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Fringe Season One

on Wed, 11/03/2010 - 00:00

At first glance, the FOX drama Fringe appears to be an attempt by the network to rediscover the past sci-fi glory of its X-Files days. The series, co-created by Alias and Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams, follows an elite government multi-agency task force investigating a string of strange phenomenon that is collectively known as “The Pattern.” But while the storylines of The X-Files revolved around the supernatural, Fringe finds its roots in extreme science run amuck. “A series of events has occurred, continues to occur, that has us and other agencies on alert,” Homeland Security official Phillip Broyles tells FBI Agent Olivia Dunham at the outset of the series. “These events appear to be scientific in nature and suggest a larger strategy, a concerted effort.”

The “who” and the “what” of Fringe thus comprises the focus of the show’s first season. Initially the suspected villain is global technology corporation Massive Dynamic and its unseen founder, William Bell. Not only do the various investigations lead back to the company but also to Bell’s former lab-sharing colleague, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble). Ironically enough, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) has recruited Bishop as part of her team. While he is indeed a genius scientist capable of making the seemingly impossible actually possible, he has also spent the previous 17 years isolated in a mental institution after an accident caused the death of a young female assistant. Deemed mentally unfit to stand trial for manslaughter, Walter Bishop was locked away instead—along with all of his deepest, darkest secrets.

Unfortunately for the world-at-large, someone else has unlocked those secrets and unleashed their horrors upon mankind. From a murderous artificially-aged human who extracts the pituitary glands from his victims in order to stay alive, to a man having visions of Pattern-related events, to a series of bank robberies where the criminals are capable of literally walking through walls, they all inevitably tie back to Walter Bishop’s scientific experimentation on behalf of the U.S. government in the years prior to his incarceration.

“They gave him the resources to do whatever work he wanted, which was primarily in the area called fringe science,” Olivia Dunham explains to Bishop’s son Peter (Joshua Jackson) in regards to his father’s previous work. “Things like mind control, teleportation, astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, reincarnation.”

“So you’re telling me what?” Peter skeptically replies back. “My father was Dr. Frankenstein?”

The thirtysomething Peter Bishop, along with Walter Bishop and Olivia Dunham, is the third leg of the tripod on which Fringe is built. A genius in his own right, the younger Bishop has been conning his way through life, even going so far as to once falsify a degree from MIT in order to get a job as a college chemistry professor. He is necessary to Dunham’s investigation despite this shady past, however, because initial access to Walter Bishop could only be acquired with the consent of an immediate family member.

Peter’s involvement continues, meanwhile, because of the mental state of his father. After 17 years of incarceration in an institution, Walter Bishop’s mind is fragile at best, with fits of impatience, anger, memory loss and an often inability to focus on the task at hand. Peter—who has been estranged from his father for decades—is the only person who can truly handle the elder Bishop but Peter’s intelligence and street savvy also turn out to be an asset in the various investigations that he is inevitably drawn into assisting.

The majority of the episodes that encompass the first season of Fringe are of the standalone variety, with a specific case that needs solved and/or resolved by the end of the hour. As the series moves along, however, elements of an overarching narrative also emerge, and just like the mythology of The X-Files ultimately had direct ties to main protagonist Fox Mulder, the mysteries of Fringe likewise intersect the lives of Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham.

While much of The Pattern relates to the work of Walter Bishop, the full extent of that connection comes into better focus during the latter half of the season. In the episode “Ability,” for instance, it is revealed that the organization behind the events is a radical extremist group that goes by the name ZFT. Their manifesto—“Destruction by Advancement of Technology”—is filled with references to a coming war with a parallel universe.

“We think we understand reality, but our universe is only one of many,” the treatise contends. “The unknown truths of the way to travel between them has already been discovered, by beings much like us but whose history is slightly ahead of our own. The negative aspects of such visitations will be irreversible both to our world and to theirs. It will begin with a series of unnatural occurrences. Difficult to notice at first but growing, not unlike a cancer, until a simple fact becomes undeniable: only one world will survive and it will either be us or them.”

Another section reads, “Many warriors of the inevitable confrontation are among us now but before they can be considered soldiers, they must be regarded as recruits. And the expectation must be that they shall be unwilling.”

Walter Bishop later connects the document to his basement lab at Harvard University and an old typewriter gathering dust on a shelf. Apparently William Bell was the author and his—as well as Bishop’s—experiments were the catalyst. As fate would have it, one of their test subjects was a three-year-old Olivia Dunham who was treated with a new drug called Cortexiphan in her then hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Cortexiphan was designed to prevent the inevitable loss of the brain’s potential as one grows older, thus giving its recipients psychic, pyrokinesis and emotion-affecting abilities later in life. It also effectively marked those exposed to the drug as the “recruits” referred to in the ZFT manifesto, who in turn will be the “soldiers” in the coming “war.”

Like all good science fiction, Fringe is ultimately a cautionary tale of the dangers of scientific and technological achievement. “We’ve reached a point where science and technology have advanced at such an exponential rate for so long it may be way beyond our ability to regulate and control it,” Massive Dynamic executive Nina Sharp (Blair Brown) tells Olivia Dunham in an early episode. Although the dangers and risks involved in mankind’s continual evolution are debated in each and every episode of Fringe, the psychological toll is also reflected in the character of Walter Bishop, a former genius who defied the laws of nature early in his life only be left mentally unstable and alone for 17 years. While his former colleague William Bell followed his ambition to become both the “richest man in the world” and CEO of the largest corporation on the planet, Walter has been reduced to a broken man who only now understands the consequences of his actions.

In the final episodes of the season, Fringe delves more and more into the existence of a parallel universe that is both a reflection of our own but that developed in a slightly different fashion. It is with this other “world” that the upcoming battle ZFT is preparing will be fought against, as well as the place where William Bell is residing. David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), a leader within ZFT, attempts to open the doorway between these two universes in “There’s More Than One of Everything” but is thwarted in the process by Walter Bishop, who has apparently “been there, done that” in the quite literal sense and devised a “plug” to prevent anyone from following in his footsteps.

But while Jones may have been stopped from crossing over, William Bell never was and maneuvers a meeting with Olivia Dunham on the other side—specifically, on a top floor of a still-standing World Trade Center. While that final scene delivers an emotional jolt, it is the events beforehand that have the larger emotional impact. Throughout the first season of Fringe, Walter Bishop made vague comments concerning illnesses, toys and even a coin collection from Peter Bishop’s childhood—none of which his son could apparently remember. The reason for this seeming memory loss is suggested at the end of “There’s More Than One of Everything,” when a grieving Walter sobs over a tombstone that reads: “Peter Bishop, 1978-1985.”

“Something was lost to me,” the older Bishop tells the younger one earlier in the episode. “Something precious. I became convinced that if only I could cross over myself, I could take from there what I’d lost here.” Unbeknownst to Peter, Walter Bishop is referring to him.

“For those of you just joining us, what you’re looking at is the work of ZFT, a terrorist organization responsible for at least a half a dozen biological attacks over the last several months,” Special Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) tells his staff near the end of the season. “Their manifesto, which elucidates their ideology and their methods, boils down to the following: attempting to provoke or prepare for a war.” As fate would have it, the key elements of that upcoming war—Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham—are all members of the Fringe Division that Boyles oversees and have already been maneuvered into position for future events as Fringe continues its wild sci-fi ride on FOX.

Anthony Letizia

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