The entertainment industry has often used blatant rip-offs to make money. Everybody knows this. One successful movie, TV show, indie singer, etc, will lead to a slew of copycats that are often lesser versions of the original.
However, sometimes that look can be deceiving. Though originally appearing to be something of an X-Files rip-off, the sci-fi drama Fringe soon evolved into something just as good, and in many ways better, than the prior show that it turned out it had little in common with beyond some superficial similarities.
Fringe told the story of the FBI’s fringe science division. Based out of a barely used lab on the Harvard University campus, special agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), daffy superscientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), and Bishop’s estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson) solve crimes involving advanced “fringe” science, much of it based off Walter’s old research. FBI agents investigating weird incidents? That sure does sound like The X-Files. I mean, sure, Mulder didn’t stick to things he could eventually provide a scientific explanation for like the Fringe team, and Dunham and co. had a lot of respect and back-up from their superiors, but aside from that the two shows sound the same.
Well, not really.
The biggest difference to start is Fringe actually more or less knew where it was going. The longer the X-Files ran, the more the audience probably realized the people behind the scenes were making it up as they went along. That’s probably why, if I am rewatching The X-Files, I prefer the mystery-of-the-week episodes. Any time Mulder and Scully dealt with the conspiracy, it made no sense because the people behind the scenes weren’t sure where it was all going. Maybe the Fringe creative team weren’t any better, but the series did provide a complete narrative by the time it concluded after four seasons on the Fox Network.
That sense of actually having a plot helped. Changes were no doubt made (Dunham’s love interest in the first season disappeared after that one year, perhaps due to the fact the actor in question and Torv got married and subsequently divorced), but the series went somewhere.
Torv herself might have been the most surprising aspect of the show. For most of the first season or so, Torv’s Olivia is a quiet woman who seems to be pushed out of the spotlight by both Noble and Jackson’s more interesting and charismatic performances. She’s downright dull. As time progresses, the audience actually learns this was intentional. One of the main conflicts over the course of the series comes from an alternate reality where duplicates of various people exist but with other, subtle changes. That universe’s Olivia Dunham is a hard-charging go-getter, about as different from the prime reality’s Olivia as it was possible to be, and Torv played both well. The prime Olivia’s quiet demeanor and such were intentional, and it was meant to show Olivia gradually coming out of her shell around the two men, particularly Jackson’s Peter.
The series was also one to embrace its sci-fi roots. The mysterious William Bell, genius billionaire businessman, as well as Walter Bishop’s former lab partner, is eventually revealed onscreen being played by actor Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy’s own declining health would limit his actual appearances on the show, so creative methods were used to keep Bell as a character, including one episode where the characters, including Bell, were changed into CGI animated forms.
But the fan favorite was probably John Noble. Blatantly chewing scenery with every appearance, the goofy Dr. Bishop never met a snack food (or apparently a drug) he didn’t like. Walter was the original source of all the conflicts for the series, as his actions years earlier not only led to much of the fringe science on display, but also led to conflict with the alternate universe. Walter’s bright-eyed enthusiasm, weird requests, and sad moments where he blamed himself for much of what was going wrong showed a character fans could latch onto early, a necessary development when the female lead was bland on purpose for most of the first season’s worth of episodes.
As a final note, the first season teases a character called The Observer. The man in question is a bald man in a suit and fedora who appears somewhere in every episode, sometimes prominently, sometimes not. Fox actually went so far as to stick the guy into as many of its shows as possible, including sporting events, The Simpsons, and American Idol. The character’s purpose gradually becomes known, but at first he’s just another weird mystery in a show full of them.
The only real difference between this show and The X-Files then is a most crucial one: Fringe actually solved all its mysteries.