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A FAREWELL TO FRINGE – Five Seasons of Weird Science Come to an End

January 25 2013

Following its final episode, a look back at how we got here.

by Rachel Hyland

PETER: Let me ask you something. My father, not my favorite. He is without a doubt the most self-absorbed, twisted, abusive, brilliant, myopic son-of-a-bitch on the planet. So he was a chemist. That much I already know. He worked out of a basement lab in Harvard, doing research for a toothpaste company. I also know that there was an accident at the lab one night, when my father was arrested. Beginning the first truly peaceful period in our home, but here is the thing Olivia, my gut tells me, that your friend’s life, the one hanging in the balance, is not going to be saved by a tube of toothpaste.
OLIVIA: He worked out of Harvard, but not on toothpaste. He was a part of a classified US Army experimental program called Kelvin Genetics. They gave him the resources to do whatever work he wanted. Which was primarily in an area called “Fringe Science.”
PETER: When you say “Fringe Science,” you mean pseudo-science.
OLIVIA: I suppose. Things like mind control, teleportation, astral projection. Invisibility, genetic mutation, re-animation, fertility…
PETER: Whoa, excuse me for a second. Re-animation, really? So you’re telling me… what? My father was Dr. Frankenstein?
– “Pilot” (01.01)

On January 18th, of this, the thirteenth year of the second millennium A. D., the world was saved. We had been heading towards a future of repression and tyranny when a bald-headed, super-powered group previously known as The Observers infiltrated our time from their own, some six hundred years in the future, and made us their unwilling slaves. But luckily for us all, the Fringe team were on the case and managed to rewrite history. Or rewrite the future. Or something.

It’s doubtful anyone could have predicted the strange turn the show would take during its fifth and final season back when it first began in 2008. Then, it was a fairly straightforward procedural, with a couple of FBI agents and consultants solving crimes left and right. The main difference between their cases and, say, those of one of the many CSI departments, was that the crimes our plucky team of investigators sought to solve were of a distinctly paranormal nature. But not paranormal in the way of vampires and werewolves and magic; paranormal in the way of Science. Basically, Fringe is what happens when the brilliant but thoughtless denizens of Eureka are let out into the wider world and given the scruples of third world dictators. Experiments go wrong. People die horribly. Or experiments go right, and yet more people die horribly. Basically, it’s just a whole lot of people dying horribly.

Enlisted to help prevent this is Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who witnessed her partner (and boyfriend; awww) succumb to the dastardly workings of just such weird science in the very first episode. Determined to find answers, she only found more questions, which eventually led her to one Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), an acknowledged expert in both Fringe Science and third world dictator-level scruples, who has long been resident in a psychiatric facility. She blackmails his charming, if somewhat unprincipled, son Peter (Joshua Jackson) into helping her handle his difficult father, and soon the three of them, with the aid of the young Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) and Olivia’s friend Agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo), are under the direction of Fringe Division, a joint government task force specializing in the weird and wonderful and creepy.

One of the most fascinating factors of Fringe is the character of Walter, who comes to us a broken man, his astonishing intellect hampered by years of drug therapy (both prescribed and recreational) and, it later transpires, because he is missing part of his brain. Early on, he rouses our sympathy, this fractured, tormented soul who can solve the mysteries of intricate chemical formulae no one has ever seen before but can’t quite remember how to tie his own shoes. But we later find out that Walter and his even more amoral lab partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) experimented on children – including Olivia – in their bad old days, as well as the fact that Walter broke the universe and opened up our reality to invasion from another for what we can only ascribe to selfish reasons. The fact that we can then feel anything but contempt for him after all of that is due almost solely to the peerless performance of Noble, who gives his Walter a vulnerability and loveable eccentricity that somehow manages to mitigate against the many evils he has done.

His son Peter is also a study in contrasts, on the one hand a cavalier conman with little conscience, on the other an insta-hero who will put himselfc on the line to solve the Mystery of the Week – and eventually, to save the world more than one. Whether it is his immediate attraction to the beautiful Olivia, the chance to use his native intellect or his innate love a challenge that makes him commit to the cause, it is hard to say, but for whatever reason he is integral to the team almost from the outset, his impressive ability to do just about anything coming in very handy – especially as he is often the only one who can translate Walter’s incoherent technobabbling into workable scientific theory.

Astrid, as the junior member of the team, starts off as pretty much the file clerk and database trawler, but before too long she is also aiding Walter in his squicky autopsies as well as cracking codes and occasionally going out into the field, reminding viewers that she is probably more qualified than Peter to act as Olivia’s backup, what with being an actual FBI Agent and all. She is also pretty much in charge of the lab’s cow. One of the most endearing qualities of her relationship with Walter is his seeming inability to get her name right: Astral, Astringent, Aspirin, Ashram, Afro, Asteroth and, er, Claire are just a few of his misfires. Initially this was probably just a reflection of how little Walter cared about this inconsequential government minion, but in later seasons, as she became his caretaker and surrogate daughter, there is no doubt that he does this on purpose, causing one to wonder how long he stayed up at night practicing his next supposed slip.

The team all serve at the pleasure of Special Agent in Charge Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), who begins the series as a lofty figure of stoic authority but throughout the show’s run becomes a member of the Fringe family, as do minor FBI types Charlie (until his untimely death – poor Charlie, he really got the rough end of the Fringe science stick) and later Agent Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel), who came to us in two different guises in two separate universes, and was equally likeable in both.

But at the very heart of Fringe is Olivia, as much for her investigative chops and quick thinking in the face of certain death as for her own paranormal abilities – which manifest early on, and are the result of the suspiciously coincidental fact that she was one of the subjects upon whom Walter experimented at a tender age, giving her the drug Cortexiphan to see what the human brain might be capable of. Elsewhere in the show, Cortexiphan children cause all manner of grief with heir psychic gifts (pyrokinesis, mind control, what have you), but Olivia uses hers always for good, and has not allowed her early trauma to turn her into a monster, as she probably could have been excused for doing. When asked to describe his Olivia, Peter says thusly: “She’s… she’s driven. She’s very, very stubborn. She doesn’t like to lose. She sees the best in people, even when they don’t see it in themselves.”

The relationship between Peter and Olivia is one of the show’s highlights, their will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster constantly derailed and then set to rights and then derailed again, but it always makes sense, always feels like it’s a natural result of the insanity of their lives and not arbitrary roadblocks thrown in their way to keep them from being too happy (which is when ratings begin to slide). Of course, the fact that Peter’s father performed illegal genetic experiments on Olivia didn’t help matters early on; then the discovery that Peter was actually his Alternate Universe double kept them apart for a bit. Then our Olivia was replaced by an infiltrator from the “other side,” known to fandom as Fauxlivia, which made for riveting viewing, and then Peter was completely erased from existence, and when he reappeared, Olivia had no idea who he was. And finally, in a flash forward, the loss of their daughter during an invasion of our time by beings from the future caused the two to part ways (which thankfully happened off-screen) and it took them being encased in amber and effectively travelling forward in time 21 years to forgive one another for it.

Yes, things get odd in the Fringe-verse. Very odd indeed.

Back in its Mystery of the Week days, Fringe could be, and often was, very easily likened to The X-Files, except the believer/skeptic roles were reversed and there was always an at least vaguely plausible scientific explanation for the extraordinary events that unfolded, which would have pleased Scully no end. But also like The X-Files, the show needed a hook, a larger myth-arc to tie together all these anomalous events, and throughout the next few seasons, the creators wove complex layers of intrigue, false identity and the impossible into the narrative, keeping us always coming back for more. At the end of Season 2, Fringe’s future was in question, and it was probably only a lack of viable alternatives that led Fox to renew it at all; at the end of Season 3, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind it would be back for a fourth season, because it had attained that buzz-worthy status of a show that had found a way to each week shift its paradigm just that little bit further. The remarkable performance of Anna Torv had always been the lynchpin upon which the series depended, but in Season 3, where she has to portray at least four different versions of the same character – Main Timeline Olivia, Fauxlivia, Fauxlivia pretending to be Main Timeline Olivia and Olivia pretending to be Fauxlivia – was simply breathtaking, never a false note struck. When you added to this a plot from the Alternate Universe to destroy ours (in retaliation; theirs was falling apart at the seams as a result of Walter’s inter-dimensional tampering), a fun might-have-been reality in which dirigibles rule the air, and the many travails of Peter “I’m a Paradox and I Don’t Care” Bishop, it was no wonder that Fringe managed to garner for itself an ever-growing cult following throughout its middle seasons.

By Season 4, things had progressed so far along the myth-arc path that when occasionally the Fringe team would solve a case that didn’t involve either denizens from the other side or attempt to restore Peter to his lost timeline, it would always come as something of a surprise. Anna Torv added yet another incarnation of her character to her repertoire: New Timeline Olivia, one who had existed in a world in which Peter never did, and a happier one, which can’t have made Peter feel too good, knowing that the love of his life wouldn’t have suffered so much as a child if he hadn’t lived. But the main thrust of the season was the megalomania of William Bell, who had decided for some unfathomable reason to collapse all of reality and create a new one of his own – because hey, why not? – and only the murder of Olivia at Walter’s hands could save the world… for a little while, at least. (It’s okay. She got better.)

Season 4 also planted the seeds of the dystopian future in which we would suddenly find ourselves in Season 5, the show’s truncated final season of only 13 episodes. Oh, one could argue that hints of what was to come had been peppered throughout the series’ entire run, as the Observers had been with us from the very beginning, and one in particular, codenamed September (Michael Cerveris), had had a significant effect on the increasingly intricate plot. But with the last season came a totally different direction, kind of like a “What if?” fanfic that took known characters and then thrust them into an entirely alien premise. Not that the dystopian future Fringe was bad – in fact, it was compelling viewing – but it felt like a different show, like an idea that would have been better developed as a new series rather than an extension of an existing one.

We find ourselves more than two decades from now, the planet overrun with besuited time travelers from an even more far-flung future. The Observers are now The Invaders, and the original twelve – of whom we had seen much throughout the show – are revealed to have been a scientific team sent back to determine the viability of our time period as a haven for poor future souls who are finding it hard to live on a ruined planet. (Oh, hello, environmental message!) There exists in the future a kind of technology that has accelerated human intelligence and abilities exponentially, but the trade off is that they lose both their emotions and their hair. (And there seem to be no women.) So these automaton humans speak in monotone voices and don’t understand beauty and love and baseball, and they have no compunction about wiping out their ancestors because apparently Fringe time travel works in a way that means if you kill your many times-great grandfather you still get to live. Probably best not to dwell on that too long. There is, meanwhile, a Resistance, who seek to drive out these Invaders with a little help from the past in the form of Walter, Peter, Olivia and Astrid, who have been held in ambered stasis since 2015 and who have a plan to rid us all from the “Baldies.” If Fox had to give each viewer a dollar for every time this “The Plan” is mentioned in these thirteen episodes, they would go bankrupt, and the manner in which this Plan is revealed is so like a treasure hunt that this might as well be a multi-part episode of Dora the Explorer. (“How do you get to the specifics of The Plan? Over the river, down into the caves and through the pocket universe!” Sometimes there was even a map.) Also, Peter and Olivia’s grown up daughter is there! Then she dies. It’s very sad.

If this were a new show, any self-respecting sci-fi fan would totally watch it: Earth has been overrun by emotionless time travelling telepaths and a small rebellious gang of courageous souls must defeat them using only their fierce determination to be free and way with a witty rejoinder; as long as this Resistance was at least marginally smarter than that of, say, the rebooted V, this sounds like appointment viewing, right? As the final season of Fringe – and one, incidentally, in which all is pretty much for naught, since the success of The Plan means that time is reset and none of it happened, anyway – it was an odd choice, and one it’s hard to say actually jibes with the narrative as a whole. Still, the whole Observer subplot had to be going somewhere, and why not here? Before it even began production, the fifth season had already been declared the show’s last—what did they have to lose?

In the final analysis, Fringe was a show that constantly pushed the boundaries of the believable, and continued to break new ground even up to its final episode. It is also notable for its character dynamics; beyond Olivia and Peter – the great tempestuous love that almost all shows need to develop a passionate following – there was also the complicated, Cat Stevens song-level father/son fractiousness of Walter and Peter, the imperious but tender dependence of Walter on Astrid, the many kinds of forgiveness Olivia was able to bestow on Walter, and everyone’s admiration of Agent Broyles. And all of this isn’t even going into the whole Massive Dynamic/Nina Sharp angle, which is probably a dissertation all of its own. Fringe explored big ideas, the main one being that the limits of scientific inquiry are infinite but that human decency is not, and that the two need to co-exist in order to preserve the world as we know it. Because if technological advancement is allowed to go unchecked, we could be looking at an invasion of impassive alopecia-sufferers from the future, all for some reason clad in 50s attire, who will have no sense of humor and no compassion and will come to either kill or rule us all.

Thanks for the warning, Fringe!

– Rachel Hyland

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