Reviews

Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

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This book offers a completely different scenario from my previous encounter with the late Mr. Bank’s Culture series, and a totally engrossing one. The main character, Cheradenine Zakalwe, is a Culture agent who acts on behalf of Special Circumstances division – the shady entity I already encountered in Player of Games. In other words, Zakalwe is the kind of person the Culture employs for “dirty” jobs, those that its enlightened population is now incapable or unwilling to perform.

As I noted in my review of Player of Games, the Culture offers its citizens practically everything: it has been defined as a post-scarcity society, one where every need is met, every desire (no matter how outlandish) is fulfilled; there are no poverty, hunger, sickness. Yet I had the definite feeling that this Utopia lacked something fundamental, and I believe it could be a sense of purpose: how could I otherwise explain its citizens’ manic drive for the eccentric, the bizarre?  Here is where Special Circumstances comes into play, its members striving to bring the Culture’s way of life to other (less enlightened?) societies, maybe as a form of ultimate denial against that perceived lack of purpose: what it looks like, at least from my perspective, is a form of high-handed meddling that often requires unsavory compromises or, in more extreme cases, the choice between the lesser of two evils.

Here is where Cheradenine Zakalwe comes into play, a human-shaped monkey wrench thrown into the works of a particular society to undermine its social structure or channel an existing conflict into a direction more suitable to Special Circumstance’s goals. And Zakalwe does fulfill his tasks with enthusiasm, uncaring of the dangers and the physical harm that come with the job: at some point he is even beheaded, a situation that seems to have little physical consequences, but adds further baggage to an already complicated psychological profile. This man seems to actively seek that kind of punishment, and as I read along I often wondered why, especially when the slowly accumulating details kept hinting at some deep-seated guilt with its roots in the past.

This is one of the novel’s most fascinating aspects, since it develops on two alternating story-lines: one of them advances in a conventional way, following the attempts of Special Circumstances’ agent Diziet Sma and her drone partner Skaffen Amtiskaw to recall Zakalwe from his self-imposed retirement and employ his services in the reinstatement of a political leader, the only one able to avert a brewing war; the other story-line moves backwards in time to expose Zakalwe’s tormented past and uncover the layers of guilt and self-loathing at the roots of his personality.  It’s a very unusual narrative method, and yet it never confused me, but rather increased the suspense as the details on the protagonist built up a widening picture headed toward a momentous revelation.

It’s this revelation that puts Zakalwe’s actions in the proper context: he’s looking for a purpose, driven by a burning need to do something good that will wash away the horrible sins of his past, so it comes as no surprise that he’s doomed to failure because those past actions are truly irredeemable, but most importantly because I think his so-called saviors – be they the Culture, Special Circumstances or both – are not exactly the “good guys” who can offer him that kind of deliverance. For them he is nothing but an instrument, a weapon, to be used for their purposes. No redemption attached.

If Player of Games gave just a hint of the arrogance of the Culture’s mindset, bent on shaping the universe after their own image, here the long list of situations and conflicts into which Zakalwe is all-too-willingly dropped widens the scope of their actions, making it look like a grand-scale plan with chilling overtones.  Considering the vast influence wielded in the Culture by artificial intelligences, I could not avoid wondering if this “grand scheme of things” is something conceived by thinking machines rather than the humans who gave them status and a place in society.  Certainly the cold pragmatism with which Zakalwe (and how many more like him?) is handled lends substance to this hypothesis: he is an instrument, and his own needs and desires are used to propel him toward fulfilling the Culture’s goal.   He tries desperately to prove he’s not the monster he knows himself to be, and by doing the Culture’s bidding, by being their tool, he seeks atonement and maybe a fresh start, not realizing that his status as a weapon robs him of that very humanity he’s trying to recapture.

At the end of the book I was surprised to discover that I still felt a measure of sympathy for Zakalwe despite the knowledge of his past sins (and they are truly terrible): I think that his desperate search for redemption, the long backward journey Banks takes his readers on, was meant to do just that – leave us in the middle of the road seeing both sides of the equation. I can appreciate very much the fact that we are left with no definite answers, because there are none indeed…

Finally, a few notes on the style: I perceived a marked difference in Bank’s narrative here, if compared with Player of Games: it’s more convoluted and requires a greater degree of attention – not just because of the two diverging storylines, but also because of the language itself. Both of these aspects led me to believe that Banks asks a great deal out of his readers, yet also expects to find what he wants. And from a reader’s standpoint this is quite gratifying.

My Rating: 9/10

 

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Reviews

New TV shows from best-selling sci-fi books

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Science Fiction tv shows seem to have gained new breath and a fresh impulse of late: there have been several announcements about the launch of new series or mini-series that make me think the genre is enjoying a renaissance, at least on the small screen.  What I have seen in theaters, of late, tends to be more oriented toward special effects than story or characterization, so my hope is that TV shows, more inclined to be deep and thought-provoking (in any genre, not just sci-fi) will fill those gaps.

For me, the added bonus comes from the fact that a few of those shows are based on books I’ve read and loved, which makes the anticipation even more feverish.  Let’s see a few:

THE EXPANSE

SyFy has commissioned a 10 episode series based on The Expanse cycle by James S.A. Corey, the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Casting seems to be now finalized and the online buzz is quite high, because this series of books (four have been published until now, with two more to come), with its fresh and enjoyable approach to space opera, is the revelation of the last few years.

Humanity has colonized part of the Solar System, thus creating different social levels between the older, stabler colonies – like the Moon or Mars – and the younger and struggling settlements in the Asteroid Belt, where the living conditions have physically changed the colonists, due to the constant microgravity.  The already politically unstable scenario is further unbalanced by the appearance of an alien menace that threatens human civilization…    I’ve reviewed the series here and here, if you’re curious, and to say I’m looking forward to see how they will fare on screen… well, that’ the understatement of the century.

REDSHIRTS

FX is involved in a mini-series based on John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts, an amusing story that pokes fun at the trope of the expendable junior officers in the Star Trek franchise, especially those wearing the Security department’s titular red shirts.   If you are not familiar with Scalzi’s writing, this novel might be a good place to start: it’s not just an enjoyable collection of tongue-in-cheek jokes pointed at the famous series (jokes that come from extreme familiarity and therefore affection), it’s also a way to consider in a more serious way the elements that make us human and the meaning of existence.

There are no details yet about casting or a possible release date: most of the news I could find on the internet date back to February when the announcement was made.  Author John Scalzi is even more cautious on the subject – because of contractual obligations, I’m sure – but from this post on his blog you will see how excited he is about the project.

He’s not the only one…

OLD MAN’S WAR

And since this is John Scalzi’s lucky year, another one of his works is up for conversion to TV format: from his successful series Old Man’s War,  SyFy will develop a show borrowing its title from the second novel – The Ghost Brigades.  For those who have not yet encountered this series (what are you waiting for? read them NOW!), OMW follows a group of elderly citizens who are given a second chance at life by enlisting with the Colonial Defense Forces in the struggle against alien civilizations.  If you fear this sounds like a cross between Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s Forever War, don’t worry: Old Man’s War is something else entirely…

A few years ago there was talk of turning the first book into a movie but apparently the deal feel through, as it sometimes happens.  So I’m very happy that television decided to step in, and hope that it will give this great book series the depth it deserves.  Again, I’m letting the author speak about the series with his trademark tongue-in-cheek branch of humor.

FOUNDATION

This is quite recent news I discovered on IO9’s website: the production will be carried out by HBO and the show written by Jonathan Nolan, which means that there is a huge potential for success here.  I read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy long ago so I will certainly need to re-acquaint myself with them to enjoy their translation to the small screen.  If HBO deals with this story with the same richness with which they’re handling Game of Thrones, we might be in for a great ride indeed.

So… Do you know any of these books? Are you waiting to see them translated to screen?  And more important: do you know of other upcoming shows that might fire our imagination?

 

Reviews

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

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For a long time I’ve wanted to tackle Iain M. Banks’ famous Culture saga, that’s been often hailed as one of the most fascinating and interesting of our times. Several years ago I did read the first book, Consider Phlebas, and though I didn’t exactly dislike it, it somehow failed to captivate me.

Then I happened to read some comments on the internet about how the second book, The Player of Games, is really the best introduction to the Culture series, so I decided to try again. And this second attempt went much better.

In short, on the planet Azad the social, political and economic life revolves around a game – also named Azad – that shapes the empire and its people, whose entire life is dedicated to it, to the point that the outcome influences their social standing. Jernau Gurgeh, a renowned game-player from the Culture, is sent to Azad to participate in the Game and at the same time to act as a Culture representative. What apparently starts as a diplomatic mission of sorts, with some double-dealing overtones, soon becomes much more, especially for Gurgeh: Azad will put to the test his game-playing abilities, of course, but also the very foundations of who he is as a Culture citizen and as a person.

The story itself builds a constant momentum that involves the reader deeper and deeper, just as Gurgeh finds himself pulled into the Game to the point that it becomes more real than reality itself. One of the best characteristics of the book is that it skims over the rules of the Game, showing it through the players’ reactions rather than through a dry list of technical detail, so that the story-telling remains very fluid – and enjoyable. If this is typical of Banks’ narrative I might have found another favorite author, because I prefer stories where the storyteller leaves details to the readers’ imagination rather than boring them with unnecessary explanations that slow down the pace.

The Culture is however the main protagonist here: a star-spanning civilization that has reached such levels of sophistication that its citizens have left behind the troubles of contemporary humanity – not having to battle with illness, poverty, political or social strife, people from the Culture are free to pursue their goals, be they purely hedonistic or more knowledge-oriented. In other words, Utopia. The differences with the Azad Empire are glaring: the reader learns, together with Gurgeh, that the Empire is indeed a cruel, merciless entity and that behind a glamorous façade lurks an underworld made of sadistic pleasures.

And yet the Culture itself is far from perfect, because even if the citizens live charmed lives, boredom seems to lurk in the sidelines as the consequence of having it all, of wanting for nothing: if the citizens feel this irresistible pull toward something new – the more extreme, the better, like playing life-threatening sports, indulge in outlandish recreational drugs or changing sex back and forth – this could be the sign that the very lack of strife at its core has taken something vital away from the Culture.  Gurgeh himself clearly feels this: there is an undertone of despair – unspoken as it is – in his search for more challenging games, and I had the feeling that he considers the Culture too stifling in its perfection to suit his needs, even though he’s unaware of it.  Maybe this is the reason he’s contacted for playing on Azad, because he still cares enough about winning, because he faces this kind of challenge like a serious endeavor, not simply one of the many diversions the Culture offers: and if this is indeed the case, if winning is what really matters to Gurgeh, then the next question would be about the reasons for the Culture to involve itself, through him, in the game of Azad, whose winner becomes the empire’s ruler.

Here is where we learn that the Culture is far from a distant, benevolent entity that cares only for its citizens’ well-being: Gurgeh is not an ambassador sent to illustrate different values and viewpoints – he’s rather a one-man army whose goal is to overthrow the old, cruel empire of Azad in favor of something else, but without the unavoidable bloodshed.  The Culture comes into the light as the ultimate manipulator, acting not through brute force but rather shaping events, individuals or circumstances by steering them in determined directions, and working though proxies.  Like Gurgeh.

I encountered one remarkable detail in that regard: while on Azad Gurgeh uses the local language instead of the Culture’s own (called Marain) and with time this seems to alter his way of thinking, to mutate his response to situations. To the point that his companion, the sentient drone Flere-Imsaho (yes, in the Culture drones are considered sentients, and some of them have quite an attitude) tries hard to engage him in conversation in Marain to draw the man back to a different way of thinking.   An apparently small detail, but a thought-provoking one.

All in all this was a great start to what I think will be a fascinating immersion in a multi-faceted universe: how could I resist, for example, huge ships with peculiar, tongue-in-cheek names like “Just Read the Instructions” or “So Much for Subtlety”, whose sentient Minds are way too interested in human affairs? Or the mysterious entity called Special Circumstances that has all the characteristics of a secret organization bent on shaping the course of politics or history? It’s more than enough to keep me reading on…

My Rating: 8,5/10

 

Reviews

Farscape characters: Crais & Scorpius

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CRAIS

“There is much in life that is unfair. We are all proof of that.”

Peacekeeper Captain Crais is Farscape‘s first attempt at an antagonist, the first hunter and nemesis of the crew of Moya: as such, despite many interesting facets and the great portrayal from actor Lani Tupu (who also gives his voice to Pilot), he does not completely reach the goal in my opinion.  Mainly because Crais, in spite of all the power and Peacekeeper might at his disposal, allows himself be ruled by his own inner turmoil rather than by a focused directive.crais

Not being born a Peacekeeper, but having been forcibly enlisted as a child, Crais must have felt early on the pressure of proving himself to his comrades and superiors: this, more than the accidental death of his brother he blames Crichton for, is the motivation driving his relentless pursuit of the escaped Leviathan. Crais needs to show that no one can cross him and survive, so he acts with more ruthlessness than planning, blinding himself to other means of pursuing his objectives and falling into the role of pawn, rather than player, once Scorpius – the real face of evil – appears on the scene.

Ironically, Crais’ fall from grace marks the beginning of his change into a better person: it’s a long road, granted, and for quite some time he remains, if not an outright foe, at least a very ambiguous character, more inclined toward the pursuit of his own interests at the expense of the Moyans: his most heinous act is the kidnapping of Moya’s offspring Talyn, with the justification that it’s exactly what was done to him long ago.  And yet this evil deed is also the first step toward salvation, because being forced to care for Talyn, who is a very unstable hybrid of Leviathan genes and PK weapon technology, he finds again a semblance of the family he lost and also the better part of himself, so that he ultimately chooses to sacrifice them both for the good of others.

What’s more important is that this change does not happen overnight, and that almost until the very end Crais maintains that taint of ambiguousness that keeps the viewers guessing: to do otherwise would have made the transformation unbelievable, while this final surprise turns him from villain to hero and allows him to go out with the proverbial blaze of glory.

 

 

SCORPIUS

“I long ago learned the advantages of patience.”

As an antagonist, Scorpius is a formidable, multi-layered character, the kind of villain we all love to hate, one who is far more complex than the simple label of “bad guy” would make you think of.  Scorpius is a powerful entity, one who is able to somehow endear himself to the audience despite his inclinations: for this reason, and because of the huge impact he has on the overall story and on the viewers’ consciousness, he manages to completely overshadow any other antagonist in Farscape‘s complex storyline.

scorpiusScorpius’ roots are fascinating, because he’s a Scarran/Sebacean hybrid: the Scarrans, a reptilian warrior race, began an interbreeding program with the goal of creating a stronger strain of soldier, but the mix with Sebacean genes had a dramatic side effect, because the humanoid Sebaceans are negatively affected by the intense heat Scarrans enjoy.  This means that Scorpius’ physiology is a veritable battlefield of conflicting needs, since part of his body craves the heat that is pernicious to the other half, so that he’s forced to find the very thin balance between the two through a thermal regulation suit and a cooling rod inserted directly in his brain.

One of the elements that make Scorpius the formidable character he is comes from the strength – both physical and mental – he gained from having to ride this narrow line between two conflicting needs, from having turned a potentially crippling disability into an advantage: the saying “what does not kill us, makes us stronger” is particularly true for him.

We learn at some point that his early years were nothing short of hellish, with his Scarran caretaker/slavemistress berating and torturing him for his flaws and limitations: what’s amazing in this revelation is that it occurs fairly late in the story-arc, when Scorpius’ character has been established as an evil, dangerous adversary. As a viewer I was surprised, and shocked, at the tide of pity that hit me witnessing the endless abuse he was subjected to: shocked, yes, because after all he was the “enemy” and you’re not supposed to empathize with the enemy, are you? Yet this late revelation gives a new insight into Scorpius’ psychological make-up, and if it does not justify his actions, or the ruthlessness he employs in pursuing his goals, it allows for understanding how he came to be what he is.

Like all other Farscape characters, Scorpius is shaped out of many shades of grey: where every one of the “heroes” possesses a dark side, he sports this chink in his armor, this weakness of sorts, something that renders him somehow less fearsome and alien. And that’s no easy feat, not when his first appearance on screen shows without doubt that he’s a force to be reckoned with: the first time viewers lay their collective eyes on Scorpius, he enters a busy bar scene, where the Peacekeepers of a secret base are unwinding between tours of duty. He stops on the threshold, looking around, and suddenly the room seems to freeze: people stop talking, hands that were raising a drinking glass halt in mid-motion, and a chill sense of foreboding falls on the room. Even the base commander, a hardened veteran, is unable to hide his deep unease.  All this without any need for Scorpius to say a word, or make a gesture: his very presence, the forbidding look enhanced by the head-to-toe black leather coolant suit, is enough to dampen the casual, relaxed mood, and this says a great deal more about who and what he is than any overt action could.

Hate for the Scarrans and the need for revenge are Scorpius’ main driving forces, and his single-minded focus on attaining them brings him to ignore the consequences of his actions, or take any collateral damage into consideration: what’s more chilling is that he’s not your run-of-the-mill baddie who enjoys inflicting pain and destruction while he twirls a proverbial mustache. What separates him from common evildoers is the total equanimity with which he evaluates his actions, the inner certainty that he’s on the right (and rightful?) path and any ensuing death or suffering is the price to be paid for the fulfillment of that goal. Scorpius is primarily a scientist, and like many scientists he understands and embraces the sacrifices to be endured in the name of science, and little does he care that his victims are evolved creatures – like a researcher, he does not stop to mourn the guinea pigs who gave their lives in the process.  Like the ultimate Machiavellian schemer, he believes that the end justifies all means.

This kind of approach is mirrored by the soft, cultured voice he employs when addressing others, a silken tone in sharp contrast with the words he’s uttering and more importantly with his appearance: Scorpius’ face is a study in sharp planes and angles, scaly, pallid skin stretched tautly over prominent bones, sunken eyes.  The character has been designed to look unappealing, and yet he’s a fascinating one – another glaring contradiction that underscores the complexity of his personality.

It hardly matters that he’s the enemy, that he’s the main source of pain and grief for the Moyans – especially Crichton – or that he’s a totally amoral adversary: Scorpius is such a rounded, fascinating character that the audience is ready to “forgive” him for his darkness, because he has the uncanny ability to make things interesting.  And no one could ask for more from a fictional creature…

With this post ends my journey through Farscape‘s characters: if you know the show, I hope these sketches brought back fond memories, if you don’t… well, my hope is that you were intrigued enough to give it a try!
You will not regret it…

 

Reviews

Farscape characters: Sikozu, Jool, Noranti

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SIKOZU

“Weak species!!”

Sikozu (played by Raelee Hill) appears only in one season, the fourth and final one of Farscape, and in the conclusive mini-series PEACEKEEPER WARS, but her character is explored in far greater depth, so she quickly becomes one of the key roles in the story-line: shrewd and enigmatic, quite intelligent but disdainful toward those she considers inferiors (which means almost everyone), she soon shows herself as a controversial, multi-layered and intriguing figure.sikozu

Sikozu is gifted with a superior intellect: able to quickly learn a language only by listening to it; possessing an encyclopedic knowledge on many subjects; brilliant, clever and gifted with a cutting sense of humor – or better, sarcasm – which she can use without mercy. Her physical abilities are on the same level as her mental skills: she can shift her center of gravity, therefore walking as easily on the walls or ceiling as she does on floors, and the loss of a limb is for her a mere inconvenience, since she’s able to reattach it without appreciable function loss. The young Kalish holds herself in high value and is firmly assured of her own superiority, which brings her to classify everyone else as irredeemably inferior.

And yet she’s somehow incomplete: her vast knowledge on Leviathans is just theoretical, not supported by any hands-on experience, and her people skills are almost non-existent. These contrasting, and puzzling, details are explained once Sikozu’s true nature is revealed: she is an artificial construct created as a sort of secret weapon. Her inorganic nature, and therefore her growth in an artificial and presumably isolated environment, explain the striking contrast between her psychological immaturity and the high cognitive levels. And of course her difficulties in social relationships.

It’s through her allegiance with Scorpius that Sikozu’s personality takes on an interesting ambiguity: if on one side she actively contributes to the Moyan’s survival, on the other her fascination with John Crichton’s nemesis puts her in a suspicious light and prevents her full integration with the crew, always placing her at the outside of the ‘circle’ and accentuating her differences in a group that has found its inner strength in reciprocal diversity.

The partnership between Sikozu and Scorpius, that for a long time looks only like a meeting of minds, adds a further element of suspense to an already suspenseful story-line and is later played on the subtle edge of a mutual physical attraction pointing to a Beauty and the Beast trope: Scorpius is the ultimate villain but is also marked by unappealing looks that are sometimes exasperated by ghastly behavioral patterns. The attraction game played with Sikozu, and the admiration the Kalish expresses toward Scorpius, bring the viewers to hover between fascination and revulsion while they observe, as if hypnotized, the evolution of a match truly made in Hell.

The premature end of Farscape has prevented the creators from a deeper exploration of Sikozu’s character and unfortunately the final mini-series only managed to worsen the situation, with the introduction of unexplained variables that did little for the development of her personality and could only accentuate the mysterious halo that envelops her.

 

 

JOOL

“Everything I have seen so far is despicable!”

Jool (played by Tammy McIntosh) is probably the less explored character among Farscape‘s recurring roles: we see her for just one season and she’s often relegated in the background, coming to the fore only when she serves as the Moyans’ scapegoat. Her arrival aboard the Leviathan coincides with Zhaan’s tragic demise, and Jool’s initial penchant for whining and temper tantrums accentuates the contrast with the Delvian’s dignity, so that her loss is felt more profoundly.

joolWhen she first comes aboard, Jool is far more isolated than John Crichton ever was at the beginning of his adventure: the Human too was like the proverbial fish out of water, but he was able to compensate his shortcomings by exercising considerable powers of flexibility and adaptation. Not so Jool: still clinging to her high social standing, she shows a great deal of preconceived scorn toward her shipmates, rating them far below her exacting standards.

Yet she has more in common with this band of fugitives than she can imagine: like them, she is far from home, having been unwillingly placed in cryogenic sleep for a long time, and she’s bereft of any certainty about her future. Unlike the Moyans, though, she doesn’t try to elaborate her options from this starting point and remains attached to her vanished past, refusing categorically to adapt to her new life.  We can see this clearly when, facing alone a terrifying situation, Jool considers suicide as an escape from a reality she is unable to tolerate.

We could see in Jool a cruel parody of Sleeping Beauty: she’s not awakened from her long sleep by a lover’s kiss, but because of an emergency, and the poor girl doesn’t find herself as the recipient of general benevolence but in the role of everyone’s laughing-stock. Given these premises, when the crew starts to nickname her “Princess”, the title takes on a mocking overtone that reveals the Moyans’ meaner streak, as they tend as a whole to exclude her from their circle instead of trying to help her integrate.

“No one wants to talk with me!” Jool laments at some point, and quite rightly: once she takes on – even if by default – Zhaan’s scientific and healing duties, it’s only proper that she demand the others’ respect, at the very least. Unfortunately they are too involved in their own troubles – that by this point have grown to considerable proportions – to have the time or the inclination to pay her any attention.

If Chiana represents a child that had to grow much too quickly, Jool is her opposite: her vast and formal education, coming from her privileged upbringing, never allowed her a true inner growth. This childish side is expressed by the penetrating scream, able to melt metals, with which she reacts to stressful situations – the comically enhanced cry of a child incapable of dealing with the world’s troubles.

Something does change along the way, though, and often Jool voices some snippets of wisdom, showing she too is capable of becoming more. In the last episode where she appears, her enthusiasm, when she meets again with the estranged members of the crew, is quite genuine and there are indications of a deeper relationship with D’Argo. The good-byes at the end of the episode suggest a positive change in the group’s dynamics and yet they have an unfinished flavor, like that of a road not fully traveled: the viewers feel that there was more to this character than what was explored on screen, and that the the episode’s title (What Was Lost) might have a deeper meaning than intended.

 

 

NORANTI

“Never bathe, never bathe. It washes off the juice.”

Mystery, or Enigma, could be further names for Utu Noranti Pralatong (played by Melissa Jaffer): when she appears aboard Moya, in the final episode of Season Three, she looks at ease on the Leviathan as if she had always been there, while no one can explain when or how this happened.noranti

Noranti looks like the proverbial witch of children’s tales: she’s old, small, wizened, her hair gray and unkempt, her face deeply lined. She’s often seen bent over some boiling cauldron, thus reinforcing her witch “mode” in our collective imagination, and the third eye in the middle of her forehead, flashing with different-colored lights, adds to the impression of mysterious and otherworldly powers. What’s more, the doubts about her origins – and her goals – are never fully cleared and leave the viewers with many unanswered questions.

It would be too easy to label Noranti as “crazy old woman”: the nonsensical utterances and the occasional lapses of narcolepsy would point that way, but she always manages to surprise the audience because her meaningless dialogue – like the obscure revelations of archaic oracles – takes on a precise meaning only with time, and also because under the apparent madness lurk both a deep wisdom and a profound respect for every life-form.

This latter comes to the fore in a very intense segment that helps us define Noranti’s personality beyond the smoke-screens the writers employ to enhance her mysterious aura: it’s a moment of revelation that in a handful of seconds can subvert any negative notion created by Wrinkles’ (that’s her nickname) ambiguous activities.  To successfully effect Aeryn’s rescue, Noranti had to create a dangerous epidemic as a diversion: many have perished because of the contagion and the old woman laments the loss of innocent lives – her pain is genuine this time, not mediated by obscure ramblings or convoluted word-play. For the first time viewers are able to see her true inner self, and in a touching, sadly ironic moment Rygel welcomes her to the Moyan community, to which she has been bound by pain and guilt, the elements common to this mixed group.

Noranti too, like Jool and Sikozu, suffers from the untimely end of Farscape and remains incomplete, although her unusual and controversial nature makes her a fascinating character that draws its strength from its very uncertain nature.

 

Reviews

Farscape characters: Rygel & Pilot

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RYGEL

I’m nobody’s puppet!

This outraged protest is of course a tongue-in-cheek joke aimed at the audience, because Rygel is indeed a puppet, although a very sophisticated one. Or rather, a combination of animatronics and voice work (from the talented Jonathan Hardy, who sadly passed away some time ago) that gives birth to a fully-rounded, many-faceted, totally believable character. Like his counterpart Pilot, Rygel makes us forget very quickly that he’s not really there, that he’s not a living creature – and that’s no mean feat…

Alien creatures in Farscape are truly alien, even the humanoid ones – i.e. the actors transformed by makeup and/or prosthetics – because the attention to detail of the show’s creators does not stop at skin level, but goes deeper, bestowing them with outlandish personalities and customs.  This is even truer for the artificial actors (my preferred term to indicate the animatronics constructs), where the skill of the Jim Henson Company’s teams literally breathes life into these combinations of latex and mechanisms.Rygel

Rygel is a shining example of that skill: small, froglike, ugly, with a nasty temper and an insatiable appetite, he behaves like the deposed ruler that he is, lording it over his companions and making no mystery of his low consideration of them.  Despite these unsavory traits, the former Hynerian Dominar endears himself to the viewers thanks to his shrewdness and deep wisdom: he’s the one who knows how to cut the best deals, or to take advantage of difficult situations.   He is a survivor, and it soon becomes clear that he’s learned this talent in the hardest possible way.

Once the ruler of six billion people, Rygel has been deposed by a coup and imprisoned by the Peacekeepers at the behest of his rival – and not just imprisoned but tortured, both in mind and body, for the best part of 300 cycles. Once this fact comes to light, through Rygel’s confrontation with his former torturer, one has to wonder how he could have survived so much torment with his sanity intact, so that it’s easy to forgive him for the deep self-centeredness he exhibits in every circumstance: it’s plain that it’s what helped him to survive.

And survival is a skill that Rygel has honed to perfection: toward the end of the first season he has no qualms about abandoning his companions when the situation looks untenable, to the point of almost betraying them to save his skin, only to recant simply because a better (and safer!) option looms on the horizon.  There are no “better angels” in Rygel’s psychological make up, no discovery of higher ideals: what still makes him a likable figure in the audience’s eyes is his total, brutal honesty about it.  This open-faced admission is followed by one of my favorite scenes in the show: Crichton chides him for not doing “the right thing”, then forgives him with a kiss on the forehead, an act that leaves Rygel both stunned and contrite, in an incredible show of emotions that is even more amazing for being displayed by an artificial construct.

Of course Rygel changes with the passing of time, everyone aboard Moya does to some extent: at one point he even puts himself at risk to hold a defensive position in support of his crewmates, and sees it not as personal bravery but as paying homage to his noble ancestors. Yet what I most enjoy about his character is that he never effects a 360 degree psychological U-turn: sure, he does integrate in the Leviathan’s haphazard family, risking his life for them as I said above (not without grumbling, of course), but still he retains that exquisitely selfish nature that is his first and strongest barrier against the universe.  When all is said and done, Rygel is still the delightfully double-dealing, greedy and self-centered creature we see in the first episode.  And that’s the main reason we love him…

 

 

PILOT

“I wanted to see the stars…”

If Rygel represents the soul of greed, Pilot looks like the exact opposite: bonded to the Leviathan Moya, he shares with her the safekeeping of the crew, acting as intermediary between them and the ship. Yet Pilot (whose voice is that of Lani Tupu, who also portrays Captain Crais), despite his mild attitude and big, soulful eyes (one of his best life-like details), is not exactly a kind and selfless creature.

For example, he’s sometimes prone to sneering replies that show a seldom-seen facet of his character, one that surfaces in moments of stress: even without knowing his past history, it’s not surprising that he would take exception, now and then, to the cavalier attitude the Moyans employ in relating to him, treating him like some sort of glorified software interface, or worse – as it happens when they cut off one of his four arms as payment to a deranged scientist in exchange for star charts. Their rationalization of this terrible act is that “he’s a servicer” and that, in time, the arm will grow back, and in his deceptively effacing way Pilot seems to accept this – but reading between the lines of his comments we can hear barely repressed bitterness and open scorn.

pilotYet he doesn’t lash out in retaliation: first because he’s physically tied to his console (“I don’t get out much, so I read”, is another of the memorable descriptions of his condition) and therefore unable to move about, and second because he carries a huge burden of guilt for the past actions that brought him where he is.  When he was younger, he longed to explore space as the symbiotic companion of a Leviathan, but his elders deemed him still too young and inexperienced and counseled more patience: with typical youthful rashness, he chose a shortcut and accepted to be bonded with a Leviathan – Moya – as replacement for the original Pilot who did not want to participate in a Peacekeeper genetic experiment.  Which of course meant the death, or rather the brutal assassination of that other Pilot at the hands of the Peacekeepers.

Once this detail of his past is revealed, many tiles fall in place, and we understand how the loss of one arm, or the constant pain he’s enduring because of the forced bond with a grieving Moya, are seen as the acceptable price for the freedom of the stars – and as the atonement Pilot feels is due to his predecessor.  This is one of the best features of Farscape, that none of its characters is totally good or evil, that they all have some stain on their past, that they are flawed and imperfect. Just like us.

I have spoken of Pilot’s special bond with Aeryn when detailing her character: these are indeed my favorite moments in the show, the growing respect and affection that build between two very different beings who nonetheless manage to complement each other. They are both alone and isolated: Aeryn because of the severed ties to her Peacekeeper heritage, Pilot because his unmovable position at the heart of ship’s operations forces him to remain removed from all direct contact, unless the crew choses to visit him in his den – a huge, cavernous place that seems to dwarf even his far-from-slight frame.  With hindsight, the infusion of Pilot’s DNA in Aeryn’s body looks like the first piece of the bridge that builds between them, linking the two in more ways than one: a physical merging that becomes a soul bond and a family tie, one of Farscape‘s underlying concepts – that “everything begins with family”.

Reviews

Farscape characters: Zhaan, D’Argo, Chiana

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ZHAAN

“Time and Patience…”

Where Aeryn represents physical strength and soldierly values, Zhaan in a way acts as her counterpart: she’s a Delvian priestess who cherishes spirituality above all else and embodies a sort of protective, maternal instinct that makes her the logical representative of the necessary spirit of cooperation that will be fundamental for the survival of the Moyans.zhaan

She is the voice of reason, the one who takes on the often difficult task of smoothing over the crew’s animosity toward each other, employing all the wisdom of her 800 cycles-long life.  The group of people aboard the Leviathan is thrown together by accident and at first their association is more a matter of necessity and convenience than a true alliance or a bond of friendship: this is why Zhaan’s mediation acts often as the only barrier between the opposing needs of the Moyans and the catastrophic consequences of many of their actions. And probably it’s not accidental that from Season Three on, after her demise, the story-arc becomes darker and more devastating.

With these premises it also appears logical that she would be entrusted with the crew’s physical well being: her herbal remedies and her knowledge in the field often make the difference between life and death and there’s a fine irony in the discovery that Delvians are in fact evolved plant-life. Herbal therapy incarnated.

Zhaan’s mother-like, protective attitude creates a special bond of allegiance with Moya, herself a protector and a mother-figure: inside the Leviathan, like in the maternal womb, the crew is reasonably safe and finds almost everything they need to survive.  We see the Delvian assume this role as early as the second episode of the show when she takes on herself Moya’s pain during an operation performed on the Leviathan’s neural system: it’s evident that Zhaan is facing an almost impossible – and very painful – task, yet she accepts it with courage and determination.

And yet ethereal and contemplative Zhaan is the child of a violent past: she murdered the Delvian leader – her lover – when he sold the planet’s independence to the Peacekeepers to gain absolute power.  Mindless violence, that sometimes can be permanent, represents the dark side of the Delvian soul and Zhaan freed herself from it thanks to the Seek, the mystic quest for enlightenment she initiated during her long imprisonment.  Yet these cruel instincts can only be repressed but not eradicated: in several occasions we see them emerge and threaten to overwhelm Zhaan’s better nature.

She is without doubt a positive figure, but she’s far from perfect: she takes an active part in the forced amputation of Pilot’s arm as the price to buy much-needed star-charts, and her cold, hypocritical rationalization of such brutality makes us spectators reel back in horror before this unexpected turn.

These contradictions stress Zhaan’s imperfections, true, but in counterbalancing her more spiritual tendencies they make her more approachable, more understandable and closer to us.  There is a scene that is strongly emblematic of Zhaan’s nature: while dealing with a dangerous mercenary, she repels his attack with surprising ease stating that she’s “Delicate, yes, weak, no”.  This is Zhaan, in a nutshell: grace and strength, spirituality and “human” frailties.

And dignity. This is the word that best defines her and informs her every gesture and nuance of expression and accompanies her to the very end: when she chooses to sacrifice what’s left of her life to save her ship-mates, she takes her leave from the crew of Moya with the same grace and dignity that are uniquely hers. Each family member, which she claims are her “children and loves”, receives a blessing and a spiritual parting gift that leaves an indelible impression – on both sides of the screen.

Even after she’s gone, her memory and spirit still linger along Moya’s corridors, as if she were a protective deity: each time the camera pans through the rooms where her presence was more constant, it’s impossible not to think about her or imagine her blue-clad form sailing through them with her trademark gracefulness.

Sweetness and strength, wisdom and sternness, imperfection and willingness to sacrifice oneself: Zhaan’s character is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

 

D’ARGO

“I will never be taken prisoner again!”

DargoHuge, fierce, aggressive, a booming voice raised in growled threat: this is the way D’Argo appears on screen for the first time, and this first impression is later strengthened by his violent approach to any situation. It’s clear from the very start that he has to deal with huge anger-management problems, including his own species’ peculiar hyper-rage (a sort of berserker raptus that pits him against other males), so that it’s too easy to classify him as a savage.  But D’Argo is far more complex than that.

Little by little we learn that he has lost everything: falsely accused of his wife’s murder, he’s been a Peacekeeper prisoner for long cycles, laboring like a slave in conditions that would have killed weaker beings; he knows nothing of his son’s whereabouts and he burns with the need to avenge his wife’s death. All this could be enough to explain D’Argo’s constant anger, but there’s another important detail to take into consideration: he’s young – by Uncharted Territories standards he’s just beyond his teens.  “You’re but a boy!” Zhaan tells him, from the perspective of her 800 cycles.

Youth, coupled with the total loss of his world, is the key to understanding D’Argo: while he struggles with himself, to keep his drives under a tighter rein, he also desperately attempts to rebuild what has been taken from him – he searches for his lost son and tries to create a stable relationship with Chiana. He’s so focused on that goal, like a drowning man clinging to a lifeline, that he loses any sense of perspective and refuses to heed the danger signals that everything might not be as he wants and hopes for.  When he finds his son, the boy has been a slave for a long time, and he’s full of mis-directed anger (not unlike his father….); and Chiana is too much of a free spirit to accept a quiet life on a farm.

D’Argo fierce nature, his origins from a warrior race, seem to condemn him to a life of strife, and yet he does indeed grow through these struggles because the family being built on Moya needs his strength and his loyalty, and it’s thanks to them that he realizes his full potential. What best shapes him is the friendship with John Crichton: it’s not an easy bonding, on the contrary it starts with suspicion and contempt on D’Argo’s part, but it develops slowly though shared dangers. From comrades in arms to brothers.

On hindsight, I believe that a sort of osmosis happens between the two men: from D’Argo, Crichton learns a more aggressive stance that contributes to divest him of his higher ideals of mediation and dialogue, since they have no place in the Uncharteds; from Crichton, D’Argo learns how to value friendship and respect, to stop seeing them as a sign of weakness. And to joke about the direst of situations.  The emblematic moment when their bond is cemented happens in the last episode of season 1, while the two get ready to attempt something that might cost them their lives:

Crichton: Hey, D’Argo. How come I’m not afraid?
D’Argo: Fear accompanies the possibility of death. Calm shepherds its certainty.
Crichton: I love hanging with you, man.

They become each other’s support, confidante and the go-to person when they need to unburden. Both deprived of compatible male company by circumstances, they gravitate toward each other in an unforced way that feels completely natural, and believable.  The trademark of all Farscape relationships.

 

CHIANA

“I can kiss or kick or cry my way out of it.”

In the beginning, young Chiana seems destined to the role of the outsider, the off-key note: her arrival aboard Moya happens in the middle of the first season and her presence acts as a ripple passing through the fragile balance that is taking hold among the Leviathan’s inhabitants.

Chiana is a rebel, running away from the oppressive Nebari government and its imposition of rigid rules that even contemplate brainwashing of its citizens. Since her escape, she’s been living a hand-to-mouth existence and her instincts are tightly focused on survival, while her principles are quite flexible.

More than anything else she is a study in contradictions: her slight, juvenile appearance leads people to underestimate her because it hides the crafty experience she’s gained through a life on the edge. These contradictions are also plain in the way she moves, with sudden and almost disarticulate gestures that match a speech pattern that is breathy, fast and full of stops and repetitions, like the outward expression of a mind riddled by conflicting thoughts and emotions that make her interaction with the outside world quite unpredictable.Chiana

So it’s hardly surprising if the Moyans have some trouble in trusting her, particularly so when she seems unwilling to contribute to everyone’s survival: at some point we see her trying to escape, with no further thought for the others, from a dangerous situation they are in, and we can sympathize with her companions’ annoyance, but we also understand that this flight reaction is nothing more than the product of her former life, where Chiana certainly survived by being fast on her feet and not trusting anyone but herself.  It will be only thanks to her life on Moya, and the family that’s being slowly created there, that she will learn how to depend on others.

It would be too easy to label Chiana as self-centered and egotist or, worse, as an unrepentant tralk (the alien equivalent of “slut”), as some commentators did. Easy and wrong, because she is instead a very complex person, one who is revealed little by little and who always manages to surprise – both the viewers and her traveling companions.   With the latter she creates, with time, a fierce bond of love and loyalty that grows as the ties between them all become stronger. We could say that Chiana is the emblem of the complex synergies aboard Moya: the group initially works together for simple expediency and only later grows into a real family, while the young Nebari’s stay with them morphs from a temporary measure, just a stop along the way while waiting for a better opportunity, to a progressive integration with this group of people, until she becomes an essential part of the family she learns to count on for survival, and love.

This does not mean, however, that Chiana completely changes her attitude or behavior: indeed some her most radical sides keep appearing like glitches in an unstable mechanism, as we can observe in her relationship with D’Argo. Once they become lovers the Luxan sees in Chiana the chance to restore the family that circumstances stole from him, as he dreams of a quiet and peaceful life. A terrifying prospect for the Nebari, since she resents every limitation – be it true or imagined – to her own personal freedom; and that’s why she decides to destroy their relationship in the most devastating way, betraying D’Argo with his own son Jothee.   It’s curious that Chiana would consider the dramatic shattering of her love story with D’Argo as the lesser evil, if compared to a conventional, probably boring life, but we must keep in mind that her past – and the oppressive atmosphere of the Nebari worlds – plays a key role in this: Chiana is a free spirit, a creature that does not bear well a cage, no matter how sweet or gilded.

Chiana’s character, while growing in depth and responsibility, does take on an increasingly tragic streak that is tied to a series of traumatic losses: her carefree youth comes to an end when she’s forced to part company with her brother Nerri, the only person she has a strong emotional bond with, and until that moment the very center of her world.  Zhaan’s death again marks a turning point, because it finally stresses how Chiana has become an integral part of Moya’s family and how the loss of this pivotal and irreplaceable figure will affect her. And last but not least, D’Argo: once he breaks their relationship after the fling with Jothee, Chiana understands the importance that the Luxan had in her life, and after they manage to seal the breach – thus revealing the Nebari’s further emotional growth – D’Argo dies heroically, leaving her once again adrift.

The last scenes where we see her, in THE PEACEKEEPER WARS, show us the extent of her evolution through the decision to carry on D’Argo’s dream to live on Hyneria as a farmer: accepting her dead lover’s legacy and making it her goal she proves how the past experiences have changed and matured her, although something of the “old” Chiana peeks through the cracks when she ironically comments on these changes. It’s a pity that this particular scene is available to us viewers only as deleted footage, because it would have better defined Chiana’s character and its progress, while at the same time stressing the contradictory spirit that still dwells at her core, making her so elusive, mysterious and fascinating.