Why I’m willing to suspend my disbelief when watching the TV show Fringe.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this hit US drama let me summise for you the general idea, but you really should just watch it.

Fringe focuses on three main characters, Olivia Dunham, Dr Walter Bishop and his son Peter (who is played by that dude who played Pacey back in the good ol’ Dawson’s Creek days; he’s now much older, more refined and definitely a lot better looking.) They as part of a new division of the FBI deal with ‘Fringe events’, these are defined loosely as an unexplainable, mysterious and generally weird shit that happens to people in a criminal or suspicious fashion.  To give an example, one of the first cases to be investigated involved a plane full of people who died because of some chemical that made their skin melt off their bodies in a matter of seconds. There is an underlying story which explains the links between many of the fringe events, which ultimately binds the series together. The characters are also crucial in this underlying subplot, Walter especially being portrayed as a a man with a brilliant but tortured and tormented mind, having spent the past 17 years in a mental institution. Olivia turns out to have been involved in Walters early work when she was a child and a subject in one of his more daring experiments. And Peter his son, well he’s a whole kettle of confusion really amongst the whole thing. Needless to say it’s quite complex. You might be asking yourself why am I writing about this show if it’s just a big jumble of fiction. Well, the title credits consist of a list of words that flash up on the screen to some haunting music, check it out here, note that the first word to appear is… Neuroscience. Pretty cool huh?  Also to feature are words such as Hypnosis, Cryogenics, Mutation, Protoscience and the list continues. Gives you a glimpse into what to expect. The truth being that this extensive list practically covers all possible aspects of science, this possibly is what gives the show such freedom to go in any direction. It’s really far more scifi than drama, but when people say science fiction one always assumes aliens and spaceships, and you won’t see any of that in Fringe. The point seems to be that every scenario they present no matter how bizarre and surreal needs to have at least some supportive evidence in existence today, some sort of theoretical possibility, but residing just on the fringe of what we know to be true. It is this which gives Fringe its edge of believability above other sci-fi series. Even the episode where bank robbers use high frequency waves to shake the atomic structures within a wall, so that solid objects like a body could pass through, seems somewhat likely.

Neuroscience in all its related and applied fields seems to crop up in varying degrees all over the place on the show, from episodes about removing pieces of brain that contain specific memories (highly unlikely but still a neat and scary idea) to questions about the conscious mind and it’s remnants after life has left a body, i.e. being able to interrogate a corpse (again quite a scary thought, but perhaps plausible).

In a great post by Emilie Lorditch, for Live Science, a look at the science fact behind Fringe is taken. ‘Sometimes science fact is actually stranger than science fiction’ and nowhere is this more true than in Fringe. But how much of it really is fact? The show has two main ‘science guys’ who are responsible for researching the science in the show, Rob Chiappetta and Glen Whitman. Their approach is to create the fringe events by taking the proposals of actual studies and just pushing them that step further. A bit like taking fMRI studies claiming to be a step towards reading minds, to creating an episode in which this is possible. These guys aren’t scientists they are just eager researchers of the field, “one week we are pouring over journals and focusing on the latest neuroscience research and the next week we are learning all about hormones,” said Chiappetta.’  As such they accumulate a whole host of recent developments and then apply these to the show, albeit with a slight twist and tug in the direction of the extraordinary.

The great thing about this is that all the plots, no matter how extreme have their basis on actual published research, and allow the viewers to suspend their disbelief just that little bit more than you can with shows such as Star Trek. The scary thing about this show however is that it may be giving us a glimpse into our future more than we might really appreciate right now.


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