This week’s Binge TV comes in the form of Fringe, a cult science fiction show from Fox which ran between 2008 and 2013. Despite significant drops in ratings, Fringe prospered for five seasons and repeatedly garnered critically acclaim for its many diverse and somewhat confusion narrative arcs.
Positing a multitude of questions such as who (or what) the Observers were, what the titular Fringe Science referred to, and the possibility of traversing the boundaries of parallel universes, Fringe was near flawless. It’s core cast consisted of sublime actors, most of which played dual roles – characters from the main universe, and also from the alternate… or ‘Walternate’, if you please.
Anna Torv was without doubt brilliant, playing Olivia Dunham and her Walternate counterpart Fauxlivia, combining angst, a brilliant scientific mind, and an entirely believable pained/strained relationship with her team mates. Her romance with Peter, whilst predictable, brought a nice element to her frayed character.
It is perhaps John Noble’s Walter Bishop who will mostly be remembered from Fringe, and rightfully so. He was exceptional, playing deranged madman and inquisitive child simultaneously. His portrayal was repeatedly lauded with acclaim.
Rounding out the core trio comes Joshua Jackson’s Peter Bishop, a rich boy with daddy issues. But boy are those issues tantalising. Here Fringe doesn’t use the cliched daddy left mommy issues. No, daddy kidnapped his son’s parallell counterpart from the Walternate and raised him as his own. Yes, Fringe dealt with child abduction in an altogether unique (and we’re guessing otherwise unused) way. This was perhaps the greatest element of Fringe.
Season one was admittedly a bit hit-and-miss. Here Fringe tried too much to be like The X Files, creating a new case per week. The overarching narrative arcs were hard to work out, and each episode appeared standalone. As such not many of them are standouts. But persevere, because once the parallel universe becomes known, Fringe becomes exceptional.
‘There’s More Than One of Everything’ debuts the forever-mentioned William Bell, played by the legend Leonard Nimoy. Bell is brilliant, but underused (probably due to Nimoy’s apparent retirement). Who can forget that final, haunting image of season one in which we are shown the Twin Towers still standing in New York? A bold, daring image, but iconic nevertheless.
Dealing with spontaneous combustion, telepathy and killer butterflies, Fringe worked best when it picked a sci-fi staple and explored it in depth over several episodes. The shape shifters of season two are an example, which were introduced in ‘A New Day in Old Town’ and recurred through the rest of the show. Shockingly we lost a member of the team in the form of Charlie Francis, who was slaughtered in the first episode of season two. His death allowed the shapeshifter arc to play out.
Like I’ve said, it is perhaps the parallel universe elements which cement Fringe as brilliant, and these are never showcased as brilliantly than in season twos ‘Peter’. This episode is the standout of the entire series, and it shows Walter’s harrowing journey to the other side after discovering his own son had died. In a moment of emotional decline and distress, Walter kidnapped Peter from ‘over there’ and raised him as his own. It’s this which created the entire narrative of Fringe: Walter’s journey created a storm which threatened to destroy both universes.
Season three saw both universes utilised fully, with most of the main actors taking on their dual roles to a greater extent. Olivia and Fauxlivia swap places, and Walternate (a pun on alternate, geddit?) becomes pissed when he meets his son as a grown up. It’s powerful stuff, and it is delivered with stunning performances from all involved. Season three includes another standout episode, in the form of ‘Lysergic Acid Diethylamide’ which utilised a triply cartoon narrative to bring back William Bell. This episode truly has to be seen to be believed, but it is entirely believable within the context of the show.
Season four stalled somewhat as Fringe dealt with parallel universes in a different way, through the erasion of an entire being resulting in a different-but-the-same world. Peter was erased from space and time (kind of) and eventually brought back (some how) in a story which ultimately was pointless. Here the Fringe team began to revisit cases from yesteryear as the new world recreated that which had happened previously, which probably was intended as a play on what had come before. Admittedly it did stink of running out of ideas.
‘Letters of Transit’ glimpsed a totalitarian dystopian future in which the Observers grasp on the planet had reached its pinnacle. We were given assurances that this future would be avoided, but alas it wasn’t. In a bold move, Fringe flashed 25 years into the future during its final season to fully explore this previously realised world. Here an aged team have to explore the clues left to them by a younger Walter, who’s addled mind cannot remember even leaving them. All of this results in a powerful finale in which Walter is wiped from existence, the Observers grasp on the planet is reversed, and the show resets to 2015. Whilst resets are generally a no-no in sci-fi, somehow it worked here. The only problem was Walter was forever gone.
So prepare for some truly mind bending possibilities in Fringe, from those which could be possible one day to those which will never, ever become reality. But as perfect escapist television, rich in mythology akin to Lost, Fringe is a brilliant example of cult TV. Most of its daring ideas worked.