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October 11, 2005

Alien dance party

My favorite new fall drama is "Threshold," an intriguing sci-fi story starring Carla Gugino, Peter Dinklage, Brent Spiner and Charles S. Dutton.

Monday I spoke with "Threshold" executive producer Brannon Braga, who for the past 15 years worked on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Star Trek: Enterprise."

It sounds as if Braga is digging the fact that he’s not working exclusively with space ships and Federation uniforms any more -- then again, he’s still working on a Friday night show, and yes, aliens are involved.

Here’s an edited transcript of our chat, which covered this Friday's "Threshold" episode (think alien infection + disco + Miami = chaos), the show's cast and the pleasures of dressing actors in plain old tennis shoes.

On how he got involved with "Threshold," which was created by Bragi Schut: "When I was coming to the end of `Enterprise,’ I was going to take a month or two off. What happened was, toward the end of `Enterprise,’ I was writing a pilot for CBS that did not get picked up, another sci-fi pilot. I was going to take a break, but then `Threshold’ came along, so not only did I not get a break, I was writing the `Enterprise’ finale at the same time I was working on the `Threshold’ pilot."

On "Threshold's" ratings (which, inexplicably, are smaller than those for "Ghost Whisperer," which precedes it on Fridays): "The translation, from what I understand [of the ratings numbers], in the overall numbers we’re holding our own, and it was up a little last week. It’s doing well in key demos, they look at certain demographics and we are doing well there. Of course we always want to do better, but generally speaking, people [at the network] are very encouraging. It hasn’t dropped off, and in fact it’s up a little last week."

On being scheduled on Friday nights: "It’s kind of a blessing and a curse. It’s a tough night, not as many people watch TV, but at the same time, the competition is quite ferocious right now [on many other nights]. Personally, I don’t speak for the network or the studio, but I’d rather be on Friday night than up against `Lost.’"

On having standalone plots in each episode yet still weaving in a larger overall plot: "It’s a tightrope. You want to reward regular viewers, you want to keep the myth building. But it is a show that lives or dies by the [episodic] stories being satisfying in their own right. It’s not a soap opera. It’s really about a group of characters dealing with this bizarre situation. It’s going to continue to have these self-contained stories, and it’s the kind of show that very quickly could not get new viewers if it was too convoluted to understand the first time."

On the cast: "That’s really the strongest aspect of the show. Sci-fi is pretty prevalent on TV right now, one thing that sets this show apart is the great cast. They’re a fun group of characters that I enjoy watching every week. That’s really the difference [with this show], the people investigating the alien mystery, that’s really important. You’ve got to want to watch them. And we’re going to be digging more into the characters, we’ve got some great character stuff coming up."

On the possible attraction between Molly (who’s played by Carla Gugino) and Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt): "There is a definite playfulness with those two characters. They feel comfortable with each other, they can left their hair down more with each other than with the others. Also Molly and [Arthur] Ramsay [played by Peter Dinklage] have got a really interesting dynamic, there’s definitely a chemistry there too."

On Carla Gugino as the lead character, worst-case scenario analyst Molly Caffrey: "Carla is the show. Nobody else could make it work. There is some kind of magical, ineffable quality to Carla that people just [respond to]. There’s something inherently intelligent and yet vulnerable about her. She’s totally believable in this role as an authority figure, yet you really feel for her. It sounds sycophantic, but she really is incredibly talented. She’s so connected to the role and the material. I’ve never worked with an actor who’s so immersed in the role on a weekly basis. It’s hard to imagine the show working at all without Carla."

"When we first heard she might be interested, we were thrilled. David Goyer and I were rewriting the pilot and were thinking, `Who the [heck] are we going to get to play Molly?’ Carla’s name came up and we thought she’d be perfect. But she had done `Karen Sisco’ and was very wary of committing to another show. She really wanted to know that the show would really be something she could sink her teeth into. We had a couple of meetings and she [signed on]."

On this Friday’s episode: "It takes place in Miami, it begins at an illegal rave club late at night. It turns out a 19 year old girl has gotten hold of part of the alien signal, I won’t say how she got it, that’s a very surprising part of the story, but she puts it in a dance mix on purpose. It infects a large number of people -- there’s this spectacular sequence at the rave where all the glass skylights break and people are bleeding and screaming and attacking each other.

"Word gets back to Molly and the rest of the team, and they try to track down this girl and find out how she got the information and try to stop her. There’s a huge twist later on when Molly realizes stopping the girl won’t be enough, the signal can propagate itself through technology. The stakes keep getting heightened, and she realizes that before long, the entire city of Miami might be infected unless they take really drastic action. In the promo they’ve been showing, Charles Dutton’s character says, `Do we need to nuke Miami?’ and Molly says, `Something like that.’ I won’t reveal what they end up doing."

"When they’re down in Miami, Ramsay tries to take Lucas [Pegg, played by Rob Benedict] out to a nightclub, tells him to think of it as his bachelor party."

On Peter Dinklage joining the show: "We just heard he was interested, he read the pilot. We couldn’t believe it. He was doing movies, he still has all these movies coming out. I said, `You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ And again, it was just a matter of talking to him, telling him how we imagined the character in the pilot, where the character could go, and he signed up. I never thought we’d get all these people.

"Same with Charles Dutton [who plays Molly’s boss, J.T. Baylock], it was just a matter of, they all responded to the pilot, they really liked it. It was a matter of talking to them and letting them know we intended to maintain the same level of quality that we had in the pilot. We didn’t actually cast this show in the traditional sense, except for Rob Benedict’s character [Lucas Pegg]. And he was our first choice, so it went really well. It was really easy to cast."

On "Star Trek: The Next Generation" veteran Brent Spiner joining the show: "CBS brought him up, not me. CBS had the idea, and I said, `Brent will never do this.’ We were having a really difficult time casting [Nigel] Fenway [Spiner’s character]. We were reading different ages, different ethnicities, different archetypes, but we just couldn’t find our Fenway. They said, `What about Brent Spiner?’ and I said, `Good luck. He’ll never do a sci-fi show again.’ But he read the script. He had some thoughts, as he always does. He had some really cool ideas, and David Goyer and I revised the character a little bit, and he signed on."

On other "Star Trek" veterans on the show: "Mike Sussman and Andre Bormanis we brought over [from `Trek’]. Andre was our science advisor-turned-writer, he’s worked with NASA and has all that experience, so that really helps bring a lot of believability. Two other key writers are Anne McGrail, she worked on `CSI: New York’ and `CSI: Miami’ and `Boomtown,’ she’s particularly helpful in constructing these really intricate stories, she came out of that world of mystery shows. Then there’s Dan Shannon, he’s an old friend, he came from `Cheers’ and `Frasier,’ he came out of sitcoms but always has been a sci fi fan and I’d always wanted to work with him. He really nailed the show."

On the flashes of humor on the show: "There has been some feedback on that, some people love the humor but some find it kind of corny or campy. I don’t happen to agree, but I know we can’t take ourselves too seriously. You have to have fun with this. It’s a very cynical humor, but it can be a very intense, scary show, so we try to lighten up sometimes."

On the future of the show: "We have a really strong first season, if we are lucky enough to get a back order [for nine additional episodes]. The first 13 are essentially written, for the rest, to quote Molly, `we have a plan.’ CBS asked us to work out a rough manifest for the first season, they wanted to make sure we knew where we were going. So we’ve figured out a lot of the turns and twists, but there’s still room for inspiration. For a second or third season, we’ve got some ideas, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.’

On the show’s undercurrent about civil liberties and moral quandaries: "When we set out to do the show, we knew we wanted the characters to tread on moral gray areas. There’s a top-secret conspiracy to keep information about this alien situation from the public. It’s debatable whether that’s right, it’s probably best to keep that away from the public, I happen to agree with Molly. Molly and the team have already flirted with some gray areas.

"Fenway, we always planned him to be the guy who’s most vocal in thinking it’s wrong [to hide the info about the alien threat]. We have in an episode coming up, not this week, but a week from Friday, the team realizes someone has been leaking to the press about the threat, and they realize it’s Fenway. I won’t tell you what happens, but there are twists and turns."

On "Threshold’s" versatility: "The show has a lot of facets, it’s a sci-fi thriller, it’s horror, it’s got Molly and the characters and their stories, and the angle of politics and civil liberties and morality, then there’s the procedural stuff, sort of `CSI’ - there are a lot of different areas to tap into. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the show, once we started doing episodes, it’s this nice layered show about a lot of different things. It wasn’t just chasing down aliens."

On working on a show set in the present day, as opposed to working in the "Star Trek" universe: "I kept dreaming of showing tennis shoes and automobiles for 10 years. It’s refreshing to use actual locations. Every time you show a vehicle on `Star Trek,’ it’s a space ship. Now we can use a Ford Explorer. It’s a welcome change."

Comments

I liked the first episode of this show, but there was a very dramatic falloff after that. The characters seem one-dimensional and the heavy-handed flirty banter between Gugino and the commando guy always falls flat (I think he's the weakest link in the cast).

I like Carla Gugino a lot (Karen Sisco was great show), but I've given up on Threshold.

I really enjoy Threshold. It's smart and interesting and scary. My friends tell me their kids enjoy it also. I hope the ratings keep it alive.

I gave it a shot but the show is really CSI: Aliens. The flashlights, the field kits, etc. I think it was the second episode where they were lifting a shoe print of a potential alien! I'll just stick with the the real thing - CSI: Crime Scene Investigation thank you.

An excellent show that really develops more and more as time goes along. Much more than just "CSI: Aliens". The best show I've seen in a long time. Give it a shot and you won't be disappointed.

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