The Dreamscape. Precognition. Chaos Structure. Numbers Stations. The Ghost Network. Astral Projection. The First People.
This is just a small sampling of the mind-bendingly abstract subject matter explored in the universe of Fringe – the universe crossing, timeline shattering sci-fi masterwork created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci. The series blends procedural elements with a deeply serialized mythology that has been described by Abrams as a cross between The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, and the 80’s film Altered States.
The show goes in search of strange science, but really the most important physics connect the three central characters — FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Mindhunter’s Anna Torv); con man turned FBI “consultant” Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, long removed from the banks of “Dawson’s Creek”); and Peter’s father (the incredible John Noble), something of a modern and mellower version of Dr. Frankenstein.
2018 marks the ten-year anniversary of Fringe’s network debut in which we are introduced to Agent Dunham as she attempts to uncover the mystery surrounding a skin-dissolving toxin that was unleashed aboard an international flight at Boston’s Logan International Airport. When her partner becomes afflicted with the deadly toxin, Dunham is required to seek the aid of Noble’s character, an institutionalized chemist whose name pops up in several FBI database entries relating to the study of “Fringe science.” Olivia is led to believe that the application of this otherwise untested field of study may be the answer to saving her partner’s life.
As Walter and his son Peter desperately try to categorize the toxin and synthesize a cure, FBI Special Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) informs Olivia that this seemingly isolated act of terrorism could in fact be part of a series of unexplained phenomena that is being collectively referred to within the FBI as “the Pattern,” thus setting up Fringe’s overarching plot.
Broyles explains that there have been 36 recorded incidents of a paranormal nature occurring in the previous nine months. He gives examples: 47 children who disappeared in 1998 were found a few months previous to the present day, halfway around the world, and with no visible signs of having aged at all; a low-flying plane in Sri Lanka emits a high frequency sound which blows out any nearby windows, then an hour later an earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale hits, causing a tsunami which wipes out 83,000 people in the area; a hospital patient emerges from a coma and begins writing down a series of numbers, all of which correspond exactly to real-time coordinates of US military ships in the south pacific. Broyles concludes the conversation by requesting Olivia’s assistance (along with Walter and Peter) in helping the FBI’s Fringe Division investigate these and other mysterious occurrences.
Through five seasons and 100 episodes, viewers follow Olivia, Walter, Peter, and the rest of the Fringe team – the aforementioned Phillip Broyles, the force’s director; Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo), an FBI Agent and Olivia’s close friend; and Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), who assists Walter in laboratory research – as they set out to investigate “the Pattern.
It’s All About the Narrative
Fringe began much the same way as The X-Files had fifteen years before it: as a somewhat self-contained show utilizing a case-of-the-week format, thus allowing viewers to return to the show if they missed several episodes without feeling like they had become detached from the larger narrative. Abrams identified early on that serialization of the show was important in allowing the creators to tell their overall story with larger plot elements, but he recognized the difficulties that his earlier serialized dramas (like Lost and Alias) had in attracting and maintaining viewers that had not seen these shows from the start or missed episodes in-between.
With Fringe, Abrams sought to create a show that suggested complexity but was comprehensible in any given episode. His writers were in turn charged with balancing a line between stand-alone episodes – as requested by the Fox network – and heavily serialized plot elements (the mythos of the show) used to tie characters and story arcs together throughout individual seasons and across the series as a whole.
A great example of this approach can be seen in the second season episode White Tulip (S2E18) in which a scientist (guest star Peter Weller) struggles to fine-tune the mechanics of a process that could theoretically allow him to travel back in time and save his fiancée from an automobile accident. The Fringe team are called in to investigate the consequences of Weller’s character’s actions and viewers are treated with a television episode that can be enjoyed a la carte without prior exposure to the mythos of the Fringe universe. Plot elements from this episode – especially the namesake white tulip – would become symbols called back by the writers in later seasons to create a connective tissue of sorts that became the foundation for the series’ cult appeal for hardcore fans.
The Magic of John Noble
Walter Bishop was at the creative center of numerous bizarre experiments and dark government projects before he was shipped off to mental institutions. As he emerges from a pharmaceutical fog throughout the course of the series, he is rediscovering both himself and his past sins. But being locked away for decades has led to Walter becoming a stranger to both the modern world and its social processes.
The mad scientist archetype is nothing new in television or literature – singular souls who sometimes have cosmic insights but also terrible obsessions and mental or social rhythms that set them apart in life. And Walter Bishop was television’s King Lear, going from raging fool into incredibly tender moments, insanity into incredible lucidity in the blink of an eye. The real genius behind Noble’s performance lies in the actor’s ability to balance the inspired, quirky, and usually out-of-touch doctor with the often-heartbreaking portrayal of a man who is ever at odds with his past mistakes and failures – an inability to be a good father to Peter chief among them.
That rage was exactly where we found Noble’s character at the beginning of the series. At odds with his estranged son, still bearing the weight and consequences of the tragic events that led to him being committed in the first place, his release from the institution in the series’ pilot proved merely an escape from the confinements of a physical prison. The memories of a past life thrown away appear to Walter, and they hurt and torture him, but his willingness to persevere and provide strength and insight to those around him turns Walter into a character capable of achieving something close to moral equilibrium despite these shortcomings.
I’d argue that Fringe would have never been able to get away with all its experimentation without Noble’s ability to ground everything in a deep sense of compassion and hope. No matter what Walter was doing — tripping on LSD, lying to his son, agonizing over his mistakes, eating candy, dissecting a crispy corpse, making us all appreciate life’s intrinsic absurdity — you always felt for the guy.
A Grounded Approach to Absurdity
There are no two ways about it: Fringe deals with some fairly abstract science. Manipulative futures, transhumanism experiments, destructive technological singularities? These terms don’t exactly fall under the “easily consumable” column for television audiences. Thankfully, Fringe’s writers and consultants do an incredible job of building the plot arcs around these ideas in a high-concept sort of way.
According to Rob Chiappetta and Glen Whitman, two of the “media advisors” for the show, the “fringe” science that is being propagated in the series actually comes from peer-reviewed scientific journals: “We start by finding ideas right out of the headlines from a science magazine or the announcement for new research grant and we think, ‘what is the next step or how can we push the boundaries?'” said Whitman. “For example, in series’ third episode, one of the characters was receiving messages telepathically and the Monday before the show aired, we saw an article on the CNN website that explained how the U.S. Army was developing a helmet that uses brain waves to help soldiers talk to each other.”
Perhaps the greatest feat of all for the series, however, was its creative depiction of a parallel, alternate universe. In Fringe, the Alternate Universe is a universe very similar to the Prime version. Quite simply, it is a world in which slightly different choices were made. Airships populate the skies of New York City, and we see that the World Trade Center still stands in the distance. Different presidents are featured on currency. No one knows who U2 is. Ball point pens are in extremely short supply. And most importantly, Eric Stoltz – not Michael J. Fox – landed the role of Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Parallel universes are quite common in sci-fi circles. Starz, in fact, just released a new television series titled Counterpart starring J.K. Simmons wherein Simmons’ character learns that the government is hiding the existence of a divergent reality. Despite the popular sci-fi trope, you’d still be hard pressed to find a more clever, more fleshed-out version of a parallel universe than the one presented in Fringe. Actors like Torv, Noble, Reddick, and Acevedo portray complex alternate versions of themselves that are stunning departures from their primary characters. For example, Torv’s character’s alternate persona has a different color and style of hair, a more vibrant personality, and is a substantially better shot with her handgun than the Olivia Dunham audiences watched during the shows first season. John Noble’s character is a sometimes chaotic, always peculiar scientific savant in the prime timeline, but his alternate world iteration (dubbed “Walternate” by fans) is a calculated and conniving bureaucrat serving as the Secretary of Defense.
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In the creation of the series’ ambitious parallel world, the Fringe showrunners also answered the age-old question: “Does it get any better than John Noble playing Walter Bishop?”
Yes, in fact. It does.
John Noble playing TWO Walter Bishops.