‘The Whole World is Their Lab: The Scientist as Villain, The Scientist as Hero’

Type Chapter
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series
EditorsTanya R. Cochran, Sherry Ginn, Paul Zinder
PublisherMcFarland & Company
Pages13-30
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)978-0-7864-7567-4, 0786475676
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2014
Links
Permanent link
View graph of relations
Citation formats

Abstract

In a series predicated on mirror versions of characters and, indeed, entire worlds, the central question of Fringe is all too often overlooked: is science an intrinsically nefarious undertaking or, alternatively, a deeply noble enterprise? This essay will argue for the latter, positioning itself as a counterpoint to the critical discourse which characterises Walter Bishop as a ‘mad’ scientist, critiques which actively disregard the capacity for reinvention on which the show’s narrative structure is based. It is true that Walter may once have been mad in a villainous sense but, realizing that, the character took steps to have such inclinations removed – literally – and by doing so reaffirmed his belief in the transformative, heroic ability of science to save and change lives. As J.H. Wyman, one of the show’s executive producers, said in the aftermath of the season four finale: ‘Science is science and knowledge is knowledge; it’s how you use it that’s the evil’ (interview with TV Guide, 11th May 2012).

Taking that to be a central tenet of the series, this essay will draw on the literature surrounding the image of scientists in popular culture (science-fiction in particular) to consider Fringe’s conception of science as a heroic endeavor and, consequently, demonstrate its depiction of the scientist figure as one which is fundamentally heroic. Though some existing work on the series has touched briefly on this topic, the results have often been unsatisfying (see Clifton, 2011). Equally, while there is a validity and a usefulness to focusing on Walter’s literary antecedents as a ‘mad’ scientist, or the series itself as ‘a cautionary tale about the perils of unrestrained technology’ (Stuart 2011), such writing tends to downplay the heroic quality of science in the Fringe universes.

As viewers, we have an inclination to see the cases handled by Fringe Division as a series of crimes perpetrated via extraordinary scientific means when in fact, as with many elements of the show, the opposite is just as true: each week, the transgressions of Fringe’s antagonists are foiled by extraordinary scientific means. Key to this (and to this essay) is the character of Walter Bishop. Though his methods are unorthodox and his ethics occasionally questionable, Walter – by voluntarily reducing himself to a childlike state – is a truly heroic embodiment of science. He may strike visitors to his lab as ‘childish’ and ‘crazy’ but, as author Douglas Adams once put it, ‘a scientist must be absolutely like a child […] You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool’ (So Long and Thanks for all the Fish). Walter’s eccentricities, renewed benevolence, and astounding success at saving the day in the aftermath of William Bell removing part of his brain cause the viewer to question the distance between sanity and madness when it comes to expanding the boundaries of scientific knowledge in a world ‘where one breath of the wrong air can incinerate you from the inside out’ (Fringe, ‘Pilot’).

Though it is true that science on Fringe is overtly villainous (otherwise there would be no show) the character of Walter Bishop nonetheless personifies science as an explicitly heroic practice, with the resulting conflict generating much of the show’s narrative momentum. With this in mind, the intention of this essay is to provide a reading of Fringe which examines the strengths of the show’s scientific heroes (their use of knowledge, to paraphrase Wyman) and discuss to what extent they problematize popular culture stereotypes of the ‘mad’ scientist.