Some Notes on Fringe’s Scientists… ‘Mad’ and ‘Bad’ Alike.

Walter Bishop and Friend

Walter Bishop and Friend

If I’ve been quiet lately it’s because I’ve been writing a book chapter on the topic of “The Scientist as Villain, the Scientist as Hero” for a forthcoming volume on the Fox series Fringe (probably my favorite TV series of the post-Lost/BSG era; because, as I told a friend of mine once, “yes, that’s an era now”). My draft is currently with the editors and, subject to their acceptance, there’ll be the regular process of review and revisions to go through before publication of the book sometime next year.

In the meantime I’ve been picking through the material which I cut out of my draft (mostly on account of space; there was a strict 7,000 word guideline for chapters, which I might not have entirely succeeded in keeping to, but I’m sure the piece will slim down through the revisions). I thought it might be interesting to share some of the off-cuts here as a kind of parallel argument to what, hopefully, you’ll eventually read in the published volume. Please note: spoilers abound here for much of Fringe, from the early seasons right up to the currently airing final episodes…

1.

The appearance of the Observer in Walternate’s lab, distracting him at a key moment in “Peter” (2.16) and so inadvertently setting in motion the conflict between the two universes, is not merely a development necessitated by plot, but, in actuality, Thomas Kuhn’s “apparently arbitrary element,” the “personal and historical accident [which] is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time”.[1]

2.

The manner in which Walter Bishop and William Bell are compared forces viewers to consider the moral consequences of values such as self-mastery, self-cultivation, and self-direction, upon which western, capitalist success is built. Bell personifies such values and has been handsomely rewarded for them, successfully adapting his scientific brilliance to a modern world of patents and commodified knowledge. Meanwhile Walter, deprived control of self and life, is left isolated from civilization and contrasted unfairly with Bell by the general public: one man “rotting away in a padded cell”, the other “rich and famous”, a true contemporary champion (“Over There, Part II”, 2.23). Of course, the reality of the situation is quite the opposite. Walter’s status as a hero-scientist, one who’s madness stems from his rational (to him) decision to have part of his brain – his own evil tendencies – removed, is usurped by Bell, a villain who has tainted the world with the evil from “the Walter that was”. Indeed, Bell’s literal implanting of Walter’s excised neural material into the brains of others (“Grey Matters”, 2.10) is the figurative expression of the way in which he used the pair’s scientific knowledge for unethical purposes.

3.

Separate the show’s control figures from their productive comparison with Walter, and one finds that the roles played by Bell and Walternate (and even David Robert Jones and villains of the week) in the development of fringe science correspond to Kuhn’s assertion that “the early developmental stages of most sciences have been characterized by continual competition between a number of distinct views of nature, each partially derived from, and all roughly compatible with, the dictates of scientific observation and method”.[2] Indeed in Season Five, with the original Fringe team forced to become fugitives and terrorists, their revolution is built upon the knowledge and experience of the bad scientists they have previously tangled with. “Will the villains rescue the heroes?” asks Harvard geneticist Jon Beckwithe in a 1995 American Scientist article on the changing culture of science.[3] Well, says the action of Season Five, their knowledge might, but only when combined with Walter’s morality and humanity.

4.

The future Walter of “The Day We Died” (3.22) – his dishevelled mad scientist appearance restored – acknowledges the importance of Human emotional connection, the power of love, in his design of The Machine (intrinsic to its operation is the presence of both Peter and Olivia together). Equally, Peter’s Season Five experience with the Observer technology “echoes the myth of science invading human identity” however his decision to extract the device from his head, much as his father once had pieces of his own brain removed, is a victory for feeling Human beings over calculating and machine-like rationalists.[4]

5.

The intercession from the future seen in “The Day We Died” foreshadows Fringe’s final control subjects in its experiment with the mad scientist archetype: Walter as human versus the Observers as post-humans, characters heavily augmented by technology and therefore the show’s ultimate rebuke to the Instrumentalist Conception that science and technology are value neutral. “Scientists”, humans from “many generations after your lifetime”, the Observers have – like the mad scientist villain of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) – been “converted into the apparently perfect scientific-technocratic man without a trace of human emotion” (“The End of all Things, 4.14).[5]. They are “fundamental inhuman”, the manner in which evil scientists have long been depicted in Romantic Literature in particular.[6] The question posed by the Observers – what is human? – again foregrounds Walter’s choice of so many years before. What makes us Human, his actions suggest, is our ability to choose between good and evil, an ethical declaration which has a long pedigree in Science Fiction. While Walter made his choice a surgical reality years earlier, and while Fringe has tested its assertions against nature in general, the show’s fifth season tackles the character of the mad scientist with regard to Human nature itself.

6.

To restore Walter’s neuro-pathways, degraded as a side-effect of his being in amber for twenty years, the brain tissue removed by William Bell is re-implanted (“Letters of Transit”, 4.19). While the procedure inspires Walter’s brain to heal, it also begins to alter his personality, returning him to the scientist he once was. Villainy has been restored, physically, and Walter’s struggle in Season Five is thus against “the Walter that was” (“Black Blotter”, 5.09). The transformation which ensues slowly brings him closer to the man he once feared he was becoming, a short-tempered genius prone to seeing people as disposable. Nevertheless the struggle itself defines him anew. Walter fights to maintain the personality which has allowed him to reconnect with those around him. His resulting arc throughout Season Five is thus as much a private war to preserve his view of the world as it is a public one to save the people who inhabit it.


[1] Thomas S. Kunh. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd Edition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Beckwith. “Macroscope: Villains and Heroes in the Culture of Science.” American Scientist 86:6 (Nov-Dec 1995). 152.

[4] Peter Weingart, Claudia Muhl and Petra Pansegrau. “Of Power Maniacs and unethical Geniuses”. Public Understanding of Science,12 (2003), p.281.

[5] Alan Woolfolk. “Disenchantment and Rebellion in Alphaville”. In The Philosophy of Science Fiction. Ed. Stephen M. Saunders. Lexinton, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2008. 192.

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7 Responses to Some Notes on Fringe’s Scientists… ‘Mad’ and ‘Bad’ Alike.

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I haven’t seen the series, but think I might check it out – I have the BSG box-set, which I enjoyed (apart from the ending) and was a big fan of ‘Lost’ despite an increasingly convoluted plot-line. And already I can see a few corollaries between Bishop/Bell and Locke/Jacob. The interesting difference is that Jacob is the ‘true’ version of the character who then created an alternate version of himself in Locke – which means the character’s natural disposition is ‘evil’. OK, I’m being reductive (Jacob is the eternal rebel rather than just evil), but still….

    • There’s a lot of thematic crossover between Fringe and Lost alright (Good Vs Evil, Life Vs Death, and so on) but I think the writers and producers have learnt a lot of lessons from Lost. The narrative is tighter (natural progression as opposed to convolution) and there are far fewer loose ends (in fact, Fringe is one of the few shows I trust to always return to dangling plot threads from years earlier and suddenly make them very important). It’s also much more open about the fact that it’s Science Fiction.

      In terms of the characters (especially John Noble’s wonderful and heartbreaking portrayal of Walter Bishop), along with the writing and production standard, Fringe is absolutely worth watching. Though keep in mind that it doesn’t really find its feet until about five or six episodes after the pilot (mind you, the pilot itself is excellent, and one really ought to watch the first stretch of episodes to get certain references later on).

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I’ll probably buy the box-set. Being a tight bastard, I might even wait until the current and final instalment of series has finished. I’ve never had a problem with a slow build-up. In fact, I enjoy watching how all the disparate strands of a particular story slowly knit together. Thanks for all the info!

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