In praise of FlashForward…

I’ve got a new favourite TV drama… at least until Spooks Season 8 comes out some time in November. FlashForward has been showing on Five on Monday nights, and watched by me whenever I have 45 minutes online. Fortunately, it’s only just started airing in the USA as well, so I’m not getting massive spoilers all over the internet like I do for House and CSI. FlashForward’s based on a book by Robert J Sawyer, which I haven’t read, but which is apparently quite a lot different to the TV series. In the book, apparently CERN is to blame for what happens (at least, according to one of the weirder things in this week’s Times). In the TV version, the entire population of the world blacks out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds… except they don’t black out, but have visions, apparently of their futures 6 months from now. Obviously mass mayhem from unconscious drivers, pilots, tightrope-walkers etc. ensues (a bit like in the Left Behind series, but slightly more likely to actually happen!) but the real interest lies in how the characters react to having seen their futures.

Seeing the future is a good thing for some of the characters – they see something good and embrace it. Bryce, a doctor, was about to commit suicide when the visions happened – but seeing a normal life six months ahead helped him rediscover a purpose and meaning in his life. One of his patients sees himself as much more confident in the future, giving him confidence to be himself. For these people, knowing the future is good gives them hope. As Bryce puts it, “the future saved me”.

However, for some, the visions are disturbing. Bryce’s colleague Olivia sees herself in an affair with a man who is not her husband; her husband Mark, who works for the FBI, is being hunted by assassins; and his partner Demetri does not have a vision at all – which we learn means he will be dead in 6 months’ time. These characters have varying, but negative reactions to knowing the future. Olivia tries to ignore the visions and suppress them; Demetri becomes depressed and angry, taking a fatalist view; Mark puts his energy into investigating the visions, hoping that by seeing the future he can change the future. In fact, the characters’ beliefs as to whether the future is changeable seems to correlate with whether they liked what they saw in their visions. Mark gives voice to this, comforting his young daughter who seems to have had a disturbing vision, saying that only the good visions are going to come true. It’s a pat, transparent lie, and we see that Mark himself doesn’t entirely believe it.

So far, we haven’t seen whether the future actually can be changed in the Flashforward universe, or not – whether people can alter their futures from what they’ve seen. But the question of predeterminacy is an interesting one with a lot of potential and I’ll be interested to see how they handle it. My guess from some of the things that have happened so far is that it is possible to change the future in the Flashforward universe, but also that a lot of the visions are going to turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies: In Mark’s vision he is disturbed to find himself drinking again after having previously given up alcohol. He keeps this secret from his wife, but it obviously concerns him and may well give him enough stress to turn to drink again.

It’s also interesting that nobody is any less “free” in a volitional sense for having seen the future. People carry on making choices and decisions (and indeed living relatively normal lives!) without being conscious of any kind of compulsion. If there is predeterminism in the Flashforward universe, then it certainly doesn’t rule out “free will”. There is a both-and relationship going on; much as in the Reformed understanding of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. I’m hesitating to draw any more parallels or distinctions just yet, because we haven’t seen how the series develops – and I don’t want to use it as an illustration only to have it backfire on me and make me look like an Open Theist or something! Still, there’s a fair bit of theological content in this series, which is often a good thing.

As for the detail… some of the actual dialogue is on the cringe-worthy side, but I can live with that. I also have to suspend disbelief a little at how quickly people get on with things despite a global catastophe that should properly mess up everything (it’s like they’re all British!). However, the concept of the “flash-forward”s and some of the (theological) issues raised mean I’m hooked and also make it one of the better sci-fi dramas I’ve seen lately. The actual thought-experiment of “what if we saw the future?” is clever and engaging enough to make up for some of the more saccharine moments in the actual execution of the drama. So far… maybe it gets better or worse as the series goes on…

Anyway, it gets a reccommendation from me.

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