Sunday, September 18, 2005

Threshold - A Late Review

Somewhere along the line the major TV networks in the United States had the idea that people wanted more scary stories on TV. The result in this TV season has been a rush to to put a number of supernatural or science fiction based series into the fall lineup. NBC has Surface, The WB has Supernatural, ABC has Invasion and The Night Stalker. And CBS has the subject of this review - Threshold - and while I haven't seen any of the other shows yet, I have to suggest that if the rest of the series is anything like the two part pilot episode then CBS has set a high standard for the other shows to try to match. Even if Brannon Braga did produce it. So why is it taking me a day and almost a half to review the blasted thing?

The Threshold Project is the one of a series of protocols written by Dr. Molly Caffrey (Carla Gugino, probably best known for the Spy Kids movies, although I remember her best for the too soon cancelled series Karen Sisco). She deals with responses to worst case scenarios and one of her plans has just been activated. The government has tracked an object entering earth orbit and maneuvering, and we didn't make it. Threshold is the protocol to respond to a visit by intelligent live to earth. Of course Threshold requires that a select team of specialist, the best (or at least the quirkiest) in their fields, be assembled. Brent Spiner plays biologist Dr Nigel Fenway, a sixties radical with a suspicion of government and a thirty foot wall in left field (okay not really), while Peter Dinklage (best known for The Station Agent) is Arthur Ramsay, a brilliant linguist who happens to have a weakness for booze gambling and strippers. Robert Patrick Benedict, who played Richard Coad in Felicity (but who I remember as the extremely odd metahuman Gibson in Birds of Prey) is Dr. Lucas Pegg a brilliant if somewhat insecure astrophysicist and engineer. The final member of the team is the group's military security expert Cavenaugh, played by Brian Van Holt. The group's government liaison is Deputy National Security Advisor J.T. Baylock played by multiple Emmy winner Charles S. Dutton (best remembered for the series Roc).

In the first episode of the two aired on Friday, the team is taken to a Navy cargo ship in the North Atlantic crewed by thirteen civilians which seems to be near where the alien object entered the atmosphere. It's clear that something has happened on the ship (even clearer to us since the arrival of the object was the first sequence that we saw) but events get increasingly weird with cockroaches are moving in a decidedly unnatural pattern and the bodies of six men - often with hideously contorted faces. Only one survivor, Gunneson the ship's first mate (played with is usual degree of creepiness by William Mapother). Gunneson gives them some information but becomes increasingly strange. When Cavenaugh, Pegg and Caffery watch - and more importantly listen - to a video recording of the encounter with the object they start to experience bleeding and facial contortions, until Cavenaugh destroys the television. They seem unharmed but a brain scan shows increased Theta waves. Eventually when the team has to leave the ship Gunneson attempts to escape. He is shot four times by Caffery - who is a very bad shot by the way - but nothing seems to stop him. Eventually he jumps over the side. Later, back in Washington, Caffery has a strange dream in which she is on what seems to be the alien ship, a landscape covered with what looks like glass trees which is what Gunneson told Caffery the captain had said while he was acting strangely. When she wakes it is to a phone call from Cavenaugh, who has had exactly the same dream. Soon after Caffrey is assaulted by Gunneson who is very much alive. He tells her something in what seems to be a foreign language. Escaping, Caffrey manages to trap Gunneson in her cellar. At least that's what she thinks, because when a response team under Cavenaugh arrives Gunneson has vanished. Thanks to J.T.'s decision to bug the homes of all the Threshold Team members, they have a recording of what Gunneson told Caffrey. Listening to it later, Ramsay indicates that it isn't a different language; rather it is like the speech of some stroke victims who suffer from a form of aphasia that make people speak backwards. Listening to the tape played backwards produces the words "You are one of us." (Admittedly it took me several listenings to get it.)

I won't go through the rest of the first episode. It is sufficient to say that they very quickly determined that the aliens who sent the spacecraft were in fact attempting to restructure terrestrial DNA - to make humans and other creatures on earth more like the beings who sent the probe. The sound which the crew of the freighter had heard and which Caffrey, Pegg and Cavenaugh had heard on the video had caused the change, but it apparently hadn't worked with everyone on the ship. The sound had been made up of various subharmonics which had individual effects. One apparently caused those affected by the alien transmission to gather together if they were able to hear it. This allowed the team to try to set a trap for Gunneson in a factory where he had arrived after he had left the freighter. After a considerable effort they managed to capture him, but in an unexpected turn of events over 100 people from the nearby area also showed up at the factory.

As I mentioned I was rather impressed with the debut episode of Threshold. The pacing was enough to hold my interest for the entire two hours of the show. Indeed it sometimes felt as if the commercials were closer together than normally. I'm not sure if this was indeed the case but it says something that the interruptions seemed more numerous than they probably were. The show held my interest to the point where the commercial intrusions were a greater annoyance than normally. While the concept may seem to borrow from The X-Files - probably because in some ways it does - the show offers explanations for its subject matter in a way which The X-Files never fully did. The notion of an alien assimilation of humanity - "bioforming" or remaking us in the image of the alien species - is a fascinating idea. There's a certain amount of technobabble. The explanation that the alien DNA wasn't a double helix but a triple helix (what exactly would a triple helix look like?), and the idea that the alien vehicle was a fourth dimensional object in three dimensional space are just two examples. There are also a couple of major absurdities, notably the idea that the cargo ship had to be destroyed because the North Koreans (!) had dispatched a submarine to capture it (from North Korea to the North Atlantic, apparently in the matter of a couple of days), not to mention the final scene where a traffic jam was revealed to mimic the fractal symbol which had been seen at various points during the episode. Despite this, I thought the show held together reasonably coherently.

Part of what made it effective was the actors. Gugino is an excellent choice to play the brilliant scientist with little or no life outside her work and Spiner is just about perfect as Fenway, a character about as far removed from either Commander Data or the frankly bizarre Dr. Brackish Okun from Independence Day. Robert Benedict is less satisfying as Pegg, perhaps because the character is probably more of a stereotype - the almost socially inept scientist who really comes to life only when he's talking about his work. For me though the most interesting character was Peter Dinklage's Ramsay, an abrasive man who can be reached by alternately appealing to and assaulting his personal vanity. Dinklage particularly works well off of Spiner - their characters seem to mesh nicely.

I do have some concerns. The timeslot that the show has been placed in is not traditionally a good one. I don't know how well Threshold will be served by having Ghost Whisperer as a lead in or having Numb3rs after it. While I don't think there's much to fear from Fox's much renamed Killer Instincts or ABC's comedies, a lot of people may tune into NBC's Three Wishes. Another aspect is that unlike The X-Files there seems to be no possibility fo relief from the "mytharc". Presumably every episode will be built around finding out about what the Aliens want to happen to humanity and foiling their plans. Is there enough material here to accomplish this and more to the point how long can it be stretched before either there's nothing more to say or the audience wants something else. Still, I expect that it will be on my personal Friday schedule ... at least for a while.

No comments: