Fringe: “Over There, Part One”

When Worlds Collide

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“Over There, Part One”

Written by J.H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner & Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Akiva Goldsman

“My son is going to be responsible for the end of the world.” —Walter Bishop

Just when I was beginning to worry we would never hear anything about ZFT on this show again, it pops up in the next-to-last episode of the season. As used as I am to the utter disregard for continuity on most TV shows, the fact that the writers at Bad Robot keep track of these things and bring them back just warms my cynical little heart. The pilot for this series indicated that the Fringe team was brought into being to track down “fringe science”, yes, but its main purpose was to investigate The Pattern, the idea that these odd events were not happenstance. From Broyles on down, the idea has always been that they were part of some vast experiment; now we find that not only are they part of a conspiracy (no surprise there), but that our side is the dark side! What a refreshing change in point of view! And scary. And brilliant.

Olivia: We have to get Peter back.

In this episode, we finally bridge the worlds. Walter somehow has obtained a surveillance video showing his alternate-universe doppelganger—Walternate—persuading Peter to go back to the alternate universe with him. Even though Walternate warns him that he will not be able to come back, Peter agrees to go. Acting on pure instinct, he warns Olivia that something terrible is going to happen to Peter. Olivia has just been handed a drawing by an Observer, showing Peter locked into a scary-looking machine, with fire shooting out of his eyes. When they consult with Nina Sharpe, she is aghast to see the machine. It was designed here, but was never built. She concludes that William Bell has built it, in the Altverse. It looks as if the “power source” is Peter, and if it is deployed, it may well destroy both universes.

Well, this raises the stakes a bit.

Brandon: In truth, the two universes are overlapping. And to get to the “other side”, our universe needs to pass through you. Literally. Like water passing through cheesecloth.

To get Peter back, they assemble a new team. The only people who can cross are the children Walter and William Bell experimented on decades ago. The three survivors are brought in, and Walter has the grace to apologize for his actions. The surviving Cortexiphan subjects include Nick Lane (David Call, Mercy), who was channeling serial killers last we saw. Sally Clark (Pascale Hutton, Supernatural) is a pyrokinetic similar to the one we saw in “The Road Not Taken”. And the team brings back the cancer-carrier, James Heath (Omar Metwally, Virtuality) from “Olivia. In the Lab. With the Revolver.” I’ll confess, I was worried when I saw the setup for this episode. Bringing together a “team of superheroes” had a Heroes vibe about it—and not a good one. The Cortexiphan kids reluctantly agree to cross over to help prevent the end of the world. Unfortunately, Heath dies during the crossover, and Sally and Nick are killed about halfway through the episode. I have to wonder why they were brought onstage at all, since they contributed nothing to the story.

My only problem with this bit was how Walter managed the crossover. The first time he opened a door, he didn’t have any Cortexiphan kids around. He built a device that opened a door to the alternate universe, and walked through it twice. The second time, in “The Man From the Other Side”, he built a device to close the door—and again, no Cortexiphan kids were present. Now suddenly all he needs to do to open a portal is to have some people join hands and chant? What kind of New Age nonsense is this? Worse, during a discussion as to whether human beings once had the abilities that now can only be brought out with Cortexiphan—ESP, telekinesis, etc.—Walter speculates that their disappearance from the human race is not natural: “I think it was aliens.” Good God. I hope Fringe is not about to go down that road. The alternate universe theory is enough of a stretch, even with some pretty solid mathematics and a respectable (if controversial) pedigree in theoretical physics. But aliens tampering with human DNA? Please. Leave that toThe X-Files, I beg you.

Walter: Last time I opened a door, it set in motion ripples that weakened the very fabric of our reality. To do so again could instantly shatter both worlds.

What happened to the idea of “balance”? We had a whole episode—”Jacksonville”—devoted to the idea that when something crosses the membrane to our world, something gets pulled back to that side, and vice versa. This episode tells us that the entire root of the devastation Over There was the breach Walter caused when he brought back Peter. When Walternate crosses to our universe in “The Man From the Other Side”, we see Thomas Newton giving him drugs to help him acclimate to our universe. And the shapeshifter soldiers can hardly go a day without an infusion of mercury, so alien is their metabolism. Even in this episode, we see the Cortexiphan kids collapsing and dying (in Heath’s case) from the crossover. And Peter, who is native to this universe, has odd-colored IV drips when we first see him in the Altverse. So why isn’t anyone worried about buildings and people being hauled willy-nilly across the boundaries, to “balance” the universe? Is there another William Bell living in the Altverse? This is not so much an error in continuity as a fuzzy conception of what the boundaries of this (these) universe(s) are. I hope this gets worked out in the next season.

Nina: Dear God. What side is this?

Walter: Does it matter?

Once we got into the Altverse, I was utterly mesmerized. I loved seeing the inside-out versions of characters we are long familiar with. John Noble did his usual brilliant job with Walternate—he was cold, imposing, with a deeper voice and more sinister mien than the pathetic and apologetic Walter. Astrid is now a stone-cold cyborg who reads computer data in a monotone, and Broyles is a tough-talking, no-nonsense leader with the physique and presence of Yul Brynner in his heyday. What he did to that black T-shirt was sublime.

Lincoln: Going to a strip club later?

Charlie: Someone’s gotta visit your sister.

Alternate Olivia—Olivinate?—is a redhead (to match the red credits?) with a feisty, kick-ass attitude and combat boots. Charlie Francis is back, with the same kick-ass attitude and a shaved head. It was pure delight to see Kirk Acevedo playing Charlie Francis again—complete with “arachnids” in his blood. Again, the writers have kept track of important details—Charlie picked up those creatures in our universe in the episode “Unleashed” more than a year ago. I’m happy to see the solid, funny, reliable Charlie in any universe. Olivia and Charlie both answer to Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel, United States of Tara), who is apparently a surrogate for Peter Bishop. They dress like a SWAT team and talk like veteran soldiers. They make “our” Fringies look like milk-and-water pansies.

And the reason for this toughness is not hard to find: their world is under attack. Unlike our universe, theirs is plagued by “events” so horrific that the prospect of imposing a “quarantine” that would kill 10,000 people doesn’t cause anyone to bat an eye. They are in a desperate fight for their lives, answering to the Secretary of Defense (Walternate) and prepared to do whatever is necessary to repel the “invaders” (our guys) who have destroyed their universe. And who is responsible for the mayhem tearing the Altverse apart? Why, none other than “our” Walter Bishop.

This is payback with a vengeance. And brilliant writing, if I may say so. Everything we’ve seen since Day One has been Walter’s fault—the weird animals, the Observers, the freakish events and people, all stem either from Walter’s Cortexiphan experiments or from his abduction of Peter. Hubris, as in all great Greek tragedies, lies at the root of all disaster. The “Pattern” our team has been fighting was not only caused by Walter’s breach of the worlds, it has brought catastrophe on an innocent universe. Even the Alt-Fringe team has figured this out: they know that the Pattern they are fighting has its origin at Reiden Lake in 1985, the moment Walter breached the membrane between the worlds. While Agent Farnsworth in her cool commando beret is reading the signs, Alt-Broyles warns his team that “we can’t have another Boston”, which sounds pretty ominous. This episode ties together the storylines of virtually every episode we’ve seen since the pilot. And renders it all back literally in a different color—from the point of view of the Altverse inhabitants, our heroes are agents of evil, whose intrusion has doomed them. It’s going to be very hard to think of them as villains.

It is going to be particularly hard to think of Olivinate as a villain. Anna Torv was a revelation as the kicking, spitting, sassy broad with the red hair and the attitude. Her banter with her team mates, her boyfriend, even her stride and posture are a different, yet vaguely recognizable Olivia. There was even an echo of the free and happy sexuality of the Olivia of the pilot episode, back when she was in love with John Scott and not yet aware of his betrayal. I liked this Olivinate a lot, as much as the quieter, more focused and gentler Olivia.

We were half way through the episode before we finally found Peter. He is enjoying a reunion with his mother (Orla Brady, Strike Back), who seems at best ambivalent about Walternate. Nor does she understand the blueprints Walternate has left for Peter to peruse. Peter says he thinks he understands them—they are of the large device seen earlier. But at the end of the episode, Walternate opens a dungeon door, and there stands the completed machine—looking ominously like a combination of the rack and a stage. Clearly, it is designed to hold a human being—possibly as a power source. Walternate also has the drawing of Peter with his eyes shooting fire—but his drawing has different writing on it, in a script I don’t recognize. I don’t think Walternate’s plans for his son will actually qualify as paternal. It may be that Walter did Peter a bigger favor than either of them knew when he brought him to our side, even if it breached the worlds. And I suspect Walternate is planning to destroy our universe, not his, with that machine out of hell.

Our Walter, however, is in for a world of hurt one way or the other. Walternate doesn’t just hate him for stealing his son, he hates him because he wrecked the universe. Peter hates him for lying to him most of his life. I don’t even need to imagine how Elizabeth Bishop feels about him. The Cortexiphan kids, for their short lives, hated his guts. William Bell is not going to be happy to see him, either. There is just nothing left for Walter Bishop but pain, yet he soldiers on. How characteristic it was for Walter to be diagnosing his own gunshot wound as he staggers into an ER. Noble is really giving us a great performance with these two versions of the same character.

Walter: Things that might have been in our world, but weren’t.

As always, there are cute bits embedded in the story for the delight of the sharp-eyed. The differences between this world and the next are both funny and poignant—the World Trade Center towers still stand, and the Statue of Liberty is copper-colored, as it was when it was built. Half of California, from the maps I could see, is underwater, and McDonald’s does not use the Golden Arches for a logo. I liked the twenty-dollar bill with Martin Luther King, Junior, on it (referred to as a “Junior”), Zeppelins, the Nixon dollar again, the red credits, the red (instead of yellow) crime-scene tape, the coffee shortage again. Cabbage Patch dolls are still the rage. I love it that the Fringe team is not surprised to find the Word Trade Center still standing, but is astonished to find that Antonio Gaudi’s proposed-but-never-built Grand Hotel exists over there. Walternate has never met Olivia before this episode. The bus-stop poster advertising The West Wing in its eleventh season had me laughing through three commercials. We are reminded that the terrorists of 9/11 destroyed the Altverse White House, because a headline I caught in passing mentioned that the Obamas were about to move into the rebuilt version. It’s like a video version of spot-the-differences.

Walter: I suspect the human circuit was flawed.

I confess I was glad when the Cortexiphan kids died. Turning this show into some superhero cartoon would be a Bad Thing. It’s smart, well written, witty, and grounded in solid science. To change that into the fantasy world of superheroes would be most unfortunate, and a waste of a good premise. I have to spare a word for David Call. Having rendered up a Nick Lane who was a vicious serial killer in “Bad Dreams” he gives us a brave and sympathetic character in this one, and makes me believe it. I think the moment when Nick Lane forced everyone in the room—including Broyles—to laugh was one of the creepiest moments they’ve had on this show. The scene where he realizes that neither he nor Sally is ever going home, and accepts his fate, was quite moving. I can’t believe I’m saying that I was sorry to see him go.

There was so much packed into this episode, they had to break it into two parts. Next week is the second half of this story, and the end of this season. Even with two hours to play with, however, this story felt a tad rushed. Last week, Olivia was telling Walter to pack a bag to go to Washington to pick up Peter. This week, we started with Walter viewing a motel videotape in which Peter agrees to leave, and then literally vanishes from the image. What happened in between? Did we miss an episode? Fortunately, there’s enough in this story, and next week’s, to distract us from these details. Overall, I’d say that the continuity on this show exceeds that of any other comparable science fiction series on television except Warehouse 13.

Next week sees the end of this story, and the end of the season. I am so delighted that this series has been renewed. As long as they stay out of alien territory, and don’t have too many incidents of chanting and hand-holding, Fringe is one of the best science fiction shows to come along in many years. So far no ray-guns, no space ships, no UFOs, just solid extrapolation from what we know to what might be, in the very best traditions of science fiction. However, having already introduced some fantasy elements into this show (Olivia’s ability to shut off light bulbs with her mind, for example), I won’t be surprised if next week, Olivia saves the day by shutting down a weaponized Peter Bishop. I’ll put money on it. Best of all, I’ll bet we turn out to be the bad guys. Every good story needs a villain—how weird will it be when it’s us?

Fringe came in at 5.8 million viewers, for a 6 share, 2.2 rating among adults 18 to 49. This is pretty much the same as last week, but since last week represented a ten percent increase in Fringe‘s audience, this is good news. It means that the show has not only added viewers, it has held onto them. Next week is the season finale, but rumor are already flying that next year’s first few episodes will outdo even the finale. I can’t wait.