As previously discussed, the show skips between monster-of-the-week specials, chin-stroking social commentary and a broader plot arc.
The first two of these have been well-represented; we have had 100-year-old Nazi poisoners, mutant-chinese-medicine-secreting fish and humans who can apprently transform into bestial mutants (Ah – but aren’t we all the bestial mutants really? Well, not so much in this case).
The latter area is where the true strength of ‘Fringe’ lies. However, this strength is not the noble attribute of the truly virtuous, strength borne of integrity and righteousness. This is the wild, manic strength of the lunatic – unpredictable, incoherent, fevered and utterly confusing. Watching ‘Fringe’ is watching a man on a tightrope, where the tightrope is really enjoyable trashy serialised TV and where the chasm on each side is the bottomless pit of mediocre obscurity – listen carefully and you can hear the screams of ‘Surface’ and ‘Threshold’.
One wrong move and ‘Fringe’s convoluted plot-arc will send it on a similar course. Brief summary: our Earth is at war, without knowing it, with its evil parallel-dimensional twin – let’s call it Earth-2 (can’t believe no-one has thought of that). Earth 2 is on the brink of collapse and the barriers between the dimensions are weakening. Sinister forces have infiltrated our world and are preparing to smash their world into ours.
In the 1980s two scientists of our Earth, Walter Bishop and William Bell, discovered this and began a programme to combat it using specially indoctrinated children – one of whom has grown up to be an FBI investigator into the paranormal. Bell travelled to Earth-2 (for so far undisclosed reasons) while Bishop (a Frankenstein-style scientist with many dodgy extra-curricular interests) ended up in the loony bin for just over a decade before being released by the aforementioned FBI agent with the help of his son Peter Bishop, who is, in fact – though he doesn’t know it – from Earth-2 having been kidnapped by Walter Bishop whose own son died at the age of six. Take that alien invasion storyline!
Last week’s episode was another triumphant step along the tightrope for our exhausted metaphor. We finally saw the steps by which Joshua Jackson’s Peter came to be in our world. Walter designed a window into the other universe (literally) by which he could see his “walter-native” discover a cure to the same genetic ailment that had killed his own son. However, at the crucial moment of discovery the “walter-native” was distracted by one of the Observers (oh, I forgot – there are a race of pale, bald ‘Observers’ who only eat chili sauce and who are present for all important events) and a frustrated Walter was the only witness to his success. Walter replicates the cure and crosses dimensions but when the vial breaks the only option is to take Earth-2’s Peter back with him at which point his wife forces them to keep the boy.
It doesn’t read great on paper, but is brought to life by Bishop’s John Noble, a man who – after being asked to do one and a half seasons of wacky mad professor schtick – finally gets to do some acting. It’s great stuff as Noble drops 20 years to play a genius obsessed with his own deceased son. The setting is a lovely bit of understated 80s pastiche with big phones and big hair, also being the basis for the episode’s highlight, a brilliantly ‘Tomorrow’s World’ version of the credits (all over youtube and well worth tracking down if somehow you missed it).
When all’s said and done, not much is moved on in plot terms but there is something dangerously close to character development, for Bishop, for recurrring corporate boss Nina Sharp and for Peter Bishop: while we only see him in flashback there’s something very affecting about actually seeing an event we have only previously been told of. It threatens to make something interesting out of the father-son banter of Noble and Jackson.
The overall impression is that ‘Fringe’ almost seems to take pride in conjuring up an absurdly contrived situation and then heaving a great dollop of touching and affecting family drama all over it. This is almost certainly the right direction for a show that has little going for it aside from being utterly ridiculous: keep the audience on their toes by offering heartfelt emotion alongside the teleporting buildings and viruses that make people vomit blood.