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Two worlds, one great TV show

Posted by Annie on
October 8th, 2010

By Alex Strachan, Postmedia News

“I’ve seen strange,” Peter Bishop, Joshua Jackson’s character in Fringe, said in the second-season finale, Over There. “This is something else.”

On its glossy, made-in-Vancouver surface, Fringe is another of those TV science-fiction serials that poses a larger-than-life mystery, then drops hints along the road to revelation and final redemption.

In the three seasons Fringe has been telling its twin stories of alternating, mirror worlds, it has evolved into something more than a sci-fi serial drama, though. At its heart lies a human story about loss and the tragic consequences of well-intended, heartfelt decisions, as reflected in its relationship between a haunted, science-obsessed father, played by John Noble, and his estranged son, played by Jackson.

The parallel stories linking two worlds — “over there” and “over here” in Fringe-speak — have captured the imaginations and moved the hearts of a loyal core of some 10 million followers in the U.S. and Canada and around the world, from Norway, Finland, Sweden, Ireland and the U.K. to Italy, Germany, Portugal, South Africa — and Noble and fellow Fringe actor Anna Torv’s home country of Australia.

Fringe’s episodes to date have never cracked the Top 20 in the ratings. It has never received the critical acclaim or award attention that Lost, that other time-bending creation of Fringe co-creator J.J. Abrams, did before it. And yet there is something strangely alluring and compelling about Fringe’s ode to loss and human redemption in the face of personal tragedy.

On the surface, most of Fringe’s weekly mysteries deal with a parallel universe, but it’s the collision of psychological worlds that drives its emotional core. Torv’s X-Files-like character of Olivia Dunham — like Dana Scully before her, Dunham is an FBI special agent assigned to investigate a sudden increase in incidents of unexplained phenomena — has been forced to confront her other self, a mirror opposite who is impulsive and hotheaded, where she is closed-in and aloof. Noble’s character, Walter Bishop, is a brilliant but haunted government scientist who conducted dangerous, potentially life-changing, experiments on unsuspecting children, then watched them grow up to become successful but badly damaged adults in their chosen fields.

“Know that we had noble goals,” he told several survivors in last season’s finale, possibly more to assuage his own conscience than to calm theirs.

“We believed that our world needed guardians, protectors, that you children would be those protectors.”

In a haunting, series-changing episode from Fringe’s second year, viewers learned that Bishop’s son, Peter, died in infancy.

Bishop crossed over to the other world to kidnap that’s world’s version of Peter, to raise him as his own, without telling the boy where he came from.

“My son is dying,” he said simply.

“I will not allow that to happen again.”

Now, his terrible secret is out and the two parallel worlds are in collision, literally — through a tear in the law of physics — and figuratively, on the map of the human heart. It was the first hole, the first crack in the pattern of cracks in the places between worlds, a heartbroken Bishop later confessed, “and it’s my fault.”

Beyond the car chases, the bombings, the kidnappings, the random, and not so random shootings and the white light in a box that kills at a glance, Fringe’s most singular achievement is that it has managed to quietly craft a nuanced, carefully constructed morality play about a father and his estranged son — and a young woman desperate for children of her own, who is suddenly questioning her own place in the universe.

When Bishop said, in a late-season episode from Fringe’s second year, “I don’t know who I am any more,” it was a watershed moment for someone who had always lived life, as most young men do, on the fly and in the moment.

As knotty and hard to follow as Fringe’s complex core mysteries can be at times, that emotional subtext — of respect, love, devotion and the human need for acceptance — makes Fringe one of television’s most enduring and compelling dramas.