By Cory Barker and Eric Van Uffelen
Test Pilot #60: Threshold
Debut date: September 16, 2005
Series legacy: Yet another–and perhaps one of the more forgettable–of the post-Lost misfires
Welcome back to Test Pilot, friends. We’re in the middle of our Post-Lost Serialized Dramas period. A quick refresher about this theme:
Over the next few editions of this feature, my guests and I will discuss some of the shows that debuted in the aftermath of Lost with hopes of becoming The Next Lost. ABC’s 2004 island-based drama interjected life into broadcast television with a sprawling story with a large cast, flashbacks, mystery, and a grand narrative with hints of the supernatural around the edges. We know that television is a copy-cat business, and by the next television season, the networks were trying to replicate Lost‘s success with a slew of shows heavy on the mystery that hooked some Lost viewers, but mostly light in their focus on the characters and emotional stories that appealed to even more Lost fans (especially in the first season). Every season, there’s at least one show that tries to tap into some of the magic that made Lost such a big hit from the jump, and with few exceptions (the first chunk of Heroes episodes), viewers don’t buy it. But were all those shows actually as bad as the viewer and/or critical resistance made it seem? Or were we all just too close to Lost that it was hard for any other show to share a similar function?
The second entry in this theme is CBS’ Threshold. Another product of the swarm of Lost-like high concept dramas that arrived in the fall of 2005, Threshold tells the story of a “secret” alien invasion and the team of experts tasked to learn more and keep it contained. Much like the subject of our previous entry Invasion, this show probably owes more to recognizable alien insurgence stories, but also the typical brand of mid-aughts CBS procedural (more on that momentarily). Threshold never had much of a life on CBS’ schedule in 2005. It aired first on Friday (there’s a confidence boost) and moved to Tuesday for just one episode before being axed only a few days later, leaving a handful of unaired episodes in the can.
Joining me today is Eric Van Uffelen. You can find him on Twitter, where he enjoys talking about film and how much he loves Jessica Chastain, and check out his blog Cinematic Gestures. Eric did a really great job breaking down some of the big issues I also had with the pilot, so I’m going to let him start us off.
Eric: When you announced this topic, I remembered that in 2005 I wasn’t interested in these other attempts at a Lost “type” show. (I only watched Invasion because it was paired with Lost on the same night on ABC, though I did come to appreciate its efforts.) None of these shows succeeded. That led me to a thesis fairly quickly: people might not have wanted to invest in other series of this nature (however one might describe Lost), because it almost seems a matter of devotion, and people don’t usually split their devotion. Even if we’re fortunate enough to be engaged by multiple quality programs (some on the same night), those shows are usually and necessarily diverse enough from each other that we don’t feel like we’re watching the same types of stories. Lost was so unique in its setting, tone, and particularly its audience’s fervor, that not only was it hard to replicate, the resulting knock-offs were doomed from the start because not many people get worked up over the same type of show. I was going to develop that thesis, and then I actually watched the Threshold pilot, and it turned out to not only be just plain bad, but its set up was the complete antithesis of Lost.
Threshold seems like it could work, given its concept and pedigree. An extra-terrestrial object appears in the Atlantic Ocean, wrecks havoc on a naval crew, and a crack team is assembled to assess the situation and manage the consequences. Carla Gugino, Peter Dinklage, Brent Spiner, and Charles S. Dutton play members of the team. The show’s executive producers, Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, know their way around franchises. (Goyer was also behind the soon-to-come FlashForward). However, beyond the egregious exposition–somewhat to be expected in a pilot–the show is tonally off and limits its approach almost immediately. It also doesn’t quite fit for a CBS show, despite apparent retooling once it went to series.
The pilot was aired as the first two episodes stitched together. The first episode was written by series creator Bragi F. Schut and directed by Goyer. The opening scene, aside from leading with a jarring guitar riff, is fairly elegant and features assured camerawork. The cinematography by Frank Byers was more stylistic than I anticipated, but not enough to completely lure me in. Aboard the U.S.S. Big Horn, First Mate Gunneson (William Mapother, one of two Lost bad guys on the crew) commiserates with the Captain (Scott MacDonald) about being sent a Dear John email. There’s an unknown noise and the cabin starts to crack under pressure. The crew rushes out to the deck to see an alien object changing size and shape off the bow. It adversely affects them, go figure.
We are then introduced to Dr. Molly Caffrey (Gugino), a “contingency analyst” at a think tank conference, giving various presentations about various really bad things: nuclear war, a SARS-like outbreak, etc. She comes home late at night, the walls still lined with moving boxes, and chooses from prepackaged meals in the fridge – some show and tell exposition about how she’s too busy to settle in, sure, but at least she’s smart and in a position of power. As she later walks her dog, a helicopter lands near her in the park because we need to get to the title. Some federal agent types get out, and Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt) introduces himself and tells her she’s now “the most important person on the planet,” because her plan “Threshold” has been activated.
So far, this is fairly promising. I would normally be on board with Gugino laying it down and commanding a team. In the next scene, however, where she’s first tasked to do exactly that, the series turns problematic and reveals its faulty premise. At what will be the headquarters for the show, Deputy National Security Advisor J.T. Blaylock (Dutton) introduces Dr. Caffrey to a panel of military advisors. She explains that “Threshold was designed as a rapid response measure to a first-contact scenario,” and then talks the advisors (and the audience) through how her plan is going to proceed. Perhaps the series would break from this structure in the next episode (or one quarter of its way through its run), but it seems foolish to take what is so far built as a sci-fi mystery and spell out how things are going to happen and what the overall motivations of the characters are. Then there are the recruits for the rest of the “Red Team,” in the laziest Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk voice-over montage between Caffrey and Cavennaugh, as more agents essentially kidnap the team. This is complete with Caffrey narrating background and character traits: Dr. Nigel Fenway (Spiner), microbiologist and former radical; Lucas Pegg (Rob Benedict), astronautical engineer and high-scorer on Jeopardy!; Arthur Ramsey (Dinklage), expert in linguistics and applied mathematics, plus sort of a degenerate.
So three white men are the top experts in their fields and are enough to assess and control a possibly hostile alien intelligence: none of the diversity of Lost, and none of the intrigue. I watched the Lost pilot again and not only is it much better written and directed (perhaps J.J. Abrams’ best work, since he could focus on mystery and suspense without resolving anything), its strongest narrative conceit is that, nearly invariably, no one knows anything about the other forty-seven survivors (there are thirteen main speaking roles across multiple ethnicities among those in the pilot alone) or what they’re capable of, or how they’re going to survive and get along, or where the hell they even are. Part of what makes this effective is that Abrams frames the characters in close-ups instead of group shots. Characters are for the most part literally separated from each other, therefore we want to see how they come together. Threshold gives us a core team of five, with little demographic difference, and explicitly states their objectives and roles before we’re done with the first half of the pilot. Look at this shot of the team gathered around a chalk drawing Caffrey did, of the triskelion that was a symbol for the alien intelligence on the show.
There’s no shot like that in Lost, at least not for a while. For Threshold, though the rest of the first hour is somewhat tense and action-packed, there’s basically nothing to tune in for later; unless you really like the stock characters or so-so effects, there’s nothing remotely approaching what Lost had for hooking an audience and sparking word-of-mouth. The show’s visuals are strong, but the characters seem clichéd and the dialogue is lacking. At the end of this first half, I took a break and wrote down: “Built like a horror / sci-fi story, but could see it transitioning to procedural.” Because this is CBS, that’s of course exactly what happens… right in the next half, written by Goyer and Braga, and directed by Peter Hyams.
On the DVD commentary for the pilot, Goyer remarks “Maybe this show on the whole was a little too cerebral.” To which Braga replies “It may have been… maybe it was too complicated… CBS […] wanted to put an emphasis on the – ” Here Goyer interjects with “more procedural,” to which Braga confirms and completes with “– investigative elements.” I don’t think it was very cerebral at all, but looking at the IMDb descriptions for the rest of the season, it appears to indeed turn into a Case of the Week show.
Where the show completely lost me was the start of this second hour, as Gunneson attacks Caffrey, because it’s like any other CBS procedural: violence against a scantily clad woman, and a resulting police forensic scene. It’s just lazy, insulting, and pandering. Caffrey began the series leading an elite conference on expert policy, and after the credits in the second hour she’s another victim in a bedroom. This is such a waste of potential, and the lack of imagination continues from there. Ramsey’s expert linguistic analysis is revealed in the form of simply playing Gunneson’s dialogue backwards, because all of the team members’ homes were bugged. Gunneson had said to Caffrey as he was trying to strangle her: “You’re one of us.” This scene is basically every CBS crime procedural, but this time the suspect is possibly becoming an alien.
As the team learns they’re stuck working on this contingency, there’s some suggestion (and is explicitly stated as a goal in the DVD commentary) of themes of civil liberties, and what rights are sacrificed in a hypothetical situation like this, but it’s not as prominent as the technobabble.
The rest of the pilot is just frustrating, because it seems so predetermined. There’s an aggravating encounter with another crewmember from the ship (Kevin Durand, who would go on to join Lost as one of the more despicable bad guys), obviously recognizable but not to the team–he gets away, presumably to return again. The team crafts a plan to broadcast a sub-harmonic section of the alien object’s frequency output, to act as a lure for Gunneson. This is the most visually compelling work of the pilot, and features some bonding amongst the team. The plan works, kind of, and Gunneson is ultimately subdued. The most interesting reveal is that the sub-harmonic broadcast attracts seemingly normal folk too.
We also learn that Lucas shared the same dream with Caffrey and Cavennaugh. The final scene is Caffrey trying to convince Lucas and Cavennaugh that their plan will work, and the last shot zooms out from them stuck in traffic to show that this probably isn’t the case.
On the DVD commentary, both Goyer and Braga say that they fought for this ending, against studio notes that it was too much, too soon. In this case the studio was right, it also undercuts the potential of the team’s success. There are stakes, but the team dynamics haven’t been built to the point that we should care. Imagine if the pilot of Lost had ended with the beam of light at the hatch, or the reveal of the leader of The Others. The major secrets of Threshold are given up too quickly, so though there are stakes involved, there’s little to no motivation for the audience to wonder about what might happen next, or where this is all heading. The world-building paints itself into a corner so quickly that I just couldn’t see sitting through this back in 2005 and wanting to come back the next week, let alone talk about the show or discuss its minutiae. It doesn’t do anything to convince those with limited time on their TV docket to invest, let alone to possibly get involved to the extent of Lost, even thought that show was only in its second season at that point.
Braga and Goyer further explain on the DVD that, “At the end of the first season… the President had to tell the public and the world at large what happened.” There were threshold, foothold, and stranglehold tiers of Caffrey’s plan that the producers wanted to use to build out subsequent seasons. They just didn’t plan well enough.
Cory: Completely apropos of nothing, a few weekends ago I was reading this old and extended interview with Ron D. Moore about why he left Star Trek Voyager very quickly after joining the production. I’m not a big Trek or Battlestar Galactica fan, but I did enjoy Moore’s work on Roswell (I know) and he’s definitely one of the most fascinating creative types to read/listen to. In the interview, Moore talks about his decaying relationship with former partner and friend Brannon Braga, one of the creative forces of Threshold, and describes the key problem he identified with Voyager‘s episodic exploits (and this a long quote, but such a good one):
When I was studying the show, getting ready to work on it, I was watching the episodes, and the technobabble was just enervating; it was just soul sapping. Vast chunks of scenes would go by, and I had no idea what was going on. I write this stuff; I live this stuff. I do know the difference between the shields and the deflectors, and the ODN conduits and plasma tubes. If I can’t tell what’s going on, I know the audience has no idea what’s going on. Everyone will say the same thing. From the top down, you bring up this point, and everybody will say, ‘I am the biggest opponent of techno-babble. I hate technobabble. I am the one who is always saying, less technobabble.’ They all say that. None of them do it. I’ve always felt that you never impress the audience. The audience doesn’t sit there and go, ‘God damn, they know science. That is really cool. Look how they figured that out. Hey Edna! Come here. You want to see how Chakotay is going to figure this out. He’s onto this thing with the quantum tech particles; it’s really interesting. I don’t know how he is going to do it, but he is going to reroute something. Oh my God, he found the anti-protons!’ Who cares? Nobody watches STAR TREK for those scenes. The actors hate those scenes; the directors hate those scenes; and the writers hate those scenes. But it’s the easiest card to go to. It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away.
I bring this interview up because it’s all I was thinking about while I watched the brutal 92-minute Threshold pilot. Eric did a wonderful job of keying in on the show’s rapid shift to familiar CBS science-y procedural, but I just want to reiterate how obnoxious and lifeless so many of the scenes, particularly in the second hour, are, almost exclusively for the reasons Moore outlines above. He might be talking about another poor science fiction show run by Brannon Braga, but the ideas are exactly the same. I’m less impressed by the pilot’s opening sequence than Eric, even separated from the fact that watching William Mapother run around creepily just a year after Lost‘s debut is too weird, because it’s shot and staged pretty poorly and reveals way too much. But in a lot of ways the opening scene is the most freeing of the episode because it’s actually free of the mindless technobabble and exposition that weighs down the next 87 minutes like a 1,000-pound anchor. Even in the scenes where we’re introduced to Carla Gugino’s Molly, we see her lecturing and then explaining.
The first hour of Threshold gets by on the goodwill I have for its crew of actors who have already or would soon go to do better things on TV. It’s frankly a little weird watching Brian Van Holt deliver wooden, dead dialogue with the knowledge that he has Cougar Town and Bobby Cobb in him; the same can obviously be said for Peter Dinklage, who really does his best to inject energy into the proceedings but is also hamstrung by bad CBS-y zingers that pale in comparison to his work on Game of Thrones. Hell, Rob Benedict is basically playing the same character here as he did on Supernatural, but at least that show had the decency to play with his anxious energy more. But by the second hour, the technobabble is in full-bloom, as the team moves from one Describing the Plan and Then Poorly Executing That Plan scene to another. One of the characters has a great idea that involves them pounding on a keyboard while someone else stands over them. They all stand around and listen to recordings. Then they sit in vans taking “measurements” and “readings” and good God is it life-sucking.
Thinking back to Moore’s comments about Voyager and my own comments about how Invasion worked for me because it almost always couched its big mythology moves in character or character relationships, Threshold presents a complicated relationship between character and story. It’s fascinating how quickly this pilot answers questions or reveals things that honestly lesser (or perhaps less confident) shows would keep tucked away for many more episodes. There’s no doubt that this is an alien invasion, but unlike in Invasion, all of our main characters actually know that information as well. Moreover, the creative team at least attempts to couch all this technobabble and nonsense about government protocols and triple helices in character; Caffrey, Cavennaugh, and Pegg are probably infected, along with hundreds of faceless extras, and so their rush to prevent any further alien invasion, attack, or infiltration is directly tied to their personal survival. We might not know what is wrong with them, but we know that something is wrong with them. I can appreciate that approach to the such a grand story and Benedict and Gugino do a pretty nice job of selling their characters’ terror and confusion (sorry B. Van Holt, I love you, but this is not your role).
Yet, because of the nature of the second hour, the intrigue behind both the larger narrative and the more personal character stuff declines because the procedural machinations take over and none of it really matters. Suddenly, the three probable infectees on the team are just three of hundreds or thousands and it’s clear that those other infectees are going to be the problem. Those others are dangerous and demented, while our heroes are only slowly discovering that they’ll probably be so too, eventually. I know exactly what Braga and Goyer are trying to do with these moves, but it just doesn’t entirely hold together by the end of hour two. Despite their insistence in putting certain scenes in the pilot or pushing the story forward earlier than CBS wanted, it’s pretty clear that the procedural engine hampers what is an already undercooked story, and therefore Threshold doesn’t seem that different than how Moore describes Voyager.
What’s interesting to me about Threshold is how un-Lost-like it seems. While people like me bunch all of these shows together because Lost cast such a long shadow in the second half of the last decade, Threshold feels like a show that could have hit the airwaves anytime after another prominent science fiction show, and that’s The X-Files. The obvious notes are there–the aliens, the government agencies, the personal connections to the events, the procedural stories. However, there’s also a lot of mediocre dialogue in here that plays like someone trying to do Chris Carter or Frank Spotniz or Vince Gilligan or whomever–conversations about cynicism, belief, science, etc. CBS could trot this show out in 2013 and it wouldn’t seem that out of place, especially during the summer or something like that. But again, more than anything else, this just feels like another Brannon Braga and/or David Goyer project. There’s some compelling big picture stuff (ala FlashForward), but way too much exposition (ala Voyager) and a surface interest in character development and relationships (ala both of them). Threshold never really asks us to care, and so it’s no surprise that no one did.
Conclusions on legacy: Plodding and absolutely forgettable, though not totally Lost-like
Previously on Test Pilot: Invasion
This post originally incorrectly identified Voyager as Enterprise. This error has been corrected.