Fringe: “Peter”

The Road to Hell

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
Teleplay by Jeff Pinkner & J. H. Wyman & Josh Singer
Story by J. H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner & Akiva Goldsmith & Josh Singer
Directed by David Straiton

“What you must understand, is that as scientists, we must embrace every possibility. No limitations, no boundaries.” —Walter Bishop, ca. 1985

This is what great science fiction is all about: a human tale that develops out of a fantastic premise, a story that pits the human soul against the universe itself, in all its infinite strangeness. Too often, television oversimplifies and infantilizes the science of the science fiction, or goes too far in the other direction and relies on pure soap opera, discarding the story potential of a genre premise. Recently, the trend has been to build a “mythology”, a series of interlocking plot points, preferably loaded with mystery, to keep the audience’s curiosity alive long after it has lost interest in the dumbed-down, fantastical “science fiction”. All of these trends are reflected in current shows: FlashForward sacrifices its magnificent foundation for a few cheap forensic cop show moments, Chuck has devolved into a romantic comedy, and Lost long ago became so top-heavy with its own “mythology” that it became incomprehensible to outsiders. I’m the first to admit, it’s hard to balance the gee-whiz with the human element. I don’t mind when network television fails; I only mind when it doesn’t honestly try. Far better the bold but failed experiment than the timid “sure thing” that survives, limping and gasping. I would gladly trade any number of FlashForwards for another season of Firefly.

Last night’s experiment in science fiction television was anything but mediocre. It was a shining example of everything going right in a television show. “Peter” deserves a place in the TV pantheon, along with certain classic episodes of The Twilight ZoneThe X-Files, or the original Star Trek. Not only is it heartbreaking tragedy in its own right, the story rests on a solid foundation of classic science fiction, without which the entire story would not exist. It’s a magnificent blend of tragedy and SF, and I am glad I was there to see it. Gushing? Sure, I’m gushing. I sit through hours of bad TV every week, so when good TV comes along, let alone great science fiction TV, I tend to pull out the stops. In my opinion, “Peter” was a great episode of television; I will buy the DVD set when it comes out, for this one episode by itself.

Having made it possible in the last episode, “Jacksonville”, for Olivia to see objects from the other dimension, Walter has also made it possible for her to discover, in the last scene, that Peter is not of this world. Walter knows this, begs her to keep the secret, and now shows up at her apartment with a story and a device looking very much like a framed pane of glass. This viewing device, he says, will allow her to see into the alternate universe to which she has already traveled. That’s cool enough, but then Walter starts to tell his story, and we are riveted by the very human tragedy he lays out.

Walter: You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child.

In 1985, young Peter was dying. Walter was searching for a cure. One of his research projects was the viewer, which allowed him to see his alternate self (which he nicknames “Walternate”—cute) in his alternate lab, also looking for a cure. It seems the alternate universe has more advanced technology, even for 1985. Even as he watches Walternate fail again, Walter gets a call from his wife, Elizabeth. He rushes home, has a warm father-and-son moment with Peter, and then his son dies in his arms. Shattered, he returns to the lab after his son’s funeral, burying his grief in the hope that Walternate, at least, can cure AlternatePeter. But then, at the very moment of Walternate’s success, Walternate is distracted by the Observer and misses the fact that he has found the cure. Our Walter is driven frantic, knowing Walternate as well as he knows himself, he understands that Walternate will never know he has succeeded. AlternatePeter will die. His window into this world will only let Walter watch Peter die all over again.

Walter: The window essentially stretches the membrane between our worlds, and allows us to see their image from our side.

This is why I love this show. It does not insult my intelligence. I am not required to believe a database can be dumped into a man’s head, or that aliens in spaceships have arrived on Earth, or that the entire planet can glimpse a fixed future at the same time. Rather, JJ Abrams and his crew have taken actual theory, in this case M-theory, one of several multiverse hypotheses in physics, and adapted it in plausible ways to a drama of breathtaking, er, dimension. Brane (short for “membrane”) theory is an extension of basic string theory, which proposes that our universe and others come about when different sets of strings known as branes collide, with the objects in each universe mostly trapped in their own universe, but sometimes affected by outside forces such as gravity. Perhaps, as Walter tells the Generals, “errant photons” escape from one universe to another, which is why he can see them with special equipment. I consider this a brilliant extrapolation from science to science fiction, in the finest traditions of the genre.

So, having through sheer intellect discovered a window into that other universe, Walter now finds himself driven by purely emotional reasons to build a door into it. Over the protests of his lab partner, Dr. Carla Warren (Jenni Blong, Lost), he lays his plans and “crosses the line”. I was glad to see that Abrams et. al.did not go the route of every SF film since Frankenstein, and fill a lab with buzzing, flashing, shiny instruments to effect this trip. Rather, Walter piles a few things in the back of a station wagon, sets it up on the shores of the lake where his family cabin exists in both worlds, and jerry-rigs a portal. This was wonderfully downplayed; usually this would have taken half the episode, to impress viewers with How Scientific This All Is. But the heart of this story is not the technology. It’s not even the multiverse theory. The heart of this story is Walter Bishop’s broken heart, and his efforts to fix it. What really engages us during the last half of the story is the conflict between Walter’s intentions—to save a life—and his desires—to have his son back. An overemphasis on shiny technogadgets would have detracted from the tragedy taking shape.

John Noble beautifully shows us the struggle in Walter’s soul, in which there can be no “winner”. Even when he gets what he wants—Peter, alive, in his world—he knows he has damned his soul, and possibly the entire universe. What has he risked, for his own selfish reasons? He is caught between love, fear, reason, grief, hope, and hubris. All of this we see in Walter’s face, his eyes, his voice. I believe Noble was even pitching his voice higher for Walter 1985. It’s a wonderful performance, convincing and honest. It gave depth and gravitas to the capering clown that is sometimes Walter 2010, and reality and pathos to the driven and obsessed Walter 1985.

Walter: I was a different man then. I was going to change the world.

He may, indeed, have changed the world. With his characteristic dismissal of any consequences to his actions, Walter goes where no man has gone before. Unfortunately, as we learned in “Jacksonville”, there are consequences. When something from the other universe comes over to ours, a compensating reaction must take place. Having crossed to the other universe, something must come back over here to balance it out. Walter permanently removes AlternatePeter to this universe—so what balance occurred over the last 25 years? Is that imbalance the reason for the “Pattern”? Are all these weird supersoldiers building an invasion force to crush the universe (ours) that destroyed theirs? Earlier episodes have told us of crop blights, disasters, and quarantines in the Alternate universe. Are we being blamed for this? Are the Alternate people starving because Walter saved a boy from dying? Apparently, they not only are aware of this universe, but blame it for their troubles. Walter says he’s ready to pay the price for his actions—the trouble is, he’s not the only one being served with a bill.

Walter: I always knew that one day I would pay the price for my deception.

Olivia: We’re not really sure what the cost is yet, are we?

Olivia now knows a terrible secret about Peter. His father does not want him to know. Can she keep this from him? Should she? The longer she waits to tell Peter the truth about his origins, the greater will be his sense of betrayal. Which will be massive, in any case—on the order of those children who learn in adulthood that they were kidnapped as children. Whatever trust he had with his father, whatever sense of family he had so carefully built, will vanish in the wink of any eye. Our foreknowledge of the emotional tsunami headed for Peter Bishop only lends pathos and tension to our perception of him.

Of course, it would not be Fringe without irony, and the irony is that Peter Bishop, or at least the one played by Joshua Jackson, does not even appear in this episode. An episode named “Peter” is really all about Walter. And unlike his tactics on Lost, this time Abrams is wise enough to answer a few questions that have nagged at us for a couple of years. We find out what happened to Nina Sharpe’s arm (and more applause for whatever makeup genius gave us a 1985 Blair Brown who looks just like the star of Altered States). We even got a hint about the origin of Massive Dynamics. I could not help but wonder if the silver dollar AlternatePeter was learning to do sleight-of-hand tricks with had an image of Richard Nixon on it. The mirroring of Peter’s bedside scene with his father was brilliantly echoed by the bedside scene with his mother in the other universe—a scene which told me that the other universe does not exactly track our time. And the use of “retro” 1980s music, credits where the “fringe science” of 1985 can be recognized as mainstream science of today, and a movie marquee telling us that in the other universe, Eric Stoltz (Caprica) was the star of Back to the Future, all provide enough whimsy and in-jokes to satisfy the nitpickiest fans.

Overall, however, this was John Noble’s hour to shine. And he did so. Whatever the future of this series may bring, including a hinted-at musical episode, we go forward from here with a clear view of the searing pain at the center of Walter’s ruined life, and a portrait of a man whose good intentions paved his road to hell.

“I couldn’t lose him again. It was the first hole, Olivia. First breach, first crack in the pattern of cracks, basis between the worlds. And it’s my fault.” —Walter Bishop, ca. 2010

Judging from the credits, this episode took the combined talents of the entire writers’ room at Bad Robot. This could have resulted in too many cooks spoiling the broth; instead we get a finely balanced stew. I had feared that this episode, which looked to be inevitable from the beginning of this season, would show us a Walter who defied rules and broke boundaries through sheer arrogance, the kind of heedless and selfish self-aggrandizement we’ve seen from earlier glimpses of him. Instead, we see a very human Walter, with motives any parent (or human) can understand and sympathize with. Yes, it is terrible that Walter’s kidnapping of AlternatePeter brings unendurable grief to Walternate and his wife—yet we understandWalter, even if we do not condone. From the Walter of 1985, buoyed by his own hubris, to the Walter of 2010, is a long and agonizing journey, which the writers and John Noble took us down in only 43 minutes. Bravo, bravissimo.

After a two-month hiatus, in which many viewers probably drifted away, Fringe returned to draw only mediocre numbers. Coming in third in its timeslot with a 3.7/6 and 2.2 demo rating, it garnered only 5.97 million viewers. The last time a new episode aired, in February, Fringe had a 2.5 share with 7.7 million viewers. This would worry me a lot, except that (cue trumpet fanfare) Fringe has already been renewed for another season. For once, Fox Network is giving a genre show a second chance to build viewers. Perhaps some of the suits at Fox are old enough to remember that The X-Files didn’t really become a phenomenon until its third year. It would be wonderful to see that magic happen again; and if Abrams and company continue to produce episodes this original and stunning, I think it will happen again.