There must be a special kind of pleasure a writer derives from having his or her character proclaim an antagonist to be up to no good in another universe, and have it make not only complete sense, but also fill the viewer with a well-calibrated mixture of tension and geeky admiration. As far as science fiction on television goes, there is no other program currently airing that gets it more right, and does it with more aplomb than FOX's seriously undervalued series 'Fringe.'
Four seasons ago, 'Fringe' was the latest heady piece of television to come affixed with the J.J. Abrams seal of approval. Since then, the program has seen its stock at the network decline, even though the apparently miniscule fanbase became ever more obsessed and devoted to the continuing adventures of Oliva Dunham (Anna Torv), Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his (literally) out-of-synch son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), along with Astrid (Jasika Nicole) and Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) – otherwise known as the Fringe division.
Since the program's inception, it has grown from a monster-of-the-week 'X-Files'-inspired sci-fi extravaganza, into a program that somehow spans across two universes, multiple timelines and brings in doppelgangers, shape-shifters, hairless men with a penchant for fedoras and Leonard Nimoy – all without batting an eye. As 'Fringe' grew from an episodic program into an increasingly complex series of consecutive chapters and overarching storylines, it began to experience something akin to what happened with 'Lost.' While the series became better at telling its tale, the tale itself became increasingly anti-new viewer. Mixed with an impermanent slot on FOX's television schedule, casual viewership decreased dramatically (added to the fact that the Nielsen rating system is woefully antiquated), and rumors of the program's demise soon became a question of not if, but when. Thankfully, due in large part to the fans of the show, FOX and the producers of 'Fringe' were able to come to some accord that not only allowed the program to finish out season 4, but also prep for what will be its fifth and final season starting in late September.
But the story of 'Fringe' is greater than the program's fight for survival. What began as a clever excuse to play with monsters on television proved to have an exceedingly talented cast and a set of gifted writers with an understanding of how to connect the weekly installments, character arcs and larger storyline into a single cohesive season. The fact that (until season 5, anyway) each season was comprised of 22 episodes is an even more impressive feat.
At the beginning of season 4, co-executive producers J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner had their hands full with the fact that they'd just wiped one of their main characters (Peter Bishop) out of existence at the end of season 3. While that wrapped up the problem of the convergent universes, it left the program with the conundrum of having ostensibly rebooted itself (the larger effect of Peter having been erased was to alter the course of history, and in a sense, reset the series). Instead of being forced to hit the reset button because they were out of ideas, Wyman and Pinkner parlayed that bold move into an examination of the fundamental nature of love, and how it impacts the collective relationships of the series' characters.
It doesn't take much to imagine how recalibrating the core bonds that had been established through three seasons of 'Fringe' could turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, but instead of building a new arc, Wyman and Pinkner set the return of Peter Bishop around his reclamation of the life he thought he'd sacrificed. But the writer's aren't beyond a little mischievousness when it comes to the fans' emotions, as they bring in Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) as a potential replacement for Olivia's affection. As such, season 4 becomes as much about Peter Bishop winning the girl back, as it is about the larger Fringe division escapades.
There is an overall theme of identity and the search for one's true place in the universe that carries over extremely well with the season's story arc, which is balanced between the welcome return of the once gruesomely disfigured and bifurcated villain, David Robert Jones (played with charming narcissism by the talented and underrated Jared Harris), and the increasingly hostile actions of said hairless fedora lovers, the Observers.
Additionally, rearranging of the series' timeline allows for some clever trickery on behalf of the writers, like seeing what would happen if certain episodes played out differently, as they do by revisiting 'The Transformation' from season 1. More importantly, though, the altering of the season 4 timeline allows the magnificent John Noble to bring forth yet another iteration of the Walter character – one that has never had the strength of his son to help balance out the inherently unstable nature of his very particular genius. It's a shame that genre television like this is so often overlooked come time to hand out awards, as the unbridled performance of John Noble is deserving of much more acclaim than he's thus far been given.
Though it's name would suggest otherwise, science fiction is typically at its best when it delves into the mystery and the complications that arise from the nature of human existence. As one of the few shining examples of quality science fiction on television today, 'Fringe,' unsurprisingly, does its best work along the same avenues. Season 4 has many highlights, but standouts include 'A Short Story About Love,' 'Making Angels' and the fantastical set up for season 5, 'Letters of Transit.' As the season had many large questions to answer, it never failed to tackle the philosophical question of what are the true ramifications of love and what becomes of a person who is willing to exchange what they think they know for what they know they feel?
'Fringe' season 4 is presented with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec that brings a richly detailed image on screen, which is effected only by occasional inconsistencies in clarity. Otherwise, the Blu-ray release of 'Fringe' manages to sustain a very good picture that, in the case of close-ups, ventures briefly into the fantastic category.
Since much of 'Fringe' explores the nasty nocturnal denizens of people's poorly lit nightmares, black levels play an integral part in not only the presentation of the picture, but the overall ambiance of several episodes. Here, thankfully, black levels provide the right amount of terror inducing darkness without diluting the quality of the image and without any evidence of crush. Elsewhere, excellent depth is achieved in well-lit areas and outside locations shot during the day. Images are rendered clearly and more often than not a good amount of fine detail is present even on objects in the distance.
Color is lively, but not overdone – especially during scenes that require a lot of post production and CGI work. This is evident during the scene in which the Observer who goes by the name September (Michael Cerveris), has a discussion with Peter amongst whirring images of big bangs and alternate futures. Skin tones are also rendered evenly, and are called to attention by the particularly sallow skin tone of the Observers. Additionally, as stated above, facial features are often represented with astounding clarity that captures the smallest pore and the most expressive wrinkle with wonderfully authentic detail.
Though inconsistencies are few, there is the occasion where fine detail slips, or the image appears to be under soft focus. It's possible that this is the result of filming, and not the transfer process, but the end result does little to effect the overall quality of the image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a full service endeavor on 'Fringe' season 4. As each episode is outfitted with all the trimmings found on big-budget films of the same ilk; namely explosions, gunfire, things going bump in the night and a fantastic musical score. In this case, the audio track services them all very well, and still manages to produce clean, crisp dialogue amongst many layers of what could have easily become a confusing and busy atmosphere.
Strong LFE is present when it needs to be, but still allows clean sound to flow seamlessly through all channels of the audio. The score is mostly pushed through the front channels, while dialogue runs directly through the center, unless, for some reason or another, it comes from off screen. In that case, one of the front speakers or rear channels picks it up, nicely augmenting the surround effect and immersing the viewer in the situation. Beyond dialogue, sound effects are peppered through each channel with great precision, offering up keen details that may otherwise be lost if listened to without the benefit of multiple channels.
'Fringe' is a big show, and as such requires a great deal of emphasis be placed on the way it sounds. In this case, great audio lends to the theatricality of it all, supplementing the situations and scope of the storytelling with cues from the score and sound effects as well. Listening to the audio here, you'd swear 'Fringe' thought it was playing in theaters every week.
'Fringe' season 4 saw the series grow from being an incredibly fun and enjoyable show into a remarkably taut, well rounded, and intriguing bit of science fiction goodness. Marked by wonderful performances from its three leads and supporting cast alike, the series never fails to sell its outrageous plotlines by convincingly anchoring them to the humanity of its stars. Too often scientists are played as either being ridiculously out of touch, or as some sort of automaton that's devoid of human emotion. John Noble portrays Walter (and Walternate) with such verve and animated presence that it's impossible to imagine 'Fringe' having the devoted fanbase it does without him. The Blu-ray release may come a little light on the extras – though the roundtable discussion is nice – but it presents the series with the kind of picture and sound that raises it far above normal network fare. Highly recommended for fans.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.