Friday, October 5, 2012

'Fringe' Season Three (2010)

Starring Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble
Created by JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

Having successfully rescued Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) from the alternate universe, the Fringe team returns to the prime universe in the hopes of getting life back to normal.  Unfortunately, that's not to be: Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) has been replaced by her doppelganger from the other side, dubbed "Fauxlivia."  Unbeknownst to Peter, Walter (John Noble), Astrid (Jasika Nicole) and Broyles (Lance Reddick), Fauxlivia has dark motives for replacing Olivia.  Acting as a spy, she learns more about the prime universe, sending information back to "Walternate," the evil alternate Secretary of Defense.

In the alternate universe, Olivia is brainwashed into thinking she is Fauxlivia, and works with their Fringe team to help solve the strange goings on in that universe, as well as to fight against the degradation that is slowly destroying the entire universe.  But the brainwashing doesn't seem to be permanent, and her original identity seems to be surfacing.  Walternate knows he needs to learn how Olivia's special powers work in order to replicate them and save his universe.

But the mystery doesn't stop there.  Pieces of a mysterious machine have been uncovered, an ancient machine that appears to be millions of years old, and inexplicably linked to Peter.  What is this machine?  What is Peter's connection to it? And why does Fauxlivia want to steal parts of it back to her home universe?

The third season of "Fringe" is its best yet.  I've always been fascinated by alternate universes, and that "Fringe" has so deeply embraced alternate universes and timelines as part of its ongoing mythology is great fun to me.  It almost functions like a marriage of Fox's long-gone but fondly-remembered "X-Files" and "Sliders."

As with the second season before it, the plotting in this third season is much tighter and cohesive than the first season.  There are still some concepts that don't quite work.  For example, Walter is given ownership and control of Massive Dynamic, which would give the characters access to all kinds of labs and advanced technology, but the show barely bothers to explore this unless it figures into the plot of any specific episode.

The characters still have a tendency to travel great distances in short amounts of time, only to spend minutes at their location, and then leave.  There's a great deal of travel between Boston and New York, two cities that are hundreds of miles apart, but the show makes it feel like they're down the street from each other.

Despite this, as the conflict between universes heats up, the show gets more interesting by leaps and bounds.  The early half of the season actually alternates episodes back and forth taking place in each universe, sometimes with a red opening title sequence for the alternate universe where the universe is slowly coming apart due to Walter's kidnapping of Peter as a child, and the "blue" prime universe.  There, the Fringe Division is more militarized, and the writers get to toss a lot of great world-building details at us that make the alternate universe totally fascinating.  The first season's cliffhanger shot of the World Trade Towers in New York may have been done for some shock value, but the further differences in the world are much more fascinating.

Once the plot regarding the "first people" and the ancient machine are explained, the twists come fast and furious, and are always interesting.  More so than the first two seasons, the episodes nearly all build on the mythology.  There are only a handful of episodes that don't advance the overall arc, which gives the entire season a great deal of focus.  Even the episodes that feature standalone aspects typically have a B-plot that advances the grander plotlines.

There is also a greater focus on the characters this season, exploring the fascinating concepts of what it would be like to come into contact with an alternate version of yourself.  Olivia's personal arc for the season deals with her emotions regarding Fauxlivia's impersonation of her for so many weeks, and the fallout from Fauxlivia's romantic relationship with Peter.  That the two have a destiny that works together is fascinating, especially once we figure out exactly why and how they do.  This leads to some deeper performances from the cast, which are welcome.

This feels like the first time the show cares as much about its characters as it does its plot and world-building.  The fact that it gets to develop alternate versions of its characters is also fascinating.  Fauxlivia is very different from Olivia, so Anna Torv gets to play with being the same person but with an entirely different manner.  She dresses differently, she walks differently, she has different relationships with the people around her.  It's fascinating.

Likewise, Walternate is the antagonist, but it's hard to call him outright evil.  The show is careful to contrast him with Walter, and to also be sure to explain to us his motivations for his actions.  He might be trying to destroy an entire universe, but Walternate is a man who is driven by love and grief and jealousy, which has led him down a certain path. John Noble gets to also play the character completely different from the prime version of Walter.  Walternate is cold, calculating, manipulative.  He stands tall and doesn't stammer or get distracted.  The differences are incredible, only serving to highlight how engrossing Noble's performance is as the regular Walter - that when we see him acting differently, it's a shock, because we've gotten so used to him as the brilliant but unstable fool.

The third season of "Fringe" is its best yet.  Each season I watch of this show, I like it more.  I'm glad i stuck with it.