If you get nosebleeds when you think about time travel, if you have used terms such as ‘closed time-like curves’ or ‘spacetime’ without really knowing what they mean, if you pride yourself on having read ‘A Brief History of Time’ but understood it no more than Aldo appeared to, if you think if a person that has traveled back in time ever meets himself he will explode, if you think the past can be changed, or if you have ever used the phrase, ‘the first time such-and-such happened’…this article is not for you.
Please stop reading right now, or at the very least please refrain from commenting. You will save the rest of us a lot of aggravation.
On the other hand, if you have a decent-to-advanced understanding and appreciation for the beautiful symmetry of Self-Consistent time travel fiction, then this article is for you. It is presented, not as an attempt to explain self-consistent time travel, a task I have deemed futile and utterly without reward, but instead as an exploration of the self-consistent nature of time travel as it is being used in LOST.
This article is part of a series of three articles, laid out as follows:
1. Explain how previous seasons of LOST, including the time travel adventures of Desmond Hume have been entirely self-consistent in nature.
2. Explain how the time travel presented in season 5 thus far has been self-consistent, and
3. Use the self-consistent nature of time travel, as employed in LOST to explain some of the themes of LOST, and to make some predictions regarding the possible future arc of the show.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
Let me begin by saying that I believe I can show that time travel in LOST has been entirely self-consistent throughout the run of the show. That is to say, not a single frame of the on-air content has yet violated the precepts of self-consistent time travel, which are that there is one single timeline of events, and that this timeline does not age, and can thus not be changed in any way. This has been shown on the show recently by Daniel Faraday’s wonderfully succinct quote “Whatever happened, happened.”
The application of this quote to the time traveling that is happening in Season 5 is clear and has been commented on ad-nauseum. Despite the abundance of existing commentary, I will elaborate on this aspect more in the second part of this series, but for now I will focus on applying it to the one aspect of the show that has thus far avoided Self-Consistent scrutiny, Desmond Hume.
Flashes Before Your Eyes
The first episode of LOST to tentatively dip its toe in the pool of time travel was “Flashes Before Your Eyes”. Through its conservative use of ‘consciousness travel’ it eased itself into the shallow end, testing the waters, by dressing Desmond’s time traveling as a unique flashback. It was later confirmed that Desmond had indeed quantum leapt into his younger body, retaining some of his memories of being on the Island, albeit in Sam Beckett style swiss cheese fashion. A telling point I feel it is important to mention is it also seemed he retained some vestigial memory of the events depicted in the episode as well, more on that later.
The flashback/time travel begins with Desmond in his flat with Penny, and goes from there. His meeting with Charles Widmore does not go well and he leaves defeated. In a fit of anger he takes off his tie and throws it to the ground. He meets Charlie Pace and then it rains. He gets in touch with his friend the physicist and asks him about time travel, at the same time failing to prove his point by blowing a sports prediction. Later he decides that he has been given a second chance and sets off to do things differently ‘this time.’
Note that until this point, none of the events he has experienced in this flashback have differed from his spotty recollections. He remembered painting the flat, the meeting with Charles Widmore, the tie throwing, the rain, etc. (more on Charlie soon). Nothing has changed so far, in keeping with self-consistency.
So Desmond goes to buy a ring and propose to Penny, where he meets Eloise Hawking. She tells him he cannot buy the ring and she tells him he must break up with Penny so he can go on the race around the world and get stranded on the Island and push that button. She tells him that is the only truly heroic thing he will ever do. She basically plants seeds in his mind. They don’t flower immediately, but they’re there. He buys the ring anyway and decides to marry Penny. He almost does, but after taking that famous photo, he chickens out, breaks up with Penny and throws the ring in the river.
So, basically, despite his every reason/desire to change the past and make his life better, in the end Desmond Hume utterly fails to change one single detail of his past. Every single tiny event that was portrayed in the flashback/time travel event happened just as he remembered. Whatever happened, happened.
But what about Charlie Pace. He ran into Charlie after being humiliated by Charles Widmore. Was that a change? No. Since whatever happened, happened, if he met Charlie that day, then he met Charlie that day. This is no more fantastic than Sawyer meeting Christian Shepherd in the bar or any of the other numerous LOST-crosses. If Charlie had a photographic memory, he would testify to the fact that the first time he ever laid eyes on Desmond Hume was when he was on a sidewalk covering Oasis right before it started to rain, exactly as portrayed in “Flashed Before Your Eyes”. Whatever happened, happened.
To prove it, consider the photograph of Desmond and Penny. Where and when was it taken? At the river walk right before Desmond decided not to propose. Why were they there? Desmond was going to propose. So that photo being taken was a direct result of Desmond deciding to propose. Because Desmond had that photo prior to the Fail Safe Key being turned, and because that photo was the end result of the specific sequence of events portrayed in “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, it can be deduced that that sequence was not an altered one, but the one and only, unaltered sequence. In other words, the events portrayed in “Flashes Before Your Eyes” were the one and only way that sequence of events played out, eventually leading to Desmond having that photo with him in the hatch. Otherwise, had Desmond not bought the ring and not decided to propose, he would not have been at the river walk to take the photo with Penny.
During his trip in the past, Desmond gets a lesson on time travel do’s and don’ts from the aforementioned Eloise Hawking. These lessons amount to the idea that the Universe avoids paradoxes through the use of course correction.
A quick side note if I may, you know how on LOST all the people that are “in the know” always seem so condescending to the main characters, using phrases like, “you are not capable of comprehending…”? Don’t you just wish one of these guys would just spell it out for us? Well, I am about to do just that, so be careful what you wish for…
Anyway, Eloise Hawking explained time travel via a metaphor, course correction, as illustrated by the poor guy in red shoes. She points the guy out to Desmond and then a building falls on him. In answer to Desmond’s question of why she didn’t try to save him, she says that the Universe would have found a way to kill him eventually. Being that this episode represented the first foray into the shallow end of the pool of time travel, this explanation was just meant to provide an explanation for time travel neophytes, so in a way, Eloise Hawking’s course correction speech was nothing more than a polite version of “you are not capable of comprehending.” Ben used the same approach with John Locke by using the magic box metaphor, an approach he no doubt grew to regret after Locke’s repeated inquiries of “Is this the magic box?” The Magic Box was a metaphor John! Oh, and Desmond, so is course correction.
But a metaphor for what?
I’ll get to that later.
Speaking of Charlie…
If you are still on board and accept that Desmond didn’t change anything in “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, then you may be wondering about those flashes Desmond was having on the Island after returning from his little quantum leap, the ones that helped him save Charlie’s life all those times. Surely he was changing the timeline then, right? Wrong. Did we see Charlie drown trying to save Claire? No. Did we see Charlie get struck by lightning? No. Did we see Charlie die trying to get that bird? No. Did we see Charlie get killed by one of Danielle’s traps? Well, yes, but that was just a storytelling device used to show us first hand one of Desmond’s flashes. None of Charlie’s deaths actually happened (except the last one naturally). They were merely visions in Desmond’s head. This is a subtle point I am about to make, so pay attention: Desmond never changed anything from happening, he prevented things from happening. He didn’t change anything, because Charlie never drowned, never got struck by lightning, was never beat against the rocks and was never shot in the throat. To quote Daniel, “If it didn’t happen, it can’t happen.”
It is not as if Desmond witnessed Charlie dying , jumped in his Delorean, reached 88 mph, and saved Charlie. Charlie’s deaths never occurred, because Desmond prevented them. Desmond is special and the Rules don’t apply to him in so much as due to his proximity to the fail safe event, he received flashes that warned him of possible events in the future, thus enabling him to steer events away from undesired outcomes.
Sounds a little like Course Correction doesn’t it?
Course Correction Redux
The following gets rather esoteric, so if you get lost, just skip to the next heading. I’ll sum up this section there so you won’t miss anything except the finer points.
Ok, so earlier I said that course correction was just a metaphor, but a metaphor for what?
I’m getting to that.
Before I continue, there is a key concept you need to understand. It is hard to explain, so I will just illustrate it with a story.
One day in 1977 Jack is asked to report to the Orchid. When he gets there he is greeted by Dr Chang who directs him to a room with a table and chair. On the table is a pencil and notepad. Jack takes a seat and Dr Chang asks him to think of a number between one and a billion. Jack says 2,342. Dr Chang consults his clipboard and smiles. He then tells Jack to follow him to another room where he sees and interesting little closet. Dr Chang instructs Jack to remove all metal objects from his person and to step into the closet. Jack complies and the door shuts behind him. There is a brief flash of white light and the doors open. Dr Chang asks Jack to follow him back into the room with the table with the notepad and pencil. Dr Chang then asks Jack to write on the pad the number he was told to come up with. Jack writes 2,342 on the pad. Dr Chang tears the page out and clips it into his clip board. He then dismisses Jack, who returns to the Barracks.
Nothing out of the ordinary there, from Jack’s point of view. However, the story is a little different from Dr Chang’s point of view. You see, when Jack stepped into the little closet, he was unwittingly sent ten minutes into the past. That means from Dr Chang’s perspective, Jack emerged from the little closet, followed him into the room and wrote 2,343 on the pad. Dr Chang took this sheet and clipped it into his clipboard and dismissed Jack. Several minutes later Jack walked in and Dr Chang escorted him into the little room and told him to pick a number from one to a billion. From Dr Chang’s perspective there should be a one in a billion chance that Jack would choose the number written on the paper in his clip board, but sure enough, that’s the number Jack picks.
Here is the question: Was it fate that Jack would pick 2,342? Or was it free will? The answer depends on who you ask. Dr Chang is just as right to declare that it was ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ as Jack is in declaring that it was free will. It is all a matter of perspective.
The key concept you need to take away is that inevitability, fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it and free will are on equal footing. Therefore the sequence of events that Desmond found himself playing out in the episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes” were predestined to turn out the way they did because of his free will. The inevitable outcome were a result of his free will. It is no different with Charlie. Charlie was going to disable the Looking Glass jamming equipment, that was inevitable, therefore Desmond had to be there to protect him. The visions he had that warned him of the dangers of Charlie’s premature deaths were course correction, not in the sense of steering an errant ship that has strayed from its course, but instead, they were the little nudges that are necessary to keep the ship on it’s course in the first place.
In other words, Course Correction is not a metaphor of timeline repair, it is a metaphor for timeline maintenance. The flashes were inevitability’s way of ensuring that Charlie Pace stays alive long enough to go down to the Looking Glass. They are no more special than Jack picking the number he did. It’s just a matter of perspective. To Dr Chang it may have seemed amazing that out of a billion choices, Jack should choose the number written on the paper, just as it seems amazing to Desmond, Charlie and the viewer that Desmond should receive such accurate predictions, all surrounding possible dangers to Charlie, but it is all a matter of perspective.
The Point of Desmond’s Flashes
If you skipped to this point, all I was getting at with the previous section is that The Universe wasn’t using Course Correction to try to kill Charlie, it was using Course Correction to aide Desmond in keeping Charlie alive so he could go to the Looking Glass.
The question then arises, why would the Universe want Charlie to go to the Looking Glass?
The answer involves the sequence of events triggered by Charlie’s actions in the Looking Glass, actions he was uniquely suited for. First, the obvious. He was the only musician among the survivors, and this proved crucial in deciphering the code to disable the jamming. Second, he knew Penny. When he disabled the jamming, he was there to tell Penny that Desmond was there with him.
So because of Charlie, the jamming was disabled, enabling the call to the Freighter to be made, and because of Charlie, Penny knew where to find Desmond. Further events resulting from Charlie being in the Looking Glass was Lapidus bringing a working Helicopter, Daniel, Miles and Charlotte to the Island. Keamy also came, eventually causing Ben to turn the Frozen Donkey Wheel, ultimately resulting in Sawyer, Jack, Juliet, Miles, Daniel, Kate, Sayid and Hurley being on the Island in 1977. (I skipped over a lot of details here, but fear not, I will revisit this part in the next article of this series.)
Which of course was the point all along.
The entire show began with the crash of Oceanic 815, which brought those survivors to the Island, and climaxed with the episode, “Namaste”, which finally got everyone when and where they needed to be. The board is now set for the end game.
All thanks to Desmond Hume and Charlie Pace.
The last example of Desmond’s consciousness traveling was seen in the Season 4 episode “The Constant”. Despite the trippy way the story was told, the events portrayed in this episode were pretty straight forward. It was the opposite of what happened to Desmond in “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, with past Desmond’s mind being pulled into present Desmond’s body for a few minutes at a time. Present Desmond’s mind was apparently dormant, but aware of what was happening, since at the end, he calmly transitioned and has shown no lapse in memory since. Again the episode breaks none of the precepts of Self-Consistency, as there are no examples of anything being changed. Desmond gets Penny’s phone number in the past and tells her to wait for his call on Christmas, and then eight years later makes the call, and there she is, waiting for it, entirely in keeping with the self-consistent sequence of events that were set in motion in the past.
Of course there was that one little detail of Daniel and Desmond in Oxford. When Daniel gets wind of Desmond’s issues, he tells him to look him up in Oxford. Once Desmond finds Daniel in Oxford he is to give Daniel some settings for his machine. Desmond does as he is told, and the settings turn out to be the settings necessary for Daniel’s little time machine to work. Eureka! What a handy turn of events for Daniel. There he was struggling with trying to workout the value of those settings on his own, and along comes a stranger with information from the future, and gives him the values. Now he doesn’t have to do all that pesky working-it-out-for-himself!
Or does he?
After Desmond leaves Daniel, being the smart guy that he is, must realize that the value for those settings seems to have materialized out of thin air. After all, if he were to just write those numbers in his journal, go to the Island and give them to Desmond to give to him, who figured the numbers out? While not a paradox, that is surely wrong! What to do?
Again, Daniel is a smart guy and quickly realizes all he needs to do is hunker down and get to work solving the equations that will yield the value for those settings on their own. Once he does that, he can then write the value in his journal content with the knowledge that he did indeed work out the numbers on his own after all. Again, realize that this changes nothing, and the value for the settings are not circular. They indeed have an origin, as they arise as the result of Daniel working out the equations. Just because he knows the answers ahead of time doesn’t indicate a paradox anymore than knowing the answer to any proof ahead of time does not preclude you still working it out on your own. Daniel only made use of the peculiarities of time travel to take advantage of his hard work before he did it.
That’s it for now. Congratulations if you read this entire article.
The next article in this series will focus on the physical time traveling being done in Season 5, and deal with the Compass, Locke and Richard, why Locke ‘had to’ die, Jin and Danielle, Penny’s boat, Desmond’s not so special, and more.