LOST is a novel by Gregory Maguire.

Published by Regan Books
Hardback--retail $26.00, ISBN 0060393823, 384 pages, October 2, 2001
Paperback--retail $14.95, ISBN 0060988649, 384 pages September 17, 2002

Gregory Maguire has managed to write another novel that is both decidedly fantastical and decidedly for adults. Like his earlier masterpieces (Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), Lost is in part inspired by a well-known fairy tale. However, unlike the earlier two books, this one bears only a slight resemblance to the story that inspired its central theme: The story of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. The book also takes inspiration from the true story of Jack the Ripper and seems to bear marks of influence from various children's stories (most notably Peter Pan).

Some spoilers below; skip summary for opinion-oriented review.

The main character, Winifred Rudge (a.k.a. Winnie), is an American author who wishes to make a name for herself writing fiction. Unfortunately, her most successful writing has been an astrology book she's published under a pen name, and though its various printings keep her cupboard full, she's struggling as an artist. She decides she needs some inspiration, and though this is portrayed innocently enough, it turns out that Winnie is actually subconsciously using her search to begin working through painful issues of her past. After being unable to find inspiration in the States, Winnie hops a plane to England, where her cousin John lives, and hopes to stay there until inspiration strikes.

Unfortunately, her cousin is not there when she arrives, though there is ample evidence that the builders he has hired have been in and out of the place, doing a lot of damage but not getting a lot done. Winnie tries to ignore the fact that her cousin has apparently abandoned her to an empty house, and gets on with her mission of writing. She struggles with several possible storylines, trying to get her character to be more real to her. Maybe Wendy Pritzke is solving a mystery; maybe she's in a love story; maybe she's investigating a ghost. Whatever the case, the increasingly mysterious absence of Winnie's cousin begins to nag at her, and so does the work of the builders. It appears that something is stopping them from doing the kitchen remodel.

Odd sounds and very odd occurrences (i.e., the newly-embedded nails actually pushing themselves out of the wall, and a slashed-cross symbol appearing everywhere) spook the builders into abandoning the remodel altogether, leaving Winnie to face whatever has apparently been disturbed and unleashed by the upheaval. In her investigation, she meets memorable neighbors, one of whom is a batty old lady who writes notes to herself everywhere and one of whom is a widow with too many children. Through befriending the widow, Winnie is introduced to a couple other strange characters: A transvestite fortune-teller and a man who finds her strangely attractive even though she lies to him and avoids him.

And speaking of avoiding, the people at her cousin John's job keep giving her the runaround about his whereabouts. She wonders if he is avoiding her or if something terrible has happened. In her search for both information about her cousin and her search for inspiration, more clues of her past come out, including her admission that she is the descendent of a man believed to be Dickens's inspiration for writing about Scrooge. Her relative was said to be possibly crazy and plagued by ghosts, and the story goes that Dickens, a lad at the time, listened to her great-great-grandfather's raving and was inspired to create the mysterious and compelling Ebenezer.

After much drama, Winnie convinces her male companion to call John's office, and they find out that he has been successfully avoiding her. (Having a man call did not ring the secretary's warning bells, to tell her to lie and say he is out of the office indefinitely.) It turns out that she has quite a history with her cousin; they are cousins through a family marriage, and she was attracted to him in the past. Though this bit of the story is told attractively in bits and pieces of Winnie's writing about Wendy, it is obvious it is her own story; she traveled to a remote location in Asia with her cousin John as her companion, ended up sleeping with him (consummating emotional attachments), and then being unable to claim the baby she was to adopt because the nanny of the several babies had died during the night, which allowed the fire to go out, and all of the infants froze to death during the night. Confronted with her emotional drama coming out in the character of Wendy Pritzke, Winnie goes a bit dotty when she is asked to put it behind her, and delves further into the mystery surrounding the possible ghost in her house.

Apparently the ghost has been let loose out of John's wall, leaving behind only a death shroud whose fibers end up being dated by an appraiser at somewhere in the middle ages. The spirit of the woman who'd been wrapped in it ended up possessing one of the cats of the batty old woman who is John's neighbor, and then possesses Mrs. Maddingly herself. The ghost is confused and speaks in a guttural medieval French, and Winnie, feeling that she's lost everything, invites the ghost to go from the crazy neighbor into herself. This is where it gets very interesting.

The ghost is a woman named Gervasa from medieval France, and Winnie finds out more about her as she becomes accustomed to having this other presence in her head. She escapes the hospital where she was being held and devotes herself to a totally different mystery: Solving an event that surrounded Gervasa's centuries-old death wish. Winnie and her mental piggy-backer travel to an ancient church to find out whether her child was condemned to Purgatory by the gospel of the time. Eventually finding that the child would have gone to Heaven with a clean soul despite their misinterpretation of a slashed-cross symbol on their grave, Gervasa has fulfilled her mission, and Winnie helps her to die properly. It's only then that Winnie begins to pick up the pieces of her own life and get over her past.

And now my review. . . .

Of Maguire's books, I enjoyed this one the least, mostly because it just took so long for the character of Winifred Rudge to become sympathetic. I enjoyed the way she played with scenes for her character, but other than that I found few compelling qualities about her until I found out why she was so sort of standoffish (i.e., painful past, unresolved relationships, et cetera). Wicked was my favorite, followed by Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, but even though this was slow to start and whatnot, it had a powerful ending and was not neatly wrapped up with a bow like most fairy tales, which lends to its realism. (Call me crazy, but I *like* dangling details and some lack of resolution.) The interaction with a very tangible ghost was something of a surprise, considering the spooky-but-not-quite-otherworldly feeling of the whole first three quarters of the book. Also, it was impressive how Maguire put this bizarre happening into the real world, complete with other (normal) people's reactions intact (for example, the appraiser's disbelief when a death shroud legitimately dates to the middle ages, and modern linguists' ability to interpret some but not all of the medieval French dialect). In any case, the book comes recommended for fans of Maguire's other work and fans of reworked, adult fairy tales and fantastical storylines with some basis in the reality we know.

The show I keep waiting for the writers to screw up...

That said, Lost is the first television show I've become intent on watching every week since Twin Peaks. It somehow masterfully manages to dance along the line of mysticism and mystery without requiring a dramatic leap into suspension of disbelief. What some consider a problem with the show, I consider to be its leading strength: Its failure to reveal the answers to exactly what is going on.

The cast consists of unlikely survivors of a plane crash. At one point we are shown survival by anyone would have been pretty much impossible, since the plane broke apart in mid-air. They are a thousand miles off-course and no one is looking for them. The first issue is survival. The next is trying to get off the island. In the midst of this is thrown the knowledge that this is no ordinary island. This is what we have for a premise. The writers could insult our intelligence by simplifying things and explaining things in a clear and easy manner, but they avoid this. Every question that is raised has more than one potential answer, and the viewer is invited to draw their own conclusions.

For those who have not watched the first season of Lost and intend to, there may be spoilers below.

Paying close attention to the characters focused on in the storyline, you come to realize that in reality none of these people really has a reason to go back to civilization and yet they are all pretty much intent on doing so. Here is one of the reasons I'm drawn to the show... There are 43 survivors and we only really meet a dozen of them in any depth. At one point one of the secondary characters rants about how no one pays any attention to them. It is a clever exchange of dialogue that answers viewers' questions about "Why isn't anyone paying attention to the rest of them?" Supporting characters complaining about not getting enough air time. And when they do, they tend to die, a clever parody of the old "throwaway characters" we all knew were fated to die on shows like Star Trek. These are my kind of writers.

What becomes obvious in the first season of Lost is that these survivors are facing essential "tests." The unresolved issues of their lives are haunting them in very vivid and real ways, and they are gaining the ability to overcome the obstacles that once stood in the way of what they desired in life.

John Locke, confined to a wheelchair, a cubicle and a low end office job dreams of a survivalist trip through the Australian Outback. He is declined the opportunity because of his handicap, despite years of training for this "mission." When the plane crashes, he is able to walk again and he is in the midst of the survivalist adventure he dreamed of. This is the most obvious "gift" quality of what sometimes seems to be a psychotic Fantasy Island. Yet these are not simply gifts or fulfilled fantasies, they are accompanied by difficult tests. Consider a heroin junkie wanting to kick the habit and being forced to quit cold turkey because of the crash. In his backstory we see that he once prayed to the Virgin Mary to give him the strength not to indulge in the first place when those around him were overtaken by it. What happens? He comes upon a crashed plane used to smuggle heroin... and there it is, stashed inside hollow Virgin Mary statues. This might become trite if it was resolved quickly, but it isn't, this will torture him for quite some time. We're left again to wonder when someone sees him with one of the statues and says, "I didn't know you were religious." He responds, "I'm not," even though we know he is, and it is left at that. What starts as a simple question of "Will he or won't he shoot up?" becomes a larger question of whether he will persevere in the battle with his inner demons.

The "failure" to quickly resolve any of the issues the characters face is a torment to viewers who are used to television being a source of instant gratification. Lost isn't about instant gratification, and it will torture you if that is what you are looking for.

Why am I waiting for the writers to screw up?

There has been a slight slippage, which I hope is only minor. The show has a habit of pounding certain elements into our heads, perhaps in the interest of viewers who haven't been paying attention from the beginning. The story of Michael, a father who gave up custody of his son too easily and regrets the decision, now has an opportunity for nothing but quality time with him. This storyline is becoming redundant, even as it relates to his son being taken away from him again. We know the deal here, and as the second season started we were shown basically the same backstory for the third time with only minimal new information, as interesting as that new information might have been. If the writers start dumbing it down, getting into needless repetition, rushing the story to satisfy impatient viewers or using cheap plot devices, they'll lose the show.

As someone who spends an awful lot of time thinking about purgatory, I've found the show to mirror in many ways my own beliefs about the nature of life and death. There are things to be resolved, tabs to be paid and blessings to be given. My conclusion about the nature of the island is that it is a kind of purgatory, whether "real" or manmade in nature. Are you willing to pay the price to achieve what you truly seek? If I were to identify with a character, I'd be Locke with hair.

The key is that any conclusion you may draw about what is happening or the nature of the island will never be proven or disproven, and this is very intentional. The show floats very cleverly in the land of "maybe" and that is what, in my opinion, makes this a great show in an age dominated by black and white answers and television shows that think we aren't bright enough to connect the dots unless they are in a straight line. How long can they balance on this high wire? Like I said, I keep waiting for them to screw up...

LOST is known for making all sorts of allusions: from Star Wars to Peter Pan to The Wizard of Oz, to obscure novels like The Third Policeman, the writers seem to enjoy referencing all sorts of literary and film culture.

This much is known. But then I thought, what if they are building upon mythic culture? Is that so absurd? Given the writers' obvious knowledge of obscure (and not so obscure) cultural references, science fiction, and children's literature, I thought that it might be worthwhile looking at the show through the lense of Indo-European mythology.

In Indo-European studies, it is believed that society can be broken down into three functions: religous, governing, and producing. In other words, priests, warriors, and farmers. How does this apply to LOST?


  • 1 FUNCTION: magical-religious
    • Locke: magical function
    • Mr. Eko: religious function
  • 2 FUNCTION: order: the king and land-goddess
    • Jack
    • Ana-Lucia
  • 3 FUNCTION: producers (Those dealing with food or fertility)
    • Hurley, Sun and Jin, Claire, etc. In most schemes, this would include most of society, and so most of the other survivors are relegated here, with a few (like those listed) given prominence in the show.

But not only do the characters fit a type of Dumezilian system common to Indo-European myth and culture, but they also evoke certain mythic archetypes within those cultures.


  • Locke: shaman-turned-magician
    Eko: the priest
    Early in the show--and thus in the culture of the Survivors--Locke acted as a shaman for the people. He understood the island, communicated with it, and would use various hallucinagenic substances in order to produce visions in others (and possibly himself). Later, with the arrival of Mr. Eko, there has been a tension: Eko is a priest, and is more interested in order (he is building a church), while Locke is more ecstatic in his practice. Locke's role has become more of the magician--one who works with or studies arcane powers (such as his fascination with the hatch and discovering its secrets)--than that of the shaman, which is a more public role.
  • Jack: king Though a doctor, and thus normally 3rd function, Jack has taken on the 2nd function of order. He organized the tribe, sought shelter for them, and has become a natural leader--a role which puts him in friction with Locke, whose emphasis on the Island and not the survivors echos the occasional tension between the 1st and 2nd functions with regard to Order vs. Chaotic, self-serving knowledge, or even may echo a tension between Odhinn (Locke) and Jack (Tyr). Secondly, Jack is also attempting to form an army to do battle with the Others, thus fulfilling the king's role as primary warrior. Finally, that his last name is Shepherd is likely not a coincidence.
  • Ana-Lucia: War Goddess Her history as an LA cop, her ruthlessness, and her guns mark her as a war goddess, a figure mostly popular with the Celts, but also found in Norse figures like Freya, or Greek figures like Athena. Her name is an unintentional echo for one of the names of the Morrigan, namely Ana, one of the triplets of Irish battle goddesses. Her black hair is also evocative of the ravens associated with the Morrigan. The war goddess was often, at least in Celtic tradition, also the goddess of sovereignty. When Jack asks Ana-Lucia about forming an army, he is enacting a process whereby she not only acts as war goddess, but also helps him secure the sovereignty of the island.
  • Sawyer: The Strife-bringer Like Loki or Bricriu, Sawyer's main motive seems to be sewing discord amongst the survivors. However, unlike Loki, there is little evidence yet that he is willing to make a deal with the Others, as Loki does with the giants. Also, his name obviously invokes that of one of American literature's best known tricksters, Tom Sawyer.
  • Sayid: the smith Though lacking a physical deformity like the typical Western IE smith (Volcan, Wayland/Volund), Sayid has other elements that link him to the Smith. First, his character is the resource for building and rebuilding machines (mostly radio transmitters, computers, etc.). Secondly, like the Norse Volund, he is capable of incredible violence when he attempts revenge (such as his torturing of Sawyer or "Henry"). Third, as an Iraqi, he has an outsider status (such as a lame man would) but is considered useful to society and thus is given an elevated position within it.
  • The Others: Demons The Others are a mirror of many adversarial and elder figures in Indo-European mythology: like the Titans, Giants, and Fomorians, the Others were there before the Survivors, and they are antagonistic to these Survivors. They dwell underground, and abduct or kill various survivors, and sometimes infiltrate the survivors as spies.
  • The Hatch: Sidhe The hatches act as an Otherworld--they are underground, have sophisticated, unknown technologies, and are home to both Survivors and Others, just as the sidhe could house both Good (Seelie) and Bad (Unseelie) fairies.
  • Walt: the Abducted Like Persephone, Mabon, Pryderi, and other abducted children of mythology, Walt was taken by the Others, who know what possible powers he has. Naturally, the Survivors want him back.

Other characters are not so easily placed, of course: Hurley is more of a comic figure; Kate has elements similar to Artemis, but not enough for a full identification; Charlie is difficult to place.

The Finale, I suppose, will enact Ragnarok, not necessarily with the death of the survivors, but with the destruction of the Island, as well as the Others. Of course, it could take a different turn, who knows?

Additions are welcome

The agency phone and say they want me to work. I want to wash my hair, they want me to leave immediately. We thrash it out for a minute, and then the dragonlady says she is sending round a scooter to pick me up. Now.

I have to settle for washing my face, instead.

I don’t know the city as yet, we have only just moved to Asia, but as the driver crosses a bridge over water I realise that I am now on the outskirts. The streets look the same: there are few distinguishing features in this modern, densely packed city.

When I finish work and leave the high-rise building, I am at a loss. It is now night time, and I have no idea where the metro is. The streets are full of fast cars, a few neon lights wink from buildings, but mostly it is dark. I try to ask some people, make train noises, but they stare at me blankly or laugh at my pidgin Chinese.

I am supposed to be meeting my boyfriend at a Temple, so we can go to a night market nearby. I wander the streets for half an hour and am nearly crying by now, lost and lonely, frightened in this strange city.

Then a man comes up. He says his english name is Tim, and he will give me a lift on his scooter. He is in his forties and has a quaint, old-fashioned quality.

He drives like a maniac, and all the way there, he sternly tells me not to speak to strange men. “Like you?” I think.

He asks me how I think he will vote in the election. He is very surprised that I guess correctly.

“How did you know?” he yells, looking back over his shoulder, as the scooter swerves and I mentally prepare to die.

When we reach the Temple safely I am weak after all the agitation. I feel a rush of affection and gratitude towards Tim and give him a hug, which embarrasses him. His duty towards lost British girls fulfilled, he speeds off into the night on his scooter.

I'd like to articulate what I disliked about the TV show Lost, not to warn people who haven't seen it yet so much as to better work out which problems I want to avoid when writing my own fiction. I won't tell you if it's worth spending almost four sleepless days watching this show (not the recommended method) so much as give you my well articulated empathy if you feel this amount of your life was somewhat wasted in hindsight. This rant contains spoilers for not just Lost itself but also Douglas Adams's novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Neal Stephenson's novel Crytonomicon.

The Ending

Lost is a phenomenally addictive show. The writers shamelessly dangle endless cliffhangers and mysteries in front of the viewer, so while you're still hooked by one, two or three others pull you in further before you're finally freed from the first. Before you know it, you're fully addicted, buying whole season box sets at a time to get your fix.

The ending, however, didn't really feel like the satisfying conclusion of triumphantly making it through rehab, so much as your local dealer getting shot, leaving you aimlessly wandering the streets at night, unfulfilled and with nowhere to go for your next fix.

After my Battlestar Galactica rant, you're probably under the impression that I'm generally incapable of grasping metaphors or empathic emotional bonds, so naturally as a curmudgeonly science fan, I was put off by the religious nonsense at the end of Lost.

You may point out that I should stop punishing myself by watching shows I fundamentally don't understand the point to -- I could clearly tell full well from the pilot episode alone that this show was more than likely going to feature scientifically impossible supernatural fantasy elements -- and go back to watching the grumpy House M.D.'s emotionally oblivious logic puzzles instead.

Well, yes, I was disappointed with Lost's ending, but my main gripe wasn't what happened in the afterlife so much as what didn't happen back on the island. A lot of questions weren't answered. And no, I don't want to know every logistic detail behind every piece of fiction, and I'm not missing the point of character driven stories.

I like character driven stories. If the characters are the most important aspect of the story, moreso than the plot, then fine. I have a whole bunch of romantic comedies and about as many dramas, and I enjoy watching them.

However, I'm not convinced Lost is a character driven show. As soon as any character starts to get emotional, a few seconds later the plot is guaranteed to suddenly burst back onto the screen, barely giving her enough time to wipe away her tears before she has to perform her next Herculean task. Sure, there's childbirth and there's falling in love and there's mourning the death of loved ones, but it's always done with a cache of rifles lurking under the nearest rock, ready for use. That's not generally the sign of a character driven story.

As with so many apparent dichotomies, there's also no reason why an ending that focuses on the emotional interactions of the characters must inherently do so by neglecting any other aspect of the story.

To use a cliched analogy, Lost is like sitting down with some friends trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle together. By the end of a gruelling weekend, we've discovered that the box actually contained three or four incomplete jigsaw puzzles. Sure, we had fun together, and yeah, we bonded a little too, enjoying the time we spent getting to know each other, but at the end of the day, we felt a little cheated that we didn't also have a single big picture to admire, satisfied in the knowledge that we'd solved the puzzle.

Another problem with the ending of the show was arguably its anticlimactic feel: usually a story's ending involves wrapping up just how the protagonists are going to resolve the situation they're in. The original situation that needed resolving was simple enough: they were stuck on an island and wanted to get off it. The overall story goal was to get off the island. The problem with Lost is that they already accomplished this in roughly the middle of the series.

The climax to the entire series, in large part, is that some of the characters get off the island... again. Had they not already done so earlier, it may have been more gripping, and the decision of some of the characters to stay and protect the island's mysterious force instead would have been especially moving had they still believed they could be happy off the island and were thus sacrificing a happy life for a noble cause.

In fiction writing, being somewhere you don't want to be because you have no choice is called a crucible. It's the spaceship in Alien or the remote research station in the middle of the Antarctic in The Thing. It gives you nowhere to run. Choosing to stay there once you can leave can be a noble gesture. By contrast, leaving and then coming back again because someone talked you into it and you're no longer happy anywhere is plain indecisiveness.

Leaving the island is generally depicted as difficult, requiring both a mode of transport and just the right bearing. This helps with both the intrigue (why the bearing?) and the conflict ("I need to build a raft in order to achieve my story goal").

The climax of the whole series was largely dependent on the characters who wanted to leave again getting a plane working against all odds, only they didn't seem to need a bearing this time. In the epilogue, the island's new protectors can come and go as they please, apparently without the hassle of finding a means of transportation. Although Jacob's followers could always leave the island as they needed to, it was only because they had a submarine and a compass bearing. I guess they could have used Jacob's wheel to get spat out in Tunisia, Being John Malkovich style, but then it's never explained why the man in black couldn't do this himself, and it renders the whole escape part of the climax to the series unnecessary.

Unanswered Questions

If I could recommend one book on fiction writing, it'd be James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel. One of his many pieces of good advice is a quote from Aristotle:

The story, as an imitator of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.

In other words, be economical: if something (in this case a scene, but arguably also a character or a setting) isn't necessary to tell your story, it shouldn't be there. This is one of the main issues I have with Lost: its countless plot threads which are opened up for potential exploration, but then never explored.

For instance, Walt seems able to summon animals by thinking about them. It's a superpower that he has. However, he never gets to use this superpower to help or hinder another character. It's just used to make him seem a bit odd, then never mentioned again.

Three things have helped me learn the art of cliffhangers: Lost, the complete works of Dan Brown, and Jack M. Bickham's writer's guide Scene and Structure. From the latter:

Stories start with a character jarred out of his sense of ease by a disturbing development of some kind that represents threatening change in the status quo. That character forms an intention or long-term goal, the attainment of which will make things "right" again. The reader looks at this story goal statement and turns it into a long-term story question.

Cliffhangers, indeed stories in general, are all about asking questions and then answering them in a way that's satisfying.

A wonderful example of this which completely blew my mind when I first read it is the ending to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. A silly question is posed near the beginning of the novel, in which the protagonist can't work out how his sofa got stuck on the stairs, apparently unable to be moved in either direction.

As the story draws on, it transpires that one of the characters has a time machine. By the time you find this out, you've forgotten all about the sofa, but then at the end of the story, the real kicker that has you laughing out loud at the author's cunning is that the time machine gets used to help someone move the sofa into its now impossible position, answering this question in a very satisfying manner.

Similarly, Lost poses all kinds of questions, but many are left unanswered, or vaguely answered in several conflicting and unsatisfying ways. I'm not saying that every single detail of the logistics of the fictional world should be painstakingly pointed out, only that all the burning questions that viewers have are answered in a satisfying manner -- and the writers know full well which questions those are, because they put them in our minds to begin with.

We see a good example of how this is done correctly in the final episode: in one of the flashsideways (actually a deep flashforward into the afterlife), Hurley is reunited with Libby, the woman he was meant to go on a date with before she died. Presumably in the afterlife you're only reunited with your most recent love, as her longer dead husband is nowhere to be seen, but let's ignore that. Making a plausible afterlife would be a near impossible task, after all.

Being good writers, the people who wrote the show rephrased this as a question: will Hurley get a date? and asked it in the beginning of the episode, by showing how successful in life he generally is, then showing his mother pointing out how he doesn't have a girlfriend and setting him up on a blind date. As the audience, we become interested in the question of whether he'll get a girlfriend or not, and we're satisfied when he does, doubly so because she's not the woman he's been set up on a blind date with, so it's a little twist to the story.

On the macro scale, however, there are lots of little questions like these that have been set up but left unanswered. The problem isn't just that the viewers never find out the answer, so much as the likelihood that the writers never came up with one in the first place, even to keep to themselves.

It's like playing a game of Twenty Questions, only the person answering those questions is doing so randomly, rather than having actually thought of something specific to begin with. The inevitable result is accidental contradiction.

"LaFleur asked me where my keys were. That bastard doesn't ask any questions he doesn't know the answers to."

If only the writers followed the lead of one of their own characters.

Part of the problem is that J. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof are both big Star Wars fans, like too many of their peers. Disillusioned by prequel talk of midichlorians, they appear to have made a vow never to scientifically (or otherwise) explain any fantasy elements. That's fine. Fantasy and science fiction, despite their superficial similarities, are completely different genres, as lucidly explained in Red Letter Media's review of Star Trek (2009).

However, the original three Star Wars films only benefitted from not explaining what The Force actually was because they never set it up as a mysterious riddle that should be explained in the first place. Not explaining The Force is analogous to not explaining the weird glow that turns one person into a smoke monster yet has no apparent effect on anyone else, or how drinking wine or water can make someone immortal. These are fantasy elements that don't warrant explanation any more than the power of the ring in Lord of the Rings.

However, things like the numbers aren't presented as a fantasy element blatantly defying the known laws of the universe. They're presented as a mystery, as pieces of a larger puzzle. This is why they should have been explained.

This is again rather similar to my problem with the new Battlestar Galactica: not having a reason for something is fine if you don't set up the audience to expect there is one. The fact that the numbers used in the hatch are the same as those being broadcast by the radio tower before Rousseau changes the message warrants an explanation. If there's no reason they're the same, they shouldn't have been the same to begin with.

Yes, it's great to send a chill up the audience's spines for the sake of it. As a writer, that's a big part of your job. Just don't do so at the cost of your story no longer making any sense.

In short, when you present clues to a mystery to the viewers, they're trusting you to have a satisfying answer to that mystery. Not having such an answer prepared is a betrayal of that trust.

Conflicting Answers

Just as bad as the unanswered questions are the questions that were answered multiple times in contradictory ways.

One of the animals Walt may have summoned by thinking about it was a polar bear. After reading a comic book Hurley brought with him that depicted a polar bear, an actual polar bear appeared on the island. This power of Walt's explains where the polar bear came from adequately for the purposes of fantasy, if not science fiction.

Except there's another, slightly more sensible, explanation: the scientists kept polar bears in cages, which only occasionally went missing and only once accidentally ended up in ancient Tunisia.

Note that the writers had a clear, single answer as to why there was a Spanish language comic book on the island: Hurley brought it with him. When it came to explaining something that was actually important, however, such as why there was a polar bear on a tropical island, they seemed to get scared of backing themselves into a corner and came up with two contradictory explanations.

Another question that demanded a single, logical answer was the reason the protagonists had to enter some numbers into a computer in the hatch, and as it was those particular dreaded numbers, what they could possibly have to do with Hurley's bad luck or the lottery.

One answer was that it was a curiously manual relief valve, and that when Desmond once failed to enter the numbers on time, the result was the plane crash that brought the protagonists to the island in the first place. This somewhat makes sense, provided you don't know how magnets work, but then it was revealed that Jacob summoned everyone personally, so Desmond wasn't the cause of that after all.

The other reason given for entering the number in the hatch is that it's a social experiment, which is even more bizarre considering that social experiments generally don't involve people actually getting hurt if they act a certain way, and even if they did, it would defy the point if they didn't know in advance what would happen, giving the threat an opportunity to affect their actions. Either way, neither of these explanations explains the presence of the mysterious numbers in particular when a simple button would have sufficed.

As far as the numbers themselves go, an official alternate reality game apparently reveals that they're related to a Drake equation style hazy yet mathematical looking prediction of how long the human race will last, whereas towards the end of the show they're revealed to be Jacob's arbitrary numbers ascribed to the protagonists. It's hard to imagine that these are all coincidences, and equally hard to imagine that they're connected somehow.

A good piece of fiction won't have coincidences, of course. It will gel together like a schizophrenic person's paranoid delusions, every new piece of information neatly slotting into place in the giant jigsaw puzzle of the show. This complete picture is what Lost ultimately ended up missing.

Any one of these explanations might have been OK on their own, but the offering of several contradictory explanations shows a shocking lack of concern for cause and effect. One of the main points of storytelling is to craft a narrative that makes more sense than the viewers' own lives, at least by the time it's finished, in order to satisfy our desire to recognise patterns. After all, the aforementioned schizophrenia involves recognising patterns where they don't exist. It's the job of fiction to make them exist.

In real life, things might not appear to make sense because you don't have all the information, but on this show, they don't make sense because the writers have several contradictory explanations for so many things.

This kind of writing would have been acceptable back when people were originally conjuring up myths involving smoke monsters, but in this enlightened era, Hollywood has generally had to raise the bar a lot higher than the uneducated mythology of eras past ever reached. Lost's writers really should have kept up with this trend.

Unnecessary Time Travel

At this point I'd like to talk about what I actually liked about the show. Aside from its impressive use of seemingly endless cliffhangers, I also liked how the show starts in the midst of the action, following the point of view of characters who have no idea what's going on, blissfully unaware of the warzone they've accidentally stumbled across, and equally unaware that their destiny will lead them to play an important part in this war. It worked in Hidden Fortress and the original Star Wars, and it works in Lost.

I also liked the epic timespan. In the episode Across the Sea, Jacob and the man in black's real mother and fake mother speak to each other in Latin, presumably leading to its subsequent adoption by Jacob's later followers, insinuating these twins may have been born in Roman times. Richard Alpert joins them in the second half of the eighteen hundreds, as shown in the final season's other ancient backstory episode Ab Aeterno.

A bunch of scientists find the island in the nineteen seventies, moving in to observe and exploit its unique properties for a good decade or two before being mass murdered, whereas the plane with all the main protagonists doesn't crash onto the island until two thousand and four, when we're introduced to the story, in what was at the time of airing the present day.

Alpert's immortality is subtly hinted at long before it's explicitly shown, and what first seems like a typically implausible Hollywood style death defying fall that Locke miraculously survives turns out to be the work of Jacob. Twists and turns like these are exactly the kind of fulfilling answers I was hoping for, and are shown in drips and drabs of flashbacks in a way that's very satisfying, and probably the most dramatic way they could possibly have been revealed.

Really, the only critique I could think of about this aspect of the show is that season five features time travel for no adequately explained reason, when it was completely unnecessary to do so. Maybe it's just because we were already attached to the main characters, but I think it would have been just as entertaining, and certainly more believable, to have the benefit of seeing the bigger picture of the whole story by watching several unrelated sets of characters who themselves have no idea what's going on. The conflict between the scientists and Jacob's followers in the nineteen seventies would have been gripping enough without the survivors of Oceanic flight eight fifteen turning up to say hi, just as Alpert's backstory was perfectly gripping without them.

Even if the audience couldn't bare to go a whole season without seeing the main characters, such a backstory without them could have been interlaced with the present day story throughout the other seasons instead, just as their own flashbacks were, or in their place.

I guess you could argue that each season has its own story arc and there's nothing wrong with them being somewhat independent of each other, with season five being about time travel just as season four is about Widmore's boat and its crew, but I find it jarring to watch a show that the writers have suddenly decided should be about time travel for one season but not any of the others. It's a pretty significant thing to randomly introduce, then never mention again.

Neal Stephenson's epic novel Cryptonomicon is the only other story I've read that spanned such a long timeline to tell a single story, and it managed to do it just fine without time travel, even though it too has a character who is subtly revealed to be immortal. At no point did I, as a reader, feel annoyed that I was being whisked back and forth between two different sets of characters. Both had their own stories to tell, and as long as each one's interesting enough, I'm happy to switch back and forth between multiple groups of characters as writers deem fit.


So in conclusion, Lost was still enjoyable to watch for the most part. I just feel kind of betrayed that the whole time it was stringing me along with the subtle promise that eventually everything would make sense, then it left without ever fulfilling that promise. I guess the show's writers were going for the long con.

I suspect that a lot of these problems stem from the fact that Lost is a TV show rather than a novel, and hence the writers have to put up with changes in the lengths of seasons due to writer's strikes, not to mention actors leaving and coming back, and most debilitating of all, not being able to go back and rewrite what's already aired. Anyone looking to write a series of novels who manages to rewrite them retroactively as needed before publishing a single one would have none of these problems.

In short, the main thing I learnt from Lost is that people are still afraid of magnets.

Lost (?), a. [Prop. p. p. of OE. losien. See Lose, v. t.]


Parted with unwillingly or unintentionally; not to be found; missing; as, a lost book or sheep.


Parted with; no longer held or possessed; as, a lost limb; lost honor.


Not employed or enjoyed; thrown away; employed ineffectually; wasted; squandered; as, a lost day; a lost opportunity or benefit.


Having wandered from, or unable to find, the way; bewildered; perplexed; as, a child lost in the woods; a stranger lost in London.


Ruined or destroyed, either physically or morally; past help or hope; as, a ship lost at sea; a woman lost to virtue; a lost soul.


Hardened beyond sensibility or recovery; alienated; insensible; as, lost to shame; lost to all sense of honor.


Not perceptible to the senses; no longer visible; as, an island lost in a fog; a person lost in a crowd.


Occupied with, or under the influence of, something, so as to be insensible of external things; as, to be lost in thought.

Lost motion Mach., the difference between the motion of a driver and that of a follower, due to the yielding of parts or looseness of joints.


© Webster 1913.

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