The non-science of Fringe: Pilot

Fringe: Season 1: Episode 1: “Pilot”

Walter and Peter pull Olivia out.

Walter and Peter pull Olivia out.

Season one of Fringe opens on an aeroplane, and when a woman mentions that it’s her first flight we know something horrible must be about to happen (it’s almost as bad as letting slip that you’re two days away from retirement). In this post, I’ll be making the usual comments about how much suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the show.

This episode is debunked at Popular Mechanics, and you can read more about it at Fox, IMDb and the A.V. Club.

Perhaps someone better-versed in German grammar can confirm this, but the woman who’s on her first flight says, “Dies is mein erst Flug.” I believe that it should be, “Dies is mein erster Flug” as Flug (flight) is a masculine noun.

The impressive science-y detective work begins only after John is caught up in a chemical explosion (but how did he call Olivia if her phone had no reception?). He’s deliberately put into a coma, possibly something to do with those blue glowing tubes conveniently covering his parts-not-allowed-on-television (need something to look more scientific? Make it glow!), and Olivia enters a familiar research montage. You can tell that she’s really working hard as she’s wearing glasses that she never wears at any other time, and all the lights are off (am I the only person who needs light to look at the keyboard to type?). We also see here one of the most overused and annoying misrepresentations of science on screen: in the real world, computers do not beep when you press enter. Seriously.

After securing the release of a possibly-mad scientist (Note to Lord of the Rings fans: Denethor!), Olivia also manages to secure his old laboratory at Harvard. There is such an overabundance of space there, the lab has been sitting unused for the past seventeen years, with all the equipment in place exactly as Walter left it. This is possibly the least realistic part of this episode, as it’s not unheard of for space and equipment to get taken over by other research groups while it’s still in use. Such a prime location would have been snapped up before Walter’s straightjacket was tied.



The scene is now set for fringe science to triumph – it looks like each episode will feature some kind of outlandish technique (completely overlooked by mainstream researchers), which always works. Today’s foray into the unknown showcases LSD-inspired mind-reading via “synaptic transfer”, facilitated by brand-new computers somehow running nifty mind-linking software. We can only assume that there were no compatibility issues at all in transferring the software from the 1980s-era computers Water was originally using (or maybe there’s an Apple II emulator?). At least the laboratory is realistically well-lit.

There is one final stumble in the race to find a cure by the end of the episode (prosthetic arm demonstrations straight out of Terminator 2 notwithstanding) – Walter cooks up his blood infusion using a Bunsen burner. While these are instantly recognisable as part of a high school laboratory, they’re not used so often in modern chemistry due to all those highly-flammable solvents. Electric heaters (properly termed heating mantles) are far less likely to cause fires.


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