Lightning Dolt, Redux
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
Written by Jason Cahill & Julian Cho
Directed by Christopher Misiano
If this episode of Fringe started looking very familiar last night, it’s not your imagination. We start out with a young man who appears to have the freakish power to control electricity, who lives an unfulfilled, boring life in a dead end job, who has trouble with authority figures like his boss, and lives with a slovenly, overbearing, uncaring mother who spends her life in front of the television. This is more than just the coming together of random story elements we’ve all seen before—it’s an homage, at best, to the X-Files episode, “D.P.O.” Airing in October 1995, almost exactly thirteen years ago, that episode was about a young man named Darin Peter Oswald (hence the initials) who controlled lightning, had authority issues with his boss, lived with a slob of a mother who spends her life in front of the television…yadda yadda yadda. Both characters are pursuing women who don’t even know they exist, who are involved with other men. The reason for all these similarities is easy to explain: Darin Morgan. Morgan is not only a producer on Fringe, he is a former Emmy-winning writer for The X-Files, starred in two of its episodes, and is the brother of Glen Morgan, also a writer/producer for The X-Files. In fact, the writer of “D.P.O.” told me years ago that he had named that character, Darin Peter Oswald, for Darin Morgan. Hollywood is a very small town.
“Power Hungry” introduces us to the unfortunate Joseph Meegar (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, John Adams), whose electrical powers are pretty much out of control. At the least sign of emotion on his part, scanners fail, cars start spontaneously, and lights short out. When the woman he pursues from afar gets into an elevator with him, lights flicker. When she humiliates him, the elevator drives itself into the basement twelve floors down, killing everyone in it except Meegar. In a scene worthy of the best of The X-Files, he walks away through a garage full of cars, eerily coming to life as he passes them, with roaring engines and beeping horns, a strange salute to his powers.
Olivia Dunham and her friends are called into this case because it resembles another one where a power surge killed a trainful of people. It does not take her long to deduce that there were nine people in the car, but there are only eight bodies. She and Agent Francis (who is becoming a most reliable and attractive sidekick for Dunham) identify Meegar. But when they arrive at his apartment, they find his mother dead (from a malfunctioning pacemaker) and Meegar gone, kidnapped by the shadowy Dr. Fischer (Max Baker,Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) who seems to be the evil version of Dr. Bishop. Although one might argue that Dr. Bishop does not really need an evil twin.…
Naturally, Dr. Bishop knows all about Fischer. In fact, he may have taught him everything he knows. It seems to be a given on this show that every story tracks back to Dr. Bishop’s work twenty years ago. That must have been some lab, because so far his government-funded lab turned out people with metal in their blood (“Ghost Network”), two foot long bullets (“The Arrival”), a flesh-dissolving virus (“Pilot”), super-soldiers who grow to full adults in weeks (“Same Old Story”) and now guys who control high voltage electricity. Is this show ever going to give us a story that does not ultimately wind up being the work of our beloved Mad Scientist?
Dr. Bishop’s innovative plan to find the kidnapped Meegar is to imprint homing pigeons with his unique electrical signature. It’s a sign of how much this show can make me suspend my disbelief, to say that an audio analysis of R.E.O. Speedwagon songs features heavily in the solution and I never blinked an eye. The birds lead Agents Francis and Dunham to the now-obligatory operating-room/laboratory-in-a-warehouse, where they rescue Meegar and arrest Fischer.
As usual, John Noble’s Walter Bishop* steals every scene he’s in, whether he’s performing home pasteurization on the milk he gets from the lab cow, Jeanne, or shuffling around a carpet in wool socks to work up a static charge for his son. There wasn’t much for Peter to do in this episode, which showed Olivia being ably seconded by Agent Francis. I like Agent Francis more and more every episode; instead of acting as a constant irritant/brake to Olivia, he represents the Bureau being helpful and supportive. What a refreshing new concept—a government agency that actually works! We must be in a whole new era. Be that as it may, however, I do hope to see more of Joshua Jackson’s character in future eps; Peter is a lot of fun.
Overall, this show is growing on me. It brings just enough of that old atmosphere I loved about The X-Files, coupled with a slightly better grounding in actual science. It offers good acting, good chemistry, humor, and wackiness, and for crying out loud a mad scientist with a cow. Say what you will about other science fiction/procedural shows, you have to get up early in the morning to beat a mad scientist with a cow.
It’s becoming a problem to track ratings in these reviews, since so many households, particularly those fond of genres like science fiction, tend to record shows for later playback. This practice bypasses the Nielsens, and the results are slow in coming. Thus, three weeks after the premiere of this show, Varietyreports that DVR viewings of this show added 39% to its audience numbers. That’s significant enough to raise it to second place in its timeslot if those numbers were taken into account. Network execs treat this as good news/bad news—the good news is that their shows have a larger audience than they thought; the bad news is that this means nothing to advertisers, who are convinced that most people fast-forward through commercials. Advertisers are still going to shop their sponsorship to shows that rate high in the Nielsens, alas.
Early reports gave Fringe 5.9 million viewers, or a tentative share of 9. Who knows how these numbers will change when offline viewing is factored in? But for now, suffice to say the show is holding its own—barely—against The Mentalist. Thankfully, Fox has ordered an entire season of Fringe, so we have plenty of time to see if it can beat its rival.
*I have to offer a formal apology here to John Noble, whom I have described as being English. Mr. Noble is actually from Australia, where he has been a director of a noted stage company as well as the drama head for an arts school. He has directed over 80 plays, besides doing film work such as his award-winning turn as Lord Denethor in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.