Part I of this series examined the actions of Desmond in Seasons 3 & 4 in the light of Self-Consistent Time Travel. Part II is going to break down the time flashing introduced in Season 5, and examine them in a similar light.
Whereas the writers have made it a point to explain that Desmond is ‘Special’, therefore exempting him from the Rules and possibly invalidating the entire premise of Part I of this series, they have gone out of their way to make sure that all the actions undertaken by the Flashers (a most unfortunate nickname for the ones flashing through time in Season 5) in the past meet Daniel’s succinct summation of Self-Consistency, “Whatever happened, happened”.
Before we begin, let me tell you a story.
The Essence of Self-Consistency
Once upon a time mankind decided it was high time that they got their collective butts in gear and get the whole space race thing going again. To that end a joint manned mission to the moon was carried out. The members of the mission consisted of six married couples for reasons that the terseness of this tale does not permit me to elaborate on at this time. Suffice it to say, these six married couples found themselves on the moon just as a fleet of rag tag alien outlaws pulled into orbit around Earth and proceeded to obliterate the surface, thus killing everyone unlucky enough not to be on the moon at the time. Their work complete, the fleet of rag tag alien ships left orbit and returned to the void from whence they came.
The six married couples on the moon were understandably put out buy this unfortunate turn of events. Considering the circumstances,it was decided that their mission on the moon was in rather poor taste, and so they returned to earth to repopulate the planet, a task for which they were supremely fitted, being six married couples, as mentioned earlier, though not elaborated on at the time. Several generation later the earth was once again filled with human beings, though due to the unwarranted (and unsuccessful) genocide of their ancestors, the human beings that now ruled the earth did so with cruel efficiency and a really bad attitude.
You see, the tale of what the fleet of rag tag alien ships had done had been passed down from generation to generation. As a result the human race that sprung from the six married couples was really nothing more than a bunch of bullies and thugs, intent on never being victims again. And so, when they at last spread out into the galaxy, it was with a ferocity and malevolence unprecedented in the annuls of galactic history (which had been pretty timid up to that point). Planet after planet fell under the iron heel of humanity, until they finally ran out of things to conquer, and they found themselves the Lords of the Galaxy.
Eventually a Rebellion started among the subjugated races, and a plan was formed. Humans were way too powerful to oppose as things stood now, being the Lords of the Galaxy and all, so the suggestion was made to build a time machine and travel to the past when humans were all on one planet, and destroy them before they ever got the chance to spread out. The plan was set in motion and a time machine was built. The Rebellion gathered together a fleet of rag tag alien ships and traveled to the distant past. There they went into orbit around Earth and proceeded to obliterate the surface, thus killing everyone unlucky enough not to be on the moon at the time. Their work complete, the fleet of rag tag alien ships left orbit and returned to the future where they were distressed to find that nothing had changed. Eventually the whole bunch was rounded up and found guilty of illegal time travel and executed.
This story illustrates the essence of Self-Consistency. If you followed the logic of the story, or better yet, saw the ending coming a mile away, you can safely skip the next section free from fear of missing anything important. If the concept of a Self-Consistent timeline still eludes you, please read the following section carefully and see if it doesn’t shed a little light on the subject.
The Mechanics of Self-Consistency
Figure 1. This Illustrates the Timeline as a single line, broken up into past and future by the sliver that is the present.
A common picture of time travel that most people have is that of a horizontal line, a timeline if you will. This line is made up of a sequence of moments, each encompassing everything that happens in the universe in that instant of time. A person’s life can be depicted as a line, with their birth at the start of the line, it’s length representing all the moments in that person’s life, and finally ending with their death, at the end of the line.
Figure 2. This is an animation illustrating the principle of spacetime. The center cylinder is the sun and the blue spiral is the Earth as it revolves arount the sun. The Present is that slice of spacetime that we are aware of at any given moment. If you ignored all but the slice, you can percievethe Earth revolving around the sun.
The tricky part comes when time travel occurs. A person’s line (in time travel lingo, a ‘world-line’), which would normally stretch out in a straight line from birth to death, upon time traveling can be broken up and appear on another part of the timeline.
Figure 3. This Illustration represents what Locke’s personal timeline looks like when one considers his life on and off the Island, as well as his visit with Richard in 1954. All of Locke’s other time flashes have been omited for sake of clarity.
If their actions cause a change to occur, then either the following events in the timeline are altered to fit in with the changes, or a branch is formed, consisting of the results of the change, leaving the original timeline intact.
Figure 4. Here we see a representation of the splitting of the timeline as a result of changes made by a time traveler. This model is not sponsored by Self-Consistency.
Which of these options occurs depends on who you ask, but in essence, they both account for how changes to the timeline brought about by time travelers are handled.
Where Self-Consistency differs is primarily how it perceives the timeline. In the scenario described above, it is said that the actions of a time traveler can change the timeline. But what does that mean exactly? How does one change a timeline? To fully appreciate this question, we must first know what it means to change something. The act of changing an object implies the passage of time. An object exists in one state at one particular moment of time, a point on the timeline so to speak, and then it exists in a different state at another moment, or at another point on the timeline. It changes with the passage of time.
But how can this be said of the timeline? To change the timeline, time would have to pass for the timeline itself. The timeline would have to be in one state at a given time, and then be in another state at another time. But this scenario would require that the timeline itself would have to experience the passage of time, something that is only possible for objects within the timeline itself. For this to happen, the timeline would need to exist within another meta-timeline, and this is ridiculous.
As was so eloquently pointed out by Baalzack a poster in the comment section on Part I, to say that the timeline changed, that is aged, is as meaningless as saying that the Universe moved. The Universe is a concept within which things move, it itself cannot move. Where would it move to? Likewise, the timeline is a concept within which things experience change, it itself cannot change.
So if the timeline cannot change, how do we reconcile your occational patricidal/suicidal time traveler, a time traveler that tries to go back in time in order to kill his grandfather before his grandfather can conceive his father? The easy answer is that he can’t. The concept of a paradox within the Self-Consistency model of time travel serves, not as a potential foil in a time travelstory, but as an indication that a proposal is impossible. In Self-Consistency, to say that I am going to go back in time and kill my grandfather before he conceives my father, thus preventing myself from being born to perform the act in the first place is as meaningless and futile as saying I am going to draw a square with three sides.
It is intrinsically impossible.
Not because free will is impeded in any way, but simply because the timeline is unchangeable. Whatever actions you take in the past are an eternal part of the immutable, unchangeable history that you are impotently attempting to alter.
Perhaps now you can see why the Rebel aliens in the above story were on a fool’s errand as soon as they conceived of the idea of eradicating their human oppressors in the past. Since it was impossible to change anything in the past, all of their actions in the past were already a part of the story. Does this hamper their free will? Not at all. Their intentions were to obliterate all humans on the surface of the Earth, and that is exactly what they did. Their free will triumphed, but it availed them not, since it was trumped by their poor reaserching skills.
Armed with this understanding of Self-Consistency, let us apply it to the time travel antics in Season 5.
History of the Island
Indulge me a bit as I recap Season 5, presenting it in chronological order, incorporating all the actions of the Flashers as a single, unchangeable, self-consistent whole. The following recap contains some mild speculation for the sake of filling holes due to the show having not wrapped yet. This speculation is more than likely wrong and is only included to prevent the recap from reading like Swiss cheese.
Something knocks the Frozen Donkey Wheel off it’s axis.
Locke returns the Frozen Donkey Wheel to it’s axis, the result of which is a flash that sends Locke to 2007 Tunisia and the other Flashers to 1974 on the Island.
Some time before 1954 Richard is either made aware of, or comes into possession of a compass. The details are unimportant, suffice to say there is a compass that has a significance to Richard. In 1954 Ellie captures a trio of strangers claiming to be from the US Army. They are brought to Richard who has Ellie escort one of them to Jughead, the leaky H-Bomb. While Ellie is gone, a bald man named John Locke limps into camp claiming to be sent by Jacob.
He tells Richard that he is from the future and that he is their leader. As proof that he is from the future, he gives Richard a compass. It is identical to Richard’s compass. As further proof, Locke tells Richard to look him up on his birthday, two years hence.
Meanwhile Ellie and her charge, Daniel arrive at Jughead. Upon examining the bomb Daniel declares that it must be entombed in cement and buried. He ensures that if this is done, everything will be fine, claiming that he is from 50 years in the future. He and his companions, including John Locke with Richard, then vanish.
Richard complies with Daniel’s advice and buries the bomb, entombed in cement. In 1956 Richard travels off-Island and witnesses Locke’s birth. Later he visits little John Locke in his foster home, but the youth fails the Leadership Test, disappointing Richard who leaves in a huff and returns to the Island, where he meets young Ben Linus circa 1973, whom he tells to be patient.
SPECULATION ALERT! I am taking some liberty with John’s age with this next part. I feel justified in doing this because his age was never disclosed on-air, only in the script:
In 1974 two of Richard’s people go missing and he visits Horace to find out what happened. After an agitated conversation with Horace, Richard is approached by a man that claims to know about the bomb and says that he is waiting for John Locke. This is a surprise to Richard as he had dismissed John after he failed the Leadership Test. Given this new development, Richard decides to give John another chance and invites him to the Island under the guise of a summer camp. John is a 17 year old high school senior at the time, and refuses.
END SPECULATION ALERT!
Meanwhile Ben stops being patient and in 1977, a day after Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sayid show up, Ben springs Sayid and is shot for his troubles.
Somehow Ben survives being shot and harbors quite a grudge against Sayid. The Flashers do some stuff, the Orchid is built, there is an Incident and then in 1988 a boat full of french researchers is lured to the Island by the numbers broadcast. They rescue a Korean and reach shore where the Korean man identifies himself as Jin and the pregnant girl identifies herself as Danielle Rouseau.
The Frenchies decide to track down the source of the Numbers broadcast and Jin accompanies them. Along the way they are attacked by Smoky and Montand looses his arm. His companions enter the temple to retrieve him but Jin prevents Danielle from entering. Then he vanishes. Later, Danielle decides that everyone who emerged from the Temple were infected and so she shoots them. Jin reappears in time to witness this, and escapes from Danielle’s itchy trigger finger, and reunites with the other Flashers.
Eventually Ben grows up and in 1992 kills his dad and DHARMA in the Purge, thus assuming leadership of the Hostiles.
The crash of a Nigerian drug plane is witnessed by Locke, who is shot by Ethan while investigating the crash. Locke explains to Ethan that he has been appointed as leader of the Others by Ben Linus. Ethan finds this hard to swallow, and prepares to shoot Locke before he vanishes. Ethan reports this odd encounter to Richard Alpert, who is once again reminded of the Legend of Locke.
In 2004 Oceanic Flight 815 crashes, depositing, among other, the key players in the above drama on the Island. Ethan is sent to infiltrate the fuselage survivors, and he sends back a report of the same John Locke that he had seen at the Nigerian drug plane. This john Locke didn’t recognise him, didn’t claim to be the Leader of the Others, and so far has yet to display a talent for vanishing. Richard reaches the conclusion that this is the non-time traveling Locke that he has been awaiting. Word also gets back that this John Locke is a former cripple, having been just healed by the Island. This is just too much for the Others, they simply must meet this guy. So plans are set in motion, but Ethan jumps the gun a bit and is shot, putting a wrinkle in those plans.
Every now and then Danielle runs into the 815 survivors and not once does she indicate that she recognizes Jin. What is going on in her head is never too clear, as she is not a very forthcoming person as it is.
One day Boone is crushed in the aforementioned Nigerian drug plane. That night he dies and Arron is born, an event that is witnessed by a time traveling Sawyer. About this time, the non-time-traveling Locke is busy making a fool of himself banging on the hatch of the Swan, when Desmond turns on his spotlight. An event witnessed from afar by the Flashers.
Eventually, the Others manage to woo Locke over to their side and he demands to speak to Jacob. That doesn’t go too well and Ben shoots Locke. Jack calls the Freighties, who send the Nerds and the Jocks, who blow up New Otherton, kill Alex and Danielle, and force Ben to turn the Donkey Wheel, sending the Flashers flashing through time.
The O6 live crappy off Island lives and are eventually reunited on Ajira flight 316, which crashes on the Hydra Island in 2007. John Locke is resurrected, Ben is conked on the head, Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sayid are flashed to 1977, and Sun and Frank are shown a photograph of their friends as DHARMA recruits.
Newly resurrected Locke finds his way to the big Island and finally catches back up with Richard. Richard asks Locke what happened to him when he pulled that vanishing act after returning from the Orchid. Locke tells him all about his Excellent Adventure and about leaving the Island and dying. Locke tells Richard about being shot by Ethan and being patched up by Richard. Richard doesn’t remember this happening, because it hasn’t happened yet, so he goes hang out by the Drug plane every night until one night he finds a wounded John Locke. He removes the bullet from Locke’s leg, gives him the compass, tells him that he needs to get his friends back and to do that he is going to have to die.
That is a lot to take in, and it isn’t completely exhaustive, but it serves to illustrate the point. None of the actions of the Flashers in the past changed anything, they merely played their parts in what was the history of the Island all along.
In just 10 episodes, there was a lot of time traveling going on, as the above recap demonstrates. However, just a few of them stick out as somewhat troublesome.
Daniel and Desmond
In all honesty, the writers gave themselves a back door with this one by claiming that Desmond is Special, and they are probably going to use it. I could explain how this event could fit within an entirely Self-Consistent framework, but the writers clearly intend that it does not. Besides, I have already dealt with Desmond in Part I and this article is already too long as it is.
Suffice to say it makes no sense from a purely Self-Consistent point of view, but I’m sure the writers have something up their sleeve, and it is pointless to speculate what it is at this juncture.
Jin and Danielle
Jin and Danielle on the other hand is a non-issue. The gist of the argument that this part of the story constitutes a paradox lies in Danielle attitude toward Jin in 2004. But we don’t really know if she recognized him or not.
According to Self-Consistency, Jin was ‘always’ a part of Danielle’s history on the Island, and what went through Danielle’s head upon seeing Jin is any one’s guess, but logic only allows for two options. She either recognized him, or she did not.
If she did recognize him, her reasons for not indicating this are her own, but it should be noted that she hadn’t exactly been a gushing fountain of information at that point.
If she didn’t recognize Jin, is this so unheard of? It had been 16 years since she last saw him. Her memory of his face could be fuzzy, and it wouldn’t exactly be likely that she would associate this newly arrived Korean with the same Korean she met when she first arrived on the island, no matter how similar they looked.
Personally, I think she did recognize him, but didn’t say anything for fear of being labeled a racist who thinks that all Koreans look alike.
It is a shame that there is so much ambiguity regarding Danielle’s reaction to 2004 Jin, because if she had only showed clear signs of recognising him during the first four seasons of Lost, no one would have a problem with this little bit of time travel flotsam, no more than anyone cried paradox when it was revealed that Locke told Richard to be at his birth, explaining the Flashback in Cabin Fever.
Oh, wait. Some did cry paradox. Hmmm…
Locke and Richard
In Season 4’s penultimate episode, Cabin Fever, we are treated to an interesting flashback revealing that Richard Alpert was present at John Locke’s birth. What a mind bender, that. How did he know where to be and when to be there?
Now we know. Locke told him to be there as proof that his tale of time travel was true.Since time-lines do not age, there was no ‘first time’ when Locke was born without Richard’s presence, there was also no ‘first time’ when Richard’s presence was not a result of time traveling Locke telling him to be there. Refer to the above recap. That sequence of events was the one and only way it happened. Period. Locke told him to be there, be was there.
Now that we got that out of the way, there are two other tricky points I would like to address under this heading. The Compass, and why Locke had to die.
If you paid attention to the recap, you might know where I am going with both of these.
It has been commented that the compass exists as a loop, that is has no beginning and no end. This is rightly confusing and disturbing. The slight headache and nosebleeds you may be experiencing are normal and indicate that you are entertaining thoughts of a paradoxical nature. As explained above, paradoxes are signs that something impossible is being attempted. Self-Consistency does not allow paradoxes and therefore if the way you are thinking of the compass results in a paradox, or time loop, then there is something wrong with the way you are thinking about it.
So how should you conceive of the compass so as to avoid paradox? Like this:
Why did Richard give Locke the compass? He just told John that the next time John would meet him, Richard wouldn’t recognize him. John asked how he was supposed to prove himself. Richard gave John the compass to be used as proof. This strongly suggests that the compass holds some meaning to Richard, otherwise Richard could have picked up a rock and said, “Give me this.” The compass would only serve its purpose as proof to 1954 Richard that Locke knows Richard in the future if that compass held some sort of meaning for Richard.
Ergo, the compass had an existence prior to 1954 when Richard met with Locke, as seen in the recap. In all likely hood, as Richard sat in his tent talking to Locke, he had his compass in his pocket, even as he inspected the compass given to him by Locke.
I that is the case, then contrary to being a loop, like a rubber band, the world line of the compass simply featured two parallel strands for 53 years, starting in 1954 when Richard received the compass from Locke, through to 2007 when Richard gave the compass, the one he had in his pocket in 1954, to wounded Locke. After wounded Locke vanished, Richard was left with one compass, the one he receive from Locke in 1954.
The experience of the compass is no different from that of Locke when he saw the beam of light from the Swan Hatch. At that point, there were two Lockes, one banging on the hatch, crying like a baby, and one traipsing through the jungle, being all existential-like. For that matter, there were two of all the Flashers on the Island at that point, with the exception of Miles, Charlotte and Daniel.
Why Locke Had to Die
When wounded Locke asked Richard how he was supposed to bring the O6 back, Richard answered, “You’re going to have to die John.” And eventually he did.
But in what sense did Richard mean, ‘have to’? Did he mean that John’s death would be an integral part to bringing the O6 back to the Island? He couldn’t have meant that because his death served no real purpose other than being a stand in for Christian. Had Locke lived and joined the O6 on flight 316, he could very well have served as a proxy for someone else. For that matter it seems reasonable that any cold stiff could have served as Christian’s proxy. Why Locke?
If that is not what Richard meant, then what did he mean? He could have meant “If you insist on going through with this course of action, know that the inevitable outcome is your death.” Richard’s words were worded as implied consent. “If you do this John, you are going to have to die.”
Why so? Because, the conversation Richard was having with John was in 2007, after Richard had talked with a resurrected John Locke, the very one who told Richard of his death as a result of trying to get the O6 to return. Why do I keep saying that Richard removed the bullet from Locke and gave him the compass in 2007? Because Locke asked Richard what happened to him when the sky lit up. Richard said, “I didn’t go anywhere John, you did,” indicating memory of the event in 2004. Therefore, Richard removed the bullet in the future, relative to Ben turning the Frozen Donkey Wheel. I say 2007, because that is when resurrected Locke is on the Island and that is the only time Richard could have spoken to him and learned of his death.
In the end, Lost is a product of a team of writers that have an end game in mind. We, the audience have no idea what that end game is, or how it will be reached, so mistakes are bound to be made, and theories are bound to be wrong, in fact the possibility exists that every word of this article may be utter bumpkiss.
But then, maybe not.
I have faith that, with the exception with Desmond, and his as-yet-undisclosed role to play in the big scheme of things, in the end Lost will have told one of mainstream media’s few entirely Self-Consistent Time Travel tales. No small feat when one considers the difficulties inherent in spinning a time travel yarn that demands all the threads line up and that allows no loose ends.