Though the science on Fringe is head-slappingly fake, somehow the series makes real science exciting. The show is like a pulpy 1920s serial, and its fantastic plotlines are far more appealing than hard scifi "realism."
I love this scene from the season finale on Tuesday, where Special Agent Dunham tells her underling to get her information on "any incidents related to science, biology, or unexplained phenomena." And then she discovers that all the science things make a neat star pattern - and that is the solution to the mystery! It's completely ridiculous, but strangely satisfying.
When I was among a group of reporters who talked to JJ Abrams about Fringe last year at Comic-Con, one of the things he emphasized about his new show was that it was supposed to be in the mold of 1970s scifi. He and show creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman grew up with psychedelic scifi movies like Altered States, and wanted to recreate that sense of trippy fun.
With all of mad scientist Walter's references to LSD and various other drugs, I think they've got the 70s vibe nailed. But what's really made this show gel reminds me more of old pulps like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, where writers like H.P. Lovecraft launched their careers. As Jeff Prucher reminded me with his science fiction dictionary Brave New Words, so-called hard science fiction, obsessed with "realism," didn't exist until the 1950s.
Before that, authors just let their imaginations run wild. Astrogaters piloted ships to the stars, fighting with heat rays and eating food pills, completely unperturbed by things like how they would get to another galaxy moving at less than the speed of light. Nobody tried to come up with bullshit explanations about gravity wells and chemistry and how biology really works. As a result, we got some incredibly imaginative stories about the unknown.
Fringe is also explosively, weirdly creative, and I think that's because its creators really don't care about what's scientifically possible. We get multiple versions of Earth at war with one another. An underground cabal of renegade scientists is secretly experimenting on the masses, causing us to explode or making the skin on our faces grow so fast it plugs up our mouths, noses and eyes. Kids are being dosed with a drug called cortexiphan that allows them to see other dimensions. There are pale, alien-like creatures walking among us, machines that let people swap memories, and teleportation is easy (though it does have some nasty side-effects).
There are no dreary explanations like we get on Eleventh Hour or House about how there is really, truly an Actual Scientific Reason why a woman's skin suddenly peels off or a guy is dying of the bends even though he's never gone diving. I don't mean to disparage hard science fiction, because done well it's one of the most glorious things in the world. But done badly it becomes a mess of awful, badly-written data dumps that wind up having about as much scientific validity as a spy ray.
On Fringe, Walter's science experiments sound like the magic they are. "So you see, we can transfer his thoughts to your mind," he'll say. Or "So you've heard of pyrokinesis." Then Peter, his son, will explain that he can retrieve sound waves from melted glass, recreating the noises that occurred near the glass when it was melted. That way, they can find out how a person next to a melting window was kidnapped.
Goofy! Absurd! And yet, exciting. Somehow Walter and Peter's mad science manages to capture a truth about real science that "hard SF" rarely does: The sheer, awesome plunging-into-the-unknown of it.