Comic-Con 2008: Day Three – Fringe

Especially if you wanted to see panels on such phenomenon as “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” or “Battlestar Galictica,” getting into Comic-Con’s 4000 seat Ballroom 20 required fans to arrive significantly early, with some guests sitting through hours of events they cared little about to see the event they came to see in the first place. Such was not the case, however, if you wanted to check out the J.J. Abrams-led panel on “Fringe.”

The new show from super-creator Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias,” “Felicity”) and the co-screenwriters of Transformers as well as Abrams upcoming theatrical “Star Trek” reboot, has been the beneficiary of viral marketing and a significant amount of buzz, while also being the victim of an unauthorized Internet leak of an incomplete version of the show’s pilot. On Wednesday night, a complete version of the episode was screened as part of the Comic-Con’s preview night.

Though the pilot received good reviews from online critics for Time and MovieWeb, yours truly found those opinions fairly inexplicable. The eighty minute production slowly drains the energy from a fun and intriguing premise (what if most of what we now call pseudoscience was real science?). Though the cliche-ridden, often campy, dialogue was one problem, far worse was a dead-in-the-water performance by Anna Torv as an FBI agent racing to discover what mysterious force killed all of a plane’s passengers and is now severely endangering her coworker/lover (John Valley). “Fringe” also features Joshua Jackson (“Dawson’s Creek,” “The Skulls”) as a cynical adventurer/scientist and John Noble (ultimate bad dad Denethor in LOTR) as his father — an actual mad scientist…or possibly merely an eccentric one. Not surprisingly, Noble steals all his scenes.

Still, who cares what I think? It’s the judgment of fans that counts for team Abrams. But, with Comic-Con attendees apparently voting with their feet, it was the job of the panel, moderated by Television Week‘s Joe Adalian, to make that half-empty auditorium feel half-full. All the principles were on hand, including the three stars, Abrams, and writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (“Transformers,” “Star Trek”). Abrams did most of the talking and, while the mood was upbeat on the surface, damage control was under way. Later on, when an audience member praised the pilot, declaring it “awesome,” two or three audience pairs of hands out of some two thousand applauded.

Adalian’s first question was about whether the writers had establishing any unbreakable rules for the length of the series, along the lines of the creators of “Smallvillle” who decreed early on “No flights, no tights.” After some joking, the writers answered no, saying that their only rule was to make things as entertaining as possible and that any hard-and-fast would likely eventually be broken in any case.

Asked about the genesis of the show, the writers described it as a “planned pregnancy” in that they basically decided to create a show and then did so. Abrams added that the show was partially inspired by some of the science fiction films of his youth, particularly “Altered States,” early work by David Cronenberg, and Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Regarding “Massive Dynamics,” a fictional megacorporation and whether the role the company was to play in the series related to the Bush Administration, J.J. Abrams talked about corporate identity advertising for megacorporations like General Electric and defunct eighties food giant Beatrice Foods, though the thrust of the series may be less traditionally conspiratorial than viewers might expect.

Moving on to the actors, Josh Jackson credited the script for his decision to agree to star on “Fringe.” When J.J. Abrams was asked what made Jackson right for the role, he quipped that the the character “was originally called ‘Pacey'” before praising the thirty year-old actor’s screen presence. Australians Anna Torv and John Noble were asked if they “bonded” over the issue of their Aussie accents before joking prevented them from discussing the matter, and with writer/producer Jeff Pinkner commented that with “perhaps the strongest writing staff in Hollywood” (including a genuine member of the Whedon family), “it’s up to us not to fuck it up.”

Answering the inevitable question about “mythology” vs. “regular episodes,” J.J. Abrams confessed to being sick of complaints about the complicated stories of past shows, particularly “Alias.” The aim with “Fringe,” at least initially, was to create shows that could be more easily understood without having seen every episode. Abrams added later that he feels that the pilot was burdened by the premise and that later installments would be more exciting.

After that, questions to the actors about their respective characters gave way to such joking questions about whether Jackson’s believes his “Dawson’s Creek” character of Pacey would still be with his series love interest, Joey (Katie Holmes), today. The actor sagely confessed that he hadn’t put too much time into thinking about the matter.

Reverting back to the main topic, Abrams also discussed a possible tie-in comic book dealing with certain matters tangential to the main story of the shows as well as ongoing series of hidden clues to the subject of the following episode which may tantalize more observant viewers without distracting others.

Transitioning to audience questions, “Fringe” started to recede into the background while other topics came up, including the challenges associated with what Abrams admits is his “classic ADD” approach to working on numerous projects, as well as questions relating to “Star Trek,” the upcoming “Transformers” sequel, a possible non-sequel sequel to the Abrams’ produced “Cloverfield,” and the ultimate path of the plot of “Lost.” (Abrams promises an “endgame.”)

As the discussion devolved into a series of “lightning round” style questions on matters of crucial importance to geek culture (“Borg or Khan?” Jack Nicholson Joker vs. Heath Ledger Joker), one vastly significant matter was raised by a Howard Stern fan on better than average behavior: Would original Sulu George Takei be featured in the 2009 “Trek.” After declaring the recently married, openly and famously gay Takei “awesome,” the answer was an encouraging “yes.”

Still, the pithiest answer of the session came from Joshua Jackson, in response to the question of how the characters in “Fringe” could avoid being compared to Mulder and Scully.

“Change the names.”


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