A transparent-flesh disease, LSD-augmented dream walks and a cow-equipped mad scientist's lab are part of the weird-science landscape of the new Fox drama Fringe.
So how good is the science?
"I watched the first 10 minutes of the pilot and was so grossed out I just couldn't watch anymore," says immunologist Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity.
Even accounting for drama, infectious-disease experts say, the science in Fringe (Fox, Tuesday, 9 ET/PT) goes way off the rails, starting with the opening show, in which a mysterious disease turns a planeful of passengers into flesh-dripping skeletons in moments. "I read the show synopsis, too — yuck," Gronvall says by e-mail.
Fringe, as in "fringe science," revolves around FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Australian actress Anna Torv); her mad-scientist helper, Dr. Walter Bishop (played by John Noble); and his Igor, er … moody son, Peter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson), a genius/flim-flam artist. From a hidden batcave, er … Harvard lab, the crimefighters investigate gory incidents tied to the mysterious Massive Dynamic corporation.
"The point of the show is not to be a classroom film on the state of science and technology," says series co-creator J.J. Abrams, who is noted for TV's Lost and Alias. "It's science fantasy." The show's appeal is in the fun it has with science, the liberties it takes, he adds. "We're trying to entertain people with interesting characters placed into exciting situations, not bore them."
"Bottom line, it's way out there," says Michael Bell, the Associate Director for Infection Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "A lot of things in the show don't bear much relationship to science as we know it," such as:
•An LSD-trip treatment allows communication with an injured agent in a coma.
•Chemicals turn one victim's flesh transparent. "Really way out there," Bell says.
•A plague-infected airplane is burned as a disinfection move.
"We usually never burn planes whole," Bell says. "That might be the worst thing you could do. It might spread things."
"It wouldn't hurt to remind people that the poisons they should fear are usually under their sinks in cleaners," Bell adds. "Not spooky insane diseases."
Fringe also paints a not-too-flattering portrait of science as inhabited by lunatics and malevolent corporations, he says. "I would hate for people to panic over infectious diseases based on anything they learn from television," Bell says.
Sidney Perkowitz,a professor of physics at Emory University, also wishes the series relied a bit more on fact."Science fiction isn't supposed to be a science lecture but the balance doesn't have to be as lopsided as it is in Fringe."
"Plenty of real scientists have been inspired by watching science fiction as kids. I really don't want to meet the kid who dreams of growing up like Walter," says Perkowitz, author of Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World, via e-mail.
"We are playing with the very real, dual role that technology plays in our lives in Fringe, either as savior or destroyer," Abrams says. "If anyone felt the first episodes were way out there, wait until Tuesday night. They'll see some completely wild science."