Fringe: “Same Old Story”

No Explanation Necessary

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“Same Old Story”
Written by J.J. Abrams & Jeff Pinkner & Alex Kurtzman & Robert Orci
Directed by Paul Edwards

“When was it you lost your imagination?” —Dr. Walter Bishop

Sometimes it’s better not to explain these things. The more “explanations” of the weird events in tonight’s episode of Fringe I heard, the less sense they made. I’m as willing as the next viewer to suspend my disbelief—I’m so hungry for something resembling The X-Files I’ll give extra effort to it—but more than once during this episode, I caught myself mumbling, “But… but…”

The episode begins with a woman who apparently conceives, carries to term, and is ultimately delivered of a full-term baby within a matter of minutes. Said infant then proceeds to grow, in a matter of four hours, into an adult male, then an old man who dies of advanced age. Agent Dunham and Peter Bishop find trace evidence linking the mother’s paramour to a series of horrific murders carried out by a serial killer known as the Surgeon, cases that Dunham once investigated with her former partner/lover John Scott (Mark Valley). Since the revelation that Scott was a turncoat, she has been forced to revisit not only her own judgment, but every one of their cases together, all of which are compromised. The Surgeon is a particularly gruesome monster, who vivisects the brains of living victims, removing the pituitary gland. Dr. Bishop chimes in with an explanation about some long-ago, forbidden experiment in which the government allegedly was trying to grow soldiers from scratch in a matter of days (wouldn’t it have been cheaper just to re-instate the draft?). It appears that the fast-forwarding of the growth cycle was too effective, and could not be turned off; the experiments all died of old age. Everyone concludes that the Surgeon is a revenant of those experiments, harvesting the pituitary gland in order to retard the aging effects.


You can buy human growth hormone over the Internet for about sixty bucks. Why would anyone need to kill to obtain it? Recombinant DNA technology (which used to be “fringe science”) makes artificial HGH available to the masses. Most of the other secretions of the pituitary gland are similarly available without the mess of amateur surgery. Ten minutes on the Internet would have revealed all this to the writers of this episode.

The problem is that J.J. Abrams and his cohorts don’t seem to be able to distinguish between “fringe science” and outright magic. For example, where is a woman going to get the sheer raw materials to “build” a full term baby in a matter of minutes? Growth takes energy and fuel, and unless her own bones melted in order to provide them, or she ate a massive meal equivalent to nine months of dinner, there just isn’t enough material around to create that child. Likewise, when her four-hour-old son grows to full manhood, ages, and dies, I kept wondering where all that actual flesh and bone came from. He went from a nine-pound infant to a 150-pound man in four hours—where did that extra 141 pounds come from? Thin air? Later, we get introduced to the idea that the retina (or its nerves) retain the last image seen by the deceased—a popular idea back when Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective novel, but now relegated to the dustbin of history along with the theory of humors. When you find yourself resorting to quoting Jules Verne to crack a cutting-edge scientific mystery, you’re doing it wrong.

From a technical standpoint, this was a well done episode. The lighting, the floating captions, the pace of the episode was all one could ask for. All of the actors turned in persuasive performances, and I remain convinced that Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson will find their roles to be “breakout” roles in this series. The sight of Darin Morgan’s name as a producer on this show brought a smile to my face, and John Noble continues to provide us with a slippery, untrustworthy, and thoroughly delightful Mad Scientist. The idea that his research is stashed, like a squirrel’s cache, all over the city is original and fun. He and Jean the Cow are the Lone Gunmen of this series, combining real intellectual insight with comic relief.

The scene I actually enjoyed most was Nina Sharp (the excellent Blair Brown) explaining to Agent Dunham how the world works: multinational enterprises answer to no one, work by their own laws, field their own mercenary armies, and focus only on profit. The most powerful governments in the world cannot call them to heel. Now that’s scary stuff, and if Abrams et. al. want to turn this show into a Nation-States versus Global Corporations standoff, I’ll be in the front row. Not since the heyday of the city-state and the Medicis have I sensed so much court intrigue in the offing.

I’ll confess that I don’t like the moral tone of the ending. Cornered by Dunham, the Surgeon has aged all the way to death. Proving that, in fact, he really has never grown up, he blames his crimes on “the man I called my father”, the man who created him. No one, especially Dunham, questions this outrageous blame-shifting; it’s allowed to stand unchallenged and thus accepted by default. It would have been nice to see Agent Dunham, who stands for some kind of law and order, recognize that “the devil made me do it” does not excuse torture and murder. Or would that not have been hip and ironic enough for the supposed audience for this show?

I would imagine that the audience J.J. Abrams and his folks are aiming at is the same audience that enjoyed The X-Files and Lost. I would imagine that that audience tends to be a little more science-savvy, a little more tech-savvy, than the average viewer of American Idol and Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?Which means that Abrams and company are either going to have to do their research and their homework, or hide more of this alleged “science” behind a better screen of smoke and mirrors. In real life, out where some of us have actually dealt with so-called “fringe science”, runaway growth equals cancer, not accelerated development. In real life, growth hormones can be bought online. In real life, energy and matter are a zero-sum game—one becomes the other becomes the other, changed but not destroyed or created out of nothing.

I want to believe. I want to be teased with the possibilities of extreme science. I want to be teased with the real outer limits of science, which are fascinating and terrifying in themselves. I don’t need nineteenth century theories about retinal images, I don’t need to see an eyeball pulled out of its socket, I don’t need a dream sequence (wow, what a cliche!). I have seen all of these things before. Much of the trouble I have with this show is that it keeps trying to wow me with stuff I already know about—Google Earth, satellite positioning, robotic prostheses, human growth hormone. You can’t convince me we’re crowding the future on this show if you keep showing me last week’s science. Show me the stuff that scares real scientists—brane cosmology, dark matter, species decline, the threat of a pandemic.

That, or don’t explain any more than you have to. Leave me a little darkness for my imagination to play in.