Wednesday, November 10, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK 122: Farscape: "The Way We Weren't" (2000)


I've been re-visiting Farscape (1999 - 2003) for the last several weeks, and am very much enjoying this second look at one of the greatest space adventures in TV history.  

Back in the day, I actually had the honor of writing original short stories for The Official Farscape Magazine (particularly "Make a Wish" and "That Old Voodoo" back in 2002)  and one of my greatest career disappointments remains the fact that Farscape was unceremoniously canceled just as the possibility arose that I might get to pen an epic series novel based on a proposal I wrote for Tor called "Dominar." 

Bummer.

But long story short: as much as I was heavily into Farscape when it originally aired -- and I absolutely loved writing original fiction in that universe -- the DVD sets were cost-prohibitive until about a year ago, so I never went back to re-visit a space adventure program I positively adored on first run. 

Then I purchased the more affordable Complete Series DVD set last Christmas, and finally -- only in the last month or so -- got around to screening the series again from the very beginning.  And it's already been an amazing ride; each episode brings up strong memories of why I fell in love with the series back in 1999.

Although the Henson/O'Bannon series is widely commented on and praised for the colorful, original and utterly wonderful presentation of aliens and other-worldly environments -- I just watched an episode called "Home on the Remains"  that took place entirely inside the carcass of a giant space creature -- Farscape nonetheless appears to  reach its apex of quality when focusing front-and-center on its very conflicted and very flawed dramatis personae.

Case in point is the jaw-dropping, heart-breaking "The Way We Weren't," a grim if thoroughly involving episode from Farscape's second season, which originally aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in April of 2000. 

"The Way We Weren't" moves with a relentless sense of urgency, pace and inevitability, and spares the main characters (and thus the viewer) no pain whatsoever.  There are no lengthy excursions to other worlds in this particular story; and no "new" alien creations, either.  Instead, the sharp focus is on...the intimate; on inner space, if you will.

In fact, this particular installment points to the reason I deeply admire Farscape so much, even on a second viewing a decade later.  The overall stance/philosophy here is realistic rather than overtly operatic, idealistic, or heroic. 

This creative approach boasts two distinct advantages. 

One: the sense of realism in terms of character interaction and history grounds the far-out proceedings.  Farscape is visually dazzling in a fashion that few science fiction series have ever achieved (Space: 1999 is another notable example of such an achievement), and if the characters in Farscape were all perfect, idealized beings (as is the case on TNG, for instance...), there would be nothing to hold onto; no way to identify with the adventures or their participants.  The colorful world of Farscape and its inhabitants would seem remote.

And two: the realistic, fully-dimensional approach to the colorful characters makes their eventual bonding and infrequent unions of purpose and mission seem all the more grand and inspiring. 

The main characters on Farscape are exiles, thieves, cheats, a fish-out-of-water, and even an ex-fascist.  When this motley crew gets it together and somehow beats the Powers that Be, you not only sigh with relief, you actually cheer.  

In short, the series' writers keep setting the main characters at each other's throats, separated by their divisions and differences, experiencing set-backs and then -- at just the right time -- they bring everyone back together.  It can be quite rousing, even rather emotional at times. 

Farscape brilliantly mastered this particular narrative structure.

But getting to specifics, in the second season's "The Way We Weren't," Chiana (Gigi Edgley) unexpectedly discovers a shocking video recording.  It depicts the brutal murder of Moya's first pilot by Peacekeepers...under the direction of draconian Captain Crais (Lani Tupu). 

This is a double shock, actually, because no one aboard the bio-ship even knew that Moya's current Pilot was not her first. 

Aeryn participates in the brutal murder of a Pilot.
The next surprise is that one of the Peacekeeper soldiers carrying out the brutal blaster massacre is none other than current Moya resident, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black).  

Pilot and Aeryn have long since learned to get along, and even bonded, so this recording could be a huge problem.

And of course, it is.  As usual, Rygel makes trouble for his shipmates and sees to it that Pilot gets his hands (claws?) on the violent recording. 

Angry, Pilot promptly demands that Aeryn leave Moya permanently.  She is no longer welcome. 

The scenes involving Pilot's out-of-control rage and Aeryn's deep, sincere regret are incredibly raw and incredibly powerful in "The Way We Weren't.   You will swear, countenancing Pilot's unrestrained grief and rage, that this is a real alien being and not an accomplished special effect; not a "muppet."

Reluctantly, Aeryn agrees to depart from Moya, and no one seems eager to keep her around.  Only John (Ben Browder) is at all sympathetic

Still Aeryn asks for forgiveness from Pilot and Moya.  Importantly, she doesn't try to evade responsibility for her act of murder, she simply states that she is "no longer" the "same person" she was when she pulled that trigger so long ago.   To the others aboard Moya, this hardly seems like an excuse, given Aeryn's culpability. 

This dynamic amongst the crew (D'Argo, Chiana, Zahn, and Rygel)  powerfully illuminates an important issue in modern American culture vis-a-vis crime and punishment.  When a person has committed a crime, but changed in the years since that crime...do we punish that person for his or her initial deed, or honor the redemption?  When pronouncing punishment, do we consider good deeds or positive "change" as mitigating factors? 

Aeryn has no right to ask for mercy and understanding, especially seeing how -- in the episode's flashbacks -- she also callously betrays the man she loves, a Peacekeeper officer with deep feelings for her.  And yet Aeryn is right...she isn't the same person anymore. We've seen her save her ship-mates and Moya herself on more than one occasion.

Pilot wants to "see the stars."  Maybe too much.
"The Way We Weren't" is downright fascinating in its depiction of Aeryn during her Peacekeeper past, and in terms of revealing how limited a person she once was in terms of her connections to others, her aspirations, even in the simple terms of her imagination.

But then, commendably, the story goes one better and reveals, also via flashback, Pilot's original connection with Moya too.   

Shockingly, even this kindly creature -- a veritable rock of stability on the Leviathan since the series' premiere-- boasts a personal history that he is ashamed of too...and also keeping secrets about. 

Specifically, Pilot was never approved to be "joined" with Moya (or any Leviathan), and so teamed with the Peacekeepers to link with Moya outside of the hierarchy of his people and his laws.   Pilot was impatient.  He wanted to "see the stars" and he didn't want to wait. 

That burning desire,that impatience, led Pilot to commit a grievous error...a crime.

In this way, Pilot is as much responsible for the first pilot's death as is Aeryn...and he knows it.  The knowledge of this guilt, the memory of this betrayal, nearly destroys Pilot, in fact.  In an agonizing moment, he literally rips himself out of his piloting console, a suicidal act which immobilizes Moya, but also -- ironically -- frees Pilot of the pain he has always felt because of his actions, and also because of his "artificial" joining to the Leviathan.

In "The Way We Weren't," Aeryn's and Pilot's personal stories mirror and parallel one another in unqieu artistic fashion.  Aeryn once committed a betrayal against her lover to get what she wanted (an assignment flying prowlers, for heaven's sake), and Pilot essentially did the same thing.  He let himself be manipulated by Crais and the Peacekeepers so that he could achieve his dream of joining with a Leviathan.  He was a willing pawn.

As John Crichton notes in the episode, everyone has secrets in their past; secrets that they don't want exposed, and "The Way We Weren't" is a beautiful and edgy excavation of Aeryn and Pilot's deepest, darkest skeletons.  

The episode works so well because it never candy coats what these characters did in the past.  It never makes excuses for their mistakes and behavior.  It just reveals that Pilot and Aeryn have made mistakes, and that, today, they truly are different people.  That's a lot like real life, no?

"The Way We Weren't" also features several stand-out scenes and visualizations.  The flashback moments are rendered in a kind of bleached-out, de-saturated palette, which lends a deeper feeling of "colorlessness" to the milieu of the Peacekeepers; who all march in lock-step and don't deviate from rigid behavior and personal emotional repression. 

It's a world without real love -- as Aeryn describes it to John -- and in one of the episode's most interesting scenes, Aeryn leverages what authentically seems like true love for a simple job transfer.  This is an unheroic, unflattering view of Aeryn. She was once so limited, so parochial, she didn't even know how to value love -- the human (okay, Sebacean...) connection -- over an assignment she liked.  You feel pity for her.

The second scene from the episode that I find deeply affecting finds Aeryn's lover, Valerek, visiting Pilot on what I assume is Pilot's home world.  Pilot is ensconced in a planetary surface of heavy mist...as though sitting in a swamp or a bog.  High above him, the black, clear sky is filled with bright stars.  A shooting star even races by overhead.  In this moment, you can understand the young Pilot's yearning and impatience to be free. 

To escape from the restraining fog below and touch those distant constellations above... 

If you're a fan of space adventures, or even just science fiction in general, you've likely felt this simple tug before: to leave behind the mundane environment of terra firma and touch the magic and mystery of the stars. 

I admire how this scene looks; and especially how it plays.  And again, I must state how endearing, how emotionally-resonant the performance by Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu) truly is in this moment.  You look at those big expressive, alien eyes and you don't see a technician's carefully calibrated creation; you see a fully-realized alien being longing for an escape from his earthbound existence.

Without ever being preachy or pushing hard some kind of overt "moral" message, "The Way We Weren't" engenders real viewer sympathy for Aeryn and Pilot through these two powerful sequences. 

With Aeryn for following her ambition instead of her heart. 

And with Pilot for letting his impatience to achieve a dream get the better of him. 

But the important thing to consider is this simple fact: the mistakes these aliens make are easily ones we could see ourselves making.  Following orders we shouldn't have followed. Or skipping a crucial step to get ahead of someone else.

Once more, the point is that in a heightened world of lasers, starbursts, alien wizards, monsters, and incredible fantasy, Farscape gives us a peek at recognizable, flawed individuals.   So we identify with them.   We like them; even when they make poor choices.  Rygel is actually my favorite character on the program, and I think the series' realistic approach is another reason why. He's such a thorn-in-the-side and a royal (literally...) pain-in-the-ass, but Rygel's motives (if not stomachs) are entirely human.

Pilot is lowered into Moya's command console...for the first time.

"The Way We Weren't" dispatches with larger  Farscape story arc concerns like Scorpius's pursuit, blossoming romances, and the desperation for provisions. 

It simply and elegantly reveals characters who have made terrible mistakes and, who -- more than anything, --wish they hadn't.

In this episode, Aeryn and Pilot both get second chances.  Aeryn gets to stay aboard Moya, and Pilot -- putting all the years of pain and guilt aside -- finally achieves his dream: a natural joining with the Leviathan he clearly loves.

It's silly to write this, but this Farscape denouement may just bring a tear to your eye.  We all hope for forgiveness.  So we relate.

I realize I'm just a season-and-a-half in re-screening Farscape at this point, but "The Way We Weren't" is certainly the best, most powerful episode I've seen thus far.  It's one hell of an episode, in one hell of a series.

12 comments:

  1. John,

    I truly wish I could fully read this review, but alas I must postpone it as I am coming up on this episode and have yet to see it.

    It looks like an amazing episode and from what I've read is among the best, but I don't want to give anything away.

    I will be back soon to check it out.

    But I did want to say, that like you, I am thoroughly loving Farscape. Each episode is a rush of fun and adventure and it's the antithesis of Season One of ST:TNG. It's really somehting orignal, refreshing and colorful. Henson and company really blew the lid off conventions.

    Also, I happen to own all of those Farscape Official magazines and they are getting harder to find. I cannot wait to read your original stories and further I'm sorry to see the dream of doing an full Farscape story never quite came to fruition.

    Anyway, I end there and I'll be back. It's a pleasure to read your analysis and unfortunately I must hold off.

    All the best,
    SFF

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  2. I used to watch this show religiously! My dad gave me the first season on DVD as a wedding gift.

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  3. A very sharp take on an excellent episode. I recall watching this one for the first time and my eyes going saucer-sized at the pre-credits segment.

    Pairing that with the discovery later in the episode of Pilot's own culpability, I was struck how appropriate his place on Moya actually was: in effect, the pilot of the prison ship earning his own place aboard by virtue of his crime.

    That both Pilot and Aeryn have grown and changed doesn't diminish their actions, and I love that the show doesn't attempt to go the route of 'eh, we're even, call it a draw'. Things are faced and dealt with and everyone grows from it.

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  4. Hello, everyone!

    SFF: No problem! I've had to put off reading blog reviews before myself because I don't want to spoil the experience of "discovery." It's important that -- as reviewers --we approach something we're interested in (and planning to write about) on our own terms; even if it means holding off reading a review we want to read sometimes. I totally get this!!!! I believe I've done it myself over at your blog, so I totally get it.

    Monster Scholar: I'm becoming a bit "religious" in my Farscape watching myself. So far the second season is even stronger than the first, great season, and I highly recommend it!

    Woodchuckgod: You said it brilliantly. I could never put it more eloquently then you did in your comment: " in effect, the pilot of the prison ship earning his own place aboard by virtue of his crime." I just love that concept; and I love how you excavated it! Thank you.

    This really is a marvelous episode, and we agree that Farscape is wonderful because it isn't heavy-handed or obvious. "The Way We Weren't is a perfect example of that.

    Thank you all for wonderful thoughts on this show and Farscape.

    best wishes,
    John

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  5. It always amazed me that the show never took off. It was pure, unadulterated genius. This review captures the essence of what made it such a powerful, fun and engaging show. It will go down as one of three most underrated sci fi shows (the others pale in comparison, but are still worth noting: Total Recall 2070 and Charlie Jade).

    I distinctly remember the *feeling* that I had when the show was canceled. Incredulous. Dismayed. Crestfallen. Such a fantastic work, dead, while the dren around it floats to the surface.

    Thanks for this review, John.

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  6. I do not remember this episode AT ALL. Shame. . .sounds really interesting. I may have to bust out my second season DVDs. I love Pilot.

    There is two 'black out' periods with Farscape, for me. One is the middle of the second season (hence why I probably don't remember this) and sometime in the fourth season when I stopped watching because Chricton made it back to Earth and then came back to Moya and started fighting spiders or something. I just thought the show was over.

    *digs out season 2 DVDs*

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  7. Just finished. I've caught up and watched this episode. WOW. A jaw dropper especially when you consider all of the information woven into the fabric of Farscape up to this point to give the entry even that much more of a resonance. So many stops along the way where Pilot talks of how he so desperately wanted to pilot a Leviathan and see the stars. Now we know much more.

    Realistic- exactly. The flawed characterizations are quite representative of real people and real characters we know. This is what draws us in and involved and this is why TNG's utopianism keeps us at arm's length with absolutely no emotional tie to it.

    Farscape is a wave of emotion. I'm so excited to write about this one myself but I probably won't get around to it until this time next year.

    I loved all of your commentary on this one. The colorful world of Farscape is a feast for the eyes, but it's a playground for real characters to unfold their flaws and for us to connect.

    So true regarding Pilot. How amazing is his role in this mini-film. I forgot he was a muppet. He's amazing! Or rather it is amazing.

    The episode captures beautifully real issues, real problems we all experience. Skeletons in the closet, forgiveness, acceptance, not casting stones in glass houses, betrayal. All of these elements are in play throughout.

    That critical turn with Pilot and all of his anger at himself misdirected because of his own shame was brilliant. That was powerful stuff. Beautiful!

    Speaking of pawns, in some ways, Aeryn's betrayal of her lover was a bit of turnabout is fair play since her lover duped Pilot for his own needs.

    As you said, no excuses are made and all of these painful realities are excuted brilliantly. Amazing episode and an amazing review.

    Okay, I'm not quite done. It was just that damn good.

    You mentioned Rygel, so flawed he essentially creates the mess that is this episode, but of course the episode reminds us that are actions are ours and we own them.

    These characters own them and take responsibility for them. They can't run from them forvever.

    But serioiusly there were a whole lot of reveals in this episode and those reveals are based on past events and opening that information up to us, not new events going forward and that is something rare indeed.

    This was truly a heartrending installment and that animatronic Pilot voice by Tupu may have even outshined Claudia Black who was very good. That's amazing.

    This is the best episode of Season 2 and Mind The Baby was probably my second favorite of the first five. NERVE and THE HIDDEN MEMORY from Season One were my favorites there, but this is one of THE best of Farscape. Loved it John.

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  8. One of the more striking scenes for me was the placement of John and Aeryn's talk where Aeryn confesses her betrayal of Velorak. It takes place on the PK rug with Aeryn sitting on the red and John on the White with the black arrow pointing. The symbolism is enormous.

    Meanwhile, I love John's hidden and only hinted at jealousy of Velorak, "You say you loved this man?" and his sensitivity towards Aeryn's pain and shame. He is there as her mediator against the judgemental nature of the rest of the crew. Only Chiana is equally fair when she asks, "What do you think Aeryn was doing all those years?"

    In the end, time will heal wounds, just as they will allow Pilot to grow naturally into a true symbiote and Aeryn won't be just grafted to Moya, but become a true heroine.

    By the way, I think the Spider episode in Season 4 is another character study that is similar to this one but takes a different tactic in revealing personality issues amongst the crew and between Aeryn and John. You ought to watch it.

    Thank you for your brilliant review. I hope you revisit other eps during your re-watch.

    I'm bummed you never got to write your novel. The others were not really very seeped in Farscape knowledge.

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  9. Some more great comments on Farscape, and "The Way We Weren't" here in the last day!

    Pete: I feel the same way about the genius of Farscape. It should have been the next "Star Trek" in terms of fan devotion and cult following, but it seems to have faded back into obscurity. I fear this is not a result of the show's sterling quality or universality, but of the fact that, simply, it aired on a cable TV station and did therefore not have a wide audience to remember it today (which differentiates it from Star Trek in the 1970s; or even Space:1999 for that matter). The balkanization of cable television in the last ten years or so means that fewer people are catching these shows; and so, at the other end, fewer people are remembering them later. In the case of Farscape, I find that enormously depressing!

    Will: It's funny you should mention your memory gap. I watched another episode of Farscape's second season, called "Out of their Minds" that I did not remember in the slightest. I was horrified, because I used the same plot line, "Body switching" in an episode of my web series, The House Between, called "Switched" years later. I mean, now, it looks like a total rip-off of Farscape! I can't believe it. But I seriously did not remember that episode. And it is awesome! (And so is the next episode "My Three Crichtons!")

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: I think you and I have a similar point-of-view in terms of what dramas we like. We both laud this episode for what it does so well, exploring: "real issues, real problems we all experience. Skeletons in the closet, forgiveness, acceptance, not casting stones in glass houses, betrayal. All of these elements are in play throughout."

    I think you said that perfectly. So true. All the characters in Farscape -- even Pilot, as we learn here -- are damaged in some way. But they keep trying. They want to be good. As we all do. I just love that; and so while Farscape is the "feast for the eyes" that we both love, it also has enormous heart. No wonder we're both are over the moon with it! :)

    Ixchup: I'm glad you pointed out tha scene between Crichton and Aeryn, and also Chiana's comment. That's right. The other characters "judge" Aeryn harshly, but they all know she WAS a Peacekeeper for years. She wasn't baking cookies; or feeding the poor, you know? That's what I love about Farscape. Aeryn was wrong to do what she did; but the judgment of the crew is also harsh. They have skeletons too...something that John "humanly" points out!

    Thank you all for such wonderful comments about a beloved episode of a beloved series.

    Regards,
    John

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  10. I absolutely loved Farscape! My favorite character was Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan played by Virginia Hey. She was fantastic in this role. She also played one of my favorite characters in The Road Warrior. This was a great show. I much prefer it to another show about a "living ship", Lexx.
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

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  11. Hi Trick or Treate Pete:

    I love Zhaan too. Virginia Hey has an amazing facial structure/bone structure, doesn't she? What an angular and beautiful face. She's a great actress too, as you note.

    I must admit, I never watched Lexx, and don't know a lot about it...

    best,
    JKM

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  12. This is one of my favorite episodes of the series, and you've outlined all the reasons why.

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