Fringe season one (2008)
Creators: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
review by Christopher Geary
This sci-fi horror drama borrows from UFO/ mystery thriller, The
X-Files (1993 - 2002), but comes from the makers of popular spy/ action series,
Alias (2001-6), and so proves, quite unsurprisingly, to
be a very effective combo of those cross-genre TV outings. Opening episodes are, of course, usually for establishing main characters, themes and
plot arcs, and Fringe is no exception, introducing the regular cast of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a reportedly mad scientist, Dr
Walter Bishop (John Noble), and his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) - a nomad with 'criminal tendencies'. After cranky Walter is released from a mental
hospital into the care and custody of Peter, our three heroes are recruited for special inter-agency duty in a Dept. of Homeland Security task force
authorised to investigate uniquely bizarre happenings. The new team's US government overseers have connect-the-dots organised various unpredictable
weird events - all occurring on the fringes of science - into a supposedly collective 'pattern' (imaginatively, the ops chief identifies it as
"the Pattern") which posits a threat of otherworldly 'first contact' or invasion, timetabled for the near future.
Following the death of her FBI partner, John Scott (Mark Valley, Boston
Legal), Olivia gets a replacement buddy, stoic agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo), who, like our heroine and her sympathetic boss Broyles
(Lance Reddick), is impressively nonplussed by close encounters with grotesque curiosities and outrageously peculiar anomalies. Although he's been
locked up in a loony bin for 17 years, tetchy genius Dr Bishop senior is permitted to resume his researches and studies in exchange for helpful
consultations about joint FBI/ DHS assignments, given discretionary offbeat authority in his reopened basement labs in Harvard university. Bishop's
early success is rewarded with services of lab tech/ FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) who becomes these 'X-file' detectives' understanding
girl Friday, at the Harvard lab.
"Excellent. Let's make some LSD." - Dr Bishop
Stonewalling, hindering inquires and/ or actively scheming against Olivia's efforts is the formidable robot-armed executive Nina Sharp (Blair Brown,
Altered States) of 'Massive Dynamic', presented as the very archetype of a sinister mega-corporate global conspiracy. An experimental plot
apparently orchestrated by MD founder, William Bell (only revealed in the season's climactic scene, in a cameo by
Star Trek veteran Leonard Nimoy), takes form at the heart of Fringe,
with hints about psychic fighters being trained for revolutionary warfare. However, the grand scheme may actually be supervised by other, more
chilling, entities - including mysterious, bald eccentric 'the Observer' (Michael Cerveris), a spooky figure who's not unlike those time-tourists
at foreseen disasters of David Twohy's memorable Timescape (1992). That's only one of the many notable influences on this largely derivative
and yet frequently entertaining drama.
The agents have to sieve nuggets of illuminating truth from streams of lies or disinformation, and dig through layers of deceit and propaganda,
partly derived from Dr Bishop's own long-forgotten unrestrained trial-and-error research for DARPA, or Bishop and Bell's other sometimes perverse
drug-fuelled amusements. There are clever demonstrations of hi-tech solutions to low-tech problems; which sees bank robbers walk through a vault
door, criminal mastermind David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) escaping from his German prison cell via teleportation, and Olivia's desperate need for
vital information from the mind of comatose agent Scott, prompting her to risk using Dr Bishop's sensory-deprivation tank with an ad hoc telepathy
link. This last experience develops into a valuable resource for Olivia's mission, when some of Scott's memories are lodged in her mind, causing
terrifying hallucinations but also providing access to details of Scott's own seemingly traitorous plot.
Gruesome variations of genetically-modified creations are on display if not on parade here to propel episodes down twisty channels on slippery moral
ground. A mutant parasite results in agent Francis getting 'pregnant' from attack by a monstrous chimera, but Olivia's sidekick is not the only
victim of Frankensteinian science gone awry. Others suffer no-brain, face-gone traumas, and level-headed rationality vanishes with sundry GM infections.
Killer butterflies, a Videodrome-style computer virus, a feral boy who was lost underground for 70 years, that Fortean favourite 'spontaneous
human combustion', and hints aplenty concerning the phildickian irregularities of parallel worlds, carry the action towards its somewhat predictable
ending. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fringe is how its varied futuristic elements comment, directly and obliquely, upon our
As a global superpower, the USA finds itself in a terrible state today. Many SF commentators and media pundits have, almost eagerly, predicted the
impending dissolution of the 50 states, divided by irreconcilable social and gnawing cultural differences, split apart by self-destructive decadence
on the continent's coasts and a moral complacency in the country's spiritually fossilised heartland, so it's easy to imagine the imminent (in our
lifetime!) collapse of the US. Even veteran rock band The Eagles, once the epitome of all things American, have become sharply critical of their
homeland and apparently weary of the failed promises of tarnished post-colonial dreams. The title track of this super-group's comeback album, Long
Road Out Of Eden, culminates with poignant lines: "Behold the bitten apple, the power of the tools/ But all the knowledge in the world is
of no use to fools" and similiar themes of post-millennial despair are discussed and represented on several occasions during the intrigues of
Fringe. Taking all this doom and gloom, 'dark sky thinking' into account, it's no wonder then, that significant threads in recent SF works
are primarily concerned with escaping from the dismal actuality of our present to a more appealing promised land of 'Earth 2'. And, since the more
tantalising possibilities of interstellar space travel appear beyond human reach, our collective imagination grasps at the straws of a 'multiverse'
Paul McAuley's action novel, Cowboy Angels, cranked open the subgenre floodgates
with conspiratorial ventures depicting portal travels across the dimensional barriers into alternative realms, many ripe for easy conquest or some
other form of profitable exploitation. Although TV show, Sliders (1995 - 2000), previously covered many alternate world scenarios - almost
to the limit of exhausting such ideas, at least in terms of how far a TV series budget can go - Sliders was concerned, primarily, with voyages
through a vortex for the sole purpose of finding a pathway to home (clearly inspired by travels of The Odyssey). South African television series
Charlie Jade was an early adopter of the SF mode of exploring a multiverse that could be exploited for its abundant natural resources.
"This can't possibly be scientific."
Parts of the Fringe story-arc succeed in becoming just the kind of wittily 'awesome' mystery of revelations that Heroes tried so hard,
and yet failed, to achieve with its carefully-timed unveiling of suspicions, doubts, rumour management, and examples of haywire or morbid logic.
The honourable intentions of Fringe heroes' investigative protocols are often stymied by the backstabbing antics of apparently vengeful
politicos, while a shadowy 'terrorist' network follows entrenched 'ZFT' thinking - which asserts that world-war doomsday caused by radical scientific/
technological advances unchecked by any rationalised or ethical code (or simple compassion), is inevitable.
Various glyphs with powerfully iconic symbolism (six-fingered hand, foetus seeds in apple's core, insect-wing flower petals) of GM anxieties decorate
the screen during breaks for TV ads, while CGI 3D 'tags' aligned to real world perspectives keep us well informed of location switching between
scenes. TV production values are admirably high, throughout, and yet this series lacks serious impact. Most of the characters, although quite
realistically devised and performed, are generally flat and uninteresting stereotypes. Only arch-nonconformist Dr Bishop, partly impish innocent
and partly wise magician, evinces a deliciously macabre sense of humour. As genre TV's new resident polymath and techno-mage, he's the real star
of Fringe. In a manner that calls to mind Buckaroo Banzai's crazy 'uncle', Bishop almost single-handedly ensures the show's directory of
possibilities remains fascinating, body-horror elements are both grisly fun and grimly unsettling, and even the weirdest of abnormal occurrences
are eminently charming, courageously outrageous telefantasy, nonetheless.