It happens every few seasons. Aliens invade earth and threaten to destroy or conquer mankind. Sci-fi fans get all excited, tune in in droves, then fall away as the early promise fades. This year, they’re watching first episodes of CBS’ Threshold.

The show follows an elite government response team led by emergency strategist Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino). They’re sent by government official J.T. Baylock (Charles Dutton) to investigate a scuttled ship adrift 80 miles off the Atlantic coastline. Here they discover the first ever evidence of an alien encounter. As a result, the government implements Caffrey’s protocol, entitled “Threshold,” to determine a course of action.

It appears the aliens are out to “alter” every human on the planet. The incident at sea has genetically tainted a few of the crewmen, and they have escaped, intent upon spreading their mutation to the Eastern seaboard. It is up to undercover agent Cavanaugh (Brian Van Holt), Caffrey, and her crew to stop the contaminated individuals and discover how they link to several strange phenomena.

There is something very sneaky about Threshold, despite derivative material and underwritten roles. Instead of going for a Lost-style mystery or a V-like creepiness, it wants to be a good old-fashioned action adventure featuring reasonable characters and techno-speak. Though the main narrative thread is a basic search and capture mission, the show maintains a measure of ambiguity and potential. Yet for every intriguing element (several of the characters dream of a “glass forest,” which we see in nifty detail), there are equally monotonous aspects.

For starters, Threshold doesn’t want to give too much away (typical of the genre), making the central crisis hard to fathom. We never feel the threat, never understand what will happen if the mutant seamen gain access to the public. The experts dismiss the “minor” alteration experienced by Caffrey, Cavanaugh, and astronautical engineer Pegg (Rob Benedict) as just some insignificant brainwave dysfunction. At the same time, everyone is concerned about it. This mixed message reduces our sense of urgency, so we’re not feeling what the characters are conveying.

Such distraction is amplified by the manufactured motley crew. Brent Spiner, as forensics microbiologist Fenway, and Peter Dinklage, as hard-drinking linguist Ramsey, play variations of characters they’ve mastered before, and we don’t learn anything endearing or engaging about them. These cynical characters mismatched with earnest Caffrey and Pegg (a nuisance throughout the pilot, a nonstop nervous Nelly). Energy lags when these dialogue deliverers attempt three dimensions.

The individuals behind the scenes should know better. You’d think we’d get a little more than extended exposition and alternative rock mood montages from Executive Producer Brannon Braga. He has more Star Trek credits as a writer than Shatner et. al., have combined. He hasn’t even made the pilot’s sci-fi look smart. Neither has creator Bragi F. Schut, whose speculative fiction credits include two installments of the hopelessly hokey Average Joe reality series.

The biggest obstacle for this series, however, is the overwhelming spectacle of the Hollywood blockbusters that came before it. Threshold would probably play better had Independence Day not delivered sensationally schlocky fun, or 2005’s War of the Worlds not made interstellar invasion a lesson in social survival. When we think “alien attack,” we think big. Even with all its CGI trappings and somber Washington, D.C. setting, Threshold feels minor, an amalgam of The Abyss and maybe Dark Skies. The only epic moment in the first two hours comes when the crew learns that their experimental signal, meant to draw in the mutant men, has actually led 106 average citizens to their site. As the people wander like zombies toward the sound, one is instantly reminded of a similar shot in George Romero’s Day of the Dead.

Threshold is not brave enough to play in the visionary realm of speculative fiction. With all the pieces in place, and with a prime directive (find the fiends before everyone mutates) driving the plot, it could be decent. Step up the effects, give us more shots of that enigmatic glass locale. As delivered, though, Threshold is light years from compelling television.