Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Technology, Science and "Belief"

Sailor and I were catching up on TV last night and had a chance to watch the newest episode of Fringe. Sailor isn't too keen on this show, because in his assessment "it's a big rip off of the X-Files." In a way, I get that - it's not like J.J. Abrams is above ripping off just about any science fiction narrative and repackaging it into convoluted plot lines that are supposed to be "intelligent" because they keep people "guessing" when really, they ceased to make logical sense long, long ago. Anyone who keeps tabs on this knows what I'm talking about.

On the other hand, he has also proven to be somewhat of a master at capturing the heart of a particular science fiction story while transforming it into something that is more culturally relevant (though Star Trek fans all over may completely disagree with me on this point). Having been a total XPhiler, I have to say that while there are striking similarities, Fringe differs in format with its respect to the concept of "belief" and the importance of technology. The X-Files generally interrogated the idea that there were things in this world that we, as human beings, were incapable of understanding and comprehending (unless of course you were a crazed lunatic like Mulder, or a rational person in love with a crazed lunatic like Scully). Key to your acceptance of the narrative was its insistence that "the truth is out there," that one must believe in the potential of science, and that really, if something was going to mutate, there wasn't anything you could do about it. Mulder and Scully were often asked to accept their fate, acknowledge that they couldn't change things about their situation, and ultimately let scientific progress take its course.

The narrative in Fringe is far less optimistic about our technological future. The questions they explore are not, "wow, could this really be happening?" - it's almost assumed that it IS happening, and the questions interrogated become, "how is this technology potentially harmful, and what can we do to stop the evil people who have it?" In that sense, it's much more like procedural cop dramas than the X-Files was, and often you feel quite hopeless about the current state of technological warfare at the end of the episode. I think this functions well in a post-9/11 society where technology has rapidly advanced in the last 10 years, and plays upon our general fears of scientific progress (see popular discourses regarding genetic mapping or cloning to get a sense of the uneasiness the general public has with technological change). The cast also functions as more of an ensemble, so while Olivia and Peter are the focus most of the time, the secondary characters actually have personalities beyond the "monster of the week" kinds of plots the X-Files sported for several years before developing additional characters. As a result of these changes, the emphasis is more on what we can DO to stop/alter/influence technological and scientific change rather than acceptance of its inevitable progress. It doesn't seem like a big distinction, but I think it says quite a lot about where our culture has been and where it's moving.

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