Friday, March 22, 2013

Fringe S1 Ep9: The Dreamscape

"Did I invent ZFT? Flight 627? The North Woods Group? John Scott? The Pattern?  The whole thing is a hoax.  It's all a smoke screen so Massive Dynamic can do whatever it wants to whoever it wants.  Do you understand that?  Massive Dynamic is hell and its founder William Bell is the devil."
-George Morales warning Agent Olivia Dunham-

"I believe that your cooperation is an illusion.  It never leads to something tangible.  It only leads to more questions.  And that's the point isn't it?  To keep us all asking questions.  All just chasing our own tails." 

-Agent Olivia Dunham to Nina Sharp-

"Sir Isaac Newton remarked, 'If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.'  Like a scientific journal article that builds upon previous works, the series Fringe borrows from, and pays clear homage to, many of the 'giant' works of science fiction that preceded it." (p.17)

-Kevin R. Grazier, preface to In Search Of Fringe's Literary Ancestors, Fringe Science: Parallel Universes, White Tulips, And Mad Scientists-

Fringe is cooking along with its dreamy ninth entry.  Fringe is finding its heartbeat and getting its rhythm and that vibe is beginning to feel more natural than ever with the latest effort's brush with technological wonder.

Previously in my coverage of Fringe, Season One, Episode 8, The Equation we analyzed the leap by Fringe into the technological future.  The series is wise to implement and benefit from the advancement of special effects technology in the short span of years since the end of The X-Files. Fringe takes full advantage of these advancements coupling them with a story that plays with reality and technology. But like most things, it's not exclusive.  The Observer arrives early.

Fringe also unabashedly pays its homage to the technological past within classic science fiction with weird wires, tanks, chemical labs, flasks, VHS tapes, and other vintage glories of the sci-fi past.  Fringe, Season One, Episode 4, The Arrival was a stylistic nod to the 1950s, but fused technology and classic style seamlessly connecting the science fiction past to the technological future.  Fringe even has its very own Dr. Frankenstein of a sort in Walter Bishop, a mad but brilliant scientist. Still, these things work within Fringe's techie, modernity. It embraces the past and steps into the future in a dreamy amalgamation of ideas and technical wonder.  The aforementioned quote from Fringe Science and efforts here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic recognize Fringe's embrace of the science fiction past but also its efforts to leave an imprint of its own in the science fiction pantheon but re-imagining those ideas and opening them up with a new interpretation, new twists while leveraging new technologies within its expanding mythology.  Put simply, it's a process, and due to some arguably clunky moments and sometimes questionable writing the Fringe identity doesn't become immediately apparent in Season One.

The futurist sci-fi series with a smile toward past glories continues to forge ahead into the mindscape of Fringe, Season One, Episode 9, The Dreamscape.  The tale opens with the death of an executive named Mark Young.  Can you imagine death by butterfly?  The Dreamscape does and with cinematic wonder.

There's a sense of impending doom in the prologue beginning with a camera close up of a woman gracefully closing a glass door to the meeting room after all participants have exited leaving Young alone.  There's nothing intended to be sinister about it, but the way it is framed in isolation and designed to be visually intimate viewers are immediately placed on alert. Senses are heightened to the possibility of impending dread.  Doom for Young is coming.  The opening sequence is stunningly simple, meticulously cold and corporate and yet beautiful in execution (literally) as a beautiful monarch butterfly enters through an air duct within the meeting room at Massive Dynamic, New York home to 300,000 employees.  The speaker, Young, is left alone and greeted by a playful butterfly that gracefully dances about him landing on his finger.  SLICE!  The wing of the butterfly cuts him in a number of spots before landing and being swatted dead by Young.  Moments later, other butterflies enter the room as he is sliced by their wings, which appear to have the strength of razor blades.  This is followed by a swarm.  In a frenzy he attempts to break free but only breaks through the glass window, crashing through shattered glass and falling to his death.  Once again, it is an exceptionally executed sequence and genuinely disturbing and strangely beautiful set against delicate compositions by the show's composers as the man ultimately falls to his death in delicate and floating slow motion.  Maybe my children had legitimate fears about Butterfly World when they were very tiny.  What happened to termination papers?  It's clear that these butterflies are unlikely real but visually it's magnificent.

Dunham is called by Phillip Broyles to the scene from Boston along with the Bishops.  Something is indeed amiss as Walter notes laceration's on Young's body but none penetrating his shirt.  Meanwhile, Dunham spots John Scott through a crowd who then disappears. Dunham continues to see John Scott in her visions. Memories of Scott linger.

Dunham meets with COO of Massive Dynamic, Nina Sharp.  Her conversation with Nina Sharp is pleasant and polite, but even Dunham wants more than pleasantries concerning Sharp's cooperation with the FBI investigation. "I would expect more from you than the polite appearance of cooperation." Sharp even makes a sharp-tongued, barbed remark about the private industry expectations of Massive Dynamic versus someone working in the public sector like Dunham. It's veiled, but it's there.

An investigation of Young's apartment reveals the word MONARCH in his files.  Olivia also sees butterflies adorning his wall and her mind experiences their wings fluttering for a moment in a nifty visual trick in keeping thematically with The Dreamscape story.

Elsewhere, we are slowly learning more about Peter Bishop who appears to have been involved with some very bad people.  A girl named Tess Amaral meets him and tells him he should leave Boston and go far away.  Tess is clearly the victim of abuse by a man named Michael Kelly.  Later, Peter would beat Kelly as he exits his home and warns him not to touch Tess again or he would be killed.  Peter is demonstrating some relatively harsh attributes.  It's certainly an interesting character component.  The suggestion that Peter was connected to the criminal underworld and perhaps the mafia as secret society continues to be an intriguing but minor subplot.

Funny enough, Joshua Jackson was a last minute casting choice for Fringe.  He tried out for the role of Captain Kirk in J.J.Abrams Star Trek (2009) reboot and lost it.  He landed on his feet though for Fringe.  He definitely has a kind of edgy Captain Kirk quality.  I could see him in that role, but I do think he has much to offer to the part of Peter Bishop and I am starting to warm to him despite some behavioral inconsistencies to this point.

Fringe, as we've discussed here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic, and which has been well-publicized and documented elsewhere, was definitely a series designed and mirrored to carry the torch of prior science fiction series like The X-Files, Lost and The Twilight Zone.  Just look at the quote from the book Fringe Science noted at the top of this entry.  As referenced in the Pilot and here with The Dreamscape the series has been infused with an homage to Altered States (1980), just one of many science fiction tributes.  Dunham first experienced the tank in Walter's lab during the series Pilot in an effort to connect to Scott and save his life.  At that time, Scott was struggling to survive.  But he never made it.  He's dead Jim.

Dunham is receiving correspondence via e-mail from John Scott on her laptop in her apartment.  She is receiving notes from a ghost. The first receipt is strictly an address.  Scott is leading her through mental remnants.  At 1312 Labrador Lane, Dunham finds frogs in a basement connected to the death of Young. The frogs are sent to Walter's lab.  While Walter determined the frogs are connected to Young's death, Olivia explains to Charlie she is experiencing visions of John.

In the lab, Walter determined the frogs are actually toads - Bufo alvarius to be exact.  The toads secrete a compound from their skin that has a psychophysiological effect on the mind, whereby the mind produces physical effects on the body.  If the compound is modified into a psychoactive hallucinogen it is indeed powerful. This, in turn, directly affects the fear center of the brain.  Walter surmises Young's death was indeed murder.

The latest episode, The Dreamscape, takes us back into Altered States territory as Dunham goes back into the sensory deprivation tank or the tank to attempt to cleanse herself of Scott's memories.  Walter cautions that the repressed memory therapy procedure is very dangerous, but Dunham is an adventurous agent and steps back into the tank with free will.  Walter sees lifting the trapped memories could be potentially detrimental to her health.  Dunham wants them purged.  She needs them removed for peace of mind, rather than piece of mind.

The entirety of that sequence including flashbacks is well-produced and directed.  The lighting and cinematography in those sequences are so beautifully directed, produced and executed there is an ethereal quality to them.

Olivia, with the aid of Walter's drugs, immerses herself in a dream state and revisits her first date with Scott.  The scene is actually quite poignant.  Olivia observes a version of herself sitting with Scott at a restaurant table. Olivia watches to see herself leave the table, so she sits down in front of John.  He cannot see her by all accounts.  Looking at John Olivia tells Scott "I loved you." Torv is very effective in this scene opening up her vulnerable side and expressing that she did indeed love this man.  The tough but emotional Olivia was indeed wounded by this man.  There is a sense of betrayal by Scott of Olivia.  At least this is how she feels towards him.  She tells John that Mark Young died and John turns and looks into Olivia's eyes.  Olivia is panic-stricken in the moment.  Walter calms her.

The scene quickly shifts and Olivia witnesses a transaction being made between Scott, a black man, a Latino man as well as the now deceased Young. Olivia follows Young and the Latino man but they disappear because she is experiencing John's memories and must return to John. Returning Scott kills the black man by stabbing him.  This jostles Dunham out of her altered, drug-infused state. This further complicates her ability to understand who Scott was and his agenda.  Olivia is removed from the tank.  This entire sequence is the heartbeat of The Dreamscape.

Olivia realizes that only the Hispanic man is left alive.  Everyone else from that memory is dead.  She begins to composite the Hispanic man's face through facial recognition software in the hopes of getting answers and determining who this man is and what he might know about Young and maybe even Scott.

Olivia informs Broyles that Young may have been selling this synthetic hallucinogen on the black market.  It has the potential not only to be a street drug, but weaponized.  Olivia wants Young's files from Massive Dynamic and Broyles submits he will see what can be done.  After all, Broyles and Sharp have a murky relationship that still remains something of a mystery.  That relationship is more than suggested in Fringe, Season One, Episode 3, The Ghost Network's closing moments.  Broyles would later provide Olivia with information given to him by Sharp.

Throughout the episode there are moments of strange or inappropriate humor from Walter, but generally speaking it begins to work and it works for me and I'm beginning to enjoy the retorts.  In this case, his random coffee yogurt or erection moments, as odd as they seem, somehow work in The Dreamscape.

Dialing 1-212-MONARCH, Olivia recognizes the voice of George Morales, a black market trafficker.  The pursuit offers sci-fi action fans an intense but ephemeral thrill ride before apprehending Morales after being hit by a car.

In the hospital Morales warns her Massive Dynamic is "hell" and William Bell is the "devil."  He wants immunity and protection from Massive Dynamic further upping the ante on the company's unknowns. Morales received great technologies from Young and further lends credence to the fact he may have been literally terminated by the company for selling secrets.  Morales believes he can trust Olivia because John told him about her.  Again, complications continue as Olivia tries to make heads or tails of Scott's mission.

Olivia pays a condescending visit to Sharp suggesting the company's cooperation is nothing more than an intangible illusion.  They offer seeming rabbit holes and more questions.  Ultimately, Olivia's investigations lead her back to Massive Dynamic.  She suggests Nina be forthright with her investigation with Morales in custody.  Sharp is unmolested.  The scene is juxtaposed with the death of Morales.

Broyles informs Dunham the witness has been killed with the same psychosomatic or psychoactive drug that killed Mark Young.  Young believed he was killed by butterflies, but the poison was the culprit.  In the case of Morales he saw John Scott slicing his throat before his death and the same poison was found in his system.  The synthetic hallucinogen eliminates Olivia's sole remaining witness.  The drug as a weapon could be lethal.  It can literally scare you to death and convince the body to murder you.  Yes, that's one powerful drug.

Olivia is frustrated with Sharp and Massive Dynamic and brings her grievances to her superior, Broyles, who essentially slaps her on the wrist assuring her that the company has been nothing but forthcoming and cooperative.

Dunham visits Walter at his apartment and tells him she wishes to go back into the tank despite serious physical long-term detriment or the potential for deleterious effects to herself.  She is willing to do it.  Walter is against it.  She wants the truth and she knows Scott's memories hold the key to those questions to the truth and those memories are within her.  But that re-tanking is for another day.

The final moments and music deliver classic Abrams.  Talk about Ghost In The Machine. Dunham's laptop mysteriously activates while she rests in her apartment.  She receives a second e-mail from John Scott.  Though she can see him while in the tank, those in her memories cannot see her, or can they?  The music tightens and the e-mail from Scott reads, "I Saw You. In The Restaurant."

Many of the moments and scenes within The Dreamscape lend further evidence that Fringe is coming into its own.  Plenty of moments, like Lost, allow interpretation for Fringe.  These splendid little moments see Fringe finding its touch and doing so much more naturally and confidently as the story and mytharc expands.

Noel Murray of The A.V. Club wrote, "The Dreamscape is an episode more involved with insinuation and mythology-building than with telling a complete-in-one story."  IGN's Travis Fickett noted the series, at this point, is "still trying to find its legs."  Sarah Steggall still sees potential in the series, but took issue with the sometimes problematic writing.  "Why can bad writing like this survive and even thrive...?"  Stegall suspects it has "breakout" potential but feels the cliched over reliance on the "Big Bad Corporation" as "greedy, soulless Bad Guys" is old.  These are the same companies "signing their paychecks and producing this stuff." Bad Robot indeed.  These are fair points, but The Dreamscape is a strong step in the right direction. Despite these reservations and grievances this is an above average script coupled with the typically excellect technical production making it a real Season One highlight.

Kudos to Zack Whedon in his first scripting appearance with Julia Cho. Cho and Whedon, of thee family Whedon, work a wonderfully gentle script and get at the nuances of Dunham's feminine side, clearly a Whedon trademark along with Cho's own sure-handed perspective.  It's a solid script with capable direction from Fringe mainstay Frederick E. O. Toye (Falling Skies).  Fringe is becoming a science fiction experience and like The Dreamscape, and episodes like The Transformation and Bad Dreams to come, the series takes pleasure in exploring both the frightening and the ethereal within the mind.  I'm really starting to let go and simply float inside its mysterious waters.

The Dreamscape: B/ B+.
Writer: Julia Cho, Zack Whedon. Director: Frederick E. O. Toye.
Glyph Code: VOICE.

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