LOST: Sci-fi or spiritualism?

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*Mild spoilers ahead*

“Any sufficiently defined magic is indistinguishable from science.” – Guy who should have helped write the LOST finale.

I’ve just finished the LOST finale. I was a few days late to the party but a long flight gave me time to give it a good watching. Yes, I watched it on a plane, which seems ironic. I wanted to talk about it, and have a little bit with friends but it’s really only going to be topical for another week or so at best so if I had anything to say I should say it now. I’ve watched the show weekly since season 2, haven’t always enjoyed it but hoped I was along for a ride that was going somewhere. It seems like most people would argue that was a mistake, and that it went nowhere worth going. I think they’re half right. Because there are another contingent of those who argue the finale worked. As the typical scientist, I’m gonna fall back on a spectrum and say that some things did work and others did not.

The people arguing that the show ended well are doing so from an emotional place of closure amongst the shows characters. I can accept that, and while watching felt those same feelings. I had to pause a few times to wipe some tears away before ordering my coffee (on a plane, remember?) so it used the leverage it had over getting to know these characters to great effect. However, some characters were ignored entirely, and that didn’t sit well with me.

The people who say the show failed point out that it didn’t answer the mysteries in a satisfactory way. I think, for me, there’s one principal reason the show had no hope of pulling that feat off: it stopped being sci-fi over a year ago. When the show began there was an element of the supernatural but in a way that seemed like there was an explanation hiding just beneath the surface. The magical hatch from season 2 was part of the Dharma initiative and it got to the point where we even saw it being constructed in season 5. But in season 5 they also explain that the reason for its construction was to contain a pocket of electromagnetic energy, which isn’t really how EM works, but whatever, it sounds quasi-scientific. By season 6 it was just about “light,” it all its nebulous glory. No attempt at a scientific style explanation at all. And I felt that trend, a gradual slide downward away from sci-fi into spiritualism, was pervasive throughout the show.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a show about spiritualism, it just doesn’t seem from the internet reaction to the finale that people were hoping for nirvana as much as they were hoping for more Dharma. We bought into the show on its sci-fi premise and compelling characters, by the end the characters were still there, arguably less compelling, but the sci-fi was long gone.

It’s possible this was inevitable. Obviously, any scientific explanation provided by the creators of the show wouldn’t sit well with everyone because it’d still be made-up hokum. But is it better to provide a flimsy if only mildly plausible explanation as opposed to an inclusive spiritual concept that still leaves many threads hanging? One of the show’s writers, Brian K. Vaughn, penned one of my favorite comic series of all time, Y: The Last Man. In that story there’s a large mystery which towards the end of the book is explained. A character, as if speaking for the reader, admits that the reveal was unsatisfying but is told by another character that no answer would have worked. Had it been aliens, nanites or Buddha; the point was watching the characters get through it. In Y that sentiment totally works and I love that ending as a pinnacle of story-telling. LOST didn’t pull it off as well, and I’m not sure why, or if it even could.

It’s forced me to think about other shows that could have fallen prey to the same trap, and whether or not they did. The Prisoner got pretty trippy, but I don’t feel it jumped the shark as much as it could have. Twin Peaks never finished. X-Files always kept it pretty science-o-riffic. And so far, from what I’ve seen, Fringe seems pretty careful about sticking with the science, however poor the rest of the show may be.

Consumers of any media, even podcasts, at a point often feel like they’re owed something for the time they’ve invested. I think that’s a little unfair, Neil Gaiman put it better than I ever could though so go read that for a deeper explanation. However, I will say that LOST seemed like it was going somewhere it could give an explanation (i.e. something scientific even if it was nonsense) then ditched that for some bright light feel-goodery that emotionally clicked and was hollow afterwards. Any further comparisons to actual religion will only get me in trouble, so I’ll leave it at that.

Oh, LOST, we had such hopes.

P.S. If you’re curious as to how LOST did at answering certain questions, i09 gave them a report card. It’s not comprehensive but highlights some of the more pressing issues.


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14 Responses to LOST: Sci-fi or spiritualism?

  1. Jon StumpNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    What is that first quote from? Seems like I saw or read something recently with the same quote in it when someone built a detector for Magic. I think it was Starman maybe?

    • RyanNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

      Larry Niven said it, I don’t think it’s from anything in particular. It was his response to the Arthur C. Clark quote about science and magic.

  2. pauloNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the show since season 3 when it took a decided turn towards the occult. I wasn’t disappointed with the ending because I really had given up hope that all threads would be tied into some discernible pattern of meaning. In the end the show ended as vaguely as it had been heading for some time.

    • RyanNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

      I can’t argue with that. I’ve told a few people asking if they should watch it to watch the first 3 seasons then just call it quits.

  3. David AccampoNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Nice piece, Ryan. I think you handle your assessment fairly. My only personal observation of note: you mention that you “bought into the show on its sci-fi premise,” and that’s one aspect in which we differed. I distinctly recall that, in the first season, I was enjoying the mysteries of the show because I wasn’t sure if they were going to be supernatural/mysticism or sci-fi. I loved that balancing act. So I never thought of the show as a sci-fi show from the get-go. I thought of it as a show full of mysteries that was balancing on its edge. It could have tipped either way for me, and I think you’re astute in noticing that it went with the spiritual.

    I think you could also argue that the energy STILL remains in that state of balance BECAUSE it remains ultimately unanswered (maybe its not EM but something else explained by science?), but since the finale definitely played heavily on the spiritual aspects, I think I’ve got to agree.

    I liked the finale quite a bit for the reasons you mentioned above. I didn’t care if it went sci-fi or supernatural — I just wanted to know why the characters were there and how it changed them all. And I got that. Thus, the story had a satisfying conclusion. :)

    • RyanNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

      I remember distinctly thinking the show was gonna lean towards sci-fi based on the sound effects of the smoke monster. Why would something mystical sound like it was on a metallic track? It was such a minor thing to latch onto but I remember it quite distinctly.

  4. jyeakelNo Gravatar 26 May, 2010 at 6:47 pm #

    I was really excited about the sequence of numbers: 4 8 15 16 23 42; I had some fun playing around with them- trying to see if I could come up with something interesting to no avail. I was really looking forward to an explanation rooted in something solid. Oh well. 55E78008

    • XerophytesNo Gravatar 1 December, 2010 at 4:25 am #

      Watch the episode 6955 kHz. Fringe might have provided answer to Lost’s big mystery numbers.

  5. CaveDwellerNo Gravatar 27 May, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Well put, my friend. Nice assessments all around. We can continue our LOST conversation over beers at our next interlude.

    • RyanNo Gravatar 27 May, 2010 at 11:39 am #

      You were my inspiration. I was gonna write about something completely different than thought I owed you a better assessment now that I’d had time to think. Did you look at the report card?

  6. PatrickNo Gravatar 28 May, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    I liked this better than the report card. Good take on a lot of things.

  7. XerophytesNo Gravatar 1 December, 2010 at 4:24 am #

    Lost is not a sci-fi show. It’s more of spiritualism.

    They put in elements of sci-fi-ish (aka Dharma) and mythology as a backdrop for character development, which sadly, I think people misunderstood. I tend to think that Lost never use one explanation to the story; every character offers different perspective, whether it be spiritual or scientific. Also, isn’t one of the themes of the show is science vs (or and?) faith?

    Another point is that I don’t think the writers of Lost have the answer for their mythology. They put up a lot of mysteries to the point that they fail to provide answers to those questions. And therefore, their escape is to leave it open – let people talk about it for years. Besides, a lot of people hate it when they put scientific facts on their “fantasy” show. Was that Star… Wars?

    I’m confident though with Fringe – the show is more of sci-fi based. Some of the sci-fi explanation may be hoakey, but definitely, they provide answers to sci-fi questions. I love how the show is going and it is something I would highly recommend to all sci-fi geeks.

    • RyanNo Gravatar 5 December, 2010 at 10:13 am #

      I don’t like Fringe. Couldn’t get through season 1. I could, and maybe should, write a whole post on what didn’t work for me in season 1 and forced me to drop it.

      • XerophytesNo Gravatar 8 December, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

        Bring it on!

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