Saturday, 29 June 2013

Farscape: What Was Lost

I'm writing a series of pieces on Farscape for Den of Geek over the summer, so over the past couple of weeks I've been doing a marathon re-watch of the entire thing. I've started to call hours arns, I refuse to wear anything but black skinny jeans with boots and a leather jacket and I think I may be developing a slight
Australian accent. It's all worth it though, as I was delighted to discover an archaeology-based two-parter in amongst the living warships, wormhole aliens and plot-crucial vomit. (Seriously, there's an extraordinary amount of vomit involved).

In Season 4's 'What Was Lost' two-part story, having been separated by the vagueries of time and fate in the Season 3 finale, our heroes are in the process of getting the gang back together. Crichton, Chiana and Rygel find D'Argo and Jool helping out with/observing an archaeological dig on a planet with dangerous magnetism (or something). Jool is deeply interested in the lost alien civilization that built the monastery they're excavating, while D'Argo is really more interested in Jool.

The primary thing this two-parter needed to achieve, plot-wise, is to write out (but not kill off) Jool. Jool is a tricky character. Brought in to replace fan favourite Zhaan when Virginia Hey was forced to leave for health reasons, she had an uphill struggle to win over viewers, not helped by her sometimes grating personality (the character, not the actress!). Jool is a privileged young woman who repeatedly refers to everyone else as 'barbarians' and who screams regularly with an ear-piercing screech that can melt metal. She had her good points though, particularly her compassion - no matter what she thinks of you, if you're in trouble, Jool will provide comfort (if not actual practical help, though she was also a useful physician). By the time of 'What Was Lost,' her odd couple friendship with Chiana and the gradual unbending of her brittle personality was making her much more likeable - which makes it rather a shame that she's written out in this episode, replaced partly by Noranti (who's very annoying and tries to murder Crichton for knowing too much here - and yet she's not bothered by the whole wormhole thing) and partly by Sikozu (who's unbelievably irritating, though at least her relationship with Scorpius is reasonably interesting).

Jool's sudden interest in archaeology doesn't come across as forced, but fits very well with her personality as established in Season 3. When they discovered, in 'Revenging Angel,' that Luxan D'Argo's new ship responded to Ancient Luxan, she was horrified when he pointed out he couldn't speak Ancient Luxan, and declared how barbaric it was not to learn your civilization's ancient language (excellent point, don't you think?! ;) ). It's revealed here that she ended up on Moya in the first place because she was caught trying to steal archaeological artefacts, which matches the 'true' version of her story told in 'Losing Time.'

She's also one of those terribly useful science fiction characters who seem to have degrees in everything (see also Quantum Leap's Sam Beckett), and these multi-disciplinary specialists always turn out to have, among their half dozen PhDs, at least one in nuclear physics, at least one medical degree, and at least one degree relating to ancient civilizations, for those times you need to track down an ancient treasure or translate an ancient inscription. In Jool's case, her omnidisciplinary credentials may be slightly justified if we assume her culture places particular value on education, but still.

Jool's enthusiasm for the site is endearing (to me, anyway) but not shared by the others, especially not Chiana. Making Jool an ancient historian/otherwordly Classicist/archaeologist does rather feed into the slightly tired trope of the uptight, irritating ancient world specialist who is fairly useless practically and doesn't understand the real world, but at least Jool is reasonably likeable by this point in the show.

Much of the plot of this episode revolves around attempts to recover lost alien technology, another very common theme in science fiction stories about archaeology. In the real world, there aren't any lost technologies we're likely to dig up as far as I know. But I'm at a conference on SFF and Classics this weekend, and this morning Sophia McDougall made a good point that I'd forgotten - if we were Anglo-Saxons, there would be plenty of lost technology that we were unable to replicate all around us in the form of significant stone and concrete buildings. The Romans had central heating, a water supply, concrete - all lost technologies for generations afterwards. So in a way, it's not so much that this is a plot that can only occur in science fiction, more that it can't apply to us unless it's in an SFF context.

I like the idea of a story looking at 'what was lost.' The episode makes it clear that this refers to more than just the alien technology; the aliens also apparently knew the secret to world - or rather, universal - peace, and when Jool stays to help them at the end, she hopes that they will also be able to help others again (they reappear in the final mini-series The Peacekeeper Wars, where they are revealed to be called Eidelons - from the Greek eidolon, shade, spirit. They are literally ghosts, shadows of the past). We may not need to explore ancient Greek or Roman sites looking for technology, and a lot of aspects of their culture may be best lost (slavery, oppression of women etc), but there is always something good about a civilization, and there's a sadness in knowing that no matter how much we try, there are aspects of the ancient world that we will never be able to recover.

The archaeological dig here is on an alien planet in a distant part of the universe, so for the most part there aren't references to real Earth ancient civilizations - with one exception. On a wall and on a small pyramid-shaped toy, Crichton finds what looks like the ancient Egyptian symbol for the Eye of Ra. Ra was an important Egyptian sun god (the Egyptians tended to associate more than one god with their two biggest interests - death and the sun) and the Eye of Ra had a number of meanings for ancient Egyptians which might be relevant, relating to the sun (it's a hot, sunny planet - because of the weird alien magnetism thing/because it's Australia), to violence (there's always lots of violence in Farscape), to death (ditto, and the monks were supposedly killed in a massacre) but I think there's another reason for its presence here. The point of the symbol, plot-wise, is to provide the first concrete evidence that there might be a genetic link between humans, Sebaceans (love interest Aeryn's species) and Jool's species. The presence of the symbol implies that, at some point in the past, there was communication between the civilizations, presumably via lost knowledge of wormholes (knowledge Crichton was gifted by a race calling themselves 'Ancients').

So all the show needs is a recognizable ancient Earth symbol. Farscape aired between 1999 and 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, in a slot adjacent to one of Sci-Fi's big hits, Stargate SG-1. It's no wonder, then, that the Eye of Ra suggested itself as a recognizable ancient Earth symbol! The background music even sounds a little like Stargate's music for a moment as Crichton (whose actor Ben Browder would later, after Farscape's cancellation... star in Stargate SG-1) walks towards the symbol.

There are other common archaeological tropes here too. Like nearly all SFF archaeologists, these guys carry weapons, but for once this does actually make sense, because technically they're not actually weapons. The tools they use de-age material to strip back to the level of the artefact they're after, thus cutting back on all that messy digging (even though they still call it a 'dig' - the only thing they dig is a grave!). If turned on a living person, these tools petrify them. It sort of makes sense, and makes a change from surprisingly well-armed archaeologists running around all over the place.

This isn't a bad two-parter. It suffers from appearing at a point in the series where you really just want Aeryn to turn up again, and you don't want to spend two long episodes just watching Crichton get tortured in a particularly unpleasant way and Braca leading Scorpius around, in his usual black leather and PVC suit, on all fours, on a dog leash. (There's a reason Farscape is often described as the story of one American getting swept up in Australia's bondage scene). On the upside, when we hear the ancient monks doing some weird chanting, they're chanting the show's theme tune, which does at least provide some kind of in-show excuse for the screeching awfulness that was the theme in Seasons 1 and 2. All in all, in a different position in the series (and with less sexual assault) this could have been an enjoyable pair of episodes - unfortunately, in the position it's in, it just feels a bit like treading water, and finding an excuse to replace Jool with Sikozu. Which we didn't really want anyway. Ah well, at least she got a sweet and sensible exit - for now...


  1. Sounds interesting! I definitely need to give this series another shot... ;o)

    1. You definitely should, Farscape is awesome! :)

  2. Another series I've heard of... but never saw when it was on.


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