Myself and my delightfully be-bearded housemate Nigel (whose blog on film, music and sport you can follow here) have settled into watching the new season of Fringe, and bet you by golly wow are we delighted that we did.
Fringe started a few years ago with a bit of fuss and hubbub as it was one of the first creations from the now ubiquitous J.J. Abrams conveyor belt in the sky. A sort of X-Files for the LOST generation, it chronicled a small team of misfit FBI agents and scientists solving their cases of the week while trying to figure out what the “pattern” was and why people’s heads were getting all wacky on a regular basis.
In those heady early days when the show was finding its feet, I would tune in occassionally. The cases were usually fairly interesting, and the care that the writers, directors and actors put into every episode was self-evident. So it had a certain depth to it, especially impressive considering the subject matter, but it wasn’t really going anywhere I hadn’t seen before.
But those who stuck with it (and I’ll put my hands in the air, I flitted in and out) were rewarded with some hardcore world-building. The first coup for the writers was the central dynamic of Peter and Walter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson and a scene-stealing John Noble) – a father-and-son pair whose relationship has been strained immensely by father Walter’s descent into a paranoid mess. But he’s a scientist, so it’s OKAY.
Granted, strained father-and-son relationships are nothing new. But then something very strange happened. A big story about monsters and experiments and crazy-shit-be-happening-all-up-in-your-grill dovetailed with our core emotional tale. How? Because of the twin towers.
The final shot of season one was Leonard Nimoy staring out the window of his office block at the still-standing World Trade Center. A typically pop-cultural Abrams way of revealing something series-changing: the presence of a parallel universe. What made this all work, though, was how it tied back to Walter and Peter. As a child, Walter had watched his son die of a rare genetic disease. His tireless work to save his son had failed, while in another universe another Walter had been successful. So what did he do? He did what any grieving parent wold do – he travelled across and stole the alternate version of his son. The Peter Bishop we know is not the original, and what started as the loss of a child has evolved into a cross-universe war.
Apart from all the awesomeness above, the parallel universe plot also allowed the cast to stretch their muscles, no more than Anna Torv – who plays FBI agent Olivia Dunham, the ostensible lead. In season one Torv had been criticised for her cold performance (something she insists was deliberate as the character is so emotionally stunted), but the alternate Olivia became a chance for her to quite literally show what this character could have been.
Fauxlivia, as she became known, was and is a bad-ass rule-breaker. She kidnapped “our” Olivia, planted herself in her life and even got herself pregnant with Peter Bishop’s baby. These episodes in season three represented a thrilling back-and-forth, with alternate episodes set in alternate universes. You want a Statue Of Liberty made of bronze? You want people to travel in airships? You want hipsters on PENNY FARTHINGS? A full list of the delightful difference are here, but suffice to say it’s fun just flitting over there and back again.
The end of season three represented another turning point – a weapon was designed on both sides of the divide, intent on destroying their opposite number. But Peter Bishop stepped into the machine and was transported to a possible future where Earth-2 had been destroyed. Not that it was a better place – terrorist attacks were rife, the fabric of reality was collapsing, and Olivia was dead.
And once shown this possibility, Peter frantically warned the others not to use the machines. They agreed to work together, with the lab underneath the Statue Of Liberty acting as a common conduit between worlds.
And what did Peter get for his troubles? Well he was erased from history, and nobody remembers him.
That’s our set-up as we head into season four, then. It might sound like heady stuff, but really it’s just fun to watch week-on-week as the show continues to stretch the concept of parallel worlds. The opening episode of the season reintroduces an alternate version of an older character, while the second episode is a doozy – a serial killer being tracked by his opposite number, a man who managed to keep his darker urges in check because of mere chance.
The actors are giving it everything (especially Anna Torv, whose two Olivia’s are packing more subtle differences than you can count), the writing and direction is pitch perfect, and as this is the promised last season they are really going for broke.
Sure why not tune in?