Does it matter that the writers and creators of Lost came up with mysteries to which they had no solutions at the time?
Does it matter that the writers and creators of Lost came up with solutions to the mysteries only after they saw that the show actually had a future and that people would, you know, really like to know what's going on?
There is a difference between mysteries that are planned ahead of time and mysteries that are unplanned. There is a difference in the solution we eventually see, there is a difference in the way the suspense of the mystery keeps building up, and there is a difference in the rewarding feeling the audience gets when each step of the puzzle is revealed.
In short: Dang it, we’ve been bamboozled. Here’s how.
The first element of a good mystery is that there has to appear an underlying logic to it. The audience doesn’t know what that logic is, but the feeling that one exists has to be clear to the audience or it simply loses interest and fails to suspend its disbelief. Last week, I mentioned the importance of this when talking about Medium. Now let’s see the slew of mysteries that got Lost’s ball rolling:
A haphazard group of people on a normal flight from Australia managed to inexplicably survive a plane crash in which half their plane was literally ripped up in mid-air. They shouldn’t have survived, and yet, here they are. Now, that could easily have been a fortunate coincidence. But maybe there was something behind it? Maybe there was a guiding hand? Maybe there was some logic behind it, a force we know nothing about that had to do with the island, the plane, the people in it or maybe even a specific person that hadn’t been born yet?
Next, there was John Locke. Of the survivors, he was certainly the most competent, with great survival skills. But then, around episode 4, we found out that this man had lost the use of his legs quite a few years ago. And yet, right after the crash, he stood up, and then began to walk. A medical miracle that cannot happen. There had to have been a reason for it, right? There has to be an underlying logic to this supernatural phenomenon. Why him? Why now? For the audience to buy into this mystery, it has to believe that there actually is a logic behind everything.
Next up, the mystery of Hurley’s numbers. Back in normalsville, Hurley won the lottery by guessing a few numbers. Once he gets the money, bad things begin to happen to him and all those dear to him. A strange feeling begins to creep in that perhaps there’s some kind of ‘curse’ behind those numbers. Now, it turns out that he hadn’t actually come up with those numbers, but got them from someone. When he checks out the origin of those numbers, it turns out that anyone’s who’s been in possession of those numbers had suffered from an awful spate of bad luck. Now Hurley is stuck on some unknown, uncharted island. And then he finds out that a certain bunker in the ground has these exact numbers etched on the outside of it...
The obvious implication is that there is a logic to this. The more certain we are that there is a logic there, the better the mystery.
So, the first steps of the mysteries of Lost are actually pretty good, but now the writers have to take the next step in the mystery. And if the puzzles aren't planned, things begin to fall apart. Rather than look at how things slip and get away from the writers, let’s take a look at puzzles that are actually constructed well and ahead of time, and compare. The ultimate puzzle-construction was in a show called Babylon 5.
Babylon 5 was a ground-breaking SF show in the nineties, created and mostly-written by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski wrote the show in the heyday of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which it was the accepted thought that everything SF had to look like Star Trek. Straczynski created a show that originally fit the Star Trek frame and slowly and diligently changed it. Babylon 5 broke many barriers and opened the door for everything that had come later, including the current version of Battlestar Galactica. Sadly, Babylon 5 is now outdated by everything it had opened the door for.
Babylon 5 was about something. Straczynski is a history buff, and so he created a show on an historic scale. The price of secrets was a motif that kept appearing in the show (“How many lives is a secret worth?”). The real-life motion of politics was the show’s blood. Babylon 5 was a station with ambassadors of all known races. And so, every little motion important to one race caused ripples in all other races. And, as in the nature of ripples, the waves came back to their source, changed. Another attempt to make the story ‘real’ was Straczynski’s attempt to show that in history, even though one story's done, the story always continued (It wasn't 'the end of history' when the Soviet Union fell). Continuing a story after it was done and starting everything anew didn’t really work in the last two seasons of the show. But it was an impressive try.
We’re going to concentrate on the first two and a half seasons of the show, which include the best-built puzzle in TV history yet. Straczynski planned the puzzle in such a way as to make almost everything you saw part of the puzzle whether you realized it or not. The fact that the puzzle was planned obviously helped the first step in a good mystery: there was a logic and a reason behind every piece of it.
But then, Straczynski made sure that when he ‘solved’ one piece of the puzzle, he actually revealed that it was all part of a bigger puzzle and that the mystery goes deeper than you think. Whenever he solved something, he actually left you with more questions than you had before. In addition, the fact that he planned everything ahead of time, allowed you to see that everything you had seen from the beginning and thought was par for the course was actually a clue and/or part of the bigger picture. That is a rewarding mystery.
Let’s take a look at two examples from Babylon 5. We’ll tackle a few steps along the way, but won’t show you the solution of the puzzle.
In the pilot, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair hunts down a rogue Minbari (the Minbari is an ancient alien race that once, in a war, almost defeated the entire human race, then, in the midst of complete victory, suddenly and mysteriously surrendered, and now the two races have a peace treaty). When the Minbari commits suicide rather than get caught, he looks at Sinclair and in an F-you fashion, says to him, “There’s a hole in your mind.”
Later it turns out that there is, indeed, an inexplicable ‘hole’ in Sinclair’s mind. He was one of the soldiers fighting the Minbari in that final battle for Earth. Somewhere along the line, he lost a few hours which he does not remember. And when he came to, the war was done. He has no recollection of that time, and thought it was his own little secret. But now, how would a rogue Minbari know about it? How many Minbaris know? Why would they know? What happened? Sinclair decides to investigate.
A few episodes later, we find out that, just as they were winning the war, the Minbari decided to take and examine a human. They took Sinclair (and later wiped his memory). But what they found during his examination caused them to stop the war. What could they possibly have found? What happened during his imprisonment? What is his importance?
We won’t go any further with this puzzle, so as not to spoil it. But you can see that each step opens more doors than it closes.
Let us look, now, at the mystery of the Vorlons. The Vorlons are an even more ancient race and are treated as gods by everyone, including the Minbari. No one has actually seen a Vorlon to best of human knowledge. They walk around with armor that hides their entire bodies, and it is rumored that people who get to see Vorlons go insane.
As the episodes go on, we learn that the Vorlons have taken an interest in human affairs, because there is a war coming for the sake of the galaxy itself, a war of good versus evil, they tell us. And they are the good, the Minbari assure us.
Then, one day, in an emergency, a Vorlon is forced to reveal himself to save one of the main soldiers in the upcoming war. The Vorlon sheds his armor, revealing the body of an angel that takes flight and saves the soldier. Finally, we know what the Vorlons look like. This is mysterious enough. But later on, we learn that where we saw a kind of human angel, other races present saw angels that fit their legends and their races. Everyone saw something else. In addition, Londo (a character who to the ‘evil’ side) saw absolutely nothing although he looked straight at it.
Are the Vorlons gods? Or are they somehow manipulating us to make us think they’re gods? Did they visit all our planets way back when so that they would be able to manipulate us? We thought we finally learned who they are, but now we’re not so sure.
Again, that isn’t even half the puzzle as far as the Vorlons go. And all the puzzles in the first two and a half years of Babylon 5 fit together like a glove.
When puzzles are planned ahead, they can be done well and become rewarding. One puzzle will lead to a bigger puzzle. When they are created by whim and are solved on the fly, then, dang it, we’re being bamboozled.