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Farscape is a show about First Contact. It’s arguably the only show that has ever engaged fully with the stultifying, Cthonic consequences of First Contact. On the surface it doesn’t share much ground with 2010, The Day The Earth Stood Still or Arrival (2016). But look closer and its unique variety of the phenomena becomes clear.
It’s tempting, even reassuring, to assume that eventual alien contact will be of either the ‘small and grey’ or ‘human with strange forehead’ variety. But in recent years the idea of truly alien aliens has gained traction. Witness the Heptapods of Arrival, and the complex multi-dimensional city that exists in the opening sequence of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). In every case, their distance from a familiar human plus baseline widens. And as one of the shows to perfect science fiction swearing, Farscape was a jump ahead of its contemporaries.
A lot of that is thanks to John Crichton. Played by Ben Browder, Crichton is many things over the course of Farscape: a hero, a prisoner, a murderer, a war criminal, and frequently dead. But throughout his many transformations, he fiercely clings to his foundation as a 20th/21st-century human. As the show progresses, John embraces both culture and pop culture, using the twin tools in different ways. The initial dutiful Astronaut’s Son uncomfortable in his own flight gear is replaced by a man who places his knowledge of pop culture between himself and insanity. Crichton adapts that self-same knowledge into a tool for understanding and fixing a huge range of situations, even ones it doesn’t really apply to. Especially if it doesn’t apply, in some cases. Pop culture becomes the battleground upon which Crichton fights for his own sanity, a narrative landscape in his constant communication/battle with ‘Harvey’, the neural clone of Scorpius (Wayne Pygram).
Let’s examine this complex subject through a number of lenses: Crichton’s pop culture references and their context; his wardrobing and self-image; and, of course, Harvey.
See also: Farscape | Crichton and PTSD: Ben Browder’s Study in Trauma by James Hoare
Ground Control to Major John
The first scenes of Farscape are the iconic imagery of launch tower and crewed space travel. We see John and his father discussing an upcoming launch, the set dressed with the familiar, contemporary paraphernalia of pilots turned spacefarers. We quickly realize John is in awe of his father and views himself as something different. Dad (Kent McCord) was a two-fisted space pioneer. John is a science nerd testing a theory he and his childhood best friend had out in the world’s most expensive boxcar. John is the Astronaut’s Son – until he’s the astronaut.
The passive, information-gathering, introspective approach is an interesting one for a leading man, and it plays to Ben Browder’s strengths. John isn’t brooding or self-consciously angst-ridden, he’s just got a LOT on his mind. It serves as the basis for what happens when Crichton takes his unintended wormhole side trip. John’s a scientist first and foremost. He observes, he learns, and only then does he act. The first few episodes of the series involve Crichton spending a lot of time confused, even as the season sprints through familiar plot beats including ‘character worshipped as a god’ in ‘Jeremiah Crichton’ (S1, Ep14) and the complex, difficult First Contact of ‘I, ET’ (S1, Ep2).
Crichton learns about his universe at the same pace as the audience, it just shoots at him far more often than it does at us. It’s the ultimate crash course, and we watch it start to take its toll. Crichton storms off Moya in ‘Jeremiah Crichton’ and is all but left behind at one point in the pilot. The crew comes to verbal blows repeatedly and physical ones almost as often. It’s as though Crichton’s very alien nature is an irritant, raising the already high tensions far past boiling point. Until in ‘A Bug’s Life’ (S1, Ep18), when something extraordinary happens: Crichton applies what he’s learned to their situation, and wins.
A huge element of the success of Crichton’s plan is the first time he dons a Peacekeeper uniform. Disguised as a Peacekeeper commando, John leverages one of his first confusing encounters with the larger alien-filled universe: the resemblance between humans and Sebaceans. Plus, these are the bad guys. Crichton’s seen movies, he knows what’s up: fascist bad guys plus British accent (in deference to the number of Australian accents the Peacekeepers are sporting) equals Space Nazis, right?
The conclusion Crichton jumps to is fascinating on multiple levels. The assumption of a Space Nazi’s identity is a deliberately edgy move for the show and a desperation ploy for Crichton. John is already relying on adrenaline to keep upright let alone moving forward. The fact it succeeds plugs into his personal myth, encourages him to go further, take more risks. We see this in later episodes where Crichton ditches the commando gear in favor of the fantastic trenchcoat/vest ensemble that remains his wardrobing mainstay throughout the rest of the show. Star Lord wished he looked this good. Or perhaps this, capital b, Bad.
See also: Farscape | John Crichton and the Kubler-Ross Culture Shock Curve by Vika Stefanov
Out of His Depth and Out of His Mind
Crichton’s assumption of Peacekeeper identity also carries the weight of it being a choice in which he acknowledges he’s out of his depth. He starts using pop culture jokes even more often as a coping mechanism in stressful situations. He defiantly calls Rygel ‘Sparky’ for the entire show. At one point he uses a roller coaster to distract the neural clone of his arch-nemesis squatting in his brain. John Crichton is a scientist, a warrior of the mind, and his weapon is popular culture. Donning the Peacekeeper uniform plays to that narrative, that story Crichton tells himself about his situation and his path forward. If he doesn’t stand out, he gets to live – a lesson learned hard, early, and fast. “Close Encounters, my ass” indeed.
Subtlest of all is the reality that Crichton’s adoption of Peacekeeper colors simultaneously protects his friends and perpetuates the bigotry at the core of their identity. Anyone finding Moya could reasonably assume John and Aeryn (Claudia Black) were the officers in charge of a group of prisoners. Anyone seeing John in his IASA gear would have no idea who he was, endangering them all.
So, clothes may not maketh the man but they certainly do maketh him pass a rudimentary physical inspection. Manners, on the other hand, are something Crichton lacks wholesale, contributing to one of the funniest aspects of the show and one of its foundational running gags. Crichton has a nickname for everyone. And again, those nicknames serve multiple purposes.
D’argo (Anthony Simcoe)’s ‘Big D’, ‘D’ and ‘Heavy D’ are the most self-explanatory. ‘Pip’ for Chiana (Gigi Edgely) is a little bit more obscure, referencing Great Expectations by Dickens – both Pips have a talent for getting into trouble but Dickens’ incarnation wasn’t monochrome or engaged in quite as much parkour. Rygel, for his part, gets 4.5 seasons of nicknames drawn from American kids’ show The Little Rascals, thanks in no small part to his ear tufts and adverse reaction to the name ‘Sparky’. Aeryn never gets a nickname, while Zhaan (Virginia Hey) gets ‘Blue’ and variations thereof.
In all these cases, Crichton’s linguistic choices are shorthand for his conclusions about his teammates – (gig, frightening, big AND frightening, blue) but also a vital translatory bridge between his experiences and his core scientific identity. He who discovers a thing can name a thing. These nicknames are part of how Crichton makes himself feel at home, a constructive rather than defensive use of language that remains one of the show’s high points.
It’s also a vital component of Crichton’s maintenance of his mental health. Prior to his exposure to the Aurora Chair in Season 1, Crichton’s use of language is similar to a scientist using a glovebox: one of the tools available to him for understanding and interacting with his new surroundings. It also allows him to externalize his trauma and attempt to resolve it by giving familiar meanings, inferences, and context to the situations he encounters.
This is why ‘Crichton Kicks’ – the first episode of the show’s fourth season – is an essential hinge of Crichton’s character arc. Marooned in space aboard Elack, a sympathetic but dying leviathan, Crichton passes the time trying to crack wormhole equations and teaching the sole remaining DRD aboard the 1812 Overture. (He even paints it, bless.) There are few things more endearing or haunting than the idea of a single piece of human music, echoing plaintively out into the galactic night. But then the ship is raided, and Crichton ‘recognizes’ the culprits. As well as coining ‘Sputnik’ as a nickname for new character Sikozu (Raelee Hill), he insists the aliens of her crew are Klingons. Realizing they’re not, Crichton’s response is disgust – he proceeds to yell at them, in Klingon, mocking them for their lack of understanding.
Time and again, John Crichton finds himself with pop culture as his sole tool, both sword, and shield. He deploys it with ever-increasing bombastic enthusiasm, confusing friends and enemies alike. He may be wearing Peacekepper purple, but he really isn’t from round here. As Emmet Asher-Perrin puts it:
Farscape somehow recognized the most valuable lesson in the nerdy knowledge we cling to; pop culture won’t save us by giving us plans to mimic, or because it’s closer to reality than we think, but because it is a language to understand the world by.Emmet Asher-Perrin, ‘Coping With Aliens and the Unknown Through Pop Culture’ (Tor.com)
See also: Stargate and Farscape | The Scientific Case for a Shared Universe by Dylan Stolte
The Monster Under the Id
Farscape isn’t just fluent in pop culture, it both translates and creates its own dialect, bridging the unexplored cultural overlap of its reality and our own. First Contact not just with alien species, but with the fictional universe of Farscape, the show’s bleeding-edge mirroring Crichton’s own as we slowly explore his cheerfully nightmarish world. A world never more nightmarish than when it features Harvey.
Harvey is the ‘neural clone’ of Scorpius, placed in Crichton’s psyche during his time in the Aurora Chair. Harvey’s objectives were to stop John from killing Scorpius, prevent harm from coming to John, and locating the wormhole knowledge buried in John’s mind. These three motivations shift faster than a ‘90s movie gangland standoff (and are represented as such at least once) as John struggles to keep Harvey from harming those around him, all the while looking for an opening in Scorpius’ mental defenses. Browder and Wayne Pygram are a stunningly good double-act; the two characters struggle and pass control of their interdependent relationship constantly. Both actors are remarkable comedians too, as well as each exuding menace and terror when called upon.
It’s this last one that proves to be the most important. Over the seasons he appeared on the show, Harvey’s motivations evolved alongside his relationship with Crichton. Initially a brutal, malicious torturer, Harvey realizes his own individuality and in doing so, decided he’d really rather prefer to live. The end result is a double-act equal parts Abbot and Costello and Lestat and Louis, lending the show some all-time greatest moments. This is Farscape at its most delirious: at one point Harvey is Roger Rabbited into animated form; in another Crichton disposes of him in a pro wrestling dumpster match only to be followed by Harvey rising from the dead like a BDSM intergalactic Nosferatu complete with scratchy film frame and camera angles. Harvey’s individuality blossoms inside the pop culture wellspring that keeps Crichton alive and sane. Harvey may be the definition of an invasive species, but even invasive species have to adapt – and adapt he most assuredly does.
The price Harvey pays for his choice, and whether it’s worth it, are some of the most pivotal scenes in the show’s run. They are the show’s battleground, the literal and metaphorical battleground for Crichton’s soul. A lone astronaut, horribly out of his depth and faced with knowledge literally beyond human understanding, versus an alien genius with a fondness for theatrics. This is where the culture war, in every sense, is fought. Where First Contact is truly made, and where Crichton finally understands and accepts his place in the universe. Harvey evolves into one of Crichton’s closest allies, and the show has vast fun with their Tom and Jerry-like relationship. Harvey’s touching final scene takes place in a beautiful replica of the bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). An alien weapon of psychological torture that achieved sentience and independence, passing on in a perfect simulacrum of a movie intimately concerned with humanity’s evolution. First Contact is complete, and the outsider’s frame of reference has become the new lens through which we view the future.
As Fascape concludes, two moments best illustrate Crichton’s journey with his trusty pop culture tools. In season four’s ‘Terra Firma’ (S4, Ep13) we see John on Earth for his last time. The cautious, reticent scientist of ‘Pilot’ (S1, Ep1) has been replaced by a man who has found his place, far away from his homeworld. The slow-motion scene of Crichton in full Peacekeeper gear, putting on his shades and walking away, could have been soundtracked by Steve Stevens. The classic hero imagery feels earned, a culture reference not played as a coping mechanism or laugh. John Crichton, Astronaut.
The second is while naming Harvey, Crichton admits he considered naming him for Clarence, the trainee angel who shows George what life without him would have been like in the all-time classic It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Clarence was a benevolent, mischievous force – not the demonic space goblin Harvey was intended to be – but we’re left to wonder if even that flirtation with naming changed Harvey’s evolution. After all, in the end, Crichton really does get his wings, free to fly through a galaxy that’s not his by choice but by consequence. Better still, free to understand it on his own terms and at his own speed. To quote Asher-Perrin once again, “power in how we view our lives through the prisms of story.”
John Crichton is someone very different once through the prism of his story. Not his father. Not his father’s son. And not the sheep in wolf’s clothing of his first steps into the wider universe. Instead, he becomes the conclusion and consequence of a ragged First Contact, a man defined and steadied by his life experiences, ready to go far outside his comfort zone for even more.
Humanity will never be the same. Neither will Crichton. But the Bugs Bunny jokes aren’t going anywhere.