by Gary Westfahl
Now that ABC is finally bringing back its new series FlashForward (unseen since last November, it will relaunch on Thursday, March 18), a discussion of its first ten episodes might function as a helpful orientation for new and returning viewers. Such a progress report could have been completed in early December; however, I missed two of the first ten episodes when they first aired and, amidst various distractions, it took me a while to track down all the episodes, rewatch those I had seen, and belatedly watch the unseen episodes. And that observation in itself constitutes a critical commentary on the series; clearly, if I had been utterly fascinated by what I was watching, I never would have allowed myself to miss one minute of a single episode.
As to why I have not been utterly fascinated by FlashForward, in a sense it is puzzling. Certainly, I have no complaints about the overall quality of the acting, writing, and production values, and the series has some distinctive virtues. For example, the character of physicist Simon Campos (Dominic Monaghan) brilliant, arrogant, caustic, witty, and somehow charmingly childlike reminds me of actual scientists I have known much more than Hollywood's typical representatives of the profession, and amidst various plot threads all designed to tug at the heartstrings, at least one of them worked for me: the story, featured in "Believe," of physician Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton), suffering from a terminal disease, and Japanese roboticist Keiko Arahida (Yuko Takeuchi), oppressed by match-making parents and her paternalistic corporation, who discover through their FlashForwards that they are soulmates of sorts and begin searching for each other.
Still, the series finds ways to make itself irritating, one factor being the egregious cynicism that radiates from the entire project. Now, I am not naïve, and I know that every series in the history of television has been created and produced primarily as a way to make money. Yet the series that people remember, the series that people care about with examples ranging from Star Trek to Seinfeld always manage to project the impression (truthfully or not) that it wasn't all about the money, that the creators and writers went about their work because they sincerely wanted to convey something of importance to a wide audience. The creators of FlashForward, Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, have not yet been able to project such an impression. Thus, if you ask me what this series is about, there is only one answer I can give: it is about persuading me to watch the next episode.
And this is a shame, since the series did inherit a genuinely interesting idea from the Robert J. Sawyer novel which "inspired" it: how would people and their society be changed if everyone could get a brief glimpse of their probable futures, either twenty years from now (in the novel) or six months from now (in the series)? To date, except for a few portentous comments during occasional calm intervals between the pyrotechnics, the series' answers are all obvious: since the blackouts that were a byproduct of the FlashForwards caused numerous deaths and injuries, the basic phenomenon is perceived as an evil, requiring stalwart FBI agents Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), Demetri Noh (John Cho), Janis Hawk (Christine Woods), and boss Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance) to track down the perpetrators and prevent them from doing it again. As for the effects of the individual FlashForwards: people who saw pleasant futures are elated and look forward to the future; people who saw unpleasant futures are saddened and desperately want to avoid the future; and people who saw nothing at all, presumably meaning that they are destined to die within the next six months, become deeply depressed or nihilistic. It is extraordinarily difficult to interpret any of these reactions as an insightful revelation about the effects of prophetic visions.
The series is also less than adventurous in the ways that Braga and Goyer are visibly endeavoring to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their convoluted plot while never doing anything that might offend anyone testifying to their cleverness if not their integrity. It is easy to envision the story conferences that led to particular plot threads: "Okay, we need a way to work the war in Afghanistan into the story while appealing to both pro-war and anti-war viewers." "Wait, I know let's say Mark Benford's friend and fellow ex-alcoholic Aaron Stark (Bryan O'Byrne) has a beautiful daughter who became a soldier in Afghanistan, and everyone thinks she was killed, but it turns out she is really alive, only she has been on the run, hiding out because she has information about covered-up atrocities committed by members of a Blackwater-like private security unit who will kill her if they think she'll tell anybody what she knows." "Yeah, that'll work." Or consider the character of Joyce Clemente (Barbara Williams), a powerful, capable senator in line to become vice president, or even president a nod to feminists. But she's a raving bitch whom everyone despises a nod to misogynists.
In addition, anyone familiar with Sawyer's work will keep noticing how this series both keeps drawing upon, and dumbing down, material from his novel. For one thing, after killing some time and provoking some violence by foregrounding the silly theory that the FlashForwards were caused by malevolent terrorists, the series seemingly is now acknowledging that, as in the novel, they were the inadvertent effect of a physics experiment overseen by noted scientist Lloyd Simcoe (Jack Davenport) and a colleague Theo Procopides in the novel and Campos in the series. But the writers are unwilling to risk alienating an audience they clearly have little respect for by offering a detailed explanation as to what sort of experiment it was (in the novel, it was the use of a high-energy particle accelerator in an effort to detect the Higgs boson). The novel also describes a young Greek waiter and aspiring writer who is very discouraged when his FlashForward indicates that, twenty years from now, he will still be working as a waiter, proving that his dreams of authorial success are doomed to failure; the resulting depression soon drives him to commit suicide, thereby proving that the FlashForwards are not inevitable and that people's observed futures can be changed. Granted, the series' shift from FlashForwards twenty years in advance to FlashForwards six months in advance made this precise scenario unworkable, since a lack of progress toward becoming a renowned writer in six months would be of no special significance. But there was a broader problem: all people who read science fiction novels probably have at least briefly considered becoming writers themselves and hence could readily sympathize with someone in anguish over the news that their fervent desire for recognition as a talented writer would forever be unfulfilled. However, the Joe Six-Packs who are presumably this series' main target audience might struggle to understand the situation: "So he ain't going be a big-time writer? So what? Maybe he'll win the lottery." Therefore, in the series, FBI agent Al Gough (Lee Thompson Young) commits suicide and thus demonstrates the malleability of the future because, according to his FlashForward, he was destined to accidentally cause the death of a single mother with two sons. Hey, everybody can relate to that.
It is perhaps inevitable, but still disheartening, that the series further disappoints by so regularly falling back upon the tired tropes of television drama: whenever the story seems to be slowing down, mysterious assailants burst upon the scene to provoke a fierce gunfight with the heroic FBI agents, or a dying patient is miraculously saved in the operating room by the masterful efforts of surgeons Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger) and Varley. To be sure, science fiction novels may also feature such incidents, and indeed, Sawyer's Flashforward itself includes a gun battle involving Procopides and a would-be assassin. But Sawyer at least provided a novel backdrop for the action the corridors of a particle accelerator instead of the street corners, parking garages, and abandoned warehouses where Mark Benford and company keep encountering their armed assailants. Another minor annoyance is that, reflecting the fact that most people are continually pondering their FlashForwards, the series keeps repeating the same clips of those visions a defensible device, I suppose, but I am surely not the only person who has figured out that this practice is economically enabling the producers to give ABC 41-minute episodes with only, say, 40 minutes of new footage. Moreover, since seeing the same thing over and over again can get tiresome, I am surely not the only viewer who is now thinking, "if I see Simcoe looking over his shoulder while Olivia calls him 'honey' one more time, I'm going to scream!"
Still, all of these quibbles are secondary to my major issue with the series, which is that, like so many stories crafted for "mainstream" audiences, FlashForward both is, and is not, really science fiction.
Throughout the last century, one can find innumerable adventures not written by science fiction authors, or not published in science fiction venues, which feature some sort of amazing new invention, qualifying them by many definitions as science fiction. Yet the innovation is routinely presented as the work of a single, isolated scientist, who either unknowingly or deliberately causes tremendous harm to society by means of his discovery, and the happy ending is that the scientist is either killed, or volunteers to destroy all of his notes and equipment, so that the knowledge needed to create the invention is forever lost and the status quo is restored. Yet science fiction writers, who understand how science really works, recognize that advances in science are invariably produced by teams of scientists who consider themselves part of a community, that new results will always be shared with other scientists or eventually duplicated by other researchers, and that major discoveries, for better or worse, cannot and never will be erased from human consciousness. Thus, by one argument, a genuine science fiction story will involve not only significant scientific progress, but a civilization permanently altered because of that progress. Sawyer's novel moves in such a direction when the people of Earth, once they learn that their FlashForwards were caused by a physics experiment, do not respond by condemning the scientists as villains, understanding that they had no criminal intent, and after the scientists cautiously suggest that it might be interesting to repeat the experiment, everyone agrees to permit it as long as precautions are taken this time to avoid deaths or accidents during the blackout period. So, the stage is set for a depiction of a transformed future world in which all citizens periodically receive glimpses of their personal futures so as to profitably inspire them with images of their coming achievements, to allow them to take certain steps to ensure desirable futures, and to provide opportunities for them to avoid undesirable fates. Yet Sawyer is ultimately unwilling to take his story to that natural denouément: when the vast majority of people see absolutely nothing during their second blackouts, they conclude that the prophecies were a one-time anomaly, and no plans are made for another experiment. (In fact, FlashForwards did happen again, but this time on a much vaster time scale, so that only a few people destined for effective immortality were treated to cosmic visions of unimaginable human advances.)
And, if Sawyer himself cannot bring himself to imagine a society permanently changed by periodic FlashForwards, one can be sure that the producers of this television series will also do nothing of that kind. As noted, the entire phenomenon of the FlashForwards, following the pattern of "mainstream" science fiction, has been universally regarded as a malevolent interruption of society's desirable routine, to be properly investigated and remedied by law enforcement officials, and a major priority that Wedeck announces in the very first episode is to make sure that they never happen again. When Simcoe reveals in the tenth episode that his experiment probably caused the FlashForwards, he is verbally and physically attacked, condemned as a mass murderer by a rabble-rousing television commentator, and violently abducted by mysterious figures, as society displays the attitude toward pioneering scientists long observed in popular culture, dating back to the vicious mobs who traditionally went after Dr. Frankenstein in film adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel. If it indeed turns out that Simcoe's experiment was responsible for the FlashForwards (the series, in attempting to generate suspense in as many ways as possible, has not yet established this unequivocally), one can anticipate a conclusion in which either he and his colleague will be killed, purportedly taking the information needed to create FlashForwards to their graves, or they will contritely burn all their data, smash all their equipment, and promise to never do it again.
And FlashForward is visibly committed to preserving the status quo in another way. As I pointed out during a panel at the 2009 Loscon, the entire series is structured as a mystery, the genre in which a temporary disruption of standard conditions (usually, an unsolved murder) is resolved by a charismatic detective, restoring normalcy, until the detective (if the adventure proves popular) is again confronted with a temporary disruption of standard conditions, which the detective again resolves, and so on and so on as long as the author is able to write such stories and the readers are willing to buy them. The overall structure of this series is similarly clear: whenever one mystery is cleared up, another one is going to be introduced, and so on and so on until either the producers or the viewing public gets bored by it all. And this represents another departure from the typical nature of science fiction, wherein even long series, in print or on television, tend to change and progress over time instead of constantly running in place in the manner of most television series. So it is that, while I will be watching, out of morbid curiosity if nothing else, the series' final first-season episode on or around April 29, 2010 the date observed in the FlashForwards I entertain no hopes that all of the mysteries so far generated by the series will be completely resolved at that time because, as it happens, the producers have admitted from the very start that they will not. For Mark Benford's FlashForward has already shown us that on April 29, he will still be utterly baffled by everything, he will still be vainly trying to put all the pieces together, and he will still be dodging bullets from unknown enemies. The only difference is that, by that time, the whole situation will have driven him to drink. Hey, some viewers will be able to relate to that.