Monday, March 17, 2014

Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox (aka Fringe #1)

Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox, by Christa Faust
May, 2013  Titan Books

Fringe ran for five seasons, from 2008 to 2012, and I never watched it during its original broadcast run on Fox. I was aware of it, though; I recall a coworker sometime in 2009 raving about it, and I was like, “You mean that show with the guy from Dawson’s Creek?” But I never watched it. 

Then last year a friend who shares many of my interests was telling me how much he enjoyed Fringe, and how much he knew I’d like it. So I went out and got Seasons 1-4 on Blu Ray for a pittance, thanks to Black Friday deals (getting the fifth season for cheap a year later, as well).  Still I procrastinated on watching the show. I mean, I watched Lost as it aired, and I grew to hate that show, and I didn’t want to be burned again.

But man, when I finally got around to watching Fringe, my initial reaction was, “Where’s this show been all my life?” Within the first half hour of the pilot episode resident “mad scientist” Walter Bishop was clapping his hands and announcing, “Let’s make some LSD!” The series covered a lot of ground in its five seasons, from X-Files-eque procedurals in the first to a final season that took place in a dystopian 2036. And it was all great, and unlike most shows it was made to be watched over and over – and unlike Lost, the finale was actually memorable and effective.

Fringe was never a killer in the ratings, but the fanbase was strong enough that Titan Books must’ve decided there would be a market for some TV tie-ins. It appears that they then approached Christa Faust, an author known for TV tie-ins (as well as her own material), and hired her to write a trilogy of Fringe prequels. (“Everybody loves prequels!” – Homer Simpson)  Also these books would apparently be “official,” and not only part of the show’s cannon but even approved by production company Bad Robot. (Though I admit, the jaded half of me figures this “approval” was mostly relegated to: “Okay, how much are we gonna make offa these books?”)

The Zodiac Paradox then is the first of this prequel trilogy, and details a backstory concerning Walter Bishop, easily my favorite character in the series. But this is a much younger Walter, 22 years old and fresh out of doctoral school when the novel opens in August, 1969. Faust shows that she’s at least familiar with the characters by opening with Walter in the middle of an LSD experiment, conducted with his colleage Dr. William Bell (Leonard Nimoy in the actual series).

The two young doctors are looking to meld their minds (surely a Star Trek in-joke) with a new LSD batch as they sit near Reiden Lake, a spot that only exists in the world of Fringe, in New York state. Meanwhile, in the alternate universe (a Fringe mainstay that wasn’t fully introduced until the second season), a killer named Allan Mather is on the run from the cops. Despite stalking his prey in the alternate-reality Reiden Lake, Mather too is hopped up on LSD – personally I don’t see how the guy would be able to even hold a knife, let alone run through the countryside as the cops chase him.

Through some nebulous means Walter and Bell open a rift between the universes with their LSD-linked minds, and, given his own altered state, Mather not only links minds with them, but also sees the rift on the other side, and falls through it as the cops surround him. Now this killer is loose in our world, Walter and Bishop having no idea where he came from. In fact this prequel has it that only during this adventure do the two men realize there even is an alternate reality…but then, given that a serial killer comes from over there, one must wonder why Walter and Bell would’ve gone on to so desperately try to breach the rift between the two worlds in later years, per Fringe lore.

In the early half of the book Faust spends more time with Mather, as we see him slowly realizing that he’s in an alternate reality. And after killing his alternate-reality self he decides to stick around and continue his killing spree here, under the guise of the Zodiac Killer. Personally I think this was a mistake on Faust’s part; I think the novel would’ve been stronger had Mather not been a real-life killer. And anyway, the Zodiac’s murders began before 1968. But regardless, Mather now calls himself the Zodiac Killer, and you have to at least give the guy credit for quickly adapting to changing environments!

Faust next cuts forward to September, 1974, and the focus is back on Walter and Bell. Both of them are now in San Francisco, conveniently enough, delivering a lecture. Of course, SanFran is the Zodiac’s stomping grounds, and Walter’s on edge because, on that night back on Reiden Lake when his mind was briefly linked with Mather’s, Walter saw Dead Zone-style a murder Mather would commit sometime in September, 1974. Walter, hardly ever getting out of his lab, let alone Boston, hasn’t heard much about the Zodiac Killer, but once some locals tell him about the murderer he realizes that this must be the man he and Bell encountered on Reiden Lake.

Walter and Bell take it upon themselves to stop him. At least they try to go to the cops first, but after hearing their crazy story the police brush them off – only for an FBI agent named Latimer to take them into custody. In one of the novel’s many logic lapses, Bell instantly deduces that they shouldn’t trust Latimer, and the two escape, only to run into another FBI agent, this one named Iverson. Claiming to be the originator of a “fringe” division in the Bureau, Iverson is on the outs with his colleagues and has been receiving notes from the Zodiac, who claims to be from another universe. Iverson hands over his casefiles to Walter and Bell, figuring they’ll have a better chance of cracking the complex Zodiac ciphers.

The novel now becomes a bit trying as Walter and Bell become amateur crimebusters, making one idiotic move after another. True, Walter would often rush off into the fray with little forethought in the series, but then this was an older Walter, one who’d recently gotten out of an insane asylum and had portions of his brain removed (more of which below). So for the same sort of thing to happen here, particularly with Bell going along, comes off as kind of dumb. Eventually Walter and Bell meet up with Nina Sharp (a perfectly-cast Blair Brown in the series), a young acquaintance of Bell’s (who is set up by Faust as a ladykiller here…seriously, did women find ‘70s-era Leonard Nimoy sexy??).

Nina and Bell had a strange romantic history in Fringe, the writers never making clear what actually happened between them (not helped by the fact that Leonard Nimoy only appeared in a handful of episodes, and never shared a scene with Blair Brown). At any rate here young Nina is herself a doctorate student, as sharp and ingenious as the boys, and she and Bell share a playful bantering. Having recently rewatched Altered States, it was easy to picture a younger Blair Brown here, and Faust does a good job of bringing her character to life.

In fact Nina is the only one with a square head on her shoulders, smart enough to bring a revolver along when rushing out into the fray with Walter and Bell. She also brings the early ‘70s acid rock movement into the story, as her San Francisco home is currently occupied by various members of Violet Sedan Chair, a Fringe universe rock group often stated as being Walter’s favorite band. Faust goes too far with the in-jokery, though, with Walter meeting group leader Roscoe Joyce, a keyboardist who was played in a Season 3 episode by Christopher Lloyd; Faust has the two meet, and Roscoe makes a prophetic utterance that they will meet again someday, but neither of them will remember having met here in 1974. Pretty lame.

Speaking of ’74, Faust also does a good job of capturing the era. Unlike most modern-day creators who santize the past, Faust actually has Nina going out to buy cigarettes! Drugs are also rampant, with mass partakings of LSD. Even better, Faust understands the whole New Age/self-help movement that was all the rage at the time, with talk of biofeedback and mind expansion. There’s even a brief visit to a clinic wholly devoted to biofeedback research, and you can just picture the white-garbed, frazzled-haired post-hippies in attendance. But unfortunately most of this is obscured by the bumbling Keystone Cops-esque shenanigans of Walter and Bell.

Things gradually build to a head as Walter and Bell crack various Zodiac ciphers, thwarting a few of his kills, but putting themselves (particularly Nina) in jeopardy. But once the duo realize that their LSD mind-meld caused the rift between worlds, they invoke a masterplan involving a batch of biofeedback enthusiasts and more of that special LSD. The finale plays out more on the metaphysical realm, as Walter and Bell dose up and try to lure Mather into a trap near the Golden Gate Bridge. And Mather’s fate appears to be another reference to the show, being very similar to the one suffered by villain David Robert Jones (no, not that David Robert Jones) in Season 1.

Online reviews for The Zodiac Paradox are pretty consistent in that most fans didn’t enjoy the novel. The biggest stated criticism is over Walter, who herein acts like the Walter of the show: bumbling, given to grandiosity, but very likable despite his faults. Fans know however that the Walter of the show was a result of brain surgery; Walter, in the late 1980s or so, felt that he was becoming too grandiose, too “evil,” and thus asked Bell to remove portions of his brain(!). In the two ‘80s flashback episodes (from Seasons 2 and 3), Walter was a different man, arrogant and abrupt (John Noble’s acting was truly legendary on this show). Readers of The Zodiac Paradox wonder then why this 1970s Walter isn’t the same.

But to defend Faust, I don’t see where this is necessarily a mistake. We never learned when exactly Walter started his slide toward “evil genius,” and there’s nothing in the series (that I can remember, at least) which would indicate he was always like that, and only became “likable Walter” after the brain surgery. In fact from the backstories doled out throughout the five seasons, it would seem that Walter was always the same, but only became deranged once his son Peter was born and developed health issues, something which didn’t happen until the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and is thus outside of the era of this novel.

Perhaps the bigger problem with The Zodiac Paradox is that it doesn’t feel like Fringe. Sure, it’s got Walter, Bell, and Nina, it’s got drugs and mind expansion, and it’s got inexplicable phenomena. But despite all that, it’s sort of plodding and dull at times, and lacks the momentum of the actual show. At any rate, if this was an episode, it would be one of the skippale ones – and there were precious few skippable episodes in Fringe. (For my money, all of them were in the regrettable fourth season, which featured an “altered timeline” in which the first three seasons never happened.)

A few months after this novel, the second volume was released: The Burning Man, which details a backstory about series protagonist Olivia Dunham as a teenager. The online reviews for this one are even more merciless – and it appears that these reviews got through to Titan Books, who postponed the publication of the third volume (which will be about Walter’s son Peter); originally scheduled to come out soon after The Burning Man, this third novel, Sins Of The Father, is now scheduled to come out in August 2014! Speculation has it that production company Bad Robot actually checked out the manuscript this time and likely ordered rewrites.


John Nail said...

You might enjoy Christa Faust's novels published by Hard Case Crime: Money Shot and its sequel Choke Hold. The novels feature the character Angel Dare, an ex-porn star who does "one last job" in front of the camera that almost ends her life. These books have a good mix of action and sleaze -- Faust doesn't shy away from the tawdry details of her heroine's former profession -- and are fairly well-written, though the plotting on Choke Hold is a bit thin. Faust has done a lot of novels based on TV series and movies (Friday the 13th among them), but based on your review of her Fringe novel it may be best to stick with her original creations.

Tim Mayer said...

Still trying to get through this one months after I bought it. Might help if I had watched a single episode of the series.
About Dame Faust: she writes much better with her original fiction. But I guess we all have to pay the bills.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. John, I'll definitely look into Faust's original material. And Tim, you must be a fan of her work if you started to read Zodiac Paradox without having watched Fringe. I'd recommend you check out the show -- at the very least, don't judge it by this novel!