This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
The X-Files, even from the very beginning, had one fatal flaw: the self-contained “monster of the week” episodes were always more satisfying than the episodes dealing with the core plotline. The episodes dealing with The Truth were extremely disciplined, each taking care to remain consistent with the show’s UFO cosmology whilst revealing it at a carefully controlled rate, whilst the writers took the monster-of-the-week stories much less seriously – and as a result, had a lot more fun with them. By which I don’t mean they were all comedic – there was the really terrifying one about the stretchy man who lives in a nest that didn’t seem to have much with the show’s mythology – but they were much more varied in tone and far less predictable than the core episodes, which tended to follow a strict pattern of “Mulder and Scully discover more information about the secret conspiracy to colonise Earth with alien-human hybrids, the conspiracy chase them a bit, Mulder whines about his sister, Scully has her rationalist worldview challenged, by the end of the episode all the evidence has mysteriously disappeared and they’re back to square one”.
In fact, Agent Scully’s notoriously unshakable scepticism was much easier to accept in the one-shot episodes. Her refusal to believe in the aliens became faintly ridiculous over the progression of the core episodes, considering what she had seen, but just because you believe in aliens doesn’t necessarily mean you have to believe in psychics, magic, or demonic possession, and there were a few phenomenon-of-the-week episodes where Scully’s insistence that nothing paranormal was occurring actually turned out to be completely correct. By the same coin, Mulder’s insistence on jumping to conclusions was the character flaw it was supposed to be in the monster-of-the-weeks, where he’d often completely misdiagnose the situation. In other words, the off-plot episodes of The X-Files were those where the character dynamics actually worked the way they were intended to work, whilst in the core plot episodes they got all screwed up.
Enter Fringe, JJ Abrams’ attempt to make a show that owes more than a little to The X-Files but actually do it right. Fringe is an ambitious attempt to create a show with a major overarching plotline (like Abrams’ own Lost) in which each episode advances the plotline at least slightly, but which at the same time also stands alone nicely. Although most to all the episodes centre around a phenomenon tied to the core mystery of the show, said mystery is diverse enough to allow for a vast range of incidents, and the writers aren’t afraid to vary the tone a little either.
Fringe opens with an incident of fantastical bioterrorism, as all the passengers on a commercial airliner spontaneously dissolve into goo. FBI agents Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and John Scott (Mark Valley) – who are secretly in wuv, contrary to the rules of the Agency – are on the cross-agency team investigating, but before long Scott is fighting for his life when he is exposed to some biochemical nastiness. Desperately searching for anyone who can find a cure for Scott – and work out precisely what it is that caused the melting of the passengers – Dunham’s research leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop (John “Denethor” Noble), a brilliant scientist and expert in fringe technologies. (Hence the title, see?) The problem is that Bishop had a nervous breakdown fifteen years ago after a mysterious fire swept through his lab and killed one of his assistants, and since then has been confined in a mental institution. In order to get in to see him – and to get him discharged so that he can help out – Dunham recruits the help of his abrasive asshole of a son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), who has led an interesting and adventurous life that has frequently strayed to the wrong side of the law.
Olivia sets the Bishops up in Walter’s old laboratory at Harvard – putting her assistant, Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) in place to keep an eye on them – and soon enough Walter is putting his lunatic theories to the test in order to solve the case. Surprisingly enough, they turn out to work – and with his old contacts and his unconventional methods, Peter proves a useful resource too – so once the investigation of the biological attack winds down Dunham is approached by Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick), chief of Homeland Security’s Fringe Division, who wants to maintain Dunham and the Bishops’ setup in order to investigate a network of mysterious events referred to as the Pattern, which the core cast duly pursue over the course of the first season. Broyles believes that the pattern is a sign that forces unknown are using the planet as a laboratory for an incredible, appalling experiment, and the general population are the guinea pigs. Apparently supporting this theory is the fact that more than a few of the phenomena linked to the Pattern lead back to Massive Dynamic, an obscenely powerful corporation that conducts cutting-edge research in every scientific field you’d care to mention. Its founder is William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, a surprisingly hard person to get access to… and Walter Bishop’s former lab partner.
Most of the series follows a simple formula: each week some sort of paranormal incident occurs, either in the course of a crime or some other disaster which results in a response from the authorities. Over the course of the episode the characters investigate it, as well as discovering more about the Pattern, Massive Dynamic, and other ongoing mysteries that unfold over the season. Usually a solution presents itself thanks to Walter’s crank theories, and then Dunham (sometimes with Peter in tow) springs into action to bring the bad guys to justice. It’s a lot like CSI, except it doesn’t even pretend to be based on real science.
The scriptwriters aren’t afraid to get a bit playful and inject some comedy into the proceedings; their sense of humour is a bit reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s at points, if Whedon’s writing were less twee and self-consciously clever. Their best and most effectively-deployed tool is their core cast, all of whom are interesting in their own way. They earn Minority Warrior points for making Olivia the action character, with her FBI training making her far and away better suited for running around with a gun chasing people than the Bishops, whilst at the same time making sure she is smart enough to follow the pseudoscience and make her own suggestions and decisive enough to be a credible leader for the team. It’s also good that they don’t allow her past to be entirely defined by her relationship with John – yes, the terrible thing that happens in the first episode does prey on her for the first two thirds of the season, but that’s to be expected given the circumstances and the arc in which she processes the consequences of John’s passing on is actually a pretty decent allegory for how bereavement can threaten to take over your life. In one episode, The Cure, Olivia is revealed to have had an abusive stepfather, which made me roll my eyes at the standard issue strong heroine abusive background bullshit, but interestingly that stepfather is never mentioned again outside of the context of that episode, even in the later season when Olivia’s sister is living with her whilst she’s between homes, so it seems that they decided to quietly scrap that particular arc.
The supporting cast is awesome too – with Peter they do that thing you sometimes see in paranormal-themed stories where they make the voice of “reason” such an asshole you want to sympathise with the believers anyway, but then again since Walter’s bizarre theories can do things like allowing Olivia to commune with John’s mind whilst he is in a coma in order to find out what a suspect in a case looks like maybe Peter is kind of a dick for dismissing his dad’s ideas so readily. They even permit him a fat dose of character development over the course of the season as he reconciles with Walter. Speaking of Walter, John Noble does an excellent job with him, and is particularly good at keeping his eccentricities distinct from his illnesses – Walter is meant to be a man with admittedly strange but ultimately harmless habits who has been thoroughly broken by the catastrophe that caused his breakdown, and implied mistreatment towards a sinister end in the hospital he was confined in. Lance Reddick pretty much bases his portrayal of Broyles on what he reckons his character from The Wire would be like if he were in the Illuminati, and I can’t fault him on that (“Drug kingpin Avon Barksdale smelled burning flesh, and knew it was his own…”). I also really enjoyed Blair Brown’s performance as Nina Sharp, the CEO of Massive Dynamic with an android arm (which has to be a Repo Man reference); I especially like the way her conversations with Dunham often shift gears abruptly between cold, steely obstruction of her questioning to warmly sinister attempts to recruit her for dubious purposes.
In terms of where it sits in the genre spectrum of paranormal investigation stories, the series veers far more towards SF than to fantasy and horror; in the entire first season there isn’t really anything you can point to and say is magic, in the sense of people calling on spirits to do their bidding, or utilising forces which work according to an occult, non-scientific way of thinking. Instead, the show allows the possibility of paranormal occurrences by positing a limited number of pseudoscientific concepts which can be derived through empirical, repeatable experiments and thinking through the logical consequences of them, as well as imagining what would happen if existing technologies could be harnessed to achieve far more extreme results than we are currently able to achieve. Most importantly, Walter Bishop’s experiments are repeatable – a technique which worked in one episode can be brought back in a later one if the situation merits it – so they’re clearly not pulling technobabble out of thin air and then discarding it once it’s no longer useful.
For a bit, I was worried that Fringe wouldn’t pull it all together. There’s plenty of little bits to enjoy – like the sly references to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Videodrome, The Land of Laughs and other approved texts, or the occasional really awesome bit (like the head explosions at the start of The Cure, which resemble what Scanners would look like if David Cronenberg had three times the blood budget), but a series written by committee and spanning twenty-two episodes is also going to have its fair share of missteps. For example, The Equation, an episode in which Walter returns to the mental hospital in order to find information which will help him locate a kidnapped child, is irritatingly mawkish, with plenty of stilted dialogue which doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing the characters would say – like a really artificial-sounding part where Peter tells Walter how incredibly brave he is. The No-Brainer’s plotline is silly even for a series which doesn’t take itself especially seriously – it involves an internet popup that makes your brain melt and dribble out of your nose, and includes a race against time to stop Olivia’s niece downloading the popup which is the stupidest thing in the entire season. The show seemed to have a gear shift after the first few episodes, when the various plot strands started to pull themselves together and the big picture became more apparent, at which point I was completely hooked; in particular, the emergence of David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) as the main villain of the season was a particularly good turning point.
Even then, I wasn’t sure that I’d be giving the first season the thumbs up until I’d finished watching the season finale, There’s More Than One of Everything; it’s one of the shows where you can enjoy every episode, but you know it would take only one major blunder in the main plot to put you off it for good. Fringe shows that JJ Abrams seems to have learned the lessons of Lost – “the Truth” is stated more or less explicitly around two thirds of the way into the first season, and confirmed by the end of it with the entrance of Nimoy (and an awesome shot to end the season with). That said, in trying not to keep too much out of the sight of the viewer the show ends up in danger of disclosing too much and treating the viewer like they are simple – I guessed how the David Jones plotline would end halfway through the season finale. That said, at least I didn’t end up guessing these things a full episode or two before they were revealed, and the coda to the episode throws in some plot twists which made me eager to see more (and Leonard Nimoy showing up wasn’t even the greatest of them). After careful consideration, I can cautiously recommend the first season of Fringe as a show that knows where it’s going, obviously has a plan, and doesn’t get off on its own cleverness to an irritating extent. These are simple virtues in television, but they’re appealing, and less common than I’d like in genre shows. Good job, Fringe; there’s room for improvement and I will be very disappointed if I do not see shit hitting the fan in season two, but if you keep up the pace I’m sure you won’t disappoint.