Fringe Thoughts

Last week, I asked for advice on the show Fringe, because I need to be able to speak sensibly about it for the purpose of talking about parallel universes. I’ve been working through Janne’s list of recommended episodes, watching on my laptop while SteelyKid goes to sleep, and have got up through the Season 3 premiere. So, what’s the verdict?

The three-word review is “Entertaining but maddening.” Because it’s pretty well done in an X-Files kind of way, but partakes of all the things that drive me nuts about the portrayal of science in fiction.

The chief problem with this is that, in fine Hollywood tradition, they treat all of science as a unified whole– call it SCIENCE!, said like a Thomas Dolby sample. Walter Bishop is an expert not in any field of science, but in SCIENCE! He ran illegal drug trials back in the day, but he can also copy a cell phone from a parallel universe, and slap together a portable gateway into another universe. Physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, engineering– it’s all one undifferentiated mass. It’s SCIENCE!

I understand that there are dramatic-convention reasons for this, mostly having to do with keeping the set of characters finite. It’s easier on the writers and non-scientist readers to have Walter dealing with everything, rather than an ensemble of characters playing different sorts of scientists. But, really, it never ceases to annoy me.

Someday, somebody is going to make a show where a detective and a scientist come across a dead body, and the detective asks “What killed him?” and the scientist replies “How the hell should I know? I’m a physicist, not a doctor,” and I will cheer. It will, of course, be cancelled immediately, but I will enjoy the hell out of it for that brief, glorious moment.

As for the parallel universe business, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Let’s leave aside for the moment all the problems with there being only one other universe, and it being accessible, because, again, there are dramatic reasons for those– an infinite number of utterly inaccessible parallel universes is kind of difficult to work with for a writer. Even taken those elements as given, the other universe is totally incoherent.

So, we have a universe in which, just to run down some of the differences I’ve noticed, John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, the Lindbergh kidnapping never happened, Martin Luther King is on the $20 bill, and zeppelins are a common mode of travel. OK, fine, those are unlikely, but somewhere out in the multiverse, maybe.

But in spite of all those differences, both universes contain near-exact duplicates of everyone in our universe (with the exception of William Bell, because while John Noble in a curly wig might plausibly look like he was in 1985, no amount of special-effects work could make anybody believe that Leonard Nimoy isn’t old), with the same parents, jobs, and improbable only-on-tv NYC apartments.

That makes absolutely no sense at all. Not even a tiny bit. If the points of divergence start even back in the 1930’s (presumably even earlier, if nobody knows who Andrew Jackson was), that should change nearly everything, including things like preventing people’s parents (or, hell, grandparents) from meeting in the first place.

Again, this is a bit of a personal hot-button– it ruins most of the alternate history genre for me, because a book has to be really good in some other respects for me to get past this– but while my feelings are not sufficiently widely shared, it still bugs me.

With that said, if you can look past the many utterly daft aspects of the setting, the show is very competently done. The acting is mostly good, the scripts are very melodramatic but not too badly overdone, the visuals are terrific. It’s reasonably good pulp entertainment. So, while it’s not something I’m going to start watching on a regular basis, I’ve enjoyed watching this bit of it.

17 thoughts on “Fringe Thoughts

  1. Can’t one invoke special Creation and say that both worlds are Created™ by a Creator™, who not just tinkers around the edges, but makes sure that Destiny™ is ensured?

    Or does that not work in context?

  2. It occurs to me that you could do a show where the scientists showed at least some hint of specialization… if it was a show with several scientist characters*. (Or that, if you have some conspiracy where you need Dr. Science Character to handle everything, show her reading up on things or on the phone/email with other scientists.)

    * Stargate SG1 had both an archeologist and a astrophysicist on the team, and a doctor back on base. Granted, it didn’t stop them from pulling a lot of ‘really, show?’ moments with Carter or Jackson, but it at least shows that you can have multiple science characters.

  3. I haven’t watched Fringe since the first season, but the single-scientist thing annoys me, too. TV’s never realistic, but one of the things I like about Bones is that it shows divisions of science better than most.

    About the diverging worlds: I recently read “Regarding Ducks and Universes” which does a good job with this. Anyone conceived after the universes split is extremely unlikely to have a “twin” in the other universe, even if their parents had kids in both universes. Even people born before the split often work different jobs, live in different places, etc. in the alternate universe.

  4. “Someday, somebody is going to make a show where a detective and a scientist come across a dead body, and the detective asks “What killed him?” and the scientist replies “How the hell should I know? I’m a physicist, not a doctor,” and I will cheer.”

    The Stargate franchise actually has a large number of scientist and academic characters whose expertise was fairly consistent in its scope, although each series had a polymath character verging on SCIENCE! territory. The original series had an archaeologist and an astrophysicist as two of the main characters and they had to on more than one occasion combine their expertise because individually they would have not been able to solve the problem.

  5. MRW, Bones does do better than most (like my beloved NCIS) but Hodgins is an expert on everything that’s not pathology/medicine, anthropology, or phsychology related. He’s the ‘Bones’ composite scientist character.

  6. Well, this might be a completely random aside, but one of my favorite recurring tropes on Law and Order is when they trot out the one-off super-specialist scientist who knows things that their usual forensics people don’t, even though they march right up to the edge of SCIENCE! all the time anyway.

    Mostly it’s because half the time, the person playing the specialist is a terrible actor, and you can tell they’re having a hard time containing their excitement at being on T.V., so it comes across just like those scientists we’ve all met who get really really *really* excited about blowfly larva. It always puts a smile on my face.

  7. Yes, this. I’m increasingly disturbed by the way it seems to be trickling over into real life, too; otherwise intelligent friends start questions with “You’re a scientist…” and expect me to know everything about every field of science. (Also, of course, you get the people who believe it about themselves, but that’s a separate issue.)

    TV-wise, this is actually one of the more gratifying points of the BBC’s recent updating of Sherlock Holmes to the present. Sherlock knows a lot of things – but one of them is explicitly how to find things out quickly, and he’s never far from a search engine. He also gets ragged by Watson for his complete ignorance of subjects he (Holmes) doesn’t consider important to what he does for a living.

  8. This is all why I couldn’t make it past the pilot. I’m okay with science, and I’m okay with science fiction, and I’m okay with fantasy, but I have a real problem with science fantasy. Because they do everything wrong.

  9. marciepooh,
    Yeah, my original comment included a little rant about Hodgins, but I still think Bones does a better job than most.

    “He also gets ragged by Watson for his complete ignorance of subjects he (Holmes) doesn’t consider important to what he does for a living.”

    That’s actually very consistent with the books. From *A Study in Scarlet* “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing.” He also didn’t know that the earth goes around the sun, and explains that he’ll forget it because “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

  10. Fallout: New Vegas DLC – “Old World Blues” is fantastic for this kind of thing – it parodies old sci fi movies (talking brains, the whole “in the name of SCIENCE!” kind of thing) – hugely entertaining.

    Don’t forget – this “single-science” thing is (I believe) related to the Da Vinci Polymath idea. A lot of heroes are not just the best at what they do (aka Wolverine, as we are constantly reminded), but are the best at everything – example: the older James Bond from the movies, esp Roger Moore. Bond had to be knowledgeable about anything that came up, to show that “Nobody Does It Better”. 🙂

  11. You people are nitpicking. The reason they have one scientist who’s an expert in many fields is so that they can do stories covering many topics. Otherwise every episode would be about either geology, biology, physics, etc. Boring. Variety makes the show interesting and it’s unfeasible to have tons of actors each of which plays a scientist who’s an expert in a specific field.

    The alternate history thing isn’t a problem either. If JFK had not been assassinated it would not have had any affect on me. I would have grown up to be the same person and so would pretty much everyone else who was alive at the time.

  12. @Dr. Morbius:

    Disagree on both.

    There are ways of avoiding the genius polymath problem. For example, you have the regular character be a generalist, but rather than being the guy who knows {obscure thing in specialist field} he is the guy who knows how to collect the stuff to hand off to {specialist of the week} who may or may not actually appear in the episode.

    As for your being immune to a JFK POD, I find that doubtful. To begin with, such a change will impact every US election for at least a decade, (and thus will impact government programs). Odds are that you would be hit by an obvious line of effect, never mind the butterflies[1].

    [1] For example, simply going back and delaying the shot by a few seconds would reroll the weather for the entire planet starting in the mid-60s.

  13. My favorite parallel universe is the one that’s just exactly like this one except an U235 atom has decayed on a planet in orbit around a star nine billion light years from the milky way. Man, that’s a cool universe, but nobody ever makes a tv show about it.

  14. @MRW: Fair enough; it’s ages since I read the any of the books. (I was going to say that it isn’t something I remember being mentioned in any other film/tv adaption – but it’s ages since I saw any of those either….)

  15. The worrisome thing about the whole “science is magic” aspect of this show and many like it (even Dr. Who) is that beyond minor nitpicking, it fosters so much misinformation about actual science and what has and hasn’t been disproven.

    Take ESP for instance: in the 40’s through the 70’s, serious sci-fi authors included ESP in their stories — like telepathy, telekinesis, auras, etc. — but beyond that point it’s rare to read a single science-fiction story that has ESP in it. Why? Mainly because writers have “tapped the well” on that stuff, but also because as science develops, so do science fiction authors feel they must keep with the times (nowadays writing about quantum mechanics, high-energy physics, radical new theories on evolutionary psychology, etc.) Science is no longer curious about mysterious mind powers. Yet TV writers persist in writing about ghosts, telepathy, pyrokinesis, etc.

    I watched all of Fringe (yes, every episode) and there were so many times I shouted out loud at the screen, “that’s NOT how that works!” or simply, “preposterous!” that I can’t count. It’s not just being nit-picky about the science; when writers get the science so fundamentally WRONG that it either reflects or possibly engenders a widely-held misconception is when it gets me mad.

    EVEN WORSE, is when the writers fail to understand the implications of their own inventions, as was pointed out earlier. If JFK wasn’t assassinated, just about everyone born after that point in our universe would not exist (and not as an “evil twin” either). I don’t think any of the Fringe writers even UNDERSTAND the whole point-of-departure premise, at all. (I didn’t watch much of it but did that old show Sliders get at least that part right?)

    And my third bone to pick: every time the characters explain things or do things in a patently WRONG way, it ruins my suspension of disbelief. Believable explanations are the hallmark of science fiction.

    But then what can you expect from the writers of Lost? An entertaining show, albeit hopelessly mired in impossibilities and chicanery.

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