Edge of reality
Engaging science fiction captures the zeitgeist better than other genres, writes Graeme Blundell
THERE seems to be a sci- fi zeitgeist lurking in the television ether, maybe something to do with a sense of a looming dystopian future of diminished resources, global warming and increasing terrorism. There’s a sense that the world is out of balance and the trippy visions of the sci- fi genre might just reveal more about social anxieties than reality group singing and dancing antics, endless police procedurals or model talent contests.
Fringe is one of the most anticipated shows this season, the latest from Lost creator J. J. Abrams, his trusty screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ( Alias ) and his Bad Robot production company. It’s a startling new slant on scientific activity at the fringes of mainstream academic discipline and those practices associated with the paranormal. The show’s opening titles flash the floating words psychokinesis, precognition, artificial intelligence, transmogrification, dark matter and nanotechnology, among other less decipherable words and phrases.
The context is set, before any dialogue is spoken, of that universe of unexplained phenomena, bizarre experiments and creepy otherworldliness usually considered to be dangerous, impractical, impossible or unethical.
Australian newcomer Anna Torv stars as FBI agent Olivia Dunham, part of the team called in when an international flight lands at Boston’s Logan Airport on a newfangled automatic pilot, full of viscous, glutinous corpses, once passengers and crew.
Stephen King must have been on board because something horrific has occurred. ‘‘ What happened was not the result of the in- flight movie,’’ says an FBI investigator.
The search for an explanation nearly kills Dunham’s partner, special agent John Scott ( good- natured Mark Valley), turning him into a just- alive, acid- scarred zombie. Olivia searches frantically for someone to help, and a miraculous scientific cure, leading her to Walter Bishop ( craggy John Noble), a genius of Einsteinian proportions. Working under special agent Phillip Broyles ( stentorian- voiced Lance Reddick), our team discovers that what happened on fatal Flight 627 has frightening resonances.
Is someone using the world as a laboratory to perform pseudo- science experiments? Have portions of the world’s population become lab rats? And have apparently random events in recent history been the result of testing on a giant scale?
I am not giving anything away here; any crime fiction devotee or sci- fi aficionado will pick the show’s mythology quickly. Then be sucked right in, as the plot ricochets away in all sorts of wonderful directions. Abrams is skilled at imagining audience responses and then maddeningly frustrating or pleasurably heightening them.
I missed early episodes of Abrams’s Lost and never got to understand why all those people were on that island. I knew that some very bad things had happened on an aeroplane in some sort of through- the- looking- glass world. But the sci- fi- for- sci- fi’s- sake drift wore me out when I occasionally beamed in.
However, Abrams has promised, in wellorchestrated interviews on sci- fi websites and fanzines, that Fringe won’t require the same total immersion Lost demanded of viewers.
‘‘ Fringe is in many ways an experiment for us. We believe it is possible to do a show that does have an overall story and an endgame, which Fringe absolutely does,’’ he says. ‘‘ But also a show that you don’t have to watch episodes one, two and three to understand episode four.’’
And in this first episode he certainly gets all his narrative pieces fitted together, act by act, precisely and economically. A good plot needs to be more than one that makes for good scenes; the parts are never greater than the whole.
Abrams faultlessly establishes an intricate, overarching plotline as well as the possibility for self- contained procedural storytelling, and maintains his structure with frenetic pacing. He blurs the distinctions between horror and investigation, crime and detection, espionage and other forms of conspiracy. The result is a taut combination and synthesis of mystery narrative
Fringe benefits: The cast of the Nine Network’s Fringe , from Lost creator J. J. Abrams with the sorts of science fiction that made The X Files and the futuristic thrillers of Ridley Scott and James Cameron so successful.
This is one of those wonderful genre overlap shows: The X Files mixed with The Outer Limits , Twilight Zone and Altered States , all of which dealt with varying degrees of conspiracy, science and the occult. Abrams even chucks in a few chases in The Bourne Identity vein. Only a producer with his straight- out TV smarts could demonstrate the flexibility of genre with almost insouciant cool: he shows how conventional forms can accommodate new meanings.
Fringe is no clever remake of The X Files, as some US critics supposed on early viewings, but genre territory ripe for continual exploitation.
And it entertainingly follows the crazy concepts of fringe science without needing to justify or explain them, just as their champions certainly are not able to do.
Pseudoscience is, after all, that world where dots never quite connect.
His characters speak nice, taut lines within their limits as characters; those limits are cleverly and narrowly conceived, heightened by moments of mordant, hard- boiled humour, sometimes appropriately grisly. The look is hi- tech glossy, the camera work sophisticated, and the special effects expensively flamboyant.
The pilot opens in darkness with a wonderful sense of the fantastic, the episode initially characterised by the tension between the explicable and the inexplicable.
The genre of FBI detective story envelops the whole thing, with its focus on the rational explanation of mysterious events and the rejection of supernatural causes.
The fascinating thing here is the way Abrams sets up the early possibility that the mysterious may prove to be inexplicable. As Raymond Chandler wrote about mystery stories: The better the writer the farther he will go with the truth, the more subtly he will disguise that which cannot be told.’’
Abrams takes us cunningly along the borderline between reality and fantasy and also explores that dialectic between self and other, the FBI characters with whom we readily identify and the horrible monster or evil demons with whom they engage. Abrams says the genesis of this show was, ‘‘ What do you want to see?’’ That is, what sort of show offers something so neat that you would genuinely want to watch it?
This is the sort of series likely to attract fanatical viewers, most of them willing to spend hours chatting online about characters, plots and the enduring mysteries behind the scenes.
As Chandler pointed out so brilliantly almost 60 years ago, the appeal and paradox of stories such as those of Abrams and his team is that while their structure will seldom, if ever, stand up under the close scrutiny of an analytical mind, it is precisely to that type of mind that they make their greatest appeal.
Fringe: Wednesday, 8.30pm, Nine