Thursday, September 24, 2009

FlashForward Debuts: Irresistible Human Stories and Science Fiction

Before I review the first episode of FlashForward - which I thought was splendid - I should tell you, in the spirit of full disclosure, that the novel FlashForward upon which this ABC-TV series is based was written by my good friend, Robert J. Sawyer. That said, I should add that I'm especially delighted that I enjoyed the premiere of this series so much, because I would have had no choice but to be honest with you if I did not, or I might not have reviewed the series at all. And I promise to give you my candid views of every episode that I review.

The second preambling point I should make is that the series story is different in many ways from the novel, and at the same time it draws upon many of its powerful themes, but I won't spend any time here at all with comparisons pro, con, or otherwise to the novel. Instead, as I have been doing with True Blood - based also on a series of novels - I'll be reviewing the television series FlashForward totally on its own terms.

So here goes ... (as with all of my reviews, expect spoilers) ...

Everyone in the world (or, as is revealed near the end of show, everyone other than at least one) blacks out for 2 minutes and 17 seventeen seconds. But it's not really a black out, because almost everyone (again, minus at least one, and not the one indicated above), has a vision of the future six months into the future.

The first important point in the plot, confirmed in a variety of effective, emotionally compelling ways, is that the vision is proven as in some sense real, not a mass hallucination. An FBI guy in Los Angeles recalls being in a meeting with his counterpart in New Scotland Yard six months from now, and she confirms it, too, down to the detail of a bird flying into a window.

The most compelling confirmation comes from Mark Benford (well played by Joseph Fiennes), an FBI agent married to a doctor, Olivia. She's played by Sonya Walger, who is always a pleasure to see in any role on the screen, including The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Tell Me You Love Me, and, of course, as Penny in Lost. Mark's vision provides the foundation of the investigative part of this story - he sees himself in the future looking at names on a board as part of a case, and this gets the case started in our present (more on this in the next two paragraphs). Olivia's vision sees her happy and in love with another man - a vision which upsets her, to say the least, since she is very happily married to Mark, and this in effect sets her and Mark on a path of making sure the future she saw does not come into being, even if it might have benefits for other people. A part of Mark is hoping that the vision may somehow not be real - but the hope is dashed when his young daughter asks him in a quietly wrenching last scene to put on a friendship bracelet she made for him. Mark has seen this on his hand in the future.

The issue of pre-determination versus free-will is always on the table when people see the future, either by traveling to it, or somehow viewing it, in science fiction. Indeed, one of the reasons I think time travel is impossible, though I love to write and read and see it, is that I believe in free will. If you know the future, and that has any meaning, that must mean you have no free will - you cannot change what you saw or otherwise know about the future.

An appealing intellectual game for people who like time travel is a future, which hasn't happened yet, causing itself to happen by influencing the past. FlashForward has this intriguing reversal of cause and effect, in Mark's investigation in the present ignited by what he saw in the future, and that in itself makes it exceptional television.

Lost has some of this, too, and there are some similarities - for the good, I'd say - between the two series (as well as a billboard for Oceanic Airlines in an early FlashForward scene). A kangaroo running through Los Angeles, a mysterious hooded figure who did not black out (he's caught on a video taken at a stadium - I suspect he's the character played by Dominic Monaghan, by the way, but that's just a guess), and of course people who know what's going to happen (obviously just about everyone in FlashForward) all have echoes of Lost.

But FlashForward has a multiplicity of powerful stories all its own, including one character, Mark's partner Demetri (John Choe), who has no vision of the future at all. Does that mean he's bound to die? The answer will no doubt not be even close to that simple, but the tableau of conflicting interests, ranging from wanting to ensure to wanting to prevent the glimpsed future, makes for an irresistible story.

The premiere of FlashForward will be on ABC again tomorrow evening - well worth seeing if you missed or didn't TiVo or DVR it. I'll be back here next week and every week it's on - which I suspect will be years - with a review of FlashForward.

You might enjoy my in-depth interview with Robert J. Sawyer from last week.

10-min podcast review of FlashForward 1.1

another kind of time bending

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