Farscape: “DNA Mad Scientist”

12/22/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 9. Writer: Tom Blomquist. Director: Andrew Prowse. Rating: A.

“Yeah, happens all the time, needle in the eye, no sweat.” It’s with this rather disturbing image, and a menacing (and ultra-cool) new alien, that we begin our latest adventure. The crew’s come to a reclusive scientist, the asteroid-dwelling sort, who can use DNA to craft genetically encoded star maps to lead each passenger back to their respective homeworld. Farscape teaches that looks can be deceptive, but it’s obvious from the moment NamTar (Adrian Getley) introduces his Igor-ishly deformed assistant Kornata (Sarah Burns), that we’re going to be dealing with (by fishnets and steel attire alone) a fetishistic Frankenstein. Sure enough, his price for this assistance is one of Pilot’s arms. (Cue ominous music.)

After the offer, we’re brooding in a nearby bar (I guess there are dives everywhere) with Crichton and Aeryn. The former is so depressed that he’s forsaken his “neurotically careful” approach to alien life: despite a database of over eleven million species, NamTar can’t even narrow Crichton’s search. He’s also oblivious to Aeryn’s own pain, as she observes that while her shipmates can use this information to return home, avoiding Peacekeeper territory, her home is Peacekeeper territory. And it’s all moot, anyway, since Pilot isn’t likely to volunteer one of his arms. Then again, perhaps looks are still deceptive: cut to a shot of Rygel futilely tugging on a protesting Pilot’s arm — this much we expected — and then zoom out to reveal Zhaan using her empathic powers to take Pilot’s pain as D’Argo uses his blade to sever the limb.

Equally surprising, at least to Crichton, is that Pilot’s not “insanely angry” about it: if not the damage (Pilot’s species has excellent regenerative powers) then at least the principle of it. As it turns out, Pilot’s more Zen than Zhaan: without bonding to a Leviathan, his race cannot see the stars, and so he considers pretty much anything that happens to him a part of the price he pays as a sycophantic creature. And while this pained stoicism fits with what we saw him endure in “I, E.T.,” it hurts to hear him call the harm done to him an “equitable arrangement”; at least he manages to get some passive-aggressive barbs in later: “At least you didn’t have to trade anything of real value,” he says, when it turns out that Moya cannot process the crystallized information for all three worlds.

Much drama ensues, as Rygel hides the data crystal and refuses to return it unless it’s used to find his homeworld, which leads to D’Argo playing murderous, lock-you-in-your-cell-until-you-starve cop and Zhaan playing flirtatious, two-consenting-adults-up-for-experimentation cop. (“You think I could find you attractive?” asks a flustered Rygel, trying to recompose himself. “You’re so, so . . . blue!”) Most impressive, however, is the way in which the episode’s writer, Tom Blomquist, finds time to address potential plot holes, not just with the in-fighting among the crew, but with the whole “star map” situation (which first arose in the similarly titled “PK Tech Girl”). It’s not retconning: it’s a loosening of the restrictive notion that heretical Zhaan, deposed Rygel, and dishonored D’Argo are definitively exiled. As D’Argo puts it, “My leaders imprisoned me. Not my people.” (This is how the delusional Rygel sees it, too.)

As for Aeryn, who opens up to Crichton about the fact that she’s never been alone, she’s in trouble, too. Having returned to NamTar in the hopes that he can help her find one of those rumored Sebacean colonies that does not belong to the Peacekeeper empire, she’s “intracted” by the experiment-happy scientist. Infected with Pilot’s DNA, she starts to mutate — extra arms growing out of her chest, strange webbing and purplish-blue scales, the whole nine parsecs — and now knows what it’s like to be Pilot, to hear all the delicate organic machinery of the ship operating all at once. As for NamTar, he’s a tricky creature: when Aeryn corners him, he temporarily instructs his nervous receptors to interpret pain as pleasure. “Please, press harder,” he grins. Later, as Crichton attacks him, the “good” doctor uses telekinesis to fling him aside. Oh, and after being shot, it turns out that he, too, has superior regenerative powers — he’s been grafting the genetic powers of other species onto himself, and Pilot’s multitasking ability is the one he’s now after.

Not to hammer this whole “looks can be deceiving” thesis home too harshly, but in a well-executed reveal, it comes out that NamTar’s isn’t a genius scientist: he’s an upwardly mobile lab rat, and Kornata’s the usurped master. And while the comparison to Josef Mengele would normally come across as heavy-handed, within the contexts of a debate on the ethics of evolution, it’s quite effective. This is what science-fiction does best, and why some literary people have lobbied to call it “speculative fiction”: it creates a world in which we can see the results of taking certain methods of so-called “rational” thoughts to their natural conclusions. It’s what happens in this confrontation between Crichton and NamTar; in a smooth piece of parallel plotting, it’s also what happens with the conflict between Rygel and his crewmates–that crystal, even if it weren’t also a virus meant to wipe Moya’s memory banks, was too important for any one side to ever own. In other words, the only way to end the war (hyperbole, a useful technique here) would be to destroy the thing being fought for.

There’s so much good stuff going on that it’s almost inevitable that the conclusion feel a little rushed, with NamTar all too susceptible to a devolving cocktail that surely someone would have injected him with earlier (Aeryn gets a dose of the same to reverse her mutation). The relationships between the crew are rather abruptly reset, too, but there’s at least a wonderful coda in which D’Argo tends to Pilot:

“You understand that if I was faced with the same choice again, I would do exactly the same.”

“I have no doubt whatsoever. I also know that Luxans are not given to apologies.”

D’Argo cannot help being the warrior that he is; but he’s determined to also be more. It’s with that that he reveals the shukran he’s been working on, and no, it is not a weapon. It’s an instrument. Remember, things are not what they seem.

Other observations: 

  • You can’t have tragedy without firmly defined characters. Case in point: the tragic elements of this episode stem from the willingness of selfish Rygel, violent D’Argo, and even rational Zhaan to harm the defenseless Pilot so as to obtain NamTar’s data. Their actions are understandable, even rational, but not necessarily excusable, and this domestic-y stuff is so familiar that if not for the freaky mutant Pilot-hybrid chained up in NamTar’s home, this could be a Lifetime movie.
  • Have we heard the curse “frell” before? It’s a more original substitute than “frack,” but doesn’t sound quite as satisfying.
  • Rygel’s scooter is conveniently fast, isn’t it?
  • That’s a sweet gesture from Crichton, bringing the recovering Aeryn a tray of food cubes placed in the shape of a smiley face.
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