Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Box Set Blues: Fringe, Series 3

The history of geek TV is often marked with the shows that fell to an early grave due to weak opening series or episodes that showed potential they never got to fulfill. There is even a marked number of successful, popular shows that have whole season or more before they establish what they want to be and become the shows they are remembered as - so many, in fact, that I'm tempted to try and compile a list of seasons you can flat out ignore from otherwise classic television. It often leaves a void - we know how good, say Babylon 5 became, but will never know what the rapidly improving Space: Above and Beyond could have turned out like if it had managed to endure.

The reason I'm thinking about this sort of thing is because have just completed a fairly intense run-through of the third season of Fringe, I'm amazed at how far it has come from it's beginnings. Fringe has never been a poor show, but in it's first season in particular it never quite seemed to gel. It was easy to view it as a clear descendant of The X-Files, substituting weird science for aliens, a fun, engaging sci-fi procedural show without any great pretensions to be much more. It's hard to imagine, from that start, another show that has evolved so fast into something so purely "itself" in such a short period of time.

You can even point to the episode where it all clicks - season 2, episode 16; "Peter" - an episode which takes what was by that point a damn good show into being a great one. And the finale of season 2, set over there, with a whole new set of (familiar) characters and great final reveal, sets up the opening of season 3 with a lot of fun places to go, combined with a worryingly high standard to keep up.

So, season three opens with our swapped Olivias and alternates episodes between the two universes. It's a neat trick; establishing the over there characters and the struggles of their dying world, and preventing Walternate being the mostly-evil poster boy for that side. Speaking of Walternate, I love his complex and contradictory set of "lines he will not cross" even as he plots the extinction of a whole world, which makes him one of those great villains that somehow sees himself as a hero of his own story, having to make hard sacrifices that no-one else understands. By the time we've swapped back for a mid-season run set mostly over here the season had kept up it's blistering late-season-two pace and if anything got nuttier and even more eccentric.

The rest of the season doesn't try anything as structurally ambitious, which makes it feel a little smaller somehow. We still end up over there a fair bit, and for a couple of whole episodes at a time, but a little bit of the fizz drops out until we reach the end again, when things really start to hot up again. The fact the season ends with another well-formed vision of another (very different) world, coupled with it's actual cliff-hanger, was nail-bitingly frustrating for me. Thankfully I've all the episodes of season 4 so far stored on the PVR!

The acting helps, of course. A lot of the cast are playing multiple versions of themselves in both time and reality - John Noble has, I think, played six versions of Walter Bishop if you could them all up from both universes. Anna Torv not only has to play herself twice but impersonate a very famous geek actor at one point which I think she does pretty well. Even the secondary, long-suffering characters have key interventions into the larger story and all feel fleshed out with lives they live off screen.

Fringe has flirted with cancellation all it's life, but that doubt seems to set everyone involved somehow free to  go to all sorts of strange and unusual places. It's a mad science show where the mad science is incidental to the emotional lives of its characters, its a show about two universes at war, fought by the same people on both sides. It's a show were the quiet moments are as powerful and meaningful as machines that can rewrite reality and a show confident enough to let that flow.

There really isn't anything else like on TV. And that's a marvel all by itself.