Lost, The Prisoner and the Zeitgeist
So, the day that Lost fans across the world (and particularly in the USA and Canada where it airs tonight on terrestrial TV) have been waiting for is here - the opening episode of series three of the cult castaway drama. In those parts of the world with TV and IT where the third series of the show is not scheduled to be on terrestrial or easily accessible satellite/cable TV for many months yet, there will be a flurry of interest in bit-torrent and the like.
For those who are not aware of the series, it has been described as "Twin Peaks on the beach". It revolves around passengers of a crashed passsenger plane flying between Australia and the USA that has crashed in the vicinity of a mysterious island. The island has strange out-of place beasts, abandoned bunkers and exotic technology created by a secretive cabal of businessmen and scientists, and weird and confrontational inhabitants known as "the others". In series one and two we have been treated to flashback back-stories of the crash survivors as they struggle to survive on the island and find out more about the bunkers and the elusive others. Along the way we have allusions to various philosophers, philosophical and religious concepts, pop cultural references, numerology, mysticism and the paranormal.
Responses to the show have varied greatly - popular response has been to lap it up, but boards and discussion sites are full of sceptics and critics of the phenomenon.
I find it interesting that many of the responses to Lost are very similar to those reported to Patrick McGoohan's original 1960's cult TV series The Prisoner. (i.e. incomprehension, mockery of bits that were thought too obvious and banal, anger at not getting "answers", criticism of "boring repetition", criticism of lack of character development - The Prisoner constantly changed most characters except for McGoohan himself to give a constant disorientation feeling, along with giving the characters numbers, not names)
Elements of Lost are directly cribbed from The Prisoner - i.e numerological elements, the "inescapable island prison", the lack of explanation, mysticism, paranoia, forays into pop philosophy, psychology (contrast the unmasking of "number one" in McGoohan's series with the mind games of "Henry Gale" and the changing perspective of Locke), politics and religion without "fully committing" or revealing an authorial position, (In The Prisoner that authorial perspective tended to appear to fluctuate between extreme individualism and esoteric "traditionalism", whilst in Lost the perspective hints at religious apologetics, whilst teasing with a more esoteric/conspiracist worldview)
There are hints at a broader global conspiracy (The Hanso Foundation/Dharma Initiative in Lost, suggestion of interchangeability or co-operation of East and West intelligence services, or an over arching purpose for both in The Prisoner) Hanso/Dharma may be inspired by the conspiracist views circulating about organisations like those linked to world federalist and Baileyite/Theosophical organisations (that appear to have a whole range of fronts and networks working towards some shady global "plan".) Both series give the odd nod to the pioneers in the field of meta-fiction and attempt to graft themselves onto the tradition of Surrealism, Dada, Oulipo, Joyce, O'Brien, Pynchon, Rennes-le-Chateau/Sion/Sirius mythologists etc (Irrelevant note - the author of the Wizard of Oz Books - whence Henry Gale and balloons etc in Lost - was a theosophist)
Where Lost is able to differ from The Prisoner is in current technological and cultural possibilities - intertextuality, multi-media through viral marketing, the Lost Experience game played out across various linked websites on the net, plus 40 more years of popular cultural and political/philosophical reference points. It has been noted that the programme owes some debt to comic art, particularly that of Alan Moore, one of the most successful comic art writers of recent years. The "knowingness" of the creators extends to them giving the impression of "making it up as they go along", similar to McGoohan's notorious reluctance to "explain" anything about the planning, ideas or meaning behind The Prisoner. With the internet game making it difficult to know what is a fan site, what is an advert, what is a "secret clue", and what is based on reality, this all creates a different feeling where the players/viewers may even feel they have a part in "creating" the Lost reality.
Ah, the joys of late capitalism......
It seems to me that Lost taps into the Zeitgeist as did earlier shows like Twin Peaks and the X-Files. It grabs onto the feeling of disorientation and "lostness" people feel in a globalised world, where in the words of the Communist Manifesto "All that is solid melts into air", where organised religion has relaxed its' grip to be replaced by the religion of shopping, where we sometimes notice with barely supressed paranoia dimly understood forces acting on our behalfs or against our interests in the shadows, where technology creates a global village and nothing and nobody is quite what they seem, where the multiple apocalyptic threats of war, resource exhaustion, environmental catastrophe and civil strife haunt our nightmares.
From what looked like a fairly standard popular cultural product, Lost has developed into a symbol of the times, with all the flaws, contradictions and exhillaration that that implies.....
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