The LOST art of self defence: The Midichlorian Gambit

Anakin: Master Qui Gon, I heard Master Yoda talking about Midichlorians. I’ve been wondering; Sir, what are Midichlorians?

Qui-Gon: Well, Anakin, inside every living franchise there are concepts. The franchise and concepts are symbiotes. When the concepts get over explained and ruin everything around them, the franchise gets very sick ,and that sickness is called ‘Midichlorians’.

The Midichlorian Gambit, as applied to LOST, has some good arguments. Midichlorians, as a semi scientific explanation of the Force, is just the kind of thing Sci-fi geeks should love. Yet it is hated with the passion of a thousand suns, by exactly those people. Isn’t asking for further explanation in LOST just like asking for Midichlorians?

The counter arguments also have their moments: There was no need to explain the Force, and suddenly explaining it halfway through the franchise was changing its nature, not illuminating it. No one ever advertised Star Wars asking ‘What/is/THE FORCE?’, and the Force exists in its own universe with its own rules, LOST is supposed to occur in ours, and if you want narrative plausibility then when you break the rules of our universe you need to explain it somehow.

Ahhh, say the pros, they’re not that different. Wasn’t the hatch at its best when we first discovered it? You weren’t that keen on the ‘whispers’ explanation, and doesn’t any explanation run the same risk of massive exposition scenes which are a) Dull as shit and b) only lessen the concepts they’re supposed to enhance?

The LOST- Midichlorian Flame Wars as the participants would like to remember them.

The arguments are well known and while the original flame wars have died down, the application of The Midichlorian Gambit to other branches of fiction continually generates new perspectives on the mystery/payoff balance in fiction. Like this one:

Midichlorians, it’s not so much what they are, or that they are, but how you handle them.

Really. Because if you’re going to use Midichlorians as a reason not to explain things, at some point you have to acknowledge the Midichlorian explanation was a retcon written by a man with retconning skills so bad that They Are Legend (C-3PO was built by Anakin, R2D2 has jets, Padme dies for no reason, Yoda happens to know Chewbacca and {stands and salutes} Greedo shot first). Mr Lucas also sets the bar for unbelievable dialogue.


The Phantom Menace

George Lucas, when writing solo, can’t write a love scene, or a scene between friends that feels unforced or plausible. So when he gets into something that really needs a serious skill set and maybe a bit of misdirection, he just beats the audience over the head with a sail barge instead. So, at the three quarter point of Phantom Menace we get this line, delivered abruptly, apropos of nothing else that is happening in the scene, by a wooden nine year old. Let’s review:

Anakin (Out of bloody nowhere): Master Qui Gon, I heard Master Yoda talking about Midichlorians. I’ve been wondering; Sir, what are Midichlorians?

Qui Gon:Yuuuuurrrrggghhh

A lot of smack has been talked about the young, and now immortalised, version of Jake Lloyd. But given that Liam Neeson and Ewan Mcgregor struggled with all their experience to deliver some kind of believability to their hobbling characters, we should cut the kid some slack and recognise that while he contributed, it wasn’t his fault that the line failed. Handing him this massive, charging clunker to sell was just evil. Michael Gambon, I mean Michael Freaking Gambon, could not have delivered that line to payoff. And as it takes up one of only two occasions that the concept is mentioned, this means that that scene is half of the Midichlorian concept, and it is so terribly, jarringly bad it makes you want to claw your ears off.


The Whispering Afterlife: Only a few bad life choices away

The whispers were served much better by the LOST writers. The explanation is a bit lame, (it’s the dead who are stuck, and no, they have nothing useful to tell you) but at least it’s delivered convincingly. Hugo’s been seeing the dead for some time now, and there’s been increasing business with the dead during the season, so while Michael does turn up a little abruptly, it doesn’t feel intrusive or too unrealistic, given the turn the series has taken. The lines also have the emotional hook of Michael’s regret, which is convincingly and even rather beautifully portrayed. It’s not a ‘Wow’ moment, but it’s nowhere near ‘Yuuuurrrggh’, it’s ‘Huh, O.K.’. The audience might not have been bowled over because, when you get down to it, that explanation is weak sauce that needs you to suddenly accept a lot of other assumptions to work. But the delivery got it accepted with minor expressions of disappointment, rather than a flame war.

You’ve been talking a lot about Midichlorians. I’ve been wondering, what are Midichlorians?

If you’re trying to add a layer of explanation to an existing concept, try not to do it in a way that makes the audience feel like the author marched into frame with a footnote they’ve attached to a rampaging gorilla. Because that is Midichlorians.


The Phantom Menace: Retconning the universe in order to support a character

Obi-Wan (Phantom Version): The reading’s off the chart master, over 20,000. Even master Yoda doesn’t have a Midichlorian count that high.

Midichlorians aren’t even an explanation; they’re a retcon of the central thesis. And the reason they have to exist isn’t to fill in a problem with the concept of the Force; it’s to fill in a problem with the depiction of Anakin in episode I. The whole reason Midichlorians exist is so that Obi Wan can deliver the line above.

Anakin Is Special. We know George is a teller, not a shower, so he has to tell us how special Anakin is. Anakin’s ‘specialness’ is given a nice, neat, empirical gauge in the line above and it’s the only time Midichlorians ever impact on the story (Their later exposition moment is just that, doing absolutely nothing else). This is what they’re there for, it’s the only thing they do.

If it was to explain the Force, then wouldn’t you have a sceptical character say ‘Didn’t they prove that was just microorganisms in the blood, or something?’ Queue Qui Gon dismissing them as ‘merely a conduit’ and breaking out the Yoda poetry.

Yoda (Empire Version): The force surrounds us, flows through us, luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter… (Smack pupil adorably with pimp stick, get justly fired by Degobah education board, live off fandom worship for decades)

Sure, it’s not ideal, but it shows it was possible to retcon Midichlorians without massacring the wider concept of the Force. It’s not done like this because that would do nothing for the real purpose of Midichlorians, which is tell us just how special Anakin is (he’s 20,000 special, sorry over 20,000 special).

Of course, the tragedy is that Anakin would have been better left alone. The audience was ready to accept Anakin as special, even without a Midichlorian count, or the most important, yet least quoted prophecy in the universe. We know he’s going to be Darth Vader, we know he’s going to be the Emperor’s indispensible right hand man in subjugating the galaxy, and have terrifying sith powers. The audience accepted Luke as special on way less. It’s also a narrative convention; even without the back story we don’t need that much prodding to accept that the main character is special, most of the time they are. But, you know, Anakin is really special and Lucas, batter, sailbarge.

LOST: Retconning characters in order to support your universe

Drink this, you’re now a wizard, because of that light there.

In the beginning Jacob and his brother were people. They lived with their adopted mother of dubious morality (who was probably a smoke monster) on a moving island with a very special and important light. Then Jacob became special by having a drink with his mother in front of the light, and his brother became something else (also special) by being thrown into the light. They fought and fought throughout the years, unable to kill each other because their mother had somehow made it so. Jacob and his brother influenced all the people that came to the island, and had special powers including, but not exclusive to –

Bringing people to the island by touching them at some point, taking the form of the dead (reversible), taking the form of the dead stage 2 (permanent), mind reading, psychic lighthouse use, remotely curing cancer and paralysis, ability to get people to kill the other brother but only if the other brother didn’t speak to them, being a smoke monster, influencing tsunamis, causing people to survive implosions, affecting probability, giving people numbers and thereby making those numbers so special they repeat all the time, hieroglyph displays on timing equipment, influence over people who are unconscious, getting people to travel in time and space, restrictions on travel over ash piles, coming back from the dead for as long as a fire that includes your remains lasts, immortality, transferable immortality, invisibility, telekinesis, being able to see people’s futures, and becoming fully mortal when a cork in the light is removed.

And that’s how everything happened.

You’ve been talking a lot about Midichlorians. I’ve been wondering, what are Midichlorians?

Don’t warp your entire universe at a very late stage in order to support a character. That’s Midichlorians. Don’t warp two characters at a very late stage to in order to support your entire universe. That’s LOST.

You’ve been talking a lot about Midichlorians. I’ve been wondering, did you get to a conclusion or what?

Midichlorians aren’t an explanation, they’re a retcon. A retcon written by notorious and terrible retconner, delivered like a cowpat on the Mona Lisa, and as an alternative to character development.

I don’t think it’s setting the bar too high to expect explanations that are a little better than that. If you have it in your pocket while you write the rest of the universe, you shouldn’t explode the universe when you reveal it. Deliver it well, and as the whispers show, you can get a surprising amount of implausibility in under the radar with your audience, with minimal grumbling. Do it because something needs to be explained rather than because you failed to write/cast/direct a character to your satisfaction, and you shouldn’t wreck everything else around it.

Problem solved? No. Not entirely.

Because when you take away all the other reasons Midichlorians suck, there’s a central thread to The Midichlorian Gambit whose veracity cannot be denied.

Mysteries are almost always greater than their explanation

Even solid, thought through reveals are unlikely to live up to the mysteries they replace. The unknown is bigger and scarier than the known, and it can be populated by whatever is in your audience’s own head. But does giving it definition risk or guarantee a huge let down? Let’s look beyond the little symbiotes to the wider argument of which they are one (pretty unrepresentative) example.

Michael Myers, way scarier from 100 feet away

Halloween: No one really wants to know what made Michael Myers a psychopath, beyond that little potted bio, combined with ‘we don’t know what he is, or why he is’, delivered in full portentous mode that we got from Donald Pleasance in the original. Explaining it just makes him a lot less scary, and quite a bit duller. Go away, Rob Zombie.

The Dharma Initiative: Before – Shadowy, powerful, deceptive and freaky. After – A pile of dead hippies.

War of the Worlds (2005): Massive, alien, impersonal killing machines become less scary when you find out they are piloted by three legged ID4 knockoffs that will spend time going through your junk if you let them.

The Dark Knight: Pulling away the origin explanation gave new life to a fifty year old character we thought we knew; allowing him to go from a chemically scarred, insane ex-mobster with a pun obsession to what existential nihilists would be if existential nihilists weren’t whingeing pussies.

Rousseau’s broadcast: Before – a terrified voice from the grave, warning of a previous disaster that decimated people in the same position our heroes are in right now! Recorded in extreme peril and right before her death! And they don’t even know, because it’s in French and they can’t access the translation on Lostpedia! After – Oh, she survived after all. She’s fine, she’s right over there in fact. She’s pretty damn crazy, so the terrifying presence and ‘infection’ were probably all in her head. Bummer.

But there’s a reason there’s an ‘almost’ in the line above

And it’s there because a carefully constructed explanation can, on occasions, kick mysteries’ ass.

The Omen (Original, naturally): Because in every step Thorne takes on his journey to discover who his son is, the world gets darker, freakier and more intense. From Thorne’s journey to that hospital up to opening the coffin there’s a slow build up of revelations that get him and you ready to believe exactly who Damien is, without lessening the threat of the character.

The Other 48 Days: Exhaustively discussed in another post. You find out who they are and what happened to them and it’s all so carefully and consistently done it doesn’t lessen them, and actually increases the sense of menace of the island and the others. The construction is also hidden well enough that it doesn’t slip into ‘meta’ viewing. And the resolution to the radio call that originated in Season 1 was pure gold. Sure, it lost it’s scary, but in such a perfect way you didn’t care.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows : From ‘What’s with these wands, then?’ to what really happened at the top of the astronomy tower, even if the deii ex machine are entirely visible, watching them click together to form the resolution to the series is incredibly saitsfying in and of itself.

Babylon 5 , War Without End (Season 3): Companion piece to (Babylon Squared, Season 1). Both parts interlock perfectly to produce a full story you wouldn’t have seen coming at the conclusion of the first, when you were happy to accept Sinclair’s ‘I guess we’ll never know’. Turns out he was wrong and it was awesome. In fact most of Babylon 5’s reveals were of pretty high quality (How and why did the Earth/Mimbari war end? What are the Vorlons and Shadows?) Also, their resolution often picked up the story and gave it a new impetus and direction, so even if the explanation wasn’t so great, you were moving on and following the consequences instead of mourning the death of the mystery.

Where’s my Minority Report? You don’t have one. Bam.

Breaking Bad, Crazy Handful of Nothin (Season 1) : In the episode open it’s a very different Walter we see, in a strange and dangerous situation. In a way that never seems contrived we get to spend the rest of the episode ticking off the difference points as they appear and are explained, inexorably leading him to the future we saw at the beginning. Compare and contrast to the end of Season 2, which tried the same trick, but was as unlikely and contrived (and therefore as unconvincing) as all get out.

Yeah, conclusion?

Explanations aren’t always a let down, but they always run that risk. How much of a let down they are depends on how carefully thought through they were. Careful construction, continuity, and resulting consequences can lessen or remove the depressing effect of the loss of mystery. For extra points, the highly skilled can try dropping some tangential or camouflaged clues to give the audience a ‘I should have seen that coming. Didn’t.’ moment. But if you’ve mercilessly built up that mystery, over multiple seasons then whatever you’ve got in your pocket needs to be hitting all three C’s, and hitting them hard. If it turns out you were building it up while your pockets were entirely empty, then yes, you might just find that all you’ve got is a handful of Midichlorians.

That won’t just disappoint an audience with high expectations; it’ll disappoint an audience that has any. So yes, under those circumstances, keeping the mystery is better. But let’s be clear, if that’s the reason it’s being done, then it’s not because all explanations are doomed to disappoint, it’s because what you just scrawled on the back of a fag packet would.

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