TDF Top 10: Fringe
In our latest TDF Top 10 we turn our attention to JJ Abrams' sci-fi drama Fringe...
Taking influence from The X-Files primarily, Fringe ran for five Seasons from 2008-2013. The strong and stoic FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) was supported by the somewhat unhinged scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), his son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and assisted by junior FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole). There was a whole host of other supporting characters, often with ambiguous alliances and motivations.
Unlike The X-Files, Fringe had a coherent and consistent mythology. The addressing of “what if’s” surrounding multiple universes were explored in grotesque detail, with far reaching consequences. Most actors had to play not only their character, but an alternate universe version too, often with different mannerisms and motivations. In some cases they had to play the alternate playing the original, and vice versa. Even so, it remained fairly consistent, thanks in no small part to the brilliant performances from the leads.
Of course, like all sci-fi shows of this era, there were also the “monster of the week” and occasional gimmicky episodes, many of which brought in fantastic guest appearances and strange insights into Walter’s experimental history, beyond his exploration of extended universes. Picking the best episodes, then, is quite the challenge.
Allow us to present The TDF Top 10: Fringe...
10. There’s More Than One Of Everything (1.20)
The first season of Fringe took a little time to find its feet. With a number of elements of mythology to introduce, there were times it got a bit bogged down. But when they all begin to come together at the end of the first series, that’s when it starts to get really exciting.
The season villain David Robert Jones (the always brilliant Jared Harris) races with our leads to find the right spot to cross to another reality, leaving a trail of destruction behind him. Plot threads addressed in later series are hinted at and we get our first meeting with the elusive William Bell (Leonard Nimoy). A glimpse into the other universe and the front of a newspaper suggests that the effects of the inter dimensional travel on their universe may be more marked than ours. And an Observer makes one of his first moves to alter the course of events in front of him.
9: Amber 31422 (3.05)
For a period of seasons three and four, Fringe switched back and forth between the two alternate universes, allowing us to empathise with certain characters on both sides and understand that neither one is inherently evil.
Unfortunately the alternative universe, due to the issues caused by the doorways opening, has a slightly more controlled existence. There were various lies and cover ups, manipulations and secrets. As Walternate replaces Fauxlivia with the real Olivia, in order to manipulate her ability to move harmlessly between universes, a smaller story unfolds of a brother rescuing his twin (Shawn and Aaron Ashmore) from the Amber used to plug up the holes. The general public thinks the people trapped are dead, but they aren’t, showing the full extent of the governments manipulation of the public.
8: In Absentia (5.02)
Season five was a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people, as the main plot lines of the first four seasons had been tied up and finalised in the Season four finale. But there was one episode of Season four which hinted at a darker future, all of which played out in season five.
The final season jumps forwards to 2036, and in the second episode the team must return to the lab which used to be Walters haven, now under Observer control. A post apocalyptic world strains the relationship between Olivia, Peter and their daughter Etta (Georgina Haig), they have missed her growing up and struggle with how she has changed from the child they knew. Now a resistance fighter, hardened, ruthless and angry.
We are there with our original team as they begin to come to terms with how much the world has changed, and the task they now have to undertake in order to take back control of their lives. The task is set charmingly by a trail of videotapes left by Walter, the familiar (albeit old even when he left it) technology a comfort to both us and him.
7: Subject 9 (4.04)
The machine that was supposed to use Peter to repair the holes in the universes has eliminated Peter from the memories of those on our side. However, the Observers note that certain people and connections between people are strong enough that shadows remain. Olivia dreams of him although she doesn’t know who he is, and Walter is plagued by his face in reflections around the lab.
Olivia begins to be plagued by a ball of energy that burns her upon touch, and draws metal towards itself. This leads Walter to remember a child, subject 9 from the Cortexiphan trials who could astral project. They find this child, whose real name is Cameron (Chadwick Boseman – sadly missed and the one key reason for choosing this episode), who is living a life isolated by his abilities.
Though Cameron isn’t the source of the energy, he allows Peter to manifest himself, and cross over into our world.
6: 6B (3.14)
The wider effects of the thinning boundaries between the worlds are felt everywhere, in one particular building it has caused people to begin seeing “ghosts” of people they have lost, which are images coming through from the other universe. Playing out at times like a Gothic romance this episode shows the versatility of the format, and how they could use this multiverse plot line to take on various genres with aplomb.
5: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (3.19)
No long running series would be complete without a gimmick episode. Fringe did the usual musical episode format quite well with season two's Brown Betty, (which was not just a musical but a sci-fi noir melodrama, and a close entry on this list). However, the show was really successful with this animated episode.
Walter and Peter use LSD to enter Olivia’s consciousness after her body has been taken over by William Bell. As they travel through her subconscious, they are noticed and attacked by various parts of her mind (the influence from Inception is clear). Instead of Olivia, they find Bell, and transition into animated characters. They have to travel through the various parts of Olivia’s subconscious (there are zombies! Sabotage! Imposters!) trying to find where she is hiding so they can bring her back into the real world, before she is lost completely. Ultimately their ability to rescue her depends on how well they know her, and the depth of Peter and Olivia’s relationship is pushed to its limit.
4: August (2.08)
August focuses on one of the Observers, all of whom are named after months of the year. They are supposed to simply observe (as the name suggests) but August (Peter Woodward) has taken a liking to a girl who lost her parents in a bridge collapse as a child. She is supposed to lose her life in a plane crash, however he intercepts and prevents her death. To him, she is important, although in the grand scheme of things she isn’t. For her, he takes risks, changes the course of events and jeopardises everything.
It is a stark observation of how subjective a single persons importance can be, and how sometimes this overrides logic and drives people to make difficult choices.
3: What Lies Below (2.13)
A virus attacks an office building that seemingly drives those infected to attack others in an attempt to spread. It's not strictly a zombie virus, more one that creates a sort of mind control (like the parasites that compel insects to act in certain ways). In the process of investigating the death of the first victim, Peter becomes trapped in the building and infected, and there is a race against time to find a cure before he succumbs to it.
Riffing on classic sci-fi, horror and tropes of paranoia (there is a blood test scene reminiscent of a certain John Carpenter masterpiece), it’s an episode that walks the line brilliantly between being just the right level of scary and entertaining. Pushing the boundaries of this genre of TV in terms of what sort of horrific images they can get away with. It also forces Olivia and Peter to begin addressing their feelings for one another.
2: Peter (2.16)
We are thrown back into 1985, into a world of CRT computer screens, MS DOS and presented with a younger, very different Walter. The episode reveals the catalysing event that triggered everything in the rest of the series. As Peter slowly fades due to an un-diagnosed illness, the younger Walter watches powerless, as his son dies, and the alternate son heads in the same direction. As Walternate misses the reaction that reveals the cure, Walter sees, and knowing no other option, crosses to the other side, kidnaps the alternate Peter and cures him.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the strength to return the alternate Peter home, or take him away from his mother, the balance isn’t restored, Walternate is embittered by the theft of his child and the background of the entire series is born. The episode also features a very charming alternate opening sequence, with 80s styled music and graphics. Always a fun thing to see.
1: White Tulip (2.18)
You can’t beat a good guest star, and even better than that is an episode written to make reference to a guest star's past work. White Tulip features Peter Weller (famous of course for playing Robocop) as scientist Alastair Peck, a man who has turned his own body into a time machine. After a train arrives carrying several dead bodies in one of its carriages, investigations lead the team to Peck who is experimenting with time. He has used the passengers of the train as an energy source for his tests.
Like the best time travel stories, it isn’t really about time travel. It’s a love story about forgiveness, and the parallels between what has happened to Peck that he wants to repair, and the secrets held between Walter and Peter. In Peck, Walter finds someone who can explain to him, that sometimes, fixing your past involves sacrifice. For an episode that ends where it begins, there is a huge amount of growth. It’s arguably the best episode of the entire show, with a plot strong enough to be a feature film.
There are of course a great deal of other episodes which could have been included here. But these are the ones that stuck in my memory from the first viewing. So many referenced classic sci-fi, or had strong enough plots to be a feature film. I hope your favourite is included! Let us know in the comments below...