Memory is energy! It doesn’t disappear. It’s still in there. There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be. And I’m telling you, it’s in the goddamned limbic system.
— Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) Altered States (1980)
It’s nearly 30 years since Eddie Jessup dropped acid and immersed himself in a sensory deprivation tank, determined to locate that collective human consciousness. In a very sweet bit of homage, J.J. Abrams’ new series, reconsidering such pseudo-science, sets up another tank in a basement lab at Harvard — just the spot where Eddie ran his experiments on himself. Much like Eddie, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) is eccentric and disconcerting, a disappointment to his family, deemed a lunatic by his colleagues. No matter his locally legendary genius, he was put away 17 years ago, after it was discovered he was conducting human experiments.
Dr. Bishop’s first appearance in Fringe is both sensational and conventional. Tracked down at St. Claire’s Hospital by FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), he’s turned away from the camera, which approaches slowly, from a low angle. He turns to look at her — blond, fresh-faced, yet also professional and resolute — and he smiles. He is, of course, shaggy in the extreme, his beard and unkempt hair, along with his coveralls, signs of his being locked away in an institution. Olivia pauses in the doorway. He speaks: “I knew someone would come. Eventually.”
In this moment, the series premiere establishes two thirds of its key threeway — during their first, brief, and multivalent exchange, Olivia and Walter are equally hesitant, fascinated, and yearning. Each needs something from the other. He needs to get out of this dingy depressing place. She needs information regarding a recent airplane disaster (this is an Abrams series, after all), which is somehow connected to her boyfriend and fellow agent John’s (Mark Valley) current condition. Infected with something dire, something that’s making his skin melt off his body, he looks like the Visible Man, in a coma no less.
But even as Olivia and Walter take each other’s measure, Fringe‘s third term lurks just down the hallway. He’s Bishop’s son, Peter (Joshua Jackson, and it’s good to see him again). Apparently just as stunningly intelligent as his dad, Peter’s also carrying a gigantic grudge at the old man, for ruining his childhood or some such nonsense. A high school dropout with an IQ of 190 (“about 50 points north of genius,” in case you’re counting), Peter’s been gallivanting about the world, making trouble and passing serially as a wild-land fireman, cargo pilot, and MIT-educated chemistry professor. As Olivia narrates en route to Baghdad to find this man-boy, he “sounds like a massive pain in the ass.”
She can’t know how right she is, but you can, for the formula set in motion by the Fringe pilot is familiar. That’s not to say it’s not also devious and often delightful. For one thing, it includes Abrams’ trademark oddities (here, a cow that Bishop brings into his revivified lab, because, as Peter tells Olivia, “Genetically, humans and cows are separated by only a couple lines of DNA, so it’s an ethical test subject. I picked that up reading books. You should try it some time”). For another thing, it features regular allusions to current events (the Patriot Act is a weapon to be wielded when convenient) and figures who may or may not be as baleful as they appear. Homeland Security Officer Broyles (always excellent Lance Reddick) suggests that Olivia is overstepping. Their tension emerges when she arrives Arriving at Logan Airport at episode’s start, where the aforementioned plane has just auto-piloted itself to a landing, full of dead bodies, and proceeds to instruct Broyles on her role as an “interagency liaison.” He keeps walking, hunched against the snow swirling around them: “A liaison on an interagency task force,” he grumbles. “Gotta love that, kind of like powder sugar on a glazed donut.” She doesn’t even blink. He tells her to suit up.
In spite (or because) of Broyles’ skepticism, Olivia sets to diligent work on the case. Persistent even in the face of dead ends, she finds Bishop by typing “dissolve flesh” into her search engine and tracks Peter to Baghdad (where he’s running some scam on a couple of well-heeled shmoes about to build 600 miles of pipeline from Kirkuk to Sayhan (“You need someone who has a handle on the laws of hydrodynamic resistance,” he fast-talks, “You’ll also need someone who can work with mixed integer programs to resize the pipes”). Olivia and Peter do not hit it off, but she scams him, whereupon she informs him of his dad’s work back in the ’70s: “Fringe science,” she says, “Like mind control, teleportation, astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, reanimation…” At which point, Pacey responds just as he must: “Whoa!”
Bishop’s reemergence into the current world reveals not only his genius but also his charming incongruity (he loves SpongeBob Squarepants). While Peter rolls his eyes and goes through the motions of a typical father-son tension, the show uses their generational split to showcase the sinister staying power of the villains both are fighting, in their own ways. These villains not only prompt lots of dreamy-schemey-pseudo-sciencey talk, but also populate the series’ inevitable big-bad corporation, which goes by the big-bad name Massive Dynamics.
As Olivia and Peter come to realize that Massive Dynamics is conducting human experiments and is also headed by Bishop’s old lab partner, the broad scope of Fringe begins to come into focus. But even as this discovery sets up for a season full of subterfuge and grisly activities, the series also offers up yet another homage to Altered States (as the series lays claim to its own sorts of collective memory). When Olivia manages to meet with a company representative, she can’t begin to comprehend the full significance of that representative, who goes by the perfectly villainous name of Nina Sharp and is played by Blair Brown. That would be the Blair Brown who played Eddie Jessup’s long-suffering wife way back when. Seated in a sterile, sharply angled, and cavernous office, she warns Olivia to proceed carefully. “Suffice to say,” she asserts, “that science and technology have advanced at such an exponential rate for so long, it may be way beyond our ability to regulate and control them.” Olivia, by now a veteran of the Harvard sensory deprivation tank experience, smiles and nods, uncowed.