Friday, November 01, 2013

Cult-TV Flashback: Farscape: "The Way We Weren't"

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." 


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 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 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.

1 comment:

  1. John. I did watch this episode shortly after reading your reflections on it some time ago. It is just chock-filled with emotional power. It was indeed moving and remains one of the very best of the series. I enjoyed reading your analysis here very much. Happy-belated Halloween.


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