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Lost, found

May 30, 2010

Last week, after 6 years on our screens, the final episode of Lost aired.

Lost was a brave and daring show, and as such it earned both praise and derision in equal measure. Inevitably, reaction to the finale earned both praise and derision.

Those who always disliked Lost, but who watched every episode in the hope that the final two hours would somehow, as if by magic, reverse years of antipathy, felt betrayed and vindicated in their dislike of the show. I have little sympathy for those viewers. If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it. It could to nothing to reverse those opinions in 2 hours.

Those who did enjoy the show faced the finale with trepidation. With so many theories about what the show meant, large swathes of the fanbase were inevitably disappointed. Indeed, the show could do nothing but fail, given the weight of expectation placed upon it.

I am a Lostie as fans are called. After watching the final episode, I cried. It was emotional, at times exhausting. Lost is a demanding, frustrating show, playing games with names, philosophy, science, and the nature of reality. It is not a show for the casual viewer.

Did the finale answer every question I had about the show? No, but I never expected it to. Did it resolve the underlying story to my satisfaction? Yes, it did. It was a touching, and appropriate ending, bringing the characters to the end of their journey, and poignantly mirroring how the story began.

The final scene of the show was written immediately after the pilot episode was written, and was unchanged, even after 6 years. When Lost first aired the writers declared they knew how the show would end, and that they had a story arc of roughly 7 years. Somewhere along the way people forgot that declaration, and claimed the writers were simply making it up as they went along.

Undeniably, that is partly true. Circumstances change. The character of Ben Linus, intended to appear in 3 episodes only, became a major character. When introducing the characters of Libby and Anna Lucia, I’m sure the writers didn’t expect to kill them off so quickly afterwards, because the actresses were both facing criminal prosecution for driving offences. The Hollywood writer’s strike pushed Lost, as with so many other shows, into hiatus that I’m sure forced the writers on their return to truncate the story arc.

You can believe the writers, or not. Those wedded to the idea that it was made up on the fly will never believe the writers, even if they were to provide proof. I choose to believe them, as a professional courtesy.

The best description I heard of the finale was that it was an emotional, flawed and brilliant end, to an emotional, flawed and brilliant show.

There is one criticism of the show that I find unfair. As with Battlestar Galactica, the reliance on the supernatural in the broadest sense has been a source of scorn. I don’t understand why. There seems to be a hardcore of writers and viewers out there who accept fantasy, myth, the supernatural etc but only if they stay in their own dominions. The instant they intrude upon “the real world” or the world of sci-fi, they suddenly become hallmarks of “weak writing”, a nonsensical attitude that automatically condemns magical realism and urban fantasy, for being both too fantastical (to co-exist with an empirical world), yet not fantastical enough (by acknowledging the empirical world)!

Scott Sigler, a hard science fiction writer who had previously criticised the ending of BSG, was similarly scathing of the ending of Lost. Whilst accepting that those who enjoy magical fantasy would enjoy Lost, he stated that those who like hard logic should avoid it, before deriding the ending as “God did it” with “super awesome magic” that “we just can’t understand”.

With respect to Scott, I think that’s too narrow an attitude. “God did it” with “super awesome magic” validly describes a plethora of books, movies and television shows which we would be culturally poorer without. If you consider that this description describes most any story with a religious or supernatural element to it, then fantasy and horror is rejected. Stephen King, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, JK Rowling, Clive Barker – have we all been “had” by their work because of a reliance on the non-logical supernatural? HP Lovecraft’s stories all fall under this category, because despite being explicit about Mythos creatures being aliens from higher dimensions, Lovecraft says we mere humans cannot possibly understand this alien science. To us they are gods, and their science, never explained, operates as magic.

Lost mixed a great deal of science with a great deal of philosophy and theology. Character names were drawn from the ranks of philosophers and scientists (Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Faraday). The fifth series focused on time travel. But right from the start, there was the supernatural element. A scientific expedition named after an Eastern theological concept, The Dharma Initiative. The Smoke Monster. The sheer quantity of coincidences linking the lives of the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. My original belief of what the show was about, formed during the first season, was a theistic interpretation not too far from the final interpretation.

Scott would have considered Lost as fantasy, “‘cept for all the science-name characters, science research, time-travel math, etc.” Ignoring the question of whether the science elements were a MacGuffin, can fantasy not have those elements, and still remain fantasy? I think there is more than enough room in genre fiction for real world science to co-exist in a fantasy reality, especially modern fantasy, and to demand that fantasy ignore modern day science is to constrain fantasy within a medieval box. Sci-fi doesn’t have to be far flung futures with robots and faster than light travel. So too fantasy doesn’t have to be talking dragons and warlords terrorising feudal villages.

I would go as far as to say that the best fantasy of my generation is one that places a sect of mystical, telepathic, sword-wielding monks in a universe of faster-than-light travel, aliens, robots and computers. I am of course talking about Star Wars, a trilogy that sees artificial intelligence and clones walk hand-in-hand with life after death and, in the words of Han Solo, “hokey religions”.

As with Lost, not everything in Star Wars is explained, and it too has a split between the devotional and the antagonistic. It is no less fantasy for the sci-fi elements, and no less sci-fi for the fantasy elements. And it works. But some people weren’t satisfied, and demanded to know how “the Force” could actually work. So in a disastrous move, the prequel trilogy reduced a mystical concept to a parasitic infection.

The Lost finale may not have explained every last lingering question, but don’t forget the lessons of Star Wars.

Ask too many questions, and you wind up with midichlorians.

Whilst I might disagree with the FDO about the merits of Lost, one thing we can both agree on is the merits of Ancestor, released on June 22, 2010 and available for pre-order now from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble or ask your local bookseller.
  1. May 30, 2010 6:03 am

    great post Paul – I don’t think any writer could satisfy the intensity of fanaticism in which LOST had. Some great points and things for us to ponder as writers.

    I kinda wish I was with the cool kids and could discuss LOST and the writing style, the twists etc- but I have only ever seen half an episode – about three seasons back- perhaps like many others who watched the entire series and still had no idea what was going on – my eyes glazed over and I flipped the channel. I really didn’t need another obsession to tie me to the telly..

  2. A fellow Paul permalink
    May 30, 2010 6:07 am

    You speak true, Sai Paul Anderson. If critics and/or fans want don’t want their fantasy in their sci-fi, or their sci-fi in their fantasy, I feel sorry for Ron Howard when he starts on the The Dark Tower movie originally written by Stephen King. The Dark Tower saga combines not only sci-fi and fantasy, but the horror, romance, western, and modern genres. Ain’t too many people gonna be happy ’bout that, I reckon.

  3. May 30, 2010 7:15 am

    The real test of the finale for me, is whether it leaves you wanting to go back and re-view the series in light of what you have found out. My answer is yes. As you say, Lost is flawed, but it is an emotionally satisfying story that achieved so much in its run. The fact that for a while it was a time travel sci-fi story that I could watch with my wife is astounding considering the allergic reaction geek TV usually induces in her.

    Those complaining about the ending need to remember Lost is a show about characters first. I couldn’t care less what the island actually was, or the smoke creature. I would have been annoyed though, if I hadn’t know what happened to Desmond or Hurley or Sun and Jinn. The fact that I whooped with pleasure when I saw Bernard and Rose living peacefully on the island shows the character element was always the shows strength. Any avid viewer will be hard pushed to make a list of favourite characters and keep it under five or even ten.

    As you say, best not to ask too many questions.

  4. May 30, 2010 8:32 am

    Ooh. I’m posting about Lost this week, too. It had an effect. 🙂

    It’s not surprising to me that people picked on the supernatural elements in the show. Lost did what a lot of shows couldn’t: it brought sci fi and mysticism to regularly prime-time television. Most sci fi is relegated to the nowhere networks, or very late night. People liked Lost and they didn’t want to believe they were enjoying sci fi. Well, they did. So there. Heh.

  5. lostlibrarygirl permalink
    May 30, 2010 8:44 am

    Thanks for this intriguing response to the LOST finale. It actually inspired me to write my mini-conclusions out in my own blog. I am completely satisfied with the idea that we can’t know everything. An idea that one must accept in reality and should be willing to accept in fiction, television, or any other genre. Willingness to suspend your disbelief is what makes any movie, novel, series, etc. work.

    I especially like your Star Wars example. Midichlorians: EPIC FAIL!!! It’s refreshing to see a true Star Wars fan admit the shortcoming of episodes 1 – 3. I do believe that if the writers of LOST had tried to explain every tiny detail, we would have ended up with a similar FAIL!! Instead they gave us just enough to let our imaginations take us the rest of the way. Brilliant.

    And thanks, A Fellow Paul, for adding to my never ending reading list. Now I really want to read Stephen King’s Dark Tower Saga. I have The Gunslinger sitting on my desk just begging to be read. And now to get to it.

  6. May 30, 2010 8:53 am

    I’m not remotely a fan of the Star Wars prequels, but regarding the midichlorians (I apologize if that’s the wrong spelling). I think the mystical nature to the Force in the original speaks to the tendency of conquered cultures to mystify/exaggerate what was once commonplace. If we think of it this way, the prequels give more weight to the originals, insofar as the underdogs venerated the Jedi, regarding them more as saviors than a police force.

    Now if only this were executed in an entertaining, engaging, & moving way.

  7. adampb permalink
    May 30, 2010 9:06 pm

    It seems that people like to compartmentalise their perceptions and genres. If the show, or novel, is pitched as sci-fi or fantasy, they are more inclined to accept the world that the text offers. They have trouble when a show blurs the boundaries. In the western world we like to segregate our scientific and spiritual domains and thinking, preferring to think of them as mutually exclusive concepts. Rather, I would see them as different perspectives of a particular physical and spiritual reality. We have lost the transcendental nature of spirituality and replaced it with scientific logic and reason, almost to the point of rejection of any spiritual concepts.
    Exploring human relationships in a novel or film is one way of examining a more spiritual side of things if you consider notions of psyche and human nature as “spiritual” or transcendental.
    I love that fantasy and sci-fi can be used to explore bigger and deeper questions through the creation of worlds that look and sound like ours, yet have their own realities. Maybe it is easier to ask questions when the world we create is a little different?

  8. geekomancer permalink
    May 31, 2010 1:05 pm

    I’ve never understood why people think genre walls need to be so thick. I think blending genres can result in some of the more richly developed worlds!

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