Because it’s cool! (A Fringe Retrospective)

fringe olivia dunham


I first came to Fringe midway through the second season, with the description that it was “like the X-Files, but updated“. It’s a description that I have adopted myself, so you can guess from that how accurate it was. I have, since then, been well and truly hooked.

In truth, it’s rather different to the X-Files. Rather than gloomy conspiracy theories, it favours zany almost-science. But both  have the same penchant for real, people-centric science-fiction.

And now it’s over.

But what an ending. Yes, I watched the finale, the two-parter “Liberty”/”An Enemy of Fate” yesterday, and loved it. I don’t know what others thought, quite possibly they hated it — I have form for that; despite the fan backlash, I thought that the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica fitted excellently — but I did not.

It was a tall order really. After four seasons of monster-of-the-week episodes loosely tied together into a story arc revolving around an alternate universe, the writers catapulted the previously background Observers into the fore and completely changed the format for the final spin of the wheel.

With Peter, Olivia, Walter and Astrid (this is not, and nor was it ever a three-character show) pitted against an occupying army of emotionless humans from the future, I was a bit sceptical at the sinking into scavenger-hunt plotlines, but I maintain that the end of the first episode of season five, “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11“, had every bit of emotional beauty which Fringe has built itself on.

The reason that the final episode(s) worked for me, was that it drew on everything which had come before. The scenes of Peter and Olivia storming the Observer building using a host of the monsters-of-the-week of previous seasons was spectacular. And the father-son dynamic with Peter and Walter, replicated with September and Michael, has simmered beneath the surface the whole way through before breaking into the fore. Not unlike the Observers.

It also ended. It didn’t pad out and out, closing off loose threads one at a time. Staggered endings afflicted Lord of the Rings, and, yes, Battlestar Galactica. In that, they muted the impact of the finish, complicated things. With Fringe, the writers managed to give a clean, neat, and satisfying finish.

Granted, I think if I were writing it, I would have ended with a shot of a bald, Observer-ed Walter, watching Peter, Olivia and Etta in the park, placing a fedora on his head and walking away into nothing. But I’m honestly not sure that would be any better.

The overriding feature which has kept me watching Fringe through five seasons, is its sense of fun. It has mixed serious drama with comedy so effectively as to make a potently addictive show. Walter is in turns sympathetic, tragic and hilarious, and the slick presentation of the series has been a real asset. It was something which the finale made a great nod to, in this scene:

Yes, Walter. It was cool. And now that it’s over, I’m really not sure what is going to fill the gap.

Save Our Sci-Fi

If the future of humanity does begin with a choice, I fear SyFy have made the wrong one.

So, earlier this week BSG spin-off series Caprica was cancelled. I’m not going to spend this blog entry moaning specifically about that, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m quite behind on the series, only a few episodes in, and thus haven’t decided whether it will meet it’s potential (but rest assured, the potential is there). Secondly, there are plenty of other people across the interwebs doing just that.

No, my complaint here is a more general trend indicated in the cancellation; that of good sci-fi television being cut short without being given a real chance. Or worse, being positively brilliant. Firefly is the obvious example, but far from the only instance.

I remember when I was growing up, the TV schedules were full of science-fiction. It wasn’t all good, but it was certainly there. The Star Trek Franchise was working its way through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager (not to mention several films- some of them even good). The X-Files was giving us conspiracy theories and aliens being investigated by an FBI duo with a taste for sunflower seeds and interesting pronunciation of the English language. Babylon 5 was doing something, though quite what I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never actually watched an episode. Stargate SG-1 was taking us to distant worlds through a bowl of jelly, with MacGyver as a tour guide.

And there were myriads of smaller, lesser-known sci-fi shows floating around. Five seasons of Andromeda, with Kevin Sorbo whizzing about as Hercules in space, for Christ’s sake. And five seasons of pseudo-philosophical nonsense with Earth Final Conflict (both, incidentally, mining the last vestiges of the late Gene Roddenberry’s imagination). If even these more obscure things managed to prosper, hopefully it will give you a hint of how strong the genre used to do.

Nowadays, they seem to struggle. Aside from the utter bollocks of Firefly’s cancellation (midway through one of the best first seasons I’ve ever seen from a TV series, of any genre), there are a host of similar cancellations littering the path. The demise of the mutated Stargate SG-1 and misguided spin-off Stargate Atlantis probably won’t be much mourned, but back in the 2003 outstanding Australian offering Farscape was given the chop too. Since then Dollhouse (Joss Whedon’s other sci-fi project) has been given its marching orders, lesser-known but still praise-worthy Denying Gravity was denied a second season, as was Flashforward (not a patch on the book, but still better than Lost by a wide margin). And that’s to say nothing of the countless great ideas which have undoubtedly been turned down.

What I think this amounts to, in my opinion, is a shift in the perception of sci-fi. It just doesn’t seem to be cool any more. The only science-fiction series that I can think of to have run its full course rather than being prematurely cancelled is Caprica‘s parent show, Ronald D. Moore’s sterling remake of Battlestar Galactica.

When you factor in the Sci-Fi channel’s bizzare and much-documented name change to SyFy, I think we have to accept that TV studios are not keen on the genre any more. The flagship genre representatives at the moment are X-Files lookalike Fringe (which is fantastic, and if they go anywhere near it with an axe I’m going to have to resort to violence), bold reinvention of the original franchise Stargate Universe, and the BBC’s reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise (which may be facing difficulties of a different sort, before too long). Of course, you have the V remake, but I think the less said about that diluted cat piss the better.

Is there a deeper root to this downturn? Are people not dreaming of the future any more? Do we not look up at the stars and dream of what could be out there? If you look at real world events, such as Obama’s attitude towards NASA, you might think so. I don’t know the answer to that one, but my favourite television genre seems to be under siege at the moment.

Hollywood has never gotten sci-fi. They’ve made token efforts, and sometimes done fairly well, but the extended possibilities of a TV series, of a long story arc, has always seemed the natural home of video science-fiction to me. If it’s going to be allowed to vanish from our screens, I fear not only for the genre, but for humanity’s approach to the future. Science-fiction is, to me at least, imagination incarnate. It is the ultimate “what if?”. And I think we really do need that.

Maybe you disagree, but all I’m really saying here is give sci-fi a chance.