Sunday, May 17, 2009

State Your Predestination

Oh, Miles. Will you ever stop being awesome? This past Wednesday, Lost aired its season-5 finale. I am blogging about it. There are spoilers. You have been warned.

Of course every yahoo with an Internet connection and one of these here web-logs has probably already prognosticated about the various ins and outs of Season 5's "The Incident" two-parter, from the (disappointing, at least for now) reveal of Jacob and his ideological opposite to my being totally wrong about Ilana and her boys being DHARMA bums. (Oh, well. I was right about Fringe and I can safely stay smug about that for another day or two.)

I don't really care about that. Most of the episode, up to and including the surprise deaths (one of which was unfortunately unintentionally HILARIOUS) that usually attend these things, was about moving pieces into place for season 6. What interests me though is that line from Miles, snarky as always, positing that Jack with all his faith in Faraday's science, is going to come around and actually cause the incident he's trying to prevent.

What interests me is this show's apparent take on time travel vs. free will. I'm a big fan of science fiction, as anybody can tell you, and sci fi, at least when it tries to market itself to the masses, has to take this cushy notion that our free will overrides the law of the universe. Think Back to the Future. Marty McFly goes back in time and because he has free will, because he has agency, he fucks up the universe by accidentally making out with his Mom, then fixes the universe by helping his Dad stop being a complete milquetoast.

Sorry if I just also spoiled Back to the Future for you.

The point is I can name at least a dozen other movie and TV time-travel escapades which all follow this pattern. Hell, it happens again in Back to the Future II for God's sake, with Doc Brown on hand to give us a tidy lecture on the creation of alternate realities. This is easy. It fits our instincts. I've had one reputable physicist explain to me that I can't actually hit a cue ball back through a wormhole and hit the eight ball in the past. That I would be physically prevented from actually altering the past, even if I could travel there, which, okay, is probably impossible anyway.

Sorry. That sentence got away from me a bit there. Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey. Jack, I think, and by extension Faraday, is wildly delusional when he thinks his purpose in being thrown back in time is to stop the event that got him started on the path that eventually put him back in time. It's like the Terminator, right? The Terminator travels back in time to kill Sarah Connor so she can't give birth to the future Anti-Robot Jesus. Only Anti-Robot Jesus of the future sends a soldier back to stop the Terminator. The soldier impregnates Sarah Connor, because apparently you have time to do that sort of thing when you're on the run from an evil Austrian robot. So the Terminator's caught in a loop. He gets sent back to change something and ends up causing it.

But what if he succeeded? And what if Jack succeeded? It's the headache of time travel, it's why we invent whole parallel universes around the outcomes of our decisions. If Jack's bomb cancels out the EM effect that caused his plane to crash, then Jack isn't around to, five seasons later, get whisked back to 1977 to detonate the bomb to cancel out the EM get the idea.

Of course the problem with this time travel logic is that it has the effect of robbing your time travel story of any urgency. If your Killer Austrian Robot is always stopped, if Biff never becomes super-rich, if the plane never crashes, then all we're doing is going through the motions.

I think this whole thing can be viewed through the prism of an earlier episode, "Whatever Happened, Happened." Sayid shoots kid-Ben, reasoning that if kid-Ben snuffs it in 1977, he can never do all the terrible things that adult-Ben will do that put Sayid on his path, the path that tells him shooting a thirteen-year old is a good idea. Same with Jack. Jack's not gonna stitch him up, so Kate and Saywer take kid-Ben to Richard, and pretty much guarantee the little boy's going to grow up a Class A Creepy Fuck.

This has nothing to do with physics. Jack and Sayid and Kate and Sawyer still have their free will intact. It has to do with determinism. Everything that happened to Sayid up to the point that he pulls the trigger made him what he is, made him the man to pull that trigger. Same with the others. The chains we wear are of our own making. That's a heck of a statement for a TV show to make, I think. To say that the fate of the world rests on the fact that we simply cannot change our stripes. And that's what destiny is, then. The inexorable march of history, political and personal, toward the end. And there is, as Jacob says, only one end. Everything up 'till then is progress.

I guess we'll see in January.

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