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Farscape | John Crichton and the Kubler-Ross Culture Shock Curve

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John Crichton: Brush them, I want to brush my teeth!
Ka D’Argo: But to manually clean your teeth [as you describe] is highly inefficient.
John Crichton: That’s too damn bad. You’re not sticking that freakin’ maggot in my-

‘Exodus From Genesis’, S1, Ep3.

Chances are that few other Farscape fans would choose this relatively banal encounter with a minty-fresh caterpillar as a defining moment. Nowhere is this part of the typical experience for a sci-fi hero, we never had to watch Luke Skywalker fumble awkwardly with alien door handles or James T. Kirk slowly count out unfamiliar currency in their palms like a first-time tourist. But if you were to ask me why I feel a particularly strong connection to John Crichton (Ben Browder) and his journey, it comes down to this: Farscape allows its lead character to undergo a realistic culture shock process – something I have experienced and witnessed repeatedly throughout my life, but which I find is usually either misrepresented or disregarded entirely by most television series, especially in science fiction. 

Before I get to the story itself, let me clarify that culture shock is not a precise scientific model; it is usually described as a variation of the Kubler-Ross change curve, and as such is mostly common sense and very little wormhole technology. A trajectory mapping perceived levels of competence and morale over time, the model is basically a visualization of how well you feel you’re coping with a new situation. It starts with an initial event causing significant impact on your life and describes the mental process that follows. 

Being faced with an unfamiliar culture is a specific type of life-changing event, which is why we often see it depicted in similar terms, most commonly as a U- or W-shaped curve divided into four stages: an initial honeymoon phase which is experienced as an energy boost, followed by a crisis stage characterized by increasing frustration, self-doubt and dropping energy levels, also known as actual culture shock. The lowest ebb of the curve marks its turning point, which is then followed by the adjustment and acceptance phases. Depending on the individual circumstances, each step can take anything from a few days to several years. It is important to note that the term acceptance simply implies that the original change and its consequences no longer cause emotional stress. It doesn’t require you to be particularly content or happy about it, nor does the model have anything to say about cultural assimilation. 

If you never return to your place of origin, the process is complete. If you do, readjustment to the world back home follows a similar pattern, hence the W-curve. 

See also: Star Trek | The Science Behind Discovery’s Mycelial Network by Becca Caddy

Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase

What makes culture shock interesting for me is that as a psychological process it is inescapable as death and taxes (and perhaps Rygel’s farts). You’re strapped to the emotional roller-coaster, and no amount of preparation or experience can ever really prepare you for it or provide any shortcuts. 

In the pilot episode of Farscape (‘Premiere’ – S1, Ep1), the human John Crichton finds himself thrust into a truly alien environment, beautifully displayed by an overwhelming cacophony of light, sound, and erratic movement aboard Moya. 

The audience doesn’t get any more insight than poor John himself, so we are right there with him at the beginning of what will eventually turn out to be a four-year journey to the furthest outposts of civilization and the darkest parts of his mind. 

On his first day aboard Moya, John is spat on, knocked out by a tongue, stripped naked, examined while unconscious, assaulted, and insulted several times over – and that’s before he finds out he is wanted for murder. 

But here’s the good news: culture shock starts you off on a high, pumping you full of adrenaline – everything is new and dangerous, just what your archaic instincts need to bring out the best in you. 

So, despite all the disorientation John jumps into action, following Aeryn (Claudia Black) to the commerce planet to be rescued by her fellow Peacekeepers. 

Once there, things don’t go to plan, but John takes an important first baby step towards adjusting to his new life, and it is triggered by a surprisingly pleasant moment amidst all the chaos: The Peacekeeper asking him about his lucky charm. It’s a tiny, seemingly insignificant interaction, but to our utterly culture-shocked hero, it makes all the difference. Here’s someone who doesn’t appear as alien as the others, who asks him a question to which he knows the answer. And suddenly, things don’t feel quite so overwhelming anymore… for a moment the sensory overload subsides, and Crichton feels in control of the situation. 

John records a message for his father at the end of the first episode. | Jim Henson Company, 1999.

When by the end of the pilot episode John Crichton finally has time to catch his breath he sums up his first impression in a single phrase:

“There’s life out here, Dad. Weird, amazing, psychotic life”. 

John Crichton, ‘Premiere’ – S1, Ep1.

With this beautiful description of Zhaan, Aeryn, Rygel, and D’Argo, Farscape sets a course away from well-trodden science fiction paths. Crichton is not an explorer who spends his time gazing in wonder at alien worlds, nor is he a military commander, bringing civilization and American core values to the barbarians of the Uncharted Territories. He’s not even your typical sexy renegade out for adventure. He’s a frelling exchange student in a crowded international dorm, an economic migrant without any qualifications queueing at the job office. 

The upside of putting its hero into such a weak position is that it allows Farscape to free itself of the weight of having to constantly retain the moral high ground.  It’s an unusual approach, but it helps make the character more relatable. In real life, only very few of us are pure-hearted heroes dedicated to the service of the greater good, and it’s refreshing to see a show admit this so openly. To put it in the words of Crais (Lani Tupu):

“I live, I plan, I do, all in the service of my own interests. In that, I believe, I am not unique in the universe.” 

Bilar Crais, ‘Into the Lion’s Den: Part 2 – Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ – S3, Ep21.

See also: Star Wars | How Temuera Morrison Reclaimed Boba Fett (And Made Him Māori) by Levi Eddie Aluede

Stage 2: Crisis Stage

One of the most noticeable effects of culture shock is that as soon as the first adrenaline boost subsides, frustration takes hold. This is where we catch up with our commander in ‘Exodus from Genesis’, an episode that takes its time to explain the importance of time and patience. 

“At least they know where they are, how things work. It takes me 10 minutes to figure out how to open the door.” 

John Crichton, ‘Exodus From Genesis’ – S1, Ep3.

Zhaan (Virginia Hey) and John talking in the corridor gives us a taste of just how utterly exhausting life has become for him. From the moment he wakes up in the morning, everything is a test, requiring his full concentration and usually also help from one of the others. 

He is forced to ask D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), a man he doesn’t know or trust for help with brushing his teeth… who gives him a maggot of all things. Even if the dentic turns out to taste minty, by that point the struggle to get there has killed whatever positive energy he might have had at the start of the day. 

 All of this is especially tough for John because of where he started out: a scientist on a mission to prove his own theory. Intelligent, highly educated, socially independent. Now he’s a toddler who needs help in the bathroom. 

Zhaan tells him to be patient with himself and the others, that only time can change his predicament. 

And Farscape proves it knows what it is talking about by letting John stew for a full 13 episodes before giving us ‘Jeremiah Crichton’ (S1, Ep14). The start of the episode marks the lowest point on John’s personal culture shock curve. The line “it was vaguely amusing the first six billion times” tells us everything we need to know about his state of mind. Even the most optimistic part of John’s brain has stopped believing that he’ll wake up in his own bed tomorrow morning, that a wormhole will simply appear, or that there will be cold beer and salami pizza at the next commerce station. 

“And I’m sick of it Aeryn. I’m sick of Napoleon XVI. I’m sick of blue. I’m sick of tentacle boy. And guess what? I’m sick of you. I’m sick of this whole turd-burp end of the universe.” 

John Crichton, ‘Jeremiah Crichton’ – S1, Ep14.

He needs a break, desperately. New things still keep happening every day, he has just stopped caring. There is only so much your brain can file under “weird, amazing, psychotic.”

In real life, this phase is often described as the lowest ebb of morale and perceived competence. Thanks to Aeryn, we learn that the Sebacean term for it is “human nonsense”.  Running away may not be the most mature reaction to her insult, but when you’re as low as Crichton is at that point, escape, even just temporarily, may well feel like the only option. And it’s not just about escape from the others, but also escape to his module. It’s his comfort zone, the only environment not created by or for aliens, the Irish pub of space transportation. 

Stage 3: Turning Point

John gets more than he bargained for when Moya goes into starburst without him back aboard, leaving him stranded on an unknown planet for three months. Yet, it marks a turning point. Crichton realizes he must face reality: his only chance to ever find his way back to Earth lies with the crew on Moya, unpleasant as life aboard a pregnant Leviathan may be. 

Once he returns, we see John’s confidence go from strength to strength, and by the time we hit ‘A Bug’s Life’ (S1, Ep18), the crew follows a risky plan of his devising, however reluctantly. If anything, Crichton becomes slightly too confident, his bravado blinding him from reality. This makes perfect sense in the context of culture shock: You’ve survived in such a cruel environment for almost a year now, therefore in your own mind you must surely be bulletproof.  Unfortunately for John, he soon learns the hard way that not every Peacekeeper can be fooled by a uniform and that the worst may be yet to come. 

See also: Stargate | How We Made SG-1’s 200th Episode by Ben Falk

Stage 4: Adjustment and Acceptance

Nonetheless, by mid-Season 2 the basic curve is completed, with John showing all the signs of acceptance – including still complaining about things he doesn’t like or have, but not expecting any change. 

Narratively, this is necessary to allow a new, even more challenging arc to begin: John Crichton’s fight against Scorpius. This story takes up most of late Season 2 and the bulk of Season 3, so understandably, purely cultural issues take a back seat (although the lines are somewhat blurry, with episodes like ‘Crackers Don’t Matter’ –S3, Ep4 – or ‘Beware of the Dog’ – S2, Ep14). 

Farscape never completely drops the ball on cultural differences, though. 

My personal favorite is ‘Green Eyed Monster’ (S3, Ep8), mostly because there isn’t that much else going on, giving the episode time to focus on the characters’ emotional issues. On the face of it, the episode tells a surprisingly classic soap story of love, jealousy, and lies. But it is so much more than that. 

“You and Crais! You can finally rejoin that Peacekeeper family you’ve been pining for from the moment we met! Just don’t pretend to me that it wasn’t what you’ve always wanted!”

John Crichton, ‘Green Eyed Monster’ – S3, Ep8.

The strained situation uncovers John’s deep-rooted fear of not being able to provide Aeryn with what she wants in a relationship. She never wanted a traditional human partnership, so when she bonds with Talyn and through him, with Crais, it’s only natural for John to be afraid of losing her. Harsh as they sound, his accusations towards Aeryn may not be entirely unfounded. In a way, the neural link is a trip back home for Aeryn, an opportunity for her to reconnect with the world she knew and loved before she met John. 

Yet, when Aeryn is ultimately disappointed in Talyn and Crais for lying to her – and being blatantly xenophobic – she chooses Crichton. Unexpectedly, this may be Aeryn’s strongest moment of culture shock, her return shock. She is disgusted by behavior she would have displayed herself a mere two cycles ago. For me, Aeryn making a conscious choice not to re-join Crais and Talyn (“For me, for now, this is right.”) is the most important scene of the episode, one that sends a beautiful message: You can’t change your heritage, and you shouldn’t have to justify it to anyone. But ultimately, you are not bound by the rules of your native culture, nor do you owe them loyalty. 

If all of the above wasn’t enough to prove that Farscape understands how personal, almost intimate culture can be, here’s another reason: Crichton’s return shock doesn’t start with his return to Earth. It starts in his head in ‘Dog With Two Bones’ (S3, Ep22) with the possibility of returning home. 

The title of the episode refers to the dilemma of a dog who wants two incompatible things as a metaphor for John wanting to be with Aeryn (and stay friends with the Moya crew) while leading a regular human life back on Earth. From my own experience, I dare to question if this is his only dilemma. I believe that now he has uncovered the path to Earth it dawns on John that he’ll be inevitably disappointed by whatever life awaits him back home. He has gained more than he ever lost and giving it all up for chocolate and jeans may not be worth it. 

That is not to say that the other dilemma isn’t real. Aeryn would have been unhappy in Florida (as she has every right to be) and it would have been his fault and responsibility. As someone who has tried and failed, I am acutely aware that going through the whole process of adjusting to a foreign culture yourself is one thing yet signing up your lover for the same ordeal is quite another. 

The joy of Farscape is that we get to see part of this play out when in Season 4 John Crichton finally achieves his goal from the pilot episode and gets to go home, in what I will boldly call the most realistic trip back to Earth in the history of science fiction, at least emotionally. 

“Dad’s world is upside-down, so he’s trying to make it right side up by putting up Christmas decorations. […] Family traditions. They’re supposed to bring us together. To make everything normal.”

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

Jack (Kent McCord)’s dismissive remark “you’re naive, son” has me screaming inside every time. I love how the father almost instinctively reverts to “Daddy knows best” because he simply cannot comprehend how far out of touch with his son’s world he actually is. His desperate but futile attempts to go back to the way things were before John left are simultaneously infuriating and heartbreaking to watch. 

And it’s not just about John and Jack. We also get to see the reverse situation of ‘Green Eyed Monster’. This time Aeryn is the odd one out, who can only stand by and pray she won’t lose the man she loves, whereas Crichton has to decide if reconnecting with his former life is worth abandoning his newfound beliefs – and who ultimately chooses to turn his back on his country’s politics. Once again, Farscape shows us that your heritage is part of you and that there is no shame in wanting to embrace it. But it doesn’t define you. If John Crichton wants to raise a half-Sebacean son named after a Luxan warrior in a faraway galaxy, that doesn’t make him less human than his father the all-American hero. It makes him unique. 

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