ABC, Thursday, 8PM
Written by Robert J. Sawyer
Directed by Leslie Libman
The forces of the Universe may be pushing us towards the futures we’ve seen. —Lloyd Simcoe
When this series came back from its months-long hiatus, it looked as if the producers were trying to retcon a big chunk of it. Secondary characters like Janis and Simon suddenly achieved new importance, the Mark-and-Olivia soap opera was toned down, and there was more emphasis on the mystery and less on the psychodrama. I had hoped for more emphasis on the science, and in this respect I was satisfied with this episode. Writer Robert J. Sawyer—who not only wrote this episode but wrote the book on which the series is based—is a Hugo and Nebula award winning writer whose science is impeccable, whose work has earned him the respect of readers and scientists worldwide. The book, Flashforward, is a memorable read. I just wish someone had made a TV series out of it.
This episode at last gives us the actual moment of the Flashforward. I’ve been waiting for this since the pilot. We get to see Lloyd Simcoe and Simon Campos preparing for the collider experiment, with all the lab coats, bells, and whistles we could ask for. The depiction of the interior of the collider, the particles rushing headlong to annihilation, and the moment of the blackout, with all the scientists collapsing to the floor, was exciting. This, I said to myself, is what good SF on TV looks like. In that milieu, the tension between Simon and Lloyd, Simon’s ominous phone call, and the death of a witness, were all well integrated, believable, even necessary. The pace was excellent, the tension high. Good science, good science fiction, exactly what I would have expected from Sawyer.
But when the focus turns from Simcoe to FBI Agent Mark Benford, we move into some bizarre ethical warp. During an early scene, Benford and Demetri Noh discuss the fact that they know there is going to be another Flashforward, another global blackout. Mark justifies his decision not to warn the world because “the world would become an armed camp”. He does not know this, he only believes it. Whereas everyone knows exactly what did happen during the last incident—millions died in plane crashes, auto crashes, on operating tables worldwide. But Mark is willing to privilege his speculation, his gut instinct, his prejudice, even, over the certain knowledge that he is condemning millions to death. This is moral bankruptcy on a breathtaking scale.
Most of this episode is a murder mystery: someone is killing off those whose lack of flashforwards indicated that they would die, but who have somehow survived past their death dates. Chief among these is Ceilia (Lena Georgas, Numb3rs), whose death was canceled when the man responsible for it, FBI Agent Al Gough (Lee Thompson Young, Smallville) stepped off a building to avoid causing it. His single act of selflessness gave the entire world back its free will. And simultaneously jerked the rug out from under the show, whose major philosophical underpinning is the question of free will versus predestination. Since everyone now knows that the future is not fixed, there’s not a lot of drama left in the question of whether an individual’s future is foreordained. Ceilia goes on national television to reinforce just this fact, which makes her a target of a fanatical fan of Schopenhauer, who feels she is bucking the universe.
There are no accidents any more. —Fiona Banks
Jeff Slingerland (Callum Keith Rennie, Battlestar Galactica), is a devotee of the pessimistic 19th century philosopher and stoic, Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw the universe as being essentially aimless, mindless, and devoid of rationality. As far as Schopenhauer is concerned, there is no God, and the universe is meaningless strife. Since Gough’s sacrifice proved that there is no fixed future, a fan of Schopenhaeur should welcome this revelation. Instead, Slingerland—who was supposed to die before April 29 of an aneurysm—decides that he must restore order to the universe by killing everyone who survived their date with death. Demetri figures out that his next target is Ceilia, and manages to forestall her murder by ramming Slingerland’s car with his own. Alas, the terrified Ceilia runs into the path of Fiona Banks’ (Alex Kingston, Doctor Who) car, thus replicating the very scenario Al Gough tried to prevent. Slingerland himself dies chuckling at the irony of it all.
“Science is the only legitimate way of knowing.” —Robert J. Sawyer
So what, exactly, am I to make of this? That, as Lloyd tells a television audience, the universe is being coerced back into the timeline everyone saw in the Flashforward? That free will is being negated by some nebulous “forces of the universe”? That there is some universal “plan” to which all must adhere? Such an idea implies a Planner forcing its will on the structure of the universe—is God putting everything to rights here? This would seem to be completely contrary to Sawyer’s usual rationalism. Perhaps I am misreading his works, but in both Calculating God and in an essay he wrote about the same time, Sawyer allows for the possibility of God, while holding scientific rationalism in the ascendant, rejecting mysticism. I am confused; I guess I was expecting a different take on this story than the one Sawyer gave us.
The writing and acting on this show have definitely gotten better; I’m still not sure I want to watch a story about Mark Benson’s spectacular failure to grow a soul. His wife’s behavior—hanging out with Lloyd, sharing secrets with him, letting him kiss her—show me that Olivia is fast detaching herself from him, despite her loud protests that she would never, ever do so. Simon is downright irrational—why would anyone fly from Toronto to Detroit only to spend two hours wandering around during the Flashforward, and then fly back? And his meeting with his kidnapped sister was downright silly—she had laser pointers dancing all over her face, and he didn’t have the sense to step in front of her? I was glad to see Mark acting the competent FBI agent in the rescue of Annabelle, but it only points up his lack of a spine in every other aspect of his life.
I liked this story better when it was Final Destination. And its sequel. And that one’s sequel. Sawyer gave with one hand, took away with the other. I appreciate his effort to give us the scientific thriller that was his book, but I get the feeling he was overridden on some crucial points he should not have been. I will thank him, though, for the comic relief of Gabriel and his hamburger in Olivia’s hospital.
I’m not alone in pretty much giving up hope for this show. Last night’s episode showed a 19% drop from the previous week, pulling only 4.7 million viewers for a 1.3 share. This is an all-time low for the series. By contrast, ABC’s other Thursday night shows pulled in 10 million (Grey’s Anatomy) and 8.3 million (Private Practice), so it’s hard to say it’s the network’s fault. FlashForward is headed for permanent blackout.