Mary Shelley made demons out of scientists. Since Doc Frankenstein dared to go where only God had gone before, popular entertainment delights in villainizing the meddling of humans in the natural order. From one entertainment spawned a nearly endless stream of technological paranoia. If the atom bomb doesn’t wipe us all out, then our artificial children will build their steel kingdom upon our bones!
Hopeful science fiction is hard to come by, and even when it manages to spring forth, it’s usually tinged with plenty of problematic biologicals to ruin it all (see Star Trek: Picard). Fringe is no different, really, but its pleasures reside in its ability to spark wonder and curiosity while also devilishly massaging our apocalyptic dread. One of its central heroes, after all, is a demented mad scientist who is worthy of as much scorn as he is celebration. Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) is one of the damned, punished for his insatiable inquisitiveness, but ultimately redeemed by the children who dared to spot the heart hidden beneath his failings.
Witnessing Walter’s slow crawl from moral oblivion is one of many factors that classify Fringe as deliciously binge-able. The Fox series delivers on wild and repugnant science-horror every episode, carefully and gradually expanding into gobsmacked absurdity. Jumping directly into the fifth and final season would result in a catatonic wallop. How the hell did we get here from there? The question is the great appeal of the show. You came for an updated X-Files, but you’re sure as hell leaving with a glossy mash of Orwellian and Wellsian nightmares.
Taking a page from the Lost playbook, showrunner Jeff Pinkner initially wanted to ease audiences into its parallel universe long-con with somewhat typical monster-of-the-weeks before dumping their equivalent of smoke monsters, casual time displacement, and flash-forwards. The first season holds your hand as it digs deeper and deeper into familiar if somewhat grotesquely enhanced, sci-fi concepts. By the end of episode one, you’re prepared for conspiracy, mystery, and intrigue. By the season finale, you may not be prepared for how those alluring elements bleed directly out of the characters that storytelling culture trained us to love. At certain points in the series, you’re gonna hate the leads.
The Finge taskforce is an FBI spinoff agency designed to investigate cases tainted by unexplainable science or natural phenomenon. Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is a one-time guinea pig of Walter’s, who gained lowgrade psychic abilities as a result, and now leads the charge against diabolical tampering. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the son of Walter, is a black-ops mercenary type brought in as a watchdog to his well-meaning father, looking to make amends for past sins. Together, they make a cantankerous trilogy of heroes struggling to accept each others’ weaknesses while transforming their own into positives and actions for worldwide betterment.
Then, another world shows up. Spoilers, but it’s right there in the title, gang.
In the second season, Fringe reveals how certain characters have no place in our realm of reality. They’re either stolen from another dimension, or they’re invaders from that dimension. A cold war is afire between two worlds, where one (not ours) is actively aware of the other and is doing everything in its power to erase us from existence. Who’s to blame in all this? Dammit, Walter. As such, it’s on him to fix the infecting singularities threatening to end all life.
Then, in the background, a group of bald Observers hangs out, waiting for their moment to strike and protect their future. Oh yeah, that’s right. If mirror universe woes were not bad enough, time-traveling bastards are at the ready to ransack. Fringe ain’t playing. Jeff Pinkner retreats after season four, and producer J.H. Wyman takes over. His final season of Fringe is a hard jump across years, taking our characters to the year 2036, a dystopian hellhole where the Observers have purged most of humanity starting in the year 2015, hoping to halt us from ruining the planet from which they came.
Mucking about with parallel universes is an utterly genius why of fostering addictive behavior from your audience. If the writers, performers, directors, and producers of your first season have done their job, then they have developed a rich cast of characters for us to adore. Yay! Win! The revelation of dimensional-hopping doppelgangers immediately puts the viewers on edge, but it also elicits an unbeatable curiosity. Agent Dunham is a righteous do-gooder, often putting others over the needs of self. Enter “Fauxlivia,” a person who is a lot less righteous, but also not as obviously villainous as you would expect either. Huh. We like her too, but she’s baaaaaaad. Kinda, sorta.
We’ve all pondered over our mirrors. Is there a Brad out there who looks like me, but due to certain decisions, or slight historical or cultural shifts, operates and behaves absolutely different than me? How did the destruction of the World Trade Center affect my life? How would I be different if those towers never went down? The Butterfly Effect, you know the drill. It’s one of those tropes that has infected nearly every science fiction writer because it’s just so dang compelling. Once the curiosity hits, it’s impossible to shake off. It’s a conceptual earworm that will infinitely plague your mind. There is no killing that bug.
In addition, similar to Lost and its Dharma Initiative easter eggs, the parallel universe sparks a game of I Spy for the viewer. Fringe sees your Green Arrow comics and presents you with the Red Arrow alternative. We had to suffer through the travesty of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but the happy folks over in Fringe‘s mirror realm got Indiana Jones and the Hex of the Hydra. No doubt their Indy was waaaaaay better and 100 percent lacking the nuking of the fridge. Although the Fringe universe was poisoned by a Batman v Superman 2, at least we were spared that atrocity.
Once the concept unveils itself, you’ll watch every episode with your finger on your pause button trigger, and a magnifying glass forever at the side. This is crack cocaine for the TV obsessive. One watch won’t do, you’ll need another, and another after that. I’ve done it; the treats keep coming, folks, like all the best binge-able shows.
Justice is here for Fringe. It may never have received as much adoration as J.J. Abrams‘ other produced sci-fi twister series, but in hindsight, Fringe provides a satisfyingly far-out, thrilling, technological horror show minus the lingering disdain over its climax. The characters and our concern for them win out, but the way they challenge our morality with their “them or us” tirades, feels infinitely relevant. Our world has a right to live. Their world has a right to live. The Observers’ future, less so. The past is written, but the future will always belong to the now, and us as its writers.
Fringe does not defuse the villainy of scientists, but it doesn’t condemn the science either. Humans and how they wield their knowledge are the problem. No news there. Where Fringe excels is in relishing the awe of what’s possible, not through fantasy, but damn hard work. At our darkest hour, our brightest minds will shine. They may need a little help from their friends, however, and trust no one promising doomsday scenarios. There is always a way.