Crisp, smart and spooky, this cerebral sci-fi drama is the best of the new “Something’s out there” series, though CBS faces an uphill trek to attract more than a cult following. Show derives its title from the code name for “a rapid-response measure to a first-contact scenario.” Here, the aliens have arrived, they’re mean, and it’s going to take everything we have to thwart their plans to colonize this little blue planet. A two-hour launch this past week should have helped shape the scenario, but it’s clearly the first chapter in a “War of the Worlds” waged more with brains than brawn.
Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino) is walking her ugly little dog when choppers land to whisk her away, informing her that she’s “just become the most important person on the planet.” A specialist in worst-case scenarios, she drafted the protocol for an alien encounter, and a wiped-out naval vessel doesn’t leave much doubt about our new neighbors’ nasty intentions.
In addition to being assigned a covert operative (Brian Van Holt), Caffrey assembles experts specializing in biology (Brent Spiner), physics (Rob Benedict) and languages and math (Peter Dinklage), none of them thrilled about being separated from their lives and all more than a little terrified by this perplexing enemy.
On the doomed ship, they find videotape of a pulsing light that operates in four or possibly five dimensions, as well as a peculiar three-pronged shape that keeps reappearing. The aliens can travel light, it seems, by transforming human DNA to pave the way for their arrival — “an intelligence so advanced,” Caffrey suggests, “that its capabilities border on the supernatural.”
There’s considerable intelligence as well in the writing by series creator Bragi Schut (who penned the first hour), Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, which nicely captures the scientists’ combination of fear and wonder, along with the government’s determination to bottle up the story under a national security bureaucrat (Charles S. Dutton).
Although the focus is on the slowly unfolding threat, the show finds time to define these characters, from Spiner’s thrice-divorced Berkeley radical to Dinklage’s boozing, strip club-patronizing wiseass. Gugino, meanwhile, provides a solid anchor, the right mix of can-do spirit and “Holy crap, we’re screwed.”
As with ABC’s even murkier “Invasion” or NBC’s waterlogged “Surface,” peeling away layers episodically is a formidable task, but “Threshold” is off to a running start. The big question (beyond what’s up with that friggin’ rotating starfish thing) is whether the audience CBS needs to reach can be corralled in sufficient numbers. Granted, both “CSI” and “The X-Files” made their debuts in the same Friday spot, but each relocated before becoming full-blown hits, and this tale isn’t one easily joined in progress.
In fact, the producers may want to beg their rivals on NBC’s “Three Wishes” for a few favors. They could start with “Please move us to a better timeslot,” followed by, “And don’t let the aliens kill everyone for at least five seasons.”