Fringe Thinking:
Magical Mystery Tour

I'm afraid that I don't have many kind words to say about...

The episode was a letdown, overall — not in spectacularly bad ways that prompt their own kind of commentary; it was just sort-of meh. I'm not sure when (if ever) Fringe last left me feeling that way before. Has it frustrated me? Yes. Has it grossed me out? Sure. Has it turned in a lackluster installment that felt like the script needed at least one more pass? Not that I recall.

Which is a particular shame given that, as my Beatles subtitle of the day reflects, "The Recordist" kicks off what appears to be the impetus for at least a good early-to-middle chunk of this final, 13-episode season of Fringe.

Our furtive, fugitive, future-transplanted Fringe Division team of Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop, and Olivia Dunham — all recently recovered from amber storage in the year 2036 but still looking like they did in 2015 — plus Peter & Olivia's daughter Etta, now grown and herself a member of Fringe Division officially loyal to the world-conquering Observers-turned-Invaders, have traveled to northern Pennsylvania to search for one of the components that Walter needs to build a device that will save the planet from enslavement. (Whew.) Their partner Astrid Farnsworth has remained in Walter's old Harvard lab to keep decoding the videotape that Walter made in 2015 but of which he now has no recollection.

The quartet stumbles upon a cloistered clan of historians, people who've grown bark on their skins as a severe reaction to what turns out to be a substance present in a nearby mine, long hermited from the Invader-run society at large and dedicated to documenting what the world was/is like no matter how the Invaders might try, as the victors, to rewrite the books. I was struck early on by two things: (1) If I were not using Beatles songs to subtitle these Fringe posts and instead merely relying on general references as usual, I'd surely have gone with "Into the Woods" for this one. (2) This was totally a Star Trek episode, with the road-tripping, once-and-future Fringe Division four swapped in for the Enterprise away team — and reclusive, disfigured inhabitants of upstate-PA forestry swapped in for sheltered citizens of an outlying Federation colony — and noble sacrifice on the part of a widowed parent required to help our heroes save the planet swapped in for... well, that part is just flat-out Star Trek.

In an exchange more Lost than Star Trek or Fringe, but the kind that science fiction and indeed all drama is prone to clumsily display on occasion, Walter says to Edwin Massey — a, if not the, strangely preppy leader of the dryad people with insane underground technology — "You seem to know me, Edwin. Have we met here before?" and Edwin replies, "No. At least not in the way that you think." The only reason for such a cryptic response is to keep us at home guessing, simultaneously hinting strongly that there is indeed something to guess, but instead of time travel or a visit from Walternate the answer is merely that Edwin, et al. have read about the Fringe Division team. So the more normal thing for Edwin to say would have been "No. I've read about you, though. Come with me." Import and intrigue must be suggested, however, even if they will be dispelled in minutes. (Time travel can't be ruled out entirely, of course. Maybe Walter hasn't been there before, but we never did find out who of the mystery man who died in the shaft decades ago was in any meaningful way, and the fact that we never saw his face, while only getting his first name, Donald, could well signify that he'll figure into things again in a manner that isn't ready to be revealed yet.)

Some of the voiceover dialogue spoken during scene transitions felt a bit square and overly expository, almost as if — or maybe exactly as if — it were added in post to help stitch things together. The conflict between Peter and Olivia continued to feel forced, too, although I must say that the end of their conversation back at the SUV worked perfectly — Anna Torv continues to amaze me with how textured her deadpan-surface line readings come across; moreover, if the wedge that we're told Etta's disappearance drove between them is allowed to be wrapped up by that scene, I'll happily call it a draw and move on.

I won't excuse the show for not having a single one of the revived characters, most especially her parents, quiz Etta by now on what happened to her in 2015, how she was raised, what led to her joining Fringe Division, how she can get away with being in Fringe Division as the child/grandchild of infamous anti-Observer freedom fighters, and what information she might have about the Invaders that could yet help them win out (even details that she might not think important). Olivia and Peter can't not be burning to find out. Walter must have blurted out something inappropriately probing. Astrid has to be naturally curious as both an empathetic person and an FBI agent.

There were things that I liked about the episode, so I'll wrap up with those.

We had it made fairly clear that the Observers, as we viewers came to know them in seasons past through the interaction of the one called September with our heroes, are generally referred to as the Invaders now. That only makes sense, given that invasion and world domination are the contexts in which the general populace places them.

I loved Walter taking a bong hit in 2015 with his back to the screen as we watched the video being watched in the lab. His delight at urination and passing gas aren't as cute to me as the showrunners seem to think they should be, but I've usually enjoyed his childlike glee at the thought of getting high, dropping LSD, and/or drinking a strawberry milkshake despite not sharing any of those habits myself. John Noble has such a way with delivering Walter's lines that something like this episode's testy "Why the hell would I want rocks?" is way funnier than it has any right to be.

The little grace note of Edwin's son making his own Fringe Division comic books was also a fun touch, as was Peter's remark, "Well, kid" — Joshua Jackon always sounds as if he's speaking dialogue from a 70-year-old movie, but he wears it surprisingly well — "You're my hero. You drew me a nice, strong jaw line."

Unlike the first two episodes of the season, 5.03 didn't open with a dream flashback to the day Etta went missing. I didn't like or dislike this fact, actually; I merely found it interesting since that seemed to be potential theme or motif. I did enjoy the brief, hazily presented recall of the dinner at Donovan's — as well as, for the bittersweet memories it brought of talking Lost, Peter's line "Do you remember when we couldn't find her that day you drew a plan on a napkin?" (You have to have been a participant in the Lost analyses over at Nikki Stafford's blog or possess impressive recall of one of my own "Lost in Thought" posts to know what I mean.)

Fringe is preempted next Friday night by Fox's coverage of postseason baseball if an NLCS Game 5 is necessary and by The X Factor if not. I hope to see you back here in a fortnight to discuss what I hope just as much is a better episode.

This episode's glyphs spell out the word "anger".

Previously in 'Fringe Thinking': Mother (Episode 5.02)
Next in 'Fringe Thinking': Happiness Is a Warm Gun (Episode 5.04)

1 comment:

  1. Well, I kinda liked this episode because it was a Star Trek episode, but you're right that it felt a little off. I just look at this season as lagniappe, a little more time to spend with these great characters as a reward to the fans, that doesn't necessarily have to affect or even quite live up to the series as we knew it. Obviously, I don't want it to suck, either, and I would love to have previous motifs, characters, and plot points come roaring back in some kind of grand finale; we shall see.