Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #138: Farscape: "...Different Destinations" (2001)

The Sci-Fi Channel series Farscape (1999 - 2003) remains one of the finest space adventure TV programs of recent decades, and the third season episode "...Different Destinations," which aired originally on April 13, 2001, is a good example of why that's so abundantly the case.

It's a time travel story -- a relative rarity on Farscape -- but much like so many series installments, "...Different Destinations" is absolutely unconventional in terms of genre TV tropes.  It's also cutthroat in nature, uncompromising in vision, and beautifully, emotionally depicted.

In the Farscape canon, "...Different Destinations" is apparently a stand-alone episode, one outside of the big story arc and larger narrative concerns, and yet -- despite the superficial "throwaway" status of the show -- it's an absolute gut-punch to John Crichton, Aeryn Sun and indeed, to the audience itself.

In "...Different Destinations," the living ship Moya delivers her rag-tag crew of bickering fugitives to a planet that houses an historical "Peace Memorial." Down on the planet surface five hundred years earlier, thirty Peacekeeper soldiers defended a band of innocent nurses and children from the Venek Horde, a barbarous army renowned for being "bloodthirsty and almost impossible to control." The last stand was inside an isolated mountaintop monastery.

According to Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper herself, a heroic officer, Dacon (Dan Spielman)brokered a peace deal that saved the lives of the nurses and the young ones, but only at the cost of his own life. As Crichton (Ben Browder) describes Dacon, he's "Davy Crockett at the Alamo." Jool (Tammy McIntosh) contrarily argues that the story is militaristic propaganda, designed to prop up loyalty and patriotism.

Thanks to a pair of alien "tourist" goggles available at the cloisters, Crichton and the others can actually view the planet's final, historical battle unfold.

But something goes awry when the enigmatic Stark (Paul Goddard) views the events of the distant past.

When Stark watches, he somehow creates a "tear" in the fabric of time and space; a tear that transports Aeryn, John, Jool, D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) and himself back in time to the very day of the conflict.

Now trapped in the turbulent past, the shipmates debate the "elasticity of time" and whether or not it is a "brittle framework."

In other words, they wonder if their presence at the battle can change the course of history, and thus affect the future itself; the very "future" they dwell in. There's even a little arrogance in a conversation between Aeryn and John early on, as they wonder if there's a way they might actually "improve" the future.

This being Farscape and not Star Trek, no such improvement occurs. Not by a long shot. Quite the opposite in fact.

What "...Different Destinations" actually depicts is a kind of royal screw-up on the part of the Moya's argumentative crew. For instance, when Aeryn sees that Dacon is just a rookie -- and a cook, no less -- she does everything she can to shield the young man from his grim but pre-ordained fate. And unbeknownst to the others, John strikes a secret deal with the Venek General, one that ends in disaster when the general is murdered on the monastery ramparts by a nurse.

History recorded the military leader as a reasonable man who worked with Dacon to subdue the blood lust of the Horde. Now that he's gone, there's absolutely no buffer between the nurses and the violent warriors at the gates.

John notes after the death of the Venek leader: "I'm in a hell of a slump hereEverything I do just makes things worse." 

Exactly. 

Before long, John is actually seeking the advice of the Scorpius implant in his head (Wayne Pygram).  That's how desperate he becomes to find a way out of this complicated temporal puzzle.

Meanwhile, D'Argo eschews the complexity of time travel theories and befriends one of the children in the monastery.

He informs her that the only way to make herself immortal is to be remembered. She takes his words to heart, and carves her name - Centrina -- into the walls of the fortress.

As a long night progresses, John and Aeryn make every attempt to right the time line in the absence of a key player, the Venek General. They even offer up Dacon. But this time when he dies, there's still no peace.  Now Aeryn feels even worse.  In this reality, Dacon died for nothing.

Back on Moya, Chiana, Pilot and Rygel watch in horror as the planet they orbit keeps changing.  The once-beautiful world becomes a burned out cinder and then, finally, disappears all together...totally annihilated in a conflict of hate and violence.

Down on the surface, with the Veneks swarming the monastery, the crew of Moya has no option left but to use their advanced pulse pistol weaponry and fight the conquering horde to a standstill. Making like an army, John, Aeryn and D'Argo fight for their lives and for the lives of the innocent. Then they escape through another "time tear" and return to the present in full belief that their combat efforts have made a truce possible.

But when they view the events of history through the tourist goggles, the time travelers learn a hard truth:  The Venek mob murdered all the nurses and children.  They were angry because they refused to give up the location of the Peacekeeper named...Crichton.

"I screwed up," a mourning John admits.

Crichton may have screwed up, but Farscape certainly didn't, and "...Different Destinations" is an absolutely inventive hour of action and science fiction, one that remembers that people (even astronauts; even aliens...) are flawed and don't always make the right choices.  Even more so, the right choice in the moment may not be the right choice, historically-speaking.

John and Aeryn, in particular, face the ramifications of their interference.  Both young Dacon and the unlucky nurses die horrible deaths, and there's no sense of "heroism" or "glory" to be found anywhere.  

It's a decidedly unromantic, unglamorous view of war, and the episode ultimately confirms Jool's point about propaganda.  Aeryn realizes she's been living with a lie since childhood. 

But this Farscape episode remains a remarkable one because it's just so far astray of audience expectations.  In a latter generation of Star Trek, for instance, the men and women of Starfleet would have certainly repaired the time line and rescued the innocent nurses and children.  And there's almost zero chance they would have held the day by employing their advanced weaponry against primitives. 

But in Steve Worland's "...Different Destinations," there are no higher rules (like Starfleet regulations) to contend with, and furthermore no unity whatsoever amongst the time-traveling participants about how to proceed.   It's trial and error all the way, and John and Aeryn argue vociferously about what should be done.

Interestingly, D'Argo -- often a sort of father figure, given the loss of his son in the series -- befriends Centrina and sees immediately the human cost of failure.  While Aeryn and John talk tactics, he discusses mortality, memory and loss.  It's a potent contrast to the behavior of Crichton and Sun.  They're struggling on concepts: how do we fix this; how do we repair that.  But D'Argo looks at something else: at youth and innocence, and the death of both.  The final moment of this subplot, with D'Argo discovering Centrina's names carved in the monastery wall, is downright haunting.

I admire how "...Different Destinations" is gleefully politically incorrect in terms of genre standards.  The heroes fail egregiously.  The innocent die...horribly.  Standard methods of success (attempting to maintain the timeline; adhering to accepted time travel philosophy) prove counterproductive.   Most importantly, the temptation to "re-boot" the time line and tie everything up with a nice, neat ribbon is avoided. What we have instead then is a series interested in examining cliches and carving out new...and uncharted territory.

Economically shot -- almost entirely on one set, the monastery courtyard -- "...Different Destinations" is impressive in just about every way one can tally.   In particular, it very adroitly utilizes its pop culture references (a mainstay of Farscape), with John finally alluding to the last stand of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983).

There, Tony -- a gangster and thug -- fought impossible odds and lost, destroyed by his enemies but also by his own self-destructive nature. 

It's extremely interesting, then, that in this episode John goes from referencing Davy Crockett at the Alamo -- an example of great heroism in a last stand -- to Tony Montana, a man who has isolated himself through his bad behavior and went out not in a blaze of glory, but infamy.   The siege situation on the planet has descended from one of heroic last stand, then, to a purposeless battle to the death.  Again, this is a very unromantic, unglamorous view of war, and more trenchantly, of heroes.

What are the reasons for the crew's egregious failure in this episode?  Well, Stark says it well: "...different beliefs...different destinations."  John believes in one thing; Aeryn another, and they don't really work together until it is far too late.  Their different beliefs have created successively -- as we see from Moya's observation deck -- different destinations.  And all those destinations are increasingly horrible.   

In short, this is a story in which our heroes stumble into a tough situation...and make it infinitely worse through their involvement.

That's the kind of thing that didn't often happen to Captain Picard...

15 comments:

  1. John,

    I am so thoroughly enjoying this series and the minutia within it I am sad to say I am not this far along.

    I will return to enjoy your assessment one day, because I LOVE Farscape.

    If only, in a perfect world, I could quit my job, sit at home all day long and eat munchies while watching Farscape... ah, but alas that is not to be. : )

    all the best my friend
    sff

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  2. Ah, finally :D

    First - a hearty thank you for taking a look at this fascinating episode for us today.

    I recall watching this for the first time, and expecting every time that a plan was made to resolve things, that it would mend the time line, that time would right itself as they were suggesting, and all would go back to the way it was.

    As each plan went staggeringly wrong, as each different idea only made the outcome incrementally worse, it truly was a gut-punch - and I might argue not just one, but a volley of them delivered slowly over time. What made it truly sink in, was that as the story progresses, the end outcome keeps being 'checked'. We know it isn't getting better. The characters know it isn't getting better. The drive renews to fix it and save the objects of their different attachments (be it a whole subset of people, or individuals), thus more changes are made - and the worse it gets because try as they might - our "heroes" really don't have the foggiest idea what they're doing in the grand scheme of things, much like playing in a grand sandbox without realizing that the tide is creeping up from behind.

    An amazing episode, to be sure.

    One thing I especially like, having seen the series through, is that it also functions as an early time/space theory lesson, though by no means a gentle one. Without this set of events, would "Unrealized Realities" have had the same impact? I do love how the show ties this lot together, threading it forward and back.

    Thanks again!

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  3. Anonymous10:58 AM

    Enjoyed reading this. I tell everyone who loves tv to check out Farscape. I've come across no other show like it.

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  4. Terrific article. While I don't agree that "...Different Destinations" was a stand alone episode (wormhole travel and time is a theme in Farscape and I think ...DD just added a crumb or two to our understanding of that phenomena) everything else the author wrote is spot on. I love his insights into D'Argo - and I appreciated the author explaining the pop culture reference to "Tony Montana" (having never watched "Scarface") but now I get it!

    I love discussing this show with people who bring their varied experience and insights to the table - I always learn so much.

    Thanks!

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  5. First--have not seen this series (didn't have cable while it was running). But I have heard many good things about it, and it is definitely on my list of things to watch. Not the least reason of which is that I've gotten the impression that while there are similarities to DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise, it goes in different directions and didn't let itself get into ruts creatively. I'm also interested in this alien (D'Argo, I guess) who kind of looks like he might be a dwarf out of Tolkien by way of Babylon 5.

    And of course there's spaceships and battles and cool effects. Window dressing, as the classic Twilight Zone and Doctor Who and James Cameron proved: superior storytelling can overcome any effects, whether good or bad or plain non-existent.

    This whole episode sounds absolutely incredible and I just can't wait to watch it and the series. Thanks for this detailed review, it whets my appetite for Farscape! (Showing my lack of knowledge, I thought the show only lasted one season...LOL)

    Gordon Long

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  6. Hi Everyone,

    SFF: Boy, do you have a treat in store for you. "Different Destinations" is seriously one of the top ten Farscape episodes, in my estimation. By all means, save the surprise till you watch it! It's a great show.

    Woodchuckgod:

    This is one of my favorite Farscape episodes, and it's a pleasure to watch...every time. I like what you wrote:

    "One thing I especially like, having seen the series through, is that it also functions as an early time/space theory lesson, though by no means a gentle one..."

    That's a good point, and may be why some Farscape fans object to me calling the episode a standalone. For me, it's about as standalone as Farscape gets (after some first season shows...), but you're right: there's a thread here that is pursued.

    Anonymous: I couldn't agree with you more. Farscape is incredibly impressive, and great television...

    (more to come..)

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  7. Hi Carol H:

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review, and I understand why you feel my use of the term "standalone" was debatable at best. Still, I think this is as "standalone" as mid-Farscape gets. But you are right, there are some issues about the mutability of time, etc., that clearly come back.

    Thank you for your kind words, and I'm thrilled you enjoyed the review.

    PDXWiz: I suspect you will truly love Farscape. I watched it in first run, and then did a re-watch last year, and it's incredibly impressive. It's the kind of space adventure we just don't seem to get anymore, for some reason, filled with great special effects, incredible make-up, and stories of true wonder. You have at treat in store for you...

    best,
    JKM

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  8. PDXWiz:

    I forgot to mention to, you will get new entries on your NASAalterverse from Farscape as well, since a NASA mission is what starts the show off!

    I've been enjoying your blog, and am linking to it on this site!

    regards,
    John

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  9. Ahh, glad to hear that, John! I was happy to see you had become a follower. It's nice to share my love of NASA-era space exploration science fiction with others, as much of a niche as it is. (But Starlog would have tapped into that, I'm sure.)

    Oh, cool, so Crichton's going to be right up my alley then, doubling my expected pleasure from Farscape...I didn't know he was an astronaut. I had thought this was either set somewhere else (like Star Wars) or somewhen else (like Star Trek). Very cool, and thanks for the heads up!

    I have more stuff coming for the AlterNASAverse as well as my general sf/fantasy blog, Gordon's Galaxy. So much to read, so much to watch.... (big grin) But I've also been busy helping my wife with her Fantasy Island website.

    Gordon Long

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  10. This is one of the best reviews of this episode I have ever read. I think you pretty well covered the gist of it. I watched this episode way back when it first aired and I understand your use of the term standalone. It did work in the issue of time and how messing with timelines does have consequences. And that can work into the issue of concern for Crichton and his wormhole travel. But, this episode really wasn't an intricate part of the overall story arc, per se.

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  11. SylvreWolfe: Thank you for that compliment, very, very much. I appreciate it!

    This is one of my favorite episodes and I do consider it a standalone.

    I mean, you can pick it up and watch it anytime, without having to necessarily know all the seasonal story threads. The story is self-contained here. We get everything we need to know from watching this episode (though, of course, this being Farscape, the more you watch the series, the more you will pick up on intricacies, references and more.)

    Thanks!
    John

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  12. John, as an obsessive 'scape fan, I've seen this episode at least half a dozen times. You provided an analysis of things I'd never considered. Tony Montana/Davy Crocket, beliefs/destinations, warriors/fathers--I'd never put these things in that perspective.

    Thanks for such an in depth analysis of my favorite show.

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  13. EP:

    Thank you for such kind words. They mean a lot to me. "Different Destinations" is one of those Farscape episodes (like "The Way We Weren't") that I always come back to; always re-visit, because there's so much there. And both of those episodes are downright haunting as well.

    I love that in Farscape, things don't always end up neat or happy, and through this uncertainty/ambiguity, we glean a richer sense of the characters and their universe.

    Thank you for your comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  14. Another great review that captures the essence of why Farscape was one of the best sci fi shows of all time. Farscape *not* Star Trek. Often, there is no favorable outcome and no best course of action.

    But I think it's precisely because it's about overcoming and coping with genuinely difficult issues that the show was cancelled. Most people--even hard core sci fi fans--either don't want or can't hack these sorts of stories.

    This type of hardship is different from the type of "realism" (casting, wobbly cameras, grittiness) found in Battlestar Galactica. Even though the cast of BSG was under siege constantly, and suffered hardship, there was a real caring and tenderness among Moya's crew that was absent in BSG.

    Farscape came alive because they became better people as a result of a terrible situation. Star Trek, well...no.

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  15. Hi Pete,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    I agree with you that the joy of Farscape rests in the very idea dramatized in Stark's statement of "different beliefs/different destinations."

    The crew of Moya was likable, but they didn't share the same agenda by any means. As a result, there was friction, fighting and also -- wonderfully -- compromise.

    I love Star Trek too, but there Captain Picard could wrestle with the decision and issue his orders without fear of repercussions from the men and women he led. It was clean, not messy. It wasn't like life, essentially. Everyone went along lockstep. On the original Star Trek, at least we had Bones always in Kirk's face, making sure alternatives were considered.

    I also agree with you about the remade Battlestar Galactica. The characters were so damn unlikable, it almost didn't matter whether they succeeded or not. We just didn't care about them.

    Thank you for the great comment!

    best,
    JKM

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