Farscape: How to Drive Your Protagonist Insane

Juliette's Farscape series considers the psychological toll taken on Crichton, a character who had more than his fair share of trauma...

Many genre series feature protagonists who are, shall we say, a tad eccentric – The Doctor on the milder, wackier end for example, with River Tam or Walter Bishop on the more seriously insane end.

Other characters start to experience problems as a result of the ludicrous amount of trauma most genre protagonists are put through – like Jean-Luc Picard, who was shown to be deeply affected by his assimilation by the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact, while much of Iron Man 3 deals with Tony Stark’s PTSD following the events of The Avengers

Farscape was no exception in this regard. Poor John Crichton undergoes no end of traumatic experiences over the course of the series, including but not restricted to being tortured, raped, blown up and technically killed several times, not to mention abruptly torn away from his home and family with no idea whether he will ever see them again.

It’s hardly surprising that, when he does finally make it back to Earth in Season 4, he’s swiftly diagnosed with PTSD by a pop psychologist. But the torment visited upon Crichton’s psyche over the course of the series goes well beyond a reaction to trauma and a long way into driving him completely farbot – and is part of what makes the show as awesome as it is.

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We’re first introduced to Crichton as a sort of blend of Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1 (he has a PhD in something astro-physics-y) and his favorite pop culture reference, Captain Kirk (the first thing we ever learn about him is that he skipped quarantine the night before his first flight, because that’s just the sort of thing Kirk-type mavericks who play by their own rules do).

Throughout most of the first season, he more or less remains a blend of nerd and flyboy, though several early episodes begin the process of messing with his memories (“Rhapsody in Blue”) and perceptions (“A Human Reaction”) and the very first signs of his potential to crack under the weirdness appear early on, when he experiences disturbing timey-wimey problems in “Back and Back” and “Back to the Future.” 

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Plot-wise, Crichton’s brain really starts to get fried in first season episodes “A Human Reaction” (when the Ancients put wormhole knowledge in his subconscious) and “Nerve”/”The Hidden Memory” (when Scorpius puts a neural clone of himself in his subconscious – it’s quite crowded in Crichton’s subconscious).

In terms of acting, writing and direction, Crichton is clearly shaken up by his experiences in the Aurora Chair in the subsequent episodes, but it’s from the beginning of Season 2 that we really start to see that he’s mentally distressed. From the Season 2 opener “Mind the Baby” onwards, Ben Browder gives his performance a manic edge that appeared only in brief flashes when under pressure in the first season and throughout the season, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right with Crichton; as early as “Taking the Stone,” he asks Aeryn if he’s going crazy.

The chief cause of Crichton’s mania in Season 2 is, of course, eventually revealed to be Harvey, Scorpius’ neural clone. A piece of Scorpius festering in Crichton’s head and working against him, eventually taking him over, Harvey first makes Crichton fear for his sanity, then takes big steps towards removing it entirely before rendering him suicidal.

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But it isn’t just Harvey that’s the problem. The clone’s first appearance is mistaken for hallucinations when the entire crew is driven to intense paranoia and mania in “Crackers Don’t Matter,” while in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the Scarrans deliberately try to break Crichton mentally – when Harvey is the only thing that makes sense, you know you’re in a very bad mental place.

Finally, Crichton’s struggle with Harvey culminates in him undergoing a lobotomy in which several sizeable-looking chunks of brain are removed, some of which apparently included information like “American politics Nixon-Clinton” (though whether losing that is likely to harm his sanity or not is hard to say). Harvey is where the crap sets in, but Crichton’s poor brain takes some pretty severe punishment from several different sources. 

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Although the physical chip containing the neural clone is removed at the end of Season 2, Harvey remains for the rest of the series, like a scar that won’t go away and hurts when it rains. Matters are complicated in Season 3 when Crichton is doubled and we follow two apparently equally “original” versions of him, on two different ships.

It’s established in the episode where the double first appears (“Eat Me”), that anyone twinned twenty-thirty times goes completely mad, so the mere fact of the twinning is another nail in the coffin of Crichton’s sanity. Chiana and D’Argo are also twinned and it’s possible that their sanity is affected as well (Chiana is certainly very shaken up by the incident), though since Crichton was already tripled into Neanderthal Crichton, Regular Crichton and Future Crichton in Season 2’s “My Three Crichtons” (not to mention a neural clone of him Scorpius made) he may be affected more severely than they are.

Black T-shirt Crichton flies off on Talyn and finally succeeds in forming a functional relationship with Aeryn, as well as getting rid of Harvey once and for all. Green T-shirt Crichton, however, does not have such a good time of it. Over the course of Season 3, Green T becomes increasingly agitated, and both his and D’Argo’s emotional difficulties and their inability to deal with each other form the basis of not one but two episodes (“Scratch ‘n’ Sniff” and “Revenging Angel”).

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Their tension and stress levels have more to do with romantic woes and sexual frustration than anything else (D’Argo has broken up with Chiana and Green T is – correctly – concerned that he’s lost Aeryn to his own clone) but none of it does Crichton any good and Browder continues to give that manic edge to his performance as Green T, which he tones down when playing Black T. It is, of course, Green T Crichton who survives while Black T dies the inevitable horrible death of the man wearing the reddish jacket, so it is the now seriously highly strung, still Harvey-plagued Green T who enters Season 4, alone and adrift in deep space. 

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After a Season 4 opener in which Crichton appears more nutty than ever (hallucinating, singing to DRDs, etc.) he spends much of the season on Noranti’s drugs, which are intended to dampen his feelings for Aeryn, and which have the effect of dampening all his emotions judging by Browder’s performance. He finally stops taking them when he gives up and gets together with Aeryn in “Twice Shy,” following which, of course, she is captured and tortured for several episodes. This does not do wonders for Crichton’s mental state either. 

As the season nears its end, having rescued Aeryn in “We’re So Screwed Part One,” Crichton opens “We’re So Screwed Part Two” by jumping around on a conference table in front of various Scarran and Peacekeeper bigwigs, with a nuclear bomb strapped to his hip and connected to his heartbeat. He proceeds to explain to them what he wants in his usual incomprehensible manner, since the “explanation” is a long list of Earth pop culture references they won’t understand, at which point one of the Scarrans’ Kalish minions states outright that he’s crazy. Aeryn responds, “Isn’t it fun?”

Of course, it’s possible that Crichton is deliberately exaggerating the crazy in these last few episodes to bamboozle the bad guys, but there’s definitely a hint of genuine crazy in there. Ultimately, it’s all leading up to the final showdown at the climax of The Peacekeeper Wars, in which Crichton plays a game of Extreme Chicken with both Scarrans and Peacekeepers, holding the entire galaxy to ransom to protect his new family.

Although he has reasons for doing it, and has thought it through, the sheer chutzpah of that tactic requires him to have a distinctly manic edge to his personality, in addition to the extreme trauma that drives him to such action. At that moment, even Scorpius tells him the idea is insane. 

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The net result of all this loopiness for the viewer is a lead character who’s truly dynamic and fascinating to watch. Although he’s at his most manic in Season 2, from “Nerve” onwards Crichton is mentally unstable, which makes him very unpredictable. Although certain of his behaviours conform to audience expectations (bad guys the universe over would be advised not to threaten Aeryn) you can never quite be sure how Crichton will react to any given situation, or when he will suddenly take it into his head to play Russian roulette with weird alien drugs, detonate a weapon of mass destruction in an elevator shaft or work through his personal and psychological issues through the medium of “Looney Tunes.”

These tendencies are probably the reason the crew elect D’Argo, rather than Crichton, as their captain, despite the fact they all continue to do whatever Crichton tells them anyway, but they are also, for viewers, what makes watching him so much fun.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, part-time Classicist and full-time Trekkie. Her thoughts on what the Greeks and Romans have done for us can be found here.