By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
Written by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Directed by Alex Graves
Fire can cook a meal—or burn. Knives can slice a tomato—or cut their makers. All of our tools have the potential to turn against us, and from our earliest days we remember this. The modern expression of this love/hate relationship with technology began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was not a whim that led her to subtitle her work “Prometheus Unbound”, after the demigod who was punished for stealing fire (technology) from the gods and giving it to man. We eye our tools and technology with a combination of parental pride and primitive suspicion. In this year’s television season, the boldest and newest manifestation of this ambivalent relationship is surely Fox’s Fringe, which debuted Tuesday night.
The premise is simple and elegant: FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is a by-the-book operative, except in her private life, where she oversteps the bounds by having an affair with her partner, John Scott (Mark Valley, Boston Legal). Their lives are changed when they are assigned to an investigative team trying to figure out what liquefied an entire planeload of passengers and crew in mid-air. Chasing a suspect, John is exposed to the compound and begins to turn into The Visible Man, with his skin becoming transparent and dissolving. To save his, life, Olivia turns to Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, Lord of the Rings), an actual and real Mad Scientist locked up in a madhouse. She recruits the doctor’s estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek) who reluctantly signs his father out of the institution so he can reboot his laboratory (complete with resident cow) and work on an antidote.
Almost the first thing Bishop does is strip Olivia down to her skivvies and stick her in a sensory deprivation tank, so she can communicate mind-to-mind with her comatose partner. There’s just enough actual scientific jargon, mixed with New Age mystery, to pull this scene off. Armed with a glimpse of the bad guy who blew him up, she finds a rogue researcher for a Large Faceless Corporation whose shady experiments may have been the source of the deadly compound. Along the way, we get some amusing dialogue from the mad doctor (who, naturally, is more sinned against than sinning), some car chases in snow, foot chases in snow, explosions, dissolving faces, and snarling matches between Olivia and her erstwhile supervisor, Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick, The Wire), playing the de rigueur Hard Assed Boss (seriously, people, there are good bosses out here. Really. Can we see some?).
Ultimately, the star of the show both in terms of acting and character is John Noble’s Dr. Walter Bishop. I mean really, who can steal the screen from Dr. Jekyll? Bishop reels from mumbling non-sequiturs to tightly focused, highly technical dialogue, spouting off multi-syllabic chemical formulae without a blink. He’s childlike and in some ways a very simple man—he finds Spongebob Squarepants delightfully philosophical. There are brilliant moments of pathos; one where he mentions how wonderful it is to be trusted again, and another where he quietly, with dignity, begs not to be re-institutionalized.
Peter starts out as a plot device to get his father out of the loony bin, but ends up as a stolid, loyal member of what is starting to look like a team. He’s a brilliant foil for his father—skeptical, suspicious, focused, and witty. I predict that Joshua Jackson’s performance as Peter will be the breakout role in this series. He grows on you.
I must mention my delight in seeing Blair Brown on screen again. Having forcibly reminded the audience of the groundbreaking filmAltered States through the use of a deprivation tank, Abrams and company now present the star of that film as a cyborg, a powerful woman executive in the Large Faceless Corporation. Unlike the Terminator who heads a corporation in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, this woman with a Glass Hand is believable, natural, and scary as hell. Her reasons for her loyalty to Massive Dynamics are utterly real, and she comes across as the kind of ruthless corporate Machiavelli who could cook and eat the Cigarette-Smoking Man for breakfast.
Creator J.J. Abrams (Lost) and director Alex Graves (The West Wing) work hard to balance the fast pace with the faster dialogue, stuffing so much exposition and backstory into the plot that it stretches to 90 minutes. The characters are nicely set up, the boundaries are drawn—particularly in a last-minute plot twist involving betrayal and intrigue. Relationships are established, and we’re ready to move on to the real point of this story, which is the revelation of The Pattern. It seems that someone or something is using humans as a research laboratory, conducting weird experiments such as turning a planeload of people into goo. Or abducting and later releasing, years later, a bunch of children who appear not to have aged. You get the idea—The X-Files are back and open for business again. Yay.
Or not. This is not The X-Files. It’s not even close, really. It contains one FBI agent and some conspiracy theory, some fringe (as in lunatic fringe) science. But there’s so far no hint of aliens, no indication of a government cover-up—indeed, the government is actively recruiting Agent Dunham to investigate these weird occurrences. Ironically, The X-Files debuted in an era of relatively widespread peace and public support of the government; it made little sense for Fox Mulder to be so suspicious of the gummint. But now, in the wake of the most divisive war in 40 years, the ravages of the USA PATRIOT Act, and an election in the shadow of terrorism and economic distress, we get a show in which the government is acting as the good guy, extending every effort to solve a “Pattern” mystery. That lack of paranoia in Olivia is the most significant difference between the concepts of The X-Files and Fringe. Who knows? Maybe she’ll develop some.
Another difference is the level of sexual tension. As in, there is none. Our first sight of Olivia Dunham is of her in the sack with her partner—so much for UST. The issue that dogged The X-Files for nine years—will they or won’t they—gets dismissed in the first thirty seconds, and we are free to concentrate on the mystery at hand. Her initial meeting with Peter Bishop is funny, honest, and human. She lies to him, cajoles him, flirts with him. She smiles more in the first 90 minutes of this show than Dana Scully did in the first nine episodes of The X-Files. I look forward to seeing what layers Anna Torv will show us in this interesting woman.
Most of all, I look forward to seeing what kind of out-there science fiction this show will be pulling off each week. The premise—hunting down weird occurrences, the kind that show up on cheesy pseudo-documentaries—should be bait to the audience that once latched onto The X-Files and now takes notes during showings of Lost. I can only hope Fox doesn’t pull its usual stunt and cancel the show just as it starts down the runway. The idea that Someone Out There is playing puppet master, turning our own technology against us, is too delicious to die an early death.