"Letters of Transit" gave us one of sci-fi oldest conceits: a 1984-style future dystopia with Nazi Germany overtones. Only recently we've had similar imagined realities on both Misfits and Being Human. Regardless of its orthodoxy, there's a good reason this idea is recycled so much, and it was a treat to see Fringe's take on the idea: presenting us with a snazzy future of 2036, where The Observers (psychic, evolved humans) now rule the world after travelling 600 years into their past to escape an environmentally ravaged Earth. Introduced as a benignly creepy race who don't interfere in mankind's affairs, just observe events, it's interesting to see the show restyle them as super-villains (a clearer than ever amalgam of the Agents from The Matrix and the Strangers from Dark City).
Lost's Henry Ian Cusick) and Etta (Georgina Haig), who hope to inspire a mutiny against their totalitarian state in the so-called "Native" population by reviving their unit's near-mythical predecessor Walter (John Noble) and his original team—whom we learn put themselves in suspended animation (i.e. "ambered") 20 years before. Although Olivia appears to be absent from Walter's group, very intriguingly. Was she not present when The Observers took over the world in 2015?
The show had its usual fun in presenting established characters in different ways, too: the revived Walter was briefly the victim of brain damage, meaning Noble could play the character as if he had Alzheimer's; the future's Nina (Blair Brown) has gone grey and is confined to a wheelchair; while a crinkled Broyles (Lance Reddick) has accepted his lot as the desk-bound puppet of lead Observer Mr Widmark.
This episode's a curious one, because while I wholeheartedly enjoyed its fast-pace, excellent production designs, and already want Cusick promoted to regular status, I craved more setup to the story. Maybe if it was clearer this was a one-off trip to the future, it would be easier to accept as a fleeting novelty, but it feels likely Fringe will use The Future as its new setting for a hypothetical fifth season. I'm not suggesting that's even a bad idea, because it's an exciting prospect to have two universes colluding to rid themselves of evil Observers' iron grip, but there was surely a better way to introduce this notion. This episode was even forced to begin with a Terminator-style text crawl to explain a few things, which just felt very odd.
But I'm willing to cut the show some slack, if only because it's under the pressures of US network television to produce a huge quantity of scripted drama each year. Plus I was apparently one of very few people who didn't see the episode's final twist coming: that Etta is short for "Henrietta" (the female form of Henry) and therefore Peter and Olivia's grownup child. For me, this surprise worked brilliantly and will undoubtedly inspire great stuff to come. Considering that Etta has the unique ability to mask her thoughts to the psychic Observers (because she's the daughter of a Cortexiphan-dosed mother in Olivia?), I wonder if she'll effectively become the Matrix-style Neo of the series?
Overall, let's wait and see what the next few weeks bring. Knowing this storyline is in-play till the finale, it's likely the gaps in our knowledge can be filled soon, and this episode's feeling of uprooted bewilderment will subside. "Letters of Transit" represents another bold gamble for the show, make no mistake about it, and I'd rather Fringe take risks than rest on its laurels. I didn't like how this storyline was thrust upon us, no, but I can't deny it fills me with more excitement than this year's altered-timeline gambit (which feels increasingly like a pointless exercise). Knowing the uncertainties of Fringe's future, if we get a few more episodes of Blade Runner-style hi-jinks in 2036, that will be great fun; and if this is sets up a fifth season with an emphasis on a future war with all-powerful Observers, I'll be more than happy.
- It was very unexpected to see a return of William Bell, encased in amber. How did he return and why did Walter sever his hand? Is Leonard Nimoy himself going to return soon?
- I also loved Walter's not very subtle references to The Prisoner ("I'm not a number, I'm a free man" and Star Wars ("these aren't the droids you're looking for").
- Seriously, sign Henry Ian Cusick up as a regular, even if that means replacing Seth Gabel.