Saturday, November 19, 2011

TVOD: The Fringe Fade and the Hard Sci-Fi Paradox



This season I had only one wish for Fringe; I wanted it to give as much of that 90s/Vancouver X-Files vibe as it could possibly manage. The X-Files leaving Vancouver was as much as a shock to my fanboy worldview as The Clash going pop for London Calling was.

Never was a TV show more attuned to the mystic, magic possibility of a landscape as TXF was to Vancouver. I'm by no means alone in this-- the ratings for TXF took a nosedive when it moved to LA and never recovered. And though I think Ten Thirteen continued to do very good work (and the Mytharc was better focused and significantly more subversive) after the move, there seemed to be something missing.

A sense of the real.

Even though its fans will scream until they're blue in the face that Fringe is nothing like The X-Files at all (it most certainly is) and plus it's a million times better (it's clearly not), Fringe seems to be very quickly running out of gas this season. Some people blame the "Peter is missing" and shapeshifter storyline (closely paralleling the "Mulder is missing" and supersoldier storylines of Season Eight of TXF), but I'm not sure it's that exactly.

I was a bit iffy on the third season of Fringe-- there were some great episodes on offer to be sure, but I think the overexposure of the alt-Earth stripped it of the mystique needed to power the suspension of disbelief. In other words, the less you see of an alt-Earth the less you know about it and the more you fill in with your own imagination. That's the stuff suspenseful sci-fi is made of. The more time you spent on Earth-2 the less mysterious and strange it seemed.

It seems that we're in an Earth-3 situation this season, which may be why we're seeing a lot less of Earth-2. That works for me in a big way, loving alternate-reality storylines like I do. And I love the fact that they're going out of their way to recycle X-Files plot-points and story beats. The thing that's killing me this season-- and I think might be killing it for others who may not realize it-- is that the purported "science" of Fringe is so contrived and absurd.

We're in the middle of a reductionist, anti-mystical phase in some quarters of fandom, though certainly not the mainstream of fandom by any means, given the popularity of Warcraft, Skyrim, Twilight, Harry Potter, True Blood and on and on and on.

A lot of the anti-mystical reaction is due to the tireless efforts of that pedantic pedagogue James "Amazing" Randi and his adoring aparatchiks, but a lot of it is also an understandable reaction to religious fundamentalism, which despite some diminishment in power, is still destroying the fabric of this country. Even if the media doesn't want us to realize that.


But reaction is still reaction, and Fringe's response to the mysticism of The X-Files was an attempt to ground its stories in some kind of theoretical science, hence the name of the series itself. You can see how jealously some fans guard the pretense to hard science when fans complain about Walter praying when Peter was dying.

But hard sci-fi has itself always been a fringe concern, even in fan circles (even a one-time hard sf stalwart like Greg Bear is doing more mystical work these days). Sci-Fi only went mainstream when it became explicitly mystical, probably starting with Frank Herbert's Dune and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late 60s.

It was the irreducibly-mystic Star Wars that conquered the mainstream itself and since then the genre fiction that sells is the mystic stuff. Even Star Trek is suffused to the bone with mysticism (or "woo," in the words of the Randiites), as we've seen here over and over again.

Of course, the mystic geekery must never cross over into true religion. Caprica died because all of the godtalk, and I think the same made the second X-Files movie so irritating to some fans. Allergy to right-wing intolerance has creating its own knee-jerk intolerance, as usually happens. Mystical Geekery must provide the desirable aspects of religion without succumbing to it. It's a fine line, and lapsing into mawkish religious sentimentality breaks the spell.

Fringe may not realize it but its efforts to replace mysticism with "hard" sci-fi have been the cause of its undoing, particularly this season. Now I'm biased, but it's easier for me to accept all of the weirdness in The X-Files being the work of extraterrestrials. Hell, it's easier for me to accept the demonic goings on in Supernatural. Not because I believe in literal angels and demons, but because they're presented in such a way that there's an internal logic at work that facilitates the suspension of disbelief.

Simply put, I don't believe any of the science in Fringe. Having followed the press releases of the theoretical science special interests (including DARPA) for the past three decades I've seen a lot of stuff that exists on paper and nowhere else and probably always will. In its admittedly righteous struggle against religious fascism, Science has oversold itself to credulous journalists, and in many ways Silicon Valley has done the same.

What's more, the omnipresence of Massive Dynamics and its subsidiaries tells the truth about science and technology-- it's the almost exclusive province of the rich and powerful. And as such it offers very little to the rest of us, aside from more surveillance, more disease blowback, more tech-driven redundancy and internet-enabled unfair competition.

The reason Randi (or Rambli, as I like to call him) and his bunch do nothing but attack "woo" is that not only do a lot of them have no scientific credentials to speak of, they at least subconsciously realize that science has been completely co-opted by the Powers that Be and is mind-numbingly boring and impenetrable to the people they're trying to reach.

They can attack phony psychics and fortune tellers all the livelong day, but in the end they can be nothing more than apologists for Big Pharma and the technocratic oligarchy. They work very hard to make sure you don't realize that.

Likewise, Fringe presents a world in which science and technology can do nothing for any of us but make our lives worse. It's a world in which elite corporations monopolize the tools that control our lives and no one but the disgruntled minions of those corporations can break that monopoly and usually do so only to our detriment. That's not escapism, that's the same shitty situation we face every single day.

This is why Fringe is dying, and may not survive the season. Enthusiasm for the show has tanked along with the ratings. At it is, it's on a crippling two-month hiatus, which Fox could very easily use to let it quietly die.

That's a shame in many ways because Fringe could have gone on the warpath against the very power structures that it's (at best) ambivalent about. Its tacit approval of invasive and unresponsive elites like Fringe Division and Massive Dynamics doesn't resonate in an era of populist dissent across the political spectrum.

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