Throwback Thursday: Looking back at Fringe, a fan-favourite TV series and sci-fi phenomenon from J.J. Abrams
Back in gloomy 2008, when LOST was still flying high on American TV screens, another mystery sci-fi show by J.J. Abrams took root on Fox. It was intensely advertised as something that the fans of LOST could get right behind, a show full of mysteries, secrets and unanswered questions, something for which fans could make internet forums for discussion, something that would require us to put each and every one of our brain cells to use in order to understand it. And thus Fringe was born.
The word of the show soon spread outside the circles of closeted LOST fans, and soon nearly every sci-fi fan out there was turning up every week to see what incredibly complicated and intricate mystery the show cooked up that time. And while Fringe enjoyed reasonably high ratings during the first season, something happened in-between season 1 and 2, and the second series saw a sharp drop in ratings and struggled to maintain a loyal audience afterwards, all the way until the end. It was only through active internet fan presence and countless pleas and hashtags asking to renew the show every season that it managed to survive for five seasons.
The article contains spoilers for all 5 seasons and both timelines of Fringe, so tread lightly!
And yet, survive it did. It managed to cook up a decent final season that had a finale full of closure and love for the fans (and also was the show’s 100th episode), and while in its run the show saw lower and higher points, it can up until today be remembered as a clever, intense and dramatic sci-fi epic that I’m sure would interest viewers even today, if they decided to give it a shot.
A passenger plane is flying in the dark of night. Suddenly, it flies into an electrical storm and the lights start flicking on and off. While some passengers start panicking and we hear the voice of a flight attendant asking everyone to remain calm, a lone frightened passenger is seen cradling his face in his hands. He then takes an insulin shot, unfastens his seat-belt, and starts walking towards the bathroom before being stopped by a flight attendant. She doesn’t see his face before he turns around to face her. And when he does… The man’s face is melting. His skin is decaying and falling off in pieces, and then he vomits something onto the flight attendant. The passengers begin to panic before they see that they are melting too – every single person on the plane is degenerating, their flesh falling off their faces and their arms and falling on the floor. The co-pilot opens the cockpit door to see everyone deteriorating in front if his eyes. As the pilot asks him what’s wrong, he turns around with his own flesh melting off his face. His jaw detaches itself from the rest of his face and falls on the floor. A passenger plane is still flying in the dark of night. Cut to opening sequence.
This is how the Pilot episode begins, and this opening is certainly not an exception. Fringe had made intense, shocking and mysterious openings its trademark, among which we can see a hand coming out of a computer screen and grabbing a young man, a young woman exploding in a diner, and a man being cut half a dozen times and then thrown out a window by a gang of angry butterflies. These unnatural occurrences then invite our characters to the scene of the accident where they begin solving the case.
Speaking of our characters, the show offers plenty of great personalities to root for, some played by the same actor – indeed, there are more characters on this show than there are actors, as we see second versions of certain characters in another timeline. The show follows Olivia Dunham as the main character, an FBI agent of the “Fringe Division”, a special subdivision that deals with any unnatural scientific occurrences, or the “fringe science”, where the show gets its name from. After a string of such events, Olivia recruits Dr. Walter Bishop, an old and fairly mentally unstable scientist that used to deal with similar events and his estranged son Peter in order to untangle the mysterious web and find out what is going on.
Among supporting characters we have Astrid, Walter’s laboratory helper whose name remains a bigger mystery than any cases to the scientist, and Phillip Broyles, the hard director of the Fringe Division. And Gene the cow. Of course.
Surely, the show adds more faces to its pool of characters later, and in subsequent seasons we get introduced to such interesting characters as Leonard Nimoy… err, I mean William Bell, the former partner of Walter, who introduces us to the alternate universe, or the “Other Side”, where we get alternate versions of Olivia (who here has red hair and, unironically, a fringe hairstyle), Walter, Broyles and others. Why not Peter? Well, that’s a story for another time.
Given the craziness of the storyline, what the show truly excels at is reinventing itself with every new season. Where season 1 is fairly straightforward (for this show, anyway), with every episode being an individual case and reminds more of a crime procedural with a sci-fi twist (heavily influenced by The X-Files, by the way, one of the main Abrams’ inspirations for the show), season 2 strays away from the strict format. While it still has fringe cases in many episodes, it also begins building up the mythology of the series, its backstory, shines more light on the origins of our characters and gives the show a unique, iconic feel that is not seen anywhere else. With the third season it goes even further with reinvention by introducing the alternate universe, a byproduct of Walter trying to play God, and the episodes are not all set in the “Prime Universe”; sometimes the show takes us to the Other Side, the characters of which soon start having more and more interactions with the main ones, and the two universes begin working together.
Season 4 was perhaps where the show plummeted the most in terms of both quality and ratings, which put it at the highest risk of cancellation it had ever seen. The season saw our characters from both universes finally teaming up to work together for good. While it had a few good moments and a number of quality episodes, the fans felt that its general feel was a bar lower than the seasons before, and that the storytelling device it used was not completely satisfying. That was when the Fox executives started waving the cancellation banner and put the future of the show at risk. But the active fan presence on the internet became very vocal, and after a long fight Fringe was eventually renewed for a fifth and final (and a shorter) season.
Knowing that they were making the final season, the writers were not afraid to reinvent the show one last time, and this time was probably the biggest reinvention of all; the show sent our characters 24 years into the future, where the mysterious Observers have turned the world into a dystopian Orwellian playground, and our heroes fight their final fight against the system while the story races towards an epic conclusion. The thing that the final season excelled at the most was demonstrating its undying loyalty to the hardcore fans of the show, the ones that hunt for every Easter egg, pause the episodes every few seconds in order to catch a glimpse of a clue or an Observer, and have the entire glyph cypher printed out and hung on their walls. These fans got the most out of this season, and the white tulip that Peter received from Walter in the very last scene was but the icing on the cake that left all of us smiling and completely satisfied.
The show’s heart was always, in fact, the characters. While the mysterious cases, the expansive mythology and backstory, the uneasy atmosphere added flavour and made the show unique, it would have been nothing without Olivia, Peter and Walter, and the fantastic relationships that they have formed with each other. That is why the show’s ending was so powerful, and that’s why an unexplained white tulip meant more to die-hard fans of Fringe than to other people. In the world that can often be illogical and completely inexplicable, their affection for each other was what made the most sense.
In the end, it really all comes down to the most loyal of the fans. Considering the show was not doing very well with the ratings past season 1, the casual viewers might have missed out many of the nuances that the writers put in for the hardcore watchers throughout the show’s entire run. In retrospect, it was a show made for that little loyal fanbase, the ones that went on the internet after each episode to check if they missed out on something and to connect with the like-minded fans around the world. Perhaps Fringe even stopped trying to appeal to a larger audience at some point, and instead turned their focus toward the ones that truly cared. All the Easter eggs, the Observer sightings, the glyph codes, even the hidden images in the opening sequence were there for those who wanted to have an immersive, an almost interactive television experience that made them think themselves, and try to dig deeper to find some yet unfound meanings. That’s why Fringe managed to stay the little show that could until the end. Because, you know, sometimes the world we have is not the world we want. But we have our hearts and our imaginations to make the best of it.
Fringe is currently streaming on Netflix UK and Amazon Prime.
Image credit: FOX