Fringe is one of those rare, rare creatures: a genre television show that gets to conclude its story on its own terms. For every Fringe, Lost or Battlestar Galactica, there are a dozen Fireflys, Dollhouses and Jerichos. Its unusual enough that a show displaying originality, strong characterisation and thoughful plot development comes along. Its even more unusual that the creators of such a show manage to maintain the ratings and creative control necessary to bring their story to a satisfying conclusion.
With Fringe, it looked unlikely for a while there that we would ever come this far. The conclusion of each season since the second has brought doubts over the show’s future. Many fans, myself included, had even resigned themselves to witnessing a premature death and an unsatisfying conclusion, given that the show was produced by the Fox Network, who were responsible for cancelling shows such as Firefly, Wonderfalls and Undeclared. Yet they stuck by Fringe.
What started out largely as a procedural ‘monster of the week’ kind of show in a similar vein to The X-Files (but with crazy scientists instead of aliens) developed over the years into something much more compelling. The mythology – which included a parallel universe, semi-omnipotent time travelling beings, a drug capable of bestowing super-human powers and a futuristic dystopian society – was complex and engrossing, yet it never seemed at risk of collapsing under its own weight (see Lost).
As the show struggled to stay alive, the writers were driven to up the ante, taking advantage of whatever time they might have left. During the first two seasons, a casual viewer could tune in and enjoy a crazy, but generally self-contained, story. As the desire to draw these viewers became less of a factor, the compelling, idea-driven story lines quickly took over.
All good things
And so we came to the finale. I have to admit that, during the first half of the last season, I was beginning to have my doubts. Its not that it wasn’t enjoyable and compelling – it was (and I’m never one to complain about a good old-fashioned dystopian future). Yet I had my doubts as to whether they were moving towards a satisfying conclusion, and the near-total separation from previous story lines left me feeling like I was watching a different show.
I shouldn’t have worried. Fringe has a history of making game-changing alterations to its setting and story lines (shifting the action to an alternative universe or changing the timeline so a key character no longer exists) and has proven before that its characters and themes are strong enough to carry it through.
It was perhaps inevitable that the final series should focus to some degree on The Observers. They have always been there in the background; they are the show’s most enduring and unexplained mystery. Now I’m glad they were put front and centre in the Fringe team’s final conflict. Fringe toyed with plenty of ideas over the years, but the dangers of the abuse of science has been the most enduring of them all. The Observers represent the pinnacle of such misuse – what we might become should we forgo emotions entirely in our drive for scientific knowledge.
Thinking of the fans
I’m not going to argue that Fringe is a particularly important series because of its characters (though I did love the characters – Walter Bishop, in particular, will always have a place in my heart), its writing (often cheesy and overly-sentimental) or its story (wonderfully bizarre and unrestrained though it was). What is important is that it finished on its own terms. It wasn’t prematurely cancelled and it wasn’t stretched out beyond recognition to wring out as much profit as possible. It seemed as though the creators had the freedom to take their stories and characters where they thought they needed to go.
At the same time, Fringe displayed an endearing self-awareness. It knew what it was, what it did well and what the fans wanted to see. The final episodes paid tribute to the show in a number of pleasing ways – we saw Walter take acid one final time, we witnessed Olivia injected with Cortexiphan and visiting ‘the other side’ – a clear indication not only that the creators were confident in their knowledge of their own creation, but also that they understood that their fans loved Fringe for much the same reasons they did.