ABC has come out with a shiny and confusing new show called FlashForward, based on Robert Sawyer's novel Flash Forward. However, controversy (as much as the whining of hard sci-fi fans can be termed "controversy") has surrounded the show's implementation of time travel. Until recently, I had been on the side of "Oh no, Hollywood screwed it up again," but, the most recent episode of FlashForward, "The Gift", has now clarified the bizarre (but workable) version of time travel that the show is using.

I will now attempt to explain the phenomenon without going over the layperson's head.

The premise of FlashForward is that on October 6, 2009, the entire planet loses consciousness for 137 seconds and during that time sees themselves on April 29, 2010. The lead character, FBI Agent Mark Bemford, sees himself working late in his office on an investigation codenamed "Mosaic", concerning the blackout itself. Agent Demetri Noh sees nothing in his blackout, leading him to fear that he will die in the next six months. Other characters' visions appear to be of relatively normal events in their lives, albeit dramatized for the sake of being interesting to TV viewers.

Any viewer with a cursory understanding of time travel is now waving a big red flag because Mark's vision appears to imply a fixed timestream model, while the other visions imply a divergent timestreams model. For the uninitiated, I'll now briefly explain the two major categories of time travel:

  • Fixed Timestream - In this model, there is exactly one timestream (or timeline, if you prefer) that can be interacted with. Therefore, when the characters see the future, they see exactly what they will be doing on April 29, 2010, and any attempts they may make to change this future will ultimately fail to make a difference. Mark's vision of the Mosaic board would imply such a model.
  • Divergent Timestreams - This model begins the same way as the fixed model. However, any time that a time travel event occurs that causes something from the future to return to the past, the timestream splits off into two lines. The original line (hereafter abbreviated as TS0), is where anything that came from the future to the past originally came from. However, the past will not proceed to that point and intersect with it, rather, it proceeds along the new timestream (hereafter TS1, etc.) and on April 29, 2010, will be different than the future that was seen. This seems to correspond with the "average" experiences that the rest of the characters witness.

Clearly, Hollywood appears to be playing both models at the same time--but are they? I propose that the writers of the show are following a slightly more complicated version of the divergent timestreams model. This model has three timestreams, which resolves many of the inconsistencies present in a use of either of the simplified models. Before making my claims, I will acknowledge that I am trying to force the series into the model I have come up with, and as such it is quite possible that there will be little snags, and as it unfolds, the series could very easily completely contradict this model.

We begin at TS0, the original state of things before D. Gibbons and his pals decide to muck up the timestreams and cause everyone lots of headaches. In the flashforward in TS0, everybody sees a bunch of boring, everyday stuff happening. We'll never know what exactly they saw, but we do know that Mark did not see any Mosaic board.

Now we move into TS1, as Mark starts to work on an investigation of the incident, but he isn't having all that much success. It is unlikely that the investigation has been given prominence at the office, as none of his coworkers' visions relate to it, and Mark does seem to have retracted from his life (thus his apparent separation from Olivia and the drinking). Though it may seem contrived, it is entirely possible that Mark has been aggregating evidence collected by many separate investigations into the blackout on his board, and all of those events were carried out by other people.

Then TS2 begins, where the events of TS1 are sent back in time. Because of this, Mark has a head start on his investigation, yet the rest of the world still has moderately normal visions because there wasn't much ripple into their lives. The inability of Janis to have a baby and Al's suicide clarify that the flashforward cannot be from TS2's future, because their flashforwards cannot happen. As the episodes move farther and farther away from the time of the flashforwards, Mark's information may become less relevant, as the changes made to the timeline may erase old leads and produce new ones.

As I said before, there are several snags in this interpretation of the timelines, but this approach seems to be the only viable way to reconcile Mark's vision with the other mundane visions. Feel free to /msg me if any corrections occur to you, and I will try to update this writeup as new details surface in the episodes.

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