Friday, November 01, 2013

Cult-TV Flashback: Farscape: "Different Destinations"

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...

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