Gatekeepers and Keymasters
NBC, Tuesdays, 9/10 E/C
Written by Zack Stentz & Ashley Edward Miller
Directed by Joe Chappelle
“Why are shape shifting soldiers from another universe stealing frozen heads?” —Philip Broyles
Boy, if I had a dime for every time someone has asked me that question… But seriously, it was a real hoot hearing a line like that out of Philip Broyles rather than Walter Bishop. I like the fact that every now and then, this show demonstrates that it can lighten up a bit.
This ripped-from-the-headlines (heh) episode begins with a truck full of cryogenically frozen heads being hijacked by stone-faced men in black who ruthlessly kill all but one of the guards. Dying, the last one gets off a few rounds, which puts one of the hijackers down. He lies in a puddle of rain, bleeding silver. What, not green?
It used to be that alien/human hybrids with green blood were the good guys (Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock), then Chris Carter turned them into shape shifting super soldiers (say that three times fast) in The X-Files. JJ Abrams and company have lifted the entire construct, half-heartedly filed off the serial numbers, and recycled it into Fringe. This version of the concept differs from The X-Files only in that the odd-blooded baddies are from another universe, not another planet in this one. Oh, that makes all the difference.
The heart of this episode, however, is the point where Olivia’s memories are finally triggered (thanks to a flatworm puree whipped up by Walter) and she relives her visit to William Bell. This chunk of exposition slows the momentum to a crawl, as Bell (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek) performs the standard duties of Merlin: warns of an approaching war, reminds his protégée that she can handle it, and gives her a magic token, a mysterious symbol. Exit dream state, screaming. It isn’t that we didn’t already know or guess what Bell tells Olivia, but that it is confirmed so pedantically, that was what bothered me about that scene. Simply having characters tell one another things that we should see or guess or deduce takes all the fun out of science fiction.
One of the secrets revealed to Olivia in her trip to Oz was that “they” are trying to open the gate between the universes in order to launch a war in this one, and that she is the guardian of that gate. That was enough of a reference to Sigourney Weaver’s “Gatekeeper” persona in Ghostbusters, but when Bell handed Olivia the secret symbol, I started looking for a “Keymaster” around every corner. If Rick Moranis weren’t in retirement, I’d be looking for him to do a guest appearance.
If the story lags a little, at least the character development moves apace. Peter Bishop, particularly, is stronger and more confident with every episode. Any hints of a dark side to him are well balanced by his boyish humor and his dimples. I loved his remark about looking for pod people under the bed. My only question is: will this man ever shave, in any universe?
Since this is our last view of Charlie Francis, I have to give some props to Kirk Acevedo. He may be playing a deadly assassin super soldier, yet he injected plenty of pathos into this portrait of a dying man accepting that he can never go home again. The idea that he is trapped in his current body because the shape shifting devices are tuned to only one person is a great twist.
Walter was not as funny in this episode as he has been in others, but he was warm and human. I was delighted to meet Rebecca, his former child subject who not only remembers his “experiments” on her decades ago with childish joy, but remembers their later, grown-up liaison with smoldering anticipation. I am forcibly reminded in every episode that Walter is, in some respects, the true heir of the Sixties, with his drug use, his music (Yes!), and his entire attitude towards sex, rules, drugs, and boundaries. John Noble continues to give us one of the most original mad scientists I’ve ever seen.
Fringe struggles in one of the toughest slots on television: prime time Thursdays. This episode held fairly steady at 5.9 to 6.2 million viewers, similar to last week’s 6.1 million viewers, showing a 2.2 share in the 18-49 demo. At least it wasn’t losing numbers, and industry sources claim it is one of the shows most frequently recorded on DVR for watching later. Given its terrific competition, I’m not surprised. Who knows what its ratings would be if it were on any other night? I hope we get a chance to find out, before Fox pulls it with its usual shortsightedness.