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If the question is, “who is the central character in Farscape?” the answer is easy: John Crichton, an astronaut; he got shot through a wormhole, or so I’ve heard. But though Crichton, a kind of hero, is the central and most essential character, he is not the pivotal character on Farscape. By “pivotal character,” I mean the character around whom the whole grand story arc revolves, whose decisions and actions drive the plots more than any other character. That character, I argue, is not John Crichton but Aeryn Sun. It is her decisions and experiences that spark many of the most important events in Farscape’s grand story arc.
Stark: Who is she?
John: That is… the radiant Aeryn Sun.
– The Hidden Memory (1.20)
Who is Officer Aeryn Sun, and why is she so pivotal in Farscape? Aeryn is the person who changes the most in Farscape. Aeryn first appears 23:14 into the first episode. Significantly, our first view of her is obscured by her flight suit and opaque helmet. The suit and helmet serve the short-term dramatic purpose of surprising us that the feared and reviled Peacekeeper is a woman, but it has a greater symbolism.
This is the only time Aeryn wears the opaque helmet in the series. We first meet Aeryn as a faceless Prowler pilot, another of the many faceless Peacekeepers. When she sees Crichton and understandably assumes he is a fellow Sebacean and Peacekeeper, she demands to know Crichton’s rank and regiment, not his name. Aeryn grew up understanding that a Sebacean’s position in the Peacekeeper hierarchy is what matters most. When she does give her name it is to communicate her position: “Officer Aeryn Sun, Special Peacekeeper Commando, Icarion Company, Pleisar Regiment.” Name. Rank. Serial Number. Which cog she is in the Peacekeeper war machine is how she sees herself.
It is not that Aeryn lacked independent thought, a trait that, as we later learn, got her into trouble with the Peacekeepers. It is that Aeryn’s life, her identity, and her personality, were strictly regimented by her military upbringing. The disconnect between her upbringing and the events throughout the Farscape series and the choices she makes trying to balance their contradictions are the biggest drivers of the plots aside from Crichton’s wormhole knowledge. Aeryn’s struggle begins when she makes a fateful decision in “Premiere.”
When Crais confronts Crichton for the first time and condemns Crichton for murdering Crais’s brother, Aeryn sticks up for Crichton, though she looks surprised that she is doing it. She makes up a half-truth that Crichton wasn’t brave enough or intelligent enough to ram Crais’s brother’s Prowler as Crais accused. She had spent time with the human, she said, so knows this about him. No doubt if you had asked Aeryn why she tried to defend Crichton, she could not answer. She must have felt something, perhaps a compassion she told Crichton just minutes earlier was a feeling she hated. Crais, who seems eager to be rid of Aeryn (we learn about their tense history in “The Way We Weren’t” 2.05) seizes upon the opportunity to condemn her as violating Peacekeeper Command’s parameters against contact with unclassified alien life forms (specifically Crichton) and rules her irreversibly contaminated. Her act to defend Crichton binds her to him and alongside Crichton’s wormhole accident, sets up the entire rest of the series.
Becoming an untouchable in the eyes of the Peacekeepers and having nowhere to go, Aeryn remains on Moya. Aeryn shares Crichton’s plight of needing to learn a new way of acting in a strange environment, but she also needs to learn who she is. A major theme of Farscape is becoming more than what your culture dictated you should be. The theme of becoming more is set down in the very first episode when Crichton asks Aeryn to come with them on Moya. She initially refuses, saying she cannot leave the Peacekeepers:
Aeryn: It is my duty. My breeding … since birth. It’s what I am.
Crichton: You can be more.
– “Premiere,” 1.1
This is not the first time Aeryn has been told this, as we learn in a flashback sequence. (“The Way We Weren’t,” 2.5) A few cycles earlier, the Peacekeeper Velorek tells her that she is special and that she can be more than her breeding. She resisted that idea then, despite her personal ambition, and she resists it when Crichton suggests it. As she tells Crichton in a later episode about her life as a Peacekeeper: “I liked it! It had rules—I followed the rules—and that made everything right.” (“Green-Eyed Monster,” 3.8) Aeryn expresses how the security of a stable, predictable social order is usually a welcome part of one’s identity. Within the Peacekeeper social order, Aeryn knew her place, knew what was expected of her, and knew what she could expect in recognition of her actions.
No social order is perfect, and, as Aeryn learns, not always fair to individuals. We hear in later episodes that the events in the first episode were not the first time that the Peacekeepers were unfair to her and that these previous events had inclined her to consider possibilities beyond strict obedience to the Peacekeepers’ order. Still, it is difficult for anyone to detach from a lifetime of habits. Aeryn struggles for cycles in Farscape over which Peacekeeper values and traditions are worth keeping and which ones are not. It begins with her deciding that she is no longer a Peacekeeper but still a Sebacean. (“The Hidden Memory,” 1.20) This declarative act reconstitutes her identity to adapt better to her new situation. It culminates two cycles later when she declares that “my life has been filled with doing what others think is right” but that she has learned that it is also possible to do what is right for her. (“Green-Eyed Monster,” 3.8)
The central conflict for Aeryn Sun is her natural emotions versus her dispassionate training. In the beginning, Aeryn was understandably deeply conflicted and reluctant to act against the Peacekeepers. That was part training, part emotional loyalty. Certainly, her exile—the Peacekeepers acting against her—sways her to think otherwise about the Peacekeepers and herself, but it is a series of events that brings out new emotions in her that nudge her into a new way of being. First, she is blindsided by feeling jealousy over Crichton in “PK Tech Girl” (1.4). Then, she is completely exposed to her core being in “DNA Mad Scientist.” (1.9) The feeling of compassion she claimed to hate in “Premiere” wells up as her shipmates ruthlessly cut off Pilot’s arm in exchange for an alleged star chart. “How could you? Pilot is defenseless,” she says to them. “Compassion? From a Peacekeeper?” D’Argo mocks, but yes, Aeryn has been pushed to a compassion she didn’t realize she had. Zhaan, D’Argo, and Rygel are complicit in the mutilation of Pilot, but Crichton is not, and their shared moral position draws them closer. At the idea that everyone else will be going home if NamTar’s star charts are accurate, she is forced to face her greatest fear, again, one she never realized she had:
I was born a Peacekeeper soldier. I’ve always been one among many. A member of a division, platoon, a unit, a team. I’ve never been on my own, John. Never been alone. Ever.
Separation and solitude unnerve her, but she is realizing that it is a path she must take. Having been deviously injected with Pilot’s DNA by NamTar, Aeryn is forced to take a path no one else has taken: becoming a hybrid Sebacean-Pilot. NamTar took advantage of Aeryn’s fear of being alone. Originally uninterested in his “experiments” that located planets by DNA, she went back to him because, as she tells Crichton, “I wanted him to find me a place where I could belong. I didn’t want to get left behind. I’m so scared.” Her admission of fear to Crichton, unimaginable in previous episodes, expresses the immediate fear of the disease changing her body, and her existential fear of being separated and alone. Crichton is her only connection, tenuous though it is. The genetic mutation NamTar inflicts on her is not just a brush with physical death but a brush with the death of her self as she feels her conscious identity slip away from her. Crichton (of course) saves her, but the experience gives her a new way to view herself:
I’ve always thought of myself in terms of survival. Life and death, keeping the body alive. But what NamTar did to me… (She struggles to articulate a feeling…) It wa… It was me… Inside…. The real me.
What she learns in her near self-death experience is how to look inward to her self, not just outward to how her environment defines her.
When Aeryn suffers a life-threatening injury (“Nerve,” 1.19), her first instinct is to adopt about her injury a passive, fatalistic Peacekeeper attitude. When Crichton risks his life to save hers, she goes against everything she’s known by participating in an attack on a Peacekeeper base to rescue him. (“The Hidden Memory,” 1.20) During the rescue, Aeryn happens across Crais, now Scorpius’s prisoner trapped in the aurora chair, she has a fortuitous opportunity for catharsis. She takes full advantage of the opportunity, introducing herself to him as “irreversibly contaminated,” the pariah status to which he reduced her. As she mocks him, he reminds her that as a Peacekeeper she took an oath of obedience and that she is a Peacekeeper for life. She reminds him that she is no longer a Peacekeeper—something he made happen, causing her to lose everything. In a moment we all wish we could have for ourselves, she looks her tormenter straight in the eyes and says:
Do you know what I learned while I was away from you? Everything I lost isn’t worth a damn and I don’t want to go back to your past… you will never order me again.
Her complicity against the Peacekeepers deepens in the next episodes as her allegiances shift from the Peacekeepers to her companions. Watching Moya give birth to Talyn and her former commanding officer Crais being drummed out of the Peacekeepers reaffirm her feelings that she is now an independent Sebacean.
In “Mind the Baby” (2.01), her separation from the Peacekeepers is complete when she makes a deal with Crais, who now also no longer considers himself a Peacekeeper. She is now fully a member of the family on Moya. She is still a warrior but of a different kind. She expresses this when she chastises Zhaan for retreating into her spiritual practice.
Zhaan: I am now going to devote my life to enlightenment.
Aeryn: Ah. …Well, I think that’s… really selfish, actually. You know, before you bliss off completely into oblivion, you might want to have a little look around you, because Moya and Talyn are in danger.
Zhaan: (As flatly as she can manage.) Worldly concerns do not interest me now.
Aeryn: Oh really? Well, then don’t give me any dren about how much you love me!
Zhaan: (She pauses, closes her eyes to steel herself….) Love in its most rarefied sense…
Aeryn: Too rarefied for me! I’m just an ignorant warrior who believes that love means you are willing to fight and die for your fellow living beings! (She stomps off, appalled and disgusted.)
Aeryn is no longer a Peacekeeper who fights dutifully because she is ordered to; she is an independent person who fights willingly for those she loves. At the end of “Mind the Baby,” Aeryn is seen in front of Pilot’s console leaning back in Crichton’s arms—a new level of intimacy in which she has fully let down her guard to him. They are now a couple. In discussing whether Crais has changed, Aeryn asks, “you do believe people can change, don’t you, John?” Crichton admits Aeryn has changed, though doubts that Crais, still too much a Peacekeeper, can change.
The transition for Aeryn from Peacekeeper past to independent Sebacean future hits a major snag in “The Way We Weren’t” (2.5). When the recording of the murder of Moya’s previous pilot surfaces showing Aeryn on the scene, everyone but Crichton turns on her, undoing the cycle of trust and camaraderie she had built with them. Aeryn is forced to relive a painful period in her recent past that makes her realize that her Peacekeeper past will not be so easy to overcome but also forces her to deal with the meaning of being a Peacekeeper. It meant that to a significant degree, she had no choice. As Zhaan tells her: “Aeryn… you had no choice back then. You did exactly what was expected of you. In that world, that was the only kind of Peacekeeper you could be.”
Being a Peacekeeper meant a certain way of being, as Zhaan states. The flashbacks in “The Way We Weren’t” shows the Peacekeepers as almost like the Nazis in their unsympathetic brutality. Yes, Aeryn says in the episode, I was a Peacekeeper; things were different then. Aeryn was complicit in the murder of Moya’s first pilot and she was guilty of betraying Velorek, the first man with whom she emotionally bonded, and for as little reward as being switched assignments. Reminded of the selfish Peacekeeper she used to be, she hates herself, then is surprised to discover that Pilot feels the same way about himself, because he was also complicit in the murder of Moya’s previous pilot because he selfishly wanted to see the stars aboard a Leviathan. Aeryn and Pilot begin to forgive each other and themselves, attempting to turn the page from their past imprisoned by the Peacekeepers.
Alas, reconciling with one’s violent past and moving beyond it are not the same as opening one’s heart. Aeryn finds it far easier to learn how to not shoot first/think later in life than to learn how to be vulnerable enough to allow herself to love. In the beginning, Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun found Crichton merely “interesting,” (“PK Tech Girl,” 1.07) but that soon turned into attraction, (“The Flax,” 1,13) then a kind of relationship.
The burgeoning relationship lasted only until the events in “Look at the Princess, Part 1” (2.11) Empress Novia gave Crichton a simple choice: “My daughter, or that abomination. Choose.” The abomination, of course, being Scorpius, who by Season 2 had become the central villain. The daughter being Princess Katralla who Crichton must marry to prevent the Empress from handing him over to Scorpius. Crichton reluctantly agrees, but despite marrying the princess, his troubles do not end.
After several attempts on his life, Crichton felt trapped and hopeless. Aeryn tries to lift his spirits but he does not warm to it. Instead he says to her:
John: Aeryn I’m tired. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do when there’s no fight left?
Aeryn: You run away.
John: (He gently touches her hair.) With you?
Aeryn: (After a pause.) With all of us together.
– “Look at the Princess, Part 2,” 2.12
Wrong answer. Yes, of course with everyone on Moya, but at that moment Crichton needed to hear from her. Aeryn’s moment of weakness drives a wedge between her and Crichton that is not healed for 17 episodes. This is not to deny that Crichton had his moments of weakness and did and said boneheaded things to Aeryn that also drove them apart. This is also not to deny the various other complications that gave Aeryn cause to hold back her feelings: Aeryn’s death (she got better), Zhaan’s death/dissipation (we never did learn for sure), and Crichton being twinned.
When she finally did fully consummate her relationship with Crichton between the events of “Green Eyed Monster” (3.8) and “Relativity” (3.10), they are a couple only during the crisis of Xhalax Sun (“Relativity,” 3.10), the crisis of Mu-Quilus (“Meltdown,” 3.12), and the really big crisis of Furlow and the Scarrans that costs Talyn-Crichton his life (“Infinite Possibilities, Parts 1 and 2, 3.14, 3.15). That understandably messes Aeryn up badly, and her lucky option of being able to rekindle the relationship with the very willing Moya-Crichton (“Fractures,” 3.18) is understandably not so easy for her.
Her decision to leave Moya and her inhabitants (“Dog With Two Bones,” 3.22) is mainly motivated by her fear of her feelings for Crichton, as she tells him, though the tragic events aboard Scorpius’s command carrier (“Into the Lion’s Den Part 2,” 3.21) certainly strengthened her motivation to run away. She first decides to handle her problems the old fashioned Peacekeeper way—by killing someone (as related in “Promises,” 4.5), and then she returns to Moya and says to Crichton she wants to stay. (“Promises,” 4.5)
She is not as up-front with him as she could be that she has returned because she wants to be with him, but now Crichton is the intransigent one. He pushes her away, angry that she did not tell him she was pregnant. Whether Crichton was justified in his anger is debatable, as is his decision to take a drug to deaden his feelings for her. A series of mutual faux pas and pig-headedness keep them apart until at the end of “Twice Shy” (4.14) they finally drop their barriers.
At the beginning of the next episode, “Mental as Anything” (4.15), we see Aeryn in front of Pilot’s console leaning back in Crichton’s arms, exactly as we left them at the end of “Mind the Baby” (2.01). It signals that, in one respect, the 57 episodes in between those embraces were about their journey to get back together in the face of the many, many events that threatened their relationship. During those 57 episodes, Farscape’s grand story arc is centered on Scorpius’s pursuit of Crichton’s wormhole knowledge, but Crichton’s beingness is centered on Aeryn–his point of reference, his one constant, (“Green-Eyed Monster,” 3.8) and whatever happens to Aeryn and whatever Aeryn does, is the center of Crichton’s thoughts and actions. This is especially true of his actions in the last eight episodes, his concern extending to their future child. Thus, Aeryn Sun is the pivotal character of Farscape.