The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series

Multible Worlds of FringeTerm got so busy so fast that I totally forgot to mention this at the end of the summer. I’m pleased to say that I have contributed a chapter to the recently released McFarland volume The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series which has been edited by Tanya R. Cochran, Sherry Ginn and Paul Zinder. This was a particularly exciting project to be part of for, as my friends are sick of me saying, Fringe is my favorite TV show of the post-Lost/Battlestar Galactica era (a comment which usually draws reactions of “That’s an era now?!”).

My chapter, ‘The Scientist as Villain, the Scientist as Hero’, looks at one the central questions of Fringe: is science an intrinsically nefarious undertaking or, alternatively, a deeply noble enterprise? I argue for the latter, offering a defense of the Walter Bishop character as a ‘mad’ scientist. Yes it is true that in the show’s backstory he may once have been a villainous figure but, realizing that, Walter took steps to have such inclinations quite literally removed from his mind. Such an invasive, surgical response can easily strike the viewer as ‘mad’ yet, in taking this option, Walter Bishop reaffirms his belief (and, for that matter, ours) in the transformative, heroic ability of science to save and change lives.

The chapter draws on the literature surrounding the image of scientists in popular culture (science-fiction in particular) to consider Fringe’s conception of science as a heroic endeavor and, consequently, demonstrate its depiction of the scientist figure as one which is fundamentally heroic. As viewers, we have an inclination to see the cases handled by Fringe Division as a series of crimes perpetrated via extraordinary scientific means when in fact, as with many elements of the show, the opposite is just as true: each week, the transgressions of Fringe’s antagonists are foiled by extraordinary scientific means. Key to this (and to this chapter) is the character of Walter Bishop. Though his methods are unorthodox and his ethics occasionally questionable, Walter – by voluntarily reducing himself to a childlike state – is a truly heroic embodiment of science. Visitors to his lab may deem him ‘childish’ and ‘crazy’ but, as Douglas Adams once put it, ‘a scientist must be absolutely like a child […] You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool’ (So Long and Thanks for all the Fish). Indeed, Walter’s eccentricities, renewed benevolence, and astounding success at saving the day in the aftermath of William Bell removing part of his brain cause the viewer to question the distance between sanity and madness when it comes to expanding the boundaries of scientific knowledge in a world ‘where one breath of the wrong air can incinerate you from the inside out’ (Fringe, ‘Pilot’).

A book that ought to be of interest to any fan of the show, The Multiple Worlds of Fringe has diverse contributions from scholars in literature, psychology, and film/TV studies. The editors have sought to bring together material as multifaceted as the series itself, with specific focus on issues of humanity, duality, genre, and viewership. It is a volume which offers readers a contextualization of the series as a postmodern investigation into what makes us human as well as one which provides a sustained examination of the ways in which technology increasingly modifies and transforms that humanity.

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