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Series / Threshold

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Molly Caffrey: My name is Molly Caffrey, and I work for the Federal Government. I deal in worst-case scenarios, the unthinkable. On September 16th, 2005, the unthinkable happened. An extraterrestrial object appeared off the bow of a naval freighter. The entire crew was exposed to a high frequency signal. Some died instantly. Others began to change. They are now stronger, more resilient. They dream of alien landscapes. And they are driven by the impulse to infect others. Several of the crewmen are now loose in the United States. They will strike anytime, anyplace, anyone. Their goal: to turn us into them. But I have a plan to stop them. That plan is called "Threshold".

A short-lived Science Fiction show about a government project dealing with an alien threat to Earth - specifically, that of humans who have been exposed to an alien signal, gained superhuman strength as a result, and are now trying to infect others. The series ran for nine episodes in the fall of 2005 on CBS, before being cancelled after a timeslot change backfired. The remaining four episodes were aired in Britain, and eventually released on DVD.

The plot dealt with the government activating a contingency plan called "Threshold" to deal with a first contact scenario, the central element of which was the creation of a "red team" to run things. In addition to their efforts to contain the outbreak, the show also explored the impact the Threshold protocols had on the team.

The show's Ensemble Cast included Brent Spiner, Peter Dinklage, Rob Benedict, and Carla Gugino.

This show provides examples of:

  • Alien Invasion: "Infiltration" variant.
  • The Alcoholic: Ramsey as shown in "Vigilante." Had the series continued, he would've eventually "hit bottom."
  • Anti-Hero: Doctor Sloan actively tries to kill the infected humans, who he can see thanks to his own infection. He does kill (or tries to kill) several innocent people in the process, but he was unaware that they were merely exposed to (not infected by) the aliens. He later tells Molly that Threshold is a sound idea, but going about things the wrong way.
  • Apocalypse How: The team is trying to save the human species from the alien infiltration. But according to Manning, the invasion itself is to protect humanity from a neutron star collision's gamma ray burst arriving in 6 years, which would result in planetwide mass extinction.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The video camera the team finds on the ship turns out to have caught the encounter with the alien vessel. Unfortunately, it also caught the alien signal and partially infects Molly, Cavanaugh, and Lucas.
  • Artistic License – Physics and Biology: It's completely handwaved how a single audio signal could precisely rewrite the genes of any animal that hears it AND the programming of any microchip nearby.
    • Physics: A city-wide "E-Bomb", or EMP generator, like the one in "Pulse" is not feasible with current technology.
    • Physics: NASA's Freeze-Frame Bonus letter says the Earth will be "completely destroyed" by the incoming gamma ray burst which is a bit of an exaggeration.
  • Artistic License – Ships: There actually is a USNS Big Horn in service with the United States Navy, but it's an oiler, not a freighter and carries a much larger crew than the show's version, 103 versus 13.
  • Bad News in a Good Way: The letter Caffrey gets from NASA calmly provides some background information about cosmic radiation, before mentioning that this particular gamma ray burst will "completely destroy" Earth. And then politely ends with "We thank you for your concern and interest and hope this information has been of help to you."
  • Bait-and-Switch: When a cop gets close to the case, Molly tells her she's going to explain exactly what's happening. A few scenes later, it turns out Molly sold the cop the story the team is tracking a pack of terrorists with a cutting-edge weapon.
  • Bald of Authority: J.T. Baylock
  • Bittersweet Ending: "Alienville" ends the series with a dream/vision of Molly talking to a nine-year-old version of the recently born Half-Human Hybrid. It's revealed that Molly will be dead within nine years, but that Red Team will also ultimately prevail against the aliens.
  • Broken Bird: Implied with Molly. When Cavanaugh asks what kind of person chooses to think of worst case scenarios for a living, she replies "The kind of person who lived through one."
  • Brown Note: The signal. Its effects vary. Best case scenario, you get superpowers. Worst case scenario, they're going to have to clean your brains off the walls.
  • Cain and Abel: Cavanaugh and his brother James, after James is infected. He goes on to lead the aliens.
  • Contagious A.I.: The recorded signal somehow starts to infect phones and PDAs nearby after it's played publicly in "Pulse", then spreads to credit card chips and ATMs, as if it was an extremely adaptive computer virus.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Essentially Molly's job.
  • Crystal Landscape: People infected by the alien signal tend to dream about a forest of glass trees. Later, one appears to have grown up around the scuttled ship on the ocean floor.
  • Cunning Linguist: Ramsey
  • Cursed with Awesome: According to Word of God, a proposed storyline would've revealed that Ramsey is immune to the alien infection because of the brain abnormality that made him a dwarf. This would've apparently been the real reason why he wasn't infected in "Vigilante."
    • Doctor Sloan was infected by the aliens, but only about half-way due to a genetic disorder. He has all the strength and durability of an infectee, and he can also "see" those that have been infected. Of course, as he was completely unaware of the alien threat, he was understandably disturbed by what was happening to and around him. It's also speculated that somehow, the compulsion to spread the infection got twisted into a compulsion to stop it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ramsey
  • Driven to Suicide: In "Outbreak," Lucas has a couple of dream-like visions involving a man from the 19th century. It turns out that this man encountered and fought the aliens in his time. He actually succeeded in defeating them, but because he was infected, he shot himself to ensure his victory.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Infectees had more seemingly supernatural powers in the pilot, like vanishing from enclosed spaces and other Offscreen Teleportation.
  • EMP: A possible countermeasure to the alien signal getting into digital media.
    Baylock: What are we supposed to do? Nuke Miami??
    Caffrey: *Beat* Something like that.
  • Fanservice: The episode "The Burning" featured a pretty blonde woman who spent all her screen time in just her underwear.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: The camerawork makes a point to leave NASA's response to Manning's game-changing claim in "Outbreak" as a Cliffhanger, but the entire text can be seen in the 1/4 second when Baylock first opens it. Click for full text - SPOILERS! 
  • Government Conspiracy: Threshold is the conspiracy.
  • Grammar Correction Gag: Larson's naivete about Threshold's extreme measures leads her to attempt to correct Ramsay's phrasing.
    Larson: What's to stop me from leaving?
    Ramsay: You have a chip in your shoulder.
    Larson: Ah, it's "chip on my shoulder", Mr. Linguist.
  • Hero Secret Service: While the team exists to go after alien threats, its members are generally under constant guard of some form or another, despite some of their protests about privacy and freedom.
  • Home Base: Threshold's headquarters looks like any other generic federal building.
    • Truth in Television: US intelligence agencies and other sensitive programs are generally run out of generic-looking office buildings (The NSA's Fort Meade complex, for example, which looks pretty much like a typical corporate headquarters).
    • For that matter, given that it wasn't custom-built for Threshold, it probably was a generic federal building.
  • Hostile Terraforming: What the team concludes the alien signal is trying to do. They mainly call it "bioforming" when it seems to primarily affect people... then other animals...and plants...and planks of wood...and finally actual terraforming via large-scale crystal growth.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The Threshold team frequently violates civil liberties in order to fight the invasion. Especially disturbing is the indefinite detention of infected humans.
  • Idiot Ball: Senator Tollman; see Villain Ball below.
  • Ignorance Is Bliss: Molly convinces a cop that the team are just tracking terrorists, saying it's to keep their cover. But Fenway says he really did it so "that cop could actually sleep at night."
  • Impersonating an Officer: Threshold agents usually pretend to be working for a federal agency whose very existence isn't classified, most often the FBI or the Department of Agriculture. However, they have authorization to do this.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Ramsey has his moments.
  • Mama Bear: An infected woman breaks free of her previously unbreakable restraints when her newborn son is being taken away. She spends a good portion of the episode pursuing Lucas and Ramsey (who have the baby), smashing up everything in her path before being re-captured.
  • Motif: The triskelion symbol appears all over the place. It's not a case of Arc Words, as its significance is explained in the first episode as representing a triple helix, and its presence signifies a connection to the alien signal.
  • Mysterious Past: Cavanaugh. What records there are of his past are probably classified.
  • Noodle Reports: It's stated that Threshold is one of three classified worst case scenario plans Molly has come with. Given this one is about an alien invasion, one wonders what the others are.
    • Also the worst-case scenario Molly lived through, probably related to her father's disappearance.
  • No Theme Tune
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • Senator Tollman, who immediately wonders about the alien tech's implications for weapons research, allows himself to get played by infectees exploiting political sensibilities, and undermines operational security.
    • Ed Whitaker, who initially has a brief moment acting like a Reasonable Authority Figure but quickly starts issuing unreasonable orders seemingly just because he can. He even goes so far as to taunt Baylock for not doing as well navigating the administration's internal politics.
  • Odd Friendship: Nerdy, awkward, earnest Lucas and sarcastic, cynical Ramsey.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Averted. The original Threshold team contained three scientists. When infected tomatoes showed up, rather than expand Fenway's expertise, they recruited a botanist.
  • Outside-Context Problem: Caffrey's contingency plans exist to address events outside the context of normal government operations - or anyone in the country - or humanity. An insidious alien invasion is the one the team is tasked with.
    • Left as more of a Greater-Scope Villain, not addressed directly, is Manning's warning of an imminent gamma ray burst from a pair of neutron stars which would trigger mass extinction. It's unclear if anyone is prepared to handle that, but Caffrey does have two other classified plans we haven't seen yet!
  • Pac Man Fever: Thoughtfully averted.
  • Patient Zero: The transformed survivors of the Bighorn crew.
  • Plug 'n' Play Technology: More like Listen 'n' Play - the alien audio signal somehow is able to leap from an mp3 player to all kinds of PDAs, phones, chips and ATM just by being played nearby.
  • Previously on…: The opening voiceover serves this purpose while various episode clips are played to illustrate it. Usually the clips are from previous episodes and not the current one.
  • Psychic Nosebleed
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: J.T. Baylock. And his boss, National Security Advisor Andrea Hatten.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: Done awesomely.
    Whitaker: (sarcastically) And how many people do you think you can pluck off the streets before people start noticing?
    Molly: (completely serious) Approximately 300.
  • Retool: Mild retools triggered by the alien threat becoming public and eventually getting the upper hand were pre-planned for each season in a a projected three season arc. For season two, the series was to be renamed "Foothold", and for the third "Stranglehold".
  • Rule of Cool: Presumably the reason the triskelion motif shows up on nearly any electronic screen, doodled by new infectees, formed by groups of cockroaches or fish or city traffic, and in blood on the floor. Unlike most other things related to the alien signal, the symbol itself doesn't seem to serve any purpose spreading the infection.
  • Series Fauxnale: By the time "Alienville" was being filmed, production was informed of cancellation. The featured ending was created to provide a sense of closure.
  • Shout-Out: The bioformed plant life bears a very strong similarity to Tiberium, in appearance, behavior, and purpose.
  • Shown Their Work: Manning's claim about neutron stars colliding to produce deadly gamma ray bursts that could threaten Earth is plausible and could be based on research published around the time of the show's run. A year earlier, another paper proposed that a gamma ray burst could have caused the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction. Similarly, the general information on "cosmic radiation" in NASA's letter is accurate, although oddly Manning and the other half of the letter still use the term in a non-standard way despite knowing better.
  • Sinister Minister: Subverted in "Revelations".
  • Spotting the Thread: Molly discovers there may be an infectee on a plane and makes a call to try to stop them. Her mentor Andrea says she'll keep an eye on the subject as they're on the same plane which the team is tracking. Molly is relieved...until she reports they're about to touch down in California. The problem is, Molly can clearly see the radar screen showing the plane is over Ohio. Molly realizes her contact, and probably everyone else on the plane, is now infected.
  • Status Quo Is God: Mostly averted, which is notable given that Brannon Braga's earlier show Star Trek: Voyager was accused of this. Some notable cases where it does appear are:
    • Andrea's death prompts Caffrey to overwork in the next episode, but other than that we don't see much of an emotional impact. The replacement character does generate a brief storyline about friction with the team, but there still don't seem to be any long term changes.
    • "Outbreak" ends with a meeting where it's acknowledged that the threat is growing, and Threshold's ability to respond must grow as well, including the team members becoming leaders of entire departments. But the team size actually shrinks when Daphne Larson disappears for the final two episodes, and those shows themselves mostly follow the typical pattern of detecting a new infectee, tracking them down, and stopping any threatening schemes they've set in motion.
    • Also in "Outbreak" is Manning's revelation about the aliens' motivations. It could completely change the goals of the whole project, but Caffrey and Baylock don't tell any of the rest of the team and it's never mentioned again.
    • The events in "Outbreak" didn't really get a chance to have their full impact due to the early cancellation not leaving time to pick up on the new threads (although they did have two episodes). Some of the threads that WOULD've brought significant changes are elaborated on in a DVD featurette.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Alien infectees gained superhuman strength, resilience, and the desire to infect others. Or they die.
  • Tracking Chip: Every team member has one. Generally without being told until it comes up.
  • Undercover as Lovers: Caffrey and Cavanaugh use this cover in "Alienville". They avoid the usual UST by retaining a good sense of humor about the whole thing.
  • The Virus: Notable for the many ways it can be spread.
  • We Are Everywhere
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist
    • Dr. Sloan, the eponymous "Vigilante".
    • Richard Tate: After his family was infected by an alien artifact, he killed them and then buried the artifact. When Threshold tries to find it, he lied to them about its location in an attempt to make sure nobody else got hurt. He implemented a one-man Threshold protocol years before Molly ever wrote it.
  • Wham Episode: "Outbreak", which ups the number of infectees from a dozen to potentially hundreds, AND reveals some of the aliens' true motivations in the form of an even greater threat.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The message from NASA confirming or denying the neutron star collision, which Manning claimed would cause mass extinction in 6 years, is never revealed clearly or referred to again, although you can read it via Freeze-Frame Bonus.
    • Lucas dreams of a 19th century man who fought the aliens in "Outbreak" and is very excited to pursue this as a potential ally. It is forgotten by the next episode.
    • We never learn what happened to the alien probe/ship that infected the crew of the Bighorn. It's implied to have sunk the North Korean submarine that was tailing the Bighorn, but it's never seen again. Lucas does theorize that its advanced technology means it could have left with anyone detecting it, so maybe it just went back home.
  • Villain Ball: Senator Tollman must be holding it when he blows straight past Obstructive Bureaucrat status and steals one of the recordings of the alien signal, almost immediately triggering a new wave of infections starting with himself, and including National Security Advisor Andrea Hatten. Combined with Idiot Ball since he had to have been briefed on the danger and almost certainly didn't want that outcome.
  • Your Head Asplode: One possible reaction to the signal.