For the last few years, I have ‘adopted’ a DVD box set of a TV drama series to see me through the long, dark winter evenings and this winter has been no different.
I’d set the bar pretty high for this, because in previous years I had chosen (in 2010-2011) ‘The Sopranos‘ and (in 2011-2012) ‘The Wire’. This winter’s choice was a little bit out of left field – a friend offered to lend me DVD Box of the first 4 series of ‘Fringe’, a rather obscure little sci-fi series made by some of the people involved in ‘Lost’ including J J Abrams, who also directed the most recent ‘Star Trek‘ movie and has now (apparently) been lined up to direct the first movie in the next phase of George Lucas’ ongoing ‘Star Wars’ saga.
‘Fringe‘ was a series about which I knew little except that it had been chugging along on Sky TV in this country without ever threatening to break out into mainstream success. From a distance, it looked more like one of those odd items that used to crop up on the SciFi channel – occasional pilots for potential series that never quite happened. Yet for all this, as I began with Series 1 of ‘Fringe’, Sky were starting in on the fifth and final series of the show, so in the end the ‘Fringe’ saga would amount to 100 episodes. I felt that, under the circumstances, that something good must be going on here, so although I’d been warned that the early shows were ‘a bit lame’ (to quote a friend), there was surely something here worth persevering with. Armed with this conviction, I entered the murky worlds of ‘Fringe’.
‘Fringe’, I soon discovered was shorthand for the ‘Fringe Division’ – a small and marginalised sub-section of the FBI whose raison d’etre was to investigate all that weird stuff which Mulder & Scully left behind when ‘The X Files’ shuffled off to TV Nostalgia Heaven about 10 years ago.
Like ‘The X Files’, ‘Fringe‘ could boast a core group of dedicated individuals who would stick with the show throughout its five-series run from 2008 to 2012. The inner quartet were headed by FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, played by Australian actress Anna Torv and she was aided and abetted by ex-hippie and (slightly) mad scientist Walter Bishop, played by another Aussie, John Noble, probably best known for his portrayal of the deeply unpleasant and ultimately deranged Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings‘. Also in attendance were Bishop’s son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Lab Assistant /Earth Mother/ FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole). In addition, there were also regular guest turns from Lance Reddick, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo, Seth Gabel and – occasionally – even a craggy and rather infirm-looking Leonard Nimoy.
L-R, Jasika Nicole, John Noble, Anna Torv & Joshua Jackson
So, after some initial manoeuvring, the Fringe Team set up shop in Walter Bishop’s abandoned lab at Harvard. Obviously, Harvard isn’t subject to the same financial strictures as British universities; the idea that this huge space could remain mothballed for so many years with all Walter’s toys left intact defies any kind of logic. In the UK, the lab would have either been converted and modernised or rented off as a Starbuck’s franchise. But this is ‘Fringe’ and things aren’t always what they might seem.
So Season 1 chugs along after a promising pilot episode where a flight from Hamburg to Boston is taken over by some flesh-eating virus – or was it a giant mutant porcupine? I cannot recall now, but I felt that it was worth persisting with the series – after all, it was that or multiple episodes of ‘Roller-Skating Celebrity Pets on Ice ‘ and suchlike. It soon fell into a pattern – the Team get a call to go and check out some random piece of weirdness (mainly located in the northeastern USA), they resolve it and then move on to the next case.
Basically, over the first couple of seasons, ‘Fringe’ diligently set about fleshing out the back-stories of the leading characters, so we learn that there’s potentially (surprise, surprise) a big romance on the cards for Agent Dunham and Peter Bishop, and we also learn that Peter’s father, Walter, before being locked up in a mental hospital for 17 years, had a fondness for blotter acid, psychedelic rock music and morally indefensible scientific experiments which would have brought a cheery smile to the face of Josef Mengele. Even so, we are supposed to accept him now as a loveable eccentric who shows genuine remorse for his past misdeeds whilst acting as the Fringe team’s resident scientific guru, meanwhile indulging a fatal weakness for all manner of American junk food – everything from strawberry milkshakes to red licorice sticks.
I suppose it helps if you are able to accept John Noble’s bumbling Worzel Gummidge persona and his apparent desire to atone for having experimented on and permanently damaged the lives of a group of helpless children with dangerous pharmaceuticals, not to mention potentially destroying the universe back in his arrogant younger days.
However, it doesn’t really fly, I’m afraid. Noble simply isn’t an accomplished enough actor to engender much audience sympathy or give his character the emotional depth that might make us think twice about him. His passive/aggressive behaviour towards his son and his use of emotional blackmail to make himself the centre of attention soon render his performances a fairly constant irritant and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the ‘Fringe‘ episodes that work best are the ones where he barely features. In fact, aside from son Peter, it’s difficult to fathom out why everyone seems so fond of him.
As for our romantic leads, this, too, is a romance made in hell, because the ongoing love-fest between Messrs Torv and Jackson manages to whip up an emotional whirlwind that would have trouble blowing over a house of cards.
Miss Torv may have the regulation long blonde tresses and a trim enough figure, but she simply has no sex appeal whatsoever. She plays a workaholic who radiates a kind of bovine lugubriousness that renders her occasional romantic encounters about as steamy as a damp dishcloth. Meanwhile, Joshua Jackson puts me in mind of the former Swedish international footballer Tomas Brolin, who was once described by (I think) Mark Radcliffe as being like a ‘pretty pig’. Jackson has the porcine to go with Anna Torv’s bovine, which leaves only the diminutive Jasika Nicole, whose Agent Farnsworth gets to play the ‘straight (wo)man’ to all the others and does so very sweetly and effectively. In fact, most of the supporting cast regulars do a great job by and large, but the lack of magnetism among the principals makes their job doubly difficult.
Donald A. Wollheim once wrote that science fiction was more important for the ideas it generated than it was for the depth of the characterisation of its heroes, so how does ‘Fringe’ fare on that level? Last year I watched a much shorter series called ‘Terra Nova’ which featured an even more obnoxious cast but could boast some fairly nifty special effects. It didn’t really help that much but it made the series marginally less grim to watch.
With that in mind, it has to be said that some of the pseudo-science dished up in ‘Fringe’ is quite interesting, if occasionally risible. Best of all is the ‘parallel universe’ plot which runs for much of Seasons 2-4 before being summarily dumped at the end of Season 4. The alternative Earth – well, we only see Boston and New York, really – has some interesting inversions and variations. Anna Torv puts in her best performances as her punky alter ego from ‘the other side’ and Walter Bishop is both sinister and megalomaniacal as the Secretary of Defence (with a ‘s’).
The two Olivias – neurotic workaholic or punky go-getter?
In some ways, ‘Fringe‘ always struggled to build an audience and in many ways, it was remarkable that it survived for 100 episodes. Clearly, towards the end of Season 4, the decision was made to run a curtailed Season 5 and wrap up the whole saga. This final Season has only just ended and I’m still not sure whether to admire the boldness of the producers for the radical plot changes they made for that final 13 episodes.
Basically and as briefly as possible, a constant and (largely) unexplained feature of the whole saga was the role of the so-called ‘Observers’, a recurring group of bald and pasty-faced men with a weakness for dark suits and fedora hats who seem to crop up at important junctures of the plot throughout the first 4 Seasons. These characters seem largely benign and neutral -hence the name they are given – but from Episode 19 of Season 4 (‘Letters of Transit’) , we are forced to view them in a different light. They are – it seems – from our future and have developed the ability to travel through time but having been passive and benign for so long, from 2015 onwards, they become malign and aggressive, attempting to take over the whole world and imposing a totalitarian government highly reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘1984’ where they use mind control and torture to keep the population cowed and submissive.
Having spent such a long time setting up the whole parallel universe storyline, it’s amazing to witness how it took the producers only one subsequent episode (Episode 20 – Season 4 – ‘Worlds Apart‘ ) to shut all that down and pave the way for the radical Season 5. Such, it seems, are the effects of poor ratings…
Season 5’s thirteen episodes are set in the future – 2036 to be precise – and generally feature only the central quartet – the two Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth. Blair Brown and Lance Reddick (as their older selves) appear far less often and the Parallel Earth makes only a fleeting appearance in the penultimate episode. The series is notable for the appearance of Peter & Olivia’s grown-up daughter Henrietta, a member of the Resistance who are trying to stop the Observers from taking over and ruining the planet. The Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth have by 2036 been suspended in amber (don’t ask) for over 20 years until the resourceful Henrietta busts them out. They are then free to resume their battle to defeat the Observers .
Season 5 – Georgina Haig (L) joins the merry throng as Henrietta
At times, frankly, the plot – not for the first time – totters on the brink of disastrous absurdity, but having slogged my way through the general doldrums and occasional highlights of Seasons 1-4, I was in no mood to abandon ‘Fringe’ now. With an almost grim determination I hung in there until the inevitable soft-sell conclusion where Walter Bishop finally got to redeem himself by saving the universe he once almost destroyed and Peter & Olivia were restored to a past where they got their lives and their daughter back.
As a series, ‘Fringe’ is like the Ugly Duckling that never became a swan. It just never took off, possibly because the plot was initially too predictable, but then became too wild for mainstream viewers. Possibly it was because of the leaden acting and the lack of chemistry between some of the principals. I can’t help but wonder whether the ‘Fringe‘ fan-base felt cheated by the events of the final season or not. I find it hard to imagine how anyone who sat down in 2008 to watch Season 1, Episode 1 and followed it week by week and Season by Season must have felt when all of that careful plot development effectively got thrown out of the window over the last 13 episodes. Of course, you could argue that Fringe’ is just TV fluff and that we’re not meant to take it seriously, but the way in which the show promoted and projected itself would very much suggest otherwise.
Next winter, I think I may need to choose my Box set a little more carefully…