“…the wonders I’ve seen…”
Strangely enough, the character at the center of this story is the one I find more difficult to describe: for one thing I believe that the show’s female characters are the more powerful and interesting, and then there is the fact that he’s the narrator, our “window” on this world, so it’s not easy to focus on that window when the view from it is so fascinating…
Sense of wonder is indeed one of the principal components of John Crichton’s personality: being the only Earth human on the show he’s of course the lens through which spectators observe the bizarre and dangerous corner of the galaxy he ended up in. With the extensive knowledge of pop culture he carries with him, Crichton is, in a way, the ultimate sci-fi fan, the one who gets to live the dreams we all share when we stare in rapt fascination in front of a screen (or a book…) “I’m on another planet!”, he says in the pilot episode looking at the kaleidoscopic array of unfamiliar creatures and outlandish buildings on the commerce planet where he escaped briefly: and there is indeed wonder in his voice, the realization that everything that happened to him, since that fateful wormhole yanked him away from Earth orbit, is indeed real and not a hallucination.
Crichton’s scientific background, his scientist’ innate curiosity and a basically friendly disposition, make him the perfect character for viewer identification, but here is where Farscape veers from the expected norm: as I said in the series overview post, he does not become a sort of “Earth ambassador” among aliens, winning them over to his (our) point of view – no, he needs to adapt, to shape his thinking and behavior to new parameters and to integrate in this new reality, because this is what he needs to survive.
Every major character changes in the course of Farscape‘s story arc, and Crichton is no exception: at the start of the show he possesses this… innocence, for want of a better word, that comes from that very pop culture he so loves to quote: he tries to put in practice some of the concepts TV shows made us familiar with – the need to talk it over and reach a common ground, the certainty that conflicts can be avoided through mediation, the conviction that there must be something good in everyone and that it needs only to be reached. Events and peoples in the Uncharted Territories proceed all to quickly to divest him of these delusions: when he’s brought aboard Moya he’s attacked, threatened, spat on and beaten into submission in a very short time frame. “Boy, was Spielberg ever wrong. ‘Close Encounters’ my ass!” This is his first realization that fiction and reality travel on very different tracks.
And this is just the beginning: he’s chased, hunted, used, tortured and brought to the brink of madness – or maybe beyond – and all this while working hard to to earn his crewmates’ respect, to be considered even remotely useful. This is one aspect that makes Farscape so different from its brethren, because it’s not afraid to show that its main character – the human, our avatar and mirror – is weak and fragile, both in a physical and in a psychological way. This does not make him less the “hero”, on the contrary it makes him more approachable, more believable.
The transformation Crichton undergoes is not without a price, though: the constant attacks on his person, his identity, his self, do of course harden him. He loses that initial innocence to become more cynical and calculating – even a murderer. On screen this is subtly stressed through the use of clothes: for most of the first season he wears light-shaded overalls, only to exchange them – step by step, as the story-arc progresses further into darkness – with black clothing and leather overcoats. And yet he never loses his basic decency, the potential to do the right thing, even when it entails personal sacrifice: his father’s words, as he prepares to leave for the fateful mission that will bring him to the Uncharted Territories are “each man gets the chance to be his own kind of hero”. John Crichton discovers that chance very, very far away from home…
“Everything I lost isn’t worth a damn. And I don’t want to go back to your past.”
If what happens aboard Moya is at one point labeled as a “transformative journey”, this is particularly true for Aeryn Sun: once she finds herself stranded on the Leviathan, cut off from her past, stranger in a strange land, she begins a long and often painful metamorphosis. Declared “irreversibly contaminated” by her fellow Peacekeepers, trapped with escaped criminals and facing a very uncertain future, she deals with a series of dramatic choices whose consequence is the radical transformation of her whole being, one she tries at first to resist with stubborn determination.
We see that stubbornness since the pilot episode: faced with the choice between unavoidable execution and escape with the other prisoners, still she clings to her old life (“It’s what I am, it’s my breeding since birth!”) and only when John Crichton tells her that she can “be more” does she snap out of her hesitation. And only much later will we learn the striking impact of that choice of words.
From that moment on she starts the long journey that will reveal her as a person, not just a perfect soldier who lives and breathes discipline and orders; a journey that will open to her a world of feelings and attitudes that had been denied her by Peacekeeper social mores. Her deconstruction and rebuilding starts with an infusion of Pilot’s DNA as the result of an experiment from an insanely brilliant scientist: not only
her physical barriers are breached here, but also her “racial purity” – one of the tenets of Peacekeeper society – is broken forever. By her own admission Aeryn feels that the very core of her being has been changed irrevocably, that she has now truly been irreversibly contaminated as her captain declared some time before.
It’s then the turn of her emotional barriers, that crumble in the face of long suppressed memories and a tragic revelation: Aeryn had a passionate relationship with a Leviathan expert, who had perceived her great potential and wanted to take her away from the stifling mold of the mindless soldier. Terrified both by the intensity of the feelings she was discovering for the first time and by the prospect of a future so distant from what had been her life-long comfortable routine, she had denounced the man for his treason and gone back to her old unit. Not without harboring a deep-seated guilt and fear of emotional commitment. When these circumstances are revealed we understand her reaction to Crichton’s words about “being more”, since this was exactly what her former lover had urged her to be.
And finally, her capacity to think outside the box is called into play, when she applies her skills to previously untested use. Among the Peacekeepers, tasks are strictly compartmentalized: soldiers fight and techs work in supporting roles. Her pride in overcoming this limit and learning new abilities is almost childlike and stresses once more her stunted emotional growth, a side of Aeryn that clashes with her outward appearance, that of a fearless and competent soldier.
Interestingly, it’s Pilot who urges her toward this kind of discovery: Pilot, whose DNA has been spliced with hers and who represents the being she is initially more attuned to on Moya. Her relationship with Pilot – even more than the one with Crichton – will help expose her softer and more feminine side and will be one of the constant links to her better instincts throughout the story arc. Somehow, Pilot is Aeryn’s mirror image: he is kind and gentle but is also possessed of a strong mind-set and deep-rooted principles. This must be the main reason they find, almost from the start, a common ground (“We work together well” she tells Pilot at some point) that blossoms into a special and privileged bond.
Aeryn’s character is also defined by her difficult and tormented relationship with John Crichton: their love story, one of Farscape‘s core themes, is the ground where her inner changes are played more deeply and is also a way to portray the romantic side of the story in a new and unconventional way, while at the same time presenting many interesting angles for discussion on the ever complex relationship between men and women.
Aeryn and John’s relationship is fraught with objective difficulties and misunderstandings that come both from the universal differences between the male and female of any species and from the cultural and psychological barriers between two alien races – no matter the striking physical similarities between them. Peacekeepers are conditioned to avoid any emotional commitment, because it’s considered a weakness that can impair a soldier’s efficiency: they don’t have the concept of family, births are decided by assignment to “fill the ranks”, they entertain no stable love relationships and are allowed to “recreate” – the choice of term speaks for itself – only as a form of stress-management. Everything revolves around rules and discipline. At some point we learn that Aeryn’s birth was exceptional, because she was conceived out of the clandestine and forbidden love of her parents: once discovered, they were cruelly punished – Aeryn’s mother was given the choice between taking the life of her daughter or of her mate.
With these premises it’s hardly surprising that John Crichton’s efforts to conquer Aeryn’s heart meet with stubborn resistance and fall into the category of “one step forward, three steps back”. Moreover, she often lays the rules of the game, made clear since their first fateful encounter, when she throws him bodily to the ground – without apparent effort – asking for his “rank and regiment”. From the start it’s evident that Aeryn is the strong half of the couple, a role that is usually reserved to the male, and that Crichton represents the more “feminine” half, particularly in his desire to mediate and talk before recurring to brute strength. Role-reversal, in TV shows, is often relegated to the realm of humor, as if to indicate that it’s a joking matter. Farscape has no fear of tackling this topic in a more serious manner.
This strong core in Aeryn’s personality remains basically unaltered throughout the show, and is evident in the fundamental integrity at the roots of her character, despite the changes effected by experiences: this trait is plain in many circumstances and is brought to the fore in one of the most dramatic moments of the saga. During Aeryn’s imprisonment by the Scarrans, in Season Four, she has little or no hope of rescue – not just for herself but for the child she carries in stasis. The surprising, uncharacteristic prayer she addresses to an old Sebacean divinity is just a last resort against despair, but is also quite emblematic of the person Aeryn is: she does not ask as a supplicant at her wit’s end, but as a soldier dictating conditions. She can be hurt by wayward emotions, because she’s had no training or life-long acquaintance with them, but she can physically and mentally withstand almost anything.
This is one of the reasons she is such a fascinating figure, this amalgam of outer strength and inner fragility, this factual representation of a real, flesh and blood woman, with all her realistic contradictions.
Even when the love story with Crichton finally rests on firmer ground and we see them assume the role of parents, Aeryn’s basic essence remains unaltered: it’s impossible not to smile when we see her determined to be an active part in the defense against the Scarrans, despite being racked by labor pains – “Shooting makes me feel better!” she says, and if we understand this is a necessary tension-breaking line in the script, we also know it comes out of her deeper nature. As does another sentence uttered at the prospect of an hours-long delivery: “I’ve killed men for less!” It’s a warning, a statement that shows how this woman will not be constrained into an idealized mold, or weighed down by conventions.
She is transformed by her experiences, yes, but not altered: when we look at her, towards the end of the conclusive mini-series, we see her holding her newborn baby with one hand and shooting enemies with the other, with her usual, economical efficiency; stroking her child with love and dispensing death at the same time.
The discovery of feelings, love, motherhood does not change this extraordinary character but simply adds more layers to it, making it more complete. Making it *more*. This is why she is one of the most original and intriguing figures of the modern sci-fi scene.