Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fringe S1 Ep2: The Same Old Story

"I called you together tonight to introduce you to my new team, who will now be responsible for investigating all these events. — hopefully they will have more success than our last."
-Phillip Broyles to Oversight Committee on investigation of The Pattern.
Is it really the same old story for Fringe? That really is the question. To be fair yes and no. To be honest, I write with the hindsight of knowing there are now five seasons and I've seen a few of the first season as of this writing.  Information like this always alters the perspective.  It's difficult to be entirely impartial with certain facts at your disposal.



It's incredible to think Fringe has lasted longer than Star Trek: Enterprise, though I'm a fan I suspect many would argue it should have, and nearly as long as Lost.  When it comes to network television that is no small feat particularly when Fringe viewership was teetering around two to three million viewers by series' end.

So Fringe, Season One, Episode 2, The Same Old Story goes that a baby is born and rapidly ages into an eighty year old man in hours ending in death.  The focus of the episode is on the pituitary gland that regulates growth and the murky world of science surrounding the syndrome.  The Fringe Division investigates reaching out to Dr. Claus Penrose, a man with an expertise in Progeria.  Progeria is a rare genetic disease that exhibits symptoms of the aging process.  The disease manifests itself at a very early age.  Sadly, the prognosis for children is a life expectancy on average of thirteen years of age.





Science fiction has a way of taking these ideas and creating something extraordinary out of them particularly when it comes to science.  Space:1999, Year One, Episode 10, Alpha Child sees the birth of a child on Moonbase to much elation.  The child transforms maturing into a super humanoid. Star Trek: The Next Generation explores the idea less effectively with Season Two, Episode 1, The Child.  It is alleged that the short story, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button [1922], which inspired the film, whereby a man ages backward was influenced by the genetic implications of Progeria.

Christopher, the son of Dr. Penrose, is the murderer that requires the gland to control his aging.  The Same Old Story isn't quite the horror show one might expect based on the images provided in the vein of Kiss The Girls [1997] or the more influential The Silence Of The Lambs [1991] as female abduction stories go, but it's mildly effective.  Where's the Observer?





The case ends with the problematic deus ex machina or plot device perhaps a little too handily with the employment of a Massive Dynamic Electronic Pulse Camera.  Plot devices aside, the team uses technology to their benefit in what promises to be a tech-heavy science fiction serial.  While it presents an easy out as far wrapping up the story, the tech possibilities on Fringe are indeed captivating to me.  It's instances like this one that get me excited about the Fringe possibilities.  The floating letters establishing location shots should give us some idea that the creators are looking to do something different.  I love that effect.  It's unfortunate that an episode credited with four writers couldn't have been a little more innovative to match its high production.





The FBI case is also linked to questions surrounding The Pattern "among other things" according to Nina Sharp.  The show closes on a massively wonderful family dynamic between Peter and Walter Bishop as they head to sleep.  Worth noting, the number sequence Walter Bishop repeats as lulls himself to sleep are relative to the Fibonacci number sequence.  This becomes instrumental later in Fringe, Season One, Episode 10, Safe.  The scene demonstrates a very dysfunctional relationship between the two men, but a relationship filled with promise as the show develops.  Peter, with his own problems including an apparent medical history brought to Dunham's attention by Walter, and Walter himself, with a very precarious mental stability, could make for some riveting character drama ahead.  There's a great deal of potential in the father/ son dynamic [they retrieve Walter's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser] easily as engaging as one that might come from an Agent Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop chemistry.  The trifecta does offer options.  Dunham is also a pleasure to watch on screen as she gets her footing in this crucial role for the series.  She's note entirely comfortable in the role, but there is something about the actress that is at once beautiful and appropriately physical as an agent.



She receives an offer from Sharp to work for Massive Dynamic.  Once again, plenty of questions to be answered surrounding Sharp and Homeland Security's Senior-Agent-In-Charge Phillip Broyles who manages the Fringe Division.  The Same Old Story doesn't exactly offer anything new, but there are underpinnings from its own world that are slowly weaving their way into the myth mix, and stylistically Fringe is better looking than many of the crime shows on television.  All of this and the quirkiness of scenes like Walter milking Gene the cow, enjoying a Ginger Ale like its the very first time, expressing fascination with seat warmers and mundane aspects of living offers the potential to be endlessly entertaining.  Being in an institution for seventeen years has a tendency to generate a self-awakening.  Walking that line of quirky eccentric and genius for actor John Noble is a delicate one and the beats aren't quite right as of yet.  But listen, Babylon 5 and some of the awkwardness of that series' first season makes the exchanges in Fringe seem like the work of old friends. It's not that far off from getting it right.



Perhaps of all of the early Fringe episodes it would be Episode 2, The Same Old Story that reminisces of an X-Files-styled procedural the most.  The X-Files made a name for itself with an immense mythology and took breaks from that mytharc for the occasional freak-of-the-week story.  The X-Files was truly brilliant at moving in and out of that framework and getting the beats just right, but even that series took time to get it right.  Fringe captures aspects of that rhythm.  That Same Old Story works very much like The X-Files Squeeze as a standalone-crafted tale.





The fact the story isn't breaking new ground with material that seems strikingly original works against it.  Nevertheless, Fringe offers its own assessment on familiar ideas.  It does this while looking incredibly sharp despite its minor flaws.  Chemistry is slightly awkward at this point.  In one respect this could be viewed in the sense that the three principals were essentially brought together one episode earlier.  Agent Olivia Dunham, Peter and Walter Bishop are all essentially meeting one another for the first time and those early associations can indeed be awkward.  The question is, does that come across as natural between the characters or does that come across in the performances as contrived.  Opinions may indeed differ here.  The stunning colors uniquely denote the scene as a dream sequence resulting in a traumatic moment of Dunham essentially giving birth to a monster.  The scene is demonstrative of the violation of the female body, a traditional genre move and visual device that can be seen in everything from Aliens with Sigourney Weaver to The X-Files.





The writing is below expectations, but we shouldn't be too hard on a series attempting to establish itself here.  Both the beats of the series and the cast have some way to go, but like the Pilot The Same Old Story whilst not outstanding is an enjoyable exercise in science fiction.  The dark lighting and seemingly effortless leanings toward horror in The X-Files made for some frightening television, but Fringe tends to lean much more toward the clinical and sterile environment of sci-fi tech [Electronic Pulse Camera] and I do enjoy that aspect of it.  The way the series is filmed and lit even reflects this approach creating a much different color palette and style than was ever executed for The X-FilesIn fact, Fringe and The X-Files on atmosphere, mood, lighting and style are so very different that they seem worlds apart having been watching both recently.  That is one major differentiation I expect to see mined in the future for Fringe.



Historically, The Same Old Story was the highest rated episode of Fringe of its entire run with 13.27 million viewers, a roughly four million viewer jump over the Pilot which landed at 9.13 million viewers.  Only Fringe, Season One, Episode 13, The Transformation comes closest with 12.78 million viewers.  This is largely due to being preceded by House.  The misfortune of the entire opportunity is that Fringe follows its fairly brisk-paced 81 minute Pilot with a conceivably weak episode by most standards associated with Fringe.  Story, concept, character, dialogue - a general sense of cohesiveness is still very much in progress.  Much of it is rather weak and demonstrative of a series in its infancy and how unfortunate.  That spike would see a return to normality for Fringe for its third installment.  Firefly had an equally harmful and uneven start when it came to programming.  Fortunately, Fringe managed to survive it.



The criticisms were generally fair on this one keeping in perspective people were basing their assertions and examinations exclusively on two episodes. Travis Fickett of IGN thought The Same Old Story was an improvement over the Pilot but noted the entry was loaded with "clunky exposition and cliched dialogue," but like myself, noted the high production value.



Josh Jackson of Paste Magazine complained of the "deus ex machina" resolutions on the series.  John Kenneth Muir had a similar complaint at his Reflections On Cult Movies And Classic TV.  These are fair criticisms.  Muir went so far as to point to dialogue problems associated with characters like Peter Bishop wondering why he wasn't asking "smart" questions.  This is indeed one of the trouble spots in the early going.  Some of it is indeed trite and often atrocious or unbecoming of character.

Star Trek has often been criticized for tidy techno babble in resolving its crisis moments resulting in a conclusion that is too neat or tidy whereby viewers hardly have a genuine understanding of the how and why something was resolved.  That kind of techno babble is too convenient.  They employed a similar routine on Stargate SG-1.  But if you're willing to accept these buys you can embrace the adventure or the journey.  In the case of Fringe, the criminal procedural mixed with inexplicable fringe science does present some problems or leaps of faith and sometimes it can feel poorly scripted.



Erin Fox of TV Guide, like Fickett of IGN, liked this one better than the Pilot.  She enjoyed the high production values, the "Walter-isms" [and they are good if a little grating in the early going perhaps as a result of not knowing the character], a growing chemistry between Olivia and Peter [though it's still a little forced for my taste] and the simmering mytharc such as Walter and his associations to Nina Sharp.  On the flipside, Muir pointed to Walter's behavior as notably "contrived" by the uneven writing and a bit hard to accept as a result. It does need work.  Many were mixed on Anna Torv as Dunham.  I admit that, while I was not entirely convinced, there was always something about her that I found fascinating as a lead.  I thought her selection in the role was a good one even if I wasn't entirely sold on the series.  While, Muir saw the episode as "flat, distancing... and unintelligent," all noteworthy points, because it may explain why I didn't stay with the series initially.



UGO Networks wrote it had all of what worked in the first episode, but in "a more combustible space."  UGO writer Alex Zalben compared the entry to The X-Files Dod Kalm, but felt Fringe had the edge in the explanations department.  Meanwhile, Muir felt the story echoed the technique of a story like 2shy from The X-Files Season Three but clearly lacked the "subtlety, nuance, intelligence and good writing" of the aforementioned series.

Noel Murray of the A.V. Club saw Fringe with the potential of being a "sort of freaky, CSI, combining procedural beats with mind-blowing absurdity."  That's a nice assessment and one that certainly rings true with this episode, but as he submits still "nothing great" as of yet.  The criticisms here are entirely fair and the truth is this is an average to good installment.



The mixture of sci-fi thriller, drama with a tinge of irreverent humor has me intrigued, but nothing from The Same Old Story really sets it apart as something especially new opening it up to early comparisons.  It's an episode that fails to reveal the true potential of the series.  It remains conservative along traditional genre lines but engaging enough to continue establishing itself.  It's still out there on the Fringe for most viewers at this point and would be for me if it weren't for the knowledge I get to discover what five seasons has in store for me as a fan of science fiction.  Though, Fringe like The X-Files has a unique style of its own forming particularly in its approach to lighting and pacing.  The characters at this stage in the game lack consistency and warmth, but seem to echo the world they inhabit.  The rhythm feels disjointed but it's early. Perhaps a cliche is appropriate here, but Rome wasn't built in a day. I know many of these character problems will shake out as the series wears on and as the writers themselves get comfortable with refining their world.  You don't go five seasons and not explore story and character.  While not quite as impressive as the debut, the conventional The Same Old Story is a comfortable starting point.  I wasn't entirely wowed by Fringe intitially, but like a shiny penny it caught my attention enough to lure me to return.  The great irony is that this series is by all accounts hardly the same old story, and while the title is a clever reference to fringe-related story of an aging man, at this point, we need a little more convincing than The Same Old Story.



The Same Old Story: B-.
Writer: Jeff Pinkner, J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci.  Director: Paul A. Edwards.
Glyph Code: CHILD.

4 comments:

Troy L. Foreman said...

SFF,

Ah yes, I remember this episode well. Fringe was the show that definitely peaked my interest in science again and it's episodes like this that I really enjoyed.

You are correct, there is nothing really "new" here, but I definitely like the Fringe "spin" they put on it.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Well said Troy. The Same Old Story is a case in point regarding the science you mentioned. Believe me I'm noticing those things you mentioned.

These early entries tend to spin on familiar ground but there is nothing wrong with them as sci-fi tales. They are relatively solid.

And certainly there are little bits here and there that are important later or layer the Fringe mythology which I'm sure will have an impact as I go.

I try not to miss too much but I inevitably will.

For example, you don't realize the Observer makes all the episodes until you reach The Arrival or The Cure and then you have to go back and find the little bugger.

Observing the Observer is never easy.

Troy L. Foreman said...

SFF,

Totally understand what you mean, but the is what is great about doing a rewatch of a series that you enjoyed. You can always go back and catch things that you missed the first time around. Shows like these always have little nuances, plot points or whatever that you miss the first time around.

Right now I am in the middle of a Battlestar Galactica rewatch and it's been great going back and watching the show, catching small things that I missed the first time around.

Don't worry, there is a nice FRINGE arc that you will discover, but at the same time there are some fantastic stand alone episodes as well. Walter Bishop is a great character, actually all of them are great characters. one of the running gags that I will tell you about is how Walter never gets Astrid's name right.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Asterix, astro, love that. The show is amazingly funny in spots.

As of this writing and a good two handfuls into theseasn, I can see where Fringe will really benefit from those standalone stories and and perhaps a few back story tales no doubt. I look forward to it. Noble is a tremendous actor.

I agree and btw, battlestar galactica is a great example for a rewatch. Fringe is clearly in that category.

Enjoy your input Troy. Can't wait to check out that Riplady podcast this weekend.

Sff