Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Lost Countdown: No. 4

Last one for today, and look, only three more to go! Then we can talk about something different. And less AWESOME, probably.

The quirky nature of the mystery itself:

Sci-fi TV and movies of recent years have tended to follow certain formats, with rare moments of invention that give fans of the genre hope that new possibilities are available. Yes, yes, I know, I've gone on about it before. It's one of the main reasons I started my occasional feature Sci-Fi Through Space/Time, in an attempt to find something fresh happening within the genre and then document it.

If it's on film, chances are you're more likely to find something more odd, be it Shane Carruth's Primer, or Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. On TV, sci-fi suffers by comparison. It's almost always spaceship/portal-based exploration adventure, and even though some of that can transcend the limitations of the format (BSG's ambition and topicality mark it out as one of the best, and Doctor Who's quirkiness hides the format to such an extent that it's easy to forget about it), much of the time it been done before.

Instead of sticking characters on a ship and making them meet rubber people, or badly translating modern scientific theories into layman-friendly action plots or allegories, Lost goes back twenty years into territory covered well by The X-Files, and then improves on it by avoiding that show's episodic nature. Whether it manages to create a series-long mythology that works better than that of X-Files remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful.

When I was much younger, around the end of the 70s, my grandparents bought me a weekly magazine (sorry, partwork) called The Unexplained, which ran for about 167 issues and covered the arena of the paranormal. Week after week there would be in-depth accounts of UFO and ghost sightings, poltergeist hauntings, psychic phenomena and characters like Uri Gellar and Sai Baba: stuff that was very much in the popular sphere at that time.

Even better, it would investigate things that were not as commonly discussed as UFO abductions, such as the supernatural town of Rennes-le-Chateau, or Ted Serios and his ability to put his thoughts on photographic film (see the photo above, where he is going BZZZZT at some film with much mental strain), or Hollow Earth theory. There was stuff on the weird effect of certain types of electromagnetism on humans, areas of the planet that have peculiar properties, the strange theories of Nikola Tesla, Kirlian auras, timeslips, coincidence, the Cosmic Joker... To a kid, this stuff was scary and fascinating. I couldn't get enough of it.

Cuse, Lindelof, Abrams and the writing staff of Lost remember these kooky theories, and have created a fiction set in a world where highly funded individuals of great influence have found that this fringe science actually pays dividends, and have tried to harness this power to save the world. This is sci-fi borne of the forgotten kookery of the 70s and presented in a modern form with a huge budget and even bigger ambition. I also like that whereas most episodic sci-fi has to be set on a ship or near a portal to be able to go places, this show avoids that dreary fate with flashbacks that allows the protagonists to travel within their own lives. With that internal exploration taking the place of the played out external voyage format, the show has room to look to the past (to the time when psychology and paranormal studies were most popular) for its inspiration instead of the near or far future. Retro sci-fi without the rocket packs and laser guns.

So closely does it follow the 70s template that the show is beginning to introduce more themes from that era. It was a period where people began to distrust the power and ambition of big business. Whoever is coming to the island, be they emissaries of Widmore Industries or some other group, are bound to be businessmen trying to take advantage of the island's properties. The Hanso Foundation, though more willing to experiment with odd science, seems similar to the eerie Rand Corporation, which had been busy trying to map the human mind using game theory for a decade, as seen in Adam Curtis' astonishing documentary series The Trap, in which he shows the adverse controlling effects upon the modern psyche by people like John Nash and R.D. Laing. That this show has already dabbled with experiments similar to those created by B.F. Skinner, and has featured a brainwashing device straight out of The Parallax View style (see the clip below), is apt. Lost has plundered the recent past and come back with tons of quirky, long-ignored material and a unique tone for the show. It truly is like nothing else on TV.

Of course, the future direction of the show might take it away from that 70s-era sci-fi paranoia, and perhaps towards a scenario involving either more modern scientific theories (parallel universes seem to be a possibility at the moment, or perhaps time travel), or something even more ancient (the possibility that the island is connected to Atlantis is a popular theory), only time will tell.

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