John Crichton is the protagonist of Farscape which means he is some sort of a hero. But what kind of hero is John Crichton? Farscape is original in so many ways, so is it also original in its treatment of its main hero? Let’s explore.
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Depending on who you ask, there are in fiction five or six types of heroes. Basically, they boil down to the classic hero, epic hero, tragic hero, antihero, and everyman hero.
Epic heroes are unrealistic characters of super-human dimensions. They possess divine, magical, or technological attributes that make them separate from and superior to ordinary people. Hercules was son of a god, superheroes of the comic book universes, by birth or by life-altering event, have superhuman abilities.
Classical heroes are persons without any superhuman powers, but they have a special gift or quality that distinguishes them from ordinary people. Classical heores are lager-than-life figures of surpassing virtue. Many classical heroes are the subject of prophesy or are descendents of a classical hero who are tasked, willingly or not, with a heroic quest that only they can complete.
The tragic hero has a fatal flaw that spells their doom from which they cannot escape. Oedipus is the archetype of the tragic hero though has become more common in the postmodern age.
The antihero is a deeply flawed character who is central to the plot but is more like a villain than a typical hero especially in lacking what most would consider a moral sense. Early science fiction had many epic and classical heroes, from John Carter to Flash Gordon to Luke Skywalker. But the antihero has become popular as much science fiction has turned to dark and brooding themes.
Finally, the everyman hero is an ordinary man or woman with no extraordinary capabilities who is thrown into extraordinary circumstances in which they are forced to rise to the occasion and act heroically. Bilbo and Frodo are good examples.
To me, it is readily apparent which type of hero is John Crichton because it is easy to see what he is not.
Crichton is not an epic hero. He is not a descendent of the gods or of nobility. He has no superhuman abilities in strength, agility, or intelligence, nor does he possess any magical abilities. In fact, as a human among aliens, Crichton has inferior physical senses and abilities. He can barely keep pace.
Crichton is also not an antihero because, although he is away from Earth against his will, he is never reluctant to do what he sees as morally right and help others. No matter what happens, Crichton never loses his strong idealism and sense of ethical responsibility toward other sentient beings. He never forgets that they are persons like himself despite being different.
Crichton is not a tragic hero because though he has flaws and does suffer, he is not doomed and does not lose everything. Farscape is not that kind of morality tale. Crichton does, in the end, succeed in winning his objective. He comes out on top.
It is Crichton’s eventual victory in his plan to stop the war that lead some to conclude that Crichton is a classical hero. There is definitely an argument for this if you consider Crichton’s wormhole knowledge to be a special gift and his efforts to keep it from evil hands as his quest.
Here is where, if you haven’t watched Farscape yet, turn this off and go watch it, because there are about to be spoilers. In the first fifteen episodes, Crichton is distinctive only in being the only human in this part of the galaxy. In “A Human Reaction” he has an encounter with a species we later come to know as “The Ancients” who, we learn later, implanted knowledge of wormholes locked in his mind. That gift of latent knowledge is discovered by Scorpius.
Crichton becomes hunted by Scorpius who replaces Crais as the show’s villain and the threat from which Crichton and friends are fleeing. The wormhole knowledge is a gift that separates Crichton from others and seems to turn Crichton into a classical hero, but does the wormhole knowledge give him special powers? Does the knowledge turn into a quest for him?
The knowledge turns him into a special target of both Scorpius and the Scarrans. But he is little more than a pawn in their galacto-political struggle. The best he can do is try to keep from being captured and in most of Farscape the original series the companions on Moya are by and large running away trying to survive. Crichton is running away from Crais, Scorpius, Grayza, and Scarrans the whole series other than once when he resolves to enter the lion’s den of Scorpius’s research base to sabotage his wormhole project and second when he crashes Scarran territory; first to rescue Aeryn, then to rescue Scorpius. Crichton’s actions are heroic. But the hows and whys of his actions show what kind of hero Crichton is.
Many science fiction heroes are soldiers or warriors, for instance, the Star Wars, Star Treks, Stargates, and Babylon 5. Crichton learns how to fight, but he is not military or a conquering hero. As he tells us, he is <a damn scientist>. Nor is Crichton a lost prince, wizard, or savior. His arrival in this part of the galaxy is an accident, not the fulfillment of prophesy. He is not destined to fulfill a grand quest or anything really.
At first, Crichton just wants to get home. Over time, he bonds with his companions on Moya, including a flirtation with a certain Aeryn Sun, and he develops a fierce loyalty to them, repeatedly risking his life for them. Those are the actions of a hero, but Crichton isn’t trying to save the world or universe, he is trying to save his friends.
And while intelligent people can differ on this point, that is why I say Crichton is an everyman hero not a classical hero. Crichton’s heroism is not the classical larger-than-life savior of the world. He is no King Arthur, he is no Braveheart, he is no Captain Kirk he is a schmuck.
Sure, Crichton is almost the all-American boy— he is tall, handsome, clean-cut, down home and pure. And he is a regular guy who has an ordinary balance of strengths and weaknesses who must learn how to survive by being adaptable not by using any special abilities.
Crichton is the son of a hero—an astronaut who walked on the moon. But this patrilineage only explains how Crichton had access to the space program to conduct his experiments. He, in fact, though loving and admiring his father, feels that being the son of a hero is a burden. He can never be his father’s kind of hero. However, in the first episode before he leaves Earth, his father tells him that <“each man gets to be his own kind of hero”> and this is almost a thesis statement for the series.
Like so much that happens in Farscape, Crichton’s has to improvise his heroism as he goes along. His motivations are primarily to save himself and his friends. More like a classical hero, Crichton, beginning with the Look at the Princess trilogy, acts motivated to prevent bloodshed by keeping wormhole weaponry out of the hands of both Peacekeepers and Scarrans. But toward the end of season 4 and the Peacekeeper Wars film, his motivations shift more to protecting Aeryn and her fetus. He stops the war, but only by taking extreme actions that result in the deaths of untold numbers. His complex motivations and actions in the Peacekeeper Wars I will discuss at length another time, but to the question of what kind of hero Crichton is, I wish to make two observations.
One is that he is only able to build the wormhole weapon because the alien Crichton calls “Einstein” unlocks that knowledge for him. It is not an ability he possesses, only carries against his will. The other is that in the Peacekeeper Wars, Crichton is so obsessed with the need to protect Aeryn and their future child that Aeryn has to intervene.
In the final hour of Peacekeeper Wars, Crichton almost becomes a tragic hero—flawed and almost dying from his own actions. He does stop the war and for that he is a hero, but as soon as he succeeds in shutting down the wormhole weapon, Einstein takes the wormhole knowledge back from him and Crichton is returned to the normal human being that he was at the beginning of the series. That makes him no less a hero, but confirms that he is an everyman, not an epic or classical hero. A hero, yes, but an everyday hero—the best kind.
Anyway, that is my take. The beauty of Farscape is that it is complex and nuanced, open to many interpretation. I would love to hear your ideas on John Crichton.