Farscape, the Henson Company’s extravaganza of a gonzo science fiction TV series, filmed in Australia at the turn of the last century, weirder and grosser and funnier and more brutal than almost any other piece of SF television—a show where a puppet, playing Dominar Rygel the XVI, sluglike deposed ruler of the Hynerian Empire, farts helium for plot purposes more than once—has at its center a drama of profound ethical transformation. By this I am of course referring to the journey of the show’s protagonist, John Crichton.
Farscape is a brilliant piece of television for many reasons—compulsively enjoyable, incredibly weird, emotionally challenging. But it is the ethical journey of John Crichton which, for me, makes it worth watching and rewatching, especially as our own world veers out of the predicted, understandable, comfortable place some of us believed we dwelled in, and into something far closer to what Crichton calls the “weird, amazing, and psychotic life. In Technicolor,” that he found through a wormhole to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. In looking at what happens to Crichton over four seasons and a miniseries, I find myself thinking about the lasting effects of trauma, and the experience of trying to find a new, solid self in a universe gone off the rails.
John Crichton looks like an everyman protagonist, when he starts out. He’s an astronaut, a scientist, a pilot for IASA (Farscape’s slightly-futuristic International Aeronautics & Space Agency), doing an experiment of his own design in a ship of his own construction, hoping to figure out how to use gravity and physics to help humanity explore the stars. We see him in his cheerful, NASA-esque beige-and-white flight suit; an all-American Southern boy with daddy issues and a big brain, out to prove a theory and make a point, but not out to get anyone. Of course his experiment goes awry and he is sucked through a wormhole into a distant part of the galaxy (bad enough!) where the very first thing he does is commit vehicular manslaughter (some other guy, driving his spaceship badly towards a space battle, clips John’s unexpectedly-appearing shiplet and careens himself into a fiery death by asteroid collision.) Things get worse from there. John is immediately entangled in the politics of a group of alien escaped prisoners and their getaway vehicle, the living ship Moya. He’s also made his first enemies: the man who he got killed is the brother of the somewhat unhinged commander of the fleet those prisoners are escaping from…
But a recounting of the perils of John Crichton, which are many, varied, delicious, and overwhelming, is not what we’re here to do. We’re here because he doesn’t stay that paragon of space-age Americana, a genuinely good and funny and ambitious man in a terrible situation. We’re here because the vast and incomprehensible universe he finds himself in warps him almost beyond recognition, so that in the episode “La Bomba,” late in Season 4 (the last full season of the show, not counting the Peacekeeper Wars miniseries), he has become the sort of man who straps a nuclear bomb to his crotch and stages an act of terrorist negotiation. Does he have reasons to do this? Of course he does. But they are so entangled in what the farthest reaches of the galaxy have done to him, and how he has responded to these challenges, that they seem almost incompatible with the man who had left Earth and then spent nearly all of those four seasons trying to get back to it.
He’s fallen in love, and made real friends. He’s been made to identify with the oppressed and the alien, the fugitive and the political underclass. He’s been driven quite literally mad by a possessing spirit of one of his greatest enemies, rendered perhaps not-quite-human by the machinations of a long-vanished race of aliens who implanted the knowledge of wormhole technology in his brain, and has become both an intergalactic hero and an intergalactic villain. He’s stopped a war, and started one. He dresses for his new persona—first as a disguise, in the Season One episode “Nerve,” where he dons the identity and clothing of a Peacekeeper special ops captain in order to try to save the life of his friend and lover Aeryn Sun—and then as a matter of course, choosing black leather, dusters, a very large gun he names Winona. He shifts accents at the drop of a hat, or under the influence of a prevailing wind. He learns to make use of what the Uncharted Territories have done to him: relying on risk-taking, bravado, unpredictability, and a cavalier disregard for his own skin to get himself and his people through.
He is not at all sane, John Crichton—and he knows it. He becomes the kind of person who can make choices—some bad, some good, all necessary—that respond to the un-saneness of the world he lives in now, and his own damage. And eventually, he does get to come home to Earth, in the middle of Season 4.
But once he gets there, he finds he no longer belongs. Adrift in post- 9/11 America, John sees humanity as paranoid, dangerous, and parochial. He is exquisitely aware of both the fragile majesty of human beings and our planet, and the profound danger that he—entangled by this point in an interstellar war between the Peacekeepers and their ancient enemies, the Scarrans—and the rest of the universe beyond the wormholes represent. He has seen too much, and gone too far out of himself, to return to what or where he was. At the conclusion of the episode “Terra Firma,” he chooses to leave Earth for good. He goes back to Moya, to his new found family of refugees, revolutionaries, and allies, and to the possibility of romance with the alien woman he has irrevocably fallen in love with, Aeryn Sun. John calls his father to say goodbye, and to ask him to work to make humanity a species that will be ready for the horrors and wonders of the universe—horrors and wonders beyond its current comprehension. It is a choice he could not have made if he had not been changed; if he had not been hurt; if he had not been traumatized and learned how to live with his trauma, to exist perfused in it and keep going.
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The choice he makes is an ethical one, a challenging one. It suggests that a person cannot slough off trauma like a shed skin; that change must be lived with, accommodated, anticipated. That sometimes you can’t go home. It is a surprising and radical move for a show which had been framed, up until this point, around Crichton’s quest to get back to Earth—and it comes not as a season-ending gotcha but as a season-midpoint reframing. What if the response to trauma, change, and knowledge of the weight of the world is not, ideally, to return to the place you were before all that happened to you? What if it was instead to acknowledge those changes, and make new choices from the standpoint of living in a world in which you have indeed been hurt? Suddenly a whole new horizon of possibilities opens for the show, and its resolutions are no longer those of the hero’s journey, where eventually the protagonist returns to where they started, having accomplished a great task. They are resolutions framed in something entirely different: the questions of how to live in a damaged universe, a damaged mind, a complicated and unfixable internal and external place—and how to make a life there, and do good from there.
Of course it isn’t easy for John. It’s not easy for anyone to live with trauma. The person John Crichton ends up being when he figures out that he can’t go home again isn’t really that great, to start with—see under the episode with the nuclear terrorism. His first task, back out in the Uncharted Territories (along with, y’know, stopping a war), is to figure out how to rebuild a better person who can live where he has found himself. Farscape’s concluding miniseries Peacekeeper Wars tackles this directly. No spoilers—it’s worth seeing for yourself—but I, for one, think John manages it by the end.
We could all do as well.
Arkady Martine writes speculative fiction when she isn’t writing Byzantine history. She is overly fond of borders, rhetoric, and liminal spaces. Her novel A Memory Called Empire publishes March 26th with Tor Books. Find her on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.