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Expert Analysis

Farscape | Crichton and Coping with Trauma

Editor’s Note

This article needs two very different warnings. Firstly, it involves fairly deep discussion around a number of pivotal episodes of Farscape from the end of the first season to the beginning of the third, and as such you’re best giving it a miss if you’re planning to dive in for the first time. Secondly, it covers topics relating to trauma, including suicide and self-harm, and so comes with the heaviest possible content warning.

“And everyone is telling me – how different I am. They’re right. But they don’t have a clue why. They can’t know… what I’ve seen. What I’ve done – what’s been done to me. They can’t know what’s out there waiting for them and I can’t tell them, because they wouldn’t believe me. Hell if I tried – they’d lock me up. Frell – I’d lock me up.”

John Crichton, ‘Terra Firma’ – S4, Ep13.

An astronaut and astrophysicist plunged into a surreal world of very alien aliens, plant priestesses, flatulent emperors in exile, and cold-blooded space fascists, the root of Ben Browder’s John Crichton is among the oldest of space opera tropes. The swashbuckling Earthman in a strange new world is the basis of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Crichton’s near-namesake, shirtless swashbuckler John Carter of Mars.

Airing on the other side of self-aware shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – which popularised bringing soap opera sensibilities and heavier arcs to a traditionally episodic genre, John Crichton was different from his predecessors. The creative decisions made reflected a consideration towards how an ordinary person might react to extraordinary – and horrific – circumstances. I was in my teens when Farscape first aired – I loved it, of course – but watching it more recently brought a different perspective, one which was at times incredibly difficult and incredibly raw.

I grew up around depression and grew up with anxiety. I’ve experienced trauma and have at various stages (literally and metaphorically) run from it, tried to shrug it off, or pack it tight into a suitcase at the back of my mental cupboard. This only served to kick the problem further down the line where nurtured by bad decisions and bad people (and I include myself in their ranks), my trauma grew strong enough to wrench itself free from its chains. 

At the current tally, it has cost me jobs, friendships, and family. Don’t worry, I won’t keep talking about myself. We’ve all lived a life, right?

Touching a Nerve 

The ‘neural clone’ arc makes its home in three blocks of episodes which stretch from the end of Season 1 to the beginning of Season 3, although the embers are fanned throughout the show’s run. In ‘Nerve’ and ‘The Hidden Memory’ (S1, Ep19-20), John and the impulsive powder-blue Chiana (Gigi Edgley) venture into the belly of the beast, the Peacekeepers’ Gammak Base, posing as a Peacekeeper officer and his servant. They find their egress aided by an old ally, the titular ‘PK Tech Girl’ (S1, Ep7), Gilina Renaez (Alyssa-Jane Cook).

A canny insider overriding security scans can only cloak them so far and John is quickly noted by the newly introduced big bad Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) – a sort of S&M Skeletor – who straps him into the Aurora Chair. This device extracts memories by force, and the more the victim resists, the more painful the experience is. Reluctant to betray Gilina, he withholds his memory of her, inciting Scorpius to keep pushing, convinced that something critical is being denied. (Scorpius’ main objective is snatching the secrets of wormhole technology which the Ancients buried in John’s subconscious without his awareness, so he suspects whatever is being kept from him is of similar strategic value.)

Obviously they escape, but the long term consequences of the experience are soon made abundantly clear. 

The introduction of a new regular in John’s cellmate Stark (Paul Goddard) points the way. An alien empath whose rationality has been eroded by torture and his exposure to the suffering others, he rants about John intruding on his side of the cell and has a possessive attitude to the Aurora Chair. Later he removes his Mad Max-meets-Phantom of the Opera-style mask to bathe John in a warm glow that calms his suffering. Stark reveals that he has stayed alive – although it meant two years and 100 painful sessions in the Aurora Chair – by withholding a memory from his tormentors. In these moments of lucidity, Stark is established as a fellow traveller but one who is much further along that road. Stark’s lucid moments are few and far between. He’s a warning of John’s future as much as he is his accomplice and those moments where they share understanding see John at his most unpredictable.

Pinned down during the firefight on the Gammak Base’s surface, John and Stark compare notes on the secrets they’ve guarded against the probing of the Aurora Chair – John’s illicit kiss with Gilina back in ‘PK Tech Girl’ and Stark’s memory of childhood. Both so trivial prizes for the suffering they’ve endured, they laugh hysterically and continue to laugh as they return fire.

This wild laughter is a stress response called an incongruent affect – emotional reactions inappropriate to the situation – and is a by-product of disorders rooted in trauma. These reactions, such as a disregard for his own safety only grow in intensity over Season 2 as his Florida-born Southern swagger increasingly gives way to bravado and high-risk behaviors. Although there’s a case to be made that the entirety of Season 1 represents trauma – how else would you react to a one-man space mission going wrong and planting you in the middle of some interstellar game of cat and mouse? – in the aftermath of ‘The Hidden Memory’, John’s behaviour reflects that of someone in the grip of psychological crisis. 

“John’s time in Scorpy’s comfy chair is very much a triggering event,” explains Ben Browder, who very kindly added his thoughts to this article during the writing. “Though the build-up of stresses can be observed throughout Season 1. He has been hunted, shot at, abused, marooned, tossed and turned inside out… finally tortured. This episode represents a breaking point.

“With Farscape, there was no reset button.  Actions, deeds, and words have consequences. What follows the ‘chair’ are consequences.”

Ben Browder

In this situation, the traumatic event isn’t processed in the way that other memories are. The response is a reaction, a survival mechanism. Your brain isn’t treating the events as business as usual but has pulled an older and less sophisticated lever to help you cope with the danger it feels – rightly or wrongly – that you’re in. The mind’s failure to process the memory at the time is what defines it as trauma. We all have triggers for memory. In the wake of a traumatic event, the brain finds the associated memory not as it should be, but raw and unprocessed. In response to a trigger – a reminder of the trauma, certain words or situations – the brain attempts to process the difficult memory as if it were unfolding in real-time. 

A Trick of the Light

A few episodes later, whilst under the influence of a sightless alien T’raltixx (‘Crackers Don’t Matter’ – S2, Ep4) John began to hallucinate Scorpius who encouraged him to turn on his friends like a fetish club Jiminy Cricket. Against the backdrop of a petty squabble over excessive cracker consumption, John shoots D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), restrains Chiana in a scene laced with a shocking level sexual threat, and is then goaded into opening up on Aeryn (Claudia Black). T’raltixx’s role in the atmosphere of heightened paranoia is soon exposed and John – like the audience – is encouraged to treat the manifestation of Scorpius as being a neatly resolved by-product of the interloper’s mental manipulations. (Although to be fair, this larger arc hadn’t yet been plotted so the audience had no way of knowing what lay ahead.)

“As we moved into Season 2 of Farscape, Crichton was increasingly erratic in his behavior,” Ben picks up. “Though in part, this was something we might have discussed creatively, in another part it might have had to do with the internal reality in my head occupied by John, and the writers’ sensitivity to the conditions they have created.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t a controlled or volitional descent… But part of the actor’s job is the creation of another person. This created person exists in pathways beyond the cognitive. It is an intuitive process. Some of the best writers intuit the state of their characters, and may find themselves wondering where those words came from?”

Ben Browder

“[‘Crackers…’ writer] Justin Monjo created a hallucinatory Scorpius. As an actor, I latched onto this spectre, and saw it as a driving obsessive force. It’s the thing you hate to think about, but that you can’t banish from your mind. My response was to incorporate the hallucination. When [executive producer] David Kemper became aware of what I was doing, his response was to integrate the hallucinations into the larger story arc… All props to David!”

In the three-episode ‘Look at the Princess’ (S2, Ep11-13), the crew find themselves sheltering from the Peacekeeper pursuit at a royal wedding on a neutral world inhabited by glittery space Australians. Through the magic of storytelling, John finds himself cast as groom and embroiled in dynastic intrigue in which he must fend off a royal rival, avoid becoming a living statue, and escape the attentions of Scorpius. With Aeryn giving him mixed messages (a moment of intimacy/hair-sniffing at the start of the story ended in a kiss and then a brutal shutdown), he’s resigned to the wedding as a way of escaping the Peacekeepers. Despite pushing him away, she’s furious that he has been successfully pushed away. In their heartfelt exchange, he admits the trauma he has endured at the hands of Scorpius is far deeper than he previously let on:

“He’s in my head. Back of my mind. Corner of my eye. He scares me Aeryn, and I can’t shake it.”

John Crichton, ‘Look at the Princess – A Kiss is but a Kiss’ – S2, Ep11.

Another otherwise benign standalone episode ‘Beware of Dog’ (S2, Ep14) is interrupted by John confronted by a repressed memory of Scorpius doing something to his brain whilst he was restrained in the Aurora Chair. During the hunt for alien vermin infesting Moya he glimpses another leather-clad phantasm behind Aeryn and discharges his pulse pistol over her shoulder. Not the most emotionally aware of the company, even Areyn realises something is wrong and she presses him for an explanation.

John: “I’ve been, uh – having these – Well I wouldn’t exactly call them hallucinations – I’ve been having these… flashes of Scorpius.”

Aeryn: “Flashes? Like memories?”

John: “No they’re not memories. It’s more like he’s talking to me. Have you ever been in a – in a crowded room and everybody’s talking all at the same time, so you can’t hear anybody and suddenly someone says your name, and then – (he snaps his fingers) – like crystal, you hear every word they say. No matter how far away they are, it’s like they’re talking only to you.”

Aeryn: “What is Scorpius saying to you?”

John: “He says he’s gonna get me. He says he already has, I just don’t know it yet.”

Aeryn: “Why didn’t you kill him when you had the chance?”

John: “I tried. Tried – but I couldn’t. Something stopped me. Something inside.”

Aeryn: “Crichton, if you need help-”

John: “I’ll ask. Just like you do… Aeryn don’t worry. I’m not gonna lose my mind. It’s all I’ve got left.”

‘Beware of Dog’ – S2, Ep14.

“[Writer] Naren Shankar nails this scene in his script,” Ben says. “What had been simmering in the underworld of almost half of a season of Farscape is made manifest.”

As Aeryn turns to leave, the episode ends with the illusionary Scorpius sitting himself down opposite John. Over a chessboard – you don’t need that decoding, right? – the two exchange words, their first dialogue since the deniable delusions of ‘Crackers Don’t Matter’. The two speak again in ‘A Clockwork Nebari’ (S2, Ep18) when John’s mental hitchhiker helps him shrug off the Nebari mind cleansing – a process which rivals the Aurora Chair for its psychological kick in the nads as a device plucks out his eyeballs and attaches implants to the stem. 

Harv’ a Mind

In ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (S2, Ep15), John finds himself on a facsimile of Earth but one populated by his friends and enemies. As with previous mind games, the vision of Scorpius returns to guide his unwilling host towards the exit. This time, the cuckoo – who John christens Harvey in reference to Jimmy Stewart’s imaginary friend in the 1950 movie of the same name – explains himself. Whilst John was at Scorpius’s mercy a neural chip was placed in his brain containing a ‘neural clone’ – Harvey – whose job it was to hack at the wormhole technology embedded in his subconscious, keep him alive, and return him to the real Scorpius as quickly as possible. 

“The episode is ‘the obligatory’,” continues Ben. “The explanation of what’s going on in Crichton’s brain. It’s a powerful metaphor. Even without Harvey, the preconditions are present in Crichton’s journey to explain his state of mind, which may be why the rest of the crew and the audience have accepted Crichton’s behavior as ‘understandable’. But as a metaphor, Harvey is the damage. The audience groks the need to get at the root cause and fix the problem.

“All of us have a Harvey. People with trauma have a ghoulish Harvey. Crichton’s Harvey happens to wear a crocodile codpiece and wants to eat his brain.”

Ben Browder

“The appearance of Harvey is also a fantastic plot device to bring Wayne Pygram’s great performance into more episodes, without undermining the power of his villainy. Kudos to the writers for pulling Harvey out of the hat.”

Whilst the dialogue with Scorpius and the visions of John’s tormentor can be read as flashbacks or intrusive thoughts – recurring images, often disturbing or violent, or a hostile internal monologue that you struggle to silence – the physical interference of the neural chip can also reflect neurological changes which can occur as a consequence of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Studies show that the amygdala – which governs the fight or flight response – becomes overstimulated, whilst those parts of our brains responsible for emotional regulation, the sorting of memory, and the process of decision-making begin to power down and even atrophy.

Chemicals released by the former are inadequately managed by the latter like a car with too much acceleration and too little braking, leading to hyper-vigilance, impulsiveness, and anxiety attacks. It’s a jittery, adrenaline-fuelled urge to action or overreaction. The heart rate speeds up and blood pressure climbs. Your eyes dart left to right in a state of hyper-alertness. The altered neural pathways make speech difficult, leading to stutters or a struggle to communicate the source of trauma. You might begin to sweat, which a therapist once told me is an evolutionary trait to allow us to simply slip away from danger like a socially awkward X-Man. 

It might not be obvious to others that what is happening is out of the individual’s control.

Another day another mental probing, this time from Scorpius’s ally and mistress of the Shadow Depository, Natira (Claudia Karvan),  in ‘Liars, Guns and Money – Plan B’ – S2, Ep21.

As John’s mental health deteriorates he is pushed closer to breaking point in the three-part ‘Liars, Guns and Money’ (S2, Ep19-21) where the gang attempt to raid an underworld bank vault called a Shadow Depository in order to secure the release of D’Argo’s estranged son, Jothee, from slavery. Predictably enough, their nemesis is also present and the heist soon goes awry forcing John to exchange himself for Jothee. Restored to the tender talons of his tormentor, Scorpius batters down John’s mental barriers to pick at his memories like a vulture. Though he subsequently escapes and brings the entire Shadow Depository down on Scorpius believing him dead, the damage has been done.

John: “Daisy… Daisy… Give me your answer do…” D’Argo: “John – I’ve brought my son, Jothee, to thank you.”

D’Argo: “John – I’ve brought my son, Jothee, to thank you.”

John: “…I’m half… – OOOwhoa! – …crazy.. …all for the love of… you…”

D’Argo: “Sshhhh…”

John: “He’s here and um – he blames me. Blames me for killing Scorpius, so I’ve been trying to… But I can’t -”

D’Argo: “But you WHAT John?”

John: “D’Argo – kill me. D’Argo please – kill me.”

‘Liars, Guns and Money – Plan B’ – S2, Ep21.

Death on the Ice

As the second season draws to a close, John’s suffering comes to a head. Effectively unable to function due to the press of intrusive thoughts and visions, he begins to self-harm – lashing out at a mirror and repeatedly pummelling at the broken glass until Aeryn restrains him. When she parts, assuring him that Scorpius isn’t here John visually morphs into a facsimile of his nemesis – actor Ben Browder donning the same chilling makeup and affectations of Wayne Pygram’s performance to symbolize Harvey’s control of his beleaguered body. Events are literally coming to a head.

Although it appears counter-intuitive, self-harm, which includes any potentially dangerous behaviour and not just acts of physical violence against the sufferer’s own body, is often a means of self-soothing or coping with the immense psychological pressure. It is often described as a means of releasing tension built up by the failure in emotional regulation and rush of adrenaline, a way of channeling the anger they’d otherwise direct at another person, or simply to punish the self for perceived faults. Although it’s not necessarily a precursor to attempting suicide, trauma can cause someone to feel as though they were better off dead or be bombarded by intrusive thoughts of taking their own life. 

It goes without saying that what might feel like a solution, isn’t one. Although there is a link at the bottom of this article for the mental health charity Mind, this is a good place to repeat it as they have a wealth of useful resources, from coping strategies to contact numbers.

As it should be, John’s friends seek medical intervention. He lashes out at Rygel, knocks Aeryn unconscious, and sends a distress signal to Scorpius to give away Moya’s location. He then fends off Jothee before he’s brought down by D’Argo, the father finishing what the son could not. Whilst they await surgery to remove the black webs that have spread across John’s brain, Harvey makes another escape in John’s module where he continues to broadcast their location from the atmosphere of the icy world in which they have found themselves. Giving chase in her Prowler, Aeryn pleads with John to resist.

Aeryn: “Look – John – if you’re even in there any more – look at what you’re doing.”
Harvey: “You fail to understand the extent of your friend’s misery. He wants Scorpius to find us. He wants to end his pain.”

‘Die Me, Dichotomy’ – S2, Ep22.

The module is unarmed and the Prowler is not, but Aeryn hesitates to pull the trigger. Harvey uses his cover to manoeuvre above her and crashes through the canopy – alarms screech their horror and Aeryn ejects into the cold air. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in sci-fi, John regains his composure to watch her drift towards the ice, speaking to her the whole time as she grapples with her seatbelt before the surface cracks and she is dragged to her death.

We are all capable of hurting the ones we love. That’s not the exclusive province of those of us who wrestle with the effects of trauma, but what John does – the sheer callousness working through him, wearing him like a mask – is painfully familiar to anyone who as ever seen red, reacted to a perceived snub and spat out something designed purely to hurt. The release of adrenaline in an anxiety attack can make people more hostile and aggressive, sometimes – and PTSD is a reason, but never an excuse – lead to violence.

Once the adrenaline clears your system with a shuddering cough, all you’re left with is the realisation of what happened. You have no choice but to live with the things you said or did when your worst instincts took the wheel.

“Oh God, what have I done?”

John, ‘Die Me, Dichotomy’ – S2, Ep22.

Bros Before Clones

John has what many of us who struggle with our mental health long for above all else – a support network of unconditional understanding. There is no suggestion from the crew of Moya that John needs to shoulder the burden of his words and actions whilst in the grip of the neural clone – they had witnessed him suffer and fight, set his jaw and grit his teeth through the tears of frustration as he struggled to make himself heard. 

At Aeryn’s funeral – though chained – he asks D’Argo for his knife and after the briefest of wary pauses, the Luxan hands it to him and he cuts off a lock of Aeryn’s hair and asks her for forgiveness. It’s a small moment, but it shows that even then there’s no blame or hostility – an understandable fear that he might lash out – but even at his lowest, he’s still a friend, a brother, a lover, and a comrade in arms.

John: “D – D’Argo… Aeryn’s gone. Want to die.” 
D’Argo: “Aeryn died so that you could live, John. She would want you to keep fighting.”

‘Season of Death’ – S3, Ep1.

Unusually for a square-jawed sci-fi gunslinger, John is emotionally intelligent, highly sensitive, tactile, and articulate, and that’s something he shares with many of the other characters in Farscape. It doesn’t fall to women to nurse his pain. Aeryn – who returns from the dead at the climax of the Season 3 opener, but at cost – isn’t a conventionally nurturing figure. Instead, it’s striking that so much physical emotional support comes from the men in John’s life, an anomaly not just within science fiction but in popular culture even now.

Following his session in the Aurora Chair back in ‘The Hidden Memory’ (S1, Ep20), the exhausted John – his eyes red-rimmed with tears and suffering – slumps into Stark’s lap. His abrasive and unpredictable cellmate guides his fall, and with one hand on his shoulder, with the other, he strokes John’s hair. Much later in ‘Liars, Guns and Money – Plan B’ (S2, Ep21), heartbroken at the sight of his friend’s pain, D’Argo strokes John’s face with his thumb – a motion that takes you light years from whatever bootleg Klingon you might have briefly imagined D’Argo to be. I mean, the idea of Worf physically comforting a weeping Riker in Enterprise’s ready room is absurd.

Two decades on from Farscape’s broadcast, men’s mental health is still terra incognita for many. Outdated ideas of masculinity and the stigma attached to ‘emotional weakness’, leave many men struggling to recognise what it is they’re experiencing, they are often unable to articulate it, and as a result, might never find the support they need. Broader understanding of mental health has gone a long way towards redressing this and creating a generation far more attuned to their needs than the generations which preceded them, but stigma and ignorance persist.

John in the care of the Diagnosan surgeon, Tocot (Thomas Holesgrove), and his sleazy broker Grunchlk (the late Hugh Keays-Byrne) in ‘Die Me, Dichotomy. | The Jim Henson Company, 2001.

Many resources relating to abuse continue to default the victim to female and the aggressor as male, men are still significantly more likely to drink alone in response to stress than women, the statistics for male suicide remain depressingly high, and men who feel comfortable discussing their own mental health with friends remain in the minority. 

I had no idea that anxiety – rather than just being a word for ‘very worried’ – was a thing until a few years ago. I had no understanding that trauma could be caused by situations more ‘mundane’ than battlefields and that I could be living with it. Most harmfully of all, I had no expectation that anyone else felt the way I did and I was convinced that I was irredeemably broken. The first time someone told me that the way I felt was very common, I burst into tears at the relief of being recognized.

Chip off the Block

Part of what makes this arc of Farscape so potent is not only in its depiction of PTSD or by giving us a show where its male lead sheds tears, but in pointing the way for its audience to offer – or ask for – comfort and support. Before writing this piece there was little suggestion in any of the existing behind the scenes material that it was the intent of the show’s guiding lights to create an allegory on trauma and recovery, although I strongly believed that it works as one and that additional layer of meaning is a gift to the viewer.

“Storytelling is ubiquitous across all societies and through all eras,” explains Ben. “We have always gathered around the fire. Perhaps our stories are part of what binds our communal bonds or transfer some important knowledge. Perhaps our stories are simply there to ward off the darkness and make the dawn come sooner. Whatever the reason… we have no examples of non-storytelling humans. So our stories must be really important. We should try to tell good ones.

“The story of John Crichton’s descent into madness, and his recovery are a fiction. But that fiction flows from the truth as we saw it in the year 2000, in place far far from here. And I’ll say this… When I think of John, he sure feels real.”

Ben Browder

“It’s not my job to sort out the truth from the fiction. My job is to put the truth in the fiction.”

I reached out to two of the writer/producers involved in Farscape, Ricky Manning (who wrote ‘Nerve’ ) and friend of The Companion, Naren Shankar (who wrote ‘Beware of Dog’), for an additional perspective.

“Far too often, science fiction in TV and film glosses over trauma and depicts violence without consequence. Farscape was unique for its time — and ahead of its time — in how it dealt with these issues in the framework of a dramatic series (and full credit to David Kemper, as usual, for wanting to tackle it).”

Naren Shankar, co-executive producer (Season 2)

“It was a general tenet of the series that Things Had Consequences, that characters who’d been through stuff should be AFFECTED by that (rather than shrugging it all off as if it never happened in the very next episode).”

Ricky Manning, consulting producer (Season 1), co-executive producer (Season 2), executive producer (Seasons 3-4)

With the chip removed, John confronts Harvey, now a sad remnant embedded in the corners of his psyche. Though still robed in science fantasy – fisticuffs in the mindscape of the comatose Crichton – it shows John rise above his pain. 

He’ll never be free of Harvey. Neural clones and trauma are both are a lot more complicated than that, but from here on he can at least live with it.

“I had some highly suspect acting choices (which I stand by),” Ben concludes. “And David [Kemper] found a way to make my choices work with the larger story. I had a lotta help and forgiveness from my friends.

“Come to think of it… John Crichton had a lotta help and forgiveness from his friends.”

Editor’s Note:

The Companion is about providing a safe place where we can explore some of the ideas – often challenging ones – which our favorite TV shows can surface. If you’re concerned about your own mental health, or that of someone close to you, please consider making use of the resources available through the charity Mind. You’re also welcome to reach out to me on twitter or by email.

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James Hoare is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.

You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare

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