Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fringe = X-Files + Alias + CSI

Fox’s Fringe certainly has it all. While I watched the premier episode last night, I found myself seeing obvious comparisons to shows like The X-Files, Alias, CSI, and even Lost and Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles.

It has what could be a conspiracy (X-Files, Alias). It has an FBI Special Agent (X-Files). It has the unreal and the unexplained and weird science (X-Files). It has a woman with a metal arm (Sarah Connor Chronicles). It has a lab for research and experiments (CSI). It has a weird event on a plane (X-Files, Lost). And it has familiar background music (Lost and Alias).

Here’s what happened in the premier – my commentary is afterwards:

The show opens with a German flight, on its way to Boston, flying through a storm with lots of lightning. Everyone is scared, but one man seems worse that the others. He injects himself with insulin, and then, soon after, his face looks like it was placed under a broiler. And it seems contagious, as the rest of the passengers and crew suffer the same affliction. The plan lands on autopilot – everyone on board is dead.

We then meet Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who is lying in bed with her FBI partner John Scott (Mark Valley). They are trying to keep the relationship secret. Both are called to the airport regarding the mysterious airplane incident. We also see a man – who looks identical to the man who injected himself with insulin on the plane - leaving the airport.

While on the tarmac, Special Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) of Homeland Security puts a task force together, and since Olivia is the interagency liaison from the FBI, she wants to be on the team. Broyles isn’t happy about it, or her, but he agrees. As she enters the plane in protective gear, she sees nothing but skeletal remains and lots of goo.

Meanwhile, someone has phoned in a tip that something suspicious was going on at a storage facility outside of Boston. Broyles assigns Olivia to investigate, and John comes with her. While breaking into the storage lockers, John finds himself faced with a man – whom we know looks like the man on the plane – and the chase begins. He calls Olivia for help, but disaster occurs when the man detonates something to destroys the row of storage units. John is in the middle of the explosion, and Olivia is knocked back.

When she comes to at the hospital, Olivia hears that what happened on the flight is also happening to John, and he’s been placed in a coma and kept cold to slow down the process. Now, Olivia works to find a cure for John, and the clues lead her to Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a scientist who is currently in a psychiatric hospital, and whose own research may have been at the root of flight’s contagion. Since Bishop has been confined at St. Claire's psychiatric hospital for the past seventeen years, only family can get access and get him out. Olivia enlists the help of his son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson). But Peter is in Baghdad and is reluctant to leave. Olivia manipulates the facts to get him to help, and he returns to Boston with her. He tells Olivia that his father worked in what was called "fringe science," covering mind control, teleportation, astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, and reanimation.

To make a long story short, they manage to get the somewhat nutty Dr. Bishop out, he gets a sample of tissue from John, and get his lab – which was still in a basement a Harvard – set up in no time flat, with some string-pulling by Broyles. Olivia also finds that one person who knew about Bishop’s research was William Bell, the top man at a multi-billion dollar corporation, Massive Dynamic.

But, in order to help John, Olivia must undergo an experiment that involved her taking LSD and other chemicals, having electrodes inserted into her head and Johns, being in an isolation tank, and let’s not forget, doing it all in a black bra and skimpy panties. This procedure will allow her to get into John’s memories – which Bishop says is possible even 6 hours after someone dies – in order to have John show her who he saw. And it works. Olivia sees John in the surreal dream world, and then, the man he was chasing.

Back at the “office”, Olivia prepares a composite of the man’s face and it turns out to be the man on the plane, Morgan Steig – and surprise! – he also has a twin, Richard Steig, whose last employer was Massive Dynamic.

Olivia pays a visit to Massive Dynamic and meets the firm's Chief Operating Officer, Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). Nina gives Olivia a look at her metal prosthetic arm, which she attributes to William Bell. She cooperates with Olivia and gives her the company's file on Richard Steig. She also warns Olivia about fringe science.

Olivia and the FBI swarm Steig's apartment and while Walter and Peter wait in a car. Steig escapes out back (why didn’t the FBI prepare for this?) and Peter also sees him, and helps chace and apprehend Steig. Back at the FBI, Olivia interrogates Steig, and has no luck. But Peter manages to walk right in to the interrogation room and uses force to get the list of chemicals John was exposed to in the blast.

While back in the lab, Walter creates the mixture to help reverse John’s condition. While Olivia waits, Broyles approaches her and makes nice. He also asks her to work for him, on a special task force investigating "The Pattern," which is a group of events involving unexplained phenomena and rapid scientific progress, as if someone was using the world as their lab.

John is recovering nicely, and Olivia visits with Steig, also in the same hospital as John. Steig tells her there is a mole in the FBI, and that someone from her office contacted him to buy the contagion. He gives Olivia information on where he has the proof stashed, she digs it up, and is shocked to hear on the audio tape that the man who contacted Steig is none other than her man, John Scott.

John has recovered enough to get out of bed, and he has no problem getting access to Steig, and he murders him, smothering him with a pillow. Olivia, who has called for help, makes it to the hospital to see John fleeing, and follows him in a high-speed chase. John wrecks his car, though, and his killed, and dies in Olivia’s arms before he can give her information about his employer.

Olivia returns to Harvard and sees Peter and Walter leaving to take Walter back to the psychiatric hospital. She convinces them to stay and help her in her effort to get to the bottom of “The Pattern.” Peter agrees.

But, back at Massive Dynamic, Nina Sharp watches as John Scott's body is wheeled in on a gurney. She asks how long John has been dead – it’s been five hours. Nina instructed that they “question him,” presumably with the same technique used by Walter Bishop.

For a series premier, I think the episode did a great job in setting the stage for what is to come for the remainder of the season. But the show seemed to be very familiar, seemingly lifting the feel of shows like the X-Files, Alias, CSI, Sarah Connor Chronicles, etc. What made it even more familiar was that the background music made me feel like I was watching either Lost or Alias, or both. It had the time compression issues that used to bug me about Alias, where people seemed to jet around from one place to another in no time at all, or when things can seem to happen in hours when it should take days (like the lab set up). There were also some flaws in the story, for example, they originally kept John in a coma, in the cold to slow down is deterioration and to protect his fragile state, yet they seemed to get him moved to a lab which didn’t seem to have the ability to keep him cold. Frankly, I would have though the move alone would have killed him. And of course, there are the dumb security lapses. For example: Steig can get easily murdered in the hospital; Peter can simply waltz in and interrogate a suspect; or when the FBI raids an apartment and they just slip out the back door.

And also how trite is the plot device where the lover also has a dark side or a deep secret? I could see that one coming a mile away. The “twin” scenario also is overused. It seems like the sci-fi world must be loaded with twins and doppelgangers. And why is that every big corporation always have to seem like they are evil?

Somewhat annoying were the massive titles that appeared when the location changed. I found them distracting. But I understand that they probably were looking for something different than the plain old scene changes.

Still, despite the hard to believe science, this series has the ability to touch on many areas of the unexplained. Yes, it’s not a new theme for a show as the X-Files did it already. But with all the advances in science since the X-Files, and let’s not forget all the new filming techniques using computer animation, and with HD, it may be visually better.

Since this series seems to have lifted so many themes and styles from other shows, its success may be based on the strength of the cast. So far, the star, Anna Torv, seems to work well, and John Noble as Dr. Bishop is perfectly cast. I can even buy Lance Reddick as Broyles, who seems to be the equivalent to the equally bald Asst. Director Skinner of the X-Files. But Joshua Jackson as Peter left me a little cold, and I didn’t see a spark between Peter and Olivia. I am sure they are going for a spark, and maybe it will come later. But without chemistry between what may be the two key players, the show may have trouble.

Despite my criticisms, I still plan on watching. This could be on the fringe of something big.

Fringe Trailer

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