Anyone who knows me knows that I have a borderline pathological obsession with the early 2000’s Sci-Fi network original series Farscape. Anyone who knows me really well knows that I have had, at times, a complicated relationship with my American identity (typed as I hold my Canadian passport close to my Timbit-loving heart). These two sentiments are not unrelated.
This time last week, I started a re-watch of Farscape with some friends here in Gambier. As we began the first run of episodes, someone pointed out that Ben Browder, who plays series protagonist John Crichton, is the only American in the cast. I suppose that’s not an utterly surprising fact for an Australian-produced series. At the same time, Crichton’s national identity is no accident. As I commented to my friend, every aspect of Crichton’s character (both the good and the bad) springs from his prominent identity as AMERICAN.
Crichton is deeply flawed, and the series is not afraid to highlight his psychological issues. He is obsessive, putting his own interests–whether that be knowledge of wormholes, his quest for earth, or romantic interest Aeryn Sun–above everything else. He is brash and impulsive. His brilliant plans fail more than they succeed. It’s pretty clear that these qualities are seen, at least in Crichton’s mind, as uniquely American. I always see Crichton’s definitive moment coming in the final run of the show’s fourth season, when the madman bursts into an alien war council with a bomb strapped to his hip and proceeds to jump onto a table declaring: “I am an AMERICAN. And what does an American want? Democracy? No! Capitalism!” I appreciate the critical light Farscape is able to shed on some of the more troubling attitudes American can express with respect to the rest of the world.
And yet, for all his flaws, Crichton’s “Americanness” by an large enables his survival. More than his obsession with wormholes, Crichton is defined by optimism and hope. Throughout the series, Crichton survives an onslaught of truly terrible events thanks to nothing more than his own stubborn resilience. The motley crew of Farscape rises above impossible odds mostly because Crichton is not afraid to innovate and improvise. In the series premiere, Crichton stands with co-star Aeryn Sun as she faces rejection from the Peacekeeper military force, the only life she has ever known. When Aeryn declares that she cannot possibly join Crichton in exile because being a Peacekeeper is all she has ever known, Crichton does not hesitate a moment before declaring: “You can be more.” That is Crichton in a nutshell. Always believing something better is possible. Always expressing a sense of hope and an indomitable spirit. Always willing to see the best in people. Isn’t that the essence of all that good and nobel (dare I say, “Great”) about America?
[Here be spoilers]: In the show’s fourth season, Crichton finally achieves his long-held dream of returning to Earth and, more specifically, America. What with Farscape being Farscape, it is a bittersweet reunion — Crichton has been far too damaged ever to go home again. But Earth and, more specifically, America has changed too. Crichton, who learned optimism from his astronaut father, is distressed to see both his father and his country respond to the promise of genuine space exploration with nationalistic fears and increased competition between different countries. In outrage, Crichton challenges his father — stressing that he only survived all of his ordeals by believing in that very American sense of hope. Crichton, sucked through a wormhole into distant space in 1999, asks, “When did that change?” He receives the answer: “September 11, 2001.”
If there is one thing I take away from my beloved Space Muppets and their critical examination of what it means to be an American it is this: Americans are at our best when we believe we can be more. We are at our best when we believe the world is better than it may be at the moment, and when we hold ourselves to that standard. We are at our worst when we descend into ourselves and our own petty fears and obsessions. We are at our worst when we promote our own interests at the expense of others.
I spent the last eleven years as an American ex-pat, and I would be lying if I said I haven’t been experiencing some degree of reverse culture shock since returning from the True North Strong and Free. But I have also been pushing myself over the past several months to rediscover all that is great — exceptional, even — about the country of my birth. If American’s greatness lies in anything it is the fact that we have always pushed ourselves to be more. To be more inclusive. To embrace more freedom for all people.
Like John Crichton himself, American is a mixed bag at times. So is Canada. So is the Church, if we’re being honest. But we keep moving forward, not backward. Because if we have any greatness to speak of, it is in always striving to be more. Not less.