This time last year, the fantastically-freaky sci-fi drama Fringe finished its fifth and final season. Despite becoming a big hit in its first season, the show suffered low viewer numbers and budget cuts in its later years, and it was on the brink of cancellation several times. Fortunately, someone high up at Fox really liked it, and it was granted a fifth season to wrap up its story and take a bow.
The show centred around an agent working for a secret division of the FBI that investigated when weird shit happened. The premise invited plenty of comparisons to The X-Files, and there were certainly similarities. Case-of-the-week episodes where bizarre events occur to innocent people, mixed with the occasional ‘mythology’ episode that shed light on a more complicated, long-term story arc going on in the background, with the female agent that wants to believe working with a sceptical sidekick.
After the first season, during which the show was hit-and-miss and still figuring out what its strengths were, it became its own thing, thanks to the introduction of – well, I don’t really want to say. It’s a key part of what makes the show stand out, and is vital to the plot of the show from the moment it’s introduced, but it’s also a bit of a spoiler – a spoiler which every summary of the show that I’ve seen mentions in the first sentence, but a spoiler nonetheless. I’ll come back to it later.
During the early episodes, when the show was alright, but nothing amazing, and when the characters were still fairly one dimensional (Olivia is cold and stern, Peter is sarcastic, etc), I thought several times about giving up. I’d watched the first twenty minutes of the pilot when it aired on Sky1 before getting bored and changing the channel. When I gave Fringe a second chance a few years later and was slowly making my way through season one, there was really only one reason I was still watching. And that reason is Walter Bishop.
Walter Bishop, one of the greatest fictional characters ever to grace the small screen with his presence. Masterfully played by John Noble (who, unbelievably, never won a single Emmy for his performance in the role. Not even a nomination!), Walter is a mad, old scientist who is released from his mental asylum cell by his son Peter to assist the FBI, specifically agent Olivia Dunham, in the FBI’s newly-formed Fringe Division, dedicated to investigating events that involve ‘fringe science’ – science that is basically a bit weird and paranormal.
Walter, at first, seems like the typical mad scientist character and nothing more, but as we learn more about him, his past mistakes, and his relationship with his son, he becomes a fascinatingly complex character. Lovably goofy eccentric, ruthless evil scientist, tragic and broken old man, he’s all of those things and more. He can make you laugh with a random, nonsensical tangent then suddenly turn into a vulnerable, weeping mess and break your heart.
The characters are the most important part of this show. Amongst all the ludicrous pseudo-science and bizarre events happening around them, they ground the drama in some sort of realism because you care about them. A lot of crazy stuff’s happening, a lot of it pushing our suspension of disbelief to its very limits, but none of it would matter if we didn’t care about the people it’s happening to, and having good characters to empathise with helps us overlook some of the stupider plot developments in Fringe. LOST worked in a similar way, which isn’t surprising, as both shows were created by J. J. Abrams and feature plenty of outlandish sci-fi and insane plot twists.
Oh, by the way, this is not a show for the squeamish. A lot of people die in this show, often in unexpectedly gruesome ways, and the movie-quality special effects make those deaths, and the resulting autopsies, stomach-churningly gross and realistic. If the first episode’s face-melting doesn’t put you off, then maybe the next episode’s man-sized foetus will. Or maybe the guy getting his throat slit from the inside-out? It’s quickly made clear that this NOT a show to watch while you’re eating.
After a while, in a slightly twisted way, it’s kind of exciting to watch the pre-titles sequence, with some random bloke going about his day, and wonder what horrid, disgusting fate is in store for the poor sod. Electrocuted? Suffocated after his orifices seal up? Killed from the inside by a big squid-worm-thing? Transformed into a spiky wolf-monster? Bone disintegration? Or maybe his head will just spontaneously combust. Nothing’s impossible here.
The show’s striking cinematography and fantastic special effects are mostly consistent all the way through, with a few glaring exceptions during the last couple of seasons, when it has less of a budget to work with.
Now, the real meat of the show, that thing I alluded to earlier, that’s what makes Fringe truly special, and lets it transform from an alright sci-fi crime procedural into an insanely-ambitious serialised sci-fi epic, full of emotional character drama, complex plots and a lot of fun.
SPOILER SECTION – SKIP TO NEXT IMAGE TO AVOID SPOILERS
(SEASON 1 AND 2 SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)………………………………
The alternate universe, which is introduced late into Fringe‘s first season and memorably used in that season’s finale, really kicks the show into a higher gear. With it comes the revelation that Peter isn’t from this world, he’s actually the other universe’s Peter, stolen as a child from the other universe’s Walter by this universe’s Walter, after this universe’s Walter’s son Peter died. Confused? Don’t be, it’s far easier to understand when you’re watching than seeing it written down, trust me.
This leads to plenty of tension and drama as Walter worries about whether he should tell Peter the truth about his kidnapping. It also leads to plenty of scenes where characters from this universe interact with their alternate-universe doppelgänger, which is awesome! Walter and Alternate Walter (or ‘Walternate’, as he’s nicknamed) argue about Walter’s abduction of Alternate Peter, while Alternate Olivia and Olivia compare their lives. Everyone (except Peter) gets a chance to show a completely different version of their character through their alternate universe counterparts, even supporting characters like lab assistant Astrid, Olivia’s boss Agent Broyles, and mysterious mystery woman of mystery Nina Sharp.
Alternate Olivia and Olivia are so completely and utterly different to each other that it’s difficult to believe they’re played by the same person. Anna Torv got some criticism early on when her cold, businesslike performance of Olivia caused some to question if she could actually act or show any emotion. The scenes with her alternate-universe counterpart proved all the critics wrong.
(SEASON THREE AND FOUR SPOILERS HERE, WATCH OUT)……………………………………….
A significant chunk of season three sees Olivia pretending to be Alternate Olivia, and vice versa, and it is just so much fun to watch. A radical change to the show’s timeline in season four sees everyone playing yet another slightly different version of their characters. During the course of the show, Olivia and Walter play 5 different versions of themselves, maybe more, and each one is similar yet recognisably different to the rest, due to some stellar acting from Anna Torv and John Noble.
So, season one is the warm-up, a good season that gets better as it goes along. Seasons two and three are Fringe at its very best, a brilliant run of episodes that are exciting and creepy and funny and just so, so good. It never really hits those dizzying heights again, not consistently anyway. After a bold, but baffling. plot twist at the very end of season three, the show gets stuck in a bit of a rut. There are a few fantastic episodes, some of the best the show ever did, but they are few and far between. Luckily, after an even more drastic change in season five, Fringe finished on a high note, as this change worked out much better than the last one, as it allowed for plenty of cool and inventive new ideas, and the long-awaited resolution of the series’ biggest mystery.
After the final episode aired, I discovered that the show was chock-full of Easter eggs. The odd symbols that appeared after each act break actually spelt out a word! Each episode had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hint of the next episode’s case! There was an Observer in the background of every episode! Maybe it’s worth a Rewind, a Rewatch (gotta shoehorn in that feature title somewhere) to see how many of them I spot. And it would be nice to see everyone again- especially Walter, whether he’s blowing up a papaya in the name of science, or singing a bedtime story while off his face on drugs, or talking to his assistant
Astro Asterix Astrid. You certainly don’t get many characters like Walter Bishop.