Sunday, 30 September 2012

Review: FRINGE, 5.1 – 'Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11'

Sunday, 30 September 2012

written by J.H Wyman / directed by Miguel Sapochnik & Jeannot Szwarz

It's remarkable that we're even watching a fifth season of Fringe, considering how low-rated the show's been throughout its run. Fox haven't even enforced a budget cut, so you have to give credit for the studio's support of a terrific sci-fi drama that just never found a way to charm the masses—despite a first season designed to do so, which quickly realised its strengths lay in the serialisation preferred by devout fans. Characteristically, "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11" was another premiere that signified major changes to the make-up of the show—which has already given itself various face-lifts via a parallel universe and an alternate timeline. The show has been impenetrable to casual viewers for years, but even as a committed fan I sometimes feel a little bewildered by the sweeping changes the writers throw at us.

In this premiere, we leapfrog 21 years of history and arrive in the dystopia of 2036—which was the setting for last season's curio "Letters of Transit", which perhaps worked as a sideways pitch to Fox that a final season's viable. To briefly recap, the world's been taken over by The Observers (those pale, fedora-wearing humans from the future's future), who have escaped their environmentally-ravaged Earth by travelling back in time to rule a more primitive one. Humanity's now enslaved by bald psychic overlords, although there's a resistance movement that includes Fringe agent Etta (Georgina Haig)—the grown-up daughter of Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia (Anna Torv)—who's managed to revive her parents, genius grandfather Walter (John Noble) and Astrid (Jasika Nicole) from the "amber" they've been trapped in since 2015. It's hoped that Walter has a plan to defeat the all-powerful Observers, given to him in brain-scrambled form by the compassionate Observer known as September...

It's rather clichéd, but I still enjoy Fringe's dystopia and exploring the future's differences—from the subtle (people eat "egg sticks") to the unsubtle (Central Park's being transformed into a machine to pump out carbon monoxide for The Observer's to breathe easier, which has reduced the average human lifespan to around 45 years). Fringe still has the budget to create a credible future-world (ignoring the odd dubious greenscreen) and it's definitely a backdrop that will be fun to see the characters adjust to over this 13-episode season.

In terms of the actual story, it remains to be seen if this year's changes are going to work. So much of Fringe's mythology was explained and concluded in season 4, that there's an unshakable feeling that this fifth season isn't strictly necessary and has been wholly built on the idea of turning the passive Observers into Dark City-style super-villains. Having Olivia and Peter react to the fact their daughter's grown into a young woman (who's inherited their world-saving tendencies), was in many ways the most entertaining aspect of this episode. I particularly loved the moment Olivia was released from her amber block and met Etta, whom she last saw as a three-year-old. It was touching and beautifully played by Torv and Haig.

Did this premiere get my excited to see the next twelve episodes? Yes and no. I certainly approve of the basic idea to put the Fringe team in a fascist future, and have them go up against a planet controlled by Observers (even if they've now been reduced in power so they can be killed with high-speed bullets), and there's certainly lots of unanswered questions to explore—regarding exactly what triggered this invasion (September warned Walter "they're coming"—but why?), what happened during the 21 years they were absent, where Broyles and Nina are, and what Walter's forgotten plan is to defeat The Observers. I just think we'll be in a better position to gauge the success of this season in three or four episodes' time. A part of me has lost the thread when it comes to Fringe, which was telling a brilliant story until the third season finale, after which time it seemed to pursue some ideas that sometimes undermined what had come before... or, at the very least, has overcome so many rules governing life, death and reality that the sense of danger has evaporated over time. In this episode alone, there's a piece of tech that fortuitously allows living people to pass muster as corpse. The writers are forever creating technobabble bullshit to get themselves out of every imaginable corner, so where's the jeopardy?

Overall, I liked "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11" for a number of smaller reasons that coalesced into something bigger—Etta and Olivia being reunited, Walter's harrowing psychic interrogation, and the beautiful denouement on a half-destroyed city street with Walter listening to Yazoo's "Only You" on a car stereo, before noticing a dandelion protruding from the rubble. A clear indicator that his torturer's claim nothing grows from "scorched earth" isn't true, and there's still hope of ending this living nightmare. I'm looking forward to the remaining episode, but more for the characters and a feeling of definitive closure than any burning desire to watch this latest narrative swerve play out.


  • Production was halted in order to allow John Noble time to get treatment and recover from a sleeping disorder. I assume this is why two directors are credited, because one had to take over once Noble was back to full strength and returned to work.
  • "Only You" by Yazoo was a great choice of song, seeing as it's a love ballad comprised entirely of electronic sounds, and Fringe itself has an emotional heart in the middle of a lot of scientific window-dressing.
28 September 2012 / Fox