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Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Glimpse of the Future: A First Look at FlashForward

by Gary Westfahl

If nothing else, watching "No More Good Days," the first episode of the new ABC television series FlashForward, suggests why many people who are devoted to science fiction literature and film pay little attention to science fiction television; for even more so than films, television regularly displays a visceral aversion to all aspects of the genre that make it uniquely interesting.

Series creators and producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer did begin promisingly by purchasing the rights to a novel by a noteworthy science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward (1999); however, when the new paperback edition of the book says only that it was the "Inspiration for the Hit ABC TV series," one realizes immediately that the series will not be a faithful adaptation. True, the series employs the basic premise of the novel: everyone on Earth blacks out for about two minutes and has visions of their futures. And the experiences of certain characters in the novel are replicated: a woman sees herself with a man other than her current partner; a widely separated man and woman have the same vision of the two of them together; and one man sees nothing at all, leading to the grim conclusion that he must be dead in the future.

However, science fiction stories often focus on the drama of investigating mysterious phenomena in the universe, and accordingly employ scientists as protagonists — in the case of Flashforward (the book), physicist Lloyd Simcoe, colleague Theo Procopides, and Simcoe's fiancée, engineer Michiko Kumora, who work at CERN's Large Hadron Collider and immediately deduce that its high-energy experiment aimed at detecting the Higgs boson somehow must have caused the blackouts and the visions. But one can readily imagine television executives blanching at such a scenario: "A hit television series about scientists? Who live in Switzerland? Give me a break!" Instead, Brannon and Goyer prudently replaced Simcoe, Procopides, and Kumora with two FBI agents based in Los Angeles, Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) and Demitri Noh (John Cho), who are assigned to investigate the FlashForward, and Benford's wife Olivia (Sonya Wagner), a beautiful surgeon who works at a local hospital. Thus, if the obvious resonances with Lost were not sufficiently persuasive, producers could endeavor to sell the series by exclaiming, "It's 24 Meets Grey's Anatomy!" And focusing a series on the conflict between humans and a cosmos reluctant to yield its secrets would never do; instead, the conflict must be between good guys and bad guys. Hence, while in the novel all video and audio records of what occurred during the blackouts are blank, the series allows one character to survey all such records and find a video of a single man walking around a baseball stadium during the blackout — a man immediately labeled "Suspect Zero" who creates the exciting possibility that the FlashForward was all some sort of strange terrorist plot. (Did I mention 24?) And don't hold your breath waiting for any intriguing scientific ideas regarding what might have caused the phenomenon; for while this episode does briefly mention NASA investigating "solar flares" and other possible factors, the scientific explanation most emphatically presented in the episode is that it was all the work of God.

One might also wonder why the visions in the novel, which were of life twenty or so years in the future, were replaced in the series by visions of life only six months in the future. Well, for one thing, the change lays the groundwork for a thrilling first-season finale in which characters advance to the moment of their visions and finally discover if they were accurate or not (and, if the series is renewed, to presumably experience, as in the novel, some sort of second FlashForward). In addition, the characters in the novel reported observing some new household technologies and learning about new political developments, which might be too disconcerting for a mass audience, so having visions that are only six months ahead allowed producers to present images of a future that is identical to the present — precisely the sort of future that most people prefer to envision.

Still, like the visions experienced by these characters, a first episode of a series provides only a fleeting glimpse into its future; no one watching "The Man Trap," the first aired episode of Star Trek, could have predicted that the series would become an enduring monument in popular culture, and there are reasons to hope that FlashForward might eventually offer viewers some "good days" — or at least, some better days than this one. David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga have track records in writing and producing science fiction film and television which suggest that they are capable of rewarding work in the genre, and the first episode includes characters seen only briefly who will be more fully developed in later episodes and may take the series in more interesting directions than ongoing efforts to track down the evil terrorists who might be responsible for the FlashForward. Suffice it to say that I'm willing to give this series a second look, which is more than I would say about most of the television series I've encountered in recent years.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

"No More Good Days." FlashForward. New York: ABC-TV, September 24, 2009.

Series created and produced by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, "inspired" by the novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

Episode directed by David S. Goyer

Episode written by David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga

Series starring Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Sonya Wagner, Zachary Kingston, Jack Davenport, Dominic Monaghan, Peyton List, Brian O'Byrne, Christine Woods, Courtney B. Vance, and Bryce Robinson

Official Website: - FlashForward



OpenID drakkenfyre said...

Walger, not Wagner, BTW.

It sounds like you aren't a fan of TV in general, but the medium does have its charms (which is why I love it). At the same time, it has its limitations.

For example, a six-months-away vision of the future wouldn't have people looking older and requiring extensive make-up.

I, for one, can't wait until next week.

September 26, 2009 1:39 PM  
Blogger Roger D Paterson MD said...

I found it of interest to my science-fiction mind. But I was disappointed it only set the scene for what's coming...a great visually entertaining (hopefully) examination of the huge CERN project in Switzerland...the LHC.
Roger Dee

September 26, 2009 3:18 PM  
Blogger William T Sherman said...

I got a bad feeling about this show during the first five minutes when they introduced a terrorist set on detonating a dirty bomb in LA. Of course the character wasn't some Islamic fundamentalist from the Middle East but a pretty blond with big boobs right out of Charlie's Angels.

Ya right.

October 1, 2009 6:27 PM  

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