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Fringe Science: Explorations of the Sci-Fi Drama

on Mon, 08/29/2011 - 00:00

“You’re telling me what?” Peter Bishop asks in the pilot episode of the FOX drama Fringe. “My father was Dr. Frankenstein?” Despite the observation, however, the Mary Shelley classic is not necessarily the first sci-fi narrative that comes to mind upon initially viewing Fringe. With its basic premise of a small-team of FBI agents tasked to investigate strange and deadly occurrences, that role is instead filled by another FOX series, The X-Files. The cases investigated by the Fringe Division, however, do not fall into the category of the supernatural as on The X-Files but science taken to theoretical extremes, making the show a modern incantation of the science fiction genre of the past. In the anthology volume Fringe Science: Parallel Universes, White Tulips, and Mad Scientists (BenBella Books, 2011), a number of physic professors, sci-fi historians and television connoisseurs offer their own interpretations of Fringe—and not one of them shines the spotlight solely upon Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

At least three of the essays contained in Fringe Science, for instance, trace the roots of the television series deeper and broader within the works of science fiction in general than any specific contemporary source. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often considered the birth mother of the genre, and in “In Search of Fringe’s Literary Ancestors” author Amy H. Sturgis begins her study of the FOX drama with the “modern Prometheus” of old. According to Fringe co-creator J.J. Abrams, the similarities between Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Walter Bishop are intentional as the idea of a genius scientist ignoring conventions and pressing further with their experiments regardless of the consequences played a key factor in the creation of Fringe. More significantly, the primary driving force for the reckless behavior of both Victor and Walter is the death of someone beloved in their life—for Dr. Frankenstein, it was his mother and in the case of Dr. Bishop, his son.

While Walter Bishop may be a direct descendent of the mother of science fiction, Amy Sturgis argues that Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop stem from the works of the man often considered to be the father of the genre, Edgar Allen Poe. Although Poe is largely recognized for his Gothic horror writings, he was also influential in both the science fiction and mystery fields. His character C. Auguste Dupin, for instance, was the first fictional detective and utilized a line of inquiry known as ratiocination, which combined “rigorous reason with creative imagination,” a technique Poe also incorporated into his science fiction works.

“Building on this premise, a number of other authors after Poe also chose to blur the lines between what we now consider to be the distinct genres of detective and science fiction,” Amy Sturgis writes. “In doing so, these writers created characters who believed that it was possible to know the unknown and who used a combination of imagination and reason to this end. Together they paved the shadowy and mysterious ground that our heroes in Fringe now walk.”

With the basic DNA of Fringe established in the earliest known works of sci-fi, Paul Levinson argues in “The Return of 1950s Science Fiction in Fringe” that many of the episodes of the FOX drama rely on narratives created during the middle half of the Twentieth Century. The 1950s are often seen as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, with such authors as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark rising to prominence as well as a bevy of sci-fi motion pictures and television shows like The Twilight Zone and Science Fiction Theater. The plots of many of these works can in turn be found on Fringe. Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination, for instance, featured teleportation—something Walter Bishop himself devised earlier in his career and was utilized during season one of Fringe—while Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one of the earliest narratives to contain “alterative realities.”

Alternative realities and parallel universes are at the center of the overarching Fringe storyline, and Mike Brotherton explores past instances of these literary devices in “Déjà New.” Citing previous explorations of alternative realities on such classic television shows as Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, novels like The Man in the High Castle and even the world of Marvel Comics, Brotherton demonstrates how Fringe not only borrowed from the past but built upon it as well with its own finely crafted alternate universe.

Fringe is deeply steeped in the literary sci-fi tradition and often pays homage to its inspirations,” he writes. “In the season two episode ‘Jacksonville’ there is a building that, shall we say, interferes with itself across the two universes. Destructively. This is the Zelazny building. Roger Zelazny was a science fiction writer who penned the classic novel Nine Princes in Amber, about an exile who loses his memory and is trapped in a foreign universe. It is likely not a coincidence that in the alternate universe they use a substance called ‘amber’ to plug the holes between the realities.”

While Fringe has benefited from previous works of science fiction, it has also ventured into new territory with storylines designed to “frighten” its viewers. In the essay “Paranormal is the New Normal,” David Dylan Thomas suggests that the reason why Fringe has not featured vampires, zombies and ghosts in the same way as The X-Files once did goes beyond its premise being grounded in science as opposed to the supernatural—truth is, we are scared of different things during the early part of the Twenty First Century than we were in the latter half of the Twentieth. The potential reality of deadly viruses, terrorist attacks and dangerous technological advances invokes more fear into the contemporary television viewer than demons of the past, and the majority of stand-alone narratives on Fringe deal directly with the dangers of modern society.

“‘There is nothing new under the sun’ is true for our sun as for any alien sun, any sun in an alternative reality or a parallel universe, or even for a world, if one could exist, with no sun at all,” Paul Levinson writes in Fringe Science. “This does not mean that everything is trite or clichéd. If done right, the old in a new package can be especially exciting precisely because it evokes echoes of what we know. This is the secret of Fringe.”

Fringe is obviously an entertaining television series in its own right. A deeper understanding of both its sci-fi predecessors and modern scientific explorations, however, adds a higher level of enjoyment to the show nonetheless. One may be able to view the series without knowing its true roots lie in both the past and contemporary times, but thanks to the authors in Fringe Science: Parallel Universes, White Tulips, and Mad Scientists, fans of Fringe are able to conduct their own research into the edges of Fringe science—and come to appreciate the FOX drama even more.

Anthony Letizia

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