As a result of the weird but captivating “Lost” becoming such a tremendous success for ABC during the 2004 – 2005 TV season, suddenly, CBS and NBC began scrambling to find something equally unique and interesting to try in the 2005 – 2006 season…and, at the same time, ABC decided to see if they could find the perfect show to follow its now-established hit. In what can only be called a pleasant surprise, each network managed to produce an intelligent, creative entry…though, perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them lasted into the 2006 season. Now the trio have come, gone, and been released on DVD… and isn’t it nice how networks cancel shows because they don’t think the ratings are high enough, then immediately release them on home video to make a few bucks off the shows’ diehard fans?...we can readily take a look at “Invasion” (ABC), “Surface” (NBC), and “Threshold” (CBS) and see what worked and what didn’t.
Invasion: The Complete Series (2005)
Aliens begin their takeover of Earth by slowly infiltrating the residents of a small town by possessing them…more or less. (The full explanation would take too long, so you’re just gonna have to trust me on this.) “Invasion” started life with a bit of coincidental controversy by focusing on a Florida community dealing with a hurricane just as Hurricane Katrina had ravaged Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana (the series premiere was actually preceded with an on-screen warning that the show featured images of a fictional hurricane that viewers could be sensitive to), but given that it was following a show where the plot revolves around a horrible plane crash – “Lost” – surely ABC knew the audience would be made of stern stuff.
Produced by Shaun Cassidy, who brought us the creepfest that was “American Gothic,” “Invasion” had one major ace in the hole among its cast members: William Fichtner (now on “Prison Break”) as Sheriff Tom Underlay. Fichtner has such a naturally creepy look about him that it’s barely a spoiler to tell you that his character is more or less under alien control, but he’s also a great actor who has the ability to keep you constantly guessing as to how he’s going to react in a scene. “Invasion” was, at its heart, a show about family. Tom’s wife, Mariel, is the ex-wife of park ranger Russell Varon; Tom has a daughter from his first marriage, and Mariel and Russell have a daughter and a son…plus Russell is remarried, and he and his wife Larkin – who’s expecting – live with Larkin’s brother, Dave, an amiable conspiracy nut who regularly blogs about his theories. Although a certain amount of focus on teen angst is understandable, given that there are two teenagers amongst the primary cast, it sometimes drags the show down. Still, the fatal flaw of “Invasion” was that it took almost half the season for the show to really getting rolling; once it did, you were guaranteed to come back each week. The concept that the aliens weren’t always successful in their attempts to possess their human hosts was an intriguing one, as was the question posited as the series progressed: what if an alien race wanted to infiltrate Earth but their ranks were divided on how to go about it?
Unfortunately, by that aforementioned halfway point, lots of the show’s viewership had already decided to check out something else…like, say, “Law and Order.” If you were a “Lost” viewer who never gave the show a chance, however, catching it at your leisure on DVD is well worth your time. Special features on the set include deleted scenes, a gag reel, and, at no extra charge, a final episode with a cliffhanger ending that will very likely never be resolved. Thanks, ABC!
More aliens? Well, the show spends a very long time neither confirming nor denying the alien possibility, so we probably shouldn’t spoil it. We can, however, confirm that “Surface” focuses on heretofore-undiscovered sea creatures, some small, some massive, but almost all pissed off.
The series begins by following three separate stories, combines two of them pretty quickly, then finally brings them all together during the final episode. First, we have Dr. Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell), an oceanographer who’s attacked by one of the creatures while diving in a submersible. Then, teenager Miles Barnett (Carter Jenkins) finds a baby creature and decides to raise it as a pet. Lastly, Rich Connelly (Jay R. Ferguson) is on a fishing trip when his brother is taken by one of the creatures, resulting in Rich becoming obsessed with proving to others that he didn’t imagine what he saw. Within a few episodes, Laura and Rich end up teaming up…though, impressively, the show’s writers avoid the temptation to have the pair team up physically…while Miles plays it solo, dealing with his new pet’s growing pains. Miles’s tale ends up being the most touching, with “E.T.” being an unavoidable reference point, while Rich and Laura’s saga tackles scientific cover-ups and government conspiracies; inevitably, their story tends to move along at lightning-fast speed, which results in the story of Miles and his pet – named Nimrod – seeming to move at a crawl, at least comparatively speaking.
Ending as it did after only fifteen episodes (even though the last episode is referred to as the season finale), the series feels understandably rushed as it spends its last episode trying to pack about three hours worth of action into one hour, then fades to black with Wilmington, North Carolina, being completely underwater. Unfortunately, show co-creators Josh and Jonas Pate have remained tightlipped on how the series was to play out if a second season had been greenlighted, keeping their hopes up that they might be able to continue the story of “Surface” elsewhere; as such, the DVD set includes several deleted scenes, as well as a featurette made to promote the show when it first hit the airwaves, but not much in the way of closure.
Threshold: The Complete Series (2005)
A different set of aliens begin their takeover of Earth, but instead of a park ranger and his conspiracy theorist brother-in-law, their opponent is a secret government agency. It might sound like “Men in Black” via that one-sentence description, but it’s nothing like it.
Carla Gugino (“Spy Kids”) plays Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey, a crisis management consultant for the US government who gets a major surprise when her worst-case-scenario plan for what to do in case of an alien invasion is activated. She pulls together a team of experts, including microbiologist Dr. Nigel Fenway (Brent Spiner, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), linguist Arthur Ramsey (Peter Dinklage, “The Station Agent”), and aerospace engineer Lucas Pegg (Robert Patrick Benedict, “Felicity”), to investigate the aliens and find out if they’re hostile or not. Hey, guess what? They totally are! Produced by Brandon Braga and David S. Goyer, both possessing seriously strong sci-fi backgrounds (“Star Trek” and “Blade,” respectively), the show did a really good job of building the histories of the characters, exploring the aliens and making them legitimately terrifying, and, perhaps most interestingly, presenting a realistic view of how the government would probably handle such a situation, with various senators being let in on the top-secret organization out of necessity so that funding would continue. (You can imagine that the budget for the group is pretty damned high.)
While maintaining regularly progressing plotlines, “Threshold” had an arguable advantage over the rest of these series by not ending each episode with a cliffhanger; in other words, you could miss an episode and not be completely and totally lost the next time you tuned in. Unfortunately, this being an era where one’s television choices are practically infinite, “Threshold” proved to be the shortest lived of these three shows…13 episodes…which is legitimately startling, since it also had the best cast. One almost wishes the series had skipped network television and been presented to, say, the Sci-Fi Network; it almost certainly would’ve had a long life along the lines of “Stargate: SG-1” or “Farscape.” This DVD release, it should be noted, is the only one of the bunch where the show’s creators sit down and discuss where the show would have gone if it had continued…which is ironic, given that it’s also the only one where the creators used their knowledge of their imminent cancellation to fashion a relatively satisfying final episode. Braga and Goyer also offer audio commentary on the first episode, something also not done with the releases of the other two shows.
I must say it yet again: I cannot believe “Threshold” wasn’t embraced by viewers. In all honesty, however, both “Surface” and “Invasion” were solid series as well, the former coming across almost as a love letter to the combined sci-fi works of Steven Spielberg; their viewers deserved better than the unsatisfying finales they received. It’s a minor consolation that people can at least see what great shows they missed out on with these DVD releases, but, given their quality, it’s better than nothing.