Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Course Correction Conundrum

Remember what Ms. Hawking said to Desmond in Flashes Before Your Eyes?

She told him that the "universe, unfortunately, has a way of course correcting." Many, myself included, routinely refer to course corrections without actually defining what we mean. In the 3rd Anniversary Podcast, however, the writers stressed that the Lost "rules" of time travel were summarized by Ms. Hawking. They also emphasized that the "future is the future" and that there are no "alternate" or "parallel" futures on the show. With those comments in mind, I thought it would be useful to analyze and discuss what precisely Ms. Hawking might have meant. Her first comments on the subject come when Desmond decides to buy the engagement ring for Penny:

MS. HAWKING: Well, I know your name as well as I know that you that don't ask Penny to marry you. In fact, you break her heart. Well, breaking her heart is, of course, what drives you in a few short years from now to enter that sailing race -- to prove her father wrong -- which brings you to the island where you spend the next 3 years of your life entering numbers into the computer until you are forced to turn that failsafe key. And if you don't do those things, Desmond David Hume, every single one of us is dead. So give me that sodding ring.

Careful readers will note an apparent tension between Ms. Hawking's comments and those in the Podcast. She seems to be referring to the implosion of Swan -- if Des isn't there to activate the Fail-Safe, the whole world will be destroyed. Yet, if the future is the future, and the universe inevitably course corrects, why does it matter what Desmond does? As Homer Simpson might say, can't someone else do it? If not, won't the universe just frustrate Des regardless, sending him to the Island whether or not he proposes to Penny? Things get even curiouser when we consider Des and Hawking's conversation following the demise of the man in the red shoes.

DESMOND: Oh, my God. You knew that was going to happen, didn't you? [she nods] Then why didn't you stop it? Why didn't you do anything?

MS. HAWKING: Because it wouldn't matter. Had I warned him about the scaffolding tomorrow he'd be hit by a taxi. If I warned him about the taxi, he'd fall in the shower and break his neck. The universe, unfortunately, has a way of course correcting. That man was supposed to die. That was his path just as it's your path to go to the island. You don't do it because you choose to, Desmond. You do it because you're supposed to.

Here again, Ms. Hawking's comments are puzzling. Taken literally, they seem to suggest an inevitability to Desmond's fate that's at odds with her previous warning that "every single one of us is dead" if he doesn't go to the Island, push the button, and turn the key. They also seem to render moot the entire reason for her intervention. Why even bother if the future is the future and Desmond will do what he's supposed to do regardless? The real purpose of their exchange is, of course, to set the stage for Desmond's dilemma concerning Charlie's inevitable demise. As the former tells the latter at the end of FBYE:

DESMOND: When I saw the lightning hit the roof you were electrocuted. And when you heard Claire was in the water you -- you drowned trying to save her. I dove in myself so you never went in. I've tried, brother. I've tried twice to save you, but the universe has a way of course correcting and -- and I can't stop it forever. I'm sorry. I'm sorry because no matter what I try to do you're going to die, Charlie.

Desmond's dilemma reaches a head in Catch-22, when his flashes suggest he will be reunited with Penny -- but only if he lets Charlie die.

DESMOND: I saw a sequence of events. Things that are gonna happen.

HURLEY: What you see?

DESMOND: It was, it was like a sorta jigsaw puzzle. Only I didn't have the picture in the box so, I dunno how the pieces fit exactly but, but one of the pieces, the first one...

[Desmond sees the image of Hurley picking up the cable in the sand]

DESMOND: ... It was you, pulling the cable out the sand.

HURLEY: So what are the other pieces?

DESMOND: If I tell you that, it'll change the picture in the box.

HURLEY: So what? Isn't that the point? Preventing something bad?

DESMOND: Not this time.

HURLEY: So you're not trying to stop something from happening, you exactly want it to happen.

[Desmond sees himself and Penny posing for their photograph, of him wiping Penny's tear at the stadium, of her kissing him in their flat]

DESMOND: More than anything.

CHARLIE: You think its her don't you?


CHARLIE: Your girl. Penny. You think its actually her who bailed out the helicopter.

DESMOND: Earlier I hoped it. Now I know it.

CHARLIE: Why didn't you tell us?

DESMOND: Would you come if I had?

CHARLIE: Of course. Why wouldn't I?

DESMOND: I didn't wanna tell you because, I didn't want anything to change.

CHARLIE: Fair enough. Look if whatever you're seeing leads to your girl getting us rescued, why would we want to change anything, right?

DESMOND: [Smiles] Right.

CHARLIE: You shouted duck. You knew, even before we set off, you knew all this time didn't you?


CHARLIE: Well then why didn't you say anything.

DESMOND: Because if I'd told you the truth you wouldn't have come.

CHARLIE: Oh and you needed me to come. Cause I was part of your vision. You thought that the only way you could get your girl back was if I took an arrow in the head. You would have sacrificed me!

DESMOND: If the flashes don't happen exactly how I saw them, the picture changes. I was supposed to let you die Charlie.

CHARLIE: What's that supposed to mean?

DESMOND: It means its bloody pointless. I keep saving your life, and what good has it done? Its just gonna keep happening again and again, maybe that's the point eh? Maybe its a test.


DESMOND: Like God, testing Abraham, except I failed, because I changed what I saw.

HURLEY: She's alive!

[Desmond rushes toward them]

DESMOND: Stand back! Get away from her! I'm here, I'm here Penny.

CHARLIE: Jus, be careful.

DESMOND: Just get off, Charlie. Sorry Penny, I'm sorry.

[Desmond pulls off the helmet to reveal not Penny, but a different woman]

WOMAN: Desmon...

Desmond clearly believed that the parachutist was supposed to be Penny. By intervening to save Charlie's life, Des apparently changed "the picture on the box," which resulted in Naomi taking Penny's place. Assuming Desmond was correct, it's hard to square the events of the show with the podcast's unequivocal statement that the "future is the future." The same is true of Desmond's subsequent conviction that Charlie must die in the Looking Glass to effectuate their rescue. Once again, we're left wondering why, if the universe inevitably course corrects, it makes any difference whether Charlie lives or dies.

DESMOND: What I saw, Charlie, was Claire and her baby getting into a helicopter. A helicopter that lifts off, leaves this Island.

CHARLIE: Are you sure?


CHARLIE: A rescue helicopter, on this beach?

[Desmond nods]

CHARLIE: This Island, that's what you saw?

[Desmond nods again]

CHARLIE: We're getting bloody rescued! I thought you were gonna tell me I was gonna die again!

DESMOND: You are, Charlie.

CHARLIE: Wait, what?

DESMOND: If you don't, none of it will happen. There won't be any rescue. I'm sorry, brother, but this time, this time you have to die.

Stated another way, Charlie's sacrifice seems rather pointless unless it's at least possible to change the "picture on the box." That leads me to believe the concept of course correcting is more complex than a literal interpretation of the podcast would suggest. Perhaps the "future is the future" in the sense that the general outline of events can't be changed, but some of the minor details (e.g., specific names and faces) can through manipulation of course correction. That's basically what Desmond did with Charlie, postponing the latter's demise until that occurrence became part of a causal chain of events resulting specifically in the helicopter rescue.

Here's another example of how changing the "picture on the box" might work in actual practice. Let's say it was inevitable that the survivors of Oceanic 815 would be rescued by someone, some time, thanks to Desmond's conversation with Donovan in FBYE. Perhaps Penny was in a race with the Hanso Foundation and/or her father to find the Island first. If Charlie had died in accordance with Desmond's vision in Catch-22, Penny would have won the race and been reunited with her love. But because Des saved Charlie from Rousseau's booby trap, the universe course corrected, changing the picture on the box so that Naomi and Not Penny's Boat are now their rescuers.

All of which has me hoping against hope, improbable as it admittedly now appears, that Christian Shepherd is alive and well due somehow to Desmond's changes to the past. Long live the Christian resurrection!


capcom said...

Great thoughts! I would say this: the future is set in stone, if TPTB have filmed it already -- and if they have not filmed it, it can be changed. :o)

But seriously, what you're saying makes sense. As in, if Mrs.H did tell Mr.Redshoes about his accident, he would be saved to die another day, but the scaffolding (or whatever it was) would still have fallen that day, just not on him. That is, part of the future would be changed (his part and those around him) but the rest of the future with the scaffolding mishap would still happen.

I like your idea about how the chain of efforts to save Charlie created a new chain of events. Like the ripples of individual pebbles in the pond, and all that. No Charlie, no ripples. I've wondered about that as well. I also like how you explain the idea about the race and Penny. Great thinking!

I'm still not clear in my head though about how if Dez didn't get to the island on time, why wouldn't the universe course-correct something else to happen, say, a different person turning the key, perhaps Kelvin since he'd still be alive if he and Dez didn't fight (since Dez would be with Penny and not on the island). Ow, my brain hurts now.

memphish said...

Thanks for this post Big Mouth. Ever since I heard that podcast I've been wondering what Damon meant by the statement that Mrs. Hawking's rules applied.

Maybe like most things in LOST and involving the Island her words are designed as smoke and mirrors (a la the Wizard and perhaps Jacob) merely to make you think that your fate is inevitable. Mrs. Hawking is pushing the right buttons to get Desmond to do what she or her employers wants which in this case may be as simple as not marrying Penny.

Or maybe these time guardians or whatever they are need one of their own to accomplish certain tasks and Desmond as evidenced by his flashes both on Island and during his time travel is one of their own. I still don't know how this applies to everyone else in the story though. Is it February yet?

hatchling23 said...

I liked this post. You did a great job of covering a lot of what I have been pondering.

I have been wondering about Ms. Hawking's rules for time travel myself and my thoughts really hadn't gelled enough for an article.

I do however think that Desmond lied about the helicopter on the beach. Naoimi's copter developed engine trouble even before it got over land, as we saw her chopper (or something) fall into the ocean off shore.

In all of Desmond's flashes that were shown before Naomi's rescue, there was no helicopter/rescue scene of any kind.

Oh and Why do you want Christian Shepard to be alive?

Cool_Freeze said...

The future is set in stone...

We can't change what is GOING to happen, but we can change HOW it happens...

course correction.

hmm.. I like your post Bigmouth.


karmavore said...

I like the post, but I think you've gone a leap too far with Naomi "replacing" Penny as the parachutist. I think Desmond was hoping that it was Penny falling from the sky, but we never saw a vision showing us that this definitely was the case. In fact, we *did* see his visions, and we never saw Penny in them. So, when "the picture on the box" changes, it's the future that changes, not the past.

Or am I missing something?

Paula Abdul Alhazred said...

I'm with Cool Freeze . . . certain things are inevitable, but how they happen is up for grabs.

I do think it's possible to change certain events. Remember, Damon Lindelof himself has repeatedly hinted that Desmond changed the bigger picture with his time travel in a way we have yet to see.

capcom said...

Congrats Big on the recent shoutout from DocJ! No pressure. :o)

memphish said...

My congratulations as well Big Mouth.

hatchling23 said...

Congrats on getting recognized in the EW article. This will make the hit counter spin.


Bigmouth said...

Thanks guys! I'm in a bit of a work crunch right now, which is why I've taken so long to reply to your insightful and provocative comments. But I've been thinking about them a lot and should have a replies for you soon.

Also, special thanks to Doc J for the Entertainment Weekly mention! We thankee sai -- thankee big big!

Cool_Freeze said...

yes bigmouth congratulations.

we're almost there..the end to the hiatus is in sight.


Lazerus said...

bigmouth...the ew article led me to your very intelligently written posts. What really struck a chord was what you wrote about concerning the exchange between Ms. Hawkings and Desmond. It hit me immediately while listening to their conversation. Shouldn't it have been patently obvious to Desmond that he could indeed change things? I mean I kept wondering why Desmond didn't ask Ms. Hawkings -- Why the heck are we even having this conversation since I can't change a thing? Desmond is going to do what he was intended to do anyway, so why was Mrs. Hawkings even there? But if Ms. Hawkings represents a faction that can travel in time (which a number of people believe...I don't) and know Desmond's exact location and timeline (and have the capability of inserting themselves there and then)...think about how many options would be available to "these people" get the failsafe pushed or not pushed, or anything else for that matter. And of course Desmond "apparently" traveled backwards and then forwards in time. I can't believe the writers are affording the characters this kind of power.

What does that leave us with? I'd have to point to the TLE. Well if Dharma's charter was to change one or more of the core numbers in order to save humanity, how did they intend to go about doing it...and why the island?

Seclusion might be the most obvious reason for the where, but what if it is more than that. If you were able to change one of the core numbers that for all intents and purposes define reality as we know it, I'd say you'd have to be very careful. I assume you could just as easily hasten mankind's demise...or worse. By worse I mean, maybe you could learn to control all of fate...for personal gain.

Well suppose the island is a place where the numbers could be changed without any adverse effect (its somewhat "removed" from the real world) on the outside world...a controlled environment. Experiment to your hearts content, with no adverse effects on the "real" world. Or maybe the opposite...

Suppose the island is a place where the numbers can be reinforced or even amplified for lack of a better term. If you were experimenting with changing the numbers, to avoid the potential for catastrophe, it might be a good idea to keep things status quo for the time being...broadcast the numbers over and over to the outside world, and input the numbers over and over next to or right on top of this magnetic lode (that seems to have some extraordinary properties or powers). Since this island appears to act as a quantum or magic box, perhaps through simple observation or belief...the people manning the Swan station thought they were saving the world, and perhaps they actually were -- by believing they were, especially in close proximity to the magnetic deposit. The Blast Door Map included a reference to the equation; a zone on the island is marked as being of "low relevance to Valenzetti-related research activity".

I also thought it might be interesting (haven't seen this anywhere else) to speculate that --what if Dharma was actually successful in changing one or more of the Valenzetti numbers ("the Incident") with less than desirable results. Maybe the major schism between the Dharma folks was that one faction believed in leaving the numbers as is (fate) and another faction believed in freewill (changing the numbers). Perhaps all this course correcting a number of people have spoken about is fate attempting to reestablish itself after potential or partial number changes.

Over population was one of the things that was speculated that could possibly bring about the downfall of mankind. I find it very interesting that mothers die in childbirth on the island (those who have conceived on the island). One of Dharma's, or their primary objective was to change one of the core potentially prevent over-population. Again, perhaps they were successful...too successful. If this situation were to "spread" to the outside world, it could certainly solve the population problem, but could almost certainly lead to humanities extinction (Valenzetti equation prediction...there is that determinism again)...unless the mother had twins????

capcom said...

Very interesting Lazerus! Hopefully exploding anti-bunnies might keep anyone from controlling Fate for personal gain. I don't want any bunnies exploded though either. :-)

I really like the idea that perhaps the fertility problem is a result of the DI "fixing" one of the variables in the VE, if I am understanding you correctly. What a joke on them. They got what they wanted in spades, and now they don't want it, of course.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, bigmouth.

Miss you over at Lost-tv.

Matt D. said...

Wow...just started reading this today and my hat is off to you. Here I thought my blog on LOST was interesting. Yikes...I'll be looking forward to making this a daily read!


Bigmouth said...

capcom: LOL! Don't think the thought hasn't crossed my mind. I have a feeling that course correction + changing the picture on the box = no changes to the future except those the writers want. You've put your finger on the big question when you ask why the universe wouldn't course correct where Desmond turning the key was concerned. Apparently there's something special him, that act, or both. Otherwise, why would Ms. Hawking even bother intervening to make sure he didn't buy the ring?

memphish: I've certainly considered the possibility that Ms. Hawking wasn't telling the truth -- or, at least, the full truth. But Darlton seem to be telling us with the podcast that she's the real deal. I also hear from a poster named luciditythat the extras on the Blu Ray DVD for Season 3 contains a comment by Damon that Ms. Hawking is a kind of temporal protection agent, which jibes with my belief that she's a Chronology Protection Agent.

hatchling23: That's a really great point regarding Naomi's helicopter and the impossibility of Desmond's rescue vision! Like you, I've always had a nagging suspicion that Desmond was fudging the truth about their rescue. Still, I can't imagine him sending Charlie to his death for no reason, and we do know they make it off the Island somehow -- at least, Jack and Kate. If push comes to shove, the writers can always say that Naomi's helicopter was lighter and less sturdy than the one that eventually rescues them.

As for Christian being alive, let me be clear that I'm mostly kidding. At this point, I think there's a 99% chance that he's indeed dead as the writers have repeatedly said. That residual 1% of doubt is because of the point I made above to capcom. Plus, I think a Christian resurrection would be such an awesomely mind blowing twist (Dad...?) that I keep hoping against hope it will happen despite the unlikelihood.

CF: Yep, you've nailed the basic premise. It's like Plinko on the Price is Right -- the chip may take a different trajectory each time but always ends up at the bottom.

karmavore: That's a good point that we never actually saw Penny in Desmond's visions, but he clearly believed it was supposed to be her. Interestingly, in the podcast for that episode, Darlton never actually say that Desmond changed the identity of the parachutist, just the manner in which Charlie will die. So you may well be right...

paula: That strikes me as a reasonable reading -- not the only one but certainly plausible. In the aforementioned S3 Blu Ray DVD extras, Darlton reportedly mention that Desmond interacting Charlie didn't happen originally, that it created a paradox effect. I'm assuming that means there will be at least some changes to the timeline. But how big will those changes be? I also wonder if Desmond interacting with Charlie in the past somehow sealed the latter's fate.

Lazerus: You certainly said a mouthful -- welcome! I think Ms. Hawking's conversation with Desmond only makes sense if he's at least a limited exception to the rule. As I mentioned to memphish and paula, according to the Blu Ray DVD, Ms. Hawking is supposed to be some sort of temporal protection agent, though whether she actually travels through time remains unclear. Perhaps "psychics" are people in contact with people in the future who act to prevent changes to the timeline?

I like your suggestion that the Island is a kind of amplifier of the Numbers. It's one of the few places on the planet where Fate can be altered -- the questions is why. In You Make Your Own Luck, I suggested that certain people with the power to affect probability (e.g., Hurley and Walt) are attracted to the Island. My original speculation was that Dharma wanted to aggregate and tap this luck-making power in an effort to change the core factors of the Valenzetti Equation. Now, however, I wonder if it's the Others who are trying to do something similar by taking special children like Aaron and Walt. Either way, I think the key may be the Island itself, which some people can channel mentally like Isaac of Uluru did the healing powers of his place.

I absolutely love your suggestion that the fertility problem on the Island is the result of Dharma's efforts to alter the environmental factor of overpopulation -- that's brilliant! In the Squirrels of Santa Monica, I speculated that the fertility problem was actually an immuno-contraceptive effect created by Dharma to prevent speciation on the Island. Recently, however, a poster named Jay pointed me to Audrey Niffenegger's book the Time Traveler's Wife. The protagonist and his wife have difficulty conceiving because she keeps miscarrying. It turns out her body is rejecting the fetus as a foreign body (sound familiar?) and the solution is for her to take...that's right, an immuno-suppressant! Accordingly, my guess is that fetuses conceived on the Island represent a new species -- one capable of transcending time and space -- which is why their human mothers keep rejecting them.

Lawboy: Long time, no see! And thanks for the kind words!

MattD: Welcome!

D.L. Snell's Market Scoops said...

Great theory. One problem: how could Des' choice to save Charlie in "Catch 22" change the identity of the parachutist? By the time he saves Charlie, the parachutist has already landed. So how could Desmond's choice rewrite history? It couldn't. BUT! What if the island exists in the far past?

I'm toying with the idea that the excavation site in Tunisia (as seen in "Confirmed Dead") is where the island used to be. What I'm suggesting is, the island as we know it exists in the past. Present day, the island and the surrounding ocean have become desert. If so, our Losties are trapped in the past, or in a place where time is different because of quantum mechanics (Casimir Effect, strange electromagnetic energies, etc.).

How did they get there? Some scientists speculate that wormholes exist on Earth, and this is how they explain disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (I actually saw a documentary about this not too long ago). The plane could have flown through one of these wormholes to the island. How does the island end up in Tunisia? Well if it’s as old as I think it is, plate tectonics could have moved the landmass over the centuries until, present day, it's no longer submerged and no longer in the same place.

If this is true, how can radio broadcasts and satellite phone signals reach the island? As Sayid points out, some radio waves with a high frequency can travel for thousands of miles and could come for anywhere. "Or from any time," Hurley adds. I believe the waves travel through the wormhole. In fact, Dharma could have engineered technology to broadcast and receive transmissions through the hole. (The Looking Glass, perhaps? The object that allows you to see from one world into another???) The electromagnetic energy could travel to the present through the hole as well, which is how Penny’s station in the Arctic detects the anomaly.

So what does this have to do with Desmond, course correction, and changing the picture on the box? Well if Desmond is making these choices in the far past, before Penny and Naomi’s team exist, that allows ample time for the picture on the box to change. IN THE DISTANT PAST: Desmond saves Charlie long enough for him to enter the Looking Glass and send a message into the future to Penny. For some reason, this delays Penny so that Naomi’s team reaches the island first. If Charlie hadn’t lived to send that message, Penny might have reached the island first. It doesn’t matter that Charlie sends the message AFTER the parachutist landed--because he sends it CENTURIES BEFORE Penny was even born, before any team was launched. That’s how a single choice like Desmond saving Charlie from the spear could immediately (at least on the island) change the identity of the parachutist: that single choice affects what happens (and what doesn't happen) in the future.

My capper for this theory: Desmond didn't necessarily travel back in time when the hatch blew. Perhaps he foresaw what was to come in his life--centuries later in the present. After all, he does seem to have the power of foresight. The experience was mixed with déjà vu because he’d already lived that moment.

D.L. Snell's Market Scoops said...

ADDENDUM: Brother Campbell steered Desmond toward Penny, and Ms. Hawking steered him away from her and toward the island. Hawking and Campbell, as implied by the photo on Hawking's desk, are working together. They're guides to ensure Desmond ends up where he needs to. But how does Ms. Hawking know to be in the ring shop? How does she know Desmond will end up on the island? How can she see the future? Maybe she can't. If the island exists in the distant past, and if she has knowledge of what goes on there, she could discover how Desmond got there BEFORE he even meets Penny--before he's even born.

Or she could be a figment projected by the island (or Jacob), the way Charlie might be when he visits Hurley in the institution.

D.L. Snell's Market Scoops said...

ADDENDUM 2: My first addendum does NOT explain how Ms. Hawking knew the man with red shoes was going to die...

D.L. Snell's Market Scoops said...

ADDENDUM 3: Charlotte notes that the polar bear bones are "a few million years newer than" dinosaur bones--which implies that those bones are still very, very old.

Anonymous said...

Great theory. Lazerus I was also intrigued with your ideas. I have been pondering over a similar concept but was not been quite so elequent. Also not as technical having not studied quantum theories myself, I struggle with that element in my theorising. I have been shouted down on forums - "WHH" and, "there is no course correction" but I beleive there is more to the Lost story than WHH. Has anyone been talking about the books written by Greg Egan?

Bigmouth said...

Anonymous:'s remarkable how prescient Lazerus's comment was! Your mention of Greg Egan is also timely -- I was just thinking about his book "Quarantine" and the concept therein of quantum "smearing." BTW, this is a pretty old post -- we've learned a lot since then. You might want to check out my newer post, the Desmond Exception. That's my best explanation of why, as you say, there is more to Lost than Whatever Happened, Happened.