Entry updated 8 April 2019. Tagged: TV.
US tv series (2008-2013). Created by J J Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci. Producers include Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, Bryan Burk, and Jeff Pinkner. Directors include Brad Anderson, Joe Chappelle, Fred Toye, and Akiva Goldsman. Writers include Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, J H Wyman, and Goldsman. Cast includes Anna Torv as Agent Olivia Dunham, John Noble as Dr Walter Bishop, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, Lance Reddick as Agent Phillip Broyles, Blair Brown as Nina Sharp, and Jasika Nicole as Agent Astrid Farnsworth. 100 one-hour episodes.
Abrams's third genre show – following Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010) – starts off as a science fiction/Horror procedural in which FBI agent Dunham recruits Scientist Walter Bishop (who has spent the better part of twenty years confined to a mental institution) and his son and caretaker Peter to investigate cases relating to "fringe science" – weird and unexplained phenomena whose source invariably turns out to be a heedless attempt to push back the limits of human knowledge. The premise, which pits rational, rule-governed investigation against cases that seem to defy the laws of nature, recalls The X-Files (1993-2002), while the characters' situations and relationships are clearly borrowed from Alias – Olivia, like Alias's Sydney, is the vulnerable but supremely capable super-agent who starts the series reeling from the death of her lover, while Peter and Walter are hesitantly trying to repair their relationship after years of separation, resentment, and misunderstanding, mirroring Sydney's relationship with her own father. But where The X-Files and Alias relied on strong writing to counteract the inherent silliness of their story, Fringe's writing is quite thin. Standalone episodes are dull and predictable, often revealing that the perpetrator has based their work on research conducted by Walter or his old lab partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, a casting coup presumably attributable to Abrams directing, and Kurtzman and Orci writing, the 2009 feature film reboot of the Star Trek franchise, in which Nimoy was the only returning cast member), and relying for their effect on vivid and increasingly imaginative scenes of gore and grotesquerie. The characters, meanwhile, are underwritten. Noble is the show's greatest asset, playing the Mad Scientist to the hilt as someone who is both daffy and sinister, and often elevating insipid plots with his crack comic timing and the hints of sorrow and guilt that underlie his tales of Drug-addled escapades in the 1960s and 1970s. He can't carry the series on his own, however, and as the horrific consequences of Walter's experiments begin to come to light, Fringe's dependence on Noble becomes an impediment – the writers constantly defusing our disgust at his actions with a few well-timed scatological jokes and a hangdog expression, because they can't afford to make him the Villain that he ought by rights to be.
Despite its inept execution, Fringe is notable, and on occasion watchable, for two reasons. The first is that as the series draws on it reveals a complex science-fictional plot arc that ultimately sidelines (if not, to this point, eliminates) the limp standalone stories. As part of his experiments Walter is revealed to have opened a door to an alternate universe (see Parallel Worlds). This incursion caused catastrophic damage to the alternate Earth, and in the third season many episodes are set on that Earth and focus on the alternate Fringe team, whose job it is to slow down the disintegration of their world. These episodes draw a vivid picture of a society under siege, imagining the technological advancements and social changes that arise in response to constant attacks by an irrational, inexplicable opponent. Though it seems likely that this story will devolve into silliness – it is already related to the revelation that a race of humans lived on Earth millions of years ago and left behind a God machine that may be able to destroy or fix the two universes – the creation of a futuristic alternate Earth is an uncommon feat in the current television landscape, and surprisingly well done. It also relates to Fringe's second point of strength, the show's intriguing commentary on the trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath. The events that the Fringe team investigates frequently recall (and are referred to as) terrorist attacks, and the sense of alienation and fear the characters become steeped in as they realize that their world is not what they thought it was, and that they are facing a terrifying and new kind of opponent, are immediately familiar without being over-obvious. The revelation that the parallel Earth, whence many of these attacks originate, has legitimate grievances against our world and may be entirely justified in its actions against us, and that it is only through dialogue and understanding, rather than retribution, that the healing of both worlds can be achieved, is a powerful statement that may not have been possible in a mimetic genre (though, admittedly, Fringe has the advantage of being able to posit a magical-technological cure for its magical-technological problem).
If the flaws in Fringe's execution suggest a series with no true sense of itself, its handling of the parallel universe plot and deliberate recalling of 9/11 give rise to the hope that that sense does exist, and that Fringe is on course to create a story that is satisfying in its whole despite the weakness of its parts. Undermining that hope, however, is the one message that the show has already unequivocally delivered, its stance on science. By focusing its depiction of scientific research on mad scientists of Walter and Bell's ilk, Fringe encourages a regressive approach to scientific exploration that frequently argues – sometimes on explicitly religious grounds – that there are some things man should not know, and some areas of knowledge into which it is immoral to venture. If this message is any indication, it may very well be that even if Fringe delivers a coherent story, it may not be one that science fiction fans will care to hear. [AN]
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