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Terror, triple helices and TV dinners

Threshold on Sky One

Jennifer Rohn 18 November 2005

The program morphs into an extremely derivative horror scenario...

I was excited when I saw a full page advertisement for the new television drama Threshold in my morning paper a few days ago. Half of the page was taken up by the image of a woman whose expression suggested a number of things: awe, fear, courage, destiny. (And maybe just a touch of soft porn, but never mind, this was Sky One after all.) A strange molecular pattern was superimposed over her face, and the tagline was even more encouraging: A DNA virus threatens us all. Only she can stop it.

I was, of course, wildly curious and full of anticipation: female microbiologist fending off some global pandemic? It doesn’t get much better than that for a virologist ‘lab lit’ fanatic like myself.

Alas, the reality wasn't nearly as good as the advert. The beautiful woman (played by Carla Gugino) wasn't a microbiologist, but rather some sort of risk-management consultant specializing in global disasters – asteroid impacts, epidemics and the like. She’s referred to as Dr. Caffrey, but we are given to believe her degree is probably in a discipline like political science.

And the disaster wasn't really a virus, but some alien invading force from the fourth dimension that alters one's DNA, thereby sculpting its bearer into "one of them". From this point on the program morphs into an extremely derivative horror scenario: aliens threaten take over the world by turning its inhabitants into aliens, a premise that has been used hundreds of times from Bodysnatchers onwards (though how this can possibly be stretched out into an entire series is beyond me). The alien entities also alter people’s theta waves, meaning the baddies can get to us via our dreams as well – so a touch of Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in for good measure.

Dr. Caffrey, even though she looks about twenty years old, apparently has the entire US administration and its resources at her disposal, and is such an important person that even the President doesn’t know what she’s up to. But despite her power and beauty, she is of course desperately lonely, which is revealed by much sighing in front of an open fridge full of ready-made meals and commiserating with her sole companion, the loyal dog. But despite its problems, Threshold does have some things going for it.

Caffrey’s first step is to assemble a crack team of three scientists to help her out – all men, but bonus points for not making them complete stereotypes.

Our general biologist is played by Brent Spiner, looking and sounding almost identical to the scientist he played in Independence Day. (Am I the only one who feels sorry for Brent Spiner? He should have examined what happened to Leonard Nimoy’s acting career before agreeing to play Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.) And boy, is he general: he’s a geneticist, and a medic, and at one point he’s even on the floor analyzing soil samples from one of the infected human’s footprints ("It’s been years since I’ve been able to practice my forensic skills!" he quips to excuse this rather unbelievable turn of events). But he’s not the usual boffin: disheveled hair, yes, but he’s bitter and cynical, and not too dedicated, and at one point, one of the younger scientists asks him why he’s so jaded and shouldn’t it all be about the joy of discovery? Spiner put this young whipper-snapper firmly into his place, explaining that the world doesn’t give a lab-rat’s arse about science. When the Mars Rover landed on the moon, he says, it was Britney Spears who was on the front page. This is an intriguing angle to say the least.

The young whipper-snapper is an engineer, a bit on the nerdy side but not criminally so. He’s not bad looking and he’s more timid and nervous than geeky, though there isn’t much to recommend him as a character. The third scientist is the most intriguing: a handsome, charismatic and lewd achondroplasiac who is also a brilliant mathematician and linguist. In one scene we see him in the background downloading porn from the internet, in another he’s sniffing our heroine’s discarded panties, and in a third he’s trying to escape the job by skulking down to the local watering hole to get pissed, but he’s a dab hand at deciphering alien speech or interviewing innocent bystanders in their own tongue and fails to demonstrate any clichéd boffin characteristic whatsoever.

The scientific method is also given fairly good treatment. The writers take pains to show that the rat experiments have controls – rats exposed to the alien ‘virus’ are compared to uninfected rats (never mind that the infected ones are brown and the ‘matched’ controls are white and therefore of an entirely different breed; it’s easier to tell them apart that way). When a particularly spectacular result happens to the brown rats, Dr. Caffrey snaps, "Have you seen that more than once?" and is only mollified when assured that it’s been replicated about twenty times. There’s a great scene when the group is standing around, brainstorming hypotheses about what the virus is doing to people’s DNA. The conclusion may be a bit silly – double-stranded DNA being converted into a triple helix – but the process by which they arrive there has a conversational authenticity.

I’m not sure I could take much more of Threshold – we’ve been given several clumsy hints that Some Tragedy Involving The Heroine’s Missing Father is going to be teased out in future episodes with all the subtlety of a wisdom-tooth extraction, and most of the characters are two-dimensional, but the premiere at least was unchallenging fun.

Threshold is currently only shown in the UK, where it airs on Sky One every Friday.