Just seconds into the FlashForward‘s first episode, Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) emerged from unconsciousness to find total chaos. Surrounded by wrecked cars and screaming people, he snapped into heroic action, running around barking orders. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because the first episode of Lost—still believed by fans and critics to be one of the series’ finest—began precisely the same way.
While Lost took a few seasons to reveal its time-travel element, FlashForward, as its title suggests, pushes it to the forefront. The cold-open confusion was caused by a collective blackout: seemingly everyone on earth fell into a coma at once, all for the two minutes and 17 seconds. During that time, most people experienced a vision of a future sixth months from then: they saw what will happen to them on 29 April 2010, at 10pm PT.
The result was panic. Drivers, pilots, and doctors all lost consciousness, causing collisions, crashes, and deaths. When a lingering shot of a helicopter crashing into a building called to mind 9/11, it seemed that FlashForward might use the turmoil—quite spectacular on screen—as an occasion to explore how citizens and world leaders would handle a global disaster. Would individuals help each other, would communities embark on speedy clean-ups and recoveries, or would people begin marauding and looting?
Unfortunately, these questions were never addressed in the premiere. Authorities discussed the global tragedy as a logistical problem (how many hospitals went dark? How many planes were downed?) Instead of engaging in diplomacy and cooperation, the episode focused on investigation: three FBI agents—Benford, Demetri Noh (John Cho), and Janis Hawk (Christine Woods)—were assigned to figure out the cause of the blackout and the probability of its recurrence. Worse, instead of developing into an international procedural, the show immediately and extremely narrowed its focus, emulating every other unexplained-phenomenon series, from The X-Files to Fringe.
Benford and his team did notice some other discussion of the event, primarily by way of TV News reports. It was never clear how the anchors and experts compiled their information so quickly, but no one challenged their findings. A doctor explained that the hippocampus in a patient who was conveniently loaded into an MRI tube just before the flash-forward, was active for the duration. That somehow scientifically proved that the visions were not dreams or hallucinations, but “real.” People who were together in the future corroborated that they had the same visions. While the time travel in Lost remains inexplicable to this day, FlashForward was right away hard at work to ground any fantastic elements in reasonable phenomena.
To that end, the show laid on the melodrama. Benford’s wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger), saw herself with another man. His AA sponsor, Bruce (Brian F. O’Byrne), saw himself with his daughter, whom he thought had been killed in Iraq. It seemed the visions were dividing characters into two camps: those looking forward to their futures, and those now living in dread. “These visions were a gift,” said one of Olivia’s co-workers, while her babysitter lamented, “I think God did this to punish us.”
The event predictably triggered much discussion about the concept of time travel. Do the visions show one possible future or the only possible future? Does knowing the prophecy make it destined to be true (see: Oedipus), or can it be avoided somehow? For Benford at least, what he saw was destiny. He was made the head of his team because his futuristic vision included a bulletin board covered with information about the investigation. He appears to have a sixth-month head start on anyone else who might also be looking into the events (unless someone else had a similar vision.)
If the procedural plotting in FlashForward was ordinary, all the conversations about destiny and free will—and what any of it means for the poor sap who didn’t see anything during the blackout – made the first episode feel vibrant, engaged with heady concepts and questions. Hopefully, writers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer have seen a future full of innovations and surprises.