Beyond the Looping of Science and Wonder
By Yong Shu Hoong
Over home-cooked dinner, Gaddis (played by Ato Essandoh, in the TV series, Tales from the Loop) shares with his hosts why he prefers living further from town, and nearer to the woods. "I'm a birder," he explains to his colleagues, Loretta (Rebecca Hall) and her husband George (Paul Schneider), "I watch birds." When George asks him what he likes about birds, he replies, "Well, they're a window into a world that's right next to ours. The way they look, their unique calls… they're perfect."
Indeed, what's not to like about birds? As for this Amazon Prime Video series launched unceremoniously this April, there's something so subtle and light (and some might say, ordinary) in the manner it treats the genre of science fiction that it might well be a case of love or hate for the viewers. Hoai-Tran Bui, in her review published on slashfilm.com, says that it "often toes the line between beguiling and boring." Sci-fi fans, weaned on the technological imagination of Netflix's dystopian series, Black Mirror, would be hard-pressed to find the required wow-moments in Tales from the Loop to feed their attention span. Moreover, it seems more interested in the questions about humanity it raises than providing the answers to satisfy our curiosity about the bewildering situations and occurrences that crop up in the unfolding of stories.
In an article published in The Icarus Question, Gene Tracy, who is Chancellor Professor of Physics at the College of William & Mary, claims that "science fiction explores what it means to be human in the truest way." Using the Star Trek TV and film franchise, H.G. Wells' novels and, of course, Philip K. Dick's masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as examples, Tracy writes, "Where fantasy tries to rekindle our sense that the world just might contain magic, science fiction more often directly interrogates how our penchant for invention might be the undoing of the species because, as our machines gain in power and subtlety, our designs reveal more fully who we are, and what we truly desire."
I'm neither an expert (in study or writing) of speculative fiction in general, nor a die-hard sci-fi connoisseur, though I admit I have a space-age romantic short story, 'Chelsea in the Sky', among my late-1980s juvenilia, and do enjoy following Black Mirror, and other hit shows like Stranger Things and Westworld, on streaming services. The truth is I've never doubted science fiction's ability to reflect the meanings of life and human existence. What I do find surprisingly refreshing in Tales from the Loop is its matter-of-fact aloofness about strangeness. Its world might be a dystopian one, but you get a sense of gradual crumbling, rather than outright mayhem. And there are no villains in this anthology of stories; the characters have mostly themselves, and perhaps the people they love, to drive the conflicts.
In Episode 6 'Parallel', directed by Charlie McDowell (who won acclaim for 2014's The One I Love), Gaddis is a security officer working at the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics located on the outskirts of Mercer, Ohio, in the United States. The mysterious underground facility is also nicknamed the Loop, and presumably all the weird happenings that occur in its vicinity to employees and residents can be traced to its top-secret work which is never fully explained. In the case of Gaddis, he discovers a non-operational tractor in a field near his house one day. The owner – who Gaddis assumes to be the man in a photograph he finds in the tractor – is nowhere to be found. For some reason, perhaps because the man is playing the piano in the photo (Gaddis loves music, especially blues) or he is extremely good-looking, or both, Gaddis finds himself powerfully drawn to this person he knows nothing about.
After getting the tractor repaired, Gaddis presses its ignition button and manages to get the engine started before it sputters to a halt. Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary, until he returns to his house, only to find that it is no longer the home that he knows but a cluttered storage space. When he walks over to his neighbours' house and peeps through its window, he finds someone playing on the piano – the same person in the photo he found on the tractor. And when Gaddis knocks on the door, who should answer but a person who looks just like him!
Apparently, the tractor has some inexplicable ability to transport Gaddis to a parallel world, where the Loop has been decommissioned, and where another version of him – who is more confident and comfortable with his sexuality – lives openly with another man, Alex (played by Spanish model and actor, Jon Kortajarena), the good-looking piano player in the photo.
Fascinated by Gaddis, Gaddis 2 is elated over gaining a pal who shares not only his exact same looks but also his interests. Rummaging through Gaddis 2's record collection, Gaddis asks if he has heard of Sleepy John Estes, but apparently this blues musician doesn't exist in this parallel world. On another day, the two go out birdwatching. (In case you're wondering, they use old-school binoculars, and A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson is still the trusty bible that birders turn to.)
Just as the characters in the story have surmised, I've also deduced that the tractor has somehow opened up a wormhole transporting Gaddis into this other dimension and maybe, just maybe, restarting the tractor can return Gaddis to where he came from. This is duly attempted but doesn't work as envisaged, so Gaddis is stuck in this new world for now.
At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the setting of Tales from the Loop is based on a 2014 art book of the same title by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag (b. 1984). The exact time period is hard to tell from the TV series – anywhere from 1960s to present day – but the look and feel is undeniably retrofuturistic, so a character like Gaddis listens to blues music from a vinyl record played on a turntable, while others pick up calls on landlines rather than smartphones. And scenes of workers entering the Loop, against the backdrop of brutalist cooling towers, remind me of a L.S. Lowry painting, 'Going to Work' (1959). At the same time, no one bats an eyelid when mechanised robots roam the surroundings with precise hydraulic movements, and intriguing industrial objects are found, abandoned like shipwrecks, around the woods.
Stålenhag's book is a slice of alternative history set in Sweden, with hyper-realistic paintings of childhood memories of what life is like in the 1980s, growing up in a suburban area located above a giant particle accelerator which local residents dubbed "Slingan" ("the Loop"). In 2013, after gaining attention online with his artworks, he explains the evolving backstory behind his Wacom-created images to Wired: "Since the 1950s, the government has been running a huge particle collider and research facility a couple of miles outside of Stockholm. The facility is located underground and features a lot of experimental technology. All through the 50s, 60s and 70s, everything goes splendidly, but just like with the Swedish welfare state during that time, the system starts to erode. And bad things follow. The images on my website chronicle the lives of the people of that world and how they are affected by the downfall of that behemoth science project. We don't know yet how it will end."
Counting Swedish landscape and ornithological artists, like Gunnar Brusewitz (1924–2004) and Lars Jonsson (b. 1952), among his influences, Stålenhag has filled his reimagined 1980s Sweden with not just Volvo cars of that period, but also robots, androids and dinosaurs (the TV series doesn't include prehistorical creatures in its universe). In an interview with Forbes, the show's creator Nathaniel Halpern explains, "Usually you do an adaptation from text and here you have these visual, quite striking paintings, and how do you translate that into and use that as inspiration to another visual medium? Every episode is linked to a particular painting and just being inspired by it and sensing what emotion I was getting from that and also what story was there to be told within that painting. Simon's work has a degree of ambiguity in it, which I also try to be faithful to without it leaning into mystery. You just have a window into this reality and the characters."
The result is eight episodes that each contains a standalone story written by Halpern, though there is a sense of continuity with the characters and their relationships forged by family, friendship and/or work. Both the cast line-up and the personnel behind the production are impressive. The executive producers include Matt Reeves (director of Cloverfield and The Batman) and Mark Romanek (director of Never Let Me Go). Fresh from his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for The Two Popes (2019), Jonathan Pryce plays the Loop's founder Russ, who is also the father of George. George's mother, and the wife of Russ, is played by Jane Alexander (The Great White Hope, Testament), another Oscar nominee. Loretta and George have two sons – the firstborn Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri) and the youngest Cole (Duncan Joiner). Danny (Tyler Barnhardt) is Jakob's best friend. As the series proceeds, you'd find that the focus of each episode shifts among the characters.
For example, in the pilot episode directed by Romanek, a young girl is on a desperate search for her mother, an employee of the Loop who has gone missing after conducting an unauthorised experiment at home. In fact, the entire home seems to have vaporised, leaving its boundary markings on the snow and an odd-looking palm-sized object that could be the clue to resolving the mystery. Cole befriends this girl, and tries to get his mother to help, but she is too busy with her own affairs to even hear him out. This sets off a recurring theme of the series: the disconnection between childhood and adulthood. And the ideal parent-child relationship is often seen as elusive in a world of technological optimism and never-ending work of higher purpose.
The pilot episode is prefaced by an introduction by Pryce, who appears onscreen after a short title sequence set to original music composed by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan. Speaking as his character Russ, he explains the aim of the Loop is "to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe" – a rather grandiose promise, which very quickly recedes into something more laid-back: "As a result of our research, you will see here sights that, well, you'd say were impossible. And yet, there they are."
This reminds me of the original The Twilight Zone TV series that ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1964. Every episode opens with a voice-over introduction by creator Rod Serling (for Tales from the Loop, the intro sequence is restricted only to Episode 1). One of Serling's introductions reads: "You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone." In contrast, Pryce's narration ends with a rather hesitant "So, where now to begin?"
The remaining episodes of Tales from the Loop are helmed by diverse filmmakers including Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), actress-director Jodie Foster, So Yong Kim and Ti West. The bizarre phenomena the characters find themselves in include the malleable nature of time, the interchangeability of physical bodies, as well as connections between humans and man-made machinery or intelligence. But often the reactions of the characters are low-key – akin to, say, how you find a wallet on a sidewalk one day and choose to take advantage of the situation by keeping it for yourself, or how you yourself have lost a wallet and you accept or get resigned to the loss.
Ultimately, the beauty of this series is distilled from the very universal themes of human existence and interpersonal relationships it imbues – from the question of what it would be like to live someone else's life, exhorted in one episode, to notions of discrimination and isolation, as well as family-centric values such as parental responsibilities and the bond between siblings, between parent and child (or grandparent and grandchild). So, my earlier reference to The Twilight Zone notwithstanding, Tales from the Loop actually comes across more as a sci-fi version of On Golden Pond (1981), a heart-warming film that critic Roger Ebert describes as a "witness to human growth and change".
For example, Episode 4 'Echo Sphere', directed by Stanton, opens with Cole spending idyllic time with his grandparents, chasing after fireflies at night. As Russ and Cole walk through the countryside on another day, they stumble upon a large globule structure (reminiscent of the Death Star from Star Wars), left rusting in the open. The structure informs one how long one would live, from the echoes it resonates from that person's voice. When Cole hollers "Hello!" into the hollow of the globe, there are six echoes in response. Russ gets no echo, as he has just received bad news from his doctor. While it's obvious that between Russ and his son George there remains some unthawed coldness, Russ and Cole, on the other hand, speak heart to heart, dying grandfather to favourite grandson, about the afterlife – what an innocent child earnestly wishes for, against the practical answers of a scientific mind that doesn't quite believe in any religious concept of paradise. But can the Loop, especially the mysterious pulsating core that powers all its research, make the most impossible thing possible: to reverse the dying process?
Episode 8 'Home', the final instalment of the series directed by Foster, attempts to tie up the loose ends left behind by previous episodes. Cole is now searching to reconnect with his brother Jakob, who has taken on an entry-level job at the Loop and moved away from the family home. Instead of enjoying the extra space in the bedroom he used to share with Jakob, Cole misses his brother, who is busy with work and has become more emotionally distant. I shall not reveal too much in terms of how the series wraps up, but the ending episode does echo what has been reflected in Episode 4: the inevitable passing of time (even though, in this world, time can be manipulated) as dictated by the law and order of nature.
But looping back to the episode that I started this essay with: in contrast to how the wish for things to remain unchanged is ultimately a futile one in Episode 4 and Episode 8, there is a lining of hope in Episode 6 for anyone stuck in a less-than-ideal situation seeking an escape towards something better. Is romantic love the perfect cure for the loneliness that can drive one mad with longing?
When Gaddis expresses admiration for the love he sees in the married life of Loretta and George, or between Gaddis 2 and Alex, the reply he gets is: Nothing in this world is perfect. Yet, Gaddis insists on romanticising the migration of the golden plover from South America to the Arctic tundra to mate: "I think it's romantic, going that far for love." He would go to the ends of the world, or another world, to find love. And after the first taste of it, he is unable to return to life as it was before. How human it is, this aspect of love!
Tales from the Loop is exactly that, so very human. It isn't just a compilation of mind-bending, gravity-defying tales about science and wonder, but a reminder that we constantly learn something extraordinary about ourselves from deep within, and from nature, in things as ordinary as birds, yet perfect in every way. The series starts as it does, and ends where it should. I don't yet know if there will be a second season, but as far as I'm concerned, Tales from the Loop has said all it needs to say, and if there's anything left to do, it is to let time pass and, when required, return to these stories for repeat affirmation.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020