By the Numbers
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall
Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
Written by Robert Chiapetta & Glen Whitman
Directed by Joe Chappelle
“Fine, if you end up breaking the universe, this time it’s on your head.” —Walter (to Peter)
Aaand there we go, right off the rails. Over the past three years, Fringe has carefully built up a mythos and a premise rooted in plausibility. The science behind the alternate-universe theory, behind Cortexiphan, behind the “war of the worlds” between Walter and Walternate is out there, for sure. It’s fringe science at best. The creators of this show know that there is a thin line, easily crossed, between wonder and amusement, and that it does not take much to push an audience beyond suspension of disbelief and right into disbelief. They have danced along that line, mostly managing to land on this side of it, where the audience allows itself to be persuaded because the foundation of the story is solid, even if some of the structures erected on it are not. But then comes a story like this one, and knocks it all into a cocked hat.
“Perhaps Peter would like to play last night’s tape aloud to everyone, given his recent fondness for dangerous activities.” —Walter
It starts out interestingly enough, with a group of assorted people in different locations all listening to a “number station”. Number stations are one of those fun, real-life phenomena that can be made to fit almost any theory: stations on the shortwave spectrum that feature a child reciting what seem to be random strings of numbers, in different languages. While listening to the broadcast, the listeners develop instant retrograde amnesia. One woman was taping the broadcast, and Walter puts it through an analyzer so he can “hear” it without suffering the same consequences. They find a secondary wave, a pulse which causes the amnesia. Someone is deliberately targeting those who listen to the broadcast, and erasing their memories.
Altlivia is very watchful as this investigation gets underway, and it is clear that she knows more about this incident than she is telling. The broadcast is traced to a radio station—something that has never been done in the seventy-plus years these broadcasts have been going on. The personnel are all dead, and some mysterious box has been wired into the station’s broadcast equipment. Even as Walter and Peter dissect the box at the lab, a mysterious man with mismatched eyes places another one in a different station. This time, it affects a pilot of a commercial plane, who accidentally tunes into the 6955 band. He loses his memory, the plane crashes, and many people die.
The investigation turns up a link to a bookstore owner, Ed Markham (Clark Middleton, As Good As Dead). We’ve already seen Markham before, in “The Bishop Revival” and “Ability”; when Olivia—she of the photographic memory—does not recognize the name, Peter is surprised. Markham has also been trying to decipher the numbers broadcast, and now is worried for his safety. In return for a promise of protection, he hands over to Peter a copy of a book called The First People, a book explaining a theory that the human race evolved millions of years ago, and died out, and then evolved again into our present species. Using the book, Peter figures out that the numbers recited in the broadcast link to the book, and Astrid figures out that they are part of a navigation matrix exactly mirroring our own meridian system of longitude and latitude.
Oh, for crying out loud.
A lost race of humans who died out millions of years ago? And I mean millions of years, before the dinosaurs died. Humans who left no trace of any kind behind, except for the mysterious machine parts they buried around the globe? Who left clues to their location in a series of numbers that correspond to our own system of latitude and longitude? That last coincidence was the last straw for me. What are the odds that any human civilization will exactly duplicate the same coordinate system we use today? Using Greenwich, England, as its base point, millions of years before Greenwich came into existence? Our system of latitude and longitude, based on a circle of 360 degrees, is by far not the only one ever invented by humans. The Chinese and the Arabs developed totally different systems. This is where my disbelief not only stopped being suspended, it got up and walked out of the room.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a one-time aberration. The idea of First People seems to be integral to the show, only coming to the surface now. The phrase first appeared in the credits in Season One, and now JJ Abrams and his merry crew are bringing it into the fore. More subtle is the weaving of hints into the background of various episodes, such as the anagram built into the name of Nina Sharp’s bowling-alley guru, Samuel Weiss. I’m not the only viewer who saw that as the anagram of Seamus Wiles, the author ofThe First People. How about the anagram of the blackboard message in “Over There—Part 2”? It said “a demon’s twist rusts”, which is an anagram for “Don’t trust Sam Weiss.” Sam told Olivia at their first meeting that he was older than he looks—like, several million years old? Okay, I’ll buy that there are plenty of hints about First People I may have missed. But I still don’t like the premise of the evolution of an entire hominid species that left not one single solitary fossil behind. It’s more like fantasy than science fiction.
“Walter, when I touched that device on the other side, it came alive in my hands, like it responded directly to me. How can you expect me to ignore that?” —Peter
Since I want to keep watching this show, I’m going to fanwank for a moment. The one thing that might make this scenario work for me is the idea that the First People are not actually from here, but from the alternate universe. The rest of their history, as “Seamus Wiles” writes it, would follow: they build the Doomsday machine, which works only when operated by one of the First People. They discover that the machine is too dangerous to use, so they break it up and stash pieces of it all over our world, a different universe. After the door is closed, they think the machine is safe because humans from our universe can’t use it even if they find it. But Peter Bishop, being originally from the alternate universe, is a descendant of the First People, so now there is someone in our universe who can operate the Doomsday machine.
“It’s the little things that make me irresistible.” —Peter
The reason I am trying to rationalize my continued interest in this show boils down to Peter Bishop. It’s not just that he is now the centerpiece of a complicated storyline with interesting ramifications. It’s that he is still, after all these years and all these experiences, an innocent. It’s almost painful to watch as, once again, his heart leads him into territory where angels would fear to tread. Last season, it was watching him gradually realize the extent of his father’s betrayal. What will happen to him this season, once he finally realizes the extent of Altlivia’s betrayal? He’s bouncing along, happy in his new-found romance, hugging Altlivia at every opportunity, acting like a man in love. He’s so blinded by it, he isn’t noticing the little hints that “his” Olivia is not who he thinks she is—her failing memory, her sudden inability with numbers. He comes across as a sacrificial victim who does not understand why everyone is so eager to fatten him up. Joshua Jackson continues to play Peter with a combination of boyish charm and razor-sharp intellect, a man who really does not understand people despite his friendly attitude. Most of all, he is playing the peacemaker to perfection. Why would Peter want to destroy the other world, the one that gave birth to him, the one where his mother is still alive? Alone of all the characters in this show, he is seeking not just understanding but peace. He’s the one who tells Altlivia, the agent of darkness, “There has to be another way.” It hurts to see this nice guy being tortured.
“The human brain is a miracle—a most resilient organ… a storage unit for everything you have known, seen or felt. It’s all still in there, whether or not you’re conscious of that.” —Walter
We get the briefest glimpse of our Olivia, at the end of the episode. She oh-so-casually asks AltBrandon, the lab tech, when she can go back into the tank. Perhaps she has figured out that it may be her door back home. Brandon, however, tells her that Walter has canceled further tests. Even Olivia, in her semi-fugue state, can figure out that the gig is up and her cover is blown. It hardly needs her hallucination of Peter to tell her it is “time to go home”. I only hope she can make it out in time. Anna Torv continues to play two people as two people very subtly, very convincingly. I can tell her Altlivia from Olivia even without dialogue, by expression, by the way she talks, by body language. I congratulate her on a subtle and persuasive performance. I am even coming to feel a little sympathy for Altlivia, who looks more conflicted every week.
Walter: We did have fun didn’t we? Don’t know what happened to this generation. (inhales joint) I have a prescription.
Nina: So do I.
Fortunately, we get a little comic relief in this episode, as Walter and Nina share a park bench, some memories, and a joint. Nina’s earlier conversation with Altlivia leads me to believe that Nina is getting suspicious, or at least that she knows more than she’s telling. Could she be in league with Walternate? Given her relationship with William Bell, it’s plausible. Also fun was the scene where Walter is playing back the recorded numbers broadcast at a slowed rate; it not only sounds like a cow, but Gene the Cow answers in the background. Since Astrid is the one solving the navigation matrix, Walter decides it is his turn to bring her a sandwich. And of course, there’s Walter using a child’s toy to decode the sounds of the numbers tape. The little in-jokes and gags are always fun.
At this point, it will take more than a fishy back-story involving a Lost Race to make me lose interest in this show, although I’m losing some respect for it. Given the number of times the writers have gracefully extricated themselves from a clumsy plot line, however, I’m looking forward to seeing how they resolve this one. Maybe the invention of the Doomsday machine is the cause of the split that divided our universe from the Red universe. Maybe it’s aliens (in which case, I may bail). In any event, I trust that the writers will supply us with plausible answers from time to time, and will not fall into the death spiral of unanswered questions that ruined Lost for me.
Fringe finished the night with a 1.8 share on 4.8 million viewers, a decline from last week. This is down 10% from last episode. Granted, that last episode was over a month ago, due to the World Series (go, Giants!), but it’s still a dangerously low number, the lowest this season. Some critics have put the series on cancellation watch, with reason. These numbers are lower than those for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which just won renewal for a second season. Such is the difference between broadcast and cable. Here’s hoping Fox, this one time, shows some patience.