Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mystery, Knowledge, Science and Television

J J Abrams, the creator of the television show “Lost”, gives a Ted talk where he suggests that sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge. His “mystery box” represents infinite possibilities and hope and that mystery is the catalyst for imagination. He sees the “Lost” television show as a mystery box, always with the sense of possibility.

Now, to be fair, I have not actually seen Lost, so perhaps my comments are unwarranted, but I decided not to watch Lost for the following reason. When Lost was first beginning, several friends said that I would like it. I told them that I would watch it if, and only if, at the end of the series they could tell me that the “plan” for the series actually existed. It was claimed that the series was planned from start to finish, but my friends told me afterward that it was clear it wasn’t, after watching the finale. Too many loose ends, too many mysteries.

I think that J J Abrams learned the wrong lesson about mystery, as represented by his television show “Lost”. It’s not just the mystery, for the sake of mystery, it is the solving of the mystery that yields more mysteries. Scientists are comfortable with not knowing...we are constantly at the edge of what is known and not known. However, what motivates the scientist isn’t the mystery, it is the solution to the mystery knowing that will open up more. There is nothing more dissatisfying than a book, movie, or television show that just opens up more and more “mysteries” and never resolves seems artificial and disorganized. Most people assume that the mysteries will be solved by the end, so they allow themselves to be taken in by the mysteries. However, once it becomes clear that the mysteries are not going to be solved, most lose their attention and become disenchanted.

What made Babylon 5 so engaging was that there was a plan, and you could count on it. You knew that if there was a mystery, that you’d see the resolution of it. I’ll admit that the resolution of the main conflict (the Shadow War) was a bit disappointing, once it happened, but I think part of that feeling had to do with pace and not with the resolution itself. Mystery for the sake of mystery is enough to motivate, temporarily, but not forever. In the real world, solving mysteries opens up more...that’s the real motivator!


  1. My wife and I finally watched Lost after the entire series was done and all the seasons wee obtainable online. We thoroughly enjoyed the first couple seasons where each layer of the mystery peeled off like an onion and you could tell that, like an onion, all the layers were leading to a few logical conclusions or endpoints. Then, by the 3rd season or so, you could tell that the producers were artificially inserting more and more "mysteries" to give the series longer shelf life. I believe the producer DID have an endpoint in mind when they created the series, but I believe that endpoint only yielded three seasons, at most. As is often the case, the laws of economics demanded a higher return, so the producers put in specifically placed reversals (complete unlogical, in some cases) and twists that essentially invalidated much of the first two seasons. I could, with some time and review, actually point to specific episodes and scenes that you can tell were inserted speifically to keep the series going. In my opinion, the should have elt the show end organically and then created a spinoff if they absolutely needed to keep it going.

  2. That sounds pretty typical. In the case of Babylon 5, the plan was for 5 years, but the subnetwork that was producing it (as part of Warner Bros) went bankrupt (for other reasons). Thus, they weren't sure if year 4 was going to be the last. Because of that, the writer had to rush a few plot lines in year 4, and have the series finale work in the case of either ending in year 4 or year 5, which made year 5 a lot weaker than it would have otherwise been. The spin-off (Crusades) was killed mid season because of producers tampering with the plot and the themes excessively. Again, typical.

  3. It's a problem of short-sighted economics. Many of these large television producers are hugely risk-averse and, to be fair, they largely have to be. Given how much it costs to bring a show from concept to the screen and given that, unlike films, the profit margin is much smaller, they need to squeeze every penny out of these productions. But this leads large television companies to make incredibly innane decisions in order to acheive smaller, short-time profits at the sacrifice of larger and more sustainable profits. Think of how much money in royaltys, merchandise, etc. could be made off of a show that ran for a shorter amount of time but acheived an unyielding fan loyalty and generating several spinoffs. There is far more money in the long term in letting a series grow and die organically than there is in atrtifically propping it up for a couple of extra seasons to acheive short-term gains.