Monday, March 3, 2008


I'm later than usual with this recap because now and then real life can be inconsiderate of my Lost obsession. Looking around the fandom, though, I'm not surprised at the enthusiasm being expressed over this episode because The Constant was chock full of goodness for every type of Lost fan.

There was action.

There was weird science.

There was nail-biting suspense.

There was tragedy,

and comedy.

There were answers,

and there were new questions, like who are these goons?

There was Sayid doing cool Sayid stuff.

And best of all, this episode had heart... lots and lots of heart.

Life isn't easy. Half the time we have no idea what's going on. We turn to our idle pleasures, like television, to distract us and rest our minds. And what happens? Well, if you turn to Lost, sometimes you get a total mind frak.

You know, we depend on the clocks on our walls. We use them to tell us what time to get up and when to get the train and when to get to the meeting and when to go to bed and when to get up again. We rely on it to keep the continuous loop of our daily lives from unspooling. It's a constant in our lives, a reference point. But how constant is it, really? If we're going to talk about the nature of time, let's start with a word from the Time Lord himself:

"People think of time as a sort of straight line, but when you look at it from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view, it's more of a great big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey... stuff." - Dr. Who

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey...stuff. That sounds like a good description of how Desmond felt in this episode. Poor guy hopped into that helicopter expecting "Ansas!" and what did he get instead?

When Desmond's electromagnetically radiated organism met the time eating force field shield thingie that surrounds this crazy island, he literally lost himself.

With this episode, the writers dived headlong into that quagmire of paradox known as Science Fiction Time Travel. The trouble is you can't so much as dip a toe into the idea of time travel without a hitting some key issues. Will the time traveler use some version of a Time Machine? Sort of like how Bill and Ted

used a phone booth?

That's your vintage time travel there, your old school time travel, much favored by quantum teleportation fans and physics freaks the world over. Not only do you get to use cool gadgets, but you also get to wander into the infernal madness of string theory and exotic matter and closed timelike curves and dazzle everyone by your stratospheric mathspeak into forgetting that none of it makes a lick of frakking sense.

But that's far from the only option available to the time travel writer. The time trip might instead happen instantaneously. Like in a flash. Before your eyes.

But the more questions you ask, the more questions you have to ask:

-Will the body itself move through time, or only the mind?

-Will the traveller only be able to move along his own timeline or can he jump into times and places he's never been?

-Will the traveller be able to effect the time line he travels on or is he a passive bystander?

-Will the traveller move backwards in time? And if so, will he encounter the dreaded Grandfather Paradox? Which goes something like - If you drink a pot of coffee before you brew it, will you still need to pee before you get to work?

Maybe most to the point, given the title of this episode, it should be asked - Is time even a Constant? According to relativity, while the speed of light is a Constant, Time doesn't move at the same speed everywhere. So as if science fiction writers are looking for material, they can also address questions like - If a clock accelerates towards an observer, approaching the speed of light, will it ever slow to a complete stop?

If one twin travels into space faster than the speed of light, will he be younger than his brother when he returns? Actually you'll be glad to know they have the answer to this question, despite the minor glitch of its being completely impossible. After incessant calculation, the answer was determined to be:


If one clock is deeper in a gravity well than another, it will tick more slowly, so does that mean if you tied a twin to each of them the deeper one would be...uh, older?


And while we're at it, exactly how old are people born on February 29?

Come on! Can't anyone explain all this in a way we dummies can understand?

In making their choices, the writers tried to steer a steady course through the turbulence of all these possibilities. They did a mix and match Time Travel Buffet from the a la carte menu.

1. First, Desmond definitely chose the Simulflash method of time travel. No muss no fuss.

2. Second, he wisely decided to bring only his mind and spirit with him and leave his body - and haircut - well and truly stuck in time.

(My condolences to that morbid group of romantics who were lusting for Jack and Kate to discover their own rotted corpses. Ain't happening.)

3. Third, Desmond only travelled along his own timeline. There was a lot of chatter and notepassing going on between timespaces,

but nothing that changed the fact that...
4. Fourth, Desmond never technically changed any events that he experienced...including the fact that in 1996 Desmond had this ...ahem, incident...where he visited Oxford with a message from 2004 Daniel to 1996 Daniel.

5. Fifth, the writers made an honest effort to avoid Paradox by having Desmond travel, at least initially, from Past to Future. That is, until he had been in the future, and went back to the past, effectively becoming a potential grandpa killer.

The writers made a valiant effort to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of Paradox. It was a nice touch to have Daniel "forget" his meeting with Desmond from 8 years earlier. It makes sense bcause Something's Wrong with Daniel. We know that. He had a "caretaker" (thanks, ABC Pop Up Department!) and last week he couldn't remember the playing cards. So Daniel's forgetfulness was easy to explain away.

What's harder to explain is how Desmond also forgot this whole thing. He's never given us any sign before that he remembered having an extremely odd encounter with a ponytailed ubergeek and his mouse.

It seems Daniel had more than just pink light exposure in common with Eloise.

In fact, they shared the same difficulty of being bound in a chain of events that seem like that can't possibly have happened in exactly the way we're told that they happened.

Luckily, a man named Novikov has this covered.

"The Novikov self-consistency principle, also known as the Novikov self-consistency conjecture, is a principle developed by Dr. Igor Novikov in the mid-1980s to solve the problem of paradoxes in time travel. Stated simply, the Novikov consistency principle asserts that if an event exists and that would give rise to a paradox, or to any "change" to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero."

On Lost, they call it "course correction".

So here's Daniel on an island, just as Desmond told him back in 1996 that he would be.

When he flipped back through his notebook, he found the notation he made sometime in the past,

and it seems like he filled in a blank space in his memory, because now he's found his Constant,

is our Desmond! Didn't see that coming.

We had a LOT of numbers in this episode,

but whatever happened to good old 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, & 42?

We had 2.342 at 11 Hz. We had Mr. Widmore holding paddle No. 755 and bidding 380,000 on item number 2342.

We had Penny's telephone number 7946 0893 and her address at 423 Cheyne Walk.

What are all these numbers? We don't need any new numbers! We were screwed bad enough with the first batch. Don't they know Lost geeks must obsessively track down each and every one of these nuggets of wisdom? Don't you want these people to get any sleep?

Where Math has Constants, it also has Variables. As we've seen, in this episode, one of the Variables is Memory. Another Variable appeared to be the time space temper tantrum that Frank had to steer his chopper through in order to get to the freighter.

Then Daniel tried to explain why a 20 minute trip was taking so many hours, he proposed the theory that the displacement caused by the stormy celestial moat surrounding the island is not a fixed quantity. However it was established that time is coexistent on either side of this wall of electromagnetic bitchery, since Christmas Eve in London and Christmas Eve on the freighter were both in perfect sync. The existence of this moat clarified why Juliet had to be knocked out and dragged to the Island across the ocean floor in a submarine. And it introduced the concept that the Island has a unique kind of fortress wall around it, as a first (but ultimately porous) defense against invaders.

Frank held resolute to the bearing that Daniel had given him

A bearing that echoed Eko's instructions to those he left behind

John 3:05: Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.

Maybe it's a frivolous parallel, but water did seem to figure in most of the moments when Desmond did his teleportating. He went from stormy skies

to perpetually rainy Scotland

to a ship surrounded by saltwater

to manly water based camaraderie

to an overflowing lavatory sink

to...a hallway with a water pipe in it?

OK, we're reaching. Desmond isn't adventuring across water like his soulmate Ulysses. His adventure has a larger canvas. To Infinity and Beyond! His voyage is across the medium of Time itself. But Desmond is just as confused as his monomythic prototype. Just like Ulysses, Desmond has no frigging idea what's happening to him.

Yet he must use cunning navigation skills to bring the fragile shell of his consciousness safely back to home port.

James Joyce retold this ancient myth in the early 20th century, writing in the then revolutionary style of "stream of consciousness". Desmond's challenge was to keep his consciousness from streaming right out of his ears, nose and eyes.

What saved Desmond in the end was the same thing that saved Ulysses. In Homer's original myth, Penelope waits at home for her wandering husband, fending off an astonishing 108 suitors while she waits. But she never wavers. She is his Constant.

If she lived in 2004, she'd be the kind of faithful woman who never marries, who sublimates all her unspent passion on elaborate Christmas decorations

....while she waits 8 long lonely years. For the phone call Desmond asked her in 1996 to wait for on Christmas Eve 2004. That he didn't actually remember making her promise about...until he kind of hopscotched back into his memory and patched in a new memory of having told her to do it. However we do not want to nitpick here.

The point is - She remembered! She loves him! She really really loves him!

"Then husband and wife wept together, and Penelope said, ‘It was the gods did this to us, Odysseus--the gods who grudged that we should have joy of the days of our youth.’

Next they told each other of things that happened in the twenty years they were apart;

Odysseus speaking of his own toils and sorrows, and Penelope telling what she had endured at the hands of the wooers." - The Odyssey

"...and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes

and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad

and yes I said yes I will Yes" - Ulysses

Among the many pleasures of this episode was the palpable relief across the fandom at being able to watch a simple, pure, non-triangular romantic moment. See? This is what a romance looks like onscreen. It's not really that hard to write. Compared to science fiction time travel the elements are so simple.

So Desmond finds his Constant. The person that exists in both past and future, that keeps him anchored in time and stops his mind from toppling through timespace like a loose marble on a tilt o whirl, that gives him the courage to persevere on his Hero's Journey.

It might not be that every person needs a Constant. Maybe it's only people who have been subjected to emf radiation and who then come into contact with freaky time shield barriers around mystery islands who need Constants. But probably not. The power of this myth is that we all need a Constant, a person or an activity or even just an idea that means so much to us that it can keep our minds from falling through any unexpected "tear in the fabric in the space time continuum." The Constant that we need to avert this disaster is the magical healing power of Hope.

This was as close to a perfect episode of Lost as we could hope for. It was tight. It made sense within the parameters of the fantasy we've signed up for. The acting was art. There was one particular moment of perfect grace.

2004 Desmond suddenly is reunited with his own self in the instant that he hears Penny's voice. In that same instant, 1996 Desmond smiles, knowing that the message he worked so hard to carry had landed, that Penny remembered. In that one moment, both moments in time united and became the same moment, folding along the same wrinkle in time.

"Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past." -

Good advice. But probably easier said than done. Godspeed, Desmond. Something tells me you still have a really long way to go.


Anonymous said...

You've got me bordering on weepy with your idea of everyone in life needing their Constant and hope and....darn, I need somebody to wax ugly about Jack to break all this sentiment I'm having! ;)

Fabulous and entertaining and insightful and enlightening thoughts----I'm bummed about the whole time travel sci-fi deal, but if you'll keep making witty and intelligent comments about it as I know you will, I'll grin and bear it much easier. :)

~bigwig's doe

Anonymous said...

Wow. No matter what episode you manage to explain things and sum things up so eloquently. Reading your reviews are always exciting, because I know that after that it'll all make a little more sense. You're review of Eggtown was also pure genius. (Kate! get yourself together already!!)

And the Jears on the blackboard were priceless.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Daniel has Early Onset Alzheimers. Seriously, not being smug.

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