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A Plan Called Threshold

Image courtesy of CBS.

There are shows that, when you think back on them, give you so much nostalgia. I remember doing homework one day and flipping through the television at my grandmother’s house trying to find something to work to. My usual pattern of channel surfing was Nickelodeon, Disney, ABC Family (Freeform), and somehow always ending up on the sci-fi channel (the channel went through a bunch of name changes, and eventually became Syfy). This day in particular, when turning on Syfy, there was an episode of a show playing that caught my full attention (and may have caused some procrastination in the homework department).

Threshold Title card

The show followed a secret government agency—consisting of a ragtag team of misfit scientists, a former black ops operative, and the mom from Spy Kids—as they tracked down the source of some mutated vegetables that had begun popping up in farmers’ markets. These vegetables were infecting those who ate them and changing their DNA into that of an alien species. This series, I would come to learn, was Threshold.

I couldn’t stop watching. I not only formed an attachment to the lead female character—who in the same episode is both kidnapped and able to rescue herself—but I also found myself being drawn into how interesting the balance between science fiction and grounded storytelling was.

The strong cast included many well-known faces in genre television. For years I would know Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as Arthur Ramsey, a linguist with a drinking problem. I’d grown up watching Brent Spiner as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but hadn’t realized when I watched Threshold that he was also microbiologist Dr. Nigel Fenway. Even Supernatural fans would recognize Rob Benedict as Lucas Pegg, an aerospace engineer.

Peter Dinklage and Rob Benedict in a scene from Threshold

They were all led by crisis management specialist Molly Caffrey, whose crisis plan Threshold would be the jumping-off point of the series. Molly—played by Carla Gugino (The Haunting of Hill House, Watchmen)—was the same woman who had been kidnapped in the first episode I saw. When I was younger and seeing Spy Kids for the first time, she was the one I wanted to grow up to be. I’m a big fan of all her work, but as I became more and more invested in Threshold and the character of Molly, this would become the role that I would soon connect Gugino to the most.

At the time, with Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica being in full swing, a lot of sci-fi shows were going for big space adventures with elaborate spaceship sets and aliens that were made of expensive makeup effects or CGI. Threshold’s aliens were parasitic viruses that would affect the body and begin to rewrite a person’s DNA, almost in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sort of way. It also took place on Earth, which allowed for certain elements of the show to become more realistic and relatable.

Just like viruses, everything began with isolated incidents. The crew of a military ship was infected by what was known only as “The Alien Signal” coming from a mysterious object that appeared. The signal rearranged their DNA from a double helix to a triple helix, and in doing so, gave them super strength. It also caused those infected to become psychically linked. Slowly, the virus began to find ways to mutate and take control faster. In one instance, an infected man donated his sperm and impregnated women with the virus. Not everyone is able to survive the transition, though, since not everyone’s DNA makeup is the same. When one of the women survived and became pregnant, not only was she infected, but she had the next generation of the alien race inside her.

As the show progressed, it started to handle itself in similar ways to 24 and Homeland. The aliens became more of a metaphor for terrorists and a lot of the plotlines in the show reflected that. The reboot of V would use the same premise, and that too only lasted one season. Maybe viewers just aren’t fans of aliens as terrorists, but I digress…

In one episode, an infected woman who worked as a DJ began to attack nightclubs using a version of the alien frequency as part of her music mix. In another, Molly was dealt a blow when she discovered that her mentor and a longtime friend were among a group of powerful government figures who were infected and attempted to escape on a plane in order to begin spreading the virus in other places. In a powerful scene, Molly must make the decision that brought the entire situation close to home: she destroyed the plane with everyone on it.

Molly (Carla Gugino) struggles with a decision in a scene from Threshold.

Threshold was a fantastic show with great writing and acting, but it suffered because of its network and time slot. Having been moved from Friday night to Tuesdays, the ratings dropped significantly and CBS ended it up canceling it with four episodes still to air. Syfy picked it up a year later and broadcast the remaining episodes. I will always believe that if Threshold had originally been aired on Syfy, it would have survived longer. 

Perhaps it didn’t fare too well on CBS because it couldn’t find the right audience. Early trailers for the show were depicting something a little closer to The X-Files, but Threshold really wasn’t like that. Rather than “monster of the week,” it was very character driven and had a strict story right from the beginning. Each week felt like a short film and coming in late could throw you off. 

It would have been interesting to see how this series would have continued, though. Creator Bragi F. Schut’s plan was for the show to run for three years. Each season would change the title to correspond with a level in Molly’s original Threshold plan.

In the finale of the episodes aired, Molly—with assistance from Sean Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt), aka the muscle of the group—uncovered a community of Infected living as a proper town in an isolated area. The town is a glimpse of what the aliens’ endgame would have looked like, almost like an experiment to see if a society could form. It would have been interesting to see how Molly’s team could try to move forward and if co-existence could have been established. According to Schut, the final season would have dealt with this and included the public finding out about Threshold.

Threshold may have started out about the aliens, but it quickly became about the characters. By the time the final episode had aired, many character-centric plotlines had been created that sadly wouldn’t be fulfilled. For example, while in the process of preparing for his wedding, Lucas was brought into the Threshold plan. During this time, he nearly died from having eaten something that was infected with the alien DNA. It says a lot for the writing and the crafting of each episode that they made you care just as much about Lucas’s personal struggles as you do the whole storyline with the Infected.

Molly Caffrey (Carla Gugino) and Sean Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt) go undercover in a town full of Infected in the series "Threshold".

The final moments saw Molly coming face to face with a child in a vision. Throughout the series, since having listened to the alien signal briefly in the premiere, she had developed a connection with those infected (everybody who comes in contact with the signal does, at least a little). This allowed her to have visions of messages, which the infected also received. In this vision, the child (who was the baby that the infected woman in a previous episode had given birth to) told Molly that her plan would succeed, but she would not see it happen. 

That vision was closure for the audience as well as for Molly. We knew what the final outcome would be and that her efforts had not been for nothing. Yet also like Molly, we had many unanswered questions. Sadly, unless someone decides to do a reboot or a comic, those questions will probably never be answered.


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Written by Katie Bienvenue

Katie is a writer, cosplayer, crafts woman, and Barista. When she isn't talking about Chainmaille she is usually found discussing some television series, film, or how to properly make one's latte.

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