“For those of you just joining us: What you are looking at is the work of ZFT, a terrorist organization responsible for at least a half a dozen biological attacks over the last several months. Everything we know thus far can be found in your packets (or Blu-rays), including a copy of their manifesto which elucidates their ideology and their methods. Which boils down to the following: Attempting to provoke or prepare for a war. With who? That’s the question, isn’t it? What we do know is that these bizarre acts seem to be increasing in frequency and that their targets are unpredictable and therefore unprotectable. Those of you assembled in this room now have a clear-cut goal…”
That goal is to rush out and pick up the high definition, Blu-ray release of the first season of JJ Abrams latest television enigma, Fringe.
JJ has been a busy man of late. His hit show Lost is now entering the home stretch. It’s time for answers as the show will finish up 6 seasons and call it a wrap this coming spring. He is basking in the delight of producing the best box office success of a Star Trek film with his reboot of that franchise pulling in almost a half a billion dollars worldwide, and that’s before it hits Blu-ray and DVD this fall. By all accounts he’s had a pretty full plate this last year, so the last thing you might have expected him to do was launch yet another television series during that time. But that’s exactly what he did.
Like all of JJ’s shows, Fringe is loaded with symbolism, numerology, and plenty of mysteries that he cleverly uses to taunt and tease you into coming back for more. At each point where the commercial breaks would be there is a glyph that represents a letter. Each episode a word is spelled out. There are hidden references to his other shows. Look for the Lost Oceanic airline ticket and a Rambaldi drawing in two episodes. Just business as usual in the JJ Abrams universe.
“Science and technology have reached a point where our means are finally catching up with our imagination. And, the only thing preventing us from doing truly visionary work are these moral based restrictions that lawmakers put up in the name of public policy… that and money. We always need more money.”
It all starts with a German airliner. A passenger throws up on a few folks, and before we know it the aircraft has crashed and a joint force of FBI and Homeland Security join pretty much all of the other government alphabet soup agencies. Homeland Security Agent Philip Broyles (Reddick) is in charge of the investigation. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Torv) acts as a liaison officer between their two agencies. Broyles is unimpressed with Denham and acts a bit dismissive toward her. Inside the plane the bodies have been stripped of their flesh. It’s as though the passengers were melted. Denham researches for other references to the phenomena and it leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop (Noble). Bishop is in a mental institution for the criminally insane. He had been somewhat of a mad scientist and conducted bizarre experiments, including human trials. His assistant was killed in an explosion, and Noble was found not competent to stand trial and ended up at Grace Mental Hospital. Denham believes that Noble can be of great help, so she seeks out his son Peter (Jackson) to get her in to see him. Peter is an international con artist who inherited his father’s genius and uses it to pull off big scams. They find Dr. Noble a mess. He is barely coherent and far from lucid. Denham arranges to have him released into Peter’s custody, and he slowly regains some parts of his lucidity, enough to set up his old lab at Harvard and help with the investigation. Denham is driven by more than her work here. Her lover, another agent, has been infected with the disease, and she’s really fighting to find a cure. While Broyles is dismissive at first, he’s impressed with the little team that Denham’s assembled and decides to make it a permanent task force. He believes the flesh eating disease is part of a pattern of scientific horrors and sets up this Fringe Division to counter whatever the plot might be. Of course, we learn that Dr. Bishop’s past is closely linked to The Pattern and the evolving ZFT Group. His former partner in crime went on to establish Massive Dynamics, a pharmaceutical and scientific research firm that is now quite powerful and somehow connected to The Pattern. Dr. Noble begins to get his lab in order, including the addition of a cow named Gene, and the fun is just beginning.
Of course, the first allure to Fringe is the crazy science that each episode explores. Cases include time and dimension travel, monsters, heinous diseases, spontaneous human combustion, computer viruses that jump to humans, feral children, faceless corpses, dream sharing, and killers who can turn your brains to soup. If it sounds a lot like The X-Files, it is and it isn’t. There are certainly some elements in common. Denham is an FBI agent in charge of a unit that investigates seemingly unexplainable events. There is somewhat of a government conspiracy or cover-up, but not nearly to the extent that Scully and Mulder encountered. The big difference here is there are no aliens. They are replaced with interdimension travelers. The show also features a much larger and diverse cast.
Leading the tremendous acting talent here is John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop. You might remember Noble from his appearances in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy as King Denethor, who is driven mad in order to keep him under control. He’s an Australian actor with a lot of talent on display here. He has the unenviable task of having to go between being a bright scientist to a man who has trouble remembering if he likes pizza or not. He’s been locked away for 17 years and is haunted by that experience and the harm his experiments have brought. He looks at his new role here as a way to try to correct those mistakes and keep his discoveries from falling into the wrong hands. He’s one of the best characters to come to television in a very long time. It’s all about the nuance, and John Noble has just nailed it all season long. Anna Torv is another Australian actor and appeared with John Noble in an Australian television series called Young Lions. She’s a fresh face for American television audiences. While I really don’t find her performances exceptional, I must say she does improve over the course of the season. It seems she had a hard time finding her character and identifying those things that make her what and who she is. I have higher hopes for the second season. Lance Reddick joins the show from a rather successful run on The Wire. He’s the perfect leader. As with his previous show, he can tell you a lot with very little. He has a very commanding presence and can act incredibly well with his facial expressions. Finally, Joshua Jackson arrives from the teen series Dawson’s Creek. He might be the most recognizable face to mainstream audiences. While his character is well played, I think it’s the chemistry that he has with John Noble that is priceless. He plays a son who doesn’t really know his father. They pretty much abandoned each other when Noble was put away. Peter is the anchor that helps to keep Walter focused, and often has to translate what he’s talking about. It’s a wonderful relationship and it is this, not the cool science, that makes this show maybe the best that Abrams has come up with yet.
Each episode of Fringe is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p image is brought to you through a VC-1 codec. As you might expect, this show is dark in more than just its nature. Much of the action occurs at night, so black levels need to be spot on, or any detail can be quickly washed away like blood pools or melted flesh. Fringe delivers with great shadow definition and deep levels of black. What is remarkable about the colors is that they manage to hold on to such fine definition even under intense low light filming conditions. The CGI cityscape that works for establishing shots is incredibly sharp and crystal clear.
Fringe’s audio is presented in a disappointing standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It’s likely identical to the DVD release. I’m not sure why there was no uncompressed audio provided, but the series certainly would have benefited from the inclusion. Instead we have a very mundane presentation which has to depict some rather incredible images. It falls flat for a Blu-ray release. Certainly dialog comes through just fine. There is some rather aggressive use of surrounds on rare occasions. What really suffers here is your sub. Very disappointing, indeed.
There is a huge annoyance I need to point out here. The discs are not very well organized at all. First of all there is no main menu. After whatever startup screens there are, it goes directly to the first episode of the disc. Now, you can access the other episodes and bonus features through a pop up menu, but it will disappear after each feature and return you to the episode. The only way to access the static menu is by going through the last chapter and several languages of FBI warnings.
There are several features that can be found on many discs for selected episodes:
Commentaries and deleted scenes (called dissected scenes) can be found throughout.
Deciphering A Scene is usually a 2 minute feature on a particular scene from the selected episode.
The Massive Undertaking is more like a quick 2-12 minute behind the scenes feature.
Warner is good enough to offer spoiler warnings here. Heed them.
Evolution – The Genesis Of Fringe: (9:07) SD The feature looks at what kind of things inspired the creation of the series. It’s mostly the production crew and they talk about the original concepts of the show. They talk a lot about assembling the crew. They mention the glyphs but do not provide a key.
Behind The Real – Science Of Fringe: (10:28) SD This feature looks at the balance of real and not so real science used on the show. You get some scientific bases for many of the show’s elements.
The Casting Of Fringe: (9:21) SD The crew take each character one by one and offer a profile on both the character and the actor. You get to see audition footage as well. While the menu says it includes Jackson, it does not.
Robert Orci’s Production Diary: (13:06) SD Orci is one of the creators and takes us on a day to day look at the filming of the pilot. It appears from this feature that they were planning to stay in Canada, where the pilot was shot, but a rebate legislation in New York City ended up moving the production of the actual series there, doubling for Boston.
Fringe Visual Effects: (15:16) SD You get it all here: pre-viz, storyboards, animatrics, and behind the scenes footage of a handful of scenes from the show. Some of this was covered in the shorter features.
Unusual Side Effects: (4:32) It’s the gag reel.
Gene The Cow: (2:46) The three different cows that played Gene are profiled here.
Fringe Pattern Analysis: 6 scenes are shown with plenty of diagrams and pip commentary that gives us real world perspectives. It’s cluttered and not as interesting as it sounds.
The series has an overriding mythology, but many of the episodes can stand on their own. While the show posits that these things are connected, many shows do resolve the “problem of the week”. By the 5th episode the mythology is in full swing. Look for The Traveler to make an appearance in every episode. Often it’s as quick as walking through a frame of film. There is always a hidden clue to the next episode to look for as well. Certainly the crew is having some fun with us here. The result is that each episode is like a treasure hunt as well as a rewarding adventure. It gives the show legs and makes multi viewings very possible. You’ll get to enjoy this set for years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if 5 seasons from now we don’t discover there were clues planted for the series finale. If you’re looking for the Leonard Nimoy appearance, it’s at the very end and lasts under 2 minutes. He will be a recurring character this season, however. I just finished season one and I already can’t wait for the next Blu-ray season to come out. I just want to know what happens next in “Walter’s believe it or not emporium”.