About halfway through the run of “The X-Files,” a thought occurred to me: what if there WAS an alien invasion? For those of you who have forgotten, or never watched The X-Files to begin with, the main through-line of the mythology was that aliens may exist, and if they do, Earth was perhaps on the brink of an alien invasion. Agent Fox Mulder suspected, Agent Dana Scully didn’t believe, and we were left with that threat always in the background.
The problem is, with TV you can’t deliver on that threat. A TV series, despite often pushing characters and situations forward, is, in essence, a static thing. You can’t change the basic premise of the show without potentially alienating the audience you’ve built up over the years. Even as showrunners and TV watchers have gotten savvier – they don’t need to total reset at the end of an episode we would have gotten from the syndicated shows of the past – theres still the sense that at its core a show would stay the same.
So even while Young Alex secretly hoped for a season where the aliens said, “Ah screw it, we’ll stop using bees; let’s just take over,” and then we got David Duchovny shouting, “I want to believe… That I’m gonna kick your alien butts!” that would never happen. It would make it a different show, with different rules, and not “The X-Files” anymore. If it did happen? The show would potentially lose steam or even capsize under the weight of insane expectations; like, say, after the seminal Superbowl episode of “Alias.” That show never recovered from literally blowing up its premise, and it’s the closest I’ve seen a show come to fulfilling this lofty idea.
That is, until the season opener of “FRINGE.” And holy s**t, Young Alex was doing summersaults, because J.H. Wyman and company actually did it. They took the premise of “FRINGE,” the potential, the threat that was always looming in the background, and delivered on it. Better yet? It works. This Friday’s episode is gorgeous, heartbreaking, and yet essentially “FRINGE.” Mild spoilers from this point on, though I’ll leave most of the episode for you to enjoy when it premieres.
In case you couldn’t guess from the promos and from the mind-bending “Letters of Transit” last season, the hat wearing, pale-skinned Observers have taken over Earth. Late last season, we learned that they were a Science Team, sent to check out Earth’s past and report back to the future. That wasn’t the whole story, though. In the far future, Earth’s atmosphere has gotten so bad that humanity has had to look for an escape route. Rather being nice and heading to an alternate timeline filled with dinosaurs like in Terra Nova, they decided to head back to 2015 and take over. Because why time travel to the jungle, when instead you could have all the comforts of home without the alarming levels of carbon dioxide and lack of ozone layer?
If there’s one fault with this Friday’s episode, it’s that there’s not a lot of time for catch-up. There’s a recap up top of “Letters of Transit,” but unlike previous seasons that have provided entry points for new viewers, this throws you into the deep end right away. Season 4’s “Neither Here No There,” for example, simplified everything and had characters lay out the premise in the opener… A necessary device for a show involving shapes-hifters and alternate universes.
Not so much with “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11,” which even has a nearly inscrutable though key to the plot title. Not only have three years passed since the end of Season Four, as we start right at the terrifying beginning of the Observer invasion in 2015, but then we jump forward to 2036, picking up right after the end of “Letters of Transit.” And in between, all our characters have had lives that continued. The “FRINGE” team wasn’t frozen in Amber in 2015, they did so as a last ditch effort some time after. And some bad things happened in between. Really bad things.
A lot of that in between gets dealt with this week, but there are also plenty of questions left open. For example, how did William Bell come back? That probably won’t be answered until Leonard Nimoy’s contract gets finalized. But if you’ve always been interested in checking out “FRINGE,” but haven’t had the time… Well, this is about as good a time to jump on as the last season of LOST. Like that show before it, the “FRINGE” writers have a lot of respect for their audience, and their ability to remember themes, plot-points, and characters from seasons past. If you don’t? Well, they’re not going to stop and remind you, and anyone jumping on board is almost guaranteed to be left behind.
New viewer friendly it’s not. But for fans of the show, this is a thrilling hour of television, filled with all the insane science, big emotion, and crazy action we’ve come to expect. That, in essence, is what allows “FRINGE” to constantly reinvent itself. Also? Of all its many reinventions, this is definitely the biggest. It’s funny, actually. “FRINGE” started as an “X-Files” clone, with the team investigating weird mysteries every week… But that’s not what the heart of it was, or is.
Nope, the heart of “FRINGE” is, quite literally, its heart. “FRINGE” is, and has always been, about love. Not just the love story between Peter and Olivia, though that’s an important one. It’s about the bonds of love and affection that tie this band together, and keep them fighting long past the point they’re hopelessly overwhelmed, or like in this episode, they’ve clearly already lost.
If you go back to the very beginning of “FRINGE,” that’s what it was stealthily about, right? A bunch of souls driven by work, running away from their problems or locking their heart away (in an insane asylum), yet somehow through the magic of science finding their way together, to be with each other. That’s why, in essence, the entire fate of the Universe has always revolved around Peter, Olivia, and Walter: their affection and love for each other is the most important thing in the world of the show.
And that, of course, is what makes the Observers such superb adversaries. It’s a pretty time worn plot point to have alien invaders, or monsters, or whatever beaten by the power of love. But the reason it’s used again and again is because often, it also works. And that’s what we’d like to believe, right? The power of love over logic? That if we care for each other, we can accomplish anything? The neat thing about “FRINGE” is that it manages both sides: they use the power of love to build crazy machines that bend time and space.
That’s also what makes the episode work so well, and what makes me so excited about this season: they’ve blown up the premise of the show, but haven’t lost its center. Bold, crazy ideas and huge romantic ones. Nowhere is this better exemplified than with two gorgeous, haunting sequences that bookend the episode. The first set in 2015, the second in 2036. Again, I won’t spoil them here, but those two minutes encapsulate everything that’s made “FRINGE” not just the best scifi show, but probably the best show currently on television.
Oh, and the last scene in particular will, I promise, haunt you all week long. It’s hopeful, heartbreaking, exciting, romantic, and like nothing else on television. Just like “FRINGE.”
“FRINGE” premieres on FOX this Friday September 28th at 9pm.