“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” William S. Burroughs, “Origin and Theory of the Tape Cut-ups.”
LOST was a commercial television drama made between 2004 and 2010, with a fanatic following and 25 million people in the United States watching each week in its most popular seasons, in addition to a large international audience. It was on Netflix until 2018, and there is an enormous trove of information about it still available on fansites. There are even weekly podcasts still running that discuss each of the 121 episodes in sequence.
LOST was created by Jeffrey Lieber, J. J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof. Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were head writers, but much of the writing was done by a young team that was well versed in literature and philosophy. They worked philosophical and scientific themes into the story, and they gave such names as Locke and Hawking to their characters, or they referenced novels such as Watership Down or Slaughterhouse-Five (see this full list of 92 novels referenced in the show). The castaways-on-a-desert-island theme of course gave the writers many opportunities to adapt and borrow from the books they referred to. As a result of the knowledge and sophistication of the writers, many fans became motivated to read novels or learn philosophy. Philosophy professor Sharon Kaye edited the collection of essays Ultimate Lost and Philosophy: Think Together, Die Alone, published in 2010.
The series was also subversive, considering it survived in a medium where corporate advertising had to be aired several times per hour. It was one of the most expensive productions ever made for commercial television. Sponsors might have wanted to drop it, if they had given any thought to the messages in it, but the audience size made it too lucrative for them to care. Capitalism thrives even on the critiques arising within it.
The survivors of the airplane crash were outcasts from the civilization they were longing to go back to. They were running from the law or from various traumas, accidents, tragic losses and betrayals. They should have been glad that they had a chance to start over in a tropical paradise, but the irony of the story was that they always wanted to go back.
As time went by, they learned that the island had been inhabited over recent decades by members of a utopian project called the Dharma Initiative, obsessed with psychological and biotech research as well as the mysterious qualities of the island. It had gone terribly off the rails during a conflict with the people who had been there before, and now the castaways encountered the ruins of the laboratories and the survivors of the cult’s meltdown.
Something about the island had always been coveted by various conglomerates and their billionaire philanthropist overlords, so they sent in mercenary armies to battle for control, followed by their research projects. The island had an elusive power that they wanted to master, but because of (or in spite of) past experiments with viruses and vaccines, no woman and no fetus could survive pregnancy. The island was vaccinated against infection by homo sapiens. The scientists of the Dharma Initiative are both tragic and comical because the audience knows they failed. We see their hubris and the politics and power struggles that were behind the people who, on the surface, were dedicated to “following the science,” to use the phrase common these days.
The new arrivals took a while to figure out what was going on, and at the same time they upset the plans of the groups already there. The crash survivors at first encountered hostile Others, after which they found there were also other Others. It was obvious that the danger came from without—from the invaders from the techno-capitalist civilization the survivors longed to return to.
The show was subversive also because it portrayed modern civilization as a dystopia that had produced these damaged outcasts and was now attacking this island that was fighting nature’s last stand against mankind. It also portrayed hostage-taking, torture, psychological warfare, and mind control at a time when the United States was deeply mired in the “war on terror,” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Abu Ghraib war crimes. At one point when one of the Others was trying to convince one of his victims that his intentions were good, he said with an innocent smile, “We’re the good guys, Michael.” No one could miss the reference to President Bush’s Manichean rhetoric about the war on terror.
At a few climatic turning points, usually a cliff-hanger at the end of a season, a tempting form of rescue or escape would appear. Without hesitation, almost everyone wanted to go. Some were suspicious of these escape opportunities that appeared on the horizon, but the rest, too long-tormented to think rationally, eagerly opened the door to a new wave of violence on the island.
Now here we are eleven years later, and LOST—which featured a bit of time travel in later seasons—seems uncannily prophetic, as if the writers unconsciously tapped into some features of events that would unfold in the real world.
Throughout season two, John Locke worked in an underground hatch, faithfully entering a series of numbers on a computer keyboard every 108 minutes because he had been told that if he didn’t, something very, very bad would happen. It was sort of like everyone in the world now wearing masks on their faces. We don’t feel sick, but we’ve been told that if we don’t do it, someone somewhere will die. It’s a totally new concept, never applied before during annual viral pandemics, but whatever. Just have faith. All the destruction caused by lockdowns is the only way to deal with the pandemic. The new RNA therapy is the only way out of it. Believe. Don’t go “down the rabbit hole” looking for your own answers to all of this.
How the lessons of fiction are forgotten once the screen is off or the book is back on the shelf. We are not in LOST, with people confined to underground hatches and old polar bear cages. It’s not that bad. The world has only been frightened, robbed, propagandized, hypnotized, behavior and attitude-modified, and put under house arrest for over a year. That’s all. Why is this happening? Who is the hypnotist and puppet master? Like the bewildered survivors LOST in a strange new land, we are on terra incognito. No one knows what’s what, but we know there is a tempting offer at hand. Reassuring voices that sound just like those of the Dharma Initiative scientists tell us, “Just take the RNA jab and you’ll get back everything you lost. Register your digital health passport, then it will all go back to normal. We’ll build back better.” Dissenting voices speak out, and society splits in two, just like the factional split on the island over whether to leave or stay. Recall Charlie’s dying message at the end of season three—the turning point for this split—when he was able to warn everyone, but just a little too late, “Not Penny’s Boat.”
Edward S. Robinson, “Predicting a Pandemic: William Burroughs and COVID-19,” Reality Studio, March 21, 2021.