasons, it’s also a line that’s quintessentially Zhaan, though she doesn’t deliver it, and Zhaan is, of course, the heart and soul and purpose of this two-parter. There are many other things happening in the story, including an overarching plot that is not, as in “Suns and Lovers,” mere scaffolding for the emotional beats. But we always return to Zhaan—to her wise counsel, her deep love and grief, her roiling anger and doubt, her faith. Every facet of her is on display, and every relationship she’s built has a moment to shine.
All of Farscape’s characters are complicated, and all of them defy the stereotypes and tropes of their roles. But of the main cast, Zhaan has often felt the most difficult to pin down. She’s a priestess with a past, a wise ethical mentor and a scheming selfish thief, seductive and murderous and warm and vicious. She often maintains a maternal role with the rest of the crew, but if she’s a mother, she’s one with only a tenuous grasp on her violent urges. Which makes her not so different from D’Argo, or Rygel, or as she mentions in this episode, Aeryn.
All of which is to say that Zhaan, like pretty much all of Moya’s original crew, is an all-time great sci-fi character, and any episode that dedicates itself to fully celebrating her in all her complication is going to be great for that reason, at the very least. Fictional deaths can be such tricky lines to walk. It would be so easy to believe that the kindest and most loving way to write off Zhaan (given that she had to be written off) would be to give her a happy ending, leaving her at peace in a Delvian monastery somewhere, perhaps. But Farscape loves Zhaan so much that it grants her a kind of centrality and integrity of character that wouldn’t allow that. Zhaan would never abandon Moya; she would never leave her friends. And so this very loving episode allows her to decide to give her life, twice over, to save them.
But as I said, there are other things happening in this episode. So let’s talk about what this episode is about when it’s not about Zhaan. While traveling to a planet that may have a treatment for Zhaan’s illness, Moya comes across a wormhole, and collides with a phase-shifting science vessel from an unnamed (and unknown) species. The two ships fused and stuck within the border between the wormhole and normal space, the episode becomes a tense debate between and within the crews, as they scrabble to decide which ship will be ejected into the wormhole, and possibly survive, and which will be ejected into normal space, and be atomized.
This may be the kind of story that Farscape is best suited to telling. Certainly, it’s one they’ve done a variation of many times before; at its core, it’s just a “ship-in-peril” story, and if it weren’t for the extensive (and very cool-looking) “alien ship” additions to the set, it would be a bottle episode. One of the benefits of Farscape’s aforementioned deep bench of complicated characters is that it takes very little narrative effort to achieve a lot of interesting drama.
Here, then, is some of the drama raised by two fused ships:
- The crews of each ship would very much like their ship to be the one that survives, in both cases because lives depend on it.
- The science vessel contains massive amounts of wormhole data, and oops, it’s recorded some data on Earth, setting off a conflicting desire in Crichton to see it survive so that he can get home.
- Aeryn, D’Argo, and Zhaan are aware of Crichton’s conflict and not particularly pleased about it.
- Moya and Pilot are decompensating due to the pressures of the liminal space they’re in (and also secret alien vessel sabotage).
- Rygel has accidentally released the final remaining frozen Interion from her cryopod, and she is not adjusting well to her trial by fire.
- D’Argo and Chiana are both afraid and grieving, and can’t figure out how to comfort each other, given the painful end of their relationship.
- Stark is also afraid and grieving, and he’s going to make it everyone’s problem.
- Also, there’s an interdimensional snake attacking people.
So, you know, there’s a lot happening. You might even argue that there’s too much happening, even for a two-parter; this thing isn’t exactly tightly plotted, and not all of these threads go anywhere all that meaningful. But the back-and-forth of all of the relationships, the chaos of so many characters shouting past each other about so many subjects, becomes a kind of joy of its own. In one scene, D’Argo, Aeryn, Zhaan, and Stark hatch the exact same plan at the exact same time as John, Chiana, and D’Argo, both groups having elected to keep their plan secret from the other. That mutual suspicion doesn’t lead to anything—the plans basically happen and then fizzle out due to extenuating circumstances—but there’s a lot of fun to be had just in watching the characters lose their minds.
It helps that the episode is building to tragedy. There’s not meant to be a resolution here, just terrible loss. We’re not learning a lesson; we’re examining fault lines, and there are plenty to be had. That’s reflected in the ending of the two-parter—one of my favorites, though I often forget it. We get a thematic statement, probably the only thematic statement of the episode, stated by a villain: “Why is it always the gentle ones that pay the price for everyone else’s ambition?” And then no response, no answer, not even another question. Just a shattering of rage and grief and guilt. What else is there to say?
- Briefly touched on above, but I like that this episode doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of Zhaan. Quite apart from her threatening murder and going red-eyed violent, she quite coldly snaps at Crichton over something that is in no way his fault: “There is no way I can get to Pilot. Your excuses have failed him once again, John.” In many ways, this is a eulogy for Zhaan, and as such it is loving and celebratory—but it’s also honest.
- Similarly, I like the place that this episode lands on John, obsession, and culpability. Is John responsible for Zhaan’s death? No, not at all. And the episode bears that out; after all, while half the crew is busy trying to cut John out of planning because of his ulterior motives, John is busy making the exact same plan they’re making. But he also knows that, while Zhaan and Moya were both dying, he was very tempted by a path that put them in further danger. “I trusted you,” John says to Niyala after learning about her deception, and John isn’t a particularly trusting person right now—he trusted Niyala because she was saying something that, on some level, he wanted to hear.
- I don’t care all that much, but I’m not sure Niyala’s motivations totally track. She sabotaged Moya rather than out-and-out lying to the crew because she didn’t want to see them die if they didn’t have to—but in the process she sacrifices the lives of pretty much every member of her own crew to the deception.
- I’ll probably have a lot more to say about her in future episodes, but Jool is such a choice of character to replace Zhaan, and despite her being aggressively and intentionally unlikeable in these episodes, I really like her arc in them.
- As it’s our final episodes with her, I want to acknowledge Virginia Hey’s unbelievable performance as Zhaan in these episodes and every one before them. What a tremendous presence she brought to the role, and what an indelible impact she leaves on the rest of the series.
- These episodes are very, very well-written on a dialogue level. I’ll list some of the standout quotes after this, but I want to spotlight Zhaan’s final speech to the crew. Unabashedly sentimental, unapologetically grand, thoughtful and specific, it’s as good of an exit for the character as I could imagine. I often think of it in my own writing, especially the line where Zhaan calls to each crew member by name: “Sensitive D’Argo, exuberant Chiana, wise Rygel, selfless Aeryn, innocent Crichton.” She doesn’t just find the best in each of them, but calls upon traits that they fear that they don’t have, or perhaps have lost.
- “Insane.” “Since birth.” “Suicidal?” “Desperately.”
- “I think wormholes blind him.” “At least he has a hobby.”
- “I’m not dying just because the ship can eat and crap.”
- “Oh, you want to cry, young creature? I will show you something that will make you cry forever.”
- “Everything I have seen so far is despicable!”
- “Welcome! To the Federation starship SS Buttcrack!”
- “The gentle are stricken, the kind are helpless, the silent uncounted.”
- “Still worried about your parents after 22 cycles?” “Yes.” “That’s how we feel about Moya. She raised us.”
- “You are a very ungrateful and selfish woman. Please remain silent from now on.”
Please tag spoilers for future episodes in the comments.
Next Monday, September 18, the good times keep on rolling, as we cover 3×05, “…Different Destinations.”