Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Lost Saved Time Travel

Perhaps the most fun part of having become a full-fledged member of the Lost phenomenon is the vast community of discussions that exist about the show, it's mysteries, and it's characters. Lost fans can be known for having some pretty wacky theories, but it's all in good fun, as my my own personal latest theory that the four-toed statue is an ancient tribute to Vincent, the resident Labrador retriever, would indicate.

One line of theories that puzzles me, are those which revolve around our time traveling heroes changing the future as we know it. These theories persist, despite all the evidence and all the storytelling that tells us that in the Lost universe, you cannot change the past and you cannot undue what has already happened. I hate to spoil other fan's good times, but in the Lost universe, the rules have been laid out as science and from a creative perspective, the rules make a hell of a lot of sense. In a long form story like Lost, changing the past isn't just problematic, it's down right brutal to do to your audience. Beyond the obvious paradoxes associated with changing the past, why should the audience care about what they see on the screen if some future time travelers could prevent what we've seen from ever happening?

Through Desmond, Lost laid out it's time travel rules, past, present, and future, quite explicitly in the season 3 episode "Flashes Before Your Eyes." With the help of Ms. Hawking, Desmond comes to learn that no matter what he might do, he can't change the past. In the case of Charlie, Desmond learns this means that if you're going to die, you're going to die. Interestingly enough, this lesson about Charlie isn't about changing the past, but changing the future. The lesson here is that history is already written, an idea that fits very nicely into the numerous ways Lost has explored the concept of fate. To help understand the internal logic, it's best to take a step back and think of the Lost story as fans in creative terms. Rather than look at Lost as flowing from episode 1 forward, look at the story through it's own time line, starting back at the time of the statue, through the 50's, into the Dharma 70's and up through the plane crash of 2004. That time line is Daniel's string and what we're seeing now is those characters jumping around that string. But the most important piece to remember is that this story is already written and we're just having it revealed to us in bits and non-linear pieces.

The most fun part is, as we started to see a few weeks ago, is that even though our characters can't change the past, that doesn't mean they aren't part of the past as it happened. They're supposed to be there because that's fate and because that's how the story was already written.

What the writers of Lost have done is make time travel a simple story telling device rather than an unnecessarily complicated element of plot. Time travel stories where you can change the past inevitably end up being first and foremost about time travel, which works well in short stories or stand alone episodes of Star Trek, but fails miserably as part of a continual long form story. Fans start to wrack their brains over time travel, but in Lost, you needn't bother. Just sit back and enjoy the story.


Blogger lonely libertarian said...

I'll offer this as an addendum after tonight's episode, "Namaste."

Could I be wrong? Keep in mind everything I said about time travel, but what if it's all not entirely true for an island that's moving in space and time?

I ask because when Frank and Sun travel back to the barracks on the main island, they find it abandoned, but more importantly, we see a door with a Dharma sign and a house with Dharma pictures on the wall. This wouldn't have been the case when the Others lived in those houses, so, either the plane flashed back in time as well, possibly to a time after the purge but before the Others took up residence in the Barracks (sometime in the 90's), the island itself is in the past (which gets complicated), or, our survivors have somehow changed the past on the island and the island alone. I'm not sure how that would work, but maybe they somehow wipe out the Others and the Dharma Initiative ... I dunno.

11:18 PM  

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