The other night while watching Project Runway, I had to explain the term "fringe" to my wife, which inevitably led to the question of how this related to the eponymous TV series. This in turn got me thinking about Fringe, why we loved it so much, why we found the last season rather disappointing, and what this means in a broader context.
There is one obvious reason why the last season of Fringe couldn't possibly be as good as the others: Fringe was all about mysterious possibilities, and once they'd decided to wrap everything up, they couldn't play that game any more; instead, the last season warped into an entertaining but much less intriguing "resist the alien invaders" adventure.
However, there was something that went further and actually irritated me about the last season that I couldn't put my finger on until now: it uses the Faustian deal-wtih-the-devil trope clumsily. The Faustian bargain is a staple of science fiction, and it can be done well. Frankenstein is a secularised version where there is no devil to make a deal with, but just a line in Nature which shouldn't be crossed (Shelley subtitled her novel "the Modern Prometheus" but Frankenstein is more like the hubristic doctor than the altruistic Titan). In fact, earlier on in Fringe we see two good examples of this trope: first where Walter experiments on children to enhance their psychic abilities, and later where he crosses into a parallel universe to save the son of his parallel self (by kidnapping him), thus creating a rupture in the time-space-quantum-thingummy, not to mention some unusual family drama.
Season 5 is an example of how not to do the Funky Faust. Our world has been invaded by our descendants, who have come back in time because they've messed up the environment so much. They also have amazing psychic powers, something you associate less with the kind of people who create ecological mayhem and more with cute natives who live in harmony with Nature (so I suppose we should award the writers points for avoiding one common cliche). The road to environmentally unfriendly transhumanism starts when some Dr. Faustustein finds he can short-circuit the part of the brain used for jealousy, freeing up neurons which then go on and develop psychic powers because quantum. This is the kind of neurological wackiness that is fine in a show like Fringe; the problem is in what happens next. Having got rid of a thoroughly unpleasant and fairly useless emotion and got some cool new abilities in return, our future selves get addicted to their new powers and use more and more of their brains to get them, resulting in all normal emotions getting thrown out. Yet the future folk we see are prone to primitive emotions like anger, and even lust after 21st century women, as we see when our heroes sneak into a private club where the Übermenschen unwind after a hard day of world domination.
Now the whole point of the Faust story is that Faust is a pretty smart fellow; in fact his problem is that he's too clever for his own good. The Faustian bargain has to look like a smart idea at the time, but this looks downright silly. I get rid of a negative emotion in return for some psychic powers, so I then go on and eliminate all of my positive emotions while keeping as many negative emotions as possible? Hmmm, we can't do without lust, anger and greed, so let's get rid of love, compassion and humour. If you want to raise some questions about planned human evolution, this is not the way to go about it.
The other Faustian bargain is the familiar one where humans seek power over Nature and end up destroying it. Arguably, this is the one we are living at the moment. Yet Fringe presents this in a very short-sighted way by simply projecting current environmental degradation into the future. We're creating a lot of environmental damage now, so as we get more technologically advanced, we'll create even more, right? In fact we'll have screwed up the Earth so thoroughly, the only way out will be to transport the whole population back in time.
Whoa. This is a society so advanced they can send millions of people back in time, but they can't work out how to clean up industrial pollution? Not even with those hyper-intelligent psionic megabrains they've developed? A similar silliness lurks in the ending of Avatar, where the humans are sent back to live in the ashes of the Earth they had plundered. Now I'm not saying that humans can't make the Earth uninhabitable; what I'm saying is that they would not develop the technology to go all over the galaxy looking for rare minerals yet be unable to clean up their home planet. Stupid species don't make it into space.
Of course it's good to post warnings about our potential to destroy our planet, but we need to be careful about the way we frame them. This century looks like being make-or-break for our species, as we are at the most dangerous stage of technological development, half way between technology that is too feeble to have much of an impact on the environment and technology that is sophisticated enough to protect it. In contrast, the Observers were created in 2167 and didn't make the planet uninhabitable until 2609! That's nearly half a millennium of technological progress powered by superbrains. When we compare this to the actual timeline, we don't seem to be doing so badly: a few maverick scientists started warning about climate change in the 1970s; less than half a century later we have developed solar power that's as cheap as fossil fuels and are looking to have workable fusion energy in a few decades. It may not turn out to be enough, but it's actually quite impressive considering we haven't even swapped out parts of our brains to do it.