Fringe has a whole new lease on life

The most recent season of Fringe was polarizing, to say the least — the whole storyline where Peter Bishop was erased from time often felt like a long shaggy-dog story, aimed at throwing one last obstacle in the path of Peter and Olivia's true love. But the good news is, Fringe is back a week from today, and it's the most fun it's been in a few years.

Here's our almost totally spoiler-free preview of the Fringe season five opener.

So as you might already know, the final, 13-episode season of Fringe takes place in the dystopian future of 2036, which we glimpsed in last season's episode "Letters of Transit." The Observers have taken over the world, and are busy crushing the last vestiges of the human spirit with their bald-headed, well-haberdasheried psychic mind-fucks. The future's only hope is the Bishop family, who've been trapped in amber for 20 years and have a plan to defeat the invaders from the future. (Plus Astrid.)

The big question mark hanging over Fringe season five was whether it could duplicate the dystopian intensity and excitement of "Letters of Transit" across 13 whole episodes — and based on watching the season opener, "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11," I'd have to say it's looking good. The dystopian future looks just as nasty as it did the last time we glimpsed it, and the Observer regime is just as ugly and coercive — in fact, there are some new details added that make the Observers seem like even worse slavemasters than they did before.

And the story of how the Bishops (and Astrid) fight back against the time-traveling invaders looks like it's going to give us a brand new mission statement, on the same level as "stop a war between two universes," the mission the team more or less completed at the end of season three. Based on the first episode, this is not going to be an easy fight, and there could be some serious heartbreak along the way. We get a down-payment on that sort of heartbreak in just the first episode.

First and foremost, if you thought that John Noble completely owned your soul already, then he'll pick up just a little bit more of the title to it with this episode. Noble is in rare form as the tormented, totally psychotic Dr. Walter Bishop, and the closing moments of the episode might just wreck you a little, as Noble proves he doesn't even need to say a word to speak volumes.

Fringe long ago settled into a comfy pattern* — most weeks, there would be a gruesome event in which someone died, and the Fringe team would investigate while Dr. Bishop made some inappropriate jokes and ate candy or pudding too close to the cadaver, and then in the end the gruesome death would turn out to be the work of someone who was doing unethical things for understandable reasons, like to save a loved one. And in the end, someone on the Fringe team would have learned an important lesson, that related to their own personal dilemmas or ongoing arc. And then occasionally, you'd have a full-blown "arc" episode, where there was no "case of the week."

There was nothing wrong with any of that, except that it was starting to feel as though the "freak of the week" episodes were coasting a bit. So it's a pleasure to report that not only is the format totally gone out the window, so is any sense of coziness. The new season shows the Fringe team fighting a global occupation, by victorious forces that they barely know how to fight. And as a result, Fringe is more exciting than it's been since the two Olivias changed places. Huzzah.

* Pun not intended.