E-mail: ragan @ sdc . org
Spoilers: Contains spoilers for the entire series, though there are only a couple of minor references to season 4. I've chosen to avoid miniseries spoilers because a) I know a lot of non-US fans haven't had the opportunity to see it yet, b) I could easily make all the points I wanted to make without referencing it, and c) I'm still mulling over the implications of what happens in it, anyway.
Notes: Many thanks to hobsonphile for beta-ing, and to everyone who's listened to me go on and on... and on... about Stark since that first moment.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I first fell in love with Stark. It was the beginning of the episode "...Different Destinations." Stark had just lost his lover, Zhaan, at the end of the previous episode, and when the camera first found him, he was sitting in a corner, apart from his shipmates, quietly crying. I felt a deep, overwhelming longing to be able to step through my TV set, put an arm around him, and let him cry on my shoulder. I've loved lots of characters, I've felt sympathy for a great many of them, but I cannot ever remember having that strong an emotional reaction towards any fictional person, before or since. From that moment, whenever Stark was onscreen, he became the focus of my attention, and I've been fascinated and enthralled by him ever since.
There are three main reasons why I find Stark both appealing and intriguing. Well, no, actually, there are a great many more than three, but for the purposes of this essay, they'll do as broad, general categories.
1. He's tragic.
I'm a huge fan of angst, but, more than that, I love to see characters who live through terrible things and, no matter how damaged or broken they are by the experiences, still retain a certain inner strength and nobility of spirit.
In a show where all of the characters have suffered incredibly, Stark perhaps has a claim on having suffered the most, or at least the most continuously. Most of Stark's people, the Baniks, were killed by the Peacekeepers, the rest of them enslaved. Stark himself has lived as a slave, mainly under the violent, brutal Scarrans. As a Stykera, a Banik holy man, it is Stark's vocation to assist the dying, relieving their pain and helping to guide them on their journey to "the other side." He has crossed over fifteen thousand souls, and each one of them has left a remnant of itself behind, many of them dark and evil remnants which threaten Stark's mental and emotional stability and frighten both himself and those who are close to him. He endured two years and hundreds of sessions in the mind-raping Aurora Chair, a device which left the show's human character little more than a quivering wreck after a mere day or two. Between sessions, he was confined to a small, dank cell, and apparently suffered enough abuse at the hands of his captors that he felt it necessary to adopt an exaggerated show of dangerous insanity simply to get them to leave him alone.
When he finally escaped, his suffering scarcely stopped. He was repeatedly treated with contempt and verbal and physical abuse even by those he considered his friends, whether because they looked down on him for being a member of a "slave race" (Crais, Rygel), didn't feel they could trust him (Crichton in "Liars, Guns & Money"), singled him out as a convenient target upon which to vent their own frustrations (D'Argo in "The Ugly Truth," at least arguably), or simply found him annoying (pretty much everybody at one point or another). Even the best things that happened to Stark inevitably took a turn for the tragic. He found love with Zhaan, a woman who cared for him, and perhaps was capable of accepting and understanding him as few others could, given her own experiences in struggling against internal darkness and insanity. But their time together was terribly short, as Zhaan chose to sacrifice herself (and thus abandon him) to save others. Stark claimed to understand and accept the nobility of her sacrifice, but the fact remains that she used him as the mechanism for what was essentially an act of suicide, and that she chose to risk herself in that act because saving Aeryn and ensuring her own spiritual redemption were ultimately more important to her than living to care for him. On some level, that has to hurt, and it seems quite probable that the Avatar Stark in "John Quixote" speaks for some bitter portion of the real Stark's subconscious when he blames Crichton for Zhaan's death and his own subsequent emotional pain.
I could go on... I haven't even mentioned the pain and horror of "dispersal," after which he was never quite the same, or the way his most well-intentioned plans often seem to backfire in the most terrible ways (as with the 10,000 Baniks he was attempting to buy out of slavery in "Liars, Guns & Money"). Suffice it to say that the man has lived through things that have left him very, very badly damaged.
And yet, despite it all, Stark retains great strength, great compassion, and a deep, profound sense of spirituality. Despite the terrible toll it takes on him, he continues to use his mystical abilities to aid others, to comfort the injured and dying and soothe their pain. There is a selflessness to that act that is both admirable and beautiful, as is his capacity to keep going, to keep trying to do good and to help others, even when it so seldom seems to help. And Stark does appear to have a great desire to help others, even at great cost or risk to himself. Consider how tenderly he ministers to Zhaan as she is dying, or how desperate he is to save the others in "Green-Eyed Monster," when Talyn is swallowed by the budong. Even what appears from the outside to be the craziest and most dangerous thing he's done, taking control of Talyn and nearly flying him into the sun in "Meltdown," is in reality a noble (if perhaps more emotional than rational) attempt to free a trapped, tormented soul.
Stark has survived everything the universe has thrown at him, and, while he may have lost portions of his sanity, he has never lost what, for lack of a better word, we'll have to call his humanity. I can't imagine not being moved by that.
2. He's funny.
While the psychological damage Stark has suffered is deeply sad, it's also a basic truth, at least on television, that Crazy People Are Funny. And Stark is no exception. He frequently displays manic or childlike behavior -- babbling, humming, making wild gestures with his hands, breaking down into sudden fits of emotionalism or panic -- that his shipmates (and, indeed, many viewers) often find annoying, but which I find comically endearing. (Admittedly, there are times when it goes a little over the top and one gets the sense that the writers have forgotten that Stark, even in his capacity as comic relief, still ought to have integrity as a character. But those moments are, I think, relatively few.)
And he certainly gets some great lines. My personal favorite is his response upon being designated as a guide for the temporarily blinded Crais: "Let me be your eye!" (It's his delivery, mainly.) His version of a damage report in the same episode is also great: "Damage! Damage! Damage!" And who could forget his classic response to Crichton's admonition to "work now, freak later"? "Yes, that's fair. [pause] How much later?"
There is, at times, a wonderful sense of childlike playfulness to Stark. Take, for instance, the way he goes into his signature "my side, your side" rant when he's told he and Rygel are to be "roomies" on Talyn. It's pretty much his standard routine when he wants to play up his own craziness, but in that scene you can tell he's doing it entirely to tease Rygel, and is clearly quite amused by his own antics. And come on... Doesn't Rygel deserve it?
I actually think that it's the juxtaposition between this humorous side of Stark and his angstier side that is a large part of what makes him so fascinating to me. Complex characters whose personalities encompass contrasting or even contradictory elements are always interesting, and, y'know, the word "tragicomic" might almost have been coined to refer to Stark.
3. He's fascinatingly mysterious.
Stark never really got a lot of screen time. He tended to wander in and out of the series, disappearing for long periods of time and reappearing again in the midst of major events which put most of the focus on other characters. We actually know very little about him, though the small amounts of information we are given hint at incredibly intriguing possibilities.
Here are some of the unanswered questions about Stark:
We know that his species are (in part) energy beings, that they exist both on an "energy plane" and in a "corporeal shell" of flesh. But we know almost nothing about them, otherwise. What does it mean to be such a being? How did they evolve into such a state? How different is Stark from the other members of his species? How different are they, in general, from ordinary humanoids? And, for that matter, how did they end up as a "slave race?"
Stark's connection to Zhaan is clearly very deep, very important to him, and (in my opinion, anyway) very beautiful. But it develops almost entirely off-screen. How does that relationship form? When, exactly, do they become lovers? And what does that even entail, when one partner is a humanoid plant and the other is half energy?
How did Stark end up on the Gammak base, and just what, exactly, was Scorpius trying to get out of him via the Aurora Chair? The evidence from canon on this subject is confusing and very contradictory.
Stark seems awfully well-educated for a slave. He displays an understanding of chemistry and of theoretical physics, and he's good enough with electronics to build an (admittedly inefficient) electronic lock-picking device from scraps of metal. He has a large vocabulary and, in his more lucid moments, can be extremely eloquent. What kind of background gave him those abilities? We don't even know whether he was born a slave or became one later, so we don't know under what circumstances he might have picked up such a broad education.
To what extent is Stark actually crazy, and to what extent is his manic behavior a learned defense mechanism? How much of what seems to be insanity might instead be due to the fact that Stark has perceptions that most of us don't have? What is it actually like inside his head? To what extent are the remnant memories of the dead souls he's crossed over consciously available to him? To what extent do they interfere with his own thoughts and feelings? What's with the "my side, your side" stuff? I could write an essay longer than this one just exploring these questions alone.
It can be frustrating having this many unanswered questions about a character, but it's also fertile ground for speculations and stories and other mind-stretching exercises of the imagination. Really, we're given just enough tantalizing glimpses to know that there are interesting hidden aspects to the character without necessarily knowing exactly what all of them are, and I, for one, find that utterly irresistible.
OK, hopefully if you've read this far, at the very least you're nodding your head slowly and thinking, "Hmm, yes, perhaps there is slightly more to this character than I'd considered." But, regardless of what your reaction might be, if you'd like to consider Stark a little more, here's some places to start your spiritual journey:
Stark-Related Stuff on the Web
The Stark Raving Mad Society Forums: A place for Stark fans to talk Stark.
Paul Goddard Down Under: A site dedicated to the actor who gave us Stark. Features Farscape screencaps and various interviews, chat transcripts, and articles.
Stark's bio on the Sci Fi Channel website
hobsonphile's Stark Defense League Manifesto
My Stark/Zhaan essay for ship_manifesto
Stark Fan Fiction
I've put together a couple of lists of recommended Stark stories on my LJ in the past. They can be found here and here. I would now also add hobsonphile's "Shreds of Heaven" and "And Still You Live" (note: the latter does contain miniseries spoilers). A number of excellent stories were also written for the recent Stark Ficathon, and I strongly recommend checking them out. I've also written a number of Stark stories, most of which can be found at Leviathan under the name AstroGirl.