Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fringe 3.04: Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?

I won't do my normal longer blog post on this week's Fringe episode, simply because I watched it too late to really talk about it much. But rather than point out things to notice (the glyph word was SHIFT; the Observer walked through the lobby as Walter went running up to Peter, Faux-Livia and Broyles when they were all talking and not listening to Walter), I want to talk about the episode overall.

Once again, this one was a home run. The shapeshifters have been made out to be baddies for a couple of seasons now, and we just see them as one more evil thing from the other side. But for the first time, they're shown as more than just robots. One man has assumed an identity for five years, taking on the role of a husband and father of a two-year-old, and now he has fallen in love with his "pretend" wife, and his now-seven year old means the world to him. So when Thomas Newton shows up and tells him he must change identities, he can't handle it, and risks his life to maintain that current identity. Similarly, the shifter who'd assumed the identity of the senator was so convincing in his role, taking on the memories and jolly personality of the man he was pretending to be, that he had become him, and his wife never noticed a change in him at all.

It was a great twist, and, as usually happens, I didn't know the title of the episode and was just going to check it later. As I sat on the couch watching it unfold, I wrote in my notes, "This episode is like Blade Runner -- think final Roy Batty speech, rooftop." So imagine my surprise and joy when I discovered the episode title referred to that scene exactly, considering "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was the novel that Blade Runner was based on. I don't think I've ever felt as close to the writers on a show as I did in that moment.

This is a similar issue to the one explored in Battlestar Galactica throughout its run, looking at whether Cylons are robots, or entities with feelings. They believe in gods, they form connections, they love and are loved... what separates them from humans? In the case of the shapeshifters, they were originally working for the bad side, but they fell in love and got wrapped up in their new lives. Is there death any less real than the person they're portraying?

And as mentioned, this exploration originates in what's probably my favourite film scene of all time, when replicant Roy Batty, who is wounded, sits atop a rooftop with a dove in his hands, and his final words to Deckard exhibit such deep emotions that Deckard realizes -- too late -- that the replicants are not the unfeeling monsters he thought they were.


Sarah said...

Thanks for this clip--perfect comparison.
I agree--I think this was another great episode. I liked it even better than last week's. Maybe because of the title; it's their best episode title since "The Road Not Taken" in season one. (Love those literary titles.) I was thinking of the Cylons here too. What does it mean to be human? If a machine is programmed to imitate love, is its love different from the real thing?
Good stuff! This season is looking up. Too bad about the world series!

Shari said...

I also just caught up on Fringe today and I said "wow" like 20 times during the episode. They are right on the money this season just making all the right decisions. I'm anxious to see just how Fake Olivia slips up..cus Peter is totally onto her..

Loved Walter "self medicating" in the morning! -"He's tripping right now you know that right?"

I'm also anxious to see what is her mission on the other side? Is she trying to get Peter to go back with her? Does she just want to completely destroy their world?

Just all in all love this season!

Jeremy Barker said...

A great episode - Fringe has elevated to one of the few shows that I have to put away my laptop and pay attention to - clearly as I missed the Observer walking by.

yourblindspot said...

Rules. And I second all the terrific observations from your analysis, Nik. The wife & I were post-ep-discussing along exactly the same lines. Awesome writing, perfectly executed. Kinda sad to see Newton go, as I had really begun to love hating him, but I can appreciate the idea of Oliviaren't left on her own, at least until they send in a new Right Hand Mandroid.

I want to take a minute and give props to the fantastic and underutilized Jasika Nicole as Astrid, and how much I'm loving the fact that the writers seem to be working this season to find more for her to do.

Fred said...

Nikki, liked your comments on Fringe, but wanted to add this one thing>.

The humanized robot has become a standard theme in most science fiction, expressed through the Gothic-dystopia of Blade Runner or the Petter Panish, utopian view of Star Trek: Next Generation where Data is idealized "robot."

But if we twist out gaze on these figures/robots, focusing away from their humanity to something else, we'll be less sanguine about their presence. For one thing, these "robots" are often depicted in super human terms: strength, mental agility, life experience. And while we sympathise with them, there is always in the background the reality they killed to acheive their current position--the replicants in Blade Runner killed twenty three people to reach earth, and kill an additional three. In Fringe we do not see the shape-shifters kill their human doubles, but we have to take this as a fact. We are uneasy about this little fact of their existence.

But Fringe is by its very themes about the disruption and disturbance of human relations represented through doubling--firstly the double of Peter Bishop, kidnapped by Walter; the unreliability at the outset of the series by Olivia's original FBI partner (his double agent status); the double life of Walter, whose unethical experiements come to light over the course of the series; and finally the replacement of Dunham herself by her alt world self. All these doublings disturb our senses of identity, morality, the close human associations we take for granted that form our own sense of ourselves, our ego, the others who surround us, and the sense of meaning and purpose in life.

We tend to focus on reality by reference to ourselves--this Cartesian tactic begins by reassuring myself that "I" exist, that at the very least "I" am. The anti-Cartesian question raised in Fringe is what if that "I" is itself false. What if we were to eliminate childhood, as in Blade Runner, what "I" would then exist? What if we were to create a false childhood, as for Olivia in the alternate world? In a sense we are already asking this of Peter Bishop?

But so far Fringe has not done the next logical move, though I am well expecting it--that is, instead of anthropomorphising the "robot", the AI life form begins to interpret us in its own terms? Instead of us, as viewers, saying "Look the Senator developed human feelings, emotions, attachments;" we instead are led to think, "Look Olivia is like ...X." Of course, to imagine ourselves as Data, or one of the replicants (rather than seeing them as human like us) is a far more difficult thing to do). We may sympathise with Roy Batty's plight, identify with his humanity demonstrated in his brief talk with Deckard, but we will never truly understand him, because we have never seen through his eyes. As Batty says, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe," implying there is more to Batty than just his humanness. This is somewhat frightening to the viewer, to realize there is more to Data, to the replicants, to the Borg or the Cylons than there is to humans.

One word in Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep? stands out, "kipple," that useless stuff that accumulates. Facing a figure like Batty, or a Cylon or Borg, are humans "kipple" from their point of view? What is left after the human is gone: memories, emotions, language, belief, dreams and the unconscious? What is distrubing about the Senator and the police man is all these human traits can be transfered over, and the rest then becomes "kipple."

In a more humorous vein I think of Sheldon's remark to Leonard that he'd like to be the pet of an alien species. And who wouldn't?

Fred said...

Although not on Fringe, below does relate to LOST.

In brief, I watched Hawaii 5-O, and while watching Chin (DanielDae Kim) and McGarrett trail through a not too unfamiliar jungle on Hawaii after a criminal, at some point McGarrett stops at a stream to drink the water. Kim's character warns him not to drink the water, as they are in a rain forest, and the water will be highly contaminated with bacteria.

Oh, what a bazinga to LOST, and to have Daniel (Chin/Jin) point out the flaw was perfect.

sk said...

@Fred... Do you think Walter's trippin' the light fantastic and seeing Olivia's hair glimmer with his kaleidoscope eyes is a tip off that there is a lot more to him than meets the eye ?

I am thinking Timothy Leary, also labelled "the most dangerous man in America," by then president Richard Nixon.

Walternate is now Secretary of Defense. Danger, oh my. Thinking Dick Cheney .

Fred said...

sk: Belive me when I say, we should read/watch Fringe "darkly". I perfectly love your reference to Nixon and Timothy Leary.

(Just as an aside, when my father was having troubles from anaesthetics from surgery, my mother got in contact with one of T.L.'s fellow researchers for help. And, I must admit, it really did help).

But I love your hypocritical mind, your suggestion the Cold War may still be in force (how many references are there to the old Cold War in Fringe). As I mentioned on an earlier post, we should once more look at The Manchurian Candidate as an intertextual reference to Fringe. We are too prone to seeing Fringe as only science fiction, but we should read it from a sociological view, indeed form Walter's point of view, as a crypto-hyper textual diatribe on the modern Cold War.

Let's be honest, it's only by viewing things from a different perspective (in Walter's case from psychotropic drugs)that we perceive an alternate reality. But I am concerned that Walter is in the hands of the FBI, and that he has shown no reason to imagine his past activities for the government have been anything but law abiding.

This is why I say, watch Fringe "darkly", ususally after having consumed at least 100 pages of Philip K. Dick. And what can we amke of Walter's getting Astrid's name right?

TM Lawrence said...

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe:
Attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion.
I watched sea-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.
Time to die.

By heart... the most enduring and perfect moment in SciFi.

It is likely wise to see the humanity in the monster (bad robot) before you head up the Big Sur coastline to spend whatever time is left with your Nexus 7 gal pal and your own ambiguously replicant/killer self: less self-loathing that way.

Maybe, I'll start watching Fringe again, Nik.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but, why is the AlterWorld the BAD side? I mean, they really got screwed because of Walter's experiments and they want their safety back. Sure, Walternate's methods aren't exactly kosher, but just like The Others in Lost, I cannot portray this other world as EVIL just because we saw more of "our" world and our characters in the first season. Familiarity does not equal virtue.

Nikki Stafford said...

Anonymous: I never actually said the alternate universe was the bad side. When I said the shapeshifters were working for the bad side, I wasn't referring to the other world (you have heard of the term "sides" before, right? A word that exists in our universe and doesn't actually refer to a parallel one?). I was insinuating the Secretary. He's built a device that would incinerate the other world, and is willing to sacrifice his son to make it work. Unfamiliar or not, I think they've made it clear that the secretary isn't a guy who's simply misunderstood. Yes, his emotions have driven him to be this person, and Walter was the one who did this to him in the first place, but it doesn't make him a misunderstood good guy in the end. Perhaps this device will turn out to be something quite different in the end, and that would be a twist I'd love.

I never watch shows that are black and white, and even the darkest characters have humanity in them. But I do love that the only time I refer to a "bad guy" there's someone waiting in the wings to pounce on my choice of words. Back to carefully choosing everything I say, I guess.

The alterna-world is just different -- not good, not bad. I've never said anything different.