Sunday, October 11, 2009

Flashforward TV show, or how TV writers' reach exceeds their grasp




Ok so last month I posted about Robert J. Sawyer's 1998 novel Flashforward. Since then the tv show based on the book (loosely) with the same name has aired a couple episodes, and I finally got around to watching the first 3 on the ABC website. Since the episodes are available there, I'd recommend everyone check them out, if only so that you can follow along with what I get into here.

Now originally I intended this blog to be pretty much about books and for the most part it will continue to be, but I think this is an interesting example of what happens with creative property that starts as a science fiction novel and morphs to a tv show, and particularly how the two mediums change the nature of experiencing the story by the reader/viewer so I will spend a bit of time on it here.

Now about the TV show. As you may recall (especially if you went out and read the book after I blogged about it, right?), the premise is that all of humanity simultaneously experiences a collective future vision for a few minutes, then returns to reality to deal with it. In the 3 episodes I've seen so far, for a TV show it is pretty good. Now granted, 99% of TV programming is just utter shit, so that's not really saying much, but it is at least ok. I'll give it props for high production values and decent effects. However as I mentioned earlier it is significantly different from the book. Some of the key differences:

- In the book the future events are approximately 20 years ahead. In the TV show the glimpse of the future is only 6 months away
- The characters are completely different. The book focuses on the scientists involved at CERN that inadvertently triggered the event. The TV show invents entirely new characters that initially have no connection to the event.
- The cause of the flash-forward is different. In the book it is the accidental result of a nuclear collider test that occurs at the same time a burst of neutrinos is hitting the earth. In the TV show the nature of the event is so far unrevealed but it is strongly alluded that is was purposefully caused by intelligent agents.
- The nature of the flash-forward is also profoundly different, and I'll get into this more below.

Now I get to roll up my sleeves and begin the nit-picking, which is what I love. While there's a lot of cool aspects to the show and I'm glad that this kind of thought-provoking speculative fiction has made it to a larger audience, it has some BIG plot problems, especially when seen in context of the original material. Here is probably my biggest beef - In the book, the future seen by the present observers WAS NOT ONE IN WHICH THE FLASHFORWARD OCCURRED. That is, the future everyone saw was not necessarily one in which everyone in that future had seen the future in the past (present). Get it? That was one of the core ideas of the book, that knowing the future allowed it to be changed. However, in the TV show, many of the future scenes individuals witness directly reference the actual flash-forward of (then) six months ago. A detective sees himself working on the case of the cause of the flash-forward. A criminal sees himself being pardoned because he has helpful information about the flash-forward.

The problem with this is that it becomes recursive. One of the details in both the book and the show is that since the visions seen are part of a collective shared reality, people whose describe interactions with other people during their future scenes can be corroborated by those other people since they were ostensibly at the same place at the same time in the future. So in one instance a detective is doing just that and shows a picture to person A of person B who claimed they were with person A together in their flash-forward, and asks person A if person B (shown in the picture) was indeed with him. But wait - shouldn't person A have recognized person B from the picture during the flash-forward (it was their first meeting) since the detective revealed to him six months ago that they would meet? That is what follows from the writers' assumptions, that we now have all these characters basically traveling about Mobius strip. Any sci-fi writer worth his salt knows all the traditional time-travel logic traps and Sawyer deftly handled them in the novel, but the TV writers blunder straight in.

Another big difference, to me at least, is that in the book, any security cameras and recordings made of any type during the event show nothing but snow or garbled static. The scientists intuit that because the no-one's consciousness was in the present to observe it it exists in undefined states. Which is in line with quantum mechanics' view that a conscious observer must be present to define reality. However in the TV show the feds review security cameras that show everyone slumped over during the event. I suppose that can be justified by the revelation that there is at least one individual conscious and not under the effects of the event at the time and only one observer is required.

To me I think it shows a big difference in how the material is handled in the hands of a scientifically literate author and in the hands of TV writer hacks. To their credit I think the writers are doing probably the best job they can, but when your job has been basically writing brain-dead claptrap for the consumption of the masses and then you step up to trying to write intelligent sci-fi for TV the seams are gonna show. For the most part I enjoyed how Sawyer made scientists the principle characters of his novel and really put the science in science fiction for it. I guess the network weenies thought this would be too drab for a mass audience.

At any rate I'll be following the rest of the series and I think it will be interesting to see how it turns out, and I highly recommend ABC's website for the show, which is very well-done (Check out the Mosaic!). Oh, and while watching it I caught an ad for the upcoming remake of V which for some reason I had no inkling of! Definitely excited about that as V was a killer miniseries back in the day and people of a certain age will recall it fondly. With V and Flashforward ABC may actually be putting out better sci-fi on TV than the SciFi channel. Oh wait, that's the Syfy channel, because the slimy network execs felt they had to change the name to be more relevant. But that's for another post.

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