“On the charge of ruining a really cool show, how do you plead?”
(Guest post by . . .
Greg Forster for the defense, your honor.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, last week District Attorney Greene read you a very serious and sobering indictment. There is no denying that the charges, if proved, would justify a severe sentence against my client, the television program Lost. But during the forthcoming trial I intend to show you that the prosecutor cannot prove his charges.
The charge, in a nutshell, is this: that with the resurrection of John Locke, my client has 1) irreversably committed itself to containing “fantasy” elements as well as “sci-fi” elements, and 2) that this means the rules of the story’s narrative world are not stable but subject to arbitrary interference, which ruins the drama.
Ladies and gentlemen, there can be no denying the first element of the prosecutor’s theory of the crime. With Locke’s resurrection, my client is irreversably committed to having one foot in the fantasy genre as well as one foot in the sci-fi genre. The possibility that the show might end up with both feet on the sci-fi side of the divide is effectively foreclosed.
And it is also true that stable narrative rules are indispensable to good drama. Drama depends on moral agency, moral agency depends on choice, choice depends on actions having consequences, and actions having consequences depends on events obeying stable rules. In a universe where events were arbitrary, I couldn’t possibly make choices – I would have no way to connect my actions to any consequences. For all intents and purposes, there would be no alternatives to choose from.
But ladies and gentlemen, the prosecutor is wrong – “just plain wrong,” as he himself might put it – to assert that fantasy fiction, which is defined in the relevant statute as fiction containing supernatural elements, must necessarily have narrative rules that are unstable or subject to arbitrary interference.
Not only is this not true, ladies and gentlemen, I submit for your consideration that sci-fi fiction has historically been more guilty than fantasy fiction of presenting us with narrative worlds that have unstable or arbitrarily broken rules. Thus, I submit that when my client, having placed one foot firmly in the sci-fi camp, proceeds to place the other foot firmly in the fantasy camp, it increases rather than decreases the probability that we will ultimately get a narrative universe with stable rules.
No doubt there is much fantasy fiction that lacks stable narrative rules. You will all be familiar with the Harry Potter series, for instance.
But is there not also much fantasy fiction with admirably stable narrative rules? Whatever you may think of the Lord of the Rings, nobody accuses it of taking place in an insufficiently structured narrative universe.
As you will see when we introduce LOTR into evidence during the forthcoming trial, the text of the books is quite clear that Gandalf was not simply in a coma on the mountaintop, but died there, and “returned from death.” Did this leave anyone with the feeling that henceforward anything was possible and there were no rules in the LOTR universe? Was it not just the opposite, ladies and gentlemen – that the resurrection of Gandalf was the highest and most sublime manifestation of the story’s underlying narrative unity? It would be one thing if anyone, under any circumstances, could come back from the dead. But Gandalf’s return from the dead was not like that. It was a unique event, one that could only have happened to that particular character – and for a reason that was not arbitrary, but was clearly an integral part of the narrative universe. And his death and resurrection were connected to a series of consequences – connections which again were an organic part of the narrative.
One may summarzie the case by saying that Gandalf would not be Gandalf if he did not come back from the dead. The perfectly stable and uninterrupted narrative rules of the Tolkien universe demand that Gandalf come back from the dead.
Again, ladies and gentlemen, you may like the LOTR story or hate it. But will anyone really say that J.R.R. Tolkien was insufficiently concerned with the stability of his narrative universe?
One could cite other examples besides LOTR – the fantastic element in Star Wars comes to mind – but this is going to be a long trial with a full-dress media frenzy accompaniment, and I don’t want to make it any longer.
The question is not whether LOTR or Star Wars, or fantasy in general, is good fiction or bad. The question is whether the presence of supernatural powers, including resurrection, implies narrative rules that are unstable or subject to arbitrary interference. It does not.
The reason is simple: supernatural powers, even including power over death itself, may transcend the stable orderliness of nature, but that does not mean they transcend all orderliness. There can be a supernatural order that stands above the natural order. This supernatural order may take many forms, and need not imply anything religious. The only point is that supernature can be just as orderly as nature.
On the other hand, ladies and gentlemen, what has been more common than sci-fi fiction that lacks stable narrative rules? The arbitrariness of the rules of the Star Trek universe has been a running joke for decades. The defense will introduce into evidence several examples of people mocking Star Trek for the cavalier manner in which it disregards its own narrative rules.
For the purposes of narrative, ladies and gentlemen, there is no functional difference between highly advanced technology and supernatural powers. What are “dilithium crystals” if not the Star Trek equivalent of magic? Sci-fi and fantasy are both defined as genres by their reliance on powers – which is another way of saying “technologies” – that are inexplicable. The only thing that separates the two genres is why the powers are held to be inexplicable.
And surely, ladies and gentlemen, that distinction has no relevance for the charge that has been brought against my client. Both sci-fi and fantasy involve inexplicable powers that “do the impossible” from our perspective. Why should one method of doing the impossible still allow for a stable narrative, but not the other?
Here’s another way to put that point. Before Locke’s resurrection, the prosecutor did not bring charges in spite of all sorts of “magic” events that took place in my client. If the prosecutor thought that Locke’s getting up out of a wheelchair was at least potentially reconcilable with a stable narrative universe, why does he not think the same about Locke’s resurrection?
Even now, what is it that the prosecutor wants to see in lieu of resurrections? Time travel. Time travel, ladies and gentlemen! Apparently the prosecution thinks you can travel through time and still be subject to some sort of orderly rules. Well, why can’t resurrection be subject to some sort of orderly rules? Of course, any set of orderly rules governing resurrection would have to be different from the rules of nature that we now live under. But the same is true of time travel!
I would like you to ask yourselves a question during this trial, ladies and gentlemen: Has the prosecutor introduced any actual evidence of narrative arbitrariness on the part of my client? Does my client actually exhibit the breakdown of narrative structure that the prosecution attributes to it?
Surely not. The resurrection of John Locke fits the established narrative seamlessly and perfectly. Of course Locke was resurrected when he returned to the Island. He would not be Locke – and the Island would not be the Island – if it were not so.
The prosecutor also brought a charge of promise-breaking, but on this charge no serious defense is needed, since the prosecutor has failed to introduce any evidence that my client’s creators promised that dead characters would never come back to life. On the evidence so far introduced in this court, they promised only that 1) the characters on the island who appear to be alive are really alive, and 2) when those characters appear to die, they really die. None of this amounts to a promise that dead characters will not be resurrected, ladies and gentlemen. So on this charge we will be submitting a motion for summary judgment.
It is also worth noting, ladies and gentlemen, that the prosecutor confuses the question of genre (sci-fi or fantasy) with the role of faith in the narrative. “Faith” is not necessarily faith in something supernatural. That word means the same thing whether we’re talking about trusting God or trusting in another person, or even a machine. Indeed, the question of whether we should (with John) have faith in the Island, or (with Jack) doubt it was the central plot device on my client long before it was clear whether the Island was supernatural. The whole issue of faith is irrelevant to the prosecutor’s charge; the issue here is whether a narrative world can simultaneously allow for supernatural powers and have stable rules. And on that point I trust you will now see my client’s innocence.
And if all that doesn’t convince you, we have one more argument to offer.
Ladies and gentlemen of the supposed “jury” . . . this is Chewbacca.
Absolutely brilliant. But perhaps I wasn’t clear with my indictment. The problem is not that Lost brought someone back from the dead, per se. The problem is that it lacks a clear set of rules to constrain the drama. As I mentioned, zombie movies have characters come back from the dead. They are just careful to articulate the rules so that their fictional universe has a structure where, as Greg puts it, actions lead to predictable consequences.
And bringing Gandalf back from the dead works in LOTR because the whole story is about death and Tolkein carefully builds the rules of death and resurrection. In the end those who have transcended death (Gandalf, the elves, Frodo, and Bilbo) have to depart for the West, which we think is something like Heaven. There is a consequence to death even if one can still live. You must leave this world and be separate from those who have not yet died.
This is not just sprung on us at the end. From the start we know that the immortal elves are departing for the West.
That’s the difference with Lost. They are just springing stuff on us that we would have no way to anticipate. Lost is more like a mystery story than sci-fi or fantasy. But it is a mystery where we have no hope of figuring out who dunnit and where the culprit is some character who was never introduced before. I’m sure Lost will explain its mysteries before the end but it will all seem post hoc.
Death in Lost is more like death in In Search of Spock. Post hoc we are learning that there is some sort of Genesis Project that brings things back to life. How unsatisfying is that?! And Greg is right that the science of sci-fi is no different from magic. The issue is whether the science or magic have rules that constrain the drama. The Genesis Project was “science” but it was outside of the rules of Star Trek because there was no hint of it prior to its being the device that entirely transformed the plot.
So, your honor, the defense has argued against the wrong indictment. Lost is not accused of having characters come back from death, nor is it accused of having fantasy rules. The charge is that it lacks rules that make the consequences of actions seem different from randomness. The fact that the producers falsely suggested that death was final is evidence of the post hoc and arbitrary nature of the plot. They also once denied that Lost would be about time travel. Even though time travel is well within sci fi and could have rules, Lost also seems post hoc and arbitrary about time travel.
I fear that the writers and producers couldn’t anticipate how the long the series would go, so they had to make some things up as they went. But even after they declared an end date for the series, they have been very bad about having post hoc, arbitrary, and inconsistent rules.
Wow, glad I closed with the Chewbacca defense. At least I know you can’t possibly come up with an effective response to that!
Too bad I couldn’t figure out how to embed it.
There’s a little button at the bottom of the video for “share.” Click that, and there’s an embed code:
Yeah, I saw that, but when I copied that code, it didn’t work.
I have to say that the Chewbacca defense is not envoked enough in the American lexicon.
I also have to say I agree that in Lost you cannot anticipate much, but I think this is a good thing. Knowing the ending makes it less fun but guessing it, is great fun.
PS, the counterpoint to the Chewbacca defense is that Chewbacca never lived on Endor, Chewbaca was actually from Kashyyyk, rendering the Chewbacca defense (another) logical fallacy (still a brilliant statement by the South Park creators).
Chewbacca did live on Endor in one of the cheesy 1980s TV specials. That’s what SP was making fun of.
I did not see that TV special…sadly.