HELIX – What the frak is going on?
Seven episodes in and I’m still on the fence. Is SyFy’s Helix a slow-burn gem or a big noise about nothing? Its heritage is both undeniable and unignorable. Coming from super-executive producer Ronald D. Moore; He Who Must Be Revered for reviving Battlestar Galactica, expectations were always going to be high for this show. It is essentially a very different beast, however, and comparisons will only lead to confusion and possibly disappointment. Instead of a dystopian epic, Helix is a claustrophobic sci-fi horror show that glories in its influences (namely The Thing and Lost). It also doesn’t hide from Moore’s overbearing legacy with my favourite character Dr. Doreen Boyle exclaiming ‘frak’ in the very first episode – the swear word all BSG fans will know was invented for Battlestar Galactica and used to replace that other F-word.
The premise is simple enough. A crack team of CDC (Center for Disease Control) scientists are sent to the labyrinth-like Arctic Biosystems research laboratory where a mysterious killer virus has broken out. Their job? To diagnose, record and hopefully cure. So far, so familiar. Arctic Biosystems, however, is not playing ball. Run by even more mysterious Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (played by the enigmatic Hiroyuki Sanada, Dogen from Lost) the most annoying part of the show from the very off is that it makes all too obvious the fact that Hatake knows more than he is letting on. As each episode elapses we are allowed to spy a little more of what he has been holding back from the CDC, and thus are left to suspect he in fact had all the answers from the beginning, especially when in episode 6 he administers what appears to be a cure for the virus to his favoured CDC team member, Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky). Arctic Biosystems itself is a secretive place. Built in the Arctic to avoid governments from controlling its work, it has given itself free reign to explore the fringes of science including. This might imply that an intellectual freedom is afforded to the scientists that work, concealed and forgotten there. This could not be further from the truth, however, as Hatake surveys all aspects of the base tyrannically.
The virus itself is a let’s-not-call-them-zombies affair. It has two strains, one deadly and one that turns people into Vectors, or super strong zombies if you will. Both strains turn your blood to black goo and make your veins all throbby. Very quickly the CDC Doctors abandon all oaths hippocratic or otherwise and see the Vectors as dangerous, killing any that attack instead of sticking to the strict protocol of trying to help them. The CDC seems wholly ineffective for the run of the show. Not only does their fail-safe test for the virus, well, fail, but they are inflicted with an acute humanity that lets them down as scientists. The Dawson’s Creek-worthy angst of their interpersonal relationships is perhaps best seen as an exercise in misdirection. The team consists of team leader Dr. Alan Farragut (stoically perfect Billy Campbell) who is sent with his ex-wife Julia and young protégé Dr. Jordan (Jordan Hayes) to help his brother Peter (Neil Napier) who has contracted the virus. Just to make things really interesting, Alan and Julia’s marriage broke up when she had an affair with… Peter! All this seems far too obviously cliche to be taken too seriously and feels more like an attempt to discredit the scientists perhaps. The human stories that intrigue don’t come from this forced love story but from the relationship between Hatake and his adopted son and head of security Daniel (Meegwun Fairbrother), whose origins are fascinatingly revealed in Episode 6. Hatake’s relationship with Julia, someone he has obviously spent time following the career of, and with the gung-ho marine Major Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé) are again far more provocative than the CDC interplay, holding more mystery and promise of intrigue.
The virus is made all the more threatening for being contained in this underground lab as it feels like everything is contaminated and everyone at immediate risk. I always admire shows that are brave enough to register a high body count in the first episodes. Helix does this indiscriminately. Within the first two episodes you are left wondering who will be left when they already have a finite number of bodies in the facility to kill off. This leads to the revelation that the closed room mystery won’t be all it seems and will have to find some way of employing ‘fresh’ characters. In the same way Lost found the ‘others’, those quarantined in the bioscience base will come to enjoy the company of ‘visitors’. The first being Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), Hatake’s boss. She enters the plot at a time when the base has, unbelievably, already been out of communication with the outside world for several days (the comms satellite having been blown to bits by Major Balleseros). Sutton announces she also lacks the ability to communicate with the outside world and must wait until her helicopters return. Each episode in Helix represents a day in the virus’ lifespan and so this lack of communication is one of the most unbelievable plot points. Is no one at the CDC at all concerned that they haven’t heard from their team?
The most intriguing part of the show is perhaps the light, dancey music that plays over the title card. It is at total odds with the mood and aesthetic of the show and it provokes us to hope for something a little out of the ordinary to happen. At the moment I am still waiting for the show’s narrative to live up to this fun juxtaposition between screen and non-diegetic sound, but that is what Helix seems to be, an exercise in faith that you will be rewarded for your time put in. That secrets will be revealed, devastation achieved and the wider world somehow alerted.