First things first: Season 4 of Farscape wasn’t nearly as disappointing the second time around.
It still doesn’t completely work, as a season of television, and it’s almost certainly a letdown after the stellar third season. But watching it again, from season premiere to series finale — divorced from expectation and hype and the hoopla surrounding its cancellation — I was struck by just how much of it does work, by how much there is to admire in the show’s risky creative choices and its overall direction, and again by how difficult it is to pin down exactly what went wrong and where.
If I had to guess, I’d say they probably tried doing too much…and maybe tried to do it with too little.
“Crichton Kicks” gets the season off to an excellent start, however. It’s a fun and fast-paced episode that does some clever things with its introduction of new characters and old. Sikozu, who I remember spending much of the season not liking, emerges right away as a much more interesting and promising character than expected. She’s a character you’re not supposed to like, who the other characters don’t like, which is always a tricky thing to play. The character will never quite get the development she maybe deserves on the show, and eventually she’ll be weighed down by one too many plot-dictated superpowers — re-attach limbs, reverse her own gravity, shoot fire, etc. But here, in her earliest scenes with Crichton, trying to learn his language and trying to stay one step ahead of both him and her one-time business partners, she’s really a welcome addition to the show.
It’s kind of a shame, then, that what comes next is the muddled two-parter “What Was Lost.”
I think this is the first real inkling we get of what the writers have in mind for the season, how they’ve mapped out the story that’s to come and decided to tie everything together. It may be this last part, the attempt to tie everything together, though, that gets them into trouble. Season 4 was envisioned as part of a whole, not just a continuation of the Farscape story, but a culmination of the series, along with whatever the writers had planned for Season 5. This was the first time they really allowed themselves to play the long game, to set up developments that wouldn’t pay off for another season and a half. (Or, in reality, wouldn’t pay off until the miniseries.) It’s ironic that this was the first time they really felt confident of another season’s pickup, so much so that, right away, they introduced elements that wouldn’t be properly explained until the whole series was over. Every season before this had been a scramble, a last-minute save for another year. It was only now, when they were convinced that Season 4 could be half of a bigger whole, that they were canceled.
So there’s a reason “What Was Lost” feels muddled. It’s setting up new character dynamics, trying to explain why humans and Sebaceans look so much alike, introducing priests and prophecies and ancient astronaut hieroglyphic-like symbols that wouldn’t seem out of place on an episode of Stargate. It’s trying to do a whole lot, probably too much. The second time around, when I could better understand what it was trying to do and where all of this would eventually lead, the episode wasn’t as bad, was not as confusing. But it’s still a two-part mess. Noranti’s motivations and objectives are often unclear; Grayza’s being largely reduced to a sexual predator is problematic; Oo-Nii, the creature from the Black Lagoon, is just plain weird and occasionally dumb; and while the actors give it their all, the relationship between D’Argo and Jool can’t help but feel a little rushed — no doubt because Tammy MacIntosh and her incredible abs were leaving the show. The show looks terrific — again, filming in Australia meant Farscape looked like nothing else on American television — but I’m not sure how well it works as a pair of individual episodes.
“Lava’s a Many Splendored Thing,” the next episode, is a lot more fun and smartly written, as are the next two, “Promises” and “Natural Election,” even if these latter are a little on the forgettable side. Then there’s “John Quixote,” which works a lot better than I remember it doing — a common refrain this season — but which still kind of feels like an excuse to just let everybody act crazy. It ties together well, I think, by the end, with its cameo by Zhaan, but along the way the episode feels a lot like the second season’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” only with more rules and lower stakes.
“I Shrink, Therefore I Am” would, ironically, have worked better without the shrinking part altogether. Without that, it’s actually a pretty decent riff on Die Hard, with some nice developments along the way. The shrinking is amusing — until the very end, when it becomes sort of dumb and poorly rendered — and it does allow for a nice exchange between Rygel and Sikozu. (“This is physically impossible,” she rightly claims. “And yet it’s happening,” he tells her.) But it’s ultimately kind of superfluous.
“A Perfect Murder” feels incomplete; even with the deleted scenes on the DVD, it feels like there’s a good chunk missing from the story. This is one of those times when Farscape‘s tendency to jump right into a story — sometimes well into a story — kind of works against it. And the villains here are ultimately a little silly. Like a lot of the episodes before and after it this season, there are a lot of good moments, but they don’t quite add up to as much as one might have liked.
“Coup by Clam” is kind of fun, and again has fun poking holes at the impossibility of its own science. Crichton’s impatience with the doctor who keeps trying to explain why he’s blackmailing them and how the clams work — instead of just getting to the point of what he wants — is amusing, as is the sight of Ben Browder in drag.
Of course, from there it’s straight into the alternate timelines, wormholes, and Earth-based stories of “Unrealized Reality,” “Kansas,” and “Terra Firma” — none of which work as well as they maybe should. Again, they’re playing the long game, setting up a lot of information and putting a lot of new pieces on the board. But they also often feel like they’re biding their time; there are a lot of interesting ideas at work in these episodes, and in the season, but are there really two seasons’ worth of ideas? Individually, the episodes are interesting and fun to watch, but all together, they’re a little forgettable, seeming to be doing too much with too little. In that way, the last season of Farscape is very similar to the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But that’s another story.
I could go into the Earth-based stories in detail, but few of the specific details are particularly memorable after the fact. Except for one thing: everybody does seem to learn English pretty darn quick, in ways that the translator microbes would seem to make difficult, if not impossible. (How do you learn the vocabulary and grammar of another language when the microbes automatically translate it, albeit sometimes imperfectly, into your native language?) Farscape often has fun playing with language and the Babel-fish-like microbes — it’s something I always felt it had over both Star Trek and Stargate — but here too many questions get raised. I’m just saying.
The next three episodes (“Twice Shy,” “Mental as Anything,” and “Bringing Home the Beacon”) all have their moments and do good work to push the story forward, but they’re again not especially memorable individually. (Although “Mental” does have some nice development for D’Argo’s character.)
It may be uncharitable to say this, and also maybe an exaggeration, but “Constellation of Doubt” often feels like little more than leftover footage from the Earth-based “Kansas.” It’s nice to see the reaction to Moya’s crew on Earth, but it also feels like we’ve seen this before, in earlier episodes and in Crichton’s repeated claims that Earth isn’t ready for alien contact. In many ways, the episode feels like a placeholder, something to watch while we wait for Crichton to remember where he heard the word Katratzi and figure out how to get there and move the story forward.
Which it does. “Prayer” and the three-part “We’re So Screwed” work quite well. “Screwed,” in fact, works much better than I remember it, not half as padded as I thought and nicely pulling together plot threads from as far back as Season 1. It’s not Farscape at its absolute best, maybe, not even up to the high standards of previous season finales, but it’s a good stretch of storytelling nevertheless.
Whereas “Bad Timing,” the season and series finale, is arguably the best episode the show ever did. Everything Farscape does well is on display here, and I immediately realized why this and “Crichton Kicks” are the only two episodes from Season 4 that I’ve watched more than once. If the rest of the season had been this tightly plotted, this emotionally hard-hitting, this clever and high-stakes, I would have had a much different reaction to it. The season works a lot better than I remember it working, but it also often doesn’t work at all. The second time around, I’d have to qualify my disappointment, point at all the parts that do work, all the risky choices that, even if they don’t pay off, are admirable in and of themselves. But qualified disappointment is disappointment nonetheless.
Still, “Bad Timing” is phenomenal.
There’s a lot to like about Season 4 of Farscape, individual lines or scenes that are as good as anything that came before them. There are some very decent episodes and some very intriguing ideas. But there’s little about the whole that works as well as previous seasons, and little about individual episodes that’s quite as memorable. A lot of that is due, I think, to the fact that their ultimate goal was too big; they decided to treat Seasons 4 and 5 as one long arc of the story, but in the meantime lost sight of the single season’s arc.
As an addendum to all this, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the miniseries, The Peacekeeper Wars. I think it’s a terrific piece of storytelling, a fitting and thrilling conclusion to the story. But one thing it isn’t, I discovered, is a fifth season of the show. The miniseries is best appreciated as a sequel, rather than a direct continuation, experienced (as it was originally) with some time between it and Season 4. Trying to watch those four hours as the cap to Season 4, rather than as a movie on its own terms, you’re reminded too easily of the the things that don’t work about it, and all the tiny (and not so tiny) differences. Like Pilot’s different voice, or the different makeups for Scorpius and Noranti, or the fact that Noranti is hardly in the miniseries (supposedly because of an adverse reaction to the new makeup), or that Grayza is suddenly pregnant and next in command to the Chancellor, or that D’Argo’s son Jothee is suddenly played by a different actor, with completely different makeup of his own, or…and so on. By comparison, Raelee Hill’s new haircut and bondage-gear outfit don’t seem so remarkable at all. Actually, they seem like exactly the sort of thing Sikozu would pick up trying to impress and attract Scorpius.
The miniseries is wonderful, and builds from the strengths of “Bad Timing” more than the weaknesses of the season before it. But try to watch it too soon after Season 4, and it’s easy to dwell on all the things they changed, either out of necessity or simply because so much time had passed since production originally shut down.
I haven’t read the comics yet, and I’ve heard pretty mixed things overall, but I suspect at some point I will. Re-watching the series from the beginning has reminded me just how rich this universe is, how much of it there still is to explore, and how, if put in the right hands and treated well, there’s nothing else like it out there.
This is Fred Coppersmith, somewhere in the universe, signing off.