Thursday, September 10, 2009

View: Zeitgeists through Science Fiction, Part Two

In the last post, I compared the world of District 9 to the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I now turn my attention to television: the difference between the worlds of The Prisoner and Lost.

First, one must realize the large scope of attempting to write about this coherently. I've changed the emphasis twice: not only the specific stories, but the medium as well. The Prisoner and Lost span several hours of programming (17 episodes and 100+, respectively), and can drag out multiple character development, and fully explore more complex themes. It is the difference between a short story and a full novel.

Part of this caveat is that the TV shows are not as coherent as the movies. While the ending of 2001 is certainly abstract, it lasts about 20 minutes. The TV shows drag out the weirdness for hours.

Indeed, one can charge that the TV show writers are being weird for the sake of being weird. That is, no coherent point or message is to be derived seriously. Nonetheless, I'm looking at the show's production-eras via the shows. Fiction as a view to recent cultural history.

First, The Prisoner. Essentially, the theme is the individual versus the system. A spy is kidnapped to an exotic resort, and all sorts of loony interrogations methods are made in order to get him to talk about why he tried to quit. The Powers-That-Be have enough organizational acumen to kidnap, house, and interrogate him, although they fail in getting him to talk. Like 2001, the message is (in a way) optimistic: no matter the trials, the individual shall prevail. "I am not a number, I am a free man", and so on.

Lost could care less about whether or not you're a number or a man, free or otherwise. Unlike The Prisoner, nobody, and by the time of season five, nobody, has any control or understanding of what is going on. Even the supposed omniscient characters are revealed to be as confused as everyone else. The Prisoner encourages the troubled individual to endure, keep going, never give up... Lost offers no such encouragement. Do your best. Do nothing. You'll never be happy unless you give up, like two minor characters did.

While the themes of optimism/idealism vs pessimism/cynicism are obvious, another one stuck out: faith in organizations to get something done.

Lost almost makes this point explicitly. In the story, a wealthy man established a society of secluded scientists, to pursue research in both the mainstream (meteorology, zoology, etc) and fringe (parapsychology). This society existed in the 1970s, through the 1980s, and was taken over during the 1990s. The new powers-that-be abandoned the research initiative, for reasons not yet made entirely clear. Both the original society, and the new one, are not successful in their aims. Maybe they set the bar too high.

Given this, I watched some of The Prisoner, and not only was it a trip back in time, but it might as well had been an alien planet. The effectiveness of the organization, in The Prisoner in creating a sophisticated masquerade to get one or few people to answer questions, is something that I have a hard time taking seriously. I kept thinking of the financial costs, and the resulting cost per prisoner, and it must be an amount that no budget committee would ever approve.

The sheer faith that the organization had in itself, to accomplish their interrogation task, in that exotic setting, must have been astounding. In that sense, it was like 2001. Space planes and space colonies and moon bases and expeditions to Jupiter and ascendance to a higher plane of existence. It is a can-do spirit that seems quaint and alien all at the same time, notwithstanding the surreal lack of ethics on the part of the organization in The Prisoner.

If this can-do spirit actually existed, how did it come about? Presumably a series of successful ventures were involved (the American and British victory in WWII, a big part). Surely this spirit can be made without war? Some people have the ambition, to keep on trying, to be optimistic in the face of great odds. Are these qualities inherent, or made? Does the answer vary among individuals? Can the hi-tech development in 2001 exist without sleep-walking zombies, or the oppressive interrogators in The Prisoner?