It goes without saying that pretty much every work of fiction begins with the “what if” question. “What if I knew the world was ending tomorrow?” “What if my wife was secretly plotting to kill me?” “What if this article wins me the Pulitzer?” What separates the great (or simply enjoyable) work from that which cannot be accepted is a second level of consideration: actually thinking about the “what if” and seeing if it has any real value, any weight, beyond that first fleeting thrill that comes with the High Concept. FlashForward, the ABC TV series or the 1999 novel by Robert J. Sawyer upon which it is loosely, loosely based, is a perfect example of exactly that: the cool but ultimately unsatisfying idea that really can’t stand the stress of storytelling. Because hiding behind the spotty acting and cliché characters—on screen or in print—the whole concept has a serious problem: it just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Under the “continue reading” jump, an analysis of the logic and science flaws of FlashForward.
Same Name, Different Game
A quick reading of the novel by Robert J. Sawyer (which is all it warrants) won’t provide you with any background or spoilers on the TV series. In fact, it will only confuse you even more. The two have almost nothing in common:
• Everybody on Earth in 2009 blacks out for a little over two minutes, and everyone experiences two minutes of their own lives at a fixed point in the future
• The world suffers badly during their two-minute absence
• Many characters experience nothing — a void — during the blackout, and assume they are dead
• One character learns he is murdered shortly before the future-point of the “flashforward”
• There’s a lead character named Lloyd Simcoe
…and that’s about it. That’s the entirety of the shared premise, and the heart of the High Concept that empowered it: What if everybody fell asleep at the exact same instant and saw a glimpse of their future lives? Take a look at this Time Magazine video in which Jordan discusses the science behind his premise for the book:
The differences, on the other hand, are literally too numerous to mention, but a few stand out. In the book, the moment the whole world glimpses is twenty years in the future, which makes for some interesting speculations about the financial stability of insurance companies and intellectual property (i.e., inventors developing technology they didn’t actually think of, but saw in action in 2030 and reverse-engineered. Whose idea is that, then?). In the TV series, the moment everyone glimpses is just a few weeks away—April of 2010, seen by the whole world in October of 2009. The cast of characters in the book is entirely different than the series; even the character with the same name—Lloyd Simcoe—is entirely different, right down to his job and his nationality. And where the characters, dialogue, and subplots in the TV series are horribly over-familiar to any savvy viewer of Lifetime Movies of the Week (“Why did you cheat on me?” “Why did you start drinking again?” “How can I, a single lesbian, be pregnant and happy about it?”), the book’s characters are as thin as the paper they’re printed on. They do very little except talk, offering a gaggle of thought-experiments about quantum physics, the universe, and everything, and engaging you on a personal level…not at all. However, the book and series do share one other thing: a central idea that’s so weak and illogical it can’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.
We want to be Lost
It seems pretty obvious: ABC-TV knew it was about to lose Lost, that dizzying combination of Survivor, The Prisoner, and every bad Solve-It-Yourself mystery you ever read as a preteen, and wanted to introduce a replacement before the the fans of fantasy, high romance and the Drama of Ambiguity wandered away. At first glance, FlashForward must have seemed an ideal candidate: another Mysterious Event involving a group of dramatic characters in interlocking plot lines, with just a soupçon of time travel/fantasy mixed in, swirled together with a constant stream of new characters and plot lines to keep them tuning in every week. The pilot for the series was promising, too (ScriptPhD review): some beautiful and frightening vistas of what would happen to the world if everyone blacked out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, right in the middle of a busy workday, along with flashforwards that were alternately jarring, mysterious, or even funny. And there were some very talented actors in here, notably Joseph Fiennes and John Cho.
But the real problem, the big problem, with TV show and book alike, is obvious to any thinking viewer by the end of the two-hour pilot or the thirtieth page of the 300-page novel. The premise of both asks the ‘bold’ question, can the future be changed?. And once the audience understands the context of the flashforward, the answer is Yes, it can, at least as far as this plot is concerned.
Think About It, Then Walk Away
That central question is actually answered twice in both the TV series and the book. You can uncover it yourself in just the first few minutes of the experience, or you can wait until halfway through the novel or six episodes into the series to get the confirmation. But it’s right there … and it ruins the whole experience. In the book, Sawyer dawdles all the way to page 145 of the new paperback edition before he reveals the key difficulty with the whole damn idea. An Italian physicist, trotted out on stage just to give this speech, says to our puzzled protagonist:
“Let’s take a look at your premise. Twenty-one years from now, I will have a connection between my future self and my past self. That is, my past self will see what my future self is doing. Now, my future self may not have any overt indication that the connection has begun, but that doesn’t matter; I’ll know to the second when the connection will start and end. I don’t know what your vision showed Lloyd, but mine had me in what I think was Sorrento, sitting on a balcony, overlooking the Bay of Naples. Very nice, very pleasant … but not at all what I would be doing on October 20, 2030 if I knew I was in contact with myself in the past. Rather, I’d be somewhere that was utterly free of anything that might divert my past self’s attention – an empty room, say, or simply staring at a blank wall. And at precise 19h21 Greenwich Mean Time that day, I would start reciting out loud facts I would want my past self to know. ‘On March eleven 2011, be careful crossing Via Colombo, lest you trip and break your leg.’ ‘In your time, stock of Bertelsmann is selling for forty-two euros a share, but in 2030 it will be six hundred and ninety euros a share, so buy lots now to pay for your retirement.’ ‘Here are the winners of the World Cup for every year between your time and mine.’ Like that; I would have it written out on a piece of paper and would just recite it, cramming as much useful information as possible into the one minute and forty-three second window. … The fact that no one has reported a vision of doing anything like that means that what we saw couldn’t be the actual future of the timeline we’re currently in.”
And of course … he’s absolutely right. The mere fact that we see ourselves in that future, and that our future selves are not aware of that, means this is not ‘our’ future, not the one we will actually experience. It’s either a mass hallucination of an alternative timeline – ultimately it doesn’t really matter – but one thing for sure: it’s not our future. Or we would all, indeed, be acting differently. This is what the original writer Sawyer and the TV producers should have paid attention to from the outset. This is why nothing that follows that moment has any real tension to it. All these people chasing or fleeing from their vision of the future are wasting their time. This is not their future. It couldn’t be, because they’ve seen it, remember it, and the ‘future selves’ they glimpsed don’t know that they’ve seen it.
In the book, that revelation is followed by more than 150 pages of redundant alternative explanations and dodges, including long dissertations on the “block universe” theory (there’s only one future, already written, and we simply experience it in a linear fashion) versus the Many Worlds Interpretation, or MWI, (in which there are a nearly infinite number of alternative universes, new ones created with each decision-point – essentially every split of an atom, every choice to go left instead of right).
In the TV series, the “I can see you!” question isn’t even asked, despite the fact that one major character sees himself sitting on the toilet, and another sees nothing and therefore assumes he’s dead (immediately, and almost angrily, dismissing the possibilities that he may have been asleep, unconscious, or under general anesthetic during his two-minute vision—possibilities most of us would cling to without hesitation, given the alternative). You’d think any one of these—one of the marital cheaters, terminal patients, or pregnant lesbians, many of whom are trained scientist or investigators—would at least think of this: ‘Why didn’t I warn myself?’ But…no.
At least Sawyer’s book was consistent—no one in his version of 2030 remembered the event, so the logic, though disappointing, is relentless. In the ABC adaptation, they try to have their paradoxical cake and eat it, too, which tells the astute viewer only one thing: you really haven’t thought this through, have you?
To make matters worse, the entirety of the scientific principles on which both the novel and television show are predicated have been negated by the very organization deemed responsible for the fictional flashforward. In a December 3rd episode of the drama, researchers from the fictionalized particle research facility called the National Linear Accelerator Project admit that their experiments involving “proton-driven plasma-wakefield acceleration” may have been behind the blackout and subsequent 20 million deaths. There is, however a real facility of this type right here in the United States—the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a joint venture of Stanford University and the United States Department of Energy. To allay fears unduly caused by the FlashForward premise, their Office of Communications has released a FlashForward Q&A debunking the television show’s theories. Indeed, Lawrence Berkeley Lab physicist Peter Jacobs, the real-life counterpart to Lloyd Simcoe, has released a brief video in which he dispels the novel’s sci-fi to actual scientific facts. Check it out:
Suicide is Brainless
In the book, the question of a “malleable future” is re-answered even later, when a major character’s brother whose flashforward showed him a lackluster future kills himself, therefore ‘proving’ that the observed future isn’t necessarily so. (The fact that a philosophy professor does this, off-page, in the first twenty pages is skipped over by Sawyer, because his vision wasn’t confirmed, you see, and he was just a professor of philosophy, not the brother of a quantum physicist.) In the series, a completely different character whose flashforward we have already seen (one in which he is very much alive) throws himself off a building to prove the point (and to avoid killing an innocent person sometime between now and then, apparently). At that point in either work, of course, it should have to be Game Over yet again, The question has been answered: if one of the future visions is now impossible, the none of the future visions are fixed. We’re back on our own. The wheel has been broken. Hit the showers.
But no. Every member of the FlashForward case squad continues to freak out about their own personal futures – rushing to avoid them, assure them, or accelerate them, as if they were as inevitable as before. Only now, to keep people coming back, absurd plot twists are piled one on another: worldwide conspiracies decades in the making are hinted at; Presidential hardball is played for a round or two and then scarcely mentioned again; mysterious women with Eastern European accents are tracked by rogue FBI agents to the bowels of a Hong Kong slum; characters are shot and kidnapped and disappeared with great delight and frequency, right up to the mid-season break.
Sometimes risky premises can survive or even thrive based on the powerful cast chemistry or the near-hypnotic charisma of the characters themselves. The aforementioned Lost has more than a little of that going for it; dangerously absurd premises like Dexter’s good guy/vigilante serial killer or the brilliant (and scientifically pin-point accurate!) Breaking Bad’s desperate and terminally ill high-school chemistry prof/turned meth cook/pusher are other examples that compel you to watch and keep watching, forgiving the sheer unlikelihood of the plot with every new pirouette. But FlashForward has none of that. There’s not an interesting character in sight, and the writers, who keep picking up and putting down ideas like an easily bored toddler, seem to have mistaken confusing for surprising. By the time the “surprise cliffhanger” event jumps out of nowhere (or nowhere you’d care about, anyway) at the end of the last new episode, it’s hard to really care much at all anymore.
Sawyer himself seemed to lose interest in the basic premise of his novel about two-thirds of the way in. After a failed attempt to replicate the blackout, he jumps the plot forward in time to near the flashforward date itself (twenty years downstream in his version), to resolve the milkquetoast murder mystery, and then throws in some new and completely uncalled-for psuedophysics to really explain the flashforward phenom, only to end the book with a hard left turn, suddenly introducing his own set of worldwide conspiracies, a screed on immortality, and a quick tour of the far-far future a la Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, or Stephen Baxter, never really addressing the key issues raised in the first two hundred pages of his own story.
The basic premise really couldn’t take the heat, not even in its original form, and certainly not on the tube. It’s a shame, really. This is the first time in a long time that an actual science fiction novel was used as the basis for a TV series. It would have been nice if the chosen novel was even half as promising as the literally thousands of books available, in and out of print. But what we got instead is FlashForward—a mishmash of melodrama and illogic that will eventually be as forgotten as the blackout it is based on.
Brad Munson is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, marketing coach, and advertising creative content developer. He is the author of The Mad Throne, Inside Men In Black II, and Rain. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the fantasy, sci-fi, horror website All About The Rush.com.
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