Fringe begins its third season tonight, and the time has come for J.J. Abrams’ erratically awesome freaks-and-geeks fest to become consistently awesome and fulfill its long-teased promise of becoming TV’s coolest, craziest, most creatively audacious cult pop thingie. Lost and Heroes are gone. FlashForward fizzled out. I never got aboard the Supernatural bandwagon — and I jumped off the Smallville bandwagon a long time ago. The Event has potential (I’ve seen the next two episodes—they’re strong), but Fringe has the pole position. The show has the goods for a great run. The braintrust installed by Abrams and co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are indeed brainy enough. The core cast — John Noble, Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, Blair Brown — can bring it, and their characters have evolved into truly engaging, involving people. And after two seasons of pussy-footing around its key sci-fi idea (our world is embroiled in a secret war with a parallel universe Earth) and fumbling to find a way to explore it in an accessible, character-driven way, Fringe finally committed and found Eureka! with an outstanding sweep of episodes at the end of season 2 that set up the premise of season 3.
Agent Olivia Dunham (Torv) is marooned in the “over there” world, while her doppelganger has secretly taken her place in her own world. Exec producers Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman say the new season will toggle between the two realms, which will allow the series to spend significant time in the parallel world and have fun fleshing out and playing with an alternate version of history where people travel by rerto sci-fi blimps and the World Trade Center still stands. I’m looking forward to watching Fringe letting its already-freaky freak flag unfurl even further this year (while not losing track of its human element) — and I’m looking forward to reading our resident Fringe champion Ken Tucker’s clear-eyed take on the show each week. In fact, Ken and fellow Fringe fanatic Whitney Pastorek have whipped up a Fringe refresher to get you set for the new season. You can find it here.
Gearing up for the new and hopefully terrifically trippy season of Fringe has reminded me of other similarly fringe-y entertainments that have tackled the whole parallel world/alt history thing. It’s a pretty rich sci-fi subgenre, filled with many different kinds of takes on the idea, like:
Philip Roth’s 2004 novel explored the question: What would have happened if FDR hadn’t been re-elected president in 1940? The answer: Much suckage.
The minor Gwyneth Paltrow hit from 1998 has become a true cult classic and oft-cited touchstone for Hollywood scribes attracted to the parallel worlds conceit. The movie has Paltrow playing a London gal who has to catch a train — and then tracks two different outcomes, one in which she catches that train, another in which she misses it.
Before The Defenders, Jerry O’Connell starred is this sci-fi romp on Fox about a plate of small greasy hamburgers that traverse a plethora of parallel worlds via wormhole. Jerry played Extra Cheese, With Pickles. I think. I didn’t watch it, actually, so I’m guessing here.
My favorite parallel planet? Earth-Two of DC Comics. In the 1960s, the publisher had rebooted several of its classic characters, including The Flash, The Atom, and Green Lantern. In 1961, a writer named Gardner Fox introduced a parallel world known as Earth-Two where the Golden Age iterations of these characters still lived. Earth-Two proved popular, and soon, The Justice League of America from Earth-One was meeting annually and having adventures with their Earth-Two counterparts in The Justice Society of America. Thus was opened a Pandora’s Box full of wild and unruly parallel worlds. DC began pumping out one alterna-Earth after another. Earth-Three: Home to super-villain versions of The Justice League. Earth-S: Home to Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam!) and his family of characters. Earth-X: Home to the Freedom Fighters, a group of WW2-era superheroes living in a world where Nazi Germany had been victorious. Imagining what history would be like if The Allies lost the war is a popular theme in alt world fiction.)There was even Earth-Prime, a place where superheroes were merely comic book characters, published by a company called DC Comics.(This presumably is the world where you and I live.)
And there were even more. So many, that in 1985, DC decided its portfolio of alterna-Earths was too confusing, especially for new readers. Enter the aptly named Crisis On Infinite Earths, which collapsed DC’s multiverse into a single historical continuity — a super-synthesis of the very best of all of DC’s possible worlds. The story that DC told to accomplish this bit of creative re-engineering was pretty great, but not everyone liked the Brave New World born out from the Mother of All Comic Book Ret-Cons. And it actually gave rise to one of my favorite comic book storylines ever, written by Grant Morrison and told in the pages of Animal Man, in which the titular hero becomes self-aware that he’s just a comic book character and ends up in a limbo populated by many of the characters that had become non-entities because they no longer had a place in the new DC Universe.
My guess is that a great many of you actually didn’t read those last two paragraphs. And perhaps you have your own pick for Fave Parallel World/Alternative History. In fact, I’m betting most of your choices will come from the Star Trek universe, which specializes in this stuff. “City On The Edge of Forever” perhaps? Or maybe you’re partial to “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” And of course, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot hinges completely on the notion of Many Possible Worlds. The message board is yours to geek out on your fave and least fave parallel world place.