The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series
Edited by Tanya R. Cochran,
Sherry Ginn and Paul Zinder
McFarland, 2014. 272pp.
Fringe (2008-2013), co-created by J.J. Abrams, premiered midway through the run of another Abrams-created show, the highly successful pop phenomenon Lost (2004-2010). Like its predecessor Fringe utilizes – in a distinctly postmodern fashion – heterogeneous generic narratives, including detective fiction, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and romance. Moreover, both shows involve, as Stan Hunter Kranc observes in an essay included in The Multiple Worlds of Fringe, a collection of essays under review here, “achronological diegematical structures.” Unlike Lost however, which announces its intention of comprising a grand narrative from the very start, Fringe takes its cue from predecessor cult shows The X-Files (1993-2002), Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004), beginning as a largely episodic narrative, and then, following numerous accretions in myth-making, back story and major shifts in plot (including parallel universes, time travel, and timeline resets, to name the most prominent examples), becomes increasingly complex.
Fringe at first concerns Fringe Division, a top secret investigatory body within the FBI, tasked with the investigation of acts of bio- and technological terrorism. The influence of The X-Files is explicit here, though, where the central mystery of that earlier show was the paranormal, Fringe is largely concerned human experimentation and body horror. As Kranc observes: “Fringe is the product of a ‘post-paranormal world,’ where pop culture’s saturation with the boogeymen of bygone years has rendered the supernatural banal in comparison to the perceived threat of technological advances and terrorism.”
After an FBI agent becomes infected with a mysterious life threatening ailment, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), must enlist the aid of Walter Bishop (John Noble), a brilliant “mad” scientist from Harvard, renowned for his unconventional experiments. Walter, however, has been confined to a mental institution for nearly a decade, the result of the accidental death of his lab assistant and his subsequent inability to stand trial. Only a family member, his equally brilliant estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), can arrange to have him released. Peter, who has not spoken to his father in over a decade, reluctantly agrees to his release, yet soon finds himself inadvertently taking on the role of both his protector and partner. After successfully confronting the threat, the FBI recruits the father-son team, and they join the ranks of Fringe Division.
Initially, the myth making element is introduced by a series of inexplicable events referred to by Fringe Division as “the Pattern,” a troubling number of scientific and techno-terrorist crimes believed to have resulted from some unknown malicious organization. These events appear to involve Massive Dynamic, a huge corporate entity engaged in cutting edge science and technologies, and owned by brilliant scientist William Bell (Leonard Nimoy). A former research partner of Walter’s (and the primary reason for Walter’s enlistment by the FBI), Bell has mysteriously disappeared sometime before the Pattern’s onset.
At the same time, numerous cyborgian shape shifters from a parallel universe begin appearing, and their intent seems to involve accelerating the demise of the primary world in order to save theirs from total destruction. The decay of their world, it turns out, was precipitated by a grieving Walter Bishop’s having crossed universes to save the alternate version of his son Peter, who suffers from the same illness that took the life of Walter’s son. It is later revealed that Walter and William Bell subsequently engaged in experiments on extremely gifted children, utilizing a drug called cortexiphan, in order to train them as an army intended to someday do battle against these invaders from the parallel universe, whom Walter believes
mean to exact revenge for his transgressions.
Amazingly, among Walter’s students is a young Olivia – she somehow repressed these traumatic childhood memories as a partial result of her simultaneous abuse at the hands of her stepfather, just as Peter repressed his due to similar trauma – whose power is the startling ability to cross realities with comparative ease. Troubled by the moral and ethical implications of these experiments, and the immense guilt of having stolen Peter from his family – as well as the emotional distress this has caused Peter – Walter asks Bell to remove certain parts of his brain. Bell, it turns out, has crossed over to the alternate universe in part to steal technological innovations (hence the success of Massive Dynamic), but also, he contends, to defend his world from the inside.
Eventually, Walter from the alternate universe, ironically that world’s US Secretary of Defense and therefore its main defender, with the assistance of the alt-Fringe Division (there depicted, à la Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” as a military operation, complete with fatigues), attempts to return Peter to his original universe precipitating Olivia’s crossing over to take Peter back. All of this cross-crossing of universes has the effect of accelerating the ongoing destruction of both worlds.
When a mysterious machine is discovered, apparently buried by an ancient civilization – the “First People” – which has something to do with Peter, Peter decides to utilize this device as a last ditch attempt to stop the end of the world. The machine has the unanticipated effect of erasing Peter from existence, thereby saving both worlds but also “resetting the timeline,” in effect a series reboot (not unlike the profoundly disappointing final season of Lost but here used to more convincing, if not altogether satisfying end), wherein all the events of the first three seasons are essentially erased. Peter eventually reappears and, notably, it is his character that remains the only constant throughout the series; he has no alternate, either in the parallel universe (his died, obviously) or in the reset timeline. Eventually, the memory of the original timeline is restored, creating yet another version of characters.
As convoluted as above summary may seem, it doesn’t include the majority of events from seasons four and five, which also involve two further “save the world” story lines, of which the truncated fifth, involving the mysterious time-traveling entities the Observers, hinted at throughout the first four seasons, is the more coherent and effective.
Television this risk-taking and generically unstable, if not outright experimental, certainly demands a wide variety of critical responses, and from this standpoint the essays included in The Multiple Worlds of Fringe are something of a mixed bag. The editors acknowledge that, from the outset, any narrative as “multifaceted” as Fringe demands – and is rewarded by – a least strict editorial focus as possible, in order to allow for a reading as multi-faceted as the material under consideration. It’s a wise decision.
Multiple Worlds is divided into four decidedly non-specific sections and, admittedly, this somewhat arbitrary division is not the book’s strength. Certain essays – in particular Rhonda Wilcox’s “Women with the Agency,” a feminist cross-reading of Fringe, Bones (2005- ) and The X-Files, placed between two essays on cyborg technology in a section broadly entitled “Humanity” (which, the editors helpfully remind us, is the show’s “chief subject of investigation”), is decidedly out of place, if not shoehorned in, probably the result of the editors’ inability to find it a more appropriate section. Similarly, Heather Porter’s essay ” ‘You’re a Smart Boy’…”, a study of Walter’s relationship with Peter, the only relationship whose substance transcends both universes, is included in the section entitled “Duality,” but really has little to do with dualism; rather, the essay is more concerned with questions of identity, a major consideration of the first section.
Truthfully, questions concerning technology versus biology – as evidenced in the oft-discussed tendency of the shape shifters to, much like the Smoke Monster in Lost, adopt the characteristics and emotions of their hosts – or of the differences between individuals from universe to universe, and how differing ontologies result in varying degrees of different personalities, are all essentially addressing one major theme: identity. Walter before and after his self-inflicted brain surgery, before and after the timeline reset, his desire to save the alt-Peter from death and his love for his son (and Peter for him) despite their being literally a universe apart, Olivia’s and alt-Olivia’s mutual love for Peter whatever their widely divergent personalities, the shape shifter’s occasional need for human interaction regardless of their mechanical nature and their utilization of their subjects’ personalities – all are variations on one underlying theme: Are we more than the sum of our parts? Is there some underlying is-ness that makes us who we are, despite our actions or the circumstances of our lives? Who are we? What are we? These questions provide the foundation for the show’s multiple narratives.
For example, in the fifth season, an Observer, September, rejects mechanistic biology, considered by future humans to be superior in that it lacks certain human frailties, such as emotion, in order to be a father to his child, and to feel love for him. This echoes Walter’s love for Peter, yet at the same time enacts a reversal of Walter’s initial use of technology as a means for saving Peter, thus setting in motion the world’s destruction, September casts technology aside for the same reason and, in so doing, helps to save the world.
This use/abuse of science, also a central theme of Fringe, is the subject matter of the first essay included here, Val Nolan’s “The Whole World is Their Lab: The Scientist as Villain, the Scientist as Hero.” Nolan argues – effectively I think – that the character of Walter Bishop is an inversion of the now clichéd “mad scientist,” most often portrayed as the arch-villain of any given narrative (witness numerous examples in literature, film, and television). It is Bishop’s madness that, arguably, allows him to consider more outlandish or otherwise unapparent solutions to the problems Fringe Division encounters, and to consider possibilities that others might consider foolish, impractical, or even somewhat insane. This madness, Nolan argues, is even more beneficial when it is combined with ethical responsibility and humility, criteria lacking in Walter’s earlier, pre-brain surgery, incarnation.
Paul Zinder’s “Nothing but Tech: Cyborgs and the Human Question” is a fascinating look at Fringe‘s various iterations of the marriage between technology and the flesh. Zinder reaches similar humanist conclusion as Nolan, which is to say that, while technology in and of itself can be beneficial, how we choose to utilize it decides its ultimate value to society. Specifically, Zinder considers Peter’s willingness to use cyborg technology for either altruistic or more nefarious ends. “Although the series’ summary presentation of the cyborg may be ambivalent,” concludes Zinder, “Fringe concludes by siding with the human.”
Zak Bronson also examines Fringe‘s use of cyborg technology, utilizing the perspective of transhumanism, wherein flesh and machine have already combined. Bronson argues that FRINGE acts, as the editors observe in their introduction, as a “screen upon which we can cast our questions, concerns and even fears about what the near future holds for us.” Transhumanism depends in large part upon a split between mind and body. Bronson argues that the mind cannot exist apart from its embodiment; that the body is central to our identity, and thus the very foundations of transhumanism are flawed. As a result, Bronson as with Zinder argues in favor of humanism. For Bronson, Fringe “suggests that there remains something intrinsic to human identity in addition to the mind alone. By revealing the materiality of the body, the show highlights the ethical implications that embodiment poses for transhumanism and… highlights the ethical implications of all scientific research.”
The book’s second section, “Duality,” consists of four essays, the first of which is Eleanor Sandry’s fascinating “Same … Yet Other: Interpersonal Communication Across Alternate Worlds.” Here, Sandry’s argues against author Sarah Clarke Stuart’s reading of the alt-doppelgängers as representing the prime universe’s Jungian shadow; instead, argues Sandry, the alt-characters are true selves on either side. This reading allows for an admittedly more complex analysis of identity, which, as I state above, is one of the key theses, if not the key thesis, of the show. Using Levinasian phenomenological ethics as support, Sandry sees the interactions between alternate selves – particularly Olivia and the alt-Olivia – as representations of Levinas’s “face-to-face” encounters, where the other is irreducible in its alterity. It’s a compelling argument. “From a Levinasian perspective,” writes Sandry, “while the differences between paired characters in Fringe are obscured by their close physical resemblance and the behaviors they have in common, the distance between them is nonetheless irreducible and meaningful.” Once these characters begin to recognize this irreducible autonomy, they are better able to communicate and cooperate. In the third, fourth and fifth season, this at first uneasy cooperation between worlds ensures their survival.
Not all of the essays are as strong as Sandry’s. Heather Porter’s cumbersomely titled “‘You’re a Smart Boy. But There Is Much You Don’t Know: A Quantitative Examination of Intelligence, Wisdom and Family Relationships,” is essentially a statistics paper and a highly subjective reading of moments where Walter is alternately analytical, practical, successful, and wise. I’m also not convinced by Scott Daley’s essay on myth-making in Fringe, an occasionally forced unpacking of the show’s myriad references to Greek literature, nor am I entirely sure what Porter or Daley’s essays have to do with dualism.
The final essay of this section, Sherry Ginn’s “Nature vs. Nurture: The Psychology of Twins at the Apple’s Core,” is, on the other hand, expressly about dualism, more specifically how it is that two ostensibly genetic copies, such as Olivia and alt-Olivia, can be so different, bringing into stark relief questions concerning nature vs. nurture. Utilizing current psychological studies of twins, Ginn proposes that in the worldview of Fringe‘s authors, nurture plays a more important role.
The third section of Multiple Worlds interrogates “Genre.” The first of these, Stan Hunter Kranc’s “‘You Don’t Even Need the Island to Be Weird: J.J. Abrams and the Weirding of the Small Screen,” is a comparison of narrative strategies in Fringe and its immediate precursor, Lost. Here, Kranc sees both narratives’ use of various genres, including “horror, science fiction, psychological suspense and invented mythology” as reminiscent of the “pioneering blend” of genres in Weird fiction, specifically the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Like Weird fiction, Lost and Fringe utilize the uncanny, defined by Kranc as “an experience of cognitive dissonance during which something is perceived as known and comfortable, but also unfamiliar and inexplicable.” Initially associated with the genre of ghost stories, use of the uncanny in Abrams’s shows helps to disrupt narrative, Kranc argues, by “creating a sharp contrast between what is ‘known’ and what is revealed … forc[ing] the viewer to reconcile what is familiar and known with the new, unfamiliar, and often contradictory information.” It’s a compelling argument.
Jennifer McStotts’s “Asking the Biopunk Questions: Opposition and Interrogation in Olivia Dunham and Walter Bishop” offers a comparative analysis of Fringe and James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee’s series Dark Angel (2000-02) (admittedly, my appreciation for this essay is hampered by my unfamiliarity with the latter). McStotts’s views both shows as operating within the genre of cyberpunk fiction, arguing that Fringe, in its narrative and moral ambiguity, offers a more subtle and complex critique of the “ethical issues surrounding the technologies at its core” than in more dystopian cyberpunk texts, such as Dark Skies. Though Fringe has several dystopian aspects/moments, because of the decidedly humanist perspective of its authors, the show instead prefers to pursue themes of hope and forgiveness.
Following an essay on use of film noir and musical genres in Fringe, “The Television Musical: An Alternate Universe of Storytelling” by Christopher M. Culp, the section on genre concludes with a perceptive analysis of the show’s depiction of body horror. Brownen Calvert’s essay, “‘This Means Bodies’: Body Horror and the Influence of David Cronenberg,” explores this influence, acknowledged by its creators. Calvert sees similarities in Cronenberg’s view of the body as both alien and “vulnerable,” and that, whatever its appeal as spectacle, these bodily transgressions and instabilities – be it bodily modification (as in the shape shifters, the numerous Pattern experiments, Peter’s use of the machine, or a time traveling physicist [notably played by Cronenberg actor Peter Weller; the producers also used frequent Cronenberg collaborator Carol Spier as set designer on the show’s pilot, which codifies its visual palette; the show is filmed in Canada, where nearly all of Cronenberg’s films were shot] who alters his body to become a time-traveling device) or its outright destruction – are a source of fear and “discomfort.” The horror of the organic and its transgressive character thus becomes a vehicle for upsetting the boundaries between what is hidden and what is revealed.
The final section of Multiple Worlds considers “Viewership,” “focus[ing],” the editors tell us, “on audience and the crucial role the viewer (and fan) plays in the creation and dissemination of a television series as challenging as Fringe.” Julie L. Hawk, in her “Observations on the Fringe: September’s Observation and Narrative Participation as a Template for Viewer Agency,” interprets the character of the Observer September as a stand-in for Fringe‘s audience, as he becomes “increasingly involved emotionally” in the lives of the show’s primary characters. Rejecting his obligatory role as passive observer when he acts to rescue Peter as a boy, September thus sets in motion much of the events of the show. Hawk quotes essayist Casey McCormick: the Observers “are always on the fringes of Fringe in Seasons 1-4, but by making them center stage in Season 5…, the show makes a gesture towards the fandom,” for whom the Observers were a previously mysterious agency.
Victor Hérnandez-Santaolalla and Javier Lozano Delmar’s “Teasing the Audience: Construction of Meaning Through the Opening Title Sequence” looks at the show’s use of the title sequence and various glyphs interspersed throughout the show’s commercial breaks as a means of providing additional context and meaning. The volume concludes with Tanya Cochran’s “Paratextual Meditation: Fox, Fandom and Death-Slot Fridays,” which studies how certain “paratextual artifacts” as trailers and interviews resulted from Fox’s changing the show’s scheduling.
For a compelling, generically unstable television narrative that prided itself on being both thought-provoking and transgressive, it’s unfortunate that the essays in this book do not always follow suit. Still, there is enough subtle and insightful analysis here to make The Multiple Worlds of Fringe a valuable work of television criticism, certainly worth the attention of media scholars and the show’s fans alike.
And here’s perhaps the best scene/moment in the series, admitting that, with a show as mythologically rich as is Fringe, context is everything: