Science Fiction: May 2010 Archives

LOST Finale

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The series finale of the six-year show LOST aired on Sunday night. Judging by comments I've seen on Facebook and other places online, it was a love-or-hate-it kind of finale. Like Battlestar Galactica, a lot of how I evaluate the whole show was going to hang on whether they pulled it off in the finale. I thought Galactica was successful. I left the LOST finale thinking we may have a candidate for a worse finale-to-show ratio than Enterprise, whose final season was among the best Star Trek and final episode was among the worst moments of Star Trek (and the worst moments of Star Trek include Star Trek V, so that's really saying something).

One of the interesting questions for me was the new storytelling device of season 6. The first three seasons included flashbacks, with a different character focus each episode, detailing the backstory of characters now stranded on the island. In the third season finale, the producers pulled a fast one on the audience, because the flashback sequence interspersed throughout the episode ended up at the very end revealing that we weren't seeing previous events but ones that didn't happen. Somehow some characters get off the island, and they're not having a good time of it.

Season 4 then implements a flash-forward dramatic device showing the lives of these characters after they leave the island, with the on-island events eventually catching up to their departure from the island in the season 4 finale alongside the science fiction device of the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which (a) moves the island, (b) sends the guy who turned it himself off the island, and (c) sends the characters who remain flashing through time to various significant moments in the history of the island. 

Season 5 focuses on getting those who left back to the island and getting the flashes through time to stop, which happens when another character leaves the island by turning the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which traps everyone in 1974. Meanwhile, those who return mostly end up in 1977, three years after their friends arrived in the 70s and became part of the until-then mysterious Dharma Initiative, which was exploring the unusual properties of the island. All during Season 5, the character keep reiterating that they can't change the past. Whatever happened happened. Whatever they're about to do already happened in terms of the past of the time they originally came from, and they will now witness it from the perspective of its being present, but anything they know to be true about what will happen is going to happen. Everything that does happen seems to confirm this. But some characters decide to try to change the past anyway by blowing up a nuke near a major outlet of the electromagnetic properties of the island where the Dharma Initiative is drilling.

From that point on, it's unclear whether they changed the past or merely fulfilled what they already knew took place. Season 6 begins with the characters on their original flight, and it doesn't crash. Then the camera zooms underwater, and we see key locations on the island. Did their plan work? Did they blow up the island and sink it? But then we flash to 2007 on the island, thirty years after the bomb blew up, and our characters appear to be still on the island. Their adventures continue as if they changed nothing. They merely fulfilled the past by causing the Incident, an event they'd heard about happening during the Dharma Initiative. That event caused Dharma to build a setup where electromagnetic energy needed to be siphoned off every 108 minutes, and they needed someone to push a button that often. The survivors ended up taking on that task for a year but only after the guy assigned to the task before them forgot to push it and crashed their plane. So their bomb basically caused their own crash. Instead of preventing it, they caused it.

Then what was going on with the plane that landed in Los Angeles? The producers called that a flash-sideways, which suggests an alternate universe. But they denied that it was an alternate universe, leaving it mysterious what was going on. Over the course of the season, flash-sideways characters began to remember events on the island. It wasn't until the finale, though, that we discovered what it was. It's what happened after they all died. Some of them died during the show, some early and some only at the end. Some survived the island-storyline and presumably died much later. But everyone dies sometime. The flash-sideways turned out to be a place they somehow created for themselves to meet up before moving on to whatever is next.

I'd been looking forward to an explanation of this flash-sideways, because it's especially important to the time travel stuff I've been working on. It turns out not. The original "whatever happened happened" line seems simply to be true. The sideways isn't an alternate timeline caused by the bomb blowing up. It's nothing but an illusion for the gathering of all the characters deemed appropriate by the writers to have their as they awaited their walk through the door of glowing light.

It's an understatement to say that I was disappointed. It makes my time travel stuff easier to write, and it confirms that they weren't messing with their originally-stated explanation of how time travel works. But it seemed like pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that made the whole flash-sideways elements of the season seem irrelevant. There is no sideways reality. It's a fakeity created as an illusion so they can work out their issues with their lives before going on to whatever is next, and the writers left it open what's next. The suggestion seems to be that it's a good afterlife together with their buddies, but it's possible they all step into the light and go on to a miserable eternity in hell for all the show has to say.

So I thought much of the finale was dumb. Even in the island part of the story, which I mostly liked, one main character sacrificed his life needlessly, because another character could have done what he did that killed him but survived. That was truly dumb, because it invalidates the sacrificial death the writers wanted to give him. But most of the island story was all right. I watched it again, fast-forwarding through the sideways except for the last ten minutes, and I enjoyed the episode a lot more.

I should also say that someone convinced me in between watchings that there is a redeeming quality of the overall point of the episode, at least from a Christian perspective. While the show suggests a number of things that I'd disagree with about the religious perspective of the writers, some of it that even seems pretty lame to me, I at first didn't recognize that the writers were recognizing the value of eternity and relationships with people as more important than temporal things, and no Christian should see that as a bad message, even if it's mixed with other things we might disagree with. This is a work of fiction, and I think Christians should see this episode as containing one or two important seeds of the Christian gospel (while also undermining one or two others).

Has that changed my opinion of the finale? Well, watching it a second time without the flash-sideways portion (except the very end) was a lot more enjoyable. I do think I would have preferred removing that whole storyline except the very end if they wanted to insist on that and replacing it with something that would have delved more into the history of the island and the mysteries of the island than the time travel of season 5 was able to do. But I think I can say now that I don't think this was as bad as the Enterprise finale. It was more like the mixed bag that was the Stargate SG-1 finale, which had some fun and interesting moments but didn't at all do what I thought a series finale for that show needed to do.

The Author Theodicy

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My friend and sometime co-blogger Wink likes to think of God as the author of creation in a much more literal way than most people do. He sees God as writing a story, with human beings as some of the main characters, and one response he has to the problem of evil is that the story overall justifies certain instances of badness occurring throughout the story.

This also serves as a helpful analogy for him in thinking through the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, since the characters in a book can easily have free will of whatever sort you'd like even if every step of their fictional lives is written by an author. Within the story, their choices are all free. They make choices, and those choices need not be determined in any way by anything outside their control (although if it's a story in a deterministic world, then of course something outside their control does determine their actions, and they at most have only compatibilist free will).

It was hard to resist thinking about the author theodicy when I heard this quote on a recent podcast (see writeup here) by the executive producers of Lost:

We're sorry that it happened, but we're not sorry that we did it, and we make no excuses for it. It is a very intense and dark time on the show. Obviously the deaths of these characters provides a tremendous emotional catalyst for the survivors, because now they're at war. The sides were a little hazy before now. Now, there's great clarity. -- Damon Lindelof

Then consider the specific reasoning given:

We felt it was really important that the audience understand that, going into the end of this show, nobody is safe. One of the problems in television is that you innately know that certain characters aren't going to die, and that strips certain shows of their jeopardy. We want there to be a feeling that anything is possible, and that going into the end of the series, that is very much true. There will be some surprising things.

It's the author-theodicy version of a point made by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in sections of their work that I've taught in my history of philosophy intro class. Augustine asks us to consider a painting. There will likely be spots that, taken apart from the whole, would look ugly. But in the context of the whole painting they fit and make the painting itself more beautiful than it would be without them. Aquinas similarly says that the occurrences of evil in the world are indeed intrinsically bad. The fact that they occur is unfortunate, and other things being equal a good God who could prevent them would do so. But other things aren't equal, because the macroscopic picture of the history of the universe (which, of course, goes on forever into eternity according to Aquinas, with evil defeated forever after a certain point) is better as a whole if that evil occurs, even if the microscopic look at just that bit of evil should lead God to declare it bad and worth avoiding.

Lindelof seems to be making a similar point. It's unfortunate that these beloved characters had to die, but they thought things would be best for them to die at this point given the story they are trying to tell. The macroscopic look determines whether it's worth doing. They're not sorry they did it, because of that macroscopic effect. The microscopic look determines whether the event is unfortunate in itself, and in this case they admit that it is. But the macroscopic effect is what matters for storytelling, even if sometimes honesty requires acknowledging the microscopic picture as Lindelof does in this quote.

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