Farscape: “That Old Black Magic”

12/14/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 8. Writer: Richard Manning. Director: Brendan Maher. Rating: F+.

Unless there are solid, foundational rules that govern the use of magic (see the Brandon Sanderson novels, for instance, or the more realistic and militarily grounded work of George R. R. Martin’s), I tend to prefer science-fiction to fantasy. The latter, after all, has far too many deus ex “magica” endings, in which the day is saved not by the character, but by some as-yet unrealized power. This, of course, makes the premise of this episode — which puts it right in the title — a little hard to swallow. After all, Crichton’s wandering through a bazaar as the crew resupplies, and there’s plenty that’s weird enough to explore already (like a lovely  avian species with multiple heads . . . whose brains are a rare delicacy . . . when they’re served raw, at least). Do we really need to introduce a cheap trickster character (seriously, he looks as if he’s out of Hercules/Xena)? Worse, does he need to literally spirit Crichton away into the chambers of Haloth, a stereotypical “wizard” (right down to the raspy voice most recently heard on, say, Legend of the Seeker) who seems to know all about Earth? Even if it’s all a Wizard of Oz-type set-up (magic, after all, is merely science that we don’t yet understand), this doesn’t feel like an episode of Farscape, even with Zhaan getting a chance to flirt with a red-skinned pharmacist.

No, we’re cheating right from the get-go: for some reason, it’s necessary to lure Crichton in, but when it comes to Crais, Haloth simply transports him right off his ship. (Just in the nick of time for Crais, too, as he’s been recalled by Peacekeeper High Command, put in the position of having to refuse them in order to seek out revenge on Crichton.) All this blurring worked for the show LEXX, which didn’t take itself too seriously about the various types of creatures out in the universe, but even once we learn that Crichton is merely in a waking dream of sorts (D’Argo easily retrieves his body — turns out, humans smell rather strong to Luxans), in which all of his mental scars are translated into physical ones. It still seems awfully contrived: a way for Crichton and Crais to have a showdown without dragging the rest of the Peacekeepers into things. (I get that this “cruel and malevolent being who’s learned how to transcend corporeal form” — quoted in all of its ridiculous glory — prefers fresh victims, but was the feud between Crichton and Crais the only way to lure a Command Carrier into the Uncharted Territories?)

Once you go down this route, further silliness abounds. The wizard’s name is actually Maldis, and he shape-shifts into a foppish, collared, yellow-eyed “psychic vampire” as the episode continues: for the further “fun” of audiences at home, he does funny voices (including cockney), too, which prompts Crichton to dub him “a regular Lawrence Olivier.” (And he’s right; this is a thanklessly theatrical part.) It’s also unclear what Maldis wants to do: if he wants to toy with them, as seems to be the case considering all the hiding places in his shifting, maze-like temple, why does he start by putting the two in the same room, where it might all be over with a single blow? If he wants them to kill each other, why does he allow them to keep talking to one another, allowing Crichton both to perfectly rationalize Maldis’s game (he’s feeding off their energy) and to point out how absurd it would be for “primitive” Crichton to have murdered anyone? From the perspective of the writer’s room, it makes sense, for without magic, how else might we get flashbacks into Crais’s past? (He and his younger brother were conscripted at a young age; his father made him swear to protect his brother.) From the sofa, though, it’s cheap stuff, and it adds nothing to this particular episode. As you’ll see later in the series, there are more science-fiction friendly ways to get in someone’s head.

Thankfully, there’s only so low the episode can go, so once the red-skinned hunk who’s been flirting with Zhaan gets all that exposition out of the way, he’s able to take our blue-backed ninth-level Pa’u, into some dark places, as he reawakens her darker side in order to fight back against the psychic vampire. Her first lesson is to inflict pain — and her target is Rygel. (“A part of me enjoyed that,” she hisses, wet trails on her cheeks.) She may save the day, but it’s at the cost of her fellow red monk’s life, and the savage power she’s regained (which she once thought eradicated) is causing her to lash out at any kindness aimed her way, be it Crichton’s offer to be a good listener, or Aeryn’s compliments to her “warrior” skills. (D”Argo understands that such a “compliment” could not cut the would-be-pacifist any deeper.) Still, considering that she didn’t even kill Maldis, or even really hurt him (she distracted him), it’s even clearer that this is a stepping-stone episode: it sets up future plots at the cost of its own quality. Ah, well; we all lay a stinker or two.

Random observations:

  • Rygel decides to skip the formalities of Crichton actually dying and recites the Hynerian Ceremony of Passage: “John Crichton, valued friend. Now wait a minute. ‘Valued friend’ is a bit of a stretch. John Crichton, unwelcome shipmate, may you have safe transport to the hallowed realm. [Pause] Actually, not our hallowed realm. No, that’s for Hynerians. Go find your own hallowed realm.” Beautiful words which, by the way, now allow Rygel to claim all his possessions.
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