Fringe Oral History: How the Series Changed Forever with One Sacrificial Act
Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv
In the third part of our farewell to Fringe, producers and cast discuss the most polarizing story line of the series: The Season 3 cliff-hanger featured a scene in which Peter Bishop, who we had come to know and love over three seasons, mysteriously vanished into thin air. The Observers then explained that he had, in fact, never existed. (Come again?) This controversial creative move ended a season that included Fringe's foreboding move to the Friday "death slot." Still, the show soldiered on for another two seasons, much to the credit of its passionate fan base.
Fringe Oral History Part 1: Building the world of "science fact"
TVGuide.com talked to stars John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop), Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop), Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham), Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth), Lance Reddick (Phillip Broyles), Blair Brown (Nina Sharp), Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee), series co-creator J.J. Abrams, executive producers J.H Wyman, Jeff Pinkner and Bryan Burk, Warner Bros. President Peter Roth and Fox's Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly about the bumpy road to the series finale. This is the third in a four-part oral history. Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4.
Fringe Oral History Part 2: Dual universes open up a new world of possibility
Little did Walter know when he created The Machine that his son Peter would end up being a sacrificial lamb.
Bryan Burk: It was an idea that when we all heard it, we started getting excited about it. You know, there are going to be ramifications.
Jeff Pinkner: Of all the things we did, it was by far the most controversial.
Josh Jackson: That was something that came up much, much, much later in telling the story of that machine and what the repercussions of the machine would be.
Pinkner: We thought, "OK, this may be the wrong way to go," but it's such a bold and exciting "fringe" idea that we immediately leapt upon it. We stopped for a couple of days, and we thought really hard, "OK, what are the consequences?" And we knew the dangers.
Jackson: I was happy with the idea that he was going to be erased, because I think to make the cliff-hanger have enough weight, something drastic had to happen.
Pinkner: We almost affirmatively wanted to engage in the question of, "Well, just because these characters don't remember Peter and because their lives have now gone down a different path, does that mean that those first three seasons that we witnessed then didn't matter?" The answer ultimately, of course, is yes, they mattered. Because his presence or absence altered their perspectives and the way it altered their hearts and their minds is far more important than the details of what they had for breakfast in a day.
J.J. Abrams: Well, I think that Joel and Jeff — especially Joel in the last season — have been incredibly aware of and beholden to the fans. There's nothing worse for fans of a show than being told that something that you like or care about or believe in doesn't exist anymore or wasn't real or has been somehow invalidated. At every step with the show, the story was always told with respect to people who were watching. We were always aware that the people who were watching the show deserved that and we were grateful for them.
Pinkner: I think one of the jobs of really good storytelling is to make the audience uncomfortable at times. I think that you want the audience to suffer for their characters. If it's happy all the time, then there's no modulation when you really need tears and darkness so that this all matters.
Seth Gabel: It's pretty incredible how passionate people are about the Peter character and seeing the worldwide response and the videos of, "Where is Peter?" I thought it was pretty remarkable.
Fringe Oral History Part 4: The road to the series finale
But the cast wasn't sold on this development.
Jasika Nicole: I thought it was really weird. You obviously have to put a lot of trust in the writers, because they've written three really fantastic, amazing, dynamic seasons already and so you have to put your faith in them and trust that they're going to bring you to a good place. But it was definitely a difficult thing for me and I think a couple of the other actors too.
Anna Torv: I think I'm in good company in saying I didn't quite know what they were going to do with that. I know that Josh was pushing for it. I know that he was behind that a little bit.
John Noble: I didn't like it, personally, because to me, to have a Walter there without Peter, he was basically locked in this lab for what function? Because he's a genius, that's about all. So I'll say it, no, I didn't think it was a great reset. We built a team, and it wasn't the same. If you take any one of the characters out, it wouldn't be the same. But we got it back.
Torv: John and I certainly sat down to go, "If this was this, how would this relationship be changed and what would this be like and what is a world without Peter?" But I didn't know until the episodes came out whether or not we were going to go back to that old timeline.
Jackson: I was never a huge fan of the paradox that you get yourself into when you start dealing with circular time like that. I felt like Season 4 had some clumsy moments trying to fudge through some of the logic leaps that you have to make. Well, if he didn't exist, how is he here, and why do some people remember him, and why is only that memory bleeding through, and if he was here until he was 9 years old, then why does the portal even exist? But that's part and parcel of when they're swinging for the fences, they're not all home runs. You have to deal with the double-edged sword of our show being really brave creatively, that not every single one of the ideas is going to be masterful.
Nicole: In this timeline that they created, I didn't understand what Astrid's purpose was anymore because before she had been a person who was a friend to Walter and that was a really important way to show the audience different facets of Walter's personality. But in this new timeline, because Peter wasn't around, Walter had never gotten to a place where he was able to really interact with people on a more compassionate level. They just weren't as close in this new timeline as they were before, and so I couldn't imagine what she was there for.
Noble: I chose to play Walter quite strangely. He wasn't that pleasant. Walter wasn't very pleasant or happy, and that was a deliberate choice. I said, "Please put him back. I miss Josh."
Lance Reddick: I'll be honest with you, I was a little skeptical. I thought, until it played out and then it panned out, I was concerned that it would show up as just as a device to keep the show interesting.
Pinkner: In a way, it really allowed us to reset the character relationships and say, "Well, what is important?" Ultimately, is love something that can exist across time and space and beyond depth? It allowed us to tell stories on the pragmatic level. It allowed us to reboot the show. Not literally, because this was a show we loved. Nobody was trying to blow it up, but it allowed us to kick-start these characters from a different place.
Jackson: You're also dealing with a couple of different things all at the same time, one of which is the creative side of it and one of which is the reality that we were always on the cusp of being canceled. So you're having to tell these stories and then at the end of each season leaving a possibility that the story could end. So the repercussions of The Machine came out of a conversation that I had with [consulting producer] Akiva Goldsman, and then he had the conversation with Joel and Jeff about the only choice that Peter could make that wouldn't result in the death or destruction of one side or the other would be self-sacrifice, which is a pretty noble thing.
Pinkner: This is one [decision] that I personally won't regret for a second. I know it was very controversial, From my point of view, the idea that Peter and Olivia fell in love again was really, really valuable and important.
Of course, despite being in a new timeline, Olivia began to get her memories back, alleviating some of the fears of the fans.
Pinkner: It was always part of the plan. There was a point at which Walter was going to get his memories back as well. We realized that we didn't want to use it as an opportunity just to reset where we had already been. We realized that it was important for Olivia to get her memories back because she needs to feel it; she didn't need to understand on an intellectual level.
Torv: It was interesting when Olivia started to get her memories back. She was like, "I don't want to make the same mistake again that I made in Season 2."
Pinkner: That had been an idea that we were toying with as soon as we decided to have Peter actually disappear. At one point, they all were going to and then we decided that really the only necessary one was Olivia.
Torv: I think it makes sense as much as anything on Fringe makes sense.
Fringe's final season is a 13-episode feature film
Due to low ratings, the series was moved to the Friday night "death slot" halfway through its third season.
Noble: After succeeding very strongly on a Tuesday, they put us on Thursday night and we got battered. But we had been quite a hit on Tuesday night in probably, in some ways, our weakest season, which was the first season.
Peter Roth: When this show first went on the air on Tuesday nights, it did well, but it never did quite as well in the numbers as we had all hoped and/or expected. It certainly did well enough to survive for five years. Having said that, particularly from Years 3, 4 and 5, it was especially a marginal proposition when the show moved to Friday night, which is a very, very tough night to succeed with.
Kevin Reilly: Fox had a history of putting shows on Friday, then breaking genre fans' hearts. What I believed with Fringe at that point, I said, "I think we have passionate enough fans." And at that point we also had DVRs starting to reach, and I said, "I just believe those fans are going with Friday."
Jackson: The reality is that it's not that we got put into the death slot and then the ratings started to decline; the ratings started to decline and then we got put into the death slot. As we made it a more difficult, but more interesting show, it became less interesting to more people. Season 3 was when the ratings really started to go into the tank, and Season 3 was the real introduction of the alternate universe, which was total red meat for the people who got off on stuff like that, but I think alienated a gigantic swath of the audience who just didn't want to have to work that hard.
Abrams: As the show moved to Fridays and became a niche series true to its name, it seemed like the show had found its level of audience. The number wasn't going to suddenly peak.
Reilly: I could hear the praise for the show going up while the ratings were going down.
Abrams: The decision was made to just commit to the show in its best form, not a compromised form in hopes of garnering a larger crowd. What was great about the show is it found its place and its ability to survive on its own terms.
Noble: The Friday night shift, I can remember saying to people, "Let's embrace it. Let's make it our own." That's all you can do. If you go in thinking that this is the graveyard, then you play that, so we just said, "No, Friday nights are going to be ours." And you know, obviously, we found we lost some audience and that's natural.
Reilly: The fans didn't abandon the show and that gave us the ability to keep the show alive and to do business on Friday.
Jackson: Frankly, the move to Fridays probably saved the show, because if we got the ratings that we get now on a Thursday, we would've been absolutely canceled. We've managed to stay on for two more seasons after that, which is incredible.
Gabel: I've always had the sense that the audience of Fringe is a very intelligent audience and they watch in unconventional ways and so I knew that a lot of people were watching the show, but that the ratings weren't necessarily reflecting that because they would watch in terms of using their DVR or downloading it or any number of ways that it's possible now to watch the show. For me, the move to Friday wasn't much of a concern because I knew people were technology-savvy enough that if they were a fan of the show, they'd still be able to find it — and I think Fox knew that as well, which is why they kept it on for this extra season which everyone is really grateful for.
Pinkner: We never felt like we were being moved to the bench. We always felt like the network was really just trying to find a way to gain more traction for the show until the bitter end. And that's the most lovely way.
In the summer of 2011, Reilly told reporters that if the show's ratings held steady on Friday nights, the network would be happy. By January 2012, Reilly's message had changed: Fox was losing money on the show.
Reilly: It's always been one of the highest DVR numbers. So clearly people were stacking them up on Friday and then watching them whenever they could watch them, which was OK with us. We were fine with it, because the show is not something you can join in progress. I think with each successive season, anybody who had fallen behind could not get back on the train. If you stuck with it, even though some of the places where it maybe went down a strange path or didn't totally add up, it was always delicious in its own way. But then it got to a point where we were, in fact, losing money.
Pinkner: I say the following really nonpolitically and in all honesty, I have never felt, in anything I've ever been involved in, more support from the network than we felt from Fox throughout the entire run of this show. There was so much love coming out of that building constantly from Day 1 to the very end that there was nothing we could've asked for more. At a certain point, every network and every studio has to decide whether or not they're making money or losing money on one of their shows, and if there are no eyeballs, despite all the love in the world, they're going to have to take it off the air.
Reilly: We just had this conundrum where, OK, how much can we lose? I really didn't want to cancel the show. I really felt like it deserved to be seen through, and ultimately, [Fox's Head of Business Affairs] Ira Kurgan was able to make a deal with Warner Bros. at the right price where we were able to make it work. Then it was great, because that way we were able to conclude it properly.
Pinkner: We never read anything into Kevin's statements other than what he was telling us personally, which is, we're going to support the show in every way we can and they did.
Fringe's final season will pay off big for longtime fans
Still, there was the constant fear that the show would be canceled before it was able to give the fans a proper ending.
Abrams: That's always a concern that you're not going to get to the end. Fortunately, I think we are going out at just the right time.
Pinkner: To answer honestly, we were far less nervous than anybody would think we were. Part of the fact that the show was on the bubble, it gave us the bandwidth to experiment because the stakes weren't that great. If the show had been a massive hit, we actually would've had more resistance from the network and the studio to keep it exactly like it is.
Noble: I wonder how many shows really aren't in that situation, to be honest with you. I don't think I ever doubted we would get picked up. I don't know if I'm just an optimist, but I thought there were still stories to tell, and I thought that we'd always done what was asked of us by Fox. Certainly people thought we were gone at the end of Seasons 1, 2, 3 and 4, but each time we came back.
Pinkner: The fact that we were on the bubble, absolutely there was a fear that we wouldn't get to end the story and satisfy both for ourselves or our cast and crew and the audience. We had made an internal promise that one way or another we would. Whether it was like in comic books or online or however, we would get the story out there. Because we felt the fans deserved that, but we never really had the feeling that we wouldn't get to tell it on TV.
Gabel: That's the nature of TV in general: You're never safe. Any kind of anxiety that may have come from not knowing if you have job security, you can manifest it in the Fringe world where you don't know if David Robert Jones [Jared Harris] is going to annihilate us all or what.
Burk: Fringe was one of those shows, like its title, on the fringe. Fortunately FOX stuck with it.
The credit, most will say, goes to the fans for keeping the show alive.
Burk: The show obviously stayed on the air 100 percent because of the fans who watched the show and who were passionate about the show and loved the show.
Noble: This is not just me saying this, I don't think there's ever been a fan base like there is for Fringe. I mean, I thought it was pretty impressive with Lord of the Rings, but there's nothing quite like the fan base of Fringe. Certainly it's only because the fans we're still here.
Gabel: It's incredible to know how passionate the fans of this show are and how powerful they are. They've been able to keep it on the air even though statistically it doesn't really have a right to be on the air. The show has become this incredible anomaly in the history of television that is a testament to the power that our fans have and the kind of storytelling that we receive.
Reddick: For somebody who never really paid much attention to the fans, the fans have come to mean everything to me.
Roth: The outpouring of support that I would see every year both online, at Comic-Con, and most especially at the time of pickup was so extraordinary and so heartening and so satisfying that it was galvanizing for all of us. This fan base kept this show going.
Jackson: Without the passionate support from the fans of the show, we would have faded to black long ago. It has also meant some of the most jaw-dropping experiences I've ever had as an actor. I will never forget the Comic-Con experiences.
J.H. Wyman: I really, really feel like the reason why our fans are our fans is because they're like-minded people that are concerned with the same things that I'm concerned with. How do we make life bearable in the darkest of times? That's why you get moments like at Comic-Con with the [fans holding up the] White Tulips [at the show's final panel] and all these incredible things they've done for our program. Yeah, they're passionate.
Reilly: Though the fact that I got 12,000 cases of Red Vines was more of an inconvenience than an influence. [Laughs]
Noble: I think the reason is that Fringe is essentially a family story. I guess the folks really identify with all of the characters. I get the sense that people have really become attached to us as this family. You take that away and what you're left with is a very clever science show. But that's the thing that meant the most to me anyway.
In Part 4 of our four-part series, the cast and producers discuss the 19th episode that changed everything, and the ensuing final season that's played like a love letter to the fans. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.