Despite promotion of its “Finale Event” that would have embarrassed P.T. Barnum, ABC’s wrap-up of its six-season-long drama Lost was a disappointment. The science-fiction series Babylon 5 (see also the official site here) has retained the title of Best Long-running Series with a Coherent and Satisfying Main Plot.
Alas, last night’s two-and-a-half hour show had a hurried, deus-ex-machina character about it. The penultimate scene, a celebratory funeral in which it was revealed that all the main characters have died and have been living an alternative afterlife, resembled nothing so much as the ending of St. Elsewhere, an ending that seemed to dismiss the seriousness of the whole dramatic enterprise. Of course, that scene was intercut with Jack’s death on the island as Oceanic Flight 815 flew safely over him, an image that makes any proposed explanation of what was real and what wasn’t hopelessly muddled.
The ending of Lost was a “happy” one, despite everyone’s being, apparently, dead. The protagonists were off the island and were tearfully reunited with the loves of their lives. What more could the viewers ask?
A lot more, as it turns out. Although viewers were heavily invested in the lives of the characters on the show, that emotional hook was to the lives led on the island. The Los Angeles lives of the flash-sideways world in which the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 never happened were not well enough developed for us to care about them. Moreover, ambiguity as to their reality discouraged viewer engagement. The ending seemed to be one timed for commercial, rather than for dramatic reasons.
The biggest disappointment of Lost was the failure to answer any significant questions about the island on which Oceanic Flight 815 crashed. What is the nature of the force embedded in the island? (“Electromagnetic” is hardly an answer.) What is the relation of the island to the earth (or to reality itself)? Where did the original inhabitants of the island come from and how was the notion of “protecting” the island developed? Why did some people have very long lives on the island? Why were pregnancies problematic? What was the ultimate purpose of the Dharma Initiative? What was that wheel all about, anyway?
It is not unusual in science fiction to have story elements that never receive a full scientific explanation. We are talking about science fiction, after all. The best science fiction, however, keeps these elements to a minimum, using them as postulates that, once accepted, lead to a world governed by familiar scientific laws and consequences that might reasonably follow from the basic assumptions that are part of the suspension-of-disbelief pact between writer and reader (or viewer). The existence of a mechanism that allows faster-than-light travel, for example, is a common science fiction assumption. Without it, stories of galactic races interacting with one another would be impossible. Likewise, the Force in the Star Wars universe is a story element that is never explained but was an easily accepted premise for a good yarn.
Lost, on the other hand, seemed to keep piling mysteries on top of mysteries in gratuitous excess. In retrospect, one has to ask if they were really essential to the plot (or some equally engaging plot) or whether they were merely intellectual enticements to keep viewers coming back. The show has been notable for its high production values, literate dialogue, and credible acting. The producers broke faith with their viewers by leading them down so many garden paths that ended at the precipice of a dark, bottomless pit, however. That they provided entertainment and intellectual stimulation along the way is no excuse for their breaking faith with their viewers by leaving so many loose ends at the show’s conclusion.
So, why is Babylon 5 the winner in the Best Long-running Series with a Coherent and Satisfying Main Plot category? Its production values were not as high, its integrity was compromised somewhat by uncertain funding, its acting was not as uniformly of the highest caliber, and its five-year story arc was too frequently interrupted by engaging, but ultimately irrelevant, self-contained episodes. The short answer though is that the basic story line, one that, like that of Lost, involved time travel, was planned out in advance by series creator J. Michael Straczynski. Babylon 5 managed to tell a complex story over five seasons by sticking to the original plan, a task made easier by the fact that Straczynski wrote (unbelievably) nearly all the Babylon 5 episodes. Like Lost, Babylon 5 raised many questions over the years. Unlike Lost, it also answered all the important ones.
Finally, although action was a major attraction for Babylon 5 viewers, the show was as much about character development as it was about galactic conflict. The complex and evolving relationship between G’Kar and Londo Molari, for example, was nothing short of Shakespearean, and the acting of Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik was superb. Other performances especially worthy of note were turned in by Jerry Doyle (Michael Garibaldi) and Mira Fulan (Ambassador Dulenn), who also played Danielle Rousseau on Lost.
Lost was a fine show, and I am grateful to ABC for six years of engaging television. I just wish that it could have been more.