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Unlocking the Philosophy of 'Lost'
LOS ANGELES ( On ABC's Wednesday castaway drama "Lost," con man Sawyer (Josh Holloway) sits on the beach reading Richard Adams' "Watership Down."

On its surface, the novel is about several rabbits that escape the destruction of their warren and traverse the English countryside to seek a new home. But the tale quickly becomes one of heroism, survival and friendship, and ultimately, the challenge of building a free society versus yielding to a totalitarian one. It's so much more than just bunnies on the run.

When ABC first announced "Lost," it sounded like a cross between "Survivor" and "Gilligan's Island," with plane-crash survivors on their way from Australia to Los Angeles stranded on a deserted tropical island. But before the pilot was over, the sudden appearance of a polar bear let you know, as co-creator (with Damon Lindelof) J.J. Abrams put it, "this place isn't normal."

Week by week, as the characters' histories are revealed in flashbacks, and as the island's deep strangeness makes itself gradually apparent, the show becomes less about being stranded on an island and more about what you learn once you get there.

"What is here on this island is actually going to start changing people," says Ian Somerhalder, who plays rich kid Boone. "It's nice to see that the experience on this island now is not only terrifying; it's enlightening. It's transformative.

"That's what Damon said over and over again, that the crazy thing about the show -- one of many -- is that all these people on this plane have seen each other before."

"Lost" follows in the tradition of Abrams' earlier shows, "Felicity" and "Alias." In "Felicity," a high-school graduate (Keri Russell) makes an impulsive decision to follow the object of her affection (Scott Speedman) to college in New York and discovers a whole new world both inside and out. In "Alias," what is superficially a spy drama is actually an examination of love, loss and family.

Both these shows inspired passionate devotion and debate among their fans, as do some of Abrams' favorite shows from other producers, including "Star Trek," "The X-Files" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Two "Buffy" writers, David Fury and Drew Goddard, now work on "Lost."

These shows share a willingness to tackle issues of life and death, to ponder philosophical questions and to draw on cultural references ranging from Shakespeare to Saturday morning cartoons. They also offer more questions than answers, leaving viewers to feverishly work their brains to fill in the blanks.

Sometimes a little research helps. For example, in "Lost," Terry O'Quinn (a veteran of "X-Files" and "Alias") plays John Locke, which is also the name of the Enlightenment-era British philosopher who originated the term "tabula rasa," or "blank slate," to describe the unformed state of the mind at birth.

The second episode of "Lost" was called "Tabula Rasa," and Locke has become sort of the island philosopher, moving from character to character. He found the dog belonging to young Walt (Malcolm David Kelley), helped Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) overcome drug addiction and has taken Boone under his wing.

He's also the beneficiary of a miracle. In his flashback, viewers learned that Locke had been in a wheelchair for four years but dreamed of going on walkabout in Australia. When that dream was frustrated, he got on a plane to return home -- only to discover, after the crash, that his useless legs worked. Locke has now become the hunter-warrior of his dreams.

He also saw the giant thing that prowls the island. It may have eaten the plane's pilot, but Locke was unafraid.

"He saw some huge thing coming through the trees," O'Quinn says, "and it came down face to face with him. I talked to Damon Lindelof and said, 'Something is coming through the trees. It's looking at me. Tell me something. Is it something that terrifies me? Is it God? Is it wondrous? Is it horrible?'

"He said, 'All right, I'll tell you it's the most beautiful thing that you've ever seen in your life.'"

Aside from surgeon Jack (Matthew Fox), who had visions of his dead father, Locke may be most aware that the island is not an ordinary dot in the sea, and perhaps the crash was no accident.

"He believes more than anyone," O'Quinn says, "that the island is filled with magic and mysticism and spirituality, even to the point that he has a kind of faith that strengthens all his inclinations. Maybe he can do things simply by believing he can do them.

"Walking was one miracle, and that was a miracle, so who's to say they draw the line at one? John Locke was the one that came up with the idea of tabula rasa, the clean slate, the fresh beginning, which certainly applies to our Locke and to everyone here.

"The island has awakened some sensitivity in him to other people and other things. The miracle that happened to him opened his eyes. It's like the way you hear people talk about having a near-death experience; when they come back into the world, they see it with fresh eyes. That's what happened to Locke."

Abrams and Lindelof have tapped into our fear that, at any moment, the world can be turned upside down, leaving us adrift. It's not a new notion. Stories from "Robinson Crusoe" to "Lord of the Flies" trod just the same ground.

What "Lost" adds to the mix are its flashbacks, showing how the past dogs us into the present, even if we try to escape it.

"On the island," Lindelof says, "you have this chance to reinvent yourself, and the only person who's in on the joke is the audience."

©Kate O'Hare, 01/2005,