And the award for the most ironically appropriate episode title goes to... This is 'the old town' indeed, as virtually everything about Abrams and Goldsman's script feels incredibly familiar, and not always in a good way. While the ease with which the writers and actors slot back into the show's central characters is certainly commendable, the same cannot be said of the intricacies of the narrative, which are often frustratingly low-key and predictable. When we left Broyles, Dunham and the Bishops at the end of season one, things had gone to hell in a handbasket with the shooting of Nina Sharp, David Robert Jones's ill-fated attempt to cross over into the alternate reality and Olivia's actual successful trip there, in which she came face to face with the one, the only, William Bell himself, who turned out to be Spock in a three piece suit. The show was riding the crest of a decidedly addictive wave, propelling its central storyline forward with considerable momentum. Now, after being deprived of any developments for four long, drawn out months, we return to find the writers stalling for time, working extremely hard to prevent anything but the barest scraps from being given away, essentially playing silly buggers with their audience. Oh look, we return to the story once Olivia's come back from her oh-so-important meeting with Bell and don't get to experience it first hand. Well, okay, maybe they couldn't get Nimoy back for another round, perhaps he was too busy filming the Star Trek DVD commentary or something. Fine. But to have her not remember anything about the encounter other than that something is being hidden? And that the information she acquired is 'imperative to the survival of everyone'? Sigh. These water-treading tactics just become frustrating; sure, they set up key mysteries to be resolved later in the season, but would it really hurt to give us some sort of juicy morsel now? To treat us to something, anything, that would make the episode feel like it had any sort of point?
Of course, the die-hard supporters among Fringe's ever-burgeoning fanbase will probably point to the shapeshifter storyline as evidence of fresh intrigue being imbued into the show. This is a fair point, as the concept is certainly an interesting one and it is introduced to the narrative in a superlatively macabre way. The teaser sequence (as always, it seems, with this programme) is just superb, playing all sorts of mind games with the viewer before the horror of what is actually going on eventually becomes clear, and the effects used within the actual transformation process are actually pretty nifty. It's good to see gadgetry being incorporated into the process too; while the technology is evidently science fiction, at least there is an attempt being made to maintain the illusion of reality. The scene in the miscellaneous back alley store is also wonderfully mysterious: the 'typewriter conversation between realities' is quite simply a genius idea, directed in a beautifully understated, matter-of-fact way by Goldsman. Where this strand begins to fall down is in its lapses into predictability. The shapeshifter's jumps between bodies are never surprising, and while this works to a certain extent with its acquisition of the nurse's countenance, since the tension in the scene is essentially predicated on our dramatic irony as we anticipate the reveal, or Olivia's realisation, it proves rather less than successful when the focus is turned to Agent Francis. The poorly placed cut away in their confrontation nullifies any ambiguity whatsoever, practically screaming "he's dead!" at the viewer, and so the final scene, the big, shocking reveal, falls flat on its sorry arse. Of course, it doesn't help that his departure from Fringe was made public knowledge a month or so ago, so those viewers who keep up with the show's news spend every moment after he first appears in the episode waiting to see how he's going to snuff it.
There are many other distinctly calculable narrative developments too, which make the episode's composition feel depressingly lazy. The manner in which the Bishops uncover the truth behind the mysterious deaths recalls the frustrating penchant for the old deux et machina that plagued many episodes in the early stages of Fringe's freshman year. Fair enough, Walter has an established, significant history in the field he is investigating but come on... would it hurt to present him with something he hadn't seen before? Does he always have to have postulated about the existence of the mysterious science that features in the 'curiosity of the week', or have some convenient piece of exposition on hand to magically provide all the answers? The girl on the video tape provides far too succinct an explanation of events; so much so that it makes the previous steps taken in the investigation seem utterly pointless. Then there is the bizarre custard-making C-storyline, which is entirely throwaway and superficial, and the closure of the Fringe Division itself, which is rendered completely ineffectual by essentially being resolved by the end of the episode. Look guys, if you're going to rip-off The X Files, at least do a respectable job of it (the inclusion of a sequence from the 'Dreamcatcher' two parter was far more satisfying...); Chris Carter's show got it right by actually keeping Mulder and Scully apart, at least in job title, for almost half a season. It gave us consequence and realism; here, the trope's entire function appears to be to give Joshua Jackson some ludicrously hyperbolic bravado to spout at Lance Reddick. His assertion that 'we're not reacting any more!' (paraphrased, that) is hopelessly hamfisted and somewhat negates the effect of the plot thread that it is paying off: Broyles and Peter's beautifully scripted two hander in the admittedly wonderful first act, which concentrates on the effects of Olivia's supposed death on each of the characters.
Speaking of characters, how about Meghan Markle as brand spanking new Junior Agent Amy Jessup, huh? Well, wasn't she just a peach, eh? Didn't we all just immediately warm to her wonderfully rounded, highly complex and thoroughly believable character? Oh, okay, I jest. Jessup wins the award for most transparent cipher yet to be introduced to the show, as her one-dimensional treatment and lack of virtually any character development whatsoever exposes her central function: to replace Agent Francis and make the number of people in love with Joshua Jackson increase to 7,452. Oh sorry, and provide a form of interpretative transference for casual or first-time viewers. The vast majority of her dialogue, and the conversations she takes part in, function to reiterate facts about the history of the show that we already know, the most blatant of which is her introduction to the Harvard University setting, in which Peter essentially guides the audience around Fringe's basic premise. It's as if the network called Abrams, panicking about whether viewers would be able to follow the show given its penchant for ongoing narratives, or even remember what they'd seen last year, and insisted he had to retread everything before he could get on with the actual plot. To be fair to the writers, the character's introduction is at least a more organic way of solving this problem - all too often, regular cast members suddenly start telling each other facts that they are all too familiar with - but it does make her feel rather useless. Her willingness to accept the bizarro world of Fringe Division is suspicious too. The conspiracy nut in me reckons there's more going on here, that perhaps she's going to turn out to have more involvement with 'The Pattern' (unusually enough, not mentioned once in the hour) than at first thought, but perhaps this is just wishful thinking. Maybe I don't want to acknowledge that actually, this amounts to little more than a careless, quick-fire way of getting on with the story.
All of this criticism makes 'A New Day in the Old Town' sound like something of an atrocity; in actuality, it's a reasonably enjoyable episode, provided you don't think too much about its composition, or expect too much from its narrative. There are some excellent orchestrated scenes and character beats, particularly Peter and Broyles in the bar, Olivia and Charlie in the hospital, and everyone's reactions to Dunham's potential death in the first act. Goldsman does a delicate, sophisticated job of directing the piece and the actors all slot back into their personalities perfectly. Where the episode falls down is in its predictability; none of the reveals actually surprise you, and the central plot feels underwhelming when one considers the gravitas of events that occurred in season one's top notch finale. What Fringe really needs right now is to keep the momentum going and this one, sadly, is a bit of a slow burner.