With each passing stand alone episode of Fringe, it becomes ever more apparent that the show's writing staff spend their weekends drinking beer and possibly smoking the ol' funny cigarettes at each other's houses while watching hours upon hours of X-Files re-runs, mining them for creative ideas. If last week's 'Johari Window' was a curious mis-match of 'Home' and 'Our Town' (look 'em up kids, they're both a million times better than the Fringe attempt was), then 'What Lies Below' is a glorious bastardisation of 'F. Emasculata', 'Ice' and probably more than a few others that don't immediately spring to mind right now. The latter episode in particular is the closest comparative: in it, Mulder and Scully travel to the Arctic where a geological team are bashing each other's brains in after having drilled down to the Earth's core and inadvertently unearthed a parasite that has a penchant for infecting humans and desperately looking for new hosts before killing the current one. These lovely creatures are believed to have been dormant in the ice for thousands upon thousands of years. Everyone, including Mulder and Scully, is quarantined and the episode is spent focusing on finding some form of solution while also worrying about the possibility that the protagonists may be infected. Hmm. Glen Morgan and James Wong, methinks you may be owed some royalties. Actually, scratch that, 'Ice' is just a rip-off of The Thing anyway. Oh well. Originality is a myth and all that.
The crucial difference in 'What Lies Below', of course, is that one of our protagonists actually does become infected with the oh-so-deadly, super-misbehaving and remarkably intelligent virus, and then spends the better part of the episode stripped down to his Rab C. Nesbitt vest, throwing furniture at windows. Neither Mulder nor Scully ever sunk to that low, as far as I'm aware (although the lack of clothing is another matter...) Anyway, this would be fine if it allowed Joshua Jackson some room to maneouvre, or the opportunity to further explore the machinations of Peter's character, and his relationship with Olivia, when placed in dire peril. This is exactly what the aforementioned episode of The X Files does so well, as the focus is not on the intricacies of the virus/parasite plot but is instead on the interplay between the quarantined individuals, on the way that their relationships with one another break down when trust begins to dissipate. The essential concept on offer here gives plenty scope for this sort of thing but sadly, aside from a few choice glances and dramatic pauses between Olivia and Peter when he slips in the dead guy's blood, and some stock hysteria from the trapped office workers, the onus is squarely on the identification and obliteration of the virus. It's more than a little disappointing; arguably, the script would be better served by keeping Astrid and Walter in the background, with only the occasional glimpse into their work, and allowing Olivia and Peter's ordeal to take centre stage.
Even more problematically, as with virtually all television writers, Jeff Vlaming seems to think that the best way to keep us all in suspense, to have us biting our fingernails as the story unfolds, is to threaten the life of one of the show's regular characters. Yes, because it isn't obvious that Joshua Jackson has a permanent contract until at least the end of the season, if not beyond, and that therefore, there is absolutely no way that he is ever in any danger of becoming a victim of the virus. Why not throw Astrid in there with Olivia? Infect her? That way, we might actually buy into the drama of the situation... hell, the actress would get a chance to showcase her talents too and maybe, just maybe, a little character development. But no; instead, Vlaming takes the obvious route and it's very difficult to buy into. It certainly doesn't help that the solution is magically hypothesised (the show's favourite word, that) by Walter in around ten seconds flat, when he suddenly makes the incredible logic leap from knowing nothing about the virus at all to understanding its inhernet nature after just a few short words with Astrid... just in time to save his son and prevent the evil, evil CDC from laying everyone in the place to waste. Phew! What a stroke of good luck, eh? How this sort of unforgivably lazy writing is allowed to make it to screen is frankly beyond me.
So what good is there in 'What Lies Below'? Well, the production values are top notch as usual; the visualisation of the effects of the virus is particularly effective and genuinely unnerving, and the sequence in which the infected lady leaps to her death out of the seventeenth (or whatever) story window is superbly executed. John Noble gets a chance to shine again as he verbally lays waste to the CDC's head honcho, and puts in a beautifully fearful performance when he's testing his son for the virus. And, from the looks of the latest communicative misstep from Walter, it seems like we might be approaching the big revelation about Peter's parallel universe past... you know, sometime before the end of the season. Or it would be nice, at least.
'What Lies Below' suffers considerably as a result of its premise. Effectively, this is a rip-off of a rip-off, owing far too much to The X Files' 'Ice' (which owes a great deal to The Thing, in turn), 'F. Emasculata' and countless other episodes of numerous science fiction shows for it to maintain the viewer's interest. We really have been here and done that so many times before that, in order for the episode to really entertain, Vlaming's script needs to contain something refreshing, a offer a new twist to the tale but sadly, it never comes. Instead, we are expected to buy into the possibility that Peter may die when it is glaringly obvious that it will never happen, and a boatload of opportunity for character development between he and Olivia is wasted in order to have Walter magically put all the pieces together in no time at all. This feels very much like Vlaming was struggling to come up with a concept and fell back on a standard without really thinking the logistics through. Come to think of it, didn't the guy write for The X Files back in its third season? Yeah actually, I think he did...