Fringe: “New Day in an Old Town”

Deja X


Fox, Thursdays, 9/10 E/C

“New Day in an Old Town”

Written by JJ Abrams & Akiva Goldsman

Directed by Akiva Goldsman

“The old X designation, and your Fringe investigations, have been indulgences in the Federal budget for over half a century.” — Sen. Neil Schell

Well, there it is at last, right out in front of God and everybody–an open admission that Fringe is the sequel to The X-Files. And in case we didn’t get the reference, Abrams and crew throw little hints our way from the opening onward. We open with the aftermath of a car wreck, where the driver of one vehicle staggers away from the scene, invades a nearby apartment, and kills the tenant. He then uses a three-pronged device inserted into the dead man’s soft palate to apparently transfer his appearance; we have here a technology-assisted shapeshifter.

While he’s undergoing this transformation, the camera pans past a television set, which is showing The X-Files. And not just any episode–it’s showing a scene from “Small Potatoes“, the episode about a shapeshifter played by Darrin Morgan, who served as consulting producer on Fringe last season. This season’s consulting producer is Jeff Vlaming, also an alumnus of The X-Files. More subtle references include the government’s attempt to shut down the Fringe group the way it shut down the X-Files in Season One. Obvious references include the shapeshifter himself, who we find out is a “soldier”, very like the super-soldiers who populated the last couple of seasons of The X-Files. We even get a turncoat agent, a la Alex Krycek. It’s like they never left.

Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned. If I can’t have Mulder and Scully, I’ll take Walter and Peter, and even Astrid and Charlie. I still wish Anna Torv had more screen presence, more impact, but we can’t have everything. I’m happy to see another show on TV that deals with the unknowable and the possibly fascinating, with an actual budget in hand. If this show started out as X-Files Light, it’s developing some serious weight now.

Olivia: “I guess there’s just no point at which this can’t get weirder, huh?”

Season one ended with Olivia looking out of a window high in the upper reaches of the World Trade Center–we are definitely not in  this present reality any more. Was she time-traveling? Had she crossed to a different dimension? At the same time, we last saw Walter Bishop weeping over the grave of his eight-year-old son, Peter. Clearly, there is something very strange going on in this universe. Season two opens with the car accident where Olivia returns in a spectacular way, and the very much alive Peter faces down a new busybody, junior FBI Agent Jessup (Meghan Markle, Knight Rider). The doctors think Olivia is brain dead. Walter, to whom the phrase “brain dead” might actually apply, begs to differ, and Olivia is put on life support. Peter goes in to kiss her goodbye, and in the best fairy-tale tradition, wakes her up. Terrified, with her memory full of holes, Olivia shows more animation in this episode than in the last four episodes of season one. This bodes well. Fortunately, no one thinks to ask how Walter and Peter got from a grocery in Boston to a street accident in Manhattan while the cops were still arriving. Does Walter have a transporter in his back pocket? Nothing about that man would surprise me.

So, who wants to bet that the Olivia who returned from the Other Place is not the Olivia who left this place? I don’t know where to put my money on that one. Most likely this question won’t even be resolved until, oh, February. JJ Abrams is famous for spinning out mysteries as well as Chris Carter did, back in the day. Done right, this could provide an interesting bit of sauce to this dish. Overdone, however, it could prove as frustrating as nine years of unresolved conspiracy theories once did.

Top honors in this episode go to Joshua Jackson, who once again shows us the fangs behind that cherubic smile. I loved the scene where, in the FBI offices, Peter casually disarms and manhandles a trained FBI security guard. His ease with Agent Jessup, his banter with his father, even his tenderness with Olivia, show a more relaxed, more open Peter Bishop than last year. I love it that we get a hero who can be physical, can be tender, can be funny, and all without the classic chiseled chin. And he shows some growth, as well: last year he was sullen and reluctant. This year he’s a lot more accepting of his role, of the role of the Fringe group, and even of his father.

Jessup (re Walter): Is he crazy?

Peter: Oh, yeah.

Lance Reddick’s Philip Broyles is showing some steel as well. I liked the way he stood up to the Senate investigating committee, chaired by Sen. Neil Schell (Neil Schell, Watchmen). He sounded as if he was channeling Charlton Heston in his stern rebuttal, in a line Chris Carter might once have written:

Broyles: “When the threat is unimaginable, that is when we are at the door.”

The technowizardry on this show outdid itself in this episode. Forget the shapeshifting-transfer box–the “IBM Selectric 251” blew me away. Apparently, this model types and then receives messages to and from another dimension. Our shapeshifter literally went to the looking glass for his orders. I expected Agents Bering and Lattimer, from Warehouse 13, to come bursting through the door at any minute; this artifact is right up their alley.

When Fringe was renewed last year, word was that Fox had demanded some changes to save money, and rumor said we might lose a cast member. It looks now as if the sacrificial lamb is going to be Agent Francis, who is killed and then copied by the shapeshifter. I expect this double-agent theme to play out for a few more episodes, but it won’t be long before Peter, at least, clues in to what happened in that basement. And that’s a shame. Kirk Acevedo brings so much warmth and strength to that character, so much to make up for Olivia’s colorlessness, that he will be sorely missed when he inevitably goes.

I’m not sure I can say the same about Agent Jessup. I am pretty sure, given Fox’s budget cuts, that she is not going to become a permanent part of the team. Although it may have looked as though Peter was introducing her to the lab as part of introducing a new regular cast member, I think it was only an extension of the re-introduction of the show. There were at least four times I can recall where the mission of the Fringe group was explained, mostly in order to bring new viewers up to speed with the premise. I liked finding out that Agent Jessup is apparently fascinated with the book of Revelation, which explains her relatively easy acceptance of the Fringe group, but I would not put her name on a parking space just yet.

Other delights: Walter’s glee at being allowed to ride in the back of an ambulance with a body (Peter: “Stay out of the drugs!”), Gene/Jean the cow in a party hat, Astrid mixing custard, Walter eating a Twizzler as he dissects a body. I won’t say Nina’s and Broyles’ kiss was a delight, but it sure opened up new possibilities for dramatic stories. I love the hints that this version of Peter is different from the Peter that died; his dislike of custard, his memories of a mother who spoke Greek. At some point, he is inevitably going to start wondering if Walter’s odd memories of his childhood are more than just evidence of brain damage, especially after they realize that Olivia came back from “some other place”.

On its first night in its new Thursday time slot, Fringe garnered a 4.7/8 share, which is a tie with NBC’s The Office (4.8/8). Those are pretty weak numbers considering its dramatic competition was a re-run of CSI. When that show comes back with the new season, Fringe may find itself caught between a rock and a hard place. 7.98 million viewers is a pretty good start, though, so we’ll see how thing settle out in the next couple of weeks, as new shows come out. For now, this is an excellent season starter.