This was a curious episode, because it offered only morsels of additional information relating to Fringe's mythology, but unfolded with such confidence that you barely noticed it was scraps. " Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?" (a blatant nod to sci-fi author Philip K. Dick) mainly served to humanize the bio-mechanical "shapeshifters" from the alt-universe, while pushing the idea that "Fauxlivia" (Anna Torv) will have to up her game if she's to convince Peter (Joshua Jackson) she's the real Olivia...
The shot of someone involved in a car accident (filmed low from the passenger seat as the driver sits oblivious to an incoming vehicle in his side window), has become a modern TV cliché -- to my recollection, stretching back to Six Feet Under's pilot. Fringe adds to the popular trope here, when Senator Van Horn (Gerard Plunkett) is injured in a car accident after buying lemonade from two children on a quiet suburban street. Fighting for his life in hospital, family friend Broyles (Lance Reddick) is present when villainous Thomas Jerome Newton (Sebastian Roché) arrived to assassinate Van Horn, evidently because the trusted Senator is actually a shapeshifter from the parallel universe, sent to replace someone with political influence.
Van Horn's identity is exposed after Newton's forced to shoot his fellow shapeshifter dead, during a shootout against Boyles at the hospital, and Walter (John Noble) is tasked to repair Van Horn's lifeless body, by first mapping its neural pathways using visual stimuli such as the Senator's wife. Simultaneously, Fauxlivia knew that her identity risked being reveled by Van Horn if Walter managed to interrogate the shapeshifter's "brain-chip", so tried her best to sabotage the operation from within.
This episode was a success because of the idea it presented, however original, that the shapeshifters aren't mindless automatons coolly infiltrating society Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers-style. They're emotional beings, at risk to becoming attached to people missions force them to make connections with, which becomes a problem once a mission comes to an end. In this episode's example, shapeshifter cop Ray Duffy (Marcus Giamatti) was assigned by Newton to retrieve Van Horn's "brain" and then kill the family he's been living with for years to protect his cover.
While the episode avoided mentioning the unsympathetic fact Duffy must have murdered the real Ray Duffy at some point, it was nevertheless an emotive storyline when it became clear Duffy's feelings for his "adopted family" have become so strong he can’t follow Newton's orders. A scene where Duffy comforted his young son over a fear of monsters was a great moment, too -- knowing as we do that "the monster" isn't under the frightened boy's bed, but hiding in plain sight.
This episode also gave us our first look at Walter's role within Massive Dynamic, as the company's new owner. This involves giving erratic lectures to a roomful of bemused scientists, culminating in him removing his trousers to make a point. But it also means he has a bright, high-tech laboratory to work from, which is undoubtedly useful to the character, although I can't help thinking the show might lose a certain charm if Walter's stuck in such a starchy, clean environment. A mad scientist needs a ramshackle, dingy lab containing a live cow as his lair. Hopefully Walter will either return to his Harvard lab with Massive Dynamic equipment installed, or he'll split his time between the two locations.
Given the episode title, I think it's clear the writers want us to associate the shapeshifters of Fringe to the replicants of Blade Runner; both manmade creations almost imperceptibly different to humans, who are more sympathetic than first impressions would have you believe. Maybe the show will develop this idea further, perhaps with a few shapeshifters deciding to break rank and help broker some kind of peace with the other universe? I still think that's the end-game of this series.
Overall, "Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?" was an alluring hour, despite the fact its story was quite simplistic under closer inspection. But I appreciated the development of the shapeshifters as more complex boogieman to contend with, and the idea of secret identities and the strain of cover operatives maintaining their cover echoed nicely in Fauxlivia's storyline. After four episodes, one thing's beyond question: season 3 of Fringe is off to a fantastic start.
- Seriously, there's a YouTube compilation just waiting to be made using all the identical shots of a driver having a vehicle slam into his side door.
- Do you think Van Horne was named after the devil summoned in The Witches Of Eastwick?
- As I said, the car crash from the perspective of the passenger seat is an old trick now, but I admit Fringe's version made me jump!
- There's certainly a key weakness in the alternate-dimension's plan if their shapeshifting "sleepers" can be reasoned with and form emotional bonds with people.
- Guest star Marcus Giamatti is, as you may have suspected from his unusual surname, the brother of actor Paul Giamatti.
- I suppose this is the end of Sebastian Roché's tenure on Fringe, having been a key villain since season 2. I guess Newton was overtaken by events somewhat, so is less relevant now. Still, it's a shame to see him go, but I hope Fauxlivia gets a new "other side" partner going forward.
WRITERS: David Wilcox & Matt Pitts
DIRECTOR: Ken Fink
GUEST CAST: Sebastian Roché, Marcus Giamatti, Shannon Cochran & Gerard Plunkett
TRANSMISSION: 26 October 2010, Sky1/HD, 10PM