Fringe: “Night of Desirable Objects”

Tunnel Brat


Fox, Thursdays, 9:00 PM

“Night of Desirable Objects”

Written by Jeff Pinkner & J. H. Wyman

Directed by Brad Anderson

“There is an infinite number of universes, and in each of them there is a version of us — you, me, Agent Farnsworth — each one slightly different, changed over time, based on the accumulation of our choices.” — Walter Bishop

This may be one of the most exciting premises for a television show I’ve ever seen–and it’s based on actual science. The many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of mainstream quantuum mechanics posits that, given an event with several possible outcomes, all of them occur. However, each different occurrence more or less “creates” a different world, in which the other occurrences did not take place. At first, these several worlds seem identical, but of course immediately begin to change as other events with multiple possible outcomes take place. I first heard this theorem from its originator, Hugh Everett, at a talk years ago at the University of Texas at Austin; it was electrifying. It is no less electrifying when heard a couple of decades later on a television show. Now, as then, it dangles delicious possibilities (or impossibilities) before us. Is there a universe somewhere, where Elvis is President or asparagus does not exist? Can we travel to these other universes? Theoretically, we are separated from the nearest one only by the thinnest of theoretical membranes; could we step from one to another and find ourselves in a world where, for example, I put on a red shirt this morning instead of a brown one? In such a universe, one so close to ours, it might be impossible to tell that you are not, in fact, at home. That seems to be Peter Bishop’s dilemma as we go forward this year–he has not yet realized that he’s a visitor in this universe, that in fact his “self” over here died many years ago. More on that momentarily.

I said last week that this show was the successor to The X-Files.  This episode nailed that assertion down. I have never before seen an episode that so closely resembled that much beloved show–all that was missing was Mark Snow’s music to make me believe I had stumbled into a long-lost, forgotten episode (well, that, and the absence of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson). We even got two former X-Files guest stars, Charles Martin Smith (“F. Emasculata“) and John Savage (“Dod Kalm“). The creepy atmosphere, the brooding skies of Vancouver, the general air of secrets and mystery all contributed to a wonderfully creepy episode, full of all the surprises and even revulsion of Chris Carter’s masterpiece. I have to admit, as well, that Walter Bishop’s explanations make a hell of a lot more sense than Mulder’s.

The case opens with a road crew worker literally being sucked down into the ground when he wanders into a cornfield. Peter discovers that the man is one of several unexplained disappearances in and around this small Pennsylvania town. He and Olivia, newly released from the hospital, set out to explore. They meet a suitably wry and wary sheriff (Charles Martin Smith), who asks some pretty pointed questions about FBI jurisdictions of Olivia. Olivia, however, is distracted by the deafening sound of a housefly, so Peter distracts the sheriff with a discussion of fishing lures (including one called the “Night of Desirable Objects”). Painstaking research into the lives of the disappeared victims uncovers a link in the form of one (former) doctor Hughes (John Savage). A visit to his farm seems to uncover nothing, until Olivia hears something breathing and stalks it through the house. Not only does she find nothing, she nearly shoots Peter.

Olivia is showing some interesting effects of her trip to Otherwhere. Not only is she a little jumpy, which can be explained as post traumatic stress, but she is more open, a little more vulnerable. Is she suffering from a form of jet lag (alternate-universe lag)? Walter tells her, “Traveling to an alternate reality has its consequences.” One consequence seems to be the growing development of super-hearing. Not all of these side effects are bad:  Olivia is actually showing some signs of shy humor.

Peter (examining Olivia’s cane): I’m looking for the hidden ninja sword.

Olivia: It wasn’t covered by insurance.

Walter’s examination of a substance found in the cornfield reveals it to be a variant of scorpion venom mixed with human DNA, and he wonders, wide-eyed, if perhaps they aren’t dealing with mutant. Oh, nothing that mundane, for sure: as his investigation furthers, Walter determines that they are looking for a hybrid of human, scorpion, and perhaps a mole. Suspicion falls on Hughes, whose attic is a biological laboratory, and an exhumation of his stillborn son’s grave reveals a hole dug down into the earth from the broken coffin–apparently the infant tunneled into the earth. Before Walter and Olivia can warn the sheriff, the mutant sucks him into the earth as well. Peter and Olivia revisit Hughes’ farm and do the usual haunted-house routine–they don’t call for backup, they separate, they go into the basement armed only with a tiny flashlight (too bad they didn’t have Mulder and Scully’s trademark high-beams).

Naturally, they find a tunnel. Naturally, they start digging without asking for help or securing the area. Naturally, the now-grown Scorpion Prince attacks. Too bad Olivia’s super hearing didn’t let her hear the monster creeping up behind her. When the tunnel creature appeared behind Olivia, I actually jumped. It’s been a while since that frisson of fear went down my back, which is why after last night I am a devoted fan of this show.

Much as I will miss Charlie Francis when he is inevitably found out, I must mention Kirk Acevedo’s excellent turn in this episode. He’s playing a different version of the same character he played last year, a difficult and challenging task he’s meeting with honors. His Charlie is now subtly menacing where he was open and warm; he grimaces in pain (doubtless Agent Jessup’s bullets from last week are still lodged in him), and he projects an insidious hint of danger into every scene he’s in. I will miss him when he’s gone.

I loved the fact that this episode’s “villain” was … a mad scientist. Who was exposed by a mad scientist, Walter Bishop. Who understood, in a personal and profound way, what drove a man who lost his son to extreme lengths. Who understood what a man will do to protect his son. There is a terribly sad moment near the end of this episode, where Peter is going on merrily about a childhood love of fishing; Walter, oblivious to the implications, asks if he can accompany Peter’s “friend” on their next trip, not aware that Peter is talking about himself. Peter smiles, not yet understanding, as he may sometime near the end of sweeps month, that he is remembering a different Walter, and Walter is remembering a different Peter. This sort of twist lends poignancy and depth to a relationship that last year was characterized by smirking and annoyance.

Unfortunately, all this poignancy and tight writing and evocative acting may be playing to an empty house. Last night’s episode drew an abysmal 3.6 rating/6 share, according to Fast National ratings from The Nielsen Co. That is down more than 20 percent from last week’s already terrible numbers. Coming in at fourth place against the season premieres of two powerhouses, CSI and Grey’s Anatomy, audiences abandoned the Fox Network in droves at 9 PM. That is really too bad, because this may have been the best episode of this entire series, second perhaps to last season’s finale, and certainly better than anything the anemic Grey’s Anatomy or the aging CSI can offer. I hope Fox moves quickly to move this show to a less deadly timeslot.