Thirty five minutes into the pilot of one of the most anticipated shows of the summer, one of the main characters says, “I just pissed myself. Just a squirt.” I’d say that line accurately sums up my excitement level for this show and it’s succeeding payoff.
A confession: I’m a fan of the big and the weird. I mean, how can you not be? Fringe science, more accurately and typically called psuedoscience usually (or junk science, if you’re a cynic), on which the show is reportedly based, is my guilty little pleasure (though I don’t feel that guilty about it). In fact, I’m almost a Fortean nut for it. Remember old Michael Crichton? Before he became a nutjob asshole? Back when he represented classic, smart speculative fiction that bled pure sci-fi wonderment, heavy on the science? Good times, am I right? You get glimpses of it these days in the work of authors like Warren Ellis and Neal Stephenson, but it’s fleeting and you don’t see it out there too much more.
Which is why I’m incredibly excited about a show like Fringe coming on the air, and on a major network (though with that major network being Fox, I have to wonder if there’s a looming countdown to it’s inevitable cancellation) with major network budgeting and ability to do justice to imaginative scope of such ideas. Finally, the return of big weird sci fi on TV! Speaking of ideas, let’s talk about the first episode…
You’re looking at those flashlights and you’re thinking that this show is already ripping off the X-Files big time, but you’d be only half right on it’s source material, because in what has to be a slight nod to it’s spiritual cousin Lost, the show starts with Glatterglug (which translates as “smooth flight,” how ironic) Flight 627, en route from Hamburg to Logan Airport, in Boston. Something goes wrong, horribly and wonderfully wrong and the end result is that people’s faces start melting off. It’s creepy as hell, but in that vein, it’s so, so cool.
From there, we go to our main character, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv, an Australian actress who’s done just about nothing before this, and further proving that J. J. Abrams knows how to pick excellent leading ladies for his projects), who’s tucked away in a motel with her secret boyfriend, a fellow FBI agent. She’s our update of Agent Scully for 2008: Just as sexy and smart, but taller, blonde, and right at the beginning, she’s inviting and shows us her heart, especially when it comes to her lame secret boyfriend. Their post-coital one sided “I love you’s” are interrupted by a call from their superiors about the plane landing at Logan. An inter-agency task force is being set up to investigate the incident, headed by a Homeland Security agent played by the brilliant, stone-like, and enigmatic Lance Reddick, who’s got a bit of a prior beek with Dunham (and the first of several incredibly sexist characters, I was surprised to notice). Anyways, shenanigans happen, and a chase after a suspect (the eerie twin brother of a man who was on the plane) leads to an explosion in a lab that seriously injures Secret FBI Boyfriend, leaving him so badly burned and exposed to the chemicals in such lab that his skin turns translucent and he has to be placed in an immediate coma. This gives opportunity for a wonderful cameo by Peter Outerbridge, who was an asshole FBI agent in the last season of Millennium and starred in a Canadian science drama called Regenesis which I’ve grown to love, as Secret Boyfriend’s doctor.
Dunham’s search for anything similar to WTF she’s just witnessed leads her to one man: a scientist named Bishop who was set up by the government to do WTFever he wanted in the 70s, but was locked away in a mental institute for the past two decades. She needs him, but the terms of his incarceration state that he can only receive visits from immediate family members. Sure, she’s a G-man and could go in waving the Patriot Act all over the place, but Matthew Abaddon tells her to play it cool and just find Bishop’s last surviving immediate family member: Pacey.
Pacey‘s character is both a highlight and a serious lowlight of this opener, typically getting all the best lines, but playing the cliched loner with the genius IQ, but who dropped out of high school and has spent his years kind of roughing it, doing every job imaginable, including some time as a wild land fireman, cargo pilot, and a few months as a chemistry professor (We’re told that he falsified a degree from MIT for that one and even got a few papers published before he was found out). I think the key to his character, especially in the scenes with the female FBI agent and the scenes with his father, is not that he’s a cool leading man type, but rather that he’s a snarky asshole. He’ll either become highly watchable as the show progresses or the most insipid character on television. Plus, he speaks Farsi.
Through Pacey‘s character, we get his father, the now mentally damaged scientist who had his finger delved deep into the scary and weird, and who may be the heart of this show in a cracked sort of way. He supplies the hard fringe. He’s fascinated by the perspective delivered in Spongebob, and when it comes to a matter of needing to find the suspect who got away but coming up short because the only person who can identify him is Secret Boyfriend in the coma, he comes up with the simple answer: Load up Dunham with ketamine and lysergic acid diethylamide, then strip her down (fondly recalling the X-Files pilot) and put her in an isolation tank (Altered States!) and synchronize her brain waves with Secret Boyfriend in the coma and he can share with her the suspect’s face via synaptic transfer. And quite frankly, it’s not nearly enough in TV these days that you get to hear a character gleefully say, “Excellent. Let’s make some LSD!”
Does it work? Fuck yeah, it works, man (though the special effects in that sequence are not terrible, they’re certainly the weakest of the episode and remind one of VR5). Just like Bishop told us it would (you can use the same method to question a corpse too, he assures us, within the first six hours of it’s death, a detail that becomes very important later, we find out). Despite his wandering mind and his questionable bladder control, Bishop will be the element to watch on this show, I believe. Dunham provides us with the coolness of Scully, but with a more relaxed believer in the Mulder archetype, and Pacey provides us the everyman rational asshole perspective, but the Bishop character… Well, I’ll just refer you back to when Dunham fills Pacey in on just a few of the things his father was involved in researching back in his heyday: Mind control, teleportation, astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, and also reanimation.
Oh, and don’t let me forget that the episode also includes the hint of an evil Bill Gates type looming on the horizon, some kind of super evil mega corporation (and possibly more out there than the Hanso Foundation) with their (advanced robotic, on the level of Terminator-esque advanced) fingers in everything, including “The Pattern…”
The Pattern! More on that later, but the real question you’re asking yourself is, “Is this a good pilot?” Yes, for the most part. It’s not as good as Abram’s Lost pilot, which was pure perfection in retrospect, and may or may not as good as the pilot for Alias (the Bishop character would have to be a modern day equivalent of Milo Rambaldi, that show’s seer/inventor/wunderkind macguffin, and I could easily see this show copy that series’ breezy blue collar sci fi vibe), but there is quality here. They put $10 million into this hour and a half, and it shows (the only downside to the look of the show, and it’s not that big of a deal is that it was clearly shot in Toronto). Plus, this is just a simple aesthetic thing, but I love the location chyrons that are huge and 3D in each new locale and seem to float right at the camera as if they were living architecture (and they very much appear to be in the Baghdad scene). That said, more than this initial episode itself, you definitely get a feeling that you’re being handed a laundry list of (like any good pilot does) what’s to come as far as big wild weirdness.
Beyond anything else though, this is easily the best new show of the fall and one of the best on TV currently.
I’ve said a lot about the show as it is, and my perspective is completely clouded by the possibility of this being a show that scratches me right where I itch. Is Fringe a little too out there for you? Understandable, but I implore you to give it a try… while you can. It’s on Fox, people. You know the executives are just masturbating at the idea of canceling this and Dollhouse already.
Hawking bets that CERN mega-machine won’t find “God’s Particle.”
Neal Stephenson: Science Fiction as a literary genre.
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
I forgot to mention that during the “limited commercial interruptions” during Fringe, they played the commercial version of the new Quantum Of Solace trailer. It’s not bad at all.
How to disappear in America without a trace.
The new EP by Stars is excellent.
Is Kim Jong Il?
Giant penis needs re-chalking, please.
How would the U.S. military fight a zombie army?
I guess it’s official, Shirley Manson’s a Terminator. Lord knows she’s already terminated my heart. And stuff.
Jesus was a community organizer, and Pontius Pilate was a governor. Sigh.
Matt Damon on Sarah Palin.
Speaking of the hotness of Shirley Manson and the villainy of Sarah Palin, robots are coming to replace us all!
The triumph of fringe science!