My summer Fringe rewatch project begins, logically, with the pilot episode.

Pilot episodes are tricky affairs. They have to set the mood for the series, deliver a lot of exposition, and get viewers hooked on the show. Let’s zero in on that first item: setting the mood.

Fringe’s pilot episode opens with a passenger, Richard Steig, shaking and sweating on a plane flying through a turbulent electrical storm. The man sitting next to him offers him a piece of gum to calm his nerves, but he refuses. Instead, he makes a dash for the bathroom, and when a flight attendant warns him that he should be sitting in his seat, he turns around to reveal that his face has begun to rot. Within seconds, the other passengers’ faces succumb to the same affliction, and soon, everyone on board is screaming and dying of this fast-acting, toxin-borne disease. Pretty macabre, no? The jagged camera angles and the flashing lights make the scene look like something out of a horror movie.1

That’s a great way to set the stage. But despite its two-hour running time, Fringe’s pilot episode never tells us one crucial bit of information: we never find out why the culprit, Richard’s twin brother Morgan, unleashed the lethal toxin on the plane. We’re given a vague explanation of it being an instance of “terrorism,” which in post-9/11 America has come to be synonymous with attacking the Western way of life. That may very well be the goal of Islamic fundamentalism, but the mechanism by which terrorists attempt to achieve that goal is by engendering fear in the populace, by putting the “terror” is “terrorism.” In that respect, what Morgan Steig does is quite similar. He aims to cause alarm, to bring about panic. That we leave the pilot episode knowing little more about the perpetrator’s motivations than we did at the start is no plot hole or accident of writing. It’s a deliberate choice, intended to convey a mood of fear to the audience. Agent Olivia Dunham and her allies – Agent Charlie Francis, Agent Astrid Farnsworth, Agent Philip Broyles, Doctor Walter Bishop, and Peter Bishop – operate in a dangerous world not necessarily governed by rules or logic. In an instant, allies, like Olivia’s lover Agent John Scott, can be revealed to be traitors. Secrets, such as the Pattern, are held by multinational corporations like Massive Dynamics.2 Terrorists hold the keys to a vast array of supernatural tools of terror, weapons of unimaginable power made possible by fringe science.

The weird – and at times, scary – world of fringe science is Dr. Walter Bishop’s bailiwick. The eccentric researcher once worked on top-secret projects for the U.S. government along with Massive Dynamics founder William Bell. Later, after an experiment gone awry that killed a lab assistant, he was sent to a mental institution for 17 years. We’re introduced to him as a broken man, bearded3 and disheveled, alone in his room at the psychiatric facility. But once he’s back in his old lab, he springs to life, asking for a host of complex machinery and of all things, a cow, so that he can pursue his scientific endeavours. Only in the strange and dangerous world of Fringe would one turn to a stereotypical mad scientist for help in saving an agent’s life and catching a terrorist. Walter’s shared dream state technique allows Olivia to enter the comatose Agent Scott’s mind and uncover the terrorist’s identity. He also discovers an antidote to the toxin, saving the life of Agent Scott, who was exposed to a variant of it. Thus, Walter embodies both the good and bad of science, i.e. its ability to save lives, but also to cause great harm when things go wrong.

That dichotomy is an ever-present idea throughout the series. Terrorists and criminals have access to the tools of science, thus allowing them to cause much damage. But those same tools can be used to catch them and bring them to justice. In a world that is in a constant state of fear and danger (the mood of which is beautifully emphasized by Michael Giacchino’s score), where the standard rules of science no longer apply, Olivia and her FBI colleagues are going to need any help that they can get. And if that help must come from an eccentric genius with a predilection for Chinese takeout and SpongeBob Squarepants cartoons, then so be it.

For more information on the Fringe rewatch project, please click here.


1 Fringe would go on to dispense with the horror movie vibe by the middle of season 2.

2 The company is referred to as “Massive Dynamic” (without the “s”) in subsequent episodes.

3 The beard looks really fake. See for yourself.

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