With the popular science fiction series Fringe having just come to a close after five phenomenal seasons, we thought this would be a good time to take a look back at the series’ beginning and reminisce about Season One.
When J.J. Abram’s Fringe first aired on Fox back in 2008, it was hailed by many as “the next X-files.” That’s a pretty lofty expectation for a new show to live up to. While it got off to a bit of a slow start and was met with mixed reviews, Fringe quickly caught on and proved itself worthy of the comparison. The hypothetical science, dynamic character development, complex storylines and comic relief combine to make this series a must-watch. Not surprising, coming from the man who also produced Lost. Set against the backdrop of our own present day universe/reality, Fringe brings science fiction to life in a way that seems feasible and not all that far fetched, making it more accessible to the masses. It illustrates the perils of what happens when scientific development and technology get ahead of morals and set humans on a crash course for destruction.
The pilot sets the stage for a series of strange (and often gruesome) events collectively known as The Pattern. In this instance, a plane lands itself in Boston with no signs of life aboard, all the passengers having had their flesh and internal organs dissolved, leaving nothing behind but skeletons (note: this series is not for the faint of heart). The seemingly inexplicable phenomena of The Pattern are investigated by a group of select FBI agents, under the direction of Homeland Security, known as The Fringe Division.
The Fringe Division is headed by reticent Special Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick). At first, he is highly critical of Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who is obstinate, guided by her emotions and borderline insubordinate. In other words, a typical woman. By the end of the first episode, she seems to have proven herself to Broyles and has gained his respect and you start to get the sense that there’s more to this guy than meets the eye. Broyles seems to know far more than he ever lets on and only shares information with Olivia on a strict need-to-know basis (or after she’s already figured it out for herself). By the end of Season One, you really wonder what it is that Broyle’s hiding, other than his behind-the-scenes relationship with Nina Sharpe, Chief Operating Officer of the corporation Massive Dynamic.
Olivia’s investigation leads her to Baghdad in search of Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the son of institutionalized scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble). He is one of those lovable bad boys (swoon); a college dropout and a con artist with an IQ of 190 who once posed as a professor at MIT. Olivia needs Peter to free his father because she believes Walter’s particular knowledge will be useful to their Fringe investigation and help save her lover and partner, John Scott. Olivia blackmails Peter into reluctantly agreeing. Peter is initially frosty toward his estranged father but eventually warms to the eccentric, stereotypical “mad scientist” Walter is. They work together in his old lab at Harvard, which Peter once fondly refers to as “Bishop’s House of Horrors.” In my opinion, the hilarious banter between Peter and Walter is what really makes the show. And let’s not forget Olivia’s assistant Astrid (a.k. Astro, Asteroid, Asterix and any number of misnomers Walter has come up with) and Jean the cow. (We here at DoG would like to give Jean an award for Best Supporting Bovine.)
To really enjoy this show, you need to have a fairly good memory as well as attention to detail; a seemingly out of place, offhand comment will often provide clues or foreshadow a major event and the show frequently drops threads for several episodes and picks them back up later. For example: the mysterious, ever-present, bald men known as The Observers who are seen in the background of virtually every Fringe event, just watching. The Observer we see repeatedly in Season One (and later find out saved Walter and Peter’s lives years ago) is played by Broadway actor Michael Cerveris (who makes one mean Sweeney Todd). I personally found enjoyment in scanning every scene for him (like Where’s Waldo). The episode in which he is introduced features a mysterious cylinder that appears out of the ground and then just as strangely disappears; it is apparently important, as The Observer tasks Walter with its protection. However, we never hear about it again during Season One. This is a typical example of how, excluding a few episodes that don’t really add anything to the overall storyline, most introduce just enough information to raise even more questions and keep the viewer interested and eager to watch the next episode. Another example is the way every episode seems to come back to Massive Dynamic, a multi billion dollar research and development corporation founded by Walter Bishop’s old lab partner, William Bell (none other than the great Leonard Nimoy), who Walter affectionately refers to as “Belly.” Olivia spends much of the season trying to secure an interview with Mr. Bell, but he is always conveniently out of the country. Nina Sharpe appears to cooperate with the FBI on the surface, but you get the impression that she, like Broyles, is less than entirely forthcoming with information.
As Broyles once describes The Pattern, it’s, “as though someone out there is experimenting, only the whole world is their lab.” The incidents all seem to stem from Walter’s work years ago, researching “fringe” sciences for the government. Most seem to be intended as biological or chemical weapons. For example, the woman who is turned into a walking microwave and effectively cooks a diner full of people before her head explodes from the radiation. Mmm. Or the man who is dosed with an advanced hallucinogen and dies from psychosomatic injuries. However, there is something far greater at work than petty criminals stealing technology for biological warfare. The existence of a group of people with chemically-enhanced brains, resulting from a drug trial Walter and William conducted on children, is revealed, along with the existence of an alternate universe. They had an LSD-induced notion (you’ll find that’s where most of their inspiration came from) that these children could see and possibly cross over to, this universe. It is a world much like our own, in that everyone who exists here also exists there and represents an alternate reality based on different choices. In other words, what could have been.
For me, the highlight of the show is John Noble’s Emmy-worthy portrayal of zany-yet-brilliant scientist Walter Bishop, who really illustrates the fine line between genius and insanity. Walter’s eccentricities are positively endearing; not least of all his absentmindedness, constant food cravings and enthusiasm for the grotesque. He kind of reminds you of your sweet old grandpa (if your grandpa did LSD). Beneath the surface, though, he is wrought with inner turmoil and guilt over past wrongs, constantly trying to compensate for a past of shortcomings as a father and questionable moral judgment as a scientist. We learn that Walter owes a debt not only to Peter (albeit greater than Peter knows in this season), but Olivia as well, for his experimentation on her as a child. Most of the atrocities witnessed seem to be a direct result of Walter’s research from many years ago and he struggles to fill in the strange gaps in his memory to help Olivia solve these mysterious crimes as a means of atoning for his sins.
The one major criticism I have is with Peter; it’s clear from the beginning that he has gotten himself into some trouble via gambling debts and is on the run (Olivia uses this fact to blackmail him into coming to Boston with her). Although Peter fears returning to the States because it would put him in danger, this never really comes into play except for a brief mention in one episode. The only consequence from his shady past seems to be that he has infinite contacts that always seem to come in handy during these FBI investigations. It strikes me as slightly too convenient and maybe a small oversight on the part of the producers. It might have been interesting to see Peter get into some real trouble and have Olivia come to his rescue.
The other is the lack of Boston accents, but who wants to listen to those anyway?
I do enjoy the relationship between Peter and Olivia and the way that develops over the course of Season One (definite parallels to Mulder and Scully). When she is brokenhearted over the passing of John and discovering that he was a traitor (or was he?), who better to offer a shoulder to cry on than devil may care, delightfully snarky Peter Bishop? Their relationship does not become romantic in nature just yet; both are secretive and have difficulty trusting others. While Olivia tends to become very emotionally invested in the cases they’re working on, she is very hesitant to show any vulnerability in her personal life. The way Olivia mourns the loss of her partner even as his apparition torments her, as she slowly begins to open up to Peter, really tugs at the heartstrings. Particularly after the season opened with John professing his love for her and Olivia hesitantly returned the sentiment.
Walter, for all the atrocities he has committed in the past, has an almost childlike, innocent enthusiasm about him (perhaps resulting from his 17-year stint in St. Claire’s). That, coupled with Peter’s biting sarcasm, makes for some hilarious dialogue. I find many of their exchanges to be laugh out loud funny. In the beginning, Peter’s remarks are laced with bitterness towards a father who was absent for most of his childhood and adult life. However, he seems to sense a change in Walter and as the season progresses, he softens and their banter becomes more lighthearted, but no less hysterical. I enjoy Peter’s exasperated, “Thank you, Walter,” often following a piece of obscure trivia or a massive over share on his father’s part. The intense, all too serious Olivia often stands out in stark contrast to these two; but even she can’t help cracking a smile on occasion.
The beginning of the season consists of many standalone episodes, but as it progresses the story really picks up the pace as things begin to come together and some questions are answered, leading to countless more questions. The last few episodes in particular will really leave you impatient for the next. The whole season ends on a suspenseful note as Olivia is forcibly pulled from the universe we know and finds herself standing in one tower of the World Trade Center, in the alternate universe, face to face with none other than the elusive William Bell. Cue dramatic music. All in all, an extraordinary opening to an equally extraordinary series rife with exploding heads, mutilation and revolting parasitic organisms. What’s not to love?