Saturday 2 August 2014

Fringe - Season 3

Contains spoilers and complicated plot details.

Though the first two seasons of Fringe, I have said that the show is far more interesting when the episodes focus on part of a series-long plot arc than when it is merely weirdness-of-the-week. By season three, the weird-of-the-week format has almost gone. Yes, the Fringe teams in both universes have their strange events to investigate, but these are secondary to the main plot which is getting bigger and stranger with every episode. For one thing, the series has expanded to focus on two universes, and two versions of the cast. And the two Olivias are in the wrong worlds. "Our" Olivia is trapped in the universe with zeppelins, while the "other" Olivia has taken her place in "our" world - and in Peter's affections. Meanwhile, the sinister alternative Walter Bishop duplicate - "Walternate" - has tampered with "our" Olivia's mind so that she soon comes to believe that she is the other Olivia in the other world. Ah, my favourite kind of mind-trickery: making a person question their own identity and sanity!*

Walternate's purpose for putting other-Olivia into our world is to send her to find the pieces of a machine glimpsed at the end of season 2, a creepy-looking machine buried in pieces before the dawn of time, apparently prophesied by a pre-human civilisation to destroy one of the worlds, and whose fate is bound up with Peter Bishop's (and later, it emerges, with Olivia's.) The actions of Walter, 25 years ago, in crossing from one universe to the other and bringing back Peter, set in motion all the weird-science catastrophes that threaten the other universe's existence, and Walternate believes that only destroying our world can restore the balance. Meanwhile, our universe, too, is starting not to make sense. When I started watching Fringe I was not entirely convinced by the pseudo-science at the heart of the "pattern" (which, come to think of it, is a word that hasn't been used for a while.) By now, I've kind of got used to it, suspending my disbelief and just going along with it. But in the second half of season 3, even Fringe pseudo-science can't explain why the two heaviest metals in the world are making people able to fly. The reason is: the universe is broken. Science doesn't work any more. Anything goes. I wasn't sure if that was appalling laziness or brilliance, but it worked for me.

There is some interesting character exploration for the two Walters in this season - though I don't really see them as separate characters so much as separate possibilities for the character's development. "Walternate" is a sinister, ruthless character, and yet he has moral lines which he will not cross, morals not shared by "our" Walter, the lovable, bumbling eccentric, at least not in his past. "Our" Walter amuses and evokes pathos, so perhaps we forget for a while that he and William Bell have committed some pretty horrific acts in the name of science. The Walters do not sit comfortably in a pigeonhole of good or evil. Perhaps that is why Walter Bishop is such a brilliant character. Fringe doesn't have simple good guys and bad guys. I spent the first two seasons trying to decide what to make of William Bell and am still not sure. He seemed to be behind so much of the bad stuff, but then he helped Olivia, Walter and Peter in the season 2 finale, and sacrificed his life. Or did he? This is Fringe, after all, and Bell had taken some steps towards achieving immortality, which come about in one of the weirdest and most unsettling ways imaginable. Not that he spent some episodes possessing Olivia - that is pretty much part of a day's work for this show. But actress Anna Torv's impersonations of Leonard Nimoy had me wondering if there was some dark magic at work off-camera as well as on it. The voice, the manner, the eyebrows - I found myself forgetting that I was watching a young actress and just accepted that I was watching a charming but creepy mad scientist of about eighty, who happened to look exactly like Agent Dunham.

As if that's not weird enough, this is followed by Walter, Peter and Bell taking LSD in order to rescue Olivia's consciousness, which has lain dormant since Bell took over her body. The episode switches to an animation, and the characters are aware of the change in genre. Perhaps becoming a cartoon is a side-effect of drugs, or maybe just when taken in the name of science. I'm not an expert on these matters. But ultimately, Bell's plans for immortality don't seem to work as they fail to upload him onto a computer. (I don't think he would have liked being a computer anyway.) Though this immortality storyline was most entertaining, ultimately it seemed to be a bit of a shaggy-dog story that led nowhere. But there are two more seasons to go. Of course I can't say for sure at this point, but Fringe seems to be tightly-plotted enough not to have straggling story threads.

The grand finale comes as the hole in "our" universe starts to get out of control, and the doomsday machine apparently switches itself on. Peter makes an attempt to switch it off... and finds himself in a grim future in which "our" universe has destroyed the other, and is now slowly destroying itself. I was very much reminded of the Epitaph episodes of Dollhouse, which I watched last year.  What is this machine? I wondered. Was it a time machine - and was this future set in stone? Has Peter skipped fifteen years along time as a straight line - a one-way journey? Or is it just one possible future, a journey through the "big ball of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey... stuff?" My money was on the latter, even before Walternate (a survivor from the other universe) killed Olivia right out of the blue. Surely not. 

Fringe is a series that tends to answer one question but ask three more, but the season 3 finale would have made a pretty satisfying conclusion, if the show hadn't been renewed for fourth and fifth seasons. Yes, this was a vision of the future, of sorts: Peter didn't physically travel in time, but (to cut a long story short) was contacted across time by future-Walter and given the information he needed to change the worlds' fate. If you think of time as the aforementioned wibbly-wobbly ball, all existing at once, it almost makes sense. Way back in season one, the season's Big Bad mentioned, offhand, that not only could he teleport through space, but he could travel in time. Now, Walter built the machine in the future, buried it in the prehistoric past and assembled it in the present, in order to speak to Peter and bridge the gap between the universes.

Unfortunately, this creates a time-paradox, and if you know your Doctor Who, the universe doesn't like time paradoxes and does what it must to clean up after them. And as Peter was the centre of this paradox - whoops! Not only does he fizzle out of existence, but he ceases to have ever existed at all.

And on that note, season three ends...

Best Episodes:

10. The Firefly: In which Walter befriends one of his favourite musicians - and discovers another tragic consequence of bringing Peter to this world 25 years ago.
14. 6B: In which the strange activity in an apartment building comes from the flat of a grieving widow.
15. Subject 13: Another flashback episode (with its wonderful '80s credits sequence) dealing with what happened to Peter and Olivia as children.
16. Os: in which it emerges that Walter broke science.
17. Stowaway: I refuse to believe dark magic was not involved in Anna Torv's William Bell.
19. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: In which the cast take LSD and become bad cartoons.
20. 6:02 AM EST: In which the world really starts to fall to pieces. More than usual, I mean.
21. The Last Sam Weiss: In which the Fringe team have a race against time to save the world. As you do.
22. The Day We Died: Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Complicated but satisfying season finale - but what a cliffhanger!

*As a fictional device!

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