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.


  1. Don't even tell me you don't think London Calling is one of the great albums of all time... don't even tell me.

  2. Hey Chris,

    I think you make a lot of valid points in this post, about where we are politically and socially at the moment. Your thoughts about mystical geekery offering all the pleasures of divine without lapsing to outright religion ring very true to me. I think you've hit on a key aspect about how humans enrich and nourish themselves spiritually.

    Art is the last bastion of the amnesiac mystic, and the potentials of liberation contained within art exceed our wildest dreams, I believe. I think this is why art and culture are so mercilessly targeted for full-spectrum cheapening. Your point about the weightlessness of a lot of fringe science theories are connected to this assault on art, I think. I mean to say, I think quantum physics and wormholes and various interdimensional thingamajigs are so popular in alternative cicles because people are attracted to the ART in them, rather than the science, per se.

    They are drawn to the mystic potentials in these theories, even if the theories or the mathematics behind them are half-baked. I think this is also connected to something else you mentioned: suspension of disbelief. It's like the Initiate's Path is a lot harder to find in modern western culture, and we've lost touch with the psychological, imaginal potency that suffuses all things - and so we reach for things that suspend our disbelief in the explicitly supernatural, yet at the same time things that will simultaneously satisfy this very real mystic need in us.

    It's like monotheism has colonised a mystical terrain that was once self-evident to us. And the backlash to this colonisation is to now deny that such a terrain even exists. Which is demonstrably absurd, since this terrain is clearly congruent with the human the mystics of Old constantly informed us. As long as there is psyche there is mysticism and mystical experiences.

    But perhaps this denial of something so self-evident is because authoritarian religion crushed our spirits, and then Science told us that, actually, we had no spirits at all. It seems the result today is a kind of collective denial of the profound reality of our own psyches. Instead we've got self-absorbtion, rampant egoism, but not the conviction that our seats of consciousness are places of magic-making.

    You wouldn't need quantum physics and fringe science to reintroduce this implicit magic-making if this collective denial WASN"T taking place.

    I know I'm rambling a little, but I hope I'm understood. You hit on the essence of this, I think, when you wrote, "they're presented in such a way that there's an internal logic at work that facilitates the suspension of disbelief."

    This internal logic is the essence of poetry and synchromysticism, because it's this internal logic that facilitates all mystical experience - and it's usually why we don't 'buy' a narrative that lacks this. Without it nothing feels real, or genuinely mysterious, or personal, or intimate. And that is still what our spirits crave.


  3. Sorry,

    For those who couldn't follow my reasoning, I meant to write:

    "It's like the Initiate's Path is a lot harder to find in modern western culture, and we've lost touch with the psychological, imaginal potency that suffuses all things - and so we reach for things that CONFIRM our disbelief in the explicitly supernatural, YET at the same time things that will simultaneously satisfy this very real mystic need in us."

    This is what I meant when I said that people are attracted to the art in fringe science theories, rather than the science per se.

    I hope this clarifies my previous comment!

  4. On his website, Dan Simmons talked about having to deal with clueless producers on a project they hired him for. This is how the meeting went:

    ...“No successful sci-fi movie is going to have religion in it,” said One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe. There were eight (or maybe nine) sounds of courageous agreement from the other suits at the table and another audible sigh from the director in his Coldwater Canyon treehouse or wherever he lived.

    “May the Force be with you,” I said to all of them...

    Of course, religion shows up in AVATAR as well. DUNE wasn't successful in film, but it was huge in fiction, and LORD OF THE RINGS is essentially religious with no overt faith mentioned in the story (until you get to Silmarillion).

    Oddly, the touchy point in Simmons' treatment was about the rise of Gnosticism in a post-catastrophe world around 140 years from now:

    "...We overhear in dialogue that the global population in 2148 is a little less than 1 billion people. This is disturbing since there are more than 6 billion people alive on Earth right now and we’re rushing toward 10 billion. Moreover, we soon understand this drastic decrease in population wasn’t due to careful population planning or ecological considerations – no, by the year 2148, almost all the shit that can hit the fan, culturally and historically speaking, has hit the fan:...

    ...The Gnostic Church. While originally a branch of early Christianity that was all but wiped out as heresy by mainline Christians no later than the 3rd Century A.D., the New Gnosticism has – like the Global Accord – arisen as a dominant religious movement....

    ...Gnosticism has survived underground over the centuries and has always centered on the search for gnosis – profound self-knowledge – within ourselves. The Gnostic Church of 2148 C.E. continues that practice of seeking divinity (or at least profound insight) within, and thus has brought in secular and non-Christians from throughout the world who were weary of dogma and revelations that had led to the bloodletting of the 21st Century. But it also includes a tenet of ancient Gnosticism: i.e. that the world and universe were not created by God, exactly, but by a sort of demi-god graduate student who totally botched the job. The real God was so appalled by the shabbiness of Creation that He or She simply left . . . left Earth, left humankind to its own fate, and left the space-time continuum we call the universe. In a sense, the Gnostic God – whether real or metaphorical – takes the form of the ultimate Deadbeat Dad who’s left his family in the lurch.

    The traumatic history of our characters and their parents and grandparents – the survivors of the horrors of the 21st and early 22nd Centuries – has left most of the remaining 900 million or so people on Earth with a great sense of being lost, of being betrayed by old traditions, being let down by old ideas of politics and faith, being disappointed by old ways of thinking . . . of being abandoned...

    ...Part of the Gnostics’ quest is to find that missing father and to regain a sense of belonging to something other than a malign and senseless universe..."

  5. A lot of great points made in this post. However, IMO the main reason this season of Fringe sucked so much was because it was so BORING. Earth-3 is the dullest place in the world as are it's versions of all the main characters.

    The last episode was very telling in that it showed the Corporations (Massive Dynamics via Nina Sharp) were artificially inducing and sustaining Olivia's (our) lackluster state.

    On the upside, I think maybe Fringe's producers just wanted to give us a glimpse into what Earth would be like without hope (Peter=savior/hope), without the fighting human spirit. So when the season returns in January let's hope they bring back hope.

  6. John Henning ... re: 'dead beat dad'.

    Truth is omnipresent. Only our perception is lacking.

    Maybe it is necessary for the universe to manifest ALL truth. Even ugly unpleasant truth. Everyting that is possible, exists.

    The universe is not the project, it's only a facility. A facility for discovery.

    Here, we may discover the meaning of 'good', and the beauty of love.

    WE discover these little by little. And the more aware we become of goodness, beauty and love, the greater our longing for these becomes by enduring the absence.

    Perhaps one could say, there seems a method to the madness.

    Pehaps then, it is much more genius than madness.

    Perhaps it is no small thing to incubate a soul that values love above all.

  7. As usual Chris your comments coincide curiously with ones made privately in my timeline -- though my thought on Fringe's seeming imminent demise was that it has simply run out of stories to tell, certainly not that the science is unbelelievable. (eg as per recent episodes, 'time bubbles' and the irridescent light that surround them closely parallel a type of visionary experience well known to certain adepts of Tibetan Buddhism and might be, on that account at least, "believable" if not exactly credible). Even there, there was no real story -- just thematic cut and paste from X and Outer episodes-- not to mention that Olive-1.0 : Olive-3.0 : : olive-and-pimento-loaf : olive-loaf. Nothing to write home about -- and there wasn't much there to begin with, either.

  8. Thanks Chris, and Raj too, for a Monday morning start that includes thinking.

    Dogma of elite supported science, religion, money, art, to even know you have a little voice much less hear it...

    The art that still gets to me the most is music, by tracking back through genres I liked in the past- mostly folk/roots for me. Gillian Welch is a wordsmith who can chrystalize a lot of felt situations in a few words.This is a verse from her new CD-

    When Miranda ran away,
    took a cab and left LA,
    That's the way that it goes,
    that's the way.
    She was busted,broken flat,
    had to sell that pussy cat,
    that's the way that it goes,
    that's the way.

    The flavor of so many situations in this world in words of 2 syllables of less. That's honest magic. Maybe not happy magic...but straightforward as Hell. Awake magic.

    Apologist overlord magic ain't magic.

    Best wishes to all, and thanks for everyone's comments because I love the dialog, Delorus

  9. Re. your comment on Herbert's Dune:

    The book can't be filmed because it relies very much on the internal dialogue and subjective experiences of its characters, let alone the sheer depth of the book.

    It is a cop-out to treat the book as "mystical", as the film did: the key point about the first book is that somebody indistinguishable from a prophet appeared in a place uniquely suited to him--and the rest follows. I know I won't have to remind you a Clarke's Law in re. this.

    I remember going to see it when it first came out. The horror, the horror! The cinema was virtually empty (no surprise there!), though the largest group were a bunch of giggly girls who were there to see Sting get his kit off!

    My advice is stick with the original six novels: they are a true American classic and worthy of close perusal.

    And I recommend giving a visit if you really want to get an idea of how profound and loved these books really are.

  10. Z's right about DUNE. Personally, though, I only like the original novel. The sequels did not feel like part of an artistic whole. Not like LORD OF THE RINGS, for example, where the three novels are actually one novel arbitrarily split into three by the needs of the publisher.

    However, the basic point stands. DUNE is not a truly mystical novel. There is no underlying destiny for Paul Atriedes that is separate from the very artificial groundwork laid among Fremen culture by early Bene Gesserit missionaries.

    Oddly, I recall an Alberto Rivera conspiracy theory that reverse engineered the story of Dune and applied it to Islam claiming that the Vatican created it and used Muhammed in the same way the Bene Gesserit hoped to use Paul. However, they lost control in the same way as well.

    Despite his apparently superhuman powers, the essential story of Dune is that he uses his knowledge and training to intentionally fit into a prophecy for very direct personal ends. It is not a straightforward story of a Messiah coming into his divinely ordained destiny.

    It would be as if Jesus, knowing the lore concerning the messiah, intentionally set up his miracles and crucifixion almost as a magic trick, along Simon Magus lines, in a ploy to overturn the Jewish heirarchy at the time.

    I think someone wrote a novel about that as well.

  11. @John Henning:

    Not wanting to clog up the comments with off-topic discussion, I'll say that I mostly agree with you.

    However, according to Herbert, the first three novels were conceived as a unified trilogy, showing the dangers of following a charismatic and--in this case--unusually competant leader and the problems confronted by him. Many folk seem to say what you do (i.e. "I only like the original novel"), and this is something Herbert commented on too. He seemed to think that our love of heroes precluded people from appreciating where the next two novels went.

    If the whole series is about anything, it is about the maturation of the species; until this is grasped, this is what, imho, makes the last three novels seem so odd. The actions and responses of the characters in the Old Empire can seem as peculiar to the reader as does the behaviour of an adult to a child. I think Herbert manages this remarkably well.

    I disagree (somewhat) with "There is no underlying destiny for Paul Atriedes that is separate from the very artificial groundwork laid among Fremen culture by early Bene Gesserit missionaries." The book makes it resonably clear that Paul was the "tool of Fate" in that, despite his not inconsiderable abilities, he was pushed by the species into being the focus for its own renewal, hence the jihad that followed. Jung is clearly an influence here.

    Re. the conspiracy theory: yes, I've heard the same. Also, I remember back when Osama bin Laden came to prominance after 9-11, conspiracy buffs did the same in trying to relate Dune to Al-Qaeda, and suggesting that was his inspiration. Me, I doubt it: Islam has enough of a history of that sort of thing, without needing to use Dune as a script!

    Regards Z

  12. Great thread, early on I was fairly cynical about "Fringe" from the standpoint, and this was my gut feeling, that it lacked the intellectual or the sociological weight that could be found with "The X-Files" and "Millennium", and those shows dealt with this mystical terrain so much better.

    Pardon to digress, but actor John Neville who played Well-Manicured Man on "The X-Files" passed on this week, I believe he was 83, a real loss for such a great character actor.

  13. Chris,

    I've recently watches the third series of Fringe (that's how far we have got in the UK), and I was not as impressed as with the first two series. From what you say (and NO, I don't mind spoilers!) I'm not sure whether I want want to watch something that might have run out of steam.

    Your comments about the X-Files hadn't dawned on me before, and I think you are right.

    The problem with Fringe, it seems to me, is that it harks back to the pre-2008 period and acts as if that were still the world we are living in. And as for the "science", well, this ties back into your comments about "the middle of a reductionist, anti-mystical phase in some quarters of fandom", except that I have seeen the same trend appearing among the esoteric wing too. The pushing of Scientism as a new faux-religion (where mysticism is relegated to evolutionarily developed disfunctional aspects of our neurophysiology, but which nonetheless are of some utility--or so they suppose) is a primary contibutor, methinks. The failure of the educational system to inculcate critical, logical thinking likely contibutes to the "success" of its exemplars, such as the New "Atheists", as there is little, publicised, argumentation against it in the same terms. I propose ignoring them: the logical positivists were wrong (as Wittgenstein realised), and I think this Scientism is on, similar, very shaky ground too.

    All in all, that was a great posting of yours,

    Regards Z

  14. Mostly agree. Not sure that your assertion that religious fundamentalism is "still destroying the fabric of this country" matches the framework of this post, but I'm sure it isn't true.

    The fabric, as it were, was never anything but tattered to begin with, but if anything is on a path of destruction, insofar as blessed America is concerned, it would be those who continue - in spite of all the evidence against them - to lay claim to being the sole bulwark against said extremism.

    The elephant in the room ain't a Republican. Neo-liberal techno wonkery offers no alternative. On the contrary (speaking of being on big pharma's payroll).

    For what it's worth: I maintain a belief that no hour-long weekly has more than two seriously quality seasons in it. After that, the best you get is an episode here and there which harks back to the quality of the original vision.

    Besides, we're talking about FOX here. Fringe s1 sure was something, though.

  15. Yes, Chris, definately.

    "MASSIVE DYNAMICS', or, by any other name: "Passive-AND-Manic".

    Even the name conjures the disturbing feeling that, with 'Fringe', we're somehow caught in a revolving door that has nothing to do with what anyone actually intended..

    best to all,

  16. Chris, I respect you and your work so much that I watched the Fringe pilot (the entire thing) and half of the second episode. All I saw was the usual stuff:
    1) top-down authoritarianism
    2) agent controlled by unpleasant person of color
    3) female main character uncertain of herself (even though she's a heavily-armed cop), erotically charged by sexual jibes that any self-respecting woman would immediately silence
    4) Every fourth line of dialog: "I need you to do this," "I need you to do that" -- TV dialog is filled with this line, is it some kind of NLP manipulation?

    I could go on, but it's not necessary. I didn't see anything subversive at all. Just a thin veneer of some facsimile of "truthseeking."

    Should I have watched more episodes? I don't think I could stand it.

  17. I have to say that, by all rights, I should be a Fringe fan; but I stopped watching early in the 2nd season. First, the two best characters -- Walter and Peter -- had to play second to Olivia. As an actor/tress, I just did not find her convincing on any level. Second, they're performing all types of wild experiments in the basement of building that provides no protection given all the toxins and other dangerous stuff Walter plays with every week? Third, Fringe, like the X-Files, is being pulled down by the weight of its own complexity. If Olivia were more compelling instead of a cliche, there would be room for growth in the show via growth in her ... assuming her acting could pull it off, which I doubt.

    Anyway, that's my two cents.

  18. Great post . . . I stopped watchin after series 1 . . . :(

    Agree with almost all of what you write . .except that bit about the clash, who i thought were truly awful, until London Calling - still their only good release [sorry!] in my humble opinion . . .:)

    "When they kick at your front door - tell me, how you gonna come . . .?"

    hilarious comment, anon . . ;

    "1) top-down authoritarianism
    2) agent controlled by unpleasant person of color
    3) female main character uncertain of herself (even though she's a heavily-armed cop), erotically charged by sexual jibes that any self-respecting woman would immediately silence
    4) Every fourth line of dialog: "I need you to do this," "I need you to do that" -- TV dialog is filled with this line, is it some kind of NLP manipulation?"

    nuff said . . .