On the Fringe

JJ Abrams’ series ‘Fringe’ ended happily ever after, but that happy ending is based on a logical flaw. Here I try my hand at reaching that happy ending without defying ‘Fringe’s’ internal logic.


I have just come away from watching all five seasons of the ‘critically acclaimed’ science fiction series, Fringe, created by JJ Abrams. The series well deserves its critical acclaim. It caters to both the viewer’s intellectual and emotional needs — keeping one’s mind active trying to follow the science and all the twists and turns, while presenting complex and sympathetic characters. After it was over I felt quite bereft.

The fifth and last season was especially harrowing, but ended on an emotionally satisfying note. I was so glad and relieved to see these characters I had come to love happy at last. However, once the glow had worn off it suddenly came to me that the ending was based on a logical flaw and therefore all wrong.

Spoiler Alert: All is revealed in this synopsis, but it might aid viewers who watched ‘Fringe’ but remain confused by its intricate plot. 

The Observers
The Observers

The scenario of the fifth season begins on a sunny day in 2015 when Peter and Olivia are spending an idyllic afternoon in the park with their three-year-old daughter Henrietta. Their idyll is shattered when their world is invaded by the Observers, genetically engineered, emotionless beings from the future who bring down death and devastation. After a seemingly hopeless struggle, the Fringe team is able to send Walter into the future to stop the scientific developments that culminate in the Observers so that they never come to exist. The timeline is reset and we return to that sunny afternoon which ends happily as it should have all along.

The unfortunate logical flaw is that 2015 is not the first time Observers have intervened in human history. It is the actions of an Observer back in 1985 which sets off the chain of events which bring Peter and Olivia together. Without the Observers, Peter and Olivia would never have met and this idyllic afternoon could never have happened.

The purpose of this essay is to devise a scenario in which this happy ending satisfies logic as well as sentiment. To do so, I will have to begin by reviewing the major events of the series.

The Official Story

Dr Walter Bishop and his research partner Dr William Bell are brilliant but ruthless scientists who, in the 1970s, are recruited to undertake secret ‘fringe’ scientific research for the US military. Among their many and varied discoveries and inventions is a screen, a World Window, which can see into a parallel universe which closely resembles their own, or the prime, universe, but whose technology has taken a different turn and is ahead in many fields. They also build a device that can create a portal into that parallel universe, but they recognise that to do so could compromise the very fabric of both universes.

In 1985, Walter and his wife Elizabeth are facing tragedy. Their young son Peter is dying of an incurable genetic disorder. Looking through the World Window into the parallel universe, Walter discovers that his doppelganger there, known as ‘Walternate’, is also losing his son, but with his advanced scientific knowledge is well on the way to compounding a cure. Walter watches in the hope that he can duplicate that cure for his own son. However, his Peter dies before the cure is discovered and Walter’s only comfort is that the other Peter might survive.

Walter brings young Peter through the portal
Walter brings young Peter through the portal

Unfortunately, just as Walternate’s experiment is about to succeed, he is distracted by a strange bald man who enters his lab. Dismayed, Walter watches as Walternate misses seeing the reaction he has been waiting for. Determined that at least one Peter should survive, Walter synthesises the cure and decides to activate the device to cross into the parallel universe to administer it. His associate Nina Sharp tries to stop him, and when she grabs him as he crosses, Walter falls and breaks the vial carrying the cure. Now the only way Walter can cure the child is to take him back to the prime universe. Pretending to be Walternate, Walter takes the child from his mother and crosses back through the portal. As the portal has been set up on a frozen lake, the energy it generates shatters the ice and both fall into the freezing water. They are rescued by a remarkable bald man who seems to be able to read Walter’s thoughts.

With the device at the bottom of the lake, Walter has no choice but to keep Peter and he and Elizabeth are finally able to convince him that his conviction that they are not his real parents is a delusion born of his long illness. However, their happiness comes at a great price. Racked by guilt for the damage he may have caused, Walter distances himself from his family, while Elizabeth eventually commits suicide. Afraid he might be tempted to cross into the parallel universe again and cause more damage, Walter begs Bell to extract the portions of his brain that know how to do so and then sinks into insanity. Grieving for his mother and resenting his father, Peter uses his brilliant intellect to become a highly successful con artist.

With Walter incarcerated in a mental institution, William Bell and Nina Sharp establish Massive Dynamic, a powerful corporation involved in advanced research and development in all fields of science and technology, some of which are highly dangerous and unethical. Meanwhile Walternate realises that his son has been taken to the prime universe and determines to move heaven and earth to get him back. His ambition raises him to the position of Secretary of Defence and, as the fabric of his universe begins to fall apart, he wages a ruthless, one-sided war against the prime universe.

John Scott and Olivia Dunham
FBI Agents John Scott and Olivia Dunham

In 2008, John Scott, FBI Agent Olivia Dunham’s partner — both professionally and personally — is dying of a bizarre condition, a consequence of the first in a series of devastating unnatural events. When she learns that Dr Walter Bishop is the only person who can help him, she hunts Peter down and persuades him to release his father from the mental institution where he has been for 17 years. Walter fails to save Scott, but he is the only person who can make sense of the strange events happening more and more often.

The FBI recruits Walter as a consultant and, as he is unable to function on his own, Peter stays to help manage him. Meanwhile, Walter manages his mental illness with a cocktail of psychotropic drugs, including the LSD he and Bell often experimented with in their youth. Together with Olivia, Walter and Peter form the core of the FBI Fringe Unit and develop extremely close bonds as Peter reconnects with his father and falls in love with Olivia.

Over time, Olivia discovers that she, too, has a previous connection with Walter. She is one of a cohort of children Walter dosed with the experimental drug Cortexiphan designed to enhance their latent psychic abilities. Olivia was by far the strongest of the group. She had the gift of telekinesis and, when she was extremely terrified, was able to cross unaided to the parallel universe.

A terrified young Olivia
Young Olivia undergoes clinical trials

Concerned about Peter’s state of mind, Elizabeth brought him to see Walter at the nursery school where he was conducting the trials. They arrived to find that Olivia, terrified and disturbed by Walter’s experiments, as well as by the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her stepfather, had psychically set fire to the school and run away. Peter was able to find her and persuade her to tell Walter about the abuse. Walter warned her stepfather of dire consequences if he laid another finger on her. Soon after, the Cortexiphan trials were abandoned.

One of the major instigators of the events investigated by the Fringe Unit is a brilliant but psychopathic scientist, David Robert Jones. Jones was once employed by Massive Dynamic, but was fired when he proved unstable. Motivated by the need to prove himself as brilliant as Bell, Jones leads a cult determined to destroy the parallel universe. Its bible is a self-published manuscript known as the ZFT Manifesto, the acronym for its German title which reads in English ‘Destruction through Advancement of Technology’. Walter discovers that he wrote the manifesto himself as he sank into insanity but has no memory of doing so or of the science behind its contents. Peter manages to kill Jones as he attempts to cross into the parallel universe to confront William Bell who is living there, his doppelganger having died as a young man.

Having discovered that the two universes are on a collision course that will destroy one of them, Bell has crossed over to try to prevent the destruction. There Walternate has set up his own Fringe Unit with the same members as on the other side, but with more resources and responsibilities. While secretly acting as a double agent, Bell has been recruited by Walternate and helped create the shapeshifters which act as Walternate’s agents in the prime universe. At the same time, without Bell’s earlier influence, Walternate did not carry out much of the research Walter and Bell attempted, including the Cortexiphan trials.

The Observer September
The Observer September

Also secretly active in both universes are the Observers, a team of scientists from the distant future with the ability to move freely through time and space. Their role is to observe human history without affecting it, but they are unaware that they are the vanguard of the Observer Invasion of 2015. Living in close proximity with humanity, some of them find themselves developing bonds and intervening. The rest of the team must then manipulate time to correct the errors thus caused. There are twelve Observers named for the twelve months. It was September who distracted Walternate and saved Walter and Peter from drowning.

When the Fringe team manages to stop Walternate’s first attempt to cross into the prime universe, Peter discovers that he is compatible with the parallel universe and so must come from there. Angry with Walter for deceiving him, he willingly returns to the parallel universe with Walternate where he is recruited to help put together a mysterious machine only he can operate. Wary of Walternate and his motivations, and in love with Olivia, Peter is easily persuaded to return to the prime universe with Olivia when she heads a mission that crosses over to bring him back. Unbeknown to Peter, his Olivia is switched with the parallel Olivia, known as ‘Fauxlivia’, at the last moment and it is she who returns with him and becomes his lover. Peter notices that Fauxlivia is much happier and easier to get on with than his Olivia, but believes she is just happy to be with him. When the two Olivias again exchange places and return to their own universes, Fauxlivia discovers she is carrying Peter’s child.

Peter has brought back his knowledge of the mysterious machine and that he has a vital role to play which might kill him and cause terrible destruction. In order to work out what danger it might pose, the Fringe team assembles their own version from parts scattered around the world by the mysterious ‘First People’. Walter eventually works out that the ‘First People’ are a myth he would create when, sometime in the future, he would scatter and hide the parts and leave a trail of clues to their whereabouts.

Peter Bishop with Olivia Dunham
Peter Bishop with Olivia Dunham

The parts come together to form a Doomsday Machine with the power to destroy either universe, but also to create and heal. When Walternate uses Fauxlivia’s baby’s DNA to activate the Machine and try to destroy the prime universe, with the aid of Olivia’s psychic abilities, Peter enters the Machine on his side to protect it. The Machine grants Peter a vision in which he sees that destroying the parallel universe will eventually lead to the destruction of the prime universe, so instead of destroying it, he creates a bridge between the two universes, which will allow the two worlds to co-operate and heal both physically and spiritually.

However, his role now fulfilled, the Observers try to correct September’s mistake by erasing the adult Peter from history, creating an altered timeline in which Peter drowned in that frozen lake. Peter’s absence causes many subtle changes in both universes.

Having learned that Peter died while being taken into the prime universe, Walternate and his Elizabeth have been able to reconcile themselves to losing him. While still Secretary of Defence, Walternate is defensive rather than antagonistic in his attitude to the prime universe nor has he engendered as much hatred towards it, thus allowing his people to reconcile with the prime universe.

While Fauxlivia becomes more well-disposed towards her opposite number, Olivia has become harder and more alienated. Not having met Peter as a child, Olivia never told anyone about her stepfather’s abusiveness and ended up shooting him herself. When her mother died of cancer, she and her sister Rachel were adopted by Nina Sharp.

This relationship was foreshadowed in the original timeline where, although Olivia often had to consult Nina, she never really trusted her, while Nina always showed a maternal interest in her. Having been a mother, Nina is now more empathetic and less unscrupulous than she was in the original timeline. However, while she has a closer relationship with Olivia, Nina is alienated from Walter who blames her for his failure to save Peter and hates her.

Walter’s wife Elizabeth committed suicide from grief soon after Peter’s death, while Walter became angry and bitter towards a God that would allow his Peter to die twice. He decided to challenge God by becoming godlike himself and devised a plan to collapse both universes into a singularity to create a new Big Bang and a new universe in his own likeness. Yet even in his grief, Walter was aware of the terrible consequences of his plan and, afraid he would carry it out, he begged Bell to remove the parts of his brain that devised the plan and then sank into insanity. Olivia was able to free Walter from the mental institution on her own, but without Peter’s support, Walter refuses to leave the lab, observing crime scenes via webcam.

Dr William Bell
Dr William Bell

When William Bell discovered he was dying of cancer, he decided to put Walter’s plan into action himself and so become an immortal god. Bell is aided by David Robert Jones, who was not killed by Peter, and the parallel Nina Sharp. In this timeline it was not Walternate, but Bell and Jones who used the shapeshifters as their agents and they have devised a new series of shapeshifters even harder to detect. Unconcerned about the consequences, they cross easily between universes while Jones carries out destructive experiments and the parallel Nina Sharp takes advantage of her access to Massive Dynamic and Olivia, secretly dosing her with high levels of Cortexiphan, so that she can eventually be used by Bell as the energy source for the creation of his new universe.

However, despite the Observers’ efforts, Peter has not been totally erased. While forgetting him on a conscious level, their strong love for Peter allows Olivia and Walter to cling to his memory on a subconscious level. This bond allows Peter to communicate with them so that they are able to bring him back. At first Peter believes he has entered another parallel universe and, aware that he betrayed Olivia, even unknowingly, with Fauxlivia, he keeps his distance from this Olivia until September tells him the truth and he understands that this Olivia really is his Olivia. Meanwhile, as a side-effect of the Cortexiphan, Olivia recovers her memories of Peter and loses her memories of the altered timeline.

As Bell gets closer to carrying out his plan, the two Fringe teams realise that he is using the bridge between the two universes as a means for collapsing them together. Regretfully they sever the bridge and cut the bonds that have grown between them.

Making use of Peter’s compatibility with the parallel universe and Olivia’s ability to cross between them, they find Bell, who has kidnapped Walter, and confront him. When Bell tries to use Olivia’s powers to collapse the universes, Walter is forced to shoot her through the brain to stop him. Thwarted, Bell disappears from both universes.

Fortunately Walter is able to extract the bullet from Olivia’s brain and the Cortexiphan in her system heals the wound and brings her back to life, to Peter’s great relief. When examined at the hospital, Olivia is told she is pregnant, much to everyone’s joy.

The ‘Observer-free’ Timeline

The following is the scenario I have devised that should take us back to that idyllic day in the park without the intervention of the Observers.

Walternate in his lab
Walternate creating a cure for Peter

In the parallel universe, Walternate succeeds in finding a cure for his son Peter who survives and thrives. However, his success drives him to devote himself to medical research for which he neglects his family. He establishes a major medical research corporation, Bishop Dynamic, which is run by Nina Sharp. Peter grows up close to his mother and, while he admires Walternate, resents his neglect. No less brilliant than his father, Peter craves a life more exciting than one confined to a research lab and so joins the FBI where he meets and falls in love with Agent Olivia Dunham (or Fauxlivia).

Meanwhile, in the prime universe, Walter Bishop takes some consolation for the death of his son from the knowledge that another Peter thrives in the parallel universe. However it is not enough and he buries himself in his work, establishing Massive Dynamic with William Bell and Nina Sharp. Unable to take consolation in a parallel Peter she can never hold and neglected by Walter, Elizabeth commits suicide.

Without a family to ground him, Walter comes further and further under the malevolent influence of William Bell who pushes him to explore more and more daring theories. It is only Nina Sharp’s influence that prevents Massive Dynamic from straying too far into unethical and perilous fields. Walter is also worried about where his research might lead him and buries his concerns under copious amounts of psychotropic drugs. Unfortunately this only leads him into even more outlandish speculation, such as the possibility of collapsing the two universes to create a new universe from scratch. It is also under the influence of LSD that Walter writes what becomes the ZFT Manifesto. In his more sober moments, Walter works on devising a safe way to communicate with or cross over to the parallel universe so that he can meet the other Peter.

Among the work undertaken by Massive Dynamic are the Cortexiphan trials in which little Olivia Dunham is a subject. When, after being pushed too far, Olivia sets fire to the school, Nina Sharp persuades Walter to abandon the trials. Aware now of her abilities, Olivia uses telekinesis to kill her stepfather in what looks like an accident. When her mother dies soon after of cancer, Nina pulls a few strings and adopts Olivia and her sister Rachel, then persuades Walter to hypnotise Olivia so that she forgets the Cortexiphan trials and how she killed her stepfather. Although Olivia grows up with Walter and Bell as distant ‘uncles’, she knows little of the work they do. On leaving college she joins the FBI.

David Robert Jones
David Robert Jones

David Robert Jones works for Massive Dynamic for several years and is privy to all its research. However, Nina is wary of him and, when she has proof of his instability, she talks William Bell into firing him. Jones resents being dismissed and, before he goes, steals huge amounts of data, including the plans for the device which opens a portal between universes as well as the ZFT Manifesto. Determined to show Walter and Bell he is a superior scientist to either of them, Jones self-publishes the ZFT Manifesto and uses it to gather a cult following in both universes. Each unaware of the other, both cults believe they must destroy the other universe to protect their own universe from invasion and destruction by the other. The cult’s activities bring unnatural devastating events to both universes. Jones escapes detection by crossing backwards and forwards between the two universes, thus causing ever bigger rips in the fabric of both.

Faced with these events, both universes respond by forming Fringe Units. Peter leads the unit in the parallel universe and calls on his father and Bishop Dynamic for help. Olivia heads the team in the prime universe where she calls on Nina and Massive Dynamic for help.

While co-operating with the Fringe Unit, Walter soon realises that the unnatural events can be traced back to his own research and eventually they discover who and what are behind them. Walter uses the World Window to discover that the parallel universe is also suffering from similar events and that both universes will have to work together to defeat Jones.

Extending the capabilities of the World Window, Massive Dynamic develops a system that can communicate between parallel universes. Walter reactivates Olivia’s ability to cross to the parallel universe so that she can take a device over there that will allow the two universes to work together with Olivia acting as liaison. There she meets Fauxlivia and Peter for the first time. Despite the similarities, the two Olivias are very different. While Fauxlivia is open and friendly, Olivia is stand-offish and hard to get to know. When Fauxlivia is killed in action, Peter is at first resentful towards Olivia but then finds himself falling in love with her.

Over time, and most reluctantly, Walter comes to realise that William Bell is behind Jones’ activities. When he discovered he was dying of cancer, Bell gained influence over Jones and is using him and his cult followers to carry out Walter’s plan to collapse the two universes and become the immortal god of a new universe.

Peter in the Doomsday Machine
Peter in the Doomsday Machine

Under Bell’s influence, Jones builds a Doomsday Machine in both universes with which he plans to destroy them both. When Jones enters the Machine in the prime universe and attempts to start them up, with the aid of Olivia’s psychic abilities, Peter is able to force his way into the Machine in the parallel universe. In an epic battle of wills, Peter wrests control of the Machine from Jones and instead of using it to destroy, uses it to create a bridge between the two universes which will allow them to work together to bring peace and healing to them both. The battle kills Jones and when Walter confronts Bell, Bell disappears before his eyes from both universes.

(This will explain why Walter scatters and hides the Doomsday Machine parts when he is transported into the future and why it can only be operated by Peter. Hoping that the same series of events will not occur in this altered time-line but fearing that they might, Walter hides the parts where they can be found if needed and programs them to be only operable by Peter whom he can trust not to use it destructively.)

The bridge cannot last forever and must eventually be severed. Faced with a choice between his own universe and a universe where there is a father who needs him and the woman he loves who is carrying his child, Peter elects to move to the prime universe where he and Olivia live happily ever after.

© Pauline Montagna 2016


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