The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

Lately, when people ask Lost's producers if they're going to answer our questions, they bring up Star Wars' midichlorians, as proof that some things are better not explained. But like so many people, they're missing the real reason midichlorians sucked.

Damon Lindelof told E! Online a while back:

There are certain questions about the show that I'm very befuddled by like, 'What is the Island?' or 'What do the numbers mean?' We're going to be explaining a little more about the numbers, maybe significantly more about the numbers, but what do you mean by 'What do the numbers mean?' What is a potential answer to that question? I feel like you have to be very careful about entering into Midi-Chlorian territory. I grew up on Star Wars; I've seen the Star Wars movies hundreds of times; I can recite them chapter and verse, and never once did anyone ever say to me or did it occur to me to say, 'What is the Force, exactly? Can you explain that for me, better than Alec Guinness does?' I understand, 'When are we going to find out about Libby?' That's a very finite question. 'Who is Jacob?' OK, yes, we've been talking to this guy named Jacob, so those questions then should have answers, but 'What is the Island?' That starts to get into 'What is the Force?' It is a place. I can't explain to you why it moves through space-time-it just does. You have to accept the fact that it does.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

Carlton Cuse similarly told the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan:

I mean, mystery exists in life and we kind of always go back to the midi-chlorians example [in the 'Star Wars' prequel films]. Your understanding the Force was not aided by knowing that there were little particles swimming around in the bloodstreams of Jedi.

This is part of a wide-spread problem with midichlorians — I would say a galaxy-wide misconception, in fact. People understand that midichlorians were a terrible idea, but they don't understand why they were a terrible idea. And this misunderstanding allows storytellers to get away with saying they won't explain stuff which they really should explain.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

(And for the record, I still have faith that Lost will answer the questions that really need to be answered — including why the heck this island is so important, and why the battle over the island's future isn't just a random real-estate dispute, no different than your uncles fighting over your grandma's Florida beach condo. This isn't especially a slam against Lost — just trying to clear up a disturbance in, you know, the Force. And stuff.)

So let's break this down once and for all.

1. We already had an explanation for the Force.

Check out what Obi-Wan Kenobi says in the original Star Wars:

Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.... A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

That's actually a pretty clear-cut explanation, although it doesn't go into particle physics or anything. But compared to a lot of science-fiction explanations, it's refreshingly free of technobabble, and it's fairly specific: The Force is an "energy field created by all living beings." Possibly mystical and soul-related, as Han suggests, or possibly just some kind of life-energy. And certain people have an in-born ability to sense and interface with this life-energy.

What's so hard to understand about that?

But midichlorians actually contradict this explanation. All of a sudden, instead of there being an energy field that "binds the galaxy together," there are little microscopic life forms inside of the Jedi, allowing them to... do what? What do the microscopic entities have to do with the galaxy-wide life force? Are they like symbiotes that allow you to connect to the energy field? If the Force is in every living thing, then why do only some people have midichlorians? Does the Dark Side of the Force have different-flavored midichlorians than the light side?

What was a fairly clear-cut explanation suddenly becomes incredibly muddled.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

It's like the sort of thing that happens to superheroes all the time. Spider-Man used to have a clear-cut (if silly) explanation for his powers: he was bitten by a radioactive spider. But then, at some point, the writers of his comic decided there needed to be a "Spider totem" involved, and a spider queen, and Anansi knows what else. Flash suddenly had to have the "Speed Force" bolted on top of his previously simple origin, and Green Lantern had to have a whole emotional spectrum, with different colored rings for different emotions. And so on. It's part of the nature of retcons: What was once simple becomes baroque.

Instead of building on the explanation we already had, Phantom Menace demolished it to put up an ugly new monstrosity.

2. If someone had told you Episode I explains more about the Force and how it works, you'd have been stoked.

Seriously. Imagine if, back in 1998, someone had told you the new movie includes the Jedi finding young Anakin and discovering his huge potential Force powers — including the means by which they determine that the Force is moving strongly in this one. You'd have thought, "Ooh, Lucas is going to open up the mysteries of the Jedi. There'll be cool Yoda-esque koans and riddles and spiritual disciplines, and possibly more blindfolds."

And you'd have been right — in theory, more understanding of the Force would have been a good thing. It's one of the coolest things about Star Wars. If you wanted to go back in time and take all of the discussion of the Force out of Empire Strikes Back, I would have to go back in time and stop you, because that stuff all rules. So yeah, more of that type of exploration of the Force would have been terrific.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

It's not that midichlorians were an explanation for something which should have been mysterious — it's more that they were a dumb, ridiculous technobabble concoction. And they're not an explanation you can build on, which is even worse. You can build a whole architecture on top of "an energy field that connects all living beings," and the original trilogy did, quite well. But you can't build on top of "microscopic critters in the blood."

It's the difference between explanation (Empire Strikes Back) and hand-waving (Phantom Menace). What the Force is, and how it works, is something that we're better off being shown, through examples like Yoda's Taoist teachings. Telling us how the Force works, by tossing around silly jargon, isn't really an explanation — it's just Lucas flailing around with a glue-gun, sticking things together randomly.

So your take-away point here is that it's not that explanations are bad — ham-handed, idiotic explanations that make things less cool are bad.

3. Star Wars never made "What is the Force?" into a central mystery.

There's a reason that Star Wars explains what the Force is the very first time we hear about its existence: It's part of the set-up. We're not supposed to sit around wondering what the Force is, except to the extent that we see Luke learning how to use it. Luke's lessons in the Force are our way in to understanding its subtleties — but the over-arching question of what the Force is? We know that from square one.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

Likewise, we're not really supposed to wonder how the Enterprise flies on Star Trek, or how the TARDIS dematerializes on Doctor Who, or how the ships can "jump" on Battlestar Galactica. Those things are not set up as huge mysteries that the characters are trying to get to the bottom of. We don't get tossed clues about the nature of the Enterprise's engines. The mystery of the Enterprise's engines and how they work does not deepen over time. Scotty does not say "I'm doin' the best I can, Cap'n, but I canna understand what these Dilithium crystals have to do with anti-matter in the first place!" Every now and then, these shows will throw fans a bone, by mentioning some new details of how these things work. But we're not supposed to think of these things as central mysteries to be solved.

The Force is the same way.

Lost's island, though, is mysterious from the moment our castaways crash on it, and its mysteries deepen in every episode. Even now, I constantly see promos for Lost reruns which show Charlie asking where the hell this place is. The show has gone out of its way to play up the mystery of what the island is, and who Jacob is, and how the Man In Black got there, and so on. It is the central mystery of the show, and one I still have great confidence will be resolved, in spite of Cuse and Lindelof's statements trying to lower our expectations.

The Real Problem With MidichloriansS

Why would Cuse and Lindelof be trying to lower our expectations anyway? Could it be because they saw another show with a cult following, which promised "all will be revealed," over and over again, and then turned out to have a somewhat... idiosyncratic definition of the word "all"? But let's not reopen old wounds.

The point is, there's a difference between your set-up and your big mysteries. We don't expect Lost to explain how the plane that crashed on the island was able to fly in the first place — Even though I don't fully comprehend all the principles of aerodynamics that go into keeping a jet plane in the air, I know they work because I've flown in them. I'm not even looking for a detailed explanation of, say, how the island is able to move through time and space. We've seen it work, so we know it works, and we've gotten enough details about unique magnetic forces to let us fill in the blanks.

But when you set up something as a central mystery and you make people start talking about it in grandiose terms (i.e., referring to the island as more important than, say, Tuvalu) then you owe us an explanation, all right. It doesn't have to be a series of diagrams or schematics, or go into ridiculous detail. It shouldn't contradict what we've already learned. And it would be nice if it had some element of showing along with the telling. But one way or another, if you make a big deal out of asking a question, then you have to provide an answer. That's just basic storytelling.

So let's stop using midichlorians as shorthand for "explaining stuff which should remain a mystery." Midichlorians are more like "a clumsy retcon that screws up an explanation we already had."