Admin Note: Now that we've completed the reviews of DS9, we are going to move onto Farscape and focus on it until it is completed, including the Peacekeeper Wars (we are close there, just as we were for DS9).
Overall Rating: 8.0
Didn't we do this episode before? Except with a more unorthodox bad guy? Still, the story is interesting enough to keep you drawn in and the imagery is top notch. The final conclusion leaves room for some speculation as to the real source of John's adversary, and that's a good thing.
Farscape Wiki to the rescue!
My co-author and I have a disagreement as to the real enemy in John's virtual-torment-of-the-month club basket this time around. Steph thinks that the real enemy was (once again) Maldis - for three reasons: he has a personal axe to grind with John and Zhaan, he loves to torment people in infinitely-entrapping alternate/virtual realities so this fits his M.O. and he is very good at finding a person's inner doubts and fears and playing to them. To her, it seems more logical that John would blame himself for Zhaan's death (he even says as much back in the third season) and assume that Stark (her love) does too, and that Maldis would figure this out and exploit it, rather than dispersed Stark really sticking his consciousness into a video game hoping John would find it. It's an interesting take, but alas...I don't share it. I think Stark (who is, theoretically, everywhere in the ether of space and time since he's non-corporeal) could easily have been searching for Zhaan's spirit (very early in his ethereal existence days) and been filled with misplaced anger over her passing and done something wacky and insane with a video game that looks just like this. They say that souls go where they are meant to go when freed of mortality ...it makes sense that Zhaan's spirit (some part of it, at least) would find Stark in this alternate reality and help him again (this time to put aside misplaced anger).
And, frankly, I think this is a better episode if the bad guy is really Stark and the princess is really Zhaan, since I think that the resolution, instead of being about John beating a game, is actually a giant step forward for Stark (the lost soul) and for Zhaan. With the side benefit of helping John let go of his guilt w/r/t Zhaan's death. Maldis is kind of over for me...evil sorcerer who likes to torture people...yeah whatever. How many times can that plot be done and still be interesting? The first time we saw Madlis, he was legitimately frightening...the second time, the fear came from our first experience of him...the third time? Meh. Thankfully, I don't think there was a third time.
This is a well-done version of the story they're going to tell about ten times in the fourth season - John finds a way to escape his tortured reality and it horribly backfires. Drugs, potions, pleasure planets, dreams, games...none of it works (and most of it ends up with his life on the line. The show's creative team is lauded for its creativity and artistry (it's Jim Henson Productions, for cryin' out loud!) and its great character-driven drama, but in the fourth season, they overdosed on the desire for creative visual experiences at the expense of real character growth. We have TWO new characters...and we don't actually care about either of them because they never do anything for us to care about. We just lost the first replacement for Zhaan...and not once did we even LIKE her before she left. The fourth season fails because they started hitting the wacky tobacky a little too hard and got a little too far up their own asses with the creative arts, leading to a dropping of their other strong-suit. It returns in "The Peacekeeper Wars" to give a satisfying conclusion to the franchise, thankfully. BUT...this episode is actually a brief return of good character-driven storytelling if you believe that Stark is the bad guy. For that, the writers will get a lot of credit from me.
The writing here is actually better than normal, even though the show's creators were obviously still obsessed with being "unique" and much of the imagery was gratuitous.
The show must be carried by Ben Browder...but he's good at that. The rest is just loud and ostentatious scenery.
I'd be more enthused with Zhaan's message of forgiveness and mental progress is more time were devoted to it...as is, much of the episode feels deeply disjointed from that message. They could have created situations where you would get ahead in the game if you let go of some old wound or get punished if you acted in anger...but the game seems completely irrelevant to the end result.