Farscape: “Until the Blood Runs Clear”

01/30/2012 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 11. Writer: Doug Heyes, Jr. Director: Tony Tilse. Rating: B-.

“She’s gone completely farbotz,” says Rygel, with perhaps more than a hint of jealousy, watching as Zhaan all but throws herself at D’Argo. “Yes,” observes asexual Pilot, thinking more of Moya’s unborn Leviathan child, “Delvian females are unusually sensitive to ionic radiation.” To which the light-sensitive Zhaan adds, “We call it a photogasm.” Two newly coined words, more information about the bodily functions of our alien crew, and we’ve barely started the episode: did I mention that Crichton’s having a mindgasm of his own, having used this sexy solar flare to recreate the kind of wormhole — albeit an unstable one — that transported him to this galaxy far, far away? (If not for Aeryn’s presence aboard his IASA module — a 0ne-woman cold shower — Farscape might have ended right here.)

It’s unclear why D’Argo’s so eager to leave this planet — especially since he’s shown interest in Zhaan before — but he quickly runs into conflict with data-mining Crichton, who refuses to abandon his plasma-leaking module. Instead, Crichton heads to the planet’s Tatooine-y surface to find a conveniently located mechanic named Furlough . . . and a pair of feral hunters in search of the “three” escaped fugitives — D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel — for whom the Peacekeepers are offering a substantial bounty. It’s all a bit contrived and convenient, and yet, these (un)happy accidents are the meat of Farscape, in which our heroes blunder into situations they don’t understand and are subsequently forced to bluster their way out; this episode’s dynamic forces Crichton to pretend to be an alpha dog, lest his “mate” Aeryn be killed by these red-eyed, weakness-sensing Volkarian blood trackers, Rorf and Rorg.

Luckily for Crichton’s on-the-fly “Hole in the Sky” gang of rival bounty hunters — Supernatural fans, watch out for Butch (Crichton) and Sundance (Aeryn) — these Volkarians aren’t the brightest bunch of Bobas, as demonstrated by their negotiating prowess:

CRICHTON: I’ll split the bounty 70-30.
RORF: 70[menacing pause]-40!
CRICHTON: 80-40. You in or you out?

Unfortunately, he’s not a real alpha dog: that’s why he’s been so oblivious to Aeryn’s own desires to return home — feelings that rival, if not surpass, his, as we saw in the recklessness of “DNA Mad Scientist” — and why he might be underestimating the appeal of the beacon’s secret message to Aeryn: turn over the Leviathan, the fugitives, and Crichton, and she gets to retire with her full commission and her “impurities” forgiven. It’s also why he’s so slow on the uptake regarding Furlough’s unusual interest in his junky module: for all his experimenting with wormholes, he forgot to realize that other people might notice weird blue portals in the sky, let alone the numerous foreign particles spread across his ship.

But at least his experience with his father’s hounds has taught him a thing or two about the pack mentality, so when the Volkarians capture D’Argo, Crichton’s able to keep him alive by stimulating the blood (as we saw in “Throne for a Loss”). And while he may be figuratively blind, at least he doesn’t go literally blind, as happens to Aeryn when she accidentally gets an eyeful of solar flare while fending off some of Furlough’s overzealous workers (who want to steal Crichton’s flight data). Special credit to writer Heyes, too, for not taking the cheesy literary route, in which “her blindness helps him to finally see what he really cares about.”

The big development in this episode, however, comes between Crichton and D’Argo: all it took was a little torture for them to finally have a heart-to-heart. Trust doesn’t come easy to Luxans, especially one who feels as constantly betrayed as D’Argo, and Crichton’s physical similarities to Peacekeepers is rough on him. And yet:

CRICHTON: This isn’t going to work, is it? We’re never going to be friends.
D’ARGO: Friendship is a lot to ask.
CRICHTON: Then how about respect? We can be allies.

This may not seem like a lot, but as the ensuing battle between Crichton, D’Argo, and the bounty hunters shows, a Luxan never abandons an ally, regardless of personal risk. And as Aeryn and Crichton prove, risking their lives for one another, this band of fugitives are allies, even if they’re not quite friends. So yes, in the end, Crichton has to give Furlough his recently acquired data in order to pay the repair bill, which means he’s back to square one. But at the same time, as Zhaan points out, there are other planets with solar activity: he can start from scratch. And this time, he’ll have allies.

Obsessive observations: 

  • The native aliens on this planet look really cool with their bad-ass shades and Rorschatz-like faces. It’s a shame they’re so upstaged by the Volkarians and Furlough’s humanoid species. For that matter, the costume designers get points all-around for style: D’Argo’s Dead Space-like welding mask is neat, and even the pin-hole goggles donned by Crichton and Aeryn are fashionable.
  • Before he lost contact with them, D’Argo knew that Crichton was headed to Furlough’s. Why, then, does he park so far away from the settlement? He’s unaware that there are beacons broadcasting his face, but walking through the desert, alone, is just asking for trouble. There are always Jawa-like creatures in them there dunes. (It can’t just be a matter of his bullishness behavior either; Zhaan does the same thing.)
  • FURLOUGH: Why don’t you go for a nice long walk outside, take in some of the sights?
    AERYN: What sights?
    FURLOUGH: Well, if you go straight out that way, there’s a truly outstanding expanse of sand.
    AERYN: Sand, eh?
    FURLOUGH: Just as much as you could want.
  • Rygel’s poor virgin eyes: he happens upon Zhaan while she’s bathing in the buff, soaking up those photogasms, and now he’s afraid to look at her, lest she once again be naked. (“Don’t insult my eyes with your naked blue extremities. . . . Help, help, a mad Delvian exhibitionist is forcing herself on me!”) He may look like a toad, but he’s not the horny kind, I guess; and hey, now Zhaan’s got an easy way to shut Rygel up in the future.

Farscape: “They’ve Got a Secret”

12/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 10. Writer: Sally Lapiduss. Director: Ian Watson. Rating: B.

As we saw back in “I, E.T.” (which was incidentally the last episode that Sally Lapiduss wrote), the Peacekeepers didn’t just enslave the infant Leviathan ships — they installed all sorts of secret devices on them, from tracking beacons to communication arrays. It’s only natural, then, that a concerned Pilot would have the crew searching for other hidden installations, though probably a mistake to involve someone like D’Argo in the search. Sure, he may be able to find the damn things, but his idea of uninstalling hardware involves his Qualta blade, and in this case, his tampering with the propulsion equipment ends with him being ejected into deep space. And while Luxans can survive that sort of thing, it’s not without some residual hallucinations that cause him to mistake Zhaan for his late wife Lo’Laan; Rygel for his beloved son, Jothee; and Crichton for Lo’Laan’s treacherous brother, Macton?

As for the rest of the ship, D’Argo’s unwittingly released something into Moya’s systems, which are now failing and has led to Pilot’s incapacitation. (Aeryn, in a nod to her recent mutation in “DNA Mad Scientist” is able to temporarily take over his duties.) Even some of the DRDs have gone rogue, and while these golden-plated, glorified Roombas don’t look like the most menacing of droids, their ability to superglue Aeryn to the floor is pretty effective at forcing her and Crichton to spend some close-up time together. Later on, they seem to have gotten an upgrade: a whole Birds-like horde of them chase Crichton down a corridor while shooting lasers.

Without being able to find the Peacekeeper panel that D’Argo disabled, the crew realizes that they’ll be unable to reverse whatever’s ailing Moya; this means they’ll have to snap D’Argo out of his fantasies sooner rather than later. Humorous as it is to see D’Argo tucking Rygel in for bed, and valuable as it is to see Simcoe showing his emotional side to Zhaan, it comes down to Crichton’s provocations to help D’Argo separate his happier past from the dangerous present. It’s a wonderful payoff on the secret hinted at in “Back and Back and Back to the Future,” which is that D’Argo’s true crime was in having a mixed relationship with a Peacekeeper woman, Lo’Laan. Apparently, the affair was so illicit that Lo”Laan’s own brother, Macten, murdered her and then used his Peacekeeper rank to pin the crime on D’Argo (although not before D’Argo sent Jothee to safety.)

Satisfying and well-acted as these revelations are, they’re unfortunately largely revealed through exposition. There’s little clash between Crichton-as-Macten and D’Argo, mainly because there’s still one giant reveal left, which is “What’s wrong with Moya?” Keeping with Farscape‘s theme of expecting the unexpected, Moya is sick, but not from a virus: she’s pregnant. The device D’Argo neutralized was, essentially, a form of Leviathan birth control, and it’s out of the frightened need to protect her young that the DRDs have been sealing off passageways and attempting to fend off the crew. There’s no bad guy at the heart of this episode, just a series of unfortunate miscommunications — ones that almost lead to Aeryn performing a lobotomy on Moya’s higher functions. (And you thought their willingness to sever Pilot’s arm was rough?)

In all, the D’Argo development is terrific stuff, especially the way this colors all of his past and future interactions with Aeryn, but the episode itself suffers from major similarities to “Exodus from Genesis,” right down to the conclusion, in which Crichton manages to communicate with the pregnant host and to convince it to find a compromise that allows both the crew and the baby to survive. (You’d think Moya would have been smart enough to do this from the start, but I suppose that wouldn’t be very dramatic.) And while Crichton compares the lurking DRDs — innocuous until this episode — to Hitchcock, director Ian Watson fails to deliver on that fearful suspense. He’s not wrong to focus on characters, but the episode would have been stronger had it found ways to use the tension to reveal things about the characters, rather than separating them into distinct and less affecting parts.

Obsessive observations: 

  • The neat thing about Crichton as a character is that he’s constantly comparing things in this new galaxy to things back home on Earth. This week, he compares the symbiotic relationship between Pilot and Moya to its closest correlation: horsemen. “Horses are loyal and intelligent creatures,” he says. “That you capture and make work for you,” retorts Aeryn. “Yeah, but we love ’em, too.” “You love what you enslave?” “We don’t enslave them . . . [thinks about it] Fine, we enslave ’em.”
  • Aeryn continues to press Crichton later in the episode as to why he’d want to return to a planet so riddled with disease and destruction. It’s a good question; Crichton’s answer is better: “You guys don’t have chocolate.”

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.

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.

Farscape: “PK Tech Girl”

12/13/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 7. Writer: Nan Hagan. Director: Tony Tilse. Rating: A.

Yes, there are puppet characters on Farscape, lovingly crafted by Jim Henson studios. But these aren’t your ordinary hand-and-rod figures; they’re more the meticulously detailed creations you find in a high-level creature shop, the one that cranks out monsters and aliens for big-budget films. Those seeking proof need look no further than the opening shot of this week’s episode, a slow pull back from one of Rygel’s glassy, reptilian-slitted eyes, past the moist and flattened snout between those eyes, with as much attention given to the fine white hairs sprouting from the bags beneath his eyes as on the perfectly groomed tufts that make up his wizened whiskers and the eyebrows that run from ear to ear. Few shows would dare to zoom in on what we know are illusions (just as only the best magicians perform close-up tricks, which must be all the more impeccable), but on Farscape, characters come first.

Plot’s not far behind, though. The thing reflected in Rygel’s eye (and it’s telling that the special effects aren’t nearly as detailed as the Henson effects . . . or perhaps a reminder that it’s 1999) is the wreck of a large Peacekeeper ship. Crichton’s smart enough to want to steer clear of the battlefield (consider, after all, how big the thing that destroyed the ship must have been!), but he’s overruled by Aeryn, who is always up for finding more weapons (and, because of her Peacekeeper history, needs to know what happened), and D’Argo, who hopes to find maps in the “dataspools” that will help them escape the “uncharted territory” into which their flight has taken them. (This hasn’t been a problem in the last several episodes, particularly “Back and Back and Back to the Future,” but there are worse contrivances.)

As for the ship itself, and why we first see it reflected through Rygel: it’s the Zelbinion, the most fearsome ship in the Peacekeeper armada (even D’Argo thought it was invincible, and he’ll attack anything), and before it disappeared 100 cycles ago, it’s where a freshly deposed Dominar Rygel (130 cycles ago, if you’re counting) was first tortured. The scars are enough to scare him off his usual gleeful looting, and good old empathetic Zhaan is there to lend an ear . . . and to encourage him to face his demons — the malicious Durka. (You’ll feel sorry for the torture of a puppet, which is why the creature effects are so essential.)

Creepy as the dead ship is, what with all the long-dead corpses and the more recently murdered survey team (burned alive by the Sheyang, saurian scavengers who spit fire), the episode quickly turns over to the titular survivor, Gilina Renaez (Alyssa Jane Cook), a Peacekeeper “tech,” who provides updates on Commander Crais’s vengeful hunt for Crichton and on the repercussions of Aeryn’s traitorous actions, which have led to the demotion of her entire team to “grot” work like guarding PK tech girls. She’s also the first genuine damsel in distress white knight Crichton’s come across: she’s attractive, a scientist like him, and someone he might actually be able to bond with, assuming Aeryn and D’Argo don’t kill her first. Here’s his first attempt at pitching woo: “I try to save a life a day. Usually it’s my own.” His second attempt is much better,

So: you’ve got Rygel facing visions of the man who tortured him, Zhaan and D’Argo attempting to fool the returning Sheyang ship into standing down, and an awkward triangle sprouts up between Crichton and the PK Tech Girl and a suddenly jealous Aeryn (“In the beginning . . . I found you interesting”), as they attempt to use the Zelbinion‘s defense shield to protect Moya. There are also some interesting power struggles aboard the Sheyang ship: turns out they attack anyone who shows weakness, their own clanmates included.

There’s a lot happening at once, but it’s all contributing to the larger plot, and it’s developing each character, particularly Aeryn. We learn that her particular type of commando unit practically grows up together, and they spend their whole lives aboard their vessels; now that Gilina’s confirmed that there’s no returning home for her — and that even her old team, her “family,” wants her dead so that they might be reinstated — she’s forced to face reality. And when that reality contains a shot of Crichton kissing another woman, she has to run away without appearing to do so; she cannot handle the idea of someone who might reject her even thinking that she’s still interested. Black’s taut line readings and fixed stare are terrific. “It’s always a good idea to clear the air,” bumbles Crichton. “Very clear air,” she growls in response, but she knows she won’t always have something heavy to hoist up and hide behind.

It’s a bittersweet ending; forced into making a distress signal to the Peacekeepers in order to drive off the Sheyang, the choice is between killing Gilina or leaving her behind — any other choice runs the risk of Crais picking up their trail. And although Crichton wants to take her with them, he admits that “This is no way to live.” You hear it most in the the “irreversibly contaminated” Aeryn’s words to Gilina: “I hope you will only ever imagine how horrible it is to never return to the life that you love.” What a curse, never to return to your home. And yet, what a curse, never to return to the man you love, and although Crichton and Gilana can crack jokes about getting together on their next vacation, this is the harshest view of Moya’s circumstances yet, and things can only get grimmer.

Stray observations: 

  • Here’s the difference between humans and Sebaceans, according to Crichton: “We haven’t conquered other planets yet, so we just kick the crap out of each other.” As we’ll see later in the episode, they share similar action-hero tropes in their fiction, too, in which two strangers have time both to save the ship and make sweet, sweet love.
  • For the record, I admire Farscape for not leaning too heavily on the Commander Crais situation. The circumstance is that Peacekeepers are after Moya and our heroes, but it is not the main plot, which allows the writers to remain inventive in a way that the Stargate franchise (which eventually led to the cancellation of Farscape, so I’m a bit bitter) rarely was. (So far, they’ve shown up in the pilot and at the tail end of “Exodus from Genesis.”)
  • “Scan vector gappa”: a not-so great moment in science-fiction gibberish. On the other hand, Crichton calls one of the fire-breathing Sheyangs a “gasshole,” so we’ll call it even.

Farscape: “Thank God It’s Friday … Again”

11/30/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 6. Writer: David Wilks. Director: Rowan Woods. Rating: B+.

One of the greatest advantages Farscape has over other shows is a strong roster of alien characters; it learned a valuable lesson, apparently, from the many back-stories which connected Babylon 5‘s diplomats, healers, and warriors. Regardless of each week’s plot, the show guarantees a baseline of success simply by finding different ways to have the cast interact with one another. In that sense, it’s much like a futuristic D&D campaign, led by the chaotic-good archetypes, not the plot. (You’ve got the knight, Crichton; the priest, Zhaan; the dwarf, Rygel [also doubling, right now, as the rogue]; the barbarian, D’Argo; the elf warrior, Aeryn; and the wizard, Pilot.) Instead of giving us episodes in which characters are defined by plot, then, the DM (writer) crafts each adventure around the characters themselves.

This week takes us to the planet Sykar, where D’Argo — suffering from hyper-rage — has gone to blow off some steam. After three days, Moya’s crew heads down to retrieve him, only to find a much calmer, happier Luxan warrior, who has decided to join the planet’s docile laborers, who contentedly work each day toward the promise of evening celebrations and a rest day tomorrow. Except that tomorrow never comes: they’ve been brainwashed by the crop they’re harvesting,  tannot roots, and are working in the sort of ignorant bliss that comes with short-term memory loss, and which cues the title. Every day is a Friday, and they’re the happiest of slaves in that they have no idea that they are slaves. (This episode has a lot of echoes of The Matrix, which came out about a month or so before this episode.)

The underground rebellion, led by a few immune natives who forcibly recruit Crichton to their cause, is the plot mover in this episode, but it’s not what writer David Wilks is interested in. Instead, he looks at what happiness, artificial or not, might look like to D’Argo and, to a lesser extent, Zhaan. As we saw with D’Argo’s attraction to the Scorvian spy last week,  this young warrior is in need of love, but is normally too tightly wound to receive it. Under the influence of this “happy plant,” he’s screwing limber women left and right, and we learn that he’s got a shot with Zhaan. (To be fair, Crichton might, too; the two end up bunking together, and Zhaan–who likes to sleep in the nude–has some wandering hands.) In contrast to that is the terrible cost of awareness, which is crushing Tanga (Tina Thomsen) and her father, Hybin (Ken Blackburn), who can remember the days of art and culture.

The truly interesting development in this episode, however, belongs to Aeryn, who gets stuck transporting Rygel back to Moya, on account of the fact that the chemicals in his digestive tract have processed the tannot root into the sort of highly-flammable oil that powers Peacekeeper weaponry. Aeryn’s out of her element, forced to work with Pilot to first flash-freeze Rygel, then scan and diagnose him, and finally flush the explosive sweat from Rygel’s body. She may bristle at the thought of being seen as a scientist — she’s only ever identified as a commando — but it’s clear that she relishes the idea that she no longer has to be limited to a single role. As for Pilot, we’re reminded once more of his own enslavement, forcibly bonded to the infant Moya, when he shamefully explains to Aeryn that he knows little of scientific data. He’s studying the ship’s built-in library, but he’s aware of how little he comprehends — which is why he feels able to confide in Aeryn: like her, the Peacekeepers only ever intended for him to serve in a limited capacity (as the ship’s navigator).

Ironically, Crichton — who is more at sea than any of his shipmates — is the one best able to adapt, largely because he doesn’t have a role in this new galaxy, and thereby has no reason to feel limited. He’s unable to find happiness, sure, but when he goes undercover, pretending to be Woodstock-stoned like the rest of the natives, he’s not unhappy, either. He’s just caught in the middle, doing his best to maintain the small slice of status quo he can call his own.

Unfortunately, focusing on the characters often leads to a muddled resolution — the plot itself is hardly as slick as the interactions forced within it. With Junior Chemist Aeryn’s help, Crichton reveals the truth about the tannot roots to the locals . . . by having Rygel piss explosively (literally) all over the place. For some reason, this snaps people out of their trances, including the paper doll of a villain, slow-talking Volmae (Angie Milliken), who, despite enslaving her own people on behalf of her Peacekeeper masters, suddenly has a change of heart. Her shallow plans make little sense, and they’re the largest blemish on an otherwise interesting episode. Then again, flaming piss. Who among us can argue with that?

Random observations: 

  • It’s one thing for Crichton to make references to Thunderdome when attempting to describe the primitive-looking planet they’ve landed on; it’s another for Aeryn to attempt to pick up Earth idioms, which is what leads her to exclaim that Volmae gives her a “woody.” (“Willies,” Crichton says, quickly correcting her. “She gives you the willies.”)
  • Oh, that Rygel, king at least of the smack-talk: “If I were warmer, I would have an appropriately venomous reply. Be warned. I owe you one.”

Farscape: “Back and Back and Back to the Future”

11/29/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 5. Writer: Babs Greyhosky. Director: Rowan Woods. Rating: B-.

I keep saying that Farscape is going to get pretty far out there: perhaps I’m suffering from the case of temporal dislocation that Crichton comes down with in this episode, after rescuing a disintegrating shuttle and being exposed to the runoff from a quantum singularity (i.e., a weaponized black hole). Yes, that’s right: it’s the oldest science-fiction staple in the book: the time-travel episode. The twist is that Crichton is being propelled forward in time, instead of back,  but the effect is one we’ve seen before: it’s basically Groundhog Day for our hero, who must convince a smitten D’Argo and skeptical Ilanic scientist, Verell (John Clayton), that his shipmate, Matala (Lisa Hensley), is actually a Scorvian spy with some really good genetic surgery.

The first few flashforwards are artfully done, as disorienting to us as they are to Crichton, as he keeps finds himself being raped by Matala, who arches her tongue, pins him to the wall by his throat, and then prepares to absorb his essence, bellybutton first. It’s enough to make him wonder if this particular species’ power revolves around having a “psychic Spanish fly,” although a jealous D’Argo swiftly disabuses him of this unwanted fantasy. But as he begins to catch up with some of his other flashes, deja vu style, he realizes that he’s not hallucinating: he’s seeing the future. Experiencing it, to be exact, although he just keeps making it worse, first getting himself killed, then D’Argo as well, and finally Moya itself, in one wonderful black-hole fueled implosion.

Unlike Steven Moffet’s writing on Doctor Who, however, Babs Greyhosky’s writing lacks a consistency to the “laws” of this so-called time travel. Things happen because they’re convenient or fun to watch: it’s unlike that an undercover Matala would ever risk exposure by attempting to “pleasure” Crichton, and it’s odd that Crichton keeps snapping forward into moments of peril, sometimes even two or three times in a row. It makes telling the story more dramatic, since we keep upping the stakes, but we can see all the cheating going on behind the scenes, which makes it all feel unearned. And given all that, Crichton’s not even the one who saves the day: it’s a fatally injured Verell, triggering a dead man’s switch that releases the quantum singularity as Matala tries to steal it. (Not a bright idea on her part, leaving the safety controls behind.)

It’s fine to fill an episode with witty, quotable lines, but the plotting should never be so apparent. Likewise with the direction: Rowan Woods is so eager to find the right framing for an overhead shot that he makes a “workout” (read: fight) between the two alpha females, Aeryn and Matala, appear incredibly staged. This poor fight choreography extends to the climax, in which Matala holds Verell hostage, instructing D’Argo to slide his Qualta blade over to her. Instead, he slides it into a crevice between two crates in the docking bay, which makes no sense: if you’re going to disobey, why do it in such a way that you’re still disarmed? The answer is that Woods needs for Crichton to go scrambling for the blade, and that it would look cool if D’Argo were to flip the crates out of the way: I get that there has to be a climax, but does it have to be so telegraphed?

These complaints aside, it’s still fun to see time-travel in action, and this D’Argo-centric episode does well to flesh out his character: “I am normally unaffected by females in a crisis,” says D’Argo, “but it has been so long.” That’s the closest to an apology you’ll get out of a proud Luxan warrior; chances are, we’ll learn what D’Argo’s true crime was — which is hinted at in this episode — long before we hear him do so again. I only wish the episode has managed to find a more integral part for Zhaan and Rygel; they’re good for more than exposition and comedy.

Random Observations: 

  • Zhaan: “He says he’s experiencing the future.”
    Aeryn: “The future? He can barely function in the present.”
  • Rygel, determined not to share his rations with the Ilanics, goes on a food binge: “Very difficult to start once you get started.” Consider that the Hynerian version of licking one’s food to claim it.

Farscape: “Throne for a Loss”

11/17/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 4. Writer: Richard Manning. Director: Pino Amenta. Rating: A-.

We’re off to a quick start in this episode, something that’s downright Firefly-like, with the crew having decided to take on some illegal cargo running as a means of barter. The Tavlek clients, however, have a better idea: kidnapping Rygel for ransom, unaware (due to Rygel’s posturing) that he’s a deposed emperor. All that’s done in the first three minutes, to say nothing of D’Argo’s unwise decision to strap on the wristband amplifier of one of the felled aliens — a child, apparently — never mind the needles injecting a rage-increasing “stimulant” into his arm. (Bane, anyone?)

In the thrilling first act, the protagonists must find a way to disarm the now-tyrannical D’Argo before he pilots the ship away from the pirates. It’s harder than it seems, for the wristband offers a perfect defense: stun blasts are met with auto-shielding, and although it seems as if Zhaan’s “sleep mist” is going to save the day, an extra dose of the drug keeps him going. It’s not until Crichton lures him, matador-like, into a pressure-trap set up by venting the propulsion system, that they’re able to knock him out. (Quick thinking is a theme of this, and most science-fiction programming, but Farscape gets really good at juggling problems and finding creative ways to solve them.)

The day is far from saved, though. Moya’s orbit is deteriorating, on account of Rygel’s vanity. To impress the clients with his opulence, he “borrowed” a control circuit from the living ship: a reddish, crystalline matrix. A moment ago, they wanted to altruistically save their shipmate; now that they have to save him, they want to kill him. (“I’ll torture him, and then I’ll kill him,” adds Aeryn.)

As for Rygel himself, he’s been buried in mud on the pirate’s base, and worse yet, his cellmate Jotheb, prince of the Consortium of Trao, controls a larger empire. Ten thousand to Rygel’s six hundred billion subjects, yes, but Jotheb is referring to planets. “I don’t believe you,” steams Rygel. “The imperfection is yours,” replies Jotheb. And lest we forget about Zhaan, she gets some comic moments on the other end of a jail cell. Time and again, the captured Tavlek attempts to one-up her; each time, he is rebuffed by the far more mature priestess. (“Soft, yes. Weak, no.”) When he realizes that his clothes have been taken — by Aeryn, who hopes to infiltrate the compound — he accuses Zhaan of wanting to see his package. Not rising to the bait, she compliments him — “Quite respectable for your age” — and strips down herself, unafraid as always.

If there’s any flaw to the episode, it’s that the “main” plot in which D’Argo, Crichton, and Aeryn attempt to save Rygel and Moya is a little paint-by-numbers. We know that all three are going to have their turn under the influence of the gauntlet; the only interesting bits come from their interactions, particularly between D’Argo and Aeryn, who, as in I, E.T., find common ground in making fun of Crichton’s incompetence. (To be fair, he did accidentally blow up their pulse rifle.)

Far better are the B-stories. Zhaan, a Delvian Pa’u priest of the Ninth Level, heals the prisoner with a kiss soaked in her blood/sap, and we see him now as a scared child, not at all what we thought when he was an anonymously masked bandit. His tale is sympathetic, similar to that of the child soldier, raised on suffering and cocaine: “Our gauntlet is our food, our blood, our life.” Can one whose life is defined by pain handle comfort?

Meanwhile, Rygel hits a low point: in fact, after a failed escape attempt, he’s dead. He’s resurrected by Jotheb, but when we find out that it’s not out of compassion, but as a ploy to convert the Dominar’s subjects, he snaps and delivers this manic confession, equal parts laughter and despair:

“You multi-throated moron! I don’t have any subjects…. My treacherous bastard of a cousin stole my throne and imprisoned me. I escaped with a few other fugitives and they’re the only ones who even know I’m here! They couldn’t [ransom me] if they wanted to, and they don’t want to, because they hate me!”

This is what Jim Henson dreamed of with his Muppets, what led him to sink money into The Dark Crystal. He knew his creations were capable of drama, that they could be taken seriously, and while credit is of course due to Jonathan Hardy’s voice, the scene rests upon the sad eyes of this puppet, the drooping eyebrows, and the collapsed mouth.

Random Observations:

  • At some point, Crichton’s going to remember that he’s traveled through a wormhole to a different galaxy, and that nobody will get his references to, say, John Wayne. “Who’s that?” asks Aeryn. “A relative?”
  • Aeryn’s method of  negotiating with Crichton over how to best storm the base and retrieve the control crystal? A roundhouse punch. “You hit me,” he accuses, upon awakening. “Hit? No, a Panthak jab. You were more susceptible than most.”
  • D’Argo’s sword is also a really powerful gun, just in case he wasn’t bad-ass enough; in fact, you have to injure his injuries until they bleed clear, lest they clot and kill him.

Farscape: “Exodus from Genesis”

11/16/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 3. Writer: Ro Hume. Director: Brian Henson. Rating: C+.

Now that they’ve escaped the Peacekeepers, let’s check in with our heroes during their rarely seen downtime. It turns out that Rygel likes to draw (himself, naturally, and only while feasting), but isn’t very good at it. Zhaan, on the other hand, is trained in the masterful art of “spirit painting.” (Why would anybody imprison her?) Also, in this universe, one “brushes” their teeth by inserting a prawn-like Dentik, as D’Argo forcefully demonstrates, prying Crichton’s mouth open. (“It’s kind of minty,” he acknowledges, spitting the creature out.)

Oh, wait, this isn’t downtime at all. The vengeful Peacekeeper, Commander Crais, is still in hot pursuit of Moya and her crew, and in order to avoid detection from a scout ship, Aeryn recommends that Pilot hide behind a debris cloud. Oh, wait, this being Farscape, that isn’t a debris cloud at all: it’s a swarm of creatures who have secretly boarded the ship, and, in addition to causing some heat fluctuations, are collecting the crew’s DNA.

After everyone splits up to investigate the “blockages” in the air vents, Zhaan suggests that Crichton — who is tired of being treated like some “Earth idiot” — prove himself through actions. With this in mind, he fights his instinct to scream at the sight of one of these “space cockroaches” and captures one for Zhaan, who confirms that this one shares Crichton’s DNA. (“Wait, I’m related to this thing?”) As Crichton will soon discover — after each companion kicks the shit out of him — the other insects not only have the DNA of his crew, but have had the time to finished morphing into them: yes, it’s the requisite shapeshifter/replicant episode. (As for clothing, they actually address this, noting that this species can adapt to whatever it sees.)

Meanwhile, things are getting increasingly severe for Aeryn, who as it turns out is literally cold-blooded, and on the brink of the Sebacean living-death known as heat delirium. And Rygel, once again thrown into the vents — literally so, this time — happens upon an Alien-like nest, watching in horror as more of the insects begin to hatch. And just when it seems that things have gotten better — the Drak queen, speaking through Zhaan, clarifies that she’s simply trying to complete here breeding “genesis,” and she reaches a detente with the crew — the Peacekeeper Marauder returns, endangering the treaty. In the end, nicely wrapping this episode’s themes together, it’s up to Rygel to renegotiate with the queen, and it’s up to Crichton to prove to Aeryn that they are a family.

Farscape is still suffering from a pacing problem in its early episodes, and there’s little in this episode that hasn’t been explored on a more profound level. The shape-shifting is secondary to the plot — it’s just a defense mechanism of the Drak, though it’s unclear what situation would have led this deep-space dwelling species to develop it — and the fifth-act return of the Marauder negates the stakes from early on in the episode. (It is, however, nice to see Crichton bluff his way out of this situation, using his unknown “Human” powers to scare the Sebaceans, and hopefully getting Crais to back down.)

Ultimately, Farscape remains in the same boat as its lead, our window into this world of weird, Crichton. He’s still getting the hang of a few things, but the relationships he’s built are solid and engaging, and if the action is still falling short, there’s at least a grudging consensus from tough-as-nails Aeryn that even these “lesser lifeforms” have their uses. As the Drak disengage from Moya, they create a perfect solar sunset for our heroes to ride off into, and as our cowboy hero observes, “There are worse ways to end a day.”

Random observations:

  • According to Aeryn, the most ruthless and disciplined creatures out in space are Peacekeeper Commandos, an elite that she was about to transfer into, just before the mutiny aboard Moya. Crichton’s rejoinder? On Earth, they’re called “linebackers, or serial killers. It depends on whether they’re professional or amateur.”
  • The budding romance between Aeryn and Crichton: “What could I possibly need from you, human?” “Oh, I don’t know. Manners? Personality? Stock tips?”
  • D’Argo, working really hard on his people skills: “The part of me that wants Aeryn to live is greater than the part of me that wants all Peacekeepers to die.”

Farscape: “I, E.T.”

11/15/2011 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 2. Writer: Sally Lapiduss. Director: Pino Amenta. Rating: C-.

A Peacekeeper device hidden on our escapee’s living, Leviathan-class ship, Moya, has been detected by the DRDs (now that we’re out of the pilot-phase, those little robot rats have been given a name), and it’s sending out a homing signal that — for comic effect — is rattling around in Crichton’s brain. (Nothing says danger as well as a twitch on Browder’s face.) Smash-happy D’Argo can’t reach the device, and the poor DRD that tries to approach gets shot, leaving it with a quizzical approximation of a hapless Wile E. Coyote (post-explosion). More antics ensue as Crichton suggests that Moya land on a nearby planet, using the swamp to muffle the signal; apparently, Leviathans don’t handle gravity well, so as the ship goes down, Rygel panics and attempts to stuff his face full of food. As it turns out, he’s not wrong to be worried: they land successfully . . . and then begin to sink.

Cue the title sequence, which has now added a voice-over that catches new audiences up on the show. At this point Farscape isn’t the most serialized or confusing of shows out there, so the narration sticks out a bit, especially since it interferes with the lovely score, but hey, it’s just the intro. Save for a few good mood-setting ones (TremeShameless, American Horror Story, and The Walking Dead come to mind), I tend to just skip ’em.

Back on Moya, a mud-phobic Rygel is resisting Zhaan’s attempts to calm him down, noting that while he happens to be Hynerian, a water-friendly race, the current predicament is quite different:  “Aquatic, that’s water. Not mud. Mud is mud. You can’t breathe in it, you can’t move in it. It holds you, it grabs you, it sucks you down. You want to know about mud? I know about mud.” Jonathan Hardy’s delivery, filled with all the pomp and circumstance befitting an arrogant and deposed emperor who has never needed to be the eloquent one, is magnificent, matched only by Crichton’s matter-of-fact agreement: “Guy knows mud.”

With death-by-mudbath imminent, D’Argo, Aeryn, and Crichton go scouting for an element known as Chlorium, hoping to use it to drug Moya long enough for them to cut the beacon out of her hypersensitive neural network. (As we’ll soon learn, this plan is only reluctantly accepted by Pilot out of desperation: bonded to the Leviathan, he remembers that the Peacekeepers once enslaved Moya the same way.) Nearly captured by the natives of the world, D’Argo and Aeryn run interference while Crichton wanders into the home of a local family. Meanwhile, back on the ship, time is running out, so Rygel, the only one small enough to reach, sets out to disable the device, while Zhaan uses her empathic powers to take Moya’s pain.

However, the only thing expected on Farscape, like the Spanish Inquisition, is the unexpected, so here’s are the twists. First off, the citizens of this backwaters planet have yet to make first contact, and the farm he’s stumbled onto is owned by the only true believer: “I’m talking to an alien? You’re an alien? And I’m talking to you? In my kitchen?” she says, giddily. Crichton can relate — especially since this particular alien looks so similar to him, has similar customs, and lives on a recognizable world (Louisiana or Dagobah: they’re fairly similar) — and so he plays to her vanity: “If we wanted to contact some government agency, we would have,” he says. “We chose you.” It’s a familiar reversal — we’re all the same — but it’s elevated by the commonalities Crichton actually shares with this woman: he’s only just made first contact himself, after all.

While the stargazing mother, Lyneea (Mary Mara), and her son, Fostro, conceal Crichton from Ryymax of the local military, Farscape looks at some odder pairings, each of which still share their own commonalities. For D’Argo and Aeryn, who are literally up a tree, they share a brusque, warrior mentality, and bond slightly while discussing a particularly Pyrrhic campaign, in which two rival clans continue a cycle of killing one another’s women and children, unable to explore anything other than revenge. Meanwhile, when Zhaan and Moya almost die, we find that Rygel is more than a selfish slug: he cares deeply for the ship, and not just out of self-preservation. He fears to operate on her because he’s never had to be responsible for anyone before, and to have the life of Moya in his hands is a new experience, as is Zhaan’s selfless offer to work together with him.

Solid as the character work is, however, it must be noted that this episode is more than a little formulaic, particularly in the resolution. D’Argo circles back for Crichton, only to be captured himself, which in turn forces Lyneea to misdirect the military to the ship’s location so that Crichton can break D’Argo out. (He does so with what appears to be a lead pipe and the element of surprise; not bad for a scientist, right?) Rygel overcomes his fears and continues to cut the beacon out of Moya, which leads to some really generic “ship being damaged” shots (unique only in the liquid “blood” leaking from the living walls), and some really overblown shots of Zhaan wincing in pain as she straddles a pipe along the wall, “channeling” the ship’s pain. It doesn’t help that this sequence is repeated twice, with Aeryn joining in the second time to . . . well, I’m not sure what she’s doing. Bracing Zhaan? I imagine it’s about as helpful as offering one’s hand to squeeze during a pregnancy, but for the sake of this episode, it seems to work. And finally, while Mara sells the idea of a flirtation going on between the lonely widow and the attractive alien whom only she can save, it’s not enough to justify the final shot of Crichton staring at the fading planet, pining for the girl who got away. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that I admire the theme of the episode, but wish it didn’t seem so forced.

Random observations:

  • “I no longer have a home,” sighs Aeryn. “Join the club,” replies Crichton. Can’t you feel the love between all these exiles building?
  • It’s Funny When Things Happen to John: This episode’s contribution? A shot of Crichton getting tased by Fostro, and then flopping around on the ground like a boneless fish. “I’m going to recover from this, right?”
  • Crichton, on programming the Peacekeeper’s Chlorium scanner: “It’s just like a VCR. Except easier.” Kids, it’s funny because before there were DVRs, there were VCRs, and they were apparently complicated.
  • Don’t piss off Rygel! That’s one nasty bite he gives to Aeryn.

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