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The Subversive Shades of Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan | Farscape

Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, from the Farscape series.

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Farscape arrived on televisions in 1999. I was around 18 years old, had freshly finished my A-levels and was on my way to Art College. I had been a rabid Star Trek fan since I was 13, and when I say rabid I mean ‘dedicated to a fandom in the way that only a teenager can be’. I had memorized the Star Trek Encyclopaedia, owned a full-size cardboard cut-out of Data, and had petitioned my mum for a Starfleet uniform for my birthday. I knew I loved science fiction, but I hadn’t quite discovered all the things it was capable of yet. And then Farscape happened. To begin with at least, it was the story of John Crichton, a scientist catapulted to the far ends of the galaxy, taken on board a living ship, and thrown into the lives of a chaotic collection of aliens – all brought to life by the genius of Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. Farscape was unlike anything I’d seen before.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table here: I think Farscape is pretty special. There are lots of reasons for that – the set-up, the wild plots, the humour, the visuals – but for me the heart of the show is its characters, and their relationships with each other. As a teen I was used to the cosy dynamic of a bridge crew who knew each other well. They all had their roles to play, and largely, any problems they had were solved by the end of the episode. Farscape took Crichton and plunged him amongst characters who didn’t know each other, didn’t much like the look of each other, and might be tempted to lop off one of your limbs to sell it if they needed to… But, crucially, they needed each other to survive. The writers gave these characters room for conflict and resolution; they gave them room to fight, to make up, to form bonds. The Moya gang are a true ‘found family’.

You could pick any character to demonstrate these dynamics, but for me it is Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan who exemplifies it. She not only holds the family together, births it and weans it and sends it on its way, she also has time to be a complex character in her own right. Anarchist, priest, healer, warrior, murderer, matriarch – Zhaan is a stand out character in a series crammed with them.

GIF of Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, from the Farscape series explaining that she has kicked more ass than you've sat on.

How I Met Your Mother

The chaos in Farscape’s first episode is actively gleeful. John meets a huge alien warrior who is furious about everything, a flying toad who wants to make some sort of deal, and a beautiful blue woman who appears to be faintly exasperated with him. He gets stabbed in the foot by a small insectoid robot. He is knocked unconscious by a tongue. John has no idea what’s going on. Neither do we. And it’s enormous fun. We know a few things about Zhaan straight away – we see her praying, so we know she is a spiritual person; we also see her flirting outrageously with the warrior, D’Argo; and we see that amongst the chaos of Moya’s escape from the Peacekeepers, she is a voice of calm and reason. When John calculates a way for Moya to flee, Zhaan thanks him for his assistance quite tenderly, and then later we see her meditating in her own room, in the nude. Our initial impression of Zhaan is a mash-up of familiar archetypes: the caring priest/the sexy alien woman. But Farscape barely lets you find your feet before it whips those archetypes out from under you. Probably with its tongue.

Unleashing the Beast

One of the things Farscape wasn’t afraid to do was serve up some killer fantasy action, and the episode ‘That Old Black Magic’ (S1, Ep8) is a great example. The gang arrive on a planet suffering under the tyranny of a mysterious sorcerer called Maldis, and very swiftly get ensnared in one of his nasty games. Maldis has ‘transcended the physical plane’ and can’t be reached with conventional weapons, so Zhaan, reluctantly, steps up. We know Zhaan is a healer – in fact she’s on the planet trying to find some medicinal herbs – but to defeat Maldis she must be willing to inflict pain on another living creature. Eventually, after practising on an especially obnoxious Rygel, Zhaan is able to break through to Maldis’s realm and makes him briefly tangible, long enough for John to defeat the sorcerer. It’s an impressive show of power from the priest, but when Aeryn tries to compliment Zhaan by calling her a warrior, the Delvian is clearly devastated. D’Argo tells Aeryn: “You could not have cut her more deeply.” 

‘That Old Black Magic’ ends on an unusually dark and uncertain note. After spending years shutting away her ‘savage’ nature, Zhaan is terrified that now she has let it out of the box, she will not be able to put it away again. While outwardly Zhaan is often the calmest head on Moya, in reality that state of peace is an extremely hard-won victory, and much of her time in the series is spent coming to terms with her violent history, and violent nature.

Liko: You cultivated your power to help others. Can you use it as a weapon?
Zhaan: I can try, if you guide me.
Liko: Can you be guided? It’s not just a matter of skill, it’s intent. You must want to do harm, cause pain, even kill. You are a ninth level Pa’u. You simply aren’t capable of that.
Zhaan: I once was.

‘That Old Black Magic’ – S1, Ep8

So You Thought You Knew Me

‘DNA Mad Scientist’ is the ninth episode of the first series, and you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’ve gotten to know everyone quite well at this point. You might have grown especially attached, for example, to Pilot, the huge, multi-limbed alien that is the conduit between the crew and Moya herself. Pilot is easily one of the very best creature effects in the entire series, showing off all the brilliant puppetry of the legendary Jim Henson creature workshop. He really is a character in his own right – he’s snippy, stoic, given to bouts of sass, and occasionally, very vulnerable. Well…

In this episode, a scientist offers the Moya gang personalised star charts to help guide them home. All he asks in return is one of Pilot’s arms – a small price to pay, right? 

This is one of the episodes I remember watching for the first time very clearly, and it stayed with me, too. Imagine, if you will, the Voyager crew coming across the same situation. A safe route home, and in exchange an alien demands the left leg of Lieutenant Tom Paris. Imagine Captain Janeway, a flagon of coffee in one hand and a bone saw in the other, heading off to do a quick amputation. 

Rygel, D’Argo and yes, even Zhaan, are all fine with Pilot making this sacrifice for them. This episode, which follows directly on after ‘That Old Black Magic’, sees Zhaan apparently emotionally untethered. When the scientist asks for Pilot’s arm, she barely reacts, and when it is time for the amputation she offers to help Pilot with his pain, but it is clear that this is the only concession she is willing to make. At the end of the episode, it is D’Argo who attempts to make up for what they have done to Pilot, and not Zhaan. It’s a shocking episode for Zhaan’s character, and a brilliant example of how Farscape was willing to overturn expectations and give us complicated, even emotionally damaged characters. It seems that Zhaan’s confrontation with the wizard Maldis has had very real consequences. Who is this woman really, and what is she capable of? 

In ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (S1, Ep13), we get our first look at Zhaan’s people. This lost colony of Delvians are struggling with their own madness, and are desperate for Zhaan to teach them how to banish it. Here, in flashback, we see the act that threw Zhaan into the arms of madness in the first place. When her lover participates in a coup that changes her world forever, she kills him while they are sharing Unity (a little like a sexy Vulcan mindmeld). The violence of the act, so at odds with everything she values, shatters her mind, and it is only years of careful meditation and spiritual study that save her.

“We all visit the precipice. Each one of us must find our own way down.”

Zhaan, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – S1, Ep13

You Can’t Teach an Old Mage New Tricks

In series two, we see the return of Zhaan’s old nemesis Maldis in ‘Picture If You Will’ (S2, Ep6), a cheerfully alarming episode where the Moya gang see their deaths foretold in a sinister painting. Once again, Zhaan must gather her strength and resolve to defeat this most dreaded of enemies, and she is not at all sure she is up to the task. It’s clear that Zhaan has suspicions about the painting early on and may even have guessed who is behind the trickery, but she chooses not to share this knowledge with the others. Is she keeping quiet because she is frightened of not being strong enough to defeat him, or is she simply frightened of taking any violent action at all, given what could be unleashed if she does?

Zhaan shows off her devious side, pretending to be entirely undone when she is simply biding her time, all of which leads to a very satisfying pay off when she hands Maldis his arse on a plate. Of course, being Farscape, Zhaan’s ploy is more complicated than it appears, as she reveals to John that she truly was terrified – but real bravery is fighting on despite the fear. Zhaan is able to be frightened, vulnerable, strong and determined, all at the same time. We see yet another side to Zhaan in ‘Home on the Remains’ (S2, Ep7), where extreme hunger has caused her to revert to a primal, animalistic version of herself. With the whole crew starving, Zhaan’s body begins giving off spores that are rapidly damaging Moya’s systems. The extreme hunger also changes Zhaan’s personality, narrowing her perspective so that she becomes paranoid and angry – even scary, as she reveals exactly how strong Delvians can be.

Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, from the Farscape series.
Surrounded by a cloud of spores, hunger turns the placid priestess feral in ‘Home on the Remains’ – S2, Ep7.

Female characters in all sorts of stories get a rough deal, often because of what is known as the ‘Smurfette Principle’ – that is to say, including one female character amongst a whole line up of male characters is considered ‘enough’ and actively progressive. That one female character has to represent all women. Indeed, ‘female’ essentially becomes their character description. And if you do get more than one woman in a cast, they often get relegated to roles that are perceived to be more ‘feminine’. Even my beloved Star Trek: The Next Generation was occasionally guilty of this. Deanna Troi was the ship’s counsellor, Beverly Crusher was the ship’s doctor. Can you see the connection there? This is one of the things that I most valued about Farscape. Not only does it have multiple female characters, giving them room to be different to each other, these were complex characters, with many sides to their personalities and different struggles to deal with.

If Patient, Redemption Will Find You

When Aeryn is killed at the very end of Season 2, Zhaan uses her spiritual powers once again to reach the soul of her beloved friend and manages to bring her back from the void. This being Farscape, this extraordinary act isn’t even the climax of ‘Season of Death’ (S3, Ep1) – there is far too much going on for that – but it is a decision that has enormous consequences for the rest of the series. Aeryn resists Zhaan’s help because she senses what Unity with a lost soul is costing the priest – it will, ultimately, kill her.

In  the two-part ‘Self Inflicted Wounds’ (S3, Ep3-4), the crew are on their way to a planet that may help to heal Zhaan when a wormhole appears and spits out an alien vessel, which promptly collides with Moya, leaving the two ships lethally fused. Both crews work to separate the ships and save themselves, but it becomes clear that they will not come away from this encounter without suffering some serious losses. Zhaan, who is already dying, chooses to sacrifice herself to save Moya and the crew, a decision she is at peace with. The Moya gang are devastated. This motley bunch of stubborn, contrary misfits and criminals are a family now, and, as D’Argo points out, Zhaan was the one who birthed it. The journey from the first episode to this catastrophic loss has been wild and strange, and no one has been unchanged by it.

“Sensitive D’Argo, Exuberant Chiana, Wise Rygel, Selfless Aeryn, Innocent Crichton, my children, my teachers, my loves, there is no blame, only what is meant to be. Grow through your mistakes and know if patient redemption will find you.”

Zhaan, ‘Self Inflicted Wounds – Wait for the Wheel’ – S3, Ep4

Welcome to the Federation Starship SS Buttcrack

Priest, anarchist, murderer, monster, mother… Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan was a complex character in a series that was filled with them, an empathetic and sensitive soul in a series where everyone was dealing with one emotional crisis or another. And in the end, it was one of Farscape’s defining qualities – a saga that gave its characters the room to be difficult, to be surprising, to be different from one another, and then gave them the tools to forge a new family from the wreckage of violence, pain and loss. All of that, and the best puppets you’ve ever seen. Frell me sideways, I miss it a lot.

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Jen Williams is an award-winning fantasy and thriller writer from London. She takes Thundercats too seriously, and is still under the vague impression that the 90s were ten years ago.

Follow her on Twitter @sennydreadful

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