(Spoilers for " Fringe " up through the most recent episode, "One Night in October," below, just to give you a heads up.)
With the episode "One Night in October," we find Fauxlivia, the version of Olivia from the red universe, causally referring to her Col. Broyles. The only problem with that reference is that red Broyles died -- rather graphically -- a season or so ago. The idea is that, with the integral Peter erased from the time line, there will be a number of changes affecting the current reality.
While that interpretation is a perfectly acceptable application of the science-fiction rules of time, what it fails to take into account is the amount of brain space any viewer is willing to devote to a television show. Like "Lost" before it, every episode suddenly becomes a pop quiz, with meaningful camera glances at faces we're supposed to recognize but only saw for a fraction of a second 24 episodes ago.
There are smaller rules we forget, plot points we forget from earlier stories without which the current story makes little sense. Now, with "Fringe," we have the added layer of having to remember which plot points resolved in what way because of Peter's involvement. It's exhausting just thinking about it. Changes can go all the way back to the first season, and here we are in Season 4.
Take the abruptly hale and hardy alternate universe Col. Broyles. Explanations for his return are complex and intricate, and requiring that kind of attention from a viewer is a bit much. It does not mean, however, that a show needs to dumb down for its audience.
"Doctor Who" has long-ranging arcs and elements at both a macro and micro level. It never talks down and also demands attention, but in an entirely different way. Instead of the " hidden object " or "I Spy" nature of "Fringe," "Doctor Who" is the adventure game that allows you to use what you find in your own way to solve its puzzles. It never condescends; it is a thinking person's show, but not in a way that requires the viewer to keep mental tallies of tiny details in case they end up being important later. The details might help the viewer guess at what is important, but they are not required to understand what is currently happening, at least on a broader plot scale.
With "Fringe," there's the idea that the viewers have unlimited space in their heads for the show and give it enough prominence so that all the information stored in relation to it can be instantaneously retrieved, no matter how remote, and no matter how small. This stance prevents new viewers from joining in, because every moment of the show takes on the feeling of a conversation between two people who know one another well enough to speak without words; the new viewer doesn't know the language.
"Doctor Who" throws its TARDIS doors wide open, allowing anyone to wander in at any point with a hardy "Hellooo," and a hint of further secrets it's happy to share, if you care to follow. The U.S. ratings stand as proof: the Season 6 premiere, "The Impossible Astronaut," drew in a record number of viewers for BBC America, a cable channel. Meanwhile, "Fringe" has matched its all-time viewing low.
Complex, thought-provoking programs can work without excluding viewers who aren't willing to devote their time to keeping up with every detail. "Doctor Who" accomplishes that task with every episode, and if it wants to survive, "Fringe" should take note.
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