Thursday, January 24, 2013

TV Review: Fringe, Series 5

So, farewell to Fringe. Commissioned amongst the wave of post-Lost mystery/science shows, a curious mix of procedural detective show and X-Files like strangeness, it quickly became one of Network Televisions underdogs, a viewership that became more passionate as it became smaller, and one of those rare Science Fiction shows that wants to be about stuff, as much as it wants to be Flying Porcupine Men. Somehow, it got a fifth series to say goodbye, and last week, it signed off forever.

Its safe to say that no Fringe series has been like the one before. The first series is a decent X-Files clone, replacing aliens and government conspiracy with mad science. The second suddenly becomes a mythology show, but distinctively one where the mythology is deeply personal, emotional and at times, moving. Its third series audaciously flits between parallel realities, effectively doubling it's cast, demanding the audience just keeps up already, and the fourth starts by writing out one of it's leads, re-writing its own history and slowly tying everything together for what many expected would be its end.

But it wasn't the end, and for all the nice emotional payoffs Fringe was renewed for its most radical departure yet; a single, 13 episode story set in a future occupied by the shows last, great unknown, The Observers. The series is framed as a resistance struggle against totalitarian occupiers with superpowers and advanced technology, but limited in their reach. Its also about what Fringe has always been about - emotion versus reason, love and loss, and what it is to be human. So very different on the surface, but underneath it's still recognizably the same show.

For me one of the most interesting and distinctive aspects of Fringe is how it handles it's characters. All the timeline and universe meddling really serve to show us variations on the main cast - we've seen countless old and young versions of Walter and Olivia in particular - but rather than revealing  the differences, often it's to show the similarities. The Walter of Old, god of science, and "our" daffy, loveable Walter, and the controlled, rationalising Walternate, are all the same character at heart, their differences often only highlighting how much blurred the lines between them are. In this season it's Walter vs his own history, struggling against what he may need to become for victory, which finds it's echo in Peter as he follows in his fathers footsteps, doing terrible things out of grief and anger. (I'm really struggling to stay spoiler free here).

For all the un-Fringe-y moments like running shoot-outs and dystopian landscapes, it's these characters that keep it the same show. The acting is terrific, from the subtle glances and connections between Peter and Olivia that reminds us they're a couple without ever having to do a "coupley" plotline, to John Noble's usual barnstorming performances, to Jaskia Nicole's unsung yet unfailing role as Astrid, to a myriad of returning cameos, I can't think of another genre show which has kept such a focus on the soft, mushy character stuff. I like these characters, I enjoy spending time with them, and no change of the setup will change that.

This final series of Fringe is in many ways a coda to the "main" series, something that isn't wholly necessary but welcome nevertheless. It uses its dystopian setting to setup more meditations on everything Fringe has been about to date, as well as the chance to tell a more heavily serialised storyline than the show has previously attempted. And The Observers? Well lets just say they fit right into the shows pantheon of villains. And now it's gone, and I will miss it terribly.