Friday, May 14, 2010

LOST: Show of Science, Show of Faith

LOST has always been a balancing act between science-fiction reality and science-fantasy. There was a time when fans seeking to understand the show frequently quoted something the writers implied and/or misstated back in Season 1: that all the mysteries on the show could be explained by science. The show runners have long since rebuffed that notion, and to anyone paying attention to the visions, smoke monsters, and psychic powers of Season 1, this wasn't a bit surprising. The show may have launched itself out of our reality early on, but even as its mythology has expanded, I would argue that it has NEVER launched itself out of the reality it has created. And in that sense, everything that's happened can still be explained by the science of the show.

What separates science-fiction from science-fantasy? Nothing more than the size of the leap it takes to get from our reality to the reality presented in the fictional work -- and just how much that work bothers to try and connect the dots between our reality and its own. For something like, say "Jurassic Park," there was a small leap: Dinosaur DNA was preserved in a mosquito. The rest of the story fits pretty darn well with how real science actually works. So there's a small leap there. And what does a large leap look like? Let's say "Star Wars." Sure the spaceships and weapons look technically possible, but when you throw the Force into the equation, you've got something that is pure fantasy. It doesn't make apologies for itself, it doesn't attempt to resemble anything in our reality: it is what it is. And fans love it for that. In fact, when Episode I of the Prequel Trilogy attempted to add even a smidgeon of science to the Force with the concept of midichlorians, fans rejected it flat out. They wanted their Force to remain as mystical as it had always been.

LOST falls rather firmly between the two poles of science-fiction and science-fantasy. In fact, a major premise of the show has long been the battle between the characters' oscillating beliefs in science and faith. Most of the show's more vocal naysayers these days sound very much like Jack's 'Man of Science,' wanting everything they see to make a practical sense, labeling anything without a pat explanation as "nonsense." But many of us viewers who were hanging on Locke's every word as the "Man of Faith" in those early episodes were always hoping there would be something more than science -- we wanted to believe that everyone was brought to the Island for a profound reason -- that the destiny Locke was so convinced of wasn't just an illusion. And the show has always walked this line, sometimes peeling back the seemingly mystical and revealing science, other times peeling back the scientific and showcasing the mystical. But what's always separated LOST from works of true science-fantasy like "Star Wars" is that it has consistently (Yes, even now after 6.15 "Across The Sea") attempted to connect its dots back to reality -- firmly planting itself in the world of science but dabbling in the deeper mysteries of life itself.

Far from struggling with this dichotomy, the show celebrates it -- boldly and purposely flip-flopping back and forth to showcase its science, and then its supernatural, and then its science again, ad infinitum. In Season 1, there were monsters in the jungle, whispers in the air, others in the trees, and a miracle in Locke's spine. Season 2, did its best to swing all of this toward the Dharma Initiative: hatches and science experiments, vaccinations and fake beards. The polar bears weren't mysterious anymore, they were brought to the Island for study. The start of Season 3 continued this trend, but for every 3.01 "A Tale of Two Cities" which debunked the Others and made them seemingly normal people, there was a 3.20 "The Man Behind The Curtain" which brought us ageless Richard Alpert and finally gave "Jacob" a (disembodied) voice. Season 4 brought Jack and Locke's views on destiny to a head and tested the limits of what kinds of science-fiction fans would accept by blooping the Island through time and space at its close. Season 5 was the most unabashedly sci-fi set of episodes yet, wielding time travel with aplomb, but always - ALWAYS - attempting to ground its use in rules that seemed real enough in the world of the show (whatever happened happened, the Universe course corrects to avoid paradox, etc). And now we're nearly done with Season 6, wherein once again reality and fantasy continue to unfold simultaneously, each holding the other carefully in check to avoid the show losing the dual identity its writers and (many of) its fans have always cherished.

What's become more real? Well, the story's ultimate puppet-masters, Jacob and the Smoke Monster have been thoroughly humanized and stripped of the deity-like statuses that their previous appearances and mentions through the years have always seemed to connote. Just like Desmond, they're both ordinary men who became extraordinary because of the Island. Even the Mother character introduced as the Island guru prior to Jacob is said to have arrived to the Island by accident - she was once a normal person too.

What's become more fantastic? The Island itself. As the show has continued to unfold its tangled web of mysteries -- visions and whispers, faith healings and psychic abilities, ghosts and monsters, destiny and time travel -- the Island has become the scapegoat for ALL that is fantastic. As the show's myriad of confusing plot threads all lead back to the Island and its powers, the broader mystery of the show narrows its focus and as ALL ELSE becomes more real, the Island itself becomes more mythic.

And where's the science in all this? The science is the glue that binds the mythic to the real. The unexplained, after all, is very much real even in our world. Where'd the universe come from? Who built those crazy statues on Easter Island? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It's not that the unknowable isn't out there -- It's how humanity has RESPONDED to the unknowable that turns it either mythic or scientific. To the Mother character, who clearly has a grudge against humanity, the Island's energy is light that most be protected from humanity's darkness. To Richard, who was deeply religious when he arrived on-Island, the energy was explained as evil that must not be let out into the world. But to the Dharma Initiative, Widmore, and the Man in Black (pre-Smokey), the source of Island's mysterious properties is simply electromagnetic energy -- to be studied, harnessed, and utilized for their respective goals of bettering mankind, taking power, or escaping the Island. It's the studies of the Dharma Initiative, the objectives of Widmore's science team, and even the (inexplicable to us) Donkey Wheel of the Man In Black that represent mankind's very real attempts to know the unknowable, and ground the show in its own science-fiction reality.

Everything that's unfolding in Season 6 has been a natural progression of the show's usual modus operandi. The Smoke Monster appeared in the pilot as nothing more than noises; It revealed its flag-flyingly supernatural form in Season 2. It became a character with motivations in Season 3 when it was linked to the appearance Eko's dead brother Yemi (and by extension, Jack's dead father Christian). And now, it not only has motivations, it has humanity. We've been given one long progression from monster to man. The Island's powers have been referenced ever since Locke could walk again. As early as the Season 2 finale, when Desmond turned the failsafe key, these powers have been connected to electromagnetism and blinding bright lights doing fantastic things. This continued with the Donkey Wheel; this continued with Season 5's time travel and Dharma's experiments; this continued with Widmore doing experiments on Desmond in Season 6 while seeking out the Island's electromagnetic pockets; this has now culminated with the reveal of the Island's heart: a cave full of the same blinding electromagnetic light we've encountered over and over again through the series.

LOST has created a mythical Island full of electromagnetic energy. Beyond this one large fantastic element (which has been obvious for quite a while now), the show steers clear of the realm of science-fantasy by following its own rules, and always presenting a realistic vision of mankind's response to the fantastic -- whether the characters seek to understand it through myth or through science. The show even goes so far as to try and debunk some of reality's own unexplained phenomena (there ARE people who believe in ghosts, faith healing, and psychic powers, you know!) by attributing them to the energy that fills the Island and, according to the Mother character, is in each of us. All the supernatural happenings on this show? Sure there are all kinds of layers and character motivations, rules and rituals -- but the answer IS the Island -- a power source fully capable of being interpreted through whatever science, religion, or believers in magic would like to bring to the table. If that isn't enough of an answer for you, I recommend you start talking smack about the universe for not adequately explaining where it came from. (Kidding).

But just like the universe, where LOST gets its true value are the people in it. This isn't an editorial about the characters of LOST, so I'm not going to broach the topic in depth, but I do feel it would be a disservice to the show to analyze its operating methods in such detail without stating that the primary reason the show works as well as it does -- and stays grounded in reality despite its huge fantastic Island caveat -- is that the characters are so well fleshed-out and generally sympathetic. The humanizing of the Smoke Monster is just the most recent in the show's long line of sympathetic evil-doers: Ben Linus? Juliet? Sawyer? Jin? All were jack-asses when we first met them. Heck, sometimes they still are! Ben even murdered one of the show's most beloved characters last season in cold blood! But we GET them. We understand them. We sympathize even if we disapprove. For a show that loves its black and white symbology, I know few shows as dedicated to debunking the black and white mindset of good and evil. All characters on LOST are shades of grey, and when characters like these are placed on a magic Island and allowed to react to it in all ways human, be they faith-based, science-based, emotion-based, greed-based, et cetera, they fully legitimize and filter the science-fiction backdrop they've been placed in.

Every season of LOST, the show reinvents itself -- simultaneously gaining and losing a legion of followers who respectively like or dislike what it's currently doing -- but its nothing if not consistant in its insistance on permutations and never resting on its laurels. But no matter how it has changed, nor how much it changes in its final 3.5 show hours, LOST will NEVER fully lose either its mythic side or its science side. For every polar bear, there is a cage. For every cave of light, there is an electromagnetic pocket. Behind every monster, there is a man. And for every altered timeline, there is a course correction...


Elegiamore said...

Penquin, that was absolutely divine reading. Excellent summation. Thank you for giving me a respite from LOST frustration that rears its ugly head as we move towards the finish line in a somewhat lackadaisical manner.

However, your blog was about 10 times better than Epi 6.15. If only all you have expressed was properly captured by Damon/Carlton! Personally, I think they are very good at plotting and rather hokey writers.

Glad I discovered your work and I hope to read more of it. You get an A (from a fellow journalist).

JS said...

Thank you so much for your perspective. Though some say the show is "acting out of character" with 6.15, your write up clearly illustrates it is perfectly in character, and it is incumbent on us to re-examine our assumptions about the character of the show, and of the island.

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