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Expert Analysis

Farscape | Chiana, Conformity, and the Evil of the Nebari

As fugitives in a predominantly unknown section of the galaxy, the central cast of Farscape does not cower in the face of danger, whatever form it might take. In any given episode the crew of Moya will face down threats of a near-infinite variety, including but not limited to the following: insane military commanders, galactic war, what appears to be a wax skeleton shoved into a fetish suit, monstrous puppets that would make Pinocchio terrified of being a real boy, themselves, and leather chafing. Given all that they have to face-off with on-screen, one might not expect that the greatest danger to the characters and galaxy of Farscape exists primarily on the sidelines of the show. 

[See also: The Creature Shop’s Strange Alien Lifeforms by Peter Ray Allison]

The Nebari are a race who, with the exception of Chiana (Gigi Edgely), appears in only a handful of the series’ 88-episode run. Their limited screen time is irrelevant to their threat level, however, as their ultimate plan would lead to near every race and being in the galaxy conforming to their culture, acquiescing to them, or being destroyed. This style of conquest is known as forced assimilation and, horrifically, has precedent in the real world.

Within the universe of Farscape, the Nebari and their endgame are not particularly addressed considering that it does not overwhelm the more immediate threats to the protagonists—vague, looming galactic horror is not a priority when trying to escape a militant madman with a popsicle in his head. Still, the consequences of forced assimilation throughout human history are enough to alert audiences as to how horrifying the goals of the Nebari are. When the goals of their race are combined with the mere glimpses of their technology and methods, it becomes apparent that the Nebari are far and away the single greatest danger to the collective galactic lives in Farscape

“My people have initiated the most ambitious plan to eliminate violent and aggressive behavior – and that girl threatens everything.”

Varla, ‘A Clockwork Nebari’ – S2, Ep18.

On Whose Authority

The atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes are normally accompanied by some type of justification, some flawed reasoning that belies the actual horrors committed. In modern Western history, the imperial conquest, and subsequent erasure, of indigenous cultures was often hand-waved away with the rhetoric of racial inferiority, divine right, and supposed societal improvement.

Nebari powers-that-be also use a vague blanket of an excuse for the crimes they intend to commit, one that they use to both comfort those who have already conformed and to smother those who will not. While the perception of a moral high ground may underlie the aforementioned justifications from recent history, for the Nebari it is the only outward reasoning they provide.  As a culture, the Nebari have stringent mores and appear to see any behaviors outside of those parameters as flaws in the individual that must either be cured or purged.

Farscape never provides an in-depth look at the Nebari government and systems of leadership, though it is made abundantly clear that total obedience and conformity is its defining attribute. The uppermost echelon of Nebari leadership would be their ‘High Command’, and it is the officials within this command that dictate the moral standards and set the spectrum of appropriate behavior. Beyond establishing a system of morals and behavioral expectations that would make George Orwell’s 1984 look a hopeful dream, Nebari High Command is also responsible for issuing orders of enforcement.

In the two dedicated appearances of Nebari people, the crew of Moya finds them in the process of following through on the orders of High Command. A little more than halfway into the first season, there is the episode ‘Durka Returns’ (S1, Ep15) and this marks the introduction of the Nebari to the main characters and the audience. Rather than creating an exciting situation in which a new race of beings is discovered and interacted with, the Nebari in this episode – captor Salis (Tiriel Mora) and captive Chiana -forge instant tension and hostility. According to Salis, his are present only to escort his prisoner back to their home planet. The crime for which Chiana is being held remains a secret during the first few interactions, though the consequences that would await her are not. 

Prior to the first on-screen reveal of the Nebari, there is a brief interaction with their emissary, Selto Durka (David Wheeler). Fans of the show would have immediately recognized this character as the brutal, conniving, sadistic Peacekeeper commander who tortured Rygel. In spite of his legacy, Durka presents himself with a soft-spoken and polite manner, even appearing to take on a servant-like role with the Nebari who is in charge. The implausibly extreme shift in Durka’s demeanor is revealed to be the result of Nebari “mind-cleansing”.

[See also: Directing ‘PK Tech Girl’, ‘The Way We Weren’t’ and Muppet Melodrama by James Hoare]

After destroying his ship, the Nebari captured Durka and effectively froze him for over 100 years, using this expanse of time to reconfigure his brain and neural patterns so that he would act and think within the approved parameters set by the Nebari government. Crichton processes this information as a form of brainwashing, as do Zhaan (Virginia Hey) and the others, but becomes even more horrified upon learning that it will also be the price Chiana must pay upon her delivery. While the in-depth reconfiguration of her cerebral processes would undoubtedly be punishment enough, it is Salis’ treatment of Chiana during her initial stay on Moya that highlights major hypocrisy within the Nebari authorities and a failure in their seemingly infallible morality. 

Throughout ‘Durka Returns’, Salis presents himself with a demeanor that can best be described as that of a creepy uncle. While part of his eeriness comes from his position in the uncanny valley, the rest comes from his both sexually and physically predatory behavior. These behaviors—negative thoughts, sexual fantasizing, gratification at the victimization of others—are the exact types of character flaws that the Nebari seek to purge.

The eerie Salis (David Wheeler, who appeared alongside Anthony Simcoe in The Castle) in ‘Durka Returns’ – S1, Ep15. | The Jim Henson Company, 1999.

Chiana, being the vivacious rebel to an authoritarian regime, often flaunts her body and uses sexuality to her advantage, but that does not constitute an open invitation for any sexual misconduct. When Salis gropes Chiana under the guise of checking her for weapons, he does so with the clear knowledge and intention of doing something wrong for his own satisfaction.

This motif of Nebari authorities acting outside the parameters of the conformity they enforce rises again in ‘A Clockwork Nebari’ (S2, Ep18) with the introduction of Varla (Skye Wansey), another Nebari authority figure. Much like Salis, she is on a mission to apprehend Chiana and interrogate her. Similarities between the two Nebari antagonists run deeper than a mission briefing, with both sharing that macabre satisfaction in the suffering and victimization of others. The primary difference between them lies in just how much more open satisfaction Varla takes in it. Within moments of setting foot on Moya, Varla opens fire on the crew in an effort to incapacitate them and does so without hesitation; she grins during and after the temporary mind-cleansing of the crew, relishing her control over them; she even appears to take a disturbing satisfaction in fitting Pilot with a collar that will kill him if he disobeys or attempts to flee.

The appearances of both Nebari authority figures within Farscape imply gaps in the black-and-white morality they enforce, rather fitting for a race who are physically defined by shades of grey. 

A visual nod to A Clockwork Orange, Crichton (Ben Browder) is subject to Nebari mental cleansing in ‘A Clockwork Nebari’ – S2, Ep18. | The Jim Henson Company, 2000.

When the enforcers of Nebari authority do not wholly abide by the morality and culture they supply, it reveals a more nefarious motive behind the entire plot of assimilation. The mores they preach belie the true desires behind their plans: Nebari High Command is not interested in forcibly converting the rest of the galaxy to their belief system out of a misguided sense of virtue and purity, but to terrorize and control. As it is throughout human history, the veil of common good and moral ascendence masks the lust for power and dominance of the few standing behind the curtain. Through the actions of the Nebari enforcers presented, it becomes apparent that the rules they enforce are both a justification for whatever brutality they deem necessary and a failsafe to prevent retribution or rebellion. 

“We have no war ships. One of our standard host vessels engaged the Zelbinion. Much like the one coming for us.”

Salis, ‘Durka Returns’ – S1, Ep15.

With What Army

The desire for control and dominance, the lust for conquering, is harmless without the means to achieve it. In terms of what is seen and heard on the show, it is apparent that there is an authoritarian regime called the High Command that runs the Nebari race and that there are enforcers who carry out their commands and convert any stragglers they might find, but there is no implication of a formal military. Given their ultimate goal, traditional methods of achieving it would require a substantial army with a size comparable to the Galactic Empire in Star Wars—though with soldiers who can accurately fire their weapons and war machines with covers for their thermal exhaust ports. Still, the Nebari methodology and technology not only render the size of the army irrelevant but the military as a component of their plan wholly unnecessary. 

During ‘A Clockwork Nebari’, it is revealed why the Nebari enforcers keep hunting for Chiana and seeking to interrogate her, which in turn reveals an insidious plot that Nebari High Command instituted to ease their galactic conversion. Chiana, her brother, and other non-conformist youths like her, had been granted permission to leave their planet. While they were suspicious, they all decided against looking a gift horse in the mouth and then fled, spreading through the systems.

Unbeknownst to them, they had all been infected with a sexually transmittable virus, one which lies dormant and gives no symptoms until it is activated by High Command. Once activated, this virus effectively acts as an instantaneous mind-cleansing, making the victims docile and open to Nebari control. The reason that Nebari authorities are searching so fervently for Chiana and her brother is that they are aware of this plot and were even given an antidote to the virus by a member of the High Command.

Although knowledge of the plot and of an antidote makes them valuable as assets to detain, the knowledge alone is worthless. Being aware of a Trojan horse is of no use when it has already invaded. Outside of manufacturing a virus that can be remotely activated and then effectively render its victims into slaves, the genius of the Nebari’s plan is that the virus was made sexually transmitted. Through this, only one member of a race or culture needs to have sex with one of the Nebari vagrants and then this disease can begin spreading its way through the environment in a natural way, through its own local inhabitants. There is little need for an invasion force when the enemy begins killing themselves. As one of the enforcers says, this virus will not convert everyone for them, but it will incapacitate enough of them that, with the element of surprise, defeating those who remain will be trivial.

Even should a sect of the galaxy attempt a prolonged battle against Nebari assimilation, the glimpses of their technology given throughout the show would indicate the relative futility of holding out. For one, the Nebari have a drug-induced mind-cleansing that they can quickly and easily inject into one of their captives. While the effect of this device is temporary, as opposed to their traditional longform style of mind-cleansing, it has profound and immediate effects. When the crew of Moya was under its chemical-induced state, not only did their personalities shift, they became immediately loyal to the Nebari, doing whatever Varla commanded even if it meant attacking and subduing their crewmates. What this means in terms of fighting against the Nebari’s plans for widespread cultural genocide is that the Nebari could turn any captured enemies into allies, within hours. Beyond that, the Nebari would learn anything that the cleansed captive knew, effectively turning enemies into unwilling spies and soldiers against their own people. 

Still, such ingenious yet intrusive means might not even be necessary based on the sheer power of Nebari technology. To begin with, the Nebari are never seen using traditional weaponry but that does not prevent them from engaging in firefights. Throughout ‘A Clockwork Nebari’, we see the Nebari enforcers use this small, silver device as a weapon and during shootouts. This device, seemingly no bigger than a television remote, is capable of firing a type of energy pulse that immediately renders its target unconscious. While the Nebari themselves seem to have more resistance to a single blast of the weapon than other races, a few shots of it is enough to kill. Despite its portable lethality, this small device is but a drop of rain compared to the tsunami of destruction that Nebari spacecraft are capable of. 

Varla (Skye Wansey) restrains Chiana, her unnamed weapon in hand, in ‘A Clockwork Nebari’ – S2, Ep18. | The Jim Henson Company, 2000.

In the episode ‘PK Tech Girl’ (S1, Ep7), Moya finds the wreckage of the Zelbinion. Outside of Crichton, every member aboard Moya finds themselves dumbstruck at the sight and wonders how it could have been destroyed. As Crichton hears about how the Zelbinion was the crown jewel in the Peacekeeper armada, an invincible warship of legend across many races and planets, he too finds himself curious as to what could have so thoroughly destroyed both the ship and its crew.

When it is revealed during ‘Durka Returns’ that it was the Nebari who defeated the Zelbinion, Crichton questions how much of their forces it took to defeat the ship and Salis replies that it took only one of the Nebari’s “standard host vessels”. That phrase does not conjure images of a horrific spacecraft, raining down fire from the heavens, rather summoning to mind the likes of a minivan in space or the station wagon from Mom and Dad Save the World. If one were to come across the smoldering remains of a tank and later discover that the vehicle that had left that interaction unscathed was a station wagon, there would be a lot more curiosity about that heavy action wagon than the tank. Such as it is with the Zelbinion and the Nebari host vessel.

While a full host vessel is never seen within the show, the legacy of the damage a single one can produce is frightening enough. This legacy is supplemented by the glimpse of a smaller Nebari ship in ‘Durka Returns’; towards the end of this episode, Durka uses their Nebari transport and threatens to terminate Moya’s pregnancy with a shot from said transport. Considering the colossal size of Moya and the internal nature of pregnancy, this implies that a mere Nebari transport has the capability to pierce multiple layers of a Leviathan ship like Moya with a single shot—something that even the largest Peacekeeper vessels are incapable of. 

[See also: Crichton and Coping with Trauma by James Hoare with Ben Browder]

Considering that the Peacekeepers and their military forces are the standard threat throughout the show and that their power is repeatedly enforced as one of the mightiest in the galaxy, the Nebari’s ability to match or even surpass such power with even their smallest ships and devices is truly terrifying. While the oppressive culture they seek to impose largely rejects violence and brutality as a character flaw that requires mending, their ability to deliver either remains ever-present. Connected to their ongoing viral cleansing, the level of Nebari technological power turns their plot of galactic cultural genocide and conquest from imaginable to possibly inevitable. 

“Hope, D’Argo. It’s what keeps you going. You’re gonna see your son. I’m gonna get home. Hope, I have hope… or I have nothing.”

John Crichton, ‘Look at the Princess: Part One: A Kiss is But a Kiss’ – S2, Ep11.

In the End

The Nebari are phenotypically predisposed to darkness, blending into the shadows with their grey-to-black skin and void black hair. Following this genetic trend, the Nebari linger in the shadows of Farscape—antagonists hiding in the sidebars of the show, a galactic threat lingering in the uncharted sections of space.

Their limited presence in the show indicates an oppressive government that imposes a behavioral and moral system of thought that prevents freedom, the ability to resist, or individuality under the guise of correcting undesirable traits. While it is made abundantly clear how their own people suffer under this regime, only hints are dropped as to the full scale of the dangers of the Nebari; effectively, the show introduces a breadcrumb trail leading back to the witch’s cauldron where all the races of the galaxy would stew together under Nebari control.

Their ultimate goal of forced assimilation on a cosmic scale can be seen as an extension of localized cultural genocide known within human history. Said history reveals how horrific the consequences and experiences of forced assimilation can be. The Nebari, with no clear weaknesses, have an abundance of the resources necessary to enact their goal on an unfathomable scale, multiplying the horrors of cultural erasure and authoritarian oppression as known in human history ad infinitum.

That said, human history is also full of the realities in which such horrors can be overcome, in which the insurmountable villainy is brought down by the hope and committed efforts of its victims. Farscape, at its core, is a story about hope and its ability to guide the victims of trauma, oppression, and loss through whatever terrors they might face. The show implies unfathomable horrors at the hands of the Nebari authoritarian regime on a grand scale beyond comprehension, with no apparent solution given. In the end, the answer to the greatest threat posed to all existent life presented in Farscape can be found in the theme of the show itself. 

Shoutout to Nico at So Farscape podcast for catching our errors and being nice about it all the same 😳

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Dylan Stolte is a law student and freelance writer. When not working, you can likely find him reading, binge-watching shows, or eagerly devouring an alarming amount of sushi.

You can follow his lack of adventures on Instagram @christmaseyes.

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