Deconstructing Moya

A Farscape Re-watch Project

Episode [1.08] – “That Old Black Magic”

Today, on Farscape

“He’s not really here. He’s a hologram, right?”
“I am here, Crichton.”
“To talk.”
“To kill you.”

The crew lands on a commerce planet in search of remedy ingredients for Rygel’s nasty bout of flu, and John quickly falls victim to a malevolent and transcendent space wizard named Maldis. While the others try to free John, Maldis forces the hapless human into a duel to the death with a vengeance-crazed Crais.


Adam

Okay, we’re starting this episode on a Commerce Planet because Rygel is sick.

Well, sicker.

He’s ill, I mean.

Starting off, we get to see John play tourist a little bit with regards to the two-headed bird thing. And Aeryn has a point, if you’re going to eat the brains of something that small, you obviously want more heads so you get more value. That’s just basic economics, kids. Once again, Zhaan proves that she is the best shopper in the galaxy, bantering with the shopkeep over a “conjugal stimulant” that he asks that she “test”. I like this shopkeep, he’s got a naughty streak.

You know, for someone as Genre Savvy as Crichton, he’s really just bumbled headlong into an obvious trap here. If a jester comes cartwheeling up to you with information he could not possibly have, THEN IT IS A TRAP. I mean, he even breaks Rule One here. Maldis is just all kinds of creeper, especially that shapeshifting trick. His manipulation of Crais, summoning visions of his past and tormenting Crichton.

The costumes this time around are all about Maldis. His ruff and those sleeves are both extremely over-the-top, and we witness the return of colored contacts to the show. The makeup this time around is also good; lots of full-body work.

A few odd moments that caught my attention:

  • Rygel getting psychic’d was great. In fact, I just like seeing the little monster getting some grief.
  • Virginia Hey can act rings around anyone else on this show. True facts.
  • The Hynerian funeral rites are great. And the first thing Rygel went for are the boots, of course.
  • Damn, Crais, that little totally phoned-in neck snap of your subordinate that saved your ass was cold.

Kevin

I love the look on Crichton’s face when he realizes that the two-headed bird is a delicacy. But it’s so cute!

This episode is definitely a Farscape Strange episode. Maldis as a jester is definitely one of the wackiest parts of the episodes. Especially the crotch-grab he gives Crichton after revealing he knows when he lost his virginity.

One of the things I really like about this episode is the visual dynamics. Take the use of color in this episode. Usually, directors like to show the stark contrast between blue and orange – direct opposites on the color wheel – and Farscape uses this extensively. Blue is often seen as a cool and sterile color, whereas orange is often depicted as warm and homey. Compare the harsh blue tones of Peacekeeper lighting to the comforting orange of Moya. This contrast is shown throughout the entire episode; this one even more than most. Notice how even Crichton’s face is lit early on in the mystic dream zone that Maldis exists in. On that matter, the whole dream palace is like that; it’s constantly in turmoil between Crais’s passion and Crichton’s reason, and you can see the lighting constantly shift to reflect that.

I took one film class in high school and it ruined me forever.

In true Farscape tradition, though, even this familiar trope is subverted; Zhaan’s blue is definitely warm and homey, especially when compared to the harsh maroon of the shopkeeper/mystic. The contrast between their personalities is extremely striking, and the visual disassociation enhances this.

Speaking of Zhaan, I always found it extremely engaging that her enemy here is not Maldis, it’s herself. It’s honestly a very Esmerelda Weatherwax aspect of her character. She’s afraid of giving in to her darker side, because she knows that once she starts, it’s hard to come back. Being evil is just like owning puppies; it’s hard to eat just one. She’s afraid that if she starts inflicting pain and causing mayhem again, she’ll like it too much.

What’s fantastic about that is that you’ll see her struggle with her decision for the rest of the season – maybe even the entire rest of the time her character is on screen. Her action has far-reaching consequences, even if it’s on her own soul.

No list of awesome things to note in this episode. I have to leave something for the other guys.


Noel

What strikes me first about this episode is how very similar Maldis is to Star Trek’s omnipotent trickster Q, constantly manipulating people and changing the rules and getting much delight in keeping everyone on their toes. Hell, let’s go back even further to Trelane, Q’s predecessor of sorts (and fellow member of the Collective, if Peter David is to be believed) from the original series. There’s the grandiose air, the dandyish outfit, the taste for some amusing lethality. Add to this the strong lighting and limited sets (the market place is a hallway, a store, and a door, that’s about it) and you get something that feels very much like a throwback to the Roddenberry series. Though there are some spins.

Take Zhaan, for example. It makes sense that the spiritual priestess would be the one to tap into the non-corporeal being during the big climax, but they twist it here; instead of fighting a malevolent monster with good thoughts, she has to fight him with equal malevolence. Virginia Hey is just amazing in these scenes as Zhaan has to unleash the very forces her teachings have taught her to restrain. And I love the added depth of them not only being forces she’s afraid to experience, but to experience again as we get our first hints of her origins.

The centerpiece, though, is the battle between Crais and John in Maldis’ temple of the mind. We haven’t seen Crais since “Premiere“, but his thirst for vengeance against the man who killed his brother has had a visible affect. As he walks onto the bridge of his cruiser, we notice hair straying out of its knot and his uniform jacket hanging loose and open instead of tucked and crisp. It’s a somewhat dark mirror to Aeryn’s metaphorical undressing; where she’s become casual and cool, he’s become sloppy and erratic. Great image. Unfortunately, the battle between him and John goes on a little too long with nothing really changing over its course. As expected, John figures things out (Maldis is a vampire feeding on negative vibes) and tries to talk the Commander down, but Crais roars and attacks and attacks and attacks. It’s all nicely staged, just doesn’t go anywhere.

And I’m conflicted about Maldis himself. Just what are the rules behind how he can affect reality? John and Crais are mentally pulled into the arena with their bodies left behind, so one would think he can only manipulate perceptions. But then there’s a bit where he stops Aeryn and D’Argo from blowing down his home by flinging her gun aside then freezing them in a cage of his sparkly red energy. These could easily be explained as perceptional, also, except for the gun still being flung away when they awaken. This is likely just a staging snafu or me overthinking things, but it’s odd nonetheless. And his eagerness for fresh meat seems to contradict his ability to reach out great distances beyond the planet. Hell, they never explain what grounds him to this world in the first place. It doesn’t seem properly fleshed out to me, like they tried everything they could to make him different from Q, but didn’t make sure all those differences added up. Either way, Chris Haywood performs the crap out of all three of the character’s incarnations, except for a few moments where his voice sounds like a Muppet.

Above, Adam mentioned the Hynerian funeral rites, and that scene was indeed great. Much has been said by Kevin about how tactile Rygel is, and you really get to see things go another step here. Blabbing on with an insulting half-hearted tribute to the brain-dead John, Rygel is climbing up and over the astronaut’s body, leaning in to poke at the lifeless cheeks. Later, when John wakes up, he’s instantly all over Rygel, even delivering a huge smooch on the Dominar’s nasty lips.

This is an odd episode. There’s some good character work in there, some great hints at deeper pasts for Crais and Zhaan, but most of it is setup for reveals to come. This is largely about Maldis’ trickery, and that feels confusingly conceived and intentionally old-school and just doesn’t fully sell, getting lost in part in its mystical magicness.

And that sudden neck snap was a surprise, but so unconvincingly staged. There was no force behind it whatsoever. Should’ve been a standout badass moment.


Weston

One of the first things that strikes me about this episode is that it isn’t a black shirt ep. Despite the epic mind screw going on, Crichton is wearing his old orange flight suit. An odd wardrobe choice from an objective standpoint, but within the episode it works as a red cape for Crais’ bull.

Maldis is a fantastic candidate for most malevolent entity within the Farscape universe. Most other creatures are working towards a purpose: Peacekeepers defend themselves and fight for anyone who will pay, Scarrans conquer because it’s what they do best, Nebari have some kind of hidden STD agenda. But Maldis? He’s a hyper-advanced entity (sufficiently advanced technology and all) that feeds off of pain and death. Creating those two circumstances are his entire motivation. Some use terror and murder as means to an end; for him they were the end.

I can’t help but wonder what they had planned for him for season five. I imagine him locked in eternal conflict with an Ascended Zhaan; using all of the powers and tricks he’s collected over however many hundreds of years he’s been in the business, and she calmly countering them, having found the tranquility she so long sought. Not to be, I suppose.

The stances Maldis adopts are fascinating. He sinks entirely into each character he portrays, from the hunched rapid jester to the ancient wizard to the all-powerful god. The last in particular. He doesn’t just stand there while he mocks lesser beings. He holds himself like some kind of great bird – the outfit with its ruffles and feathered edges reminds me very much of wings. He looks like a raven. There’s probably symbolism in that.

For all his abilities, he is not infinite. He acknowledges this when Aeryn discusses overloading the pulse chamber on her Ripley Rifle (does that work as a name for the Aliens gun?), and immediately takes steps to prevent it. He could have been hurt by this, maybe not much, but maybe in a similar way to a flock of birds flying into a jet engine. Primitive, but potentially catastrophic. Showing that he isn’t invincible gives him another few points of credibility on the villain scale.

Zhaan has some really scary moments. Adam is spot on when he extols Virginia Hey’s acting ability – she portrays Zhaan as an absolutely amazing character with worlds of difference between her highs and lows. This should be emphasized in a few episodes when the crew runs into more Pa’au.

Aeryn and D’Argo and Rygel get somewhat minimized in this episode, but that’s okay. This isn’t so much a full crew ep (as evidenced by the complete absence of Pilot) as it is a development and reminder of the antagonism between Crichton and Crais. Maldis serves as a magnificent vehicle for it, and completely steals the spotlight as the villain of the day, but the season arc boils down to Crichton vs. Crais. Maldis pushes that forward, reminds us of it after a seven episode absence. That he winds up being the greater threat doesn’t alter the long view. He reignites Crais’ fire, pushes Crichton out of his comfortable logic and into savage retaliation, and is promptly defeated to permit the season to continue.

He does, of course, return. And, equally certain, no creature as malevolent as this could just let it go and move on.


Episode [1.07]: PK Tech Girl || Episode [1.09]: DNA Mad Scientist

5 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Speaking of the Hynerian Funeral Rites, I just want to say that was the Roommate’s absolute favorite part of the episode. She even went so far as to say that it’s her favorite Rygel moment thus far – to the extent that she went and re-watched just that sequence over again the next day.

    Oh, Rygel.

    Reply
    • I don’t blame her. It’s somehow sweet, repulsive, and wickedly hilarious at the same time.

      Reply
  2. Sidhe

     /  August 29, 2010

    First off – this blog is great, I *love* Farscape with a passion and think everyone should watch it. I even called my daughter Aeryn…

    Noel: The ‘Ripley rifle’ to which you refer is the an M41A pulse rifle. “Ten millimeter with over-and-under thirty millimeter pump action grenade launcher.” Aliens is my other area of geekery.
    Also I think the point of the rifle overload trick was not that it would hurt Maldis himself, but that it might conceivably blow the doors in/damage the walls, and allow Aeryn and Dargo into Maldis’ lair and possibly help Crichton.

    Keep watching guys.

    Reply
    • First off – this blog is great,

      Thank you very much, Sidhe. It’s been a blast to do.

      I *love* Farscape with a passion and think everyone should watch it. I even called my daughter Aeryn…

      I absolutely agree. Everybody should watch it. Unfortunately, I find it a bit of a hard show to sell people on. If I can get them to watch it, they quickly fall in love, but getting them there is a surprising struggle. I wonder why that is.

      Noel: The ‘Ripley rifle’ to which you refer is the an M41A pulse rifle. “Ten millimeter with over-and-under thirty millimeter pump action grenade launcher.” Aliens is my other area of geekery.

      It was Weston that called it a “Ripley rifle”, not me, but anything that leads to Aliens trivia is a good thing. 🙂

      Also I think the point of the rifle overload trick was not that it would hurt Maldis himself, but that it might conceivably blow the doors in/damage the walls, and allow Aeryn and Dargo into Maldis’ lair and possibly help Crichton.

      I got that, but I didn’t understand why. Why would that affect his hold on Crichton (and Crais) if they weren’t physically there? And how would that affect him if he were a non-corporeal being? It could very well be that he’s still bound to that structure, but there were too many unanswered questions about the Rules of Maldis for me.

      I’m very eager to see how much of this is explained when we see Maldis again in season 2.

      Keep watching guys.

      We will, and thank you very much for stopping by.

      Reply
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