Edge of re­al­ity

En­gag­ing sci­ence fic­tion cap­tures the zeit­geist bet­ter than other gen­res, writes Graeme Blundell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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

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