Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Science Of The Impossible – Fringe

There are times when I think that it is easiest to write about things that you really, really like or really, really hate. It is only mediocrity that is difficult to quantify. Which may explain why I still haven't come up with a review of 90210 while dashing off a review of Hole In The Wall the night it aired. I am going to do it again for Fringe but this time it's because I really, really, really like it. To be sure there are flaws in logic and execution but despite flaws in some of the parts the thing holds together quite well. For me the proof is that despite the 95 minute running time – with limited commercial interruptions no less – the episode felt quickly paced and not like something that was padded with excess material. Indeed one of the faults was that, at times, it felt like it was rushed; as if they could have used a bit more time to develop an idea. That's unusual in most pilots that are longer than an hour and feel like they were stuffed with fluff to make them fit the time slot.

We get a pretty quick impression of what we're dealing with in the first scene aboard a German airliner flying to Boston. Encountering extreme turbulence the passengers fasten their seat belts. One of the passengers is feeling unwell. He uses an auto-injector which we later discover is supposed to contain Insulin (the device looks like an EpiPen, so my first reaction was that he was using Epinephrine for an allergic reaction). Almost immediately he gets up and runs for the front of the plane, a flight attendant running after her. When she finally catches up with him and sees his face she recoils in horror. His face is melting. We see the other people on the plane; their faces are melting. When the plane's co-pilot opens the cabin door to see what the panic is about he quickly closes it. The last image we have from the inside of the plane before it lands is of the co-pilot's face melting away, allowing his jaw bone to drop off.

FBI agents Olivia Dunham and John Scott are called to the airport to participate in the investigation. They're called separately but they're in bed together, conducting a secret love affair in a cheap motel. The FBI isn't in control of the operation though. That job goes to curt and abrasive Homeland Security agent Philip Broyles. Broyles takes charge of things in the sort of pre-emptive manner that most local law enforcement agencies on TV accuse the FBI of adopting, and when Dunham protests using her position as "interagency liaison officer" she not only earns a new nickname, "Liaison" but also a position as one of the people going on board the plane. The plane is absolute carnage; bones, clothes, blood and sticky slime. We learn (after one of the episode's commercials) that the plane has been ordered burned by the Centers for Disease Control, a cover story of course. Acting on an anonymous tip John and Olivia go to a storage facility. There they share "a moment" where they talk about the fact that John said that he loved Olivia for the first time at the motel. Naturally this means that something very bad is going to happen to John. Sure enough, after what must have been hours spent looking in storage lockers – since it has gone from daylight to night (all the better to see the explosions of course) John opens a locker filled with experimental animals and chemicals. He has also flushed his quarry, the man running the experiments. The guy runs, with John in pursuit, then, using his cell phone triggers a booby trap. The subsequent explosion not only badly injures John but also catches Olivia. Then as they say, things get weird.

When Olivia regains consciousness we learn that John isn't dead ... yet. His skin has basically turned transparent to the point where we can see through his skin to his muscle structure. The doctors have managed to slow the process of degradation but not totally arrest it. Investigating the circumstances of the deaths on the plane, Olivia finds a link to an incident at Harvard many years before. This leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop. The only problem is that Bishop is a patient at a mental hospital, and the only way to get to his is with the permission of his sole surviving relative – his estranged son, Peter. Peter Bishop is a high school dropout who is on the run from a gambling debt. He's currently in Iraq trying to make money by conning some Iraqi oil men with a plan to build a pipeline. Olivia travels to Iraq and bluffs Peter into coming back to the States with her. She uses him to gain access to Walter. It's apparent that Walter is both brilliant and totally detached from reality – as if his mind is travelling on two tracks at the same time. Seventeen years in an asylum that is little better than a snake pit will do that to you. Bishop lets Olivia know that the only other person has any idea about the compound that caused the deaths on the plane and John's condition is his old lab assistant "Belly" – Dr. Bell. Bell is the founder of Maximum Dynamic, a company that states that what they make is everything. Olivia wants to talk to Bell, but without any proof of his connection to the deaths on the plane it isn't even something to be considered. The only person who can provide the information that can cure John is the man who caused the explosion and the only person who saw him is John.

Walter suggests a method to allow Olivia to find out what John knows. It's called coordinated dreaming and required Olivia to enter a sensory deprivation tank, take LSD and have her brain connected to John's with electrodes. Peter is appalled by the idea, but Walter claims that he has used it in the past to interrogate a dead man. The technique works in allowing Olivia's mind to contact John's and she persuades him to remember the events leading to the explosion. She sees the man and is able to create a computerized drawing of him, which in turn allows him to be identified. The picture matches one of the passengers on the German airplane. They also discover that the man has a twin brother, and the twin brother works for Maximum Dynamic. It's enough to all them to try to contact Bell. However Bell is out of the country, and Olivia and her FBI partner Charlie Francis to one of Bell's leading executives, Nina Sharp. Sharp is all charm and cooperation, giving them information on the man they're looking for, Richard Steig. Nina also lets slip the information that the event they're investigating is part of a pattern. It's a pattern that Olivia and Charlie have no knowledge – according to Nina, their security clearance isn't as high as her company's. Once they have the information from Maximum Dynamic, Olivia and the FBI, with Walter and Peter in tow track him down to his home. Peter sees Steig escaping from house and lets Olivia and the FBI know the direction he's taken off in and give chase. They eventually catch him and get the information they need to cure John with, after Peter threatens him.

Steig has one other piece of information to make a deal with. The events on the airliner were in the way of a demonstration. However Steig had already set up a deal with someone else. When the plane landed Steig had received a call from one of their representatives, an FBI agent. Steig recorded the call and was willing to release the tape to Olivia in return for a plea deal. The voice on the tape was John's. Hurrying back to the hospital where John is recuperating and where Steig is recovering from Peter's interrogation techniques, Olivia finds Steig smothered with a pillow and John missing. Olivia chases him but his car crashes. He dies as Olivia tries to get the name of who John is working for. Broyles has explained the pattern of mysterious events to Olivia by now and offers her a job working with him on trying to discover the cause of the events. She is reluctant to take on the job but the events with John have forced her to change her mind. She wants to enlist Peter and Walter Bishop into her team. Peter is reluctant but eventually they agree to work with her.

The acting, at least from the people who have an opportunity to say more than a handful of lines, is first rate. Australian actress Anna Torv, who plays Olivia has a vaguely exotic quality that is difficult to describe, however she delivers a strong performance playing a woman who is determined to do anything necessary to save the man that she loves. She expresses her pain when she realizes that John was involved with Steig as much with her expression as with anything that she says. Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop progresses from a sort of outraged disbelief that anyone could take his father's rantings and pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo seriously (as far as Peter's concerned his old man could rot away in that asylum forever and it wouldn't bother him one little bit) to someone who, if he still doesn't believe everything that he's seen, is at least committed to helping Olivia. The implication is not so much that he has romantic feelings for her but rather is impressed with her determination to save John if only as a way to escape from this scary world. Even as he seems to reconnect with his father he rejects his father's work. Blair Brown is perfect in the small role (in the pilot at least) of Nina Sharp. From the moment we see her – even before she actually says a word, just based on the way she carries herself – we sense that there is something sinister about this woman. And when she does speak, even though she says nothing that seems particularly threatening, our suspicions are aroused even further. She is too calm, too smooth, too prepared, as if she already knows what is going to happen and how she is going to react to every question posed to her in her interview with the FBI (because of course that's exactly how she treats it, as if she is being interviewed by a reporter who feels well briefed but actually has far less information than Nina does). And as we find out in the last scene, where Nina talks to an orderly about John's corpse, we are exactly right about her.

Still there are two really standout performances. The first comes from Lance Reddick as Philip Broyles. Reddick imbues Broyles with a sense of arrogance. This seems particularly directed at Olivia that turns to something like bemused tolerance as she goes off on what probably seems like a foolish tangent, to something that's not quite respect but may be acceptance. All the while, even as he reveals some of the details of "The Pattern" to Olivia, you get the sense that he's holding stuff back. It's not malevolent (although it could be) simply that there are things that she doesn't need to know and won't find out about them until she does. And it's all done with a calm even serene demeanour. The other bravura acting performance comes from Australian actor John Noble as Walter Bishop. They say that playing someone who is insane can be amongst the hardest challenges for an actor. Noble, who is probably best known in North America for playing Denethor in Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King does what seems to my untutored eye to take a magnificent stab at it. By turns his Walter Bishop is all business and childlike. At one point he takes a skin sample from John's arm while asking for some ginger ale because it's been so long since he's had any. At another point, while waiting for some result from Olivia's attempts to contact John in the dreaming state, we see Walter watching Spongebob Squarepants, with a joy and amazement that surpasses anything that you'd see from a child. It's ana amazing performance.

The writing may, in some respects be a weak point for the show. I don't mean the actual dialogue, which conveys the emotion of Olivia's desperation to save John quite well. Rather I guess it's a vague sense of being rushed. There's no real sense of the passage of time unless the characters specifically comment on it. We move from Olivia telling Broyles about needing to get to Peter Bishop to Olivia in Baghdad confronting him. To be sure there's an indication that we're in Baghdad (one of the "cute" visual tricks of the episode which I'll mention in the next paragraph) but there's no sense of how long it took her to get there. For all we know (and in this series it's just possible) that she was teleported where she needed to go. Everything about the pacing of the episode seemed to have been rushed. In a show like Mad Men or Battlestar Galactica (two dramas that never fails to impress me with their quality) one is never without a sense of the passage of time, even though it's normally not overtly stated. I suppose that that contributed to the sense that the pacing of the episode seem fast – as if they were trying to fit everything into the 95 minute running time – and why it sometimes didn't seem like the episode took as long as it did.

I wanted to mention a couple of the visual effects. The setting for John and Olivia's shared dream was suitably other worldly. It probably should have provided us with a clue as to the turmoil within John that the place where she met him was not a "happy place" but at the time I supposed we were meant to see it as an effect of his injuries. The other effect, which I like though others seemed to have been annoyed by, was the use of captions to indicate location. Other shows use these but none do it with the "flair" (or perhaps "chutzpah" is the better term) that J.J. Abrams displays here. The captions are big and done in a three-dimensional type face. Moreover at times they seem to exist in the physical universe. In the establishing shot at the FBI office in Boston, the camera pulls through one of the "Os" in Boston to get into the office. But perhaps one of the most brazen/brilliant uses of the effect comes soon after when Olivia travels to Baghdad. We start with an establishing aerial shot of the city with the words "Baghdad Iraq" superimposed over the city. We then switch to a ground level establishing shot looking up towards helicopters flying over the city...and the "B" from Baghdad. Like I said, "flair" (or perhaps "chutzpah").

Already opinion of this series seems to be all over the place. People either love it (like me) or they loathe it. Many people comment on the similarity between this series and The X-Files and usually find it lacking. I do acknowledge a similarity to The X-Files but I also see similarities to a show from a couple of seasons back called Threshold, starring Carla Gugino, that I actually think is closer to this series than The X-Files is. I liked that show a lot – felt in fact that it was the best of the three "alien invasion series" from that season (the others were Invasion and Surface). Despite a handful of things about Fringe that I found annoying – the pacing problem that I mentioned being the biggest, and that may be have a lot to do with getting the show up and running – I really like this show as well. What I'm really interested in is how they'll follow up on this. After all, as is often the case the pilot is not reflective of the show that we'll see in subsequent weeks. In the pilot for Fringe the focus was on Olivia's relationship with John, her desperate attempts to save him, and her sense of betrayal when she finds out that he had been dealing with Steig. All of this is what draws her into the area of fringe science and introduces her to Broyles and to the Bishops. What the rest of the series has to do is to hold on to us as she and her team investigate the various threats that they'll be investigating. That could be a difficult thing to pull off. Threshold wasn't able to – it was one of the first shows cancelled that season. FOX, which is notorious for cancelling series quickly needs to take its time with this one, but given that it comes from producer J.J. Abrams, that seems likely to happen, even if the ratings for the pilot may not have been stellar (it finished second to America's Got Talent, though to be fair it held its audience solidly in each half hour). This could still turn out like Threshold, but I'm hoping that things go more like The X-Files, which started slowly and built an audience. I think this show is intriguing enough for that to happen.

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