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The Universe Next Door: A Review of Fringe

  • Gary D. Robinson Preacher, Actor, Author
  • 2010 24 Mar
The Universe Next Door: A Review of <i>Fringe</i>

A couple years ago, producers J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci sat and batted around what they'd like to see on television. They'd cut their teeth on sci-fi and horror, e.g., Twilight Zone, Night Stalker, the films of David Cronenberg, and, of course, The X-Files. In the first round of talks, they came up with the idea "Mad Scientist Meets Hart to Hart." It didn't take the trio long to discard "Hart to Hart," but they retained the idea of a character-driven mixture of science fiction and horror. The result, which first aired September 9, 2008 on Fox, was Fringe

The series follows the adventures of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), and his son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) as they investigate bizarre occurrences on the fringes of science like human spontaneous combustion, rapid aging, chimeras, teleportation, etc. The producers intended to develop a big series arc while airing one "done-in-one" story per episode. Thus, viewers shouldn't have to watch every episode (unlike Abrams' Lost which is too complex to miss much of) to enjoy the show. 

Fringe is enjoyable, mostly because of its strong characters. Abrams and Co. wanted something character-driven. One need but recall the poker-faced Mulder and impassive Scully, along with their stodgy-to-sullen supporting cast, to appreciate the achievement here.   Even the second-stringers of Fringe are people we've grown to care about. Broyles, Olivia's skinny, black boss, seems stoic enough—until you catch him playing a subtle game of peek-a-boo with a child in a restaurant. Walter's attractive young lab assistant, Astrid (whom Walter keeps referring to as Asterisk), comes across as an engaging blend of pupil, caretaker, and little sister to the mad doctor.  

The first string, Olivia, Peter, and Walter, seemed a bit frayed that first season. Despite debuting as a victim of the heart, Olivia seemed a bit distant, almost a stereotype of the hardened agent with the classic target-shooter's stance. She's loosened up a bit since. We've seen her sister and her niece, seen the heart that beats beneath the FBI jacket. In the beginning, Peter played the Estranged Son for all he was worth. When he wasn't rolling his eyes at his loopy father's ideas, he was knocking back a shot of bitterness. Since then, however, he's warmed toward his dad. Ironically, the strongest strand in this rope was the most damaged, Walter Bishop. The victim of some terrible, deranging accident, long institutionalized, Walter's pathos became a magnet, drawing Olivia and Peter closer to him and, consequently, to one another.  

Of the three, Walter is easily the most likeable and entertaining. (He's the reason my wife calls this show her "favorite." Before Fringe, I don't think she ever had a favorite.) Played by the fine actor John Noble, Walter possesses an incredible--and dangerous--scientific mind. A drug-loving product of the Sixties, weighed down with the burden of past sins, he nevertheless reminds one of a little boy, sometimes loveable, sometimes wayward, always daring and surprising. Imagine Dr. Frankenstein sharing the mind of the comic Steven Wright while channeling Timothy Leary. Even that description can't do justice to the layers of the character. (And he keeps a cow in his lab to boot!)  

It's Walter who's been peeling back the layers of that overarching story mentioned above. We've learned that, many years before, Walter had been working with a scientist named William Bell. Together, the two men experimented on children, searching for latent powers. One of those unfortunate children was Olivia Dunham. This season, Olivia discovered both their plan and her powers, including clairvoyance. She'll need them to face an awesome threat. Decades earlier, Walter had discovered a doorway to another universe.   The comings and goings between threaten the destruction of one cosmos or the other. Bell removed pieces of Walter's brain tissue to hide his memories of how to open a door to the other universe, which thus explains his insanity. Of course, you know how hard it is to keep a secret, especially in science fiction.  

The concept of parallel universes has been around as long as science fiction. This generation has seen Sliders. Mine remembers a version of Spock with a beard (fittingly, veteran Trekker Leonard Nimoy plays the William Bell of two worlds). Funnybook fans remember Earth Two which featured older versions of The Flash, Green Lantern, et al.   

In truth, however, the concept of an unseen reality sitting cheek-by-jowl with the visible world is not simply science fiction. The door to a parallel world is as close as the Bible gathering dust on the coffee table. The book of Revelation presents another dimension of reality, a peek behind the curtain into the realm elsewhere called "the heavenlies." John's visions show the strange, sometimes violent intersection between our two worlds. Take, for example, the vision of the woman clothed with the sun who gives birth to a man child, then flees the dragon (Revelation 12:1-6). Regardless of one's interpretation of a difficult book, at this juncture it's hard not to think of Mary the mother of Jesus and the machinations of King Herod--and what was going on behind the scenes. Like an impatient actor punching at a backstage curtain, spiritual reality thrusts onto the stage of history again and again.   

Even in the fictional world of Fringe, that parallel world punches through. In a recent episode, Walter helps a young girl possessed by the mind of a murderer. The girl and her mother are Catholics who take their faith seriously. In the end, Walter quotes Isaiah 7:9, "Unless you believe, you will not understand" (Actually, he misquotes. More accurately, it's "if you will not believe, you will not continue"). He goes on to say, "As a scientist, sometimes I have to rely on faith."

As a woman once reached out for the hem of a certain garment, even mad scientists and their creators grope for the fringe of God.   

Gary D. Robinson, who's been accused of being on the lunatic fringe, is a preacher, actor, and author living in Xenia, Ohio.  He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com