In a no-Peter world, Olivia and her new partner fight translucent freaks and feeling 'Neither Here Nor There' 

By Jeff Jensen
September 24, 2011 at 02:01 AM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S4 E1
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Three years ago: Olivia Dunham lost a closer-than-close partner and joined a secret division of the FBI devoted to investigating weird science crimes. Two years ago: Deadly shape-shifting terrorists from Another Earth began infiltrating our world to pursue a cryptic agenda. One year ago: Against the backdrop of mounting tensions between two imperiled, warring realities, a brainwashed hero kept seeing glimpses of a loved one she no longer recognized. Now: “Neither Here Nor There,” last night’s season premiere of Fringe, synthesized key elements of past premieres to launch a rebooted Fringeverse, one where many of the archetypes and events (surprisingly) remain much the same, with one profound exception: Peter Bishop has been scrubbed from history, apparently from the point of his childhood death. No Fringe Division adventures. Never sired a kid with Bolivia-as-Fauxlivia. No tulip field bonding with Young Olivia. Our heroes aren’t quite right without a Peter in their life. Those who loved him and were loved by him feel incomplete or impaired by his absence despite not knowing him, at least as an adult. But never fear! Lincoln Lee is here! The peripheral Fringe player was promoted to full-time presence in the premiere, and he made an instant, positive impression — on us, and on the team. Maybe that Peter-shaped void won’t be so hard to fill after all. Bye, Pete. Enjoy your eternity wandering the nameless streets and boundless horizons of the ethereal plane…

And yet.

Walter Bishop kept having Looking Glass sightings of forgotten Peter  – in the mirror, on the TV. Yet this was no flicker of a mad hatter’s mind: We, too, saw a blurry blink in the Harvard lab. Peter Bishop: The Dead Elvis of Fringe. Unstuck in time, a glitch in the matrix, adrift in the bleed between universes. Or maybe, just maybe… literally lodged in his father’s gray matter? Friends, I think we’re looking at a Voldemortian Pickle. The opening credits included the words “Philosopher’s Stone” amid the mix of esoteric and speculative science terminology – and we recall that in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (the original British title of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), the disembodied Dark Lord used the noggin of a high-strung professor as a flop house while he conspired to conjure a reincarnation gambit. Will Walter become convinced his head has been hijacked by dark passenger, just as Season 1 Olivia was so certain that her dead beau was haunting her own noodle? I suspect we’re looking at a season where motifs from past seasons will be played out anew, but in tweaked form.

“Psychic surgery” and “psychogenesis” were also seen during the title card parade of protoplasmic bubbles and subatomic super-strings. Crunching the clues with my most logical Spock brain, I arrive at this fascinating prediction: Olivia will go to the Genesis planet, retrieve Peter’s regenerated body, and take him to Vulcan where techno-mages will undo the Walter/Peter mind-meld by downloading Peter’s consciousness into his Genesis body via psychic surgery. Then: A whale watching vacation in San Francisco!

GET ON YOUR (RE)BOOTS!

Olivia, full of grace —  “One of these things is not like the other.” – Pantsless Walter, Full Metal Alchemist – How to build a quantum memory eraser — “Did you bring candy?” — Dimensional transport via Marilyn Monroe updraft grate – Tommy. Timmy. Whatever. — Videodrome Peter does “Vacant” by Dream Theater. “Hey you, Hey you, I’m right here.”

We began one week after Peter built a bridge between the endangered worlds and told the Walters and Olivias to play nice and fix things. On the Liberty Island promenade that straddles the alternate realities, the two Olivias traded boxes of classified X-files, hoping old investigations will hold clues to multiverse salvation. Reboot History Update: The Olivias no longer have the common bond of Peter, but Olivia was still kidnapped by Walternate, and Bolivia still spent time working undercover “over here.” They still despise each other, too. “You know, being you, living your life, only made me more homesick for my universe,” Bolivia teased. “It must be hard, developing trust in people, when all you’ve got is yourself. It must get terribly lonely.” Olivia fumed — in part, because she knew her cracked twin correct. The truth can hurt like a bitch, can’t it? Perhaps in episodes to come, the dead ringer Dunhams will Hardy Boy up and do some Nancy Drewing together. Until then: Rawwwr!

NEXT: Man-Thing, I think I loathe you. Don’t eat my excess iron!

Elsewhere, Agent Lincoln Lee of Earth Prime – a nerdy-cool, keen-eyed investigator who’s pissy about punctuality and knows his Sesame Street  – chased a suspected arms dealer across rooftops, then watched his brother-tight family man partner, Robert Danzig, die at the hands of a metamorphic man-thing with a burning touch and translucent skin. What the premiere wanted us to believe: A new breed of biological-mechanical shape-shifters from “over there” are at work “over here.” I say: Misdirection! (A theory, later.) Maybe I was just seeing things, but I detected a few implicit David Cronenberg homages, none more explicit than the nod to The Fly when Freaky The See Thru Man began to regenerate and peeled away a gooey fingernail. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Enter Fringe Division. Reboot History Update: Olivia was still recruited to Fringe Division three years ago after the death of her lover/partner, John Scott. (Also recall that like Lincoln and Danzig, Scott was also hunting an elusive arms dealer with ties to Fringe freakiness.) Walter’s recruitment story also remains the same: Once incarcerated and institutionalized, he’s now laboring toward redemption by helping Fringe Division clean up strange messes, many of which were made by him. And Astrid is still Walter’s handler, but now she gets to go into the field to serve as his eyes and hands, as the mentally addled doc is too terrified to leave the Harvard lab. Classic Walter: “We’re going to have to check his anus!” he barked while scrutinizing the real-time video feed and popping popcorn into his mouth. Astrid’s reaction: Priceless.

Meanwhile, two Observers, longtime Walter-watcher September and his senior supervisor December, were alarmed by Peter’s pop-ups in the rebooted universe. “It is impossible,” September said. “The timeline has been rewritten. He was erased. And yet, traces of him continue to bleed through.” December reminded September of his job – they are continuity cops, tasked with insuring the “intended” flow of events – and that September’s “intervention” (recall that The Observer saved Peter from drowning shortly after Walter abducted him) was the big bang catalyst for the current chaos. “They can never know the boy lived to be a man,” December said, and ordered September to make the necessary adjustment. (“The Boy Who Lived” – another Harry Potter meta-wink?) September bought some junk (an electron gun from an old TV cathode, an electrical starter, a fuse box) and MacGyver’d a device that could snuff out Peter’s unforgettable fire once and for all. But the emotionally compromised Tobasco junkie couldn’t bring himself to push the button on his rinky-dink cosmic nullifier. December will not be pleased.

Fringe Division’s hunt for the horrifying hybrid led to the discovery that the world might be infested with these sparking, shifting, scrim-skinned killers. Their targets: Those who suffer from ailments related to heavy metal poisoning. Why? So they can leach those surplus irons, as they need them to sustain their flimsy bodies. Are they working for Walternate? The bioware tucked in their guts certainly smacked of his design. Olivia took Lincoln to The Bridge and confronted Bolivia with the facts and the allegation. “I’ll look into it,” she smirked. Darts! Snarl! And all Agent Lee could do was ogle the Olivias and gawk at the dueling parallel world skies above him and quietly freak. Welcome to Fringe Division, Lincoln. Again.

NEXT: Those wintry pop culture references, decoded.

FUN FACT! Fox confirms a factoid that circulated Fringe fan circles during the summer — that “Neither Here Nor There” was originally entitled “A Sort of Homecoming.” Now, “A Sort of Homecoming” is the name of a live album by the prog-rock band Dream Theater, and more famously, the title of a song by U2 . Opening lyrics: “And you know it’s time to go/Through the sleet and driving snow/Across the fields of mourning/Light in the distance.” Fringe’s creative team ditched the title for undisclosed reasons, subverting my ambition to make sly references to every U2 song ever recorded in this recap. (However, “Neither Here Nor There” sounds like “With Or Without You.” Right?)

Still, the episode had a pair of pop culture references that evoked someone stuck/stranded in wintry circumstances, seeking warm, safe harbor. There was the scene in the diner where The Observers gathered like nighthawks to discuss inextinguishable Peter’s surreal persistence in the cultural memory. The song playing on the jukebox: “California Dreaming” by The Mamas and The Poppas. (“All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey/I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day…”) And then later in the episode, Walter quoted from John le Carre’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, about a disgraced British operative who must complete one last mission before retirement.

At first, I thought these chilly allusions were metaphorical nods to Peter’s current predicament — the latest, and craziest, iteration of the character’s outsider, out-in-the-cold, home-seeking alienation. The referenced evoked, for me, “Subject 13,” the episode that quoted Mark Halperin’s 1985 fantasy novel Winter’s Tale, and showed us how Young Peter tried to sink himself back to The World At The Bottom Of The Lake. But given who was seen in the “California Dreaming” scene, and given the plot of le Carre’s spy classic, I’m now think the premiere’s interconnected, wintry winks were intended to foreshadow an ominous end for Fringe’s resident failed, flawed watchman, The Observer. In the Fringe reboot, September is the new August; I worry that a bleak fall awaits him. Perhaps he’ll go out in a self-sacrificing blaze of heroic glory like another sci-fi martyr famed for his aloofness. Cue the eulogy:  “Of all The Observers I’ve encountered in my travels, September was the most… human.” For whom the (diner door) bell tolls? It tolls for thee, Observer! For him, I wish another U2 tune: “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”

As for my theory that “Robert Danzig” + heavy metal eating monsters = a nod to the heavy metal band Danzig… another time.

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Fox impishly promoted “Neither Here Nor There” as a series premiere. Blurb this: Best New Show Of The Fall! Fringe 4.0 certainly compares favorably to Fringe 1.0. The most striking difference – apart from Peter’s (temporary) absence – is that the team’s group dynamics are defined by hit-the-ground-running camaraderie.  The original formulation of Fringe was marked by relational warfare and forced emotion — Bitter Peter vs. Cracked Father, Tragedy Frazzled Olivia vs. Life Gone Bizarro. Reformulated Fringe is a friendlier beast. The team is already family tight. Olivia is crisp and cool and commanding, but three years of Fringe Division work has given her an empathy and grace that becomes her. I loved how she drew upon her experience to forge an instant connection with grief-rocked Lincoln Lee. Does romance loom? I ask not because I want it, but because in the pre-reboot multiverse, “over there” Lincoln was smitten with Bolivia. Will that attraction drama play out between the new “over here” versions of the pair?

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The aforementioned credit sequence sported a new tint: Burnt orange. Which is to say: Amber. As in: An “Amber Alert” for an abducted or missing child. Also see: “Amber 31422,” the special substance that the “over there” Fringe Division used to seal and stabilize spatial anomalies. I wonder if this is significant – a clue, perhaps, to the true nature of this “reboot” reality. What if someone found a way to stop the reboot process before it finished? What if the reboot was, like, 60% loaded, and someone hit the pause button — the amber freeze button — thus producing this new timeline marked by missing elements like Peter? Just a thought. Not sure I buy it myself. Anyway: Amber!

NEXT: Will a certain Sherlock Holmes nemesis be this season’s big bad?

Who’s the puppeteer pulling the Trans-Men’s strings? Is there one? Walter was ready to indict Walternate, who was conspicuously MIA from the episode. Are there other possibilities? I would like to suggest/nominate two: 1. The malevolent mystery man on the zeppelin from last season’s trippy half-animated outing “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” – the dream creature assassin that Olivia said would one day kill her. 2. David Robert Jones. Played by Mad Men’s Jared Harris (Professor Moriarty in Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes sequel due this fall), the William Bell fanboy with David Bowie’s real name was last seen getting sliced in half while tearing open a portal into the “over there” world. But in the rebooted multiverse, the sinister space-shifting oddity could still be whole and hearty, kicking and scheming.

Regardless, every sinister sci-fi mad scientist has a quest, an ambition, a great work. Which brings us back to The Philosopher’s Stone, which according to the lore is either 1. A substance that can turn lead into gold; or 2. An elixir that can rejuvenate the lifeless or grant immortality. It is symbolic of refining transformation, and the obsessive pursuit of the techno-magical material was known among old school alchemists as the magnum opus – “the great work.” See: Walter reviving the dead bird with an injection of bio-restorative formula. Alas, the solution did not stick. Bang. Clatter. Wings of desire, unfulfilled. But I suspect Dr. Frankenbishop will keep trying – and that his experiments in alchemy will factor into Peter’s return.

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Walter’s feathered zombie was one way in which “Neither Here Nor There” metaphorically dramatized its central theme: What does it mean to be wholly alive? Is it enough to be a mechanically operational animal? Or do we need something more to be considered optimally complete, be it a soul or relationships? The theme was largely expressed through Peter’s unrecognized yet deeply felt absence. “Walter lost his tether to the world,” Olivia told Lincoln, explaining the scientist’s more debilitating, vertiginous periods of madness. Olivia presented herself to be a very put-together professional woman. But she told Lincoln: “I know what’s it’s like to have a hole in my life. It’s been there as long as I can remember.” Her U2 theme song: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” She said she joined Fringe Division because she knew, instinctively, that she’d find fulfillment. Peter – presumably – is essence seeking substance; the Trans-Men are substance seeking … something. It’s not easy being a misfit of pseudoscience. Which brings me to this:

THEORY! The Trans-Men themselves are akin to Walter’s briefly born again bird — the peculiar product of some foul full-metal alchemy. I also suspect that they are like Peter: Reboot rejects – souls that should have been wiped away by the reboot but somehow clung to existence. Either on their own or with the help (Walternate? David Jones?), these misfits of ret-con science have been transmuted from spirit to stuff (that piece of alleged Walternate tech that Walter yanked from their guts could itself be a gadgety kind of Philosopher’s Stone), but the bodies are profoundly flawed vessels, for they are inorganic to the new organism that is this new version of the time-space continuum. So these Trans-Men are forever in transition, neither here nor there, scrambling to sustain their crumbling, half-baked physiques while searching for way to become fully cooked metaphysical specimens. Walter will remedy their plight, and will apply the fix to Peter’s sitch, bringing him out of limbo and back into the land of the limber.

Or not.

Welcome to the new season of Fringe. I hope it’s going to be a fun one.

Time for you. Were you as activated by the premiere as I was? How do you think Detachable Peter will reattach himself to the time-space continuum? And how do you feel about Seth Gabel/Lincoln Lee’s promotion to full-time Fringe duty? Can the compelling “newcomer” fill the Peter-shaped hole in your heart? The message boards are yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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