Fringe: “Earthling”

Ashes to Ashes


Fox, Thursdays, 9/10 E/C
Written by J. H. Wyman & Jeff Vlaming
Directed by Jon Cassar

It has been ten years since the feature film The Astronaut’s Wife was released. Tonight, we get a re-run of that movie, crossed with a handful of old X-Files episodes. And I loved every minute of it. A man is alone in his penthouse apartment when lights start going on and off, and a shadow seems to follow him around the room. When his wife gets home, she sees him sitting in a chair, apparently frozen. But when she touches him, he dissolves into a soft fall of ash.

The ash effect was one of the best features of this episode, and it was exploited to the max. Several times we saw what looked like statues of people, as lifelike as conceivable, which partly turned to dust, leaving us with fragments of people. It was a startling and arresting image, one which reminded me of the best days of any given science fiction series. Director Jon Cassar knew exactly what spooked me the most. The ash effect was very well done, but what I liked even better were the shadows, the flickering lights that went on and off by themselves, and the zoom in on the dark closet in the little girl’s room. Any of those moments were just as frightening as  watching a shadow walk down a corridor.

When the Fringe team is called into the case, Walter dismisses any suggestion of spontaneous human combustion, and quickly determines that the remains of the victim lack any radioactivity whatsoever. Which is strange, as he tells us that most humans have a fairly predictable “background” dose already. Broyles says that this case resembles others he has dealt with in the past, and that he has even talked to the person responsible.

The story unfolds along standard investigatory lines, as Broyles provides Walter with a molecular puzzle to solve, Olivia partners with her boss to interview hospital workers, and Broyles conducts a secret turf war with the CIA. Soon they discover that one of the workers is not who he seems, that he is wanted by the Russians for stealing something top secret out of their country, and that something vaguely man-shaped but as transparent as smoke is walking around the hospital sucking the radiation (and the molecular cohesion) out of various people. A desperate race ensues to find the hospital worker, his comatose brother (a former Russian cosmonaut), and the shadow-being inside him. It culminates in a shocking but logical move by Broyles, whose ruthlessness is matched only by his courage and determination.

I saw many parallels between this story and, as noted, the 1999 movie The Astronaut’s Wife. The basic premise is similar: a space traveller goes on a space walk, Something Ominous Happens, and he comes back with an alien entity inside him. A first season episode of The X-Files, Space, introduced a similar idea, and further elaboration on the theme of out-of-body mayhem came in X-Files episodes such as The Walkand Soft Light. I don’t mind seeing a fascinating idea explored again, especially when supported with such good special effects.

When I read that this episode would reveal more of the history of Philip Broyles, I groaned. The last thing I want right now is more family drama, after weeks of watching FlashForward self-destruct into melodrama. But this character delineation was painless and fun. First we get to see Broyles adorably playing “mirror” with a kid in a restaurant; by the end of the episode we are aching with him as he says farewell to his ex-wife. In between, we get moving and quiet moments of introspection and revelation, none of them overdone.

The best scene in this episode wasn’t, for once, Walter in his lab. It was the scenes of the brother trying to keep the shadow creature inside the cosmonaut, desperately and ineffectively cranking up the jury-rigged batteries to try to control the entity. The scene could have been played several ways: horror, humor, etc. Instead, it was played for pathos, and the love and despair embodied in the entire scene made it memorable. It anchored the rest of the episode nicely, and made the ending that much more pitiable and terrifying. Well done, well done.

This episode is another example of taking a well-worn story, adding one unique twist or new idea, and rendering it back as fresh and entertaining. Some may complain that Fringe is just a retread of The X-Files; I, for one, am delighted to see new incarnations of stories that I loved the first time around. I can never have too many spooky shadow creatures lurking in closets. And it’s nice to see Deep Throat back, played by another actor. Nothing helps a conspiracy/pseudoscience fiction show better than a Friend in High Places.

Right now, Fringe could certainly use some friends in high places. It is doing very poorly in the ratings. All the excuses one can find for its poor performance–the World Series, Thursday night competition, failure to schedule or promote it–apply to Bones, which precedes it and is doing better. The bottom line seems to be that most people would rather watch anything else than Fringe. It came in dead last in a four-way race; 4.95 million viewers, a 1.7/ 4 share. This is off 40% from its ratings in the first season, before the move to Thursday nights and the increased pressure from competition. Granted the show has high DVR, time-shifted viewing statistics, but networks don’t seem to be taking these into account. The future for this show looks grim if audiences don’t pick up soon.