Fringe: “The Plateau”


By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“The Plateau”

Written by Alison Schapke & Monica Owusu-Breen
Directed by Brad Anderson

“I’m still a scientist, Brandon. I just have a much larger laboratory.” —Walternate

In 1958, Daniel Keyes published the first version of his ground-breaking story about intelligence enhancement, “Flowers for Algernon”. The short story won a Hugo for best short story in 1960, was adapted into a novel that shared the 1966 Nebula for best novel. Finally in 1968, the story was turned into the movie Charly, which won actor Cliff Robertson an Oscar for Best Actor. All of these versions of Keyes’ story involve the same idea: that a man named Charlie, who is mentally or developmentally challenged, has his IQ raised through technology, only to risk reversion to his former level. When Charlie learns that he is regressing to his earlier, low IQ, he grows enraged and defensive. It’s a nightmare anyone might fear—losing your intellectual capacity, becoming less self-aware, less in control. Losing one’s self can be a prospect worse than death, and can trigger murderous rage.

“You can run all the tests you want, but you don’t know how this Olivia Dunham is going to react in the field.” —AltBroyles

This was the story that instantly sprang to my mind while watching this episode of Fringe. We begin with a man with some of the physical characteristics of the stereotyped mentally disabled—strange clothes, an awkward gait, the air of complete abstraction, and the twitchy fingers. All of these are outward expressions of an inner landscape we don’t quite understand, which rings alarms at the center of our hardwired primate brains. The man with twitchy fingers sets up a chain reaction starting from a ball point pen, which leads to a bus crushing a woman crossing a street. The Fringe division, welcoming back what they believe is “their” Olivia, tease her about being loony. We recognize the Red universe, the alternate universe in which our Olivia is trapped, where she has been programmed to believe that she is someone else. The team are investigating a series of bus accidents similar to the one we have witnessed. Astrid the Supercomputer (as she is in this universe) says that the odds of someone being able to plan and carry this off are astronomical, impossible. And as she says that, a new accident report comes in. At the accident site, which involves a bus, Olivia sees a ball point pen and realizes that the “real” accident has not yet happened; sure enough, a bus hits a pedestrian as the Fringies are on scene. Olivia spots our twitchy fellow, who is the only one watching with no expression. She gives chase, and he arranges an improbable chase.

“I made a mistake when I signed you up.” —Madeline

Our Twitch is a man named Milo, whose sister signed him up with a local experiment to raise his abilities. From a mental IQ of 56 a few months ago, he now can recite the digits of pi to 1000 places. Forget that this can merely represent a phenomenal memory, the kind demonstrated by some autistics. We are supposed to believe that the ability to calculate is evidence of high intellectual ability (which anyone who saw Rain Man would know is deceptive). Olivia and Charlie learn that Milo was scheduled to be “regressed”, i.e., to have his new-found intelligence taken away, as part of the experiment’s protocol. This incredibly cruel idea meets with no resistance in anyone, even Madeline. Olivia is not sure, but pursues Milo nonetheless. He has worked out a complicated chase sequence that will lead her into the path of a tumbling pile of bricks, which should crush her. What he does not know, the one thing he cannot factor into his equations, is that Olivia does not obey the protocols of this universe, but of her own. She therefore does not behave as predicted, and his plan fails. He is taken into custody, and the last time we see him, he’s now so smart he can only talk to computers.

“I don’t recognize you anymore.” —Madeline

Now wait just a minute. I’m supposed to believe that this guy masterminded an incredibly complex chain of events to take out people crossing the street? Even if Astrid is wrong, even if someone can do all those calculations in his head, simultaneously, it does not mean he can account for events he cannot see. In the setup I was watching, Twitch set up his ball point pen, the trigger to his chain of events, before he saw a bicyclist coming around a corner. That’s the very bicyclist who crashes into a fruit stand, distracting the bus driver. How could Twitchy have known he was coming? I might buy the idea of supercomputer speeds in calculation—I won’t buy the idea that Twitch is absolutely omniscient. What’s more, at the end Olivia tells his sister that Milo is now so smart he doesn’t think like we do. News flash, Olivia—he never did. He was mentally disabled to begin with, remember? He would have no context for our intellectual culture. I refuse to believe, however, that his ability to read computer code directly is a sign of intelligence. Computers areless intelligent than humans, as anyone who works with them extensively can tell you.

But I have deeper problems with this episode. We’re looking at two different versions of the same idea: mind control. In one, our Twitch is supposed to be a formerly mentally challenged man whose sister consented to mind-altering experiments to raise his IQ. The result is a coldly calculating (you should pardon the expression) man with no moral center and a ruthless disregard for anyone else, including his loving sister. This is but another version of the tired cliché of the stoic intellectual, the intelligent person who has no heart or emotions. Why are we so afraid of smart people? Why do we perpetually cast them as nerds, villains, cold-hearted bastards? Is it really Hollywood pandering to the lowest common denominator? Is it really true that we the audience will never root for a “smart person” unless we can somehow feel superior to him? Is that why Walter is a loony tune and Walternate is as cold as a frozen lizard? It always annoys me when science fiction writers, of all people, diss their own audience with the idea that intellectuals are dangerous. Who do they think is watching this show—dropouts? Jocks? I’m also annoyed at the constant cliché that the mentally disabled are always angelic; what, they never throw temper tantrums, lose their cool, annoy those around them? The mentally disabled, like the rest of us, are human beings who deserve to be accepted for who they are, not some sanitized, sentimentalized, and condescending portrait.

“For all intents and purposes, she is Agent Dunham. She’s internalized her traits, her memories, her knowledge.” —Walternate

The other mind control experiment going on here involves our Olivia. Walternate is persuaded that his attempts to write over the personality of “our” Olivia with the personality of “his” Olivia has succeeded, and that Olivia is now Altlivia. Yet at the same time, he tells Broyles that now Olivia will be able to help them figure out how she can cross from one universe to another unscathed. This would seem to indicate that even Walternate is not arrogant enough to believe that the human mind is like a hard drive that can be overwritten and reformatted. He is hoping that some part of “our” Olivia will remain and be accessible, yet he cannot see the danger inherent in leaving parts of Olivia’s true personality exposed. How does he know she won’t sham him? Does it not occur to this alleged genius that Olivia may have Altlivia’s memories, but not her personality? Which would mean that Broyles is correct, and Walternate has planted a mole among his own agents. We get hints that Olivia’s true personality is breaking free throughout this episode: Olivia hallucinates that she is seeing Peter and Walter. Peter even appears to her as a hallucination, an avatar of her very own self, to kiss her awake like the prince in Sleeping Beauty.

“It wasn’t really him. I was hallucinating or something.” —Olivia

Even Charlie may be figuring this out. As he works with Olivia, he begins to wonder about her earlier assertions, that she was being convinced she was someone else. He mentions it to Lee, who laughs off the idea. He tests Olivia with subtle variations on shared memories, which she passes. But when she ignores a protocol that anyone native to this universe would have obeyed without question, thus risking her life, he begins to harbor even deeper suspicions. I am delighted to have Charlie Francis back, to have Kirk Acevedo back. I wish there was some way to keep him. I very much fear that Olivia will be forced, once again, to kill the partner who trusts and understands her better than anyone else. That would be a real shame.

“You’re not from this world, Olivia. You’re not her.” —Peter Bishop

The one clue that I hope Olivia is taking from this case is that the mental sciences are far more advanced in the Red universe than in her own. If the scientists on the Other side are able to raise a man’s IQ, even briefly, it is far more than they can do over here. And if that is possible, may not other manipulations be possible? Including personality erasure and imprinting? I still believe that the one thing that will “save” Olivia in the end will be Walter Bishop’s unconscionable experimentation on her as a child. If she really does get saved by the Cortexiphan and the terrifying experiments conducted on her without her consent, what does that say about Walter and what he did? That the end justified the means? Sadly, sometimes it does, but the context for it is usually something like war, where one must weigh the deaths of thousands against the deaths of millions. Perhaps Walter really did see, years ago, that a war of the worlds was inevitable, and took this road with grim reluctance but determination. Not all warriors are honored as heroes.

“I’m a part of you that you have to hold onto.” —Peter

I delight to note that this is the fourth episode in a row featuring a kiss. The second season finale, and every episode this season, has involved Peter kissing some version of Olivia. I am glad to see this—we need some reminder of the connection between these two, who are the true connections between these universes. It’s a wonderfully romantic gesture to keep them mindful of one another. I also note that this is a “standalone” episode, one which does not directly tie into the over-arching storyline or “mythology”, but which remains tied to it. We needed a breather after the intensity of the extended, involved stories of the last couple of episodes. If I were new to this series, this would be the first episode I might relax and enjoy. The mythology is so complicated now that I’d have to take notes otherwise. So the tying together of a standalone with a mythology theme was absolutely brilliant.

As always, there are myriad details to dissect, that may or may not bear on the story. For example, once again we have a focus on ball point pens. Charlie refers to Olivia and Lee’s “Vulcan mind meld”, a shout-out not only to series creator J.J. Abrams, but to William Bell/Leonard Nimoy. Peter tried to show his interrogator a “trick” about ball point pens in the season premiere; presumably it’s something he learned in the Red universe. This episode centered around ball point pens, which seem to be as rare and hard to find as avocados or real coffee. As a hard core fountain pen fan, I find this interest puzzling, yet believable in light of the fact that the communication device between worlds is an obsolete typewriter. I love the “oxygen alerts”; what does that say about the atmosphere in the Red world—there are random spots where oxygen disappears? Spooky. In the Red world, you dial 7-1-1, not 9-1-1, to report Fringe events. A homeless man in the background of one scene held a sign saying he was a veteran of the Aruba war (probably fought over coffee and avocados). A building in Manhatan (sic) is named “Oceanic Plaza”—another shout-out to a J.J. Abrams show? Details like this are like the Easter eggs on a DVD—fun to catch, an inside-joke for fans, but ultimately not definitive. I think.

The ratings for Fringe continue to decline. Whether it’s the complicated storyline, the timeslot, or some other factor, the show is not improving its performance and is sliding. Thursday saw it coming in fourth once again in the 9:00PM slot, garnering 5.19 million viewers for a 2.0 rating. This is down from last week, which was down from the week before. I refuse to predict what this means; Fox needs a solid show behindBones on Thursdays, but Fringe is so far not pulling its weight. My personal suspicion is that the show has become too complicated, too quickly, to pull in new viewers. It’s too late to fix it now, but it might serve as a lesson to future executives: give the show time to build toward that X-Files complicated plot.