Fringe (pilot episode)

Created by J J Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

Starring Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo, Jasika Bicole, Blair Brown and Mark Valley

Pilot episode written by J J Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

Directed by Alex Graves

Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a Special Agent with the FBI, is called to Logan Airport in Boston, where a German passenger jet has landed on automatic pilot, seemingly with no one alive onboard. When the plane is boarded it is discovered that the crew and passengers have been killed by an airborne toxin that causes the flesh to rot and melt off the bones.

Dunham’s presence as part of the investigation team is not welcomed by Agent Broyles (Lance Reddick), a member of Homeland Security, who is put in charge of the case, and when her lover and fellow FBI agent, John Scott (Mark Valley), is exposed to the same toxins that killed the people on the plane she begins a lone race against time to find some way of saving him.

She discovers a link to a brilliant Harvard scientist, Dr Walter Bishop (John Noble), who was experimenting with “fringe” science in the 1970s. However, he is confined to a maximum-security psychiatric unit and the only way to obtain access to him is through his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), a character with a colourful past who is presently involved in semi-illegal activities in Iraq.

Dunham flies out to Baghdad and blackmails Peter Bishop into returning to Boston with her. He signs the necessary papers to have his father released from the hospital and work begins in Dr Bishop’s old laboratory at Harvard to find an antidote to the contagion. In the meantime, Dunham suspects links to a huge multi-billion-dollar organisation called Massive Dynamic.

‘Fringe’ is the latest American television series created and produced by J J Abrams, whose other television shows include ‘Alias’ and the very successful ‘Lost’. He was also the director and writer of ‘Mission: Impossible III’, the producer of ‘Cloverfield’, and the director and producer of the forthcoming ‘Star Trek’ movie. That film was written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who are the co-creators of this new show.

The series has recently premiered on the FOX network in America, which has commissioned a full 22-episode season. The pilot, which reportedly cost more than $10 million to make, attracted a little over 9.1 million viewers. Given that ‘Lost’ premiered in 2004 to more than 18.6 million viewers and maintained an average of 16.1 million viewers across the whole of the first season, this does not seem to bode well. However, ‘Lost’ is broadcast on the much bigger ABC network, and FOX does not seem to be quite as trigger-happy these days as it once was.

The pilot episode takes us up to the point from which the rest of the show will jump off. Dunham is now working for Broyles, who heads up a semi-secret unit charged with investigating “the Pattern”, a worldwide conspiracy of quasi-supernatural human experimentation. Peter Bishop becomes her partner, with his father acting as the scientific brains. Basically, it is ‘The X Files’ for the Noughties.

A show like this one does require a suspension of our disbelief. However, the pilot episode was absolute twaddle from start to finish. There has to be something believable to hang onto, some threads that hold the story down in the real world. One of the reasons why ‘The X Files’ worked so brilliantly was because it made us want to believe (pun intended). This opening episode of ‘Fringe’ was just rubbish, quite frankly.

I presume we are meant to conclude that Broyles is testing Dunham as a possible new recruit for his unit, which is why he is so aggressively antagonistic towards her and dismisses out of hand the numerous leads she uncovers. There is some rubbish spouted about her past in the military as a reason for the antipathy displayed towards her, but this is never explained in a convincing way. Dunham uncovers clues and links without any effort whatsoever, making us wonder what exactly the senior investigating team think they are up to. She seems to travel to Baghdad and back in a matter of a couple of hours – in a private executive jet. She is able to engineer the release of Dr Bishop, who is diagnosed as a dangerous psychotic who is not permitted any visitors except for immediate family, with no trouble whatsoever. Harvard has maintained his huge basement laboratory in mothballs for the whole of the 17 years of his incarceration – for no obvious reason. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the ridiculous improbabilities that allows the story to lurch from one scene to the next.

Torv, an Australian actress working in Hollywood for the first time, seems perfectly capable of filling the lead role. The decision to have her stripped down to her underwear as quickly as possible was disappointing and yet so tiresomely predictable. Joshua Jackson plays a typically smug Joshua Jackson character. At one point, Dunham expresses her irritation that Bishop insists on condescendingly calling her “sweetheart”, but her irritation was nothing compared to this viewer. I wanted to punch him. Jasika Nicole (playing Dunham’s “assistant”, Astrid Farnsworth) has a non-role in the pilot. Kirk Acevedo, who plays another FBI agent, and Dunham’s friend on the inside, reminded me of Nicholas Cage so much that nothing else got through.

The pilot is all gloss and no substance, with the use of a lot of pointless images that, at this stage, at least, serve no purpose other than to introduce quasi-meaning where there is none and no need of any. For me, the empty glossiness is a bad thing, but this is the “CSI” television age and so, perhaps, it will benefit the show as far as establishing an audience is concerned, although I cannot see it attracting a bigger audience than, say, ‘Bones’, which averages around 9 million viewers per episode. The fact that it has been renounced by the constantly ludicrous Parents Television Council will possibly work in its favour.

Having been very critical of the pilot episode, I will say that it took a turn for the better in the final 20 minutes or so. Enough to make me decide to at least watch the next episode to see if things improve as the show settles down. In theory, it is a show that I might enjoy.

Zack Whedon, the brother of Joss Whedon, wrote a comic book to go along with the series, published by WildStorm.

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