Friday's delightfully bizarre episode of Fringe, "Nothing As It Seems," was one of the more interesting hours of Fringe this season, proving that there's plenty of creativity to spare in this alternate timeline universe. A lot of things about the episode worked really well, but the momentum of the Creature Feature story sputtered a bit toward the end and didn't fully realize the potential of what the writers breached. Still, anytime there's a giant porcupine man on board for the ride, count me in.
The big trick here is that this week's case was one we'd seen before. Quite literally. "Nothing As It Seems" was a callback to the Season 1 episode "The Transformation," featuring the exact same case with different results. In the original case, a man injected himself with a super-mutation virus, boarded a plane, accidentally transformed into a giant, grotesque porcupine monster sometime between the complimentary beverage service and the cardboard sandwich plate, and caused the plane to crash. In Friday's case, the transformation was averted and the man didn't transform until the plane landed.
The cases looked the same on the outside, but they were actually slightly different. It was a nifty trick that only shows like Fringe have the opportunity to take advantage of, and this instance was particularly rewarding for fans who have stuck around since Season 1. We love this kind of shit, it makes us feel special.
If Friday's case had been identical to the Season 1 case, it would've only been a matter of time before Peter remembered how they solved it the first time around and we would have spent a lot more time this episode with everyone standing around looking for ways to kill the time. But the case was different enough, and it turned out that the new round of porcupeople came from a cult that used a super-mutating virus intended to transform its hosts into the "next-level" of evolution. The evolutionary advantages of having giant quills on your back and a face that only a blind mother with horrible taste could love were not explained. But if that's the next step in evolution, I'm halfway there!
The porcupeople in this timeline also had another trick up their sleeve: bat wings! And like the brave little bumblebee that defies all physics by taking flight, so too could these monsters. The bat wings and the odd Beauty and the Beast-ish love story were where this episode lost me a little. I guess I was looking for some more information on what made the creature more evolved. Personally, I think humans are doing pretty okay in our current form, and I imagine our next evolutionary step would involve developing telekinesis, erasing our disturbing proclivity to kill each other, and getting rid of whatever part of our brains keep reality shows on the air. Anyway, behind all the science of the super virus was David Robert Jones, though we never saw him, from his time at Massive Dynamic. That bit seemed kind of tacked-on at the end, but I'll bite.
The other interesting aspect of "Nothing As It Seems" involved Olivia trying to deal with her new life as Old-livia. Technically, it was the Fringe Division dealing with Olivia being Old-livia. An agent in the field who has memories of another life isn't good for the club, and after a grilling from the FBI shrink (probably my favorite scene of the episode), Broyles arrived at the decision to bench Olivia because she couldn't get basic facts straight (he even got her down to being 40 percent Old-livia and 60 percent new Olivia) despite appearing to be mentally all-there. And that's how the case tied into Olivia's story: Just as Porcupeople Part 2 was mostly familiar, so too was this Olivia. But that was all thrown out the window at the end, when Broyles reinstated her after she showed proficiency in the field. Or was it because the rest of the agents out there were that incompetent? I would not have minded the show having a little more bite and airing a few episodes with Broyles stiff-arming Olivia and Olivia trying to get back onto the frontlines.
And if flying procupeople weren't enough, the episode closed on a barge full of all sorts of mutants on its way to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. I doubt Fringe is headed down the path of DRJ leading an army of reject creatures, but I also have no better answer for what is going on with that boat. Maybe it's the original prototype for Disney Cruise Lines and it's full of failed anthropomorphic Mickeys and Donalds?
There weren't any bigger-picture arcs going on this week aside from reminding us that this Olivia isn't completely one Olivia or the other. "Nothing As It Seems" was an instance of the gimmick outperforming the actual story, but the gimmick was so strong that it made for a fun hour of television that especially resonated with longtime fans, and given that Fringe might not be back next year, it could be perceived as a final nod to the viewers who got this show this far.
Notes from the Other Side
– There were really great Walter moments in this episode with the birthday gifts, bacon sandwiches, and Peter hugs. This Walter might be the happiest we've ever seen the guy. But he's also still relegated to being the lab buffoon. I'm waiting for him to get a heftier storyline.
– I hate silly "monster jumps out of the dark" surprises, but the one early with Lincoln made me pee my pants and I didn't hate it.
– There wasn't a whole lot of panic surrounding Lincoln's potential infection. I guess that's what happens when your daily routine involves investigating some really freaky stuff.
– This case took place in the other timeline years ago, correct? There's a bit of leeway to give the idea that an identical case could spring up years later in this timeline, but if you subscribe to the idea that even the smallest changes can throw things off in a big way, then this case could reasonably be occurring in this timeline now. Oh just accept it, it makes the show more enjoyable.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom