CBS' Threshold imagines an alieninvasion.

TV and popular culture.
Sept. 15 2005 9:14 AM

Unnatural Disaster

CBS' Threshold imagines an alieninvasion.

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Watching CBS' new alien-invasion series Threshold (premiering Friday at 9 p.m. ET) at least offers the perverse comfort of knowing that there is someone on Earth who can handle mass disaster even worse than Michael Brown or George W. Bush. Of course, that someone happens to be a fictional character, but with the fate of the planet at stake, is this really a time for quibbling?

Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino) is a "contingency analyst" in Washington, D.C.—that is, her job is to come up with response plans for worst-case scenarios: terrorist threats, melting polar ice caps, natural and unnatural disasters of all kinds. "From what I've heard, the Oval Office thinks you're some kind of genius," one colleague tells her early in the two-hour pilot. (The obvious wisecracks that line of dialogue inspires will go, for the moment, unmade.) When a merchant ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean meets up with what appears to be an alien spacecraft—that or a slightly spiffier version of the flying metal ball from PhantasmMolly is called in with a job description that's just a wee bit stress-inducing: "You just became the most important person on the planet." 

With the help of the deputy national security adviser, J.T. Baylock (Charles S. Dutton), she assembles a team of scientists, the kind of nerd posse that, as I observed earlier this week, has become a de rigueur accessory in procedural dramas. Nigel Fenway (Brent Spiner), a microbiologist, is a gentle, philosophical hippie type, a distant cousin of the lonely android he played on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Arthur Ramsey (Peter Dinklage of The Station Agent) is a sardonic womanizer who's also an expert in linguistics and applied mathematics. ("I know how to say hello in over 200 dialects," he boasts, but the only skills we see him use are pig Latin, a few phrases of Chinese, and the idea of deciphering alien babble by playing the tape backwards.) Finally, astronautical engineer Lucas Pegg (Robert Patrick Benedict) is a nervous Nellie, wavering between feverish paranoia and the naive belief that the aliens have our best interests at heart. The whole gang is watched over by, let's see: a crack team of U.S. Marines armed to the teeth? An international coalition of weapons experts? Nah, just one dude with a gun: Dave Cavennaugh (Brian van Holt), a generic lantern-jawed government spook who, when asked exactly what agency he works for, responds enigmatically, "I'm freelance."

This motley band hightails it to the stranded freighter, where they find some crew members dead and others missing, along with the signs of a violent struggle and a hell-load of weird phenomena, including cockroaches who crawl only in spiral patterns and a videotape of the alien spacecraft that makes whoever watches it get a nosebleed. The only surviving crew member who's still present on the boat, Gunneson (William Mapother, even spookier than he was as Ethan Rom on Lost), has become a host organism for the aliens—a lumbering golem who can't be killed, can swim 80 miles at a stretch, and seems intent on doing away with each member of the team, Freddy Krueger-style.

As befits a hokey sci-fi series, Threshold is full of quasi-metaphysical scientific pronouncements: "Maybe our definition of dead just changed." "I can't even imagine what life based on a triple helix would look like." "It's almost like we're dealing with some kind of higher-dimensional geometry!" But even as the nerd squad speculates about the vast global implications of the shipboard incident, they run their investigation of it like a small-time gumshoe case. Is it really plausible that, days after confirming the presence of alien life on Earth, these jokers wouldn't be reporting to the president of the United States and every international body, while huge swarms of scientists pored over the evidence? At one point, it's mentioned that North Korea has also intercepted the alien signals and is sending a sub, which would seem to presage an international incident, or at least an interesting plot twist. But the show's focus remains frustratingly narrow; in the intervals between near-death encounters with Gunneson the alien zombie, we're asked to care about Molly's lonely bachelorette existence, eating TV dinners and walking her French bulldog. Cry me a river, lady. Extraterrestrials are invading the Earth here.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

If Threshold does survive (its time slot in the steppes of Friday night primetime suggests CBS may not expect it to), it will be on the strength of its supporting cast. The presence of Brent Spiner, almost unrecognizable without the pale makeup and yellow contact lenses he wore as Data, functions as a wry in-joke for this show's likely audience of Trekkies and sci-fi fans (one of the show's executive producers, Brannon Braga, created Star Trek: Enterprise and also worked on Voyager.) The darkly charismatic Peter Dinklage isn't given near enough to do; he needs a show of his own, preferably on cable, to give free rein to the perverse streak that always seems to lurk just under his surface.

But so far, the best takeaway from Threshold is a cautionary lesson: If the U.S. government ever decides to create a Federal Extraterrestrial Management Agency, we should fund it sufficiently to hire more than five lousy people.